Jean-Thomas Tremblay

Breathing Aesthetics

Duke University Press, 2022

248 pages


Reviewed by Haley Eazor

At the juncture of breath and breathless—the vast expanse and enclosure of inhale and exhale—shared networks of relations form. Jean-Thomas Tremblay’s Breathing Aesthetics meditates upon respiratory aesthetic archives in a time of environmental and sociopolitical crises; they explore the increasing difficulty of breathing when air is “contaminated, weaponized, and monetized” and mark how collective practices of breathing can offer a means towards “survival amidst crises.” Through works that breathe life into the fringes of creative practices, Tremblay forges an atmospheric network that posits breath as both paramount to and detrimental to survival amidst environmental degradation, toxicity, and political injury. As an embodied landscape of both harm and survival, Tremblay understands breath as mediator between internal and external—between in and out—to imagine corporeal, collaborative entangled encounters.

Organized into five chapters followed by a short coda, the scope of Breathing Aesthetics “assemble(s) a repertoire of responses to crisis” to conceptualize breathing as “greater than an occupational hazard of contemporary life.” Instead, Tremblay’s methodology engages close readings from a breadth of creative works, each chapter intent on contemplating the political implications for “respiratory models of subject formation.” Tremblay maps precarious living under capitalism through the “(anti)disciplinary frameworks” of environmental studies, disability studies, and sexual studies to formulate a web of “interconnection and interdependence.” Breathing Aesthetics demonstrates how to acknowledge the conflicting nature of breath. It recognizes that to trace the contours of weaponization, monetization, and pollution of air in our bodies is to enable the very “conditions” for breath as “minoritarian aesthetic and political vernacular in its own right.” The act of breathing, then, is a way of becoming—a way of pouring and outpouring the environment that we make and that which makes us. They write of respiration under capitalist and imperialist milieus as an encounter with the body: “we, as breathers, dwell in environments that at once heal and injure us, and from which we can never entirely abstract ourselves.” Within these conditions, breath will “reossify” as “sharable artifacts like a thought, a sentence, and a narrative.” Here Tremblay attends to breath as a web of fibers that materialize through immaterial imaginings, a mapping of respiratory subjectivities through minoritarian knowledge.

In Chapter One, Tremblay outlines the potentiality for reading breath as a form of spectatorship in the visual and embodied works of the 1970s and 1980s avant-garde artists Ana Medieta and Amy Greenfield. Understanding Medieta’s and Greenfield’s art as “a perversion of the pastoral,” Tremblay constitutes their works as “postpastoral,” or as temporally unbounded, caught within the haunting of the “natural past” and the “ecological present.” In reconceptualizing the pastoral through Ana Mendieta’s earth-body sculpture and Amy Greenfield’s cine-dance, Tremblay sees breathing as a medium through which the body in crisis structures and exposes a visible disruption in breathing patterns.  Breath performs a way to exhibit a slanted nature that is not “pure,” but contaminated and slippery in an age of environmental degradation. Easing us into a conscious display of breathing that we imitate—or that which disrupts our own breathing patterns as the viewer—their works fall into what Tremblay calls a category of “elemental media,” or media that mediate between breath and air.  

In Chapter Two, Tremblay connects the artistic works of Dodie Bellamy, CAConrad, and Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose through a categorization of ‘queer life writing’ marked by mourning. In a continued mapping of the uneven distribution of crisis—crisis of illness, of environment, of self—through a performance of breath, Tremblay sees this consciousness of breath in their works as a means towards “provisional” remediation. Yet the subject matter of these works is not exclusively autobiographical; rather, Tremblay sees life writing as “nonfictional” accounts “rooted in lived reality,” yet not necessarily bound to truth (emphasis mine). In understanding breath to be both the “symptom of and antidote to crises,” life writing denotes a tussle between ‘care of the self’ and ‘anxiety of the self,’ an idea Tremblay draws upon from Foucault’s concept of souci dei soi. Linking elements of crisis and of life through artistic notations, Tremblay employs the term “aesthetic self-medication” to prioritize crisis as a mode of living where breathing is a material disturbance of the self that exists alongside and part of their writing.

In Chapter Three, Tremblay continues exploring “therapeutic articulations of breathing” while shifting away from individual breathers towards coalitions of breathing that are fraught and imperative. Tracing a genealogy of feminist breathing since the 1970s, Tremblay presents aesthetic models of political and social strategies for survival: “in this genealogy, feminists train themselves to keep inhaling without the certainty that there will be a world to welcome their exhalation.” It is a question of access: in tracking the consciousness raising (CR) feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Tremblay considers who has access to platforms of expression, critiquing white exclusionist feminism while also demonstrating how Indigenous and Black feminist writing post-1970 offers a path towards communal healing. Linda Hogan’s ceremonial poetry and Toni Cade Bambara’s fiction on healing offer “respiratory rituals” that embody the potential for breath as a means towards reparation.What is the exchange between breath and opacity? In their Fourth Chapter, Tremblay tends to the exterior, shifting from embodied reflections of breath to extrinsic articulations of atmosphere and atmospheric relations. In analyzing Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series, beginning with her 2010 novel Event Factory, Tremblay conducts a cartographic reading of smog, evidencing smog not only as a symbol of urban pollution but also as an archetype of ambiguity, physical disorientation, and “respiratory asynchrony.” Smog sensing, then, is a mode of “smelling, choking on, experiencing oxidation from” a site of limited visibility, “one that is omnipresent, enveloping, total.” Here Tremblay sees the way “smog shifts perspective and perception” as a resource, “bodies” becoming “smog sensors” that in turn formulate a “minoritarian mapping of urban sociality.” The breath in Gladman’s work creates visible and tangible lines: “breathing, walking, writing, and drawing appear coextensive,” moving alongside each other through a “respiratory asynchrony” that in turn “generates an atmospherics of queerness of Blackness.”

Yet, for all its utterances and assertions of aliveness, breath is inseparable from atrophy: to hold life is to also always hold death, and the ins and outs that structure our days also structure the orbits of our life spans. “To breathe,” Tremblay writes, “is to be near death.” In their Fifth and final chapter, Tremblay burrows into and hollows out the distance across/space within the final breath. Through the cinematic vérité of Frederick Wiseman’s Near Death (1989) and Alla King’s Dying at Grace (2003), Tremblay explores the representation of and fantasy of the dying breath, positioning this moment simultaneously as site and sign of life.

Despite the turn towards endings, Tremblay’s coda conceives of something new. “Benign respiratory variations,” a term adapted from Gayle Rubin’s term “benign sexual variation” allows Tremblay to formulate a parallel between the “hypervisibility and the violent repression of sex in the 1980s” with that of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Here Tremblay theorizes alongside the works of Mel Y. Chen (“Masked States and the ‘Screen’ Between Security and Disability,” 2012; Animacies, 2012) who similarly explores relations between respiration in political and environmental crises, foregrounding conversations of disability, race, gender, and class. By ending with the contemporary, Tremblay foresees how breath coalesces differences and distances, weaving together the inhale and exhale to demonstrate the uneven distribution of crises and the way in which breath can both serve as a material model of inequality and a means towards reparation.