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“Perhaps it is in precisely this ambivalent way that air (and Irigaray) reminds us of just how much we belong—to the air itself, to this emptiness that hovers and sings in lifedeath. 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.”

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.

Cultivating Breath 

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. 

Forgetting Air

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.

Kojin Karatani

A short overview of Kojin Karatani’s Marxist influenced focus on modes of exchange as revealing the Borromean ring of Capital-Nation-State, and the import of this ring for religion.

Silvia Federici

Federici provides a model for political theologians engaging with race, gender, and sexuality through the lens of capitalist oppression

Luce Irigaray

“Perhaps it is in precisely this ambivalent way that air (and Irigaray) reminds us of just how much we belong—to the air itself, to this emptiness that hovers and sings in lifedeath. 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.”

Niklas Luhmann

David Kline introduces the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann for political theology and reflects on how it might think about its own limits of observation.

N. Katherine Hayles

A reflection on the political implications of N. Katherine Hayles’ critical aesthetic inquiry into the ecological relationships between the human and the technological, thought and cognition, and information and materiality.

Isabelle Stengers

Isabelle Stengers, continental philosopher of science, offers pragmatic resources for animating thinking with interest and passion, affirming heresy over conformity and undercutting the all-too-common binaries of religion/science and science/fiction.

François Laruelle

“[For] quantum gnostics, there has never been a creation of the world or in the world—it is the world that is ‘wicked’ or ‘evil’, and consequently also the God who claimed to have created it and yet hesitates to assume it.”

Enrique Dussel

Rafael Vizcaíno offers a biographical introduction to the philosophical work of Enrique Dussel, a major figure of the decolonial turn. Separate from his theology, Dussel’s philosophy of liberation offers crucial reflections for contemporary political theology.

Claude Lefort

It is as productive to think with as it is to think against Claude Lefort, a revolutionary-turned-philosopher who analyzed power and the political regimes to which it gives rise.

Fred Moten

Moten’s prophecy bespeaks aesthetic registers in ordinary (Black) life, but he denies that the aesthetic is redemptive.

Saba Mahmood

Saba Mahmood (1962-2018) was a pioneering anthropologist of Islam and secularism, a feminist theorist of gender and religion, and a critic of liberal certainties.

Paul Virilio

Paul Virilio, one of France’s foremost theorists of speed and technology, is a deep well for doing political theology in an apocalyptic time.

Stuart Hall

The late public intellectual Stuart Hall, with his concept of the conjuncture, assists political theology in analyzing our current moment and potential interventions.

Talal Asad

Rather than establishing structural analogies or historical filiations between “religion” and “politics” (terms he opens to question), Talal Asad urges attention to shifts in the grammar of concepts across different situations.

Quentin Meillassoux

Meillassoux’s thinking of post-Copernican cosmic immanence and cosmic delegitimation constitutes a challenge to political theology as still predominantly Ptolemaic in its assumptions and focus

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt argued that interreligious difference and Christian theology are steady influences on political movements, action, and thought.

Catherine Malabou

To read Catherine Malabou is to embark upon an adventure of thought. Her writing demands change from her readers if they are to follow her on that adventure. It is a process of change that is sometimes joyful, sometimes painful.

Jean-François Lyotard

Lyotard’s thought as it appears in Le Différend describes a linguistic state that evades speech, and the ways in which justice could be done to it, or not. Bearing witness to unpronounceable utterances brings about the idea of faith.

Aime Césaire

This essay will uplift Césaire’s anticolonial consciousness, in hopes that new directions in political theology might emerge/surface

Jacob Taubes

Taubes’s thought revolves around two poles, philosophy of history and political theology, with the aim of inverting the Schmittian position and thinking a new form of community by means of an innovative return to Paul of Tarsus and Walter Benjamin.

Gloria Anzaldúa

Anzaldúa develops a theory of this borderlands consciousness through the experiential and embodied knowledges of Chicanx (and women of color) feminisms; or what she calls a ‘mestiza consciousness’.

Martin Buber

Meeting Martin Buber, in other words, means meeting the voice behind the words, a man who did not always know how to “recover from institutions.”

Han Byung-Chul

Psychopolitics is Han’s main contribution to political theory. It reflects Han’s rethinking of Bentham’s panopticon and Foucault’s biopower as disciplinary society transitioned into a digital achievement society that defines our contemporary neoliberal globalized world.

