Jean-Thomas Tremblay is Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities in the Department of Humanities at York University and coeditor of Avant-Gardes in Crisis: Art and Politics in the Long 1970s. Their new book Breathing Aesthetics examines the prominence of breathing in responses to contemporary crises within literature, film, and performance cultures, showing how breathing has emerged as a medium through which biopolitical and necropolitical forces are increasingly exercised and experienced.
For those unfamiliar with theory and philosophy around air and breathing, how might you explain this body of work and your book’s addition to it?
Breathing and air have long been objects of philosophical and scientific interest. Respiratory and aerial philosophers—from the Stoics to Gaston Bachelard, to Luce Irigaray—have tended to describe a life force, the movement of which enables us to understand something of the interaction between the self and the not-self. One turns to breath, or more accurately returns to breath, because it carries the promise of restoring a balance one might have lost; we hear echoes of this reasoning in New Age’s appropriation of pranayama practices.
Scholars such as Elizabeth Povinelli, Tobias Menely, Lenart Škof, and Petri Berndtson have, before me, mapped the trajectories of philosophical engagements with breathing and air. One way to grasp these trajectories is that they record the gradual particularization and deidealization of the respiratory and the aerial: breathing can no longer stand in for universal experience, and air no longer registers as (strictly) a source of vitality or purity. That breathing and air call attention to themselves when a glitch appears in the ongoing exchange between individuals and milieus is as much a mundane observation as a historical and geographical statement.
This insight is most forcefully conveyed by minoritarian traditions, including a prominent Black intellectual genealogy linking Frantz Fanon to contemporary theorists like Ashon Crawley and Christina Sharpe. This genealogy thinks Black life from the uneven distribution of breathable air and the various systems, such as policing and segregation, that perpetuate anti-Black asphyxiation. Fanon’s ideas have gained tragic pertinence in the wake of the police murders of Eric Garner, Elijah McClain, George Floyd, and others, as “I can’t breathe” has become an omnipresent protest chant.
Breathing Aesthetics builds on the premise that breathing names the enmeshment of vitality and morbidity. I track the emergence, in the past five or six decades, of distinct “respiratory subjectivities” and “respiratory politics,” which is to say, models of the individual and the collective that derive from breathing a vernacular for expressing the contradictions of contemporary life. It is almost intuitive, in the era of COVID-19, to declare breathing a site of political antagonisms—much more intuitive, in fact, than it was when I began working on this project, almost a decade ago. I hope that readers will find in the book tools for decrypting a present moment when breathing constitutes a hyper-saturated signifier.
How does Breathing Aesthetics interact with or draw upon art and literature? What types of art and literature is it most interested in?
The book collects case studies from literary, screen, performance, visual, and media cultures. One thing I found especially interesting when I started researching breathing in earnest is that scholars of poetry, fiction, film, theater, and video game all claim that theirs is the respiratory medium par excellence. Those who endorse Charles Olson’s “projectivism” claim that poetry enjoys a privileged intimacy with respiration, for breath converts the energy animating the poet into the poem’s rhythm. For Davina Quinlivan, it is the cinema that enjoys such a privileged intimacy; breathing’s mimetic or contagious attribute makes it an important circuit for the transmission of affect between on- and off-screen subjects. I don’t believe that one art form or artistic medium is any more or less respiratory than others. I’m too promiscuous a reader and spectator to sustain an attention to a single one, anyway. What I do believe is that the pairing of “breathing” and “aesthetics” yields different effects across media. The aesthetics of respiration therefore calls for a medium-specific analysis and a comparative disposition.
Take the works by Dodie Bellamy, CAConrad, and Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose that I gather under the umbrella of “broadly experimental and broadly queer life writing.” In one chapter, I examine the notation of breathing for therapeutic purposes in these figures’ blends, with varying dosages, of memoir, poetry, and performance. That the notations are therapeutic doesn’t mean that they save the notators. The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, my favorite humorist, writes in a recent book that “people aren’t cured, they just lose interest in their symptoms.” This is true of the figures I discuss, for whom notations afford, at most, a palliative: the relief of minimal psychic coherence in crisis situations. For example, journals that repetitively record the symptomatology of cystic fibrosis instill in Bob Flanagan a boredom that leads nowhere but “holds the mood.” Because breathing’s vitality can never be detached entirely from its morbidity, the “payoff” of aestheticizing respiration remains provisional and contingent.
You have said in conversation that this book owes a great deal to the field of environmental humanities and appeals to those researchers. How so?
