The planet, in pandemic, is breathless. And the air itself—the air that gives us life, that weaves us rhythmically into life—bears the seeds of death within it. Those with the privilege to do so exempt themselves from shared breathing; they avoid the co-respirations of the communal. Or perhaps instead, those who believe they have the privilege to do so deem their own breath—emerging from a body whose blood (they may also assume) is pure—to be harmless and shareable. Now, more than ever, the struggle for life is the struggle for good air to breathe. And now, perhaps more than ever, political theology is gasping for breath, or the dissolute ethereality of air.
The breath, and the air it breathes, are long-standing themes in the work of the French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray. As a thinker who has always been preoccupied with the western philosophical abandonment of the elemental (what we can sense and feel) for the metaphysical, there are faint traces of both breath and air in her earliest works such as Speculum of the Other Woman (1974), The Sex Which is Not One (1977), Marine Lover: Of Friedrich Nietzsche (1980), and Elemental Passions (1982). But it is not until her critical commentary on Heidegger, The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger (1983) that this most ethereal of the elements (air) becomes a central subject of thought for Irigaray. In the late 1990s Irigaray begins to think more explicitly about breath—the cultivation of breath as the cultivation of embodied spirit—as the dimension of air most intimate to our own beings and bodies. Here, breath and air become matters for political theology. Air is a divine matter: divinity materializing. Reflecting on and cultivating the breath is the central project of Between East and West: From Singularity to Community (1999). Breath is a technique for becoming divine; how we make our bodies full of divinity, or how divinity is withheld when we are enabled in the forgetting of breath and of air. To remember air, and to remember how to breathe is not only a spiritual discipline, for Irigaray, but a form of liberation. Irigaray’s breathwork continues in more recent projects such as To Be Born: Genesis of a New Human Being (2017). But we also find, in these later works, that Irigaray’s breathwork harbors a kind of pestilence. That is to say, Irigaray subjects the breath to what she describes as a sexuated frame of reference; Irigaray uses breath to maintain the intellectual priority of a heterosexual dyad. The breath, for Irigaray, seems to become a heteronormative conceptual tool through which she seeks to maintain the essentiality and rigid complementarity of maleness and femaleness, for thinking and thought.
In what follows I illuminate the dimensions of Irigaray’s breathwork that, as I see it, might help to infuse political theology with a breath of good air in the midst of unceasing waves of breathlessness. But I also suggest that not only Heidegger but perhaps Irigaray herself has forgotten air. That is to say, Irigaray’s sexuation of the breath conceptualizes breath and breathing as a predominantly natal matter (a dimension of birth). In her fixation on the life-giving, life-creating dimensions of air Irigaray has lost track of what we—in the midst of pandemic—cannot forget. Air brings life, but it also brings death. Air is a phenomenon of what Jacques Derrida referred to as lifedeath. To forget that breath brings death, as well as life, is to forget air itself; to forget how air works, what it can do, and how (like a spirit) breath might offer sustenance and expansion but is indifferent to desires for mastery, control, or duration.
What is cultivated, in Irigaray’s breathwork? What might Irigaray’s work on the breath help to illuminate in breath, breathing, and the air that sustains this practice? What does breath do to, or for, political theology?
Breath is a mixed and mixing spirit. The cultivation of breath is, for Irigaray (as it has been for many human cultures for many thousands of years), the curation of something distinctly spiritual—embodied, and yet of the spirit. Breath confounds western metaphysical bifurcations of body and spirit. Irigaray attempts to erode powerful western theological imaginaries that would suffocate the movement of embodied spirit that goes by the name of breath. Breathing (the practice of it) is, for Irigaray, a form of immanent transcendence, a practice of becoming divine, of becoming like the gods. But this is not spirit as simply another name for God. Instead, this is a capacious and promiscuous spirit; as present in a nontheistic practice such as Buddhism as it is in the spirit of Genesis that looms over the deep. Breath serves as a connector between different geocomplexes of tradition. Breath forms a resonance between configurations of belief, different forms of the divine, between the human and the more than human. Breath is comprised of mixtures of the theological and the political. Breathing is threading, and breathing is mixing.
