In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Jean-Thomas Tremblay. Tremblay is Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities in the Department of Humanities at York University. Their book is Breathing Aesthetics.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Jean-Thomas Tremblay: I started working in earnest on Breathing Aesthetics—or the dissertation I would convert into the book that now bears this title—around 2014. At the time, I was witnessing and joining protests in response, first, to the murder by police of Eric Garner, and then, to a Grand Jury’s decision not to indict his assailant, Daniel Pantaleo. “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry that activists quickly tied to a tradition of Black revolutionary thought epitomized by Frantz Fanon, particularly his writing on the “combat breathing” of those who struggle against colonial pressures, and his assertion that “the Indo-Chinese … is in revolt … because ‘quite simply’ it was, in more than one way, becoming impossible for him to breathe.” Protests made clear that we needed to understand respiration to understand politics: breathable air is unevenly distributed, and being breathless together doesn’t mean being breathless in the same way. Respiration also brings up aesthetic questions, or questions of artistic content and form: Black protesters defied respiratory obstructions with the creative possibilities of rhythmic and synchronic breath.
The notion that breathing is not (just) mundane but an index of present conditions only became more obvious around 2020. A new wave of protests against the institutions orchestrating anti-Black violence overlapped with the covid-19 pandemic, which made environmental inequalities and health disparities glaring. Breathing Aesthetics is coming out at a moment when “breathing” has imposed itself as a loaded word—something nearly unthinkable just a few years ago. The book offers readers a historical account of how we reached the current stage in what I call the “crisis in breathing.” It also finds in the respiratory works of minoritarian artists a vernacular for addressing the contradictions of contemporary existence.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Breathing Aesthetics is loosely divided into two sections. The first discusses how breathing has become crucial to ideas of the self—what it means to be subjects of experience, or to seek psychic coherence despite or through our openness to the world. The second is about respiratory politics, or the models for collective life that breathing has inspired. One chapter in the latter section is on the ritualization of breathing in Indigenous ceremonies and Black healings. Indigenous and Black feminisms have continuously relied on respiratory rituals for tactics and strategies for living through the foreclosure of political presents and futures. While I make these claims in relation to a corpus that addresses post-1970s political exhaustion, I believe it applies to a present when the accelerated descent into fascism makes it harder and harder to sustain our attachments to organized politics.
The other chapter on politics is about respiratory asynchrony. What happens when breathing can’t be ritualized, when we can’t attune ourselves to each other’s rhythms? I deem respiratory asynchrony a resource in itself, rather than an obstacle that ought to be removed in order for political life to proceed. Here also, the site of the protest is useful. Marching alongside protesters who chanted “I can’t breathe” might have made me, a white person, breathless, but my breathlessness told me very little about the breathlessness of others. We are all breathers, but none of the same kind. This insight is pertinent in the context of coalitional politics, where showing up ought not to hinge on any one individual’s ability to seize the interiority, the experience, of another.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I very much appreciate the way this question is formulated. Part of the book’s project is to uncover the role of respiration in the development of those regimes we call “biopolitical” or “necropolitical”: the forces that optimize certain lives and trivialize or attack others. Breathing is often described as a universal activity, but the breather is no universal subject. White supremacist biases, for instance, are encoded in respiration. The historian of medicine Lundy Braun recounts, in the excellent Breathing Race into the Machine, that medical models developed on US plantations and in colonial India equated lung capacity to “vital capacity” to justify the enslavement and oppression of Black and brown people. Likewise, the uranium mining and nuclear tests that took place on or near reservations a century later contributed to abnormally high lung cancer rates among Indigenous populations.
Early in the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, the historian and political theorist Achille Mbembe proposed, in response to the mobilization of respiration as a vector of racism and colonialism, a “universal right to breathe.” I’m invested less in rights-based politics than in grassroots organizing and mutual aid. What I hope Breathing Aesthetics relays is not some fantasy of unencumbered breathing but the notion that being in relation entails helping to alleviate the strain put on each other’s breathing.
Which intellectuals and/or intellectual movements most inspire your work?
Breathing Aesthetics, as my prior answers have made clear, is indebted to a Black intellectual tradition—from Bernice Johnson Reagon to Ashon Crawley—in which breathing names the ongoingness of life under conditions of attrition. The book also rethinks embodiment and experience in the flows and frictions between sexuality, disability, and environmental studies. I adopt critical practices of watching and reading for breath that displace the monolithic body as sexuality studies’ unit of analysis, assess the widespread effects of toxicity and virality in tension with person-based disability frameworks, and register the impact on embodiment and experience of phenomena taking place on such large spatial and temporal scales as “the planetary” and “deep time.”
The critic Lauren Berlant passed in late June 2021, soon after I submitted the revised manuscript of Breathing Aesthetics to my publisher. I was lucky enough to have Lauren as a dissertation advisor, and I can’t overstate the impact they’ve had on this project and, more generally, my thinking. For example, I like to pick from literary, screen, and performance cultures objects that aren’t directly illustrative of a concept; there has to be some dissonance between object and concept for the case study to be worth including. I learned that from Lauren.
Which two books published in the last five years would you recommend to BAR readers? How do you envision engaging these titles in your future work?
Two recent books I’ve found especially provocative are Sarah McFarland Taylor’s Ecopiety: Green Media and the Dilemma of Environmental Virtue (New York University Press, 2019) and Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire (Verso Books, 2021). The former contends that the environmentalist imagination tends to reward the acquisition of a narrow range of civic virtues—those that McFarland gathers under the rubric of “ecopiety”—over structural change. The latter, even more polemical, predicates its radical environmentalism on the destruction of private property. Both Taylor and Malm imply that climate crisis and its geographies of inequality cannot be solved through the betterment of the self.
I’ve enjoyed thinking with these volumes in the context of a new project tentatively titled “The Art of Environmental Inaction.” The project has two aims: to detach environmentalism from a dichotomy between harmful and beneficial action that locks climate futures into a paradigm of human management, and to loosen liberal humanism’s hold on an ecocritical lineage that asserts its validity by fusing aesthetic experience and civic virtue. I’m particularly interested in the relation between certain practices, like whistleblowing and ecoterrorism, and the philosophical and political category of action. Blowing up a pipeline is, of course, an action, but one posed in the name of preventing further actions, such as the destruction of Indigenous land and the pollution of the atmosphere. Something about a direct action like this one is self-negating, self-subtractive. Environmentalism and the environmental humanities have struggled to move beyond the belief that change happens by raising awareness. We owe it to ourselves, I think, to hear the voices who advocate reducing the scope of the destructive actions—whether carrying oil or driving a car—it is possible to perform.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.