Jean-Luc Marion

[Marion’s] central concepts and phenomenological method offer an ambiguous resource for political theology: on the one hand, he articulates a rigorous method of doing phenomenology which is trained to remain open to phenomena historically ignored and marginalized, and on the other hand, his own conclusions can veer towards a Christian triumphalism which is in danger of betraying the primary aim of his philosophical project.

Kuan-Hsing Chen

Chen suggests that Western political theologians should incorporate more resources from local knowledge—such as popular culture, literature, films, and music—in order to notice resistance in daily life.

Judith Butler

Judith Butler’s work has altered the trajectories of multiple disciplines in the last thirty years; what can they teach scholars of political theology?

Anibal Quijano

Quijano reimagines the long-lasting and contemporary status of colonialism seen through the lenses of race, modernity/rationality, and economic exploitation, encouraging us to produce theological and political critiques from the ever-enduring nature of coloniality.

Michel Henry

What [Henry’s] oeuvre offers political theology is a reimagining of what constitutes life together—an attention to Life and thereby, spirituality.

Cedric Robinson

Vega focuses on three Robinsonian concepts that are useful for political theology: racial capitalism, Black radical tradition, and African metaphysics.

Marcella Althaus-Reid

Althaus-Reid’s work asks whether Political Theology is capable of accounting for the power of sex, a power that comes to the fore if the theologian focuses on queer bodies.

Julia Kristeva

Kristeva’s psychoanalytic approach and practice shed light on the unconscious, affective, and bodily formation(s) of religious and political discourses and systems.

Achille Mbembe

Achille Mbembe’s work excavates the legacies of colonial reason and violence shaping the powers of death in the world today.

Frank Wilderson III

Wilderson doesn’t use the term “zombies” in his work. But his afropessimist stance includes a set of concepts—social death, gratuitous violence, sentient (but not living) existence—that could be easily applied to any episode of The Walking Dead.

Adriana Cavarero

Cavarero’s feminist theory of nonviolence takes the biblical commandment of “Thou Shall Not Kill” as its starting point. This commandment is ethical (it is about one’s relationships with others) and religious (it is about one’s relationship with God), but it is also political (without it, political communities cannot exist).

Jean-Luc Nancy

The subtlety and poetry of Nancy’s language can mask the rigor and the urgency of his thinking. I hope to share that rigor and urgency here, particularly as it relates to global capitalism, Christianity, and ontology.

Roberto Esposito

In Esposito’s most explicit political theology work, he is concerned with re-working, or rather destabilizing, the essence of political theology.

Ernst Bloch

In many ways, Bloch’s work inverts the classic dictum of political theology advanced by Carl Schmitt, that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” For Bloch, theological concepts are intimations of the freedom of the secular and revolutionary socialist society.

The Invisible Committee

The Invisible Committee may be productively, albeit counterintuitively, understood as Gnostic, a perspective that will put into question some of the assumptions behind the way the political and the theological are demarcated from and related to each other in contemporary debates.

Gil Anidjar

While Carl Schmitt claims that the enemy constitutes “the political,” his various writings largely ignore the historical and discursive evolution of the enemy. Anidjar’s major contribution to modern political theology lies in responding to this lacuna.

Sara Ahmed

Scholars and activists cannot rely on fact-checking or dry reason in this political climate. We have to feel our way toward change.

Hortense Spillers

What would it mean for scholarship in political theology to claim monstrosity? Perhaps it would mean focusing on underappreciated aspects of the Christian tradition, and other religious traditions, particularly those developed by women’s intellectual labor.

Lauren Berlant

Berlant is our preeminent contemporary theorist of how intimate practices bleed into and with national formations, and condition specific and powerful fantasies for what a good life or functional society would involve. To read their work is to become attuned to a set of dynamics that can be excavated in any given scene: the attachments being made and unmade, the forms of belonging that flash up and dissolve, the feeling-worlds that mediate everyday life, what remains unfinished.

Critical Theory for Political Theology: From Theorists to Keywords

We launched this series to make available theoretical resources that keep pace with the concerns raised by those working with political theology today, whose interests are increasingly tied not only to questions of genealogy, speculation, and political modernity, but also to questions of race, colonialism, gender, sexuality, disability, ecology, labor, finance capitalism, and economies of affect. 

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