November 7, 2017 - The Funambulist - Issue 14: Toxic Atmospheres
e-flux Architecture
November 7, 2017
November 7, 2017

The Funambulist

Courtesy The Funambulist. 

Issue 14: Toxic Atmospheres

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Issue 14: Toxic Atmospheres

thefunambulist.net
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Mainstream environmentalist discourses regularly mobilize the concept of atmospheres, with various degrees of moralization (i.e. judgments based on universalist beliefs, rather than political and/or ethical considerations). The 14th issue of The Funambulist parts from such approaches and favors a resolutely political examination of atmospheres. It does not consider toxicity as the sum of undifferentiated sources of human pollution, but, rather, as the consequence of different but non-mutually-exclusive systems of domination: colonialism, imperialism, and/or capitalism. In order words, it does not propose a moralizing manifesto to “save the planet” than with assembling a set of tools to humbly contribute to the political efforts towards the dismantlement of these systems.

In order to do so, it is useful to define the conceptual framework of this issue’s editorial line. Three concepts are instrumental to this matter. The first consists of an ontology developed by Peter Sloterdijk in a short book entitled Terror from the Air (Semiotext(e), 2009). In it, he argues that a radical ontological shift occurred on April 22, 1915 in Northern France—mind the Eurocentrism!—when the German army used poison gas in the WWI trenches. He writes, “The lightning-fast development of military breathing apparatuses (in the vernacular: linen gas masks) shows that troops were having to adapt to a situation in which human respiration was assuming a direct role in the events of war.”

The idea that not only the landscape and architecture, but also the atmosphere can be modified, engineered, and weaponized, allows Sloterdijk to talk of the human condition as one characterized by the concept of “being-in-the-breathable.” Such an idea firstly implies that, as bodies, we are not merely contained within an epidermic envelope, but, rather, that we extend into our atmospheric environment, the limits of which are indefinable—this blur thus renders any operation of essentialization more difficult to be actualized. Secondly, it implies that our existence is qualitatively conditioned to the composition of the atmosphere that surrounds us.

A second thinker helps us to deliberately confuse the notion of atmosphere in both its physical and figurative senses: in her book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, 2016), Christina Sharpe (interviewed in this issue) writes “In my text, the weather is the totality of our environments; the weather is the total climate; and the climate is antiblack.” One only has to see how the infrastructure of toxicity in the United States overlaps with Black geographies to realize how Sharpe’s words embody simultaneously a metaphor and a literal description. Her concept of “the weather” can thus provide a new definition of toxicity—a word she does not herself use in her book—that refers not only to the potentially noxious chemical composition of an atmosphere, but also to the totality of political conditions that expose certain bodies to gradual or accelerated forms of deadly violence.

In this regard, the last words of Eric Garner, a Black American man strangled to death by a white New York police officer on July 17, 2014, are poignant in both their literal meaning and their figurative implications: “I can’t breathe.” Taken up as a slogan by the Black Lives Matter movement, Garner’s words resonate as the shattering manifestation of Sharpe’s conceptualization of an antiblack weather. Sometimes, this exposure to deadly violence starts for Black bodies at the fetal stage, as we see in the case of the poisoned water infrastructure of Flint, Michigan. In 2014, after the municipality switched the predominantly Black city’s water to the lead-polluted Flint River, the amount of fetal deaths and miscarriages, as well as brain, kidney, and liver disorders for residents increased drastically. Flint is only an extreme example of an infrastructure and public health system built on social and racial inequalities. Reports show that Black Americans encounter “a higher risk of serious illness at any age compared with whites” and “have a shorter life expectancy” (National Institutes of Health, 2010). Following Sharpe’s lead, we therefore can see how literal and metaphorical readings of the Black condition in relation to toxic atmospheres in the United States and elsewhere—we can think of the work of Vanessa Agard-Jones in French-colonized Martinique for instance—are inseparable, as are the political situations described throughout this issue.

The final thinker whose work has contributed to the editorial framework of this issue wrote 50 years before Sloterdijk and Sharpe, whose proposition is anchored simultaneously in a masterful understanding of colonialism and in directly acting to dismantle it. In L’an V de la révolution algérienne (Studies in a Dying Colonialism, Monthly Review, 1965), Frantz Fanon writes the following:

“There is not occupation of territory, on the one hand, and independence of persons on the other. It is the country as a whole, its history, its daily pulsation that are contested, disfigured, in the hope of a final destruction. Under these conditions, the individual’s breathing is an observed, an occupied breathing. It is a combat breathing.”

At a time when colonialism is perceived by the former colonial powers as a past historical era, the idea that colonial domination does not occur at the surface of cartographic territories, but, instead, through the (attempted) atmospheric control of every aspect of life, is fundamental to understanding this domination as a structure. This atmospheric control encompasses all colonized bodies in their very biology and anatomy. Throughout The Wretched of the Earth (1961), Fanon talks about the “muscular contraction” of the colonized body, who is “constantly on his guard.” He describes the colonized body’s dreams—let’s not forget that Fanon was a psychiatrist—as being “muscular dreams: dreams of action, dreams of aggressive vitality. I dream I am jumping, swimming, running, and climbing. I dream I burst out laughing, I am leaping across a river and chased by a pack of cars that never catches up with me.” If we take these dreams and Fanon’s concept of “combat breathing” together, we are invited to think of the lungs as a muscle, sometimes atrophied by the toxicity of colonial atmospheres, but always ready to draw a sudden breath of air in the decolonial efforts.

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