Photo by sarah assi.
Meditation has taught me what’s at stake in the exchange of breath. Exchange: derived from the Latin prefix “ex”—out, utterly; and “change” from the Latin cambire, or barter. Breathing is a type of bartering: oxygen for carbon monoxide, body for environment. I have come to respect this daily phenomenon. It is the beginning and ending of every action. Call it a meeting; call it a causal result. Respiratory exchange is also the subject of both Jean-Thomas Tremblay’s Breathing Aesthetics and Steffani Jemison’s A Rock, A River, A Street—and, in reading them concurrently, a thematic exchange between these two texts emerged. The first is written from within the academic tradition yet defies disciplinary boundaries, and the latter revels in inter-genre oscillation. Both engage the affective and consequentially political stakes in breathwork. For Tremblay and Jemison, breathwork is not a given, but rather is precarious labor.
Tremblay’s text is an exercise in exchange, in permeability. It begins with an acknowledgement that “breathing for” is in the action of “I breathe” (ix), a ritual Tremblay learns from the poet M. NourbeSe Philip. This acknowledgement of human autopoetic respiration discloses the multiplicity and vulnerability of breathing that Jemison’s narrator enacts. Tremblay’s introduction continues in this vein, insisting in the first sentence that “Breathing is inevitably morbid” (1). We cannot breathe out without taking in, leaving us open to receipt of whatever floats through the air. Breathing Aesthetics demonstrates how, as Tremblay posits, “respiratory enmeshment of vitality and morbidity has come to index an uneven distribution of risk in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries,” especially in light of “racial and extractive capitalism and imperialism” (2). Visually sketching their methodological stakes, Tremblay describes textual interactions with breath in the autobiographical poetic volume Dictée by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and in the poetic anticolonial collectivity from Diné writer Orlando White. Tremblay then cites Black Studies scholars Christina Sharpe and Ashon Crawley who affirm the possibilities of breath, despite white cis-heteropatriarchy, for minorities for whom even the foundational act of breathing is structurally rendered risky.
Identifying the origins of our contemporary breathing precarity, Tremblay cites Lauren Berlant and Judith Butler’s scholarship, critiquing the neoliberal economics of the 1970s and pushing this analysis by recognizing what Pramod K. Nayar terms “ecoprecarity.” This precarity has many sources: chemical weapons, the emergence of international protocols to regulate the potency and effect of such munitions both on the battlefield and in civilian protest contexts, laws regulating pollution, and the rise of a new “breathfulness” industry, making air something bought and sold much like immaterial cryptocurrencies. We are, Tremblay recognizes, clearly in overlapping crises. But the distribution of debility is not universal, and what is needed, Tremblay suggests, is both the sense of a collective ecological debility created by our environment and a particularized understanding of disability’s differentials within ableist neoliberal heteropatriarchy.
Tremblay’s archive is expansive and meditative at once, conspiring performance artists, poets, and filmmakers. Through the work of Ana Mendieta’s film Grass Breathing (1974) and performance Grass on Woman (1972) and Amy Greenfield’s kinesthetic cinema dance Tides (1982) and Element (1973), Tremblay proposes respiration as a type of spectatorial endeavor—“seen, heard, and in turn performed” (40). Through the ritual and therapeutic breathing methods of Dodie Bellamy, CA Conrad, Bob Flanagan, and Sheree Rose, Tremblay sees the simultaneous acknowledgement of and release from crises. The Indigenous and Black feminist politics in Linda Hogan’s ceremonial poetry such as “Morning Dance” and Toni Cade Bombara’s novel The Salt Eaters render breath with the broken earth and healing in the face of nuclear disaster reparative. Renee Gladman’s visually poetic novels demonstrate how environmental limits can serve as resources. And Frederick Wiseman and Allan King’s cinéma verité in Near Death and Dying at Grace, respectively, undo moralistic societal assumptions concerning death’s “final breath.” In their coda, Tremblay turns to the unavoidability of capitalism’s lust for breathlessness, but they ask if an imaginary of “benign respiratory variations” might provide a repertoire from which we might find a “negotiation of respiratory variations and interruptions” with others and with environments (162).
Jemison’s experimental novella would be at home as a rich example within this research archive, while also extending Tremblay’s analysis. It figures a young Black narrator reckoning with a perceived porosity between her psyche and the world. She walks out of her front door on the threshold of Brooklyn and Queens, New York, with apparent choices of where to walk and whom to follow. Shin splints and moments of asking herself, “why?” accompany the semblance of choice. Jemison defamiliarizes the New York context through the parallel wanderings of the mind and feet.
Jemison’s text, despite the roving movements of its narrator, does not so much map out paths as it does traverse the shaky grounds of “risky behaviors” such as “not existing” (29). As she says, “no matter what I do or don’t do, I am always only an accident or bad mood or bad trip or bad boyfriend or bad slip and fall from being pulled away or pushed away or taken away or just slipping and sliding away; it can happen any time” (29). Her environmental conditions inevitably situate her within this inescapable risk society, in which both action and inaction yield the result of non-existence. The narrator’s poetic reckoning with this double bind manifests in a non-exchange of physical utterance—she refuses to speak. Speech is the sonic sign of breath; she denies showing her breath to the world she observes. In the quiet of her own room, however, she takes deep breaths. In secret, the narrator articulates the voices of figures past—Sojourner Truth, Maya Angelou. She asks herself how to recreate their conditions, how to ground herself within her own present conditions. She runs. She longs for the peeling face of “Antwaun” on a mural outside her local supermarket. She walks through malls and makes games out of couch pillows. She recalls work with a philosopher who was convinced the body was a temporary state.
This rapid energy dissipates across half-filled pages toward the end of the text as the narrator recollects shorter episodes that nevertheless take their time on the page, eventually yielding a passage that describes an encounter akin to yoga in which an instructor tells the narrator to “breathe.” A command—that the narrator seems to refuse throughout the text until now—that enables both release and holding. But this exchange is not the ending: Jemison continues in a stream-of-consciousness and concludes with an impression of trees inside a McDonalds growing together as “the color of polished walnut explored years ago” (149). It is as if the narrator has grown further into her surroundings and their atmospheres.
Intertwined among the chapter breaks and minimal design as perhaps the defining embodiments of the novella are Jemison’s “gestural drawings,” running across the pages in various directions in black, white, and gray, occasionally punctuated by a viscous dot or splotch. They dwell upon and seemingly in the pages, grounding the beginning of the narrator’s ambulation, “point[ing] to questions of repetition and difference,” as the book description acknowledges. Seeping deeper into the pages with each turn, they provide permeable counterpoints to the text. And this permeability characterizes both the texts of Tremblay and Jemison and the interface between them. In openness and refusal, Tremblay and Jemison arrogate their speculative and theoretical autopoieses of breath as a series of ongoing exchanges. In doing so, their risk assessments circumvent the grandstanding and finite declaration of monolithic crisis through the act of leaning into risk—its vicissitudes, and its possibilities in the face of non-existence. Exchange, I have said, includes an etymological link to bartering. And these texts are a bartering with the unknown amidst all too knowable crises.1