something possible, otherwise I will suffocate
When asked by a journalist: “You refuse the title of painter and also that of a man of letters… What then is your profession?” Marcel Duchamp replied “Why do you want to classify people at all costs? What am I, what do I know? A man, quite simply a “respirateur”.
The an-artiste identifies man with breath, according to an oriental tradition that makes breathing the main force of the body. Duchamp’s favorite activity, breathing, becomes problematic with capitalism, with its hungry will to possess, because it not only appropriates the work of others, the land and its resources, but also air and water. It manages to rarify even the goods that we thought were available to everyone and forever.
The West is dying of asphyxiation, but air is lacking in many ways.
Air began to become unbreathable in the 19th-century England, the seat of the industrial revolution. But it was during the First World War that capitalism underwent a radical change. Its destructive force, from relative becomes absolute, and breathing becomes deadly.
With each crisis, capitalism is forced to destroy the productive forces that it had itself established to produce even more performing ones which, in turn, will have to be destroyed to create more and more efficient ones and so on… endlessly? No!
The acceleration of the succession of production/destruction/enlarged production/enlarged destruction, determines the identity and reversibility of the two terms, so that the crisis, in which capitalism has been caged for years, turns into an ecological, health and political catastrophe. If men are mortal individually, with capitalism it is humanity and the life of many other species that risk disappearing.
The pollution and transformation of air, are the most obvious and worrying symptoms of this dynamic. With the First World War, the death that men inflict on other men comes from the air. The sky, seat of divinities and heaven, turns into hell. In Libya, the Italians invented the aerial bombing that will experience an enormous success during the Second World War, to later lead to the greatest massacre committed by humanity in the shortest time imaginable (a moment). Death in Hiroshima and Nagasaki comes from the air which, together with the sky, has lost all its innocence («J’aime les nuages … les nuages qui passent… là-bas… là-bas… les merveilleux nuages!”). The air has become an atomic chaos through which death waves spread atrociously.
Carl Schmitt, a conservative Catholic, a Nazi at the time, but often very lucid, points out that with the invention of the airplane, a third dimension is added to land and sea, air, which extends the possibilities of human domination over nature and other men.
“If we consider that the air space above the earth and the sea is crossed not only by airplanes, but also by the radio waves of the transmitting stations of all countries, which propagate at enormous speed through the atmospheric space around the globe, we cannot avoid thinking that not only a new, third dimension has been acquired, but that a third element has been added, “air” so that the “conquest of the earth” (Landnahme) and the “conquest of the sea” (Seenahame), follows the “conquest of the air”.
The two Biblical Hobbesian monsters that represent power, the Leviathan and the Behemot, are followed by a third monster, a large bird. At this point, the turning point that took place during the First World War with regards to air is clear. On the ground, the invention of toxic gases forces men to fight with masks that block and filter the poisoned air.
Walter Benjamin points out that the two leading industries of the time, the chemical industry and the aeronautical industry, from which human progress had to follow, instead invented new methods of death that attack breathing.
Before the Nazis, it was the US in the 20s that introduced the gas chamber as a method of giving death inspired by the gases used in the war just ended.
The Nazis pioneered the use of toxic gases for mass killings in the late 1939 when they used chemically produced pure carbon monoxide to kill the mentally ill (“Euthanasia Program”). For the final solution they adopted Zyklon B gas produced by IG Farben that killed by anoxia, a decrease or total lack of molecular oxygen or diatomic oxygen O2 at cellular level. Treatment by asphyxiation is still the practice that the American state racism, pillar of the material constitution of the most political of all democracies (Hannah Arendt), adopts to control and eliminate minorities. Before George Floyd, we were able to witness the death of another black man, Eric Garner, who during his agony, crushed to the ground by several policemen, repeated eight times, “I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t breathe”.
Everyone understood that ”I can’t breathe” did not concern only a minority of color, but it designated the destiny of humanity as a whole. A premonitory feeling. A feeling of anguish caused by a streamed image of a death by asphyxiation, has generalized through the spread of Covid 19, a virus originating from the destruction of the planet’s ecological balance, which attacks the respiratory tracts, blocking them.
