Invisibilities: Provocation

From the Series: Invisibilities

Photo by kdsphotos.

Breathing seems to be referenced all over the place these days, thanks to the booming wellness industry and a discursive turn towards all things healthy: healthy homes, healthy schools, healthy cities. Certain mattresses will help you breathe better, as will various over-the-counter nasal sprays. Breathing exercises aid with stress reduction and allow athletes to enhance their performance. And, in some cases, we’re told to “just breathe” and everything will be OK.

Typically unnoticed, unconsidered, and unseen—an invisible other in Sreenath Nair’s reading (2007)—breathing has become visible within a biomedicalized terrain where healthy entails a range of individualizing (and often consumer) practices. But what ethical forms are embedded in breathing and its emerging visibility? Following William Girard’s introduction to this series, I call for ethnographic attention to the breath as an invisibility, as one way to think about how we "become with invisible others."

From a care of the breath to the politics of air quality, we are increasingly reminded that humans are breathing beings. This point was not lost on Luce Irigaray (1999, 11) who, in her critique of Western metaphysics, suggests that breath is a "forgotten material mediation" between ourselves and the world. Breath connects consciousness to nervous system, organs to human-produced chemicals, cells to Earth’s atmosphere. Breathing is an inside-out trafficking in microscopic matter, a habituated process rendered imperceptible by bigger, more visible and valued things. Yet as an ordinary occurrence that textures daily life, breathing can also provide ground for the “cultivation of sensibilities within the everyday” (Das 2012, 134). Although Das focuses on moral life, the gestures, expressions, and care taken in common interactions (rather than breathing), I find her emphasis on the ordinary or everyday to be useful since it is here that what is habituated becomes forgotten or invisible. I want to suggest that in making breath visible, we cultivate a sense of breathing-with, an orientation that allows us to think about environments and the spaces we share with others (here, I'm thinking back to Hayder Al-Mohammad's contribution to our Ethics series). This move to make breath and air matter is critical at a time when the stakes of air quality and environmental health are undervalued.

Not all of us need to be reminded that we are breathing beings: air, as a forgotten material mediation, is quickly remembered when out of breath. Many asthmatics cultivate a sensibility to air and breathing that makes ordinary matter visible. Tim Brookes (1995, 20), a journalist who spent years trying to figure out what asthma is and how to treat it, describes the material sense cultivated by disordered breathing:

Sometimes it’s simply that when I lie down I finally notice that I’ve had a hard, dry, shallow wheeze for several hours but have been too busy or tense to notice it; the white noise of the day has drowned it out. One study showed that the mere act of lying down, laying the windpipe horizontal and exposing its length to the effects of gravity, can induce wheeze in asthmatics. . . . Moreover, at night we spend, say, eight hours continuously breathing in any hazards of the indoor environment: dust mites, woodstove smoke, fumes from the paraffin heater. We don’t breathe as deeply or as vigorously—everyone’s bronchi contract somewhat at nightand we hardly cough at all, so mucus gathers in the airways like dew, further reducing the flow of air, creating mild turbulence that is in itself an irritant.

Brookes’s monograph is a careful meditation on his embodied engagement with known and potential asthma triggers. It demonstrates the detailed attention to ordinary matter required in asthma care. In my interviews with asthmatics, objects rendered invisible in the everyday lives of nonasthmatics become triggers of disordered breathing: Dander, dust, mold, ozone, particulate matter, and pollenall of which comprise “air”are felt in asthmatic bodies. The sense of shortened or strained breathing serves as a mechanism of detection, a way in which invisible objects become legible. Although asthma is often defined by event, the asthma attack, it’s understood better as a chronic condition that informs everyday engagement with the world: such as when an asthmatic enters a building and knows if it’s moldy, or if pets live within. Here, it's easy to see the becoming with invisible others that Girard suggests in the introduction, following Haraway. Asthma also makes matter visible for caregivers as well: parents who need to ensure homes are allergen-free and teachers who need to be cognizant of how seasonal change impacts asthmatic students, for example.

I'll conclude by saying that the process of making invisibilities legible needs to include attention to the forces and conditions that produced the invisibilities to begin with; the regimes that make and unmake invisibilities. This question is generative in the case of breathing and air, things always already there. It's a stickier question for invisibilities where matter is not as readily available as it is for the breath. But it's in making breath visible, and other invisibilities as well, that we can see ethical formations that are otherwise concealed.


Brookes, Tim. 1995. Catching My Breath: An Asthmatic Explores His Illness. New York: Vintage.

Das, Veena. 2012 "Ordinary Ethics." In A Companion to Moral Anthropology, edited by Didier Fassin, 133–49. Malden, Mass.: Wiley.

Irigaray, Luce. 1999. The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger. Translated by Mary Beth Mader. Austin: University of Texas Press. Originally published in 1983.

Nair, Sreenath. 2007. Restoration of Breath: Consciousness and Performance. New York: Rodopi.