Breath cannot be appropriated. To say that we “take” a breath is a misnomer. Air can never be taken or appropriated. When we breathe, our bodies create the internal conditions to welcome air. But, Irigaray argues, air resists possession. One can obstruct the movement of air. But they will never have, or possess, the breath or the air that moves through you. Breath is not to manipulate or steal; we open to breath, or help others to breathe with greater ease. Breath is something that each of our bodies do on their own, and the process of breathing engages air without taking, keeping, or owning it. Irigaray stresses that breath is a dimension of autonomy and independence—a power in, of, and for your own fragile and energetic embodied form. And yet, she also argues, the breath of air undoes illusions of sovereignty. Breath is counter-sovereign. Our bodies breathe on their own, but the air is not something to own. The power of air might leave us, but it can never be taken. It might leave us, but it can also be redistributed and remembered. “I can’t breathe” reports an obstruction of air. But the obstructor cannot take or have this air. Instead the air redistributes this cry that is re-membered (inhaled and exhaled) in and from new bodies who gather to lament, to mourn, to end this obstruction of air. Breath and air are political theological agents of resistance.
Breath is surrender. That it cannot be appropriated points to another key dimension of breath in Irigaray’s work: breathing is a practice of surrender. Learning to breathe is learning to surrender. It is a power that you can feel within you, but never belongs to you. Your body opens, to let breath in. But breath cannot be kept and it does not endure. Learning to breathe again is learning to take in (to embrace or accept) in order to let go. As Irigaray argues, it is learning to let go of the desire to dominate and appropriate, which is learning to let go of the desire for the coherence of the subject. Man falls apart, in the surrender of the breath. Learning to breathe is forgetting that one wanted to become The Subject in the first place, to forget to live as metaphysics would consign us to do. Learning, again, to breathe is a surrender to living otherwise.
How Heidegger forgot air. In her long commentary on Heidegger, Irigaray illuminates a space of relation and another dimension of Being (Dasein) that she believes the philosopher left unthought. She calls this space of relation “air.” Air, like Being, never shows itself and yet it mediates everything—it is an “arch-mediation” that mixes together “the din of machines and the breath of the gods.” But the philosopher has always taken air for granted. The philosopher is busy, instead, with emptiness—a nothingness that he ultimately aims to triumph over, or appropriate. In doing so, Irigaray suggests, the philosopher forgets the air that moves like an empty and nourishing nothing in and between things—air is an elemental emptiness, an embodied nothing that cannot be dominated. To forget air is to forget the elements, and the way we surrender to them. Irigaray seeks to illuminate these material matters that western philosophy traditionally associated with a constellated set of negatives (inclusive of but not limited to nature, animality, flesh, woman). By calling these dimensions back, Irigaray offers a critique of Heidegger, and of an air that becomes flesh again.
Air and birth. The philosopher has forgotten air, Irigaray argues, because the philosopher has forgotten birth. The philosopher has forgotten that he thinks not because he is, but because he was created as the umbilical cord was cut and he gasped for his first breath of air. The philosopher, in forgetting air, has also forgotten the texture of his own finitude that tenuously and energetically exploded with this first breath. To lose track of this finitude—with its traces of mucous and blood—is to become asexuate, Irigaray argues. She also argues that it is to live as an “exile” from oneself. To gesture toward the connection between birth and air, for Irigaray, is to return finitude and sexuality to thought.
