The twenty minute Xigong routine I follow every morning on YouTube is all about breathing. “If you want more energy, the best place to start is your breathing,” says my adorable guide, arms floating above his head then sweeping down to a crouch. Xigong came back into my world with the COVID-19 lockdown, a ritual to inaugurate yet another day in the bunker. We have all been seeking small ways to affirm life.
Is it uncanny or overdetermined that the two epic events that have upheaved the U.S. and the world—the pandemic and George Floyd’s murder—are both about suffocation? Of the 115,000 (a known undercount) killed by coronavirus in the United States, nearly all died of suffocation as their lungs failed, or of the devastating effects of being placed on breathing machines. Like Eric Garner and so many others, George Floyd also suffocated because a police officer blocked his airway long enough to kill him. Classic lynchings used to strangle by hanging; the contemporary version involves chokeholds. They are one and the same, public spectacles using blocked airways as an instrument of racial terror.
Like most mammals, human bodies have two lungs, two eyes, two kidneys, two ears, but only a single airway that lies close to the surface of the body. If it is blocked—by a grape, a chokehold, or a noose—you agonize horribly and you die. Strangulation is one of the few ways humans can kill other humans without using a weapon. In the case of COVID-19, it is the lungs that fail, unable to absorb oxygen. Here too, people agonize horribly while they die.
We’ve been living the politics of breath—who gets held down and strangled by police and who does not; who has to fear that and who does not; who gets access to oxygen, respirators, ventilators, and who does not; who are told to stay home; who are required to be exposed; who are trapped in crowded institutions, who can self-isolate; who are provided protection and who are not; who can get tested and who cannot. People’s oxygen meters sit next to their toothbrushes. At this extraordinary moment, the question of what lives are expendable is worked out in the administration of airways. Carried on the breath. Language twists: to be “essential” is to be at risk, at risk because you are essential to the virus as well. It requires a living host.
The virus kills through airways but also propagates through airways. The force of living breath transports it from host to host. With the pandemic, the social contract mutates into a pure matter of how people administer their own breathing. Civic responsibility boils down to not breathing on others. Deliberately breathing on others becomes a weapon and a crime. Sociality twists: physical separation becomes the primal expression of civic solidarity, as well as friendship and love. Governments pass laws requiring it—there is legal and illegal breathing. Opponents of government of course decline these terms. They insist on the pre viral social contract—the right to gather, the right to infect and be infected, to breathe upon and be breathed upon with no state regulation. Churches demand special status and lose in the Supreme Court by a single vote. Yet only divine intervention could make a church service safe—as a group of Washingtonians learned, choir practice can kill you.
When the virus hit Northern California in March 2020, many people already had N95 masks. They used them during the wildfires of 2018 that filled their neighborhoods with smoke and incinerated everything in their path at temperatures never before seen in forest fires. Though viruses are alive and fire is not, both are primed to spread and both require oxygen to do that. When forest fires kill people, they too do so by suffocation, and by the same token, the only way to stop a forest fire is to suffocate it. Otherwise, like the virus, you have to let it burn until it runs out of fuel. Like COVID-19, like tear gas, like polluted air, smoke attacks the lungs. It harms by riding the breath into the body. Masks help but won’t save you. Eighty-two people died in the Camp wildfires of November 2018, plus countless wild creatures. Here the politics of life and breath generated two questions analogous to those generated by the virus: Should governments try to suffocate wildfires, or let them burn? Should people be prohibited from living in places prone to fires, or is it their civic right to do so, whatever the risk to themselves and others?
Air pollution is of course the elephant in the room when it comes to the politics of breath. It is one of the reasons black, brown, and poor people are more likely to die of COVID-19, for they are more likely to suffer already from pollution-related lung ailments. There is a political geography of breath, and it too can twist. In many cities, the COVID-19 shutdown reduced air pollution enough to bring beloved landmarks back into view—you could see stars in Mumbai, the Andes in Santiago, Mount Everest from Kathmandu. You could breathe easier, even with a mask. Soundscapes changed too. You could hear birds in Brooklyn, and silence. For many, in addition to stresses, the lockdown brought pleasures, some new and some long lost.
All over the world, in locked-down cities, people retained a shred of collectivity in two-minute cheering sessions at a specific hour each evening. Non-essential and therefore protected citizens honored the essential and therefore endangered citizens who were providing them care and upkeep. People filled their empty cityscapes not with bodies but with breath—shrieks, shouts, and whistles, along with banged pots, sirens, applause. Those still breathing on their own stood in for those who were not.
And yet, other love-driven sounds did not echo on those communal airwaves—the shrieks and wails of mourning. In another cruel twist, the virus made it dangerous for the living to mourn the dead, to whisper or sing to them as they died. Of all the damage and destruction the pandemic has left behind in the world, this stymied grief may be the deepest and most long lasting. The dying using their last breaths to say goodbye into a cell phone held by a staff member waiting to move on to the next gasping fatality. Family members deprived of the chance to say the unsaid and feel a beloved slip away. Staff members overwhelmed with the weight of these thwarted farewells. Survivors unable to gather in rituals for which there is no substitute. Like the virus itself, mourning rolls out on the breath, in words and song, sighs, moans, sobs, bellowing rage. No 7 p.m. ritual has emerged for this, yet.
Grief and rage, I think, gave George Floyd’s brutal death the power to bring so many millions into streets around the world. We were already mourning, for months haunted and surrounded by death. Out of the murder, and the film of the murder, an imperative arose that overwhelmed the imperatives of the virus. There was no staying home. Politics of breath: the need to live in a world free of the virus was overwhelmed by the need to live in a society free of racial terror. The sacrifices required to quell the virus would not be compensated by a mere return to a social world in which deaths like Floyd’s continue to be routine. The extremity of the response to the virus made possible extreme demands in the street, for two full weeks and counting. Defund the police, abolish the police, end systemic racism, we have had enough, the real pandemic is racism, we can’t breathe. Tear gas was another player in the weaponized struggle over breath; masks were another—the police refused to wear them, even when they got in your face.
The George Floyd uprising was the result of years of filmed episodes of police brutality, years of activism against it, years of attempted police reform, years of organizing, especially by the Black Lives Matter movement. It was a response to white supremacist movements actively supported by a racist president and his handlers. It reflected the raised consciousness of many white people, mostly under 50, who have learned to reflect on their whiteness as an instrument of injustice. There was an important shift: the marches were not about white people coming out “to support the Black community.” It was not about coalition. It was about a huge portion of the citizenry demanding not to live in a society founded on racial terror. All these people made a choice: either continue to stay home to avoid spreading the virus, or take to the streets to march and shout, knowing it will spread the virus. Save your breath or put it to work. Viruses have no intentions, but people do. For the most part the choice does not seem to have been difficult to make, and the country and the world overwhelmingly supported it. It was a consequential choice: a price will be paid. We don’t know how great, but we will know what it was for and hopefully be OK with it. Freedom requires risk. Of course, that’s precisely what white conservatives said about going to beaches and car rallies. But no one is choking them to death. END
—New York City, June 8, 2020
Mary Louise Pratt is Professor Emerita at NYU, where she taught in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Stanford University. Her research includes work on Latin American Literature and Latin American Studies, comparative literature, linguistics, literary theory, postcolonial studies, feminist and gender studies, anthropology, and cultural studies.She is author of Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992; 2nd ed. 2007). A collection of her essays appeared in Spanish titled Los imaginarios planetarios (Madrid: Aluvion 2017). Her most recent work as a critic and scholar includes reflections on neoliberalism and culture, language and globalization, and contemporary indigenous politics and thought. A collection of her work in English is in preparation with Duke University Press.