A brief study of breathing and the body's boundaries
This report is concerned with breath. Breath is ubiquitous and intimate, personal and atmospheric, background and presence. It troubles the boundaries between the public and private, the organism and the environment, across species and scales from the micro to the global. It can be delicate but also carries the force of life and death. It inhabits language, metcphorically and literally as voice. The material/semiotic webs that breath weaves are complex and i want here to try to limit things to a level i can manage. To find a way in, i would first to introduce a couple of works by artists with an interest in the breathy: one which approaches the materiality of breath, the other the atmospheric. This might seem to be stretching the notion of breath into that of atmosphere but as will be seen, one of the features of the activity of breathing is the difficulty of locating a place where one becomes the other. I will also briefly mention some of the theories ontologies which might be relevent and introduce the simple visualisation project to which some of these theories might apply, and also with which i hope to highlight aspects of those theories. Finally i would mention other machinic assemblages which mediate or collaborate in human breathing in different ways.
Breath is an intrinsic part of the human lifeworld, it is woven into naturecultures, language and practice. It can be both ground and figure, conscious or non-conscious. It functions metonymically as a substitute for life (‘breathing life into..’, anticipation, a kind of jouissance (‘takes my breath away’) and is present in practices as varied as yoga and science fiction. Ubiquitous contemporary practices around self-improvement (or self-appreciation) foreground the conscious control of breathing as a means to mental clarity and relaxation, (minfulness equals ‘breathfulness’) short - circuiting Cartesian dualism in re-territorialisation of non-Western meditative practices into an offshoot of gym culture.
Breathing also crosses the boundary between organic and inorganic as we take in air to transform the substances in food into energy. Expanded to include the air we breath, breath becomes an inter-species exchange, a great global transport linking all zoe, while at the same time we are breathing in the tiny air-bourne organisms which float in it. Life inside and outside.
The ecology of air has been the subject of many art projects in the last few years as the extent of the envirnomental disaster known as the Anthropocene becomes more and more apparent, but also as the growing desire to de-centre the human in onto-epistemologies in favour of a egalitarian vision of Life, encaspulating all creatures in mutual, intertwining co-dependencies.(Braidotti 2013)
One such is the collection of studies brought together by Monika Bakke as “The Life of Air” (2011) and many enviromentally concerned works are brought together at the Arts Catalyst site. More focussed on sound as a shared vibratory environment in air but touching on many important areas around the connection and transmission between human affect and the atmosphere is Heidi Fast’s ‘Vocal Nest’ (Fast 2018).
In my own artifact i have tried to capture a visual material aspect of breath, which in a way de-contextualises it from its natural affinity with vocalisation and through various technical mediums re-writes it as a visual metaphor. There does seem however to be a compelling force in the physical enaction of breathing, breath as the cyclic movement of a body: any kind of body, however alien. The affective force of this seems to be drawn from the fundamental entanglement of breath with life -
If there is a gap among all this work which i can position my own artifact, then it is by retaining the processual movement of breath, in other words keeping the temporal aspect rather than fixing a photographic moment in time but failing to repeat the motion, in a kind of bathetic mode.
Firstly though i would like to look into the breath as a biological, embodied process, which enmeshes a subject in a bioculture. To put breath into the body. This as a means again to investigate the porous conditions of the borderlands of the organism and its environment. Although I’ve used the term ‘subject’, the emphasis here is on the autonomic process of breathing: it is to some degree independent of the agency of the ‘breather’, could perhaps be seen as possessing its own agency .
What then does breathing do? The assumption, in simplified scientific terms, is that an exchange of carbon and oxygen is taking place - that a living organism ‘needs’ oxygen to function and must get rid of carbon. In some ways the process is figured in capitalist terms as a commodity exchange with the humans on one side of the fence and the environment (otherwise figured by trees as consumers) on the other. Samatha Frost (Frost 2016) delves deep into the process at a molecular level (stopping just short of the Baradian realm of quantum entanglements) : what is interesting for this project’s exploration of boundaries and breath is that at scale, cell membranes are porous in their constitution. Moreover ‘the porosity of cell membranes is the condition of the possibility for the many biochemical reactions wihich occur within a cell’ (2016:75). The various affordances of electrons in the atoms constituting an membrane cause a traffic between the cell and its environment. Frost goes on to clarify that this influx and eflux should be figured as a ‘[..] movement bound up with changes in energy rather than movement of substances’(2016:104). Oxgygen too, rather than being a substance which organisms somehow need to ‘contain’ in order to function is undermined. Not because they do not but because the role of oxygen is in removing unwanted substances at the end of the cellular respiratory process, in enabling the transitions of energy required to exhale.
If Karen Barad could be flown back through time, into Descartes head to take up a seat in his pineal gland, then sitting at the interface of mind and body, amongst the animal spirits, would she be able to steer his mechanical body? What kind of cognitive assemblage would that be?
The man held responsible for causing centuries of harm with his dualism, believed a kind of breath blew througth the passages of the brain. Ontologies have a historical aspect, and Descartes inherited his with a severe warning from the church. Comtemporary matter is a lot more versatile.
I think this project would benefit from being grounded in a particular example of a technology rather than being entirely up in the air. I would like to continue the study of breath - the intention was to make a series of breath portraits, but the camera work has proved a bit difficult to get right.
 Katherine Hayles applies her concept of the ‘cognitive non-conscious’ (Hayles 2017) to create a bridge between the 'new materialist’, de-centred notions of non-human agency which tend to orientate away from humanist notions of the subject and the brute business of matter, possibly as a result of the influence of Deleuze. Deleuze emphasized the assemblage (agencement), affective intensities and ‘lines of flight’ over the rational subject in a world of signs (Hayles 2017:70)
 This porousness and responsiveness to the environment also applies to DNA molecules, which are regularly figured as ‘master molecules’ issuing commands to other cells, in analogy to the relationship between computer code and the machine. This notion of code (DNA or otherwise) as capable of issuing performative utterances is attibuted by Wendy Chun to the fetishisation of the code (Chun 2008).
Rosi Braidotti (2013 ) ’The Posthuman’, Polity Books
Monika Bakke (ed.) (2011 frozen version) ’The Life of Air - Dwelling, Communicating, Manipulating’ http://livingbooksaboutlife.org/books/The_Life_of_Air
Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. On “Sourcery,” or Code as Fetish. Configurations, Volume 16, Number 3, Fall 2008, pp. 299-324. DOI: 10.1353/con.0.0064
H. M. Fast, ‘Vocal Nest – non-verbal atmospheres that matter’, Journal for Artistic Research, no. 16, Sep. 2018.
Samantha Frost 2016, ‘Biocultural Creatures - Toward a new theory of the human’, Duke University Press
N. Katherine Hayles (2017) ‘Unthought:The Power of the Cognitive Non-Conscious’ University of Chicago Press