Yes, the book is invested in the project of the environmental humanities. I participate in the field’s critique of the pastoral—specifically, in this case, the pastoral discourses wherein breathing fulfills the role of the “natural beyond” by guaranteeing an infinitely replenishable, and infinitely replenishing, reserve of vitality. One chapter zooms in on the experimental films of Ana Mendieta and Amy Greenfield. Their corpuses have often been dismissed as pastoral for sanctioning a naïve vision of natural plenitude and surrendering to an essentialism that equates women with nature. Granted, pastoral iconography shows up everywhere in Mendieta’s and Greenfield’s works: natural wonders and great expanses aren’t in short supply. Yet there is nothing revitalizing about the experience of watching their films. The experience is rather unsettling. These are, after all, artists who have many times depicted or evoked sexual violence. This discomfort is worth dwelling on and thinking with. By activating uneasy breathing as a mode of spectatorship in the same class as seeing and listening, Mendieta and Greenfield propose a “postpastoral” anti-pedagogy. Spectators unlearn the historical processes through which a colonial and imperial ideology like the pastoral comes into social coherence.
The vast environmental humanities scholarship, by Lawrence Buell and others, on the legacies of Rachel Carson represents one, but not the only, anti-pastoral tradition informing my thinking. I’m also indebted to scholars of environmental inequalities, or the reproduction of racial and class disparities by environmental means, such as proximity to toxic hazards and health care inaccessibility. Dorceta E. Taylor, Hsuan L. Hsu, and Lindsey Dillon and Julie Sze, to name a few, frequently appear in the section of Breathing Aesthetics devoted to respiratory politics, where I operate on the basis that we are all breathers, but none of the same kind.
Breathing Aesthetics also launches a critique of certain habits within the environmental humanities. I plan to expand on this critique in a future project on “environmental inaction” that seeks to rid ecocriticism of its incipient liberalism. Environmental humanists generally want their objects to be “good” and do “good”—to galvanize readers and spectators into political action, regardless of the objects’ affective content. I don’t think we should overestimate the ability of readers and spectators exposed to the inextricability of vitality and morbidity relayed by the aesthetics of breathing to step out into the world and transform it through sheer force of will. It would require a leap of faith to believe that all reactions to this aesthetics—from exhaustion to disorientation, to panic, to titillation—fulfill a civic purpose. I follow Alexis Shotwell’s and Nicole Seymour’s critiques of the environmental humanities’ purism and puritanism in refusing the narrow range of emotions and actions to which the field typically grants validity. To figure out what the aesthetics of breathing does, we must leave behind our rigid expectations as to what environmental art ought to do.
Doing so radically expands the archive of the environmental humanities to include works that are not so obviously didactic. For instance, it baffles me that Renee Gladman’s novels, to which I devote a chapter, are routinely ignored by environmental humanists in favor of more sensationalist examples of speculative fiction. Novels by Gladman that are set in the smog-filled city-state of Ravicka might not accommodate a pedagogy of coming into environmental “awareness” or “consciousness,” but they allegorize the emergence of coalitional politics in environments where toxicity mediates our encounters. This, to me, is immensely valuable.
While drawing from theory, what are some of the “real-world” implications of Breathing Aesthetics?
I hope the book relays my conviction that the world of theory is the real world. Our daily existence is organized by abstractions disguised as something else. My colleague David Cecchetto describes this problem as “one of the great inversions of our time[,] that between abstraction and reality,” in his recent book, Listening in the Afterlife of Data: “This inversion is evidenced by the fact that somehow one daily encounters folks who think that business-related disciplines like marketing are part of a real world that theoretically informed arts and humanities disciplines are not; we’re in a cultural moment when claiming something like having a ‘passion for real estate’ sounds coherent.”
The pressure to disavow theory isn’t only external to the humanities. Consider the subfield of “empirical ecocriticism,” which claims itself capable of measuring the actual impact of, say, climate fiction. There’s something cynical, amid austerity, in abiding by “data-driven” paradigms and exiling the majority of ecocritics from the category of empiricism, such that they are caught between renouncing their theoretical proclivities or sustaining a pursuit deemed frivolous. More to the point, what empirical ecocriticism really sells is abstraction, all the way down. It collects data (one abstraction) on a reader or spectator figured as rational and reasonable (another abstraction), one who, once exposed to climate crisis-related content, adopts liberal or conservative attitudes (yet another abstraction) and behaviors considered sound in a democratic society (one more, still)… You get the point.
Even in the corners of the humanities that don’t traffic in data, it is customary to curtail theoretical ambitions by asking, for instance, “But what about The Body?” Annabel L. Kim offers a brilliant account of the gesture in the introduction to Unbecoming Language, a book that played a key role in the genesis of Breathing Aesthetics. References to The Body, as a shorthand for the lower-case-r real, presume, as Kim notes, something that everyone knows and to which everyone has access. The Body may be an abstraction for unmediated, non-abstractable experiences, but it is an abstraction nonetheless.
I’m weary of the idea that breathing somehow concretizes queer or environmental theory because so many promises to bypass abstraction—whether through the cold hard facts of data or through The Body as locus of the sensuous and the erotic—end up turning the volume up on abstraction. So, I don’t think we need to come up with excuses for theory. It’s not a vacation from reality, a flight of fancy, or a luxury. Theory, as I try to wield it in Breathing Aesthetics, is an encounter with the world with significant implications in terms of what and how we feel, think, are.