The whole world is threatened by the lack of air. In Brazil, there is also a lack of oxygen cylinders to keep the sick alive. In the countries of the North people die even more. The lungs of its citizens are already deeply affected and weakened by the polluted air they daily breathe.
Actually, we’ve been breathing worse for years! It seems that the virus arrived only to confirm that asphyxiation is gradually extinguishing us. But it is a more subtle, invasive and even more dangerous suffocation than the by lack of air due to pollution or viruses. The danger was highlighted last century by Søren Kierkegaard: “something possible, otherwise I will suffocate”. This reality jumped to our eyes when we realized that power, ultimately, resides in the ability to impose the possible and the impossible, thus defining the limits of every action.
A century later, Gilles Deleuze, tells us about the conditions to start breathing again: break with power’s possible and affirm, through an act of creation, a new possible.
The act of breaking with —which is not before the creation of this or that thing, nor the creation of someone in specific— must invent new possibilities of life, because, under these conditions of living determined by the possible and impossible of power, we’re suffocating.
In a 1988 interview, responding to a question on May ‘68, Deleuze declares that this movement had the ability to discover and affirm the “uniqueness of being”, opening up to new forms of life. For the uniqueness of being it is necessary to understand the affirmation of a multiplicity in which all beings are, at the same time, different from each other and equal to each other. Between man, animal, plant, air and the cosmos there is a continuity because while they differ radically, they are radically the same. Unlimited difference and limitless equality. The ‘68 makes us see that the hierarchies between humans and between humans and non-humans (animals, plants, air and even machines), are devices of power that must be criticized and destroyed.
The discontinuity introduced by the rupture/creation of this new possible, establishes a continuity that deposes man (male, white, European and proprietor) from his throne and his privileges over humans and non-humans. But the metaphysical equality between nature and culture, between organic and inorganic, is only a possibility that must be actualized by imposing it on a capitalist machine which, on the contrary, after 68, restructures itself, reorganizes itself, by reinforcing hierarchies. The differences do not express the continuity of equality of everything that exists, but establishes hierarchies of all kinds and types (racism, sexism, class differences, etc.) that prevent us from breathing. Inequality seems to rule the world in an irreversible way.
How did this overthrow of equality even “beyond man” happen in the infinite inequality of our neo-liberal societies? Among the many causes, one is particularly close to my heart: creation is not the business of “beautiful souls”.
All discourses on creation are vitiated by a naive idealism, because by excluding negation, they reduce it to a simple affirmation. The latter alone is an abstraction. Negation is part of the power of affirmation, since the creation of a new possibility is always immanent in a field of forces that relate to each other according to modalities of command and obedience, of domination and subordination. Each force, manifesting itself, creating its own becoming, is confronted with the existence of other forces that can prevent it, block it and even destroy it, so that, in order to assert itself, it must always express a capacity for resistance and denial that has nothing to do with dialectics. Affirmation and denial together make up a strategy, a constitutive part of the force-building process. Nietzsche, the philosopher of the unconditional “yes” to life, even speaks of a double negation, as Deleuze suggests: ”…affirmation would never be real or complete if it were not preceded and followed by the negative. Here we are concerned with negations “as powers of affirming”. Affirmation would never be itself affirmed if negation had not broken its alliance with reactive forces and become an affirmative power in the man who wants to perish; and if negation had not then united, totalised all reactive values in order to destroy them from an affirmative perspective”.
Double negation then: to break with the forces of capitalism, of which we are accomplices, despite us, through our work and our consumption. No one is innocent, because we are all caught up in the asphyxiating functioning of the power machine. Without this first break we cannot get rid of the subjugations of which we are both victims and agents. Second rupture: once the implemented desubjectivization, destruction of the values and power devices that define the possibility of man (white, male, proprietor, inhabitant of the northern regions of the planet), from the point of view of the uniqueness of being and the creation of new life possibilities.
Only under these conditions, we can find Duchamp’s favorite activity, breathing, from an existential and a physiological point of view.