Air, sex, and death. Irigaray connects air and breath with sex and with birth. These are obvious physical connections—sex and birth are passages and movements that demand (thrive on) intensified, dynamic, breathwork. But in Irigaray’s work, the sexuality and natality of birth effectively turn breath against death. Echoing the observation that western philosophers are obsessed with death (necrophilic, as the feminist philosopher Grace Jantzen put it), Irigaray argues that man—as, especially, the philosopher—fixates on death so as to dominate and transcend it. He “re-envelops himself in death in a variety of ways so as to protect himself from the permanence of becoming dead,” she writes. Air, as Irigaray sees it, is “the element most resistant to this operation.” Air will not let the philosopher die before dying. Air is a return to the creation of life, to nourishment, to relation. Breath returns us to air, rather than to death. Breath provides, in this way, the view of an alternate horizon for finitude—one oriented toward life and natality, instead of mortality and death. But for Irigaray, as she argues in To Be Born, to be oriented toward life and the living is also to be oriented toward the “organization of the living.” And this organizing structure and framework, she says, is supplied by our sexuation. This sexuation is not abstract or universal, says Irigaray; it develops uniquely according to each singularity. And yet, she is also clear, this sexuation is a dyad—a limited structure that functions according to the logic of two: male and female. Rather than subject us to the horizon of death, the breath of air organizes this latent potential, this orderly sexuation within us—an organization that reads, we might argue, as just another form of subjection.
Remembering air. And yet air escapes and confounds the logic that even Irigaray would subject it to. Air is queerer than she concedes. What we cannot forget, in the midst of pandemic, is the link between air and death (a bond that does not sever, but complicates, the ties between breath and life). Our breath spreads death, and opens us to death, even as it also (at the same time) sustains life. To forget this is to forget air. Air mixes not only the human and the divine, but life and death. And it is possible to find this vision of air in Irigaray’s work, if one goes looking. That empty nothing of air is, she admits, “already alive in and for death.” Air is, “a reduction to nothingness without destruction.” To breathe is a form of saying “yes” to “all that has come to pass,” even “to death, as the other side of life.” To limit breath and air to the structure and framework of life, living, birth, and birthing is to forget that air is also open to, surrenders to, death. Perhaps Irigaray’s impulse to organize and systematize life and breath according to the limited structural logic of the heterosexual dyad drives her to forget this, to forget air.
For Irigaray air is spirit, and breath is what infuses our bodies with this spirit. But neither the air nor the breath can save us. Indeed, both air and breath may bear the seeds of death. But this is not, for political theology, a reductive morbidity or necrophilia. Air is also the condition for our flight. In air we crash and we fly. If air is emptiness, then our breath—a breath that surrenders to air, that says “yes” to air—opens to, listens to, and embodies or enfolds this silent emptiness. And this silent emptiness cannot save our lives, or save us from death. But perhaps it is in precisely this ambivalent way that air reminds us of just how much we belong—to the air itself, to this emptiness that hovers and sings in lifedeath, to those who are living and those who are dead. We might forget air, we might forget that we breathe, or how to breathe. But air does not forget us. And air will never cease to carry us, to lift us up, to set us into flight, even when we no longer live in a body that tried (if unsuccessfully) to fly.
Luce Irigaray, The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger, translated by Mary Beth Mader (University of Texas Press, 1999): Conceived as part of series on the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water), this book offers a sustained meditation on Heidegger’s claim that western metaphysics have forgotten being. While Irigaray does not disagree with this point, she argues that both western metaphysics and Heidegger himself have forgotten air. This book offers a complex articulation of what air might be, for thinking and for thought.
Luce Irigaray, Between East and West: From Singularity to Community, translated by Stephen Pluhácek (Columbia University Press, 1999): This book is a sustained meditation on breathing and breath. On one level, Irigaray is attempting to learn from her personal experience practicing yoga, as well as Hindu and Buddhist teachings on the breath. On another level, Irigaray seeks to expand on and add to these teachings through an exploration of how they might relate to her own philosophy of sexual difference.
Luce Irigaray, To Be Born: Genesis of a New Human Being (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017): The aim of this project is to explore the idea of human becoming (of humans as rootless and without access to origin). But breath and breathing play a crucial role in how we take responsibility for our being and existence. Irigaray argues that it is by cultivating breath that we live beyond mere survival and unfold into the spiritual dimensions of becoming. It is also in this project that Irigaray develops the links between birth and breath.