Particle ‘atmopolitics’

Just read a great article in the New Scientist on the geopolitics of air pollution. The article shows how microscopic small of airborne particles can cause a major and highly complex international health crisis.

 “22 per cent of air-pollution-related premature deaths in 2007 were associated with goods and services produced in one country and consumed in another… Emissions from east Asia can make their way across the Pacific Ocean on atmospheric currents… That’s the penalty of living in a world that shares air”

I have recently written a piece in Borderlands on China’s “War on the Air” (available as PDF from their website) in which I attempt to argue that the air is an actively political medium.

The paper argues that the [Chinese] state’s historical dependency on economic growth is propelling attempts to keep the air ‘breathable’ and the weather ‘controllable’ so as to maintain social stability. The air has subsequently started to function as a calculable extension of state interests. Climate change and particle pollution are not presented, framed or perceived as a problem of existing politics but rather as a challenge to it. This paper will especially look at the state’s infamous weather modification programme and the way it governs air pollution. I finish the paper by arguing for the possibility of thinking about a different politics of the air as a means to challenge ideas that accept the air as a passive medium of state interest.


The Gas Chamber during Colonialism

For some time already, I have been interested in the invention and concept of the gas chamber. I am particularly troubled by the idea that this was exclusively a German invention. The argument in the conventional academic literature is that the gassing of air unfolded as a result of the thriving of chemical industry in early 20th century Germany. Huge companies such as BASF, Bayer among others took on a large industrial role in the state-led economic development of pre-WWI Germany. Key here, of course, is the tragic figure of Fritz Haber. Haber, who was of Jewish descent, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his invention of the Haber-Bosch process and played a pivotal role in the development of chemical warfare.

This mode of narration, although insightful to some degree, misses a more thorough mode of historicization of the development of chemistry in 19th century Europe. Why is this relevant? I deem it relevant for multiple reasons, some of which I am currently working on in several publications. The first and the one I will write about in this post revolves around the use of chemical warfare in Europe’s colonial setting. It is often forgotten, I would argue for convenient political reasons, that European colonizers engaged in atmospheric violence in territories far away from their own soil.

British troops used gassing, for instance, as a means to discipline populations in India and Palestine. Italy’s colonial violence in Ethiopia during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War was especially brutal (see video below). These atrocities were only brought to light in the 1980s and 1990s. Ethiopia had to wait until as late as 1997 for an Italian apology from then-president Scalfaro. I am currently most interested in the experiences of France, which already at the time of the French Revolution entertained the idea of a gaseous cleansing the Vendees region. The Vendees at the time performed as a testing ground for France’s later colonial wars. About a decade or so ago the French Historian Claude Ribbe wrote a book entitled Napoleon’s Crimes: A Blueprint for Hitler (in French less polemical: Le Crime de Napoléon) which posits the controversial argument that gas chambers were used as a means to exterminate the rebellious black slaves from the French colonies of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and Guadeloupe. Ribbe’s conclusion created (and continues to create) a great stir in France’s political establishment and academic circles. The historic claims have been disputed and politicians have been quick to condemn the book’s argument.

I am not interested in scrutinizing the facts of the work as such, and I see no point in comparing one genocide with another. I find myself largely in agreement with the position that there is strong evidence to suggest that such techniques were used. In fact, I feel quite confident that these were not the only gas chamber experiences at the time. The asphyxiation of Algerians in the French-Algerian colonial war is another example of an early gas chamber. This part of history is completely ignored in French history books. The French Governor-General of Algeria at the time [1845] ]argued that the so-called Enfumades, which imposed “cruel extremity”, were necessary to set a “horrifying example” that could “strike terror among these turbulent and fanatical montagnards” (Bugeaud in Brower 2009: 23).

What I find most interesting, or what I would argue is the idea that Germany’s extermination programme finds its roots in the particularities of Europe’s history. This is perhaps a controversial thing to say, but I think that the gas chamber cannot be said to have been an exclusively German experience because that would ignore the wider historical context in which this metaphysical horror could occur. Why is this important? I am not sure yet of all the possible political ramnifications of this reconsideration or re-narration of history. However, considering the backlash that Ribbe’s publication caused, they could potentially be huge. An inconvenient truth seems to be simmering underneath. Everyone familiar with Europe’s post-WII history, its philosophy and current status in the world knows how important the experience of the gas chamber is. One of the possible consequences, one which is certainly significant, but not the whole story, is the possibility of rethinking German guilt and the enabling of a move towards a reflection on Europe’s own implication in the emergence of the industrial extermination camp.

What for me is at stake is less explicitly political. I am interested in the breath. How it is possible that the practice of gassing was regulated in the West (culminating in the Hague treaties of 1899 and 1907) but deployed as a means to discipline and exterminate bodies in the rest of the world? The fact that some breaths are considered to be more worthy of legal protection than others remains a truth accepted by anyone familiar with more contemporary forms of police tactics.

Lil in Sumerian Cosmology

While writing a paper on law’s attempts to  appropriate breathing in the gassing of populations (e.g. in death chambers or teargassing in streets), I came across an article on old Sumerian cosmologies of the atmosphere.

“In the eyes of the Sumerian teachers and sages, the major components of the universe in the more narrow sense of the word were heaven and earth; indeed their term for universe was an-ki, a compound word meaning “heaven-earth.” The earth was a flat disk consisting of a vast hollow space enclosed top and bottom by a solid surface in the shape of a vault. Just what this heavenly solid was thought to be is still uncertain; to judge from the fact that the Sumerian term for tin is “metal of heaven,” it may have been tin. Between heaven and earth they recognised a substance which they called lil, a word the approximate meaning of which is “wind, air, breath, spirit”; its most significant characteristics seem to be movement and expansion, and it therefore corresponds roughly to our “atmosphere.” The sun, moon, planets, and stars were taken to be made of the same stuff as the atmosphere, but endowed, in addition, with the quality of luminosity. Surrounding the “heaven-earth” on all sides, as well as top and bottom was the boundless sea in which the universe somehow remained fixed and immovable. (Samuel Noah Kramer, 1956, “Sumerian Theology and Ethics”, The Harvard Theological Review)

Enlil (En meaning “Lord”) is in the Sumerian tradition the God of breath and wind. He, because Sumerian Gods are gendered, is a primary God and was believed to be the only deity who could connect to Anu, the god of heaven and King of all the other Gods. Enlil seems to have been an attempt to deify the atmosphere and, as such, formed the medium or the glue between Anu (heavens) and Enki (The God of Earth).

As the God most involved in human affairs, Enlil is also “the source of sovereignty for all kings of the land” (Flückiger-Hawker, 1999). In gratitude for the legitimisation of their rule, “kings gave land and precious objects to the temple of Enlil” (Mason 2005).

This cosmology seems different than those commonly associated with Christianity in which coronation, the transferal of legitimacy to rule, is an unmediated relationship between a divine God and a terrestrial ruler. Enlil and the tradition of lil more generally seems to indicate a mediation between Heaven and Earth which starts from the premise of respiration. Breathing, or lil, is i this tradition not something that should be reduced to the biological (what we could call today oxygen) but carries in it the divine seeds from the heaven.

Kasia Molga, Breathing Invisible Dust

Kasia Molga is a media artist who recently teamed-up with air pollution scientist Professor Frank Kelly  (and colleagues from King’s College London). Their collaborative project entitled “The Human Sensor” comprises a set of illuminated clothing that is “worn by performers to reveal changes in urban air pollution.” From the website of the Invisible Dust project which helped realise the collaboration :

Molga has designed the clothing so that it changes colours with variations of air pollutant gases. For example as PM10 increases the colour of the costume may become red. The air pollution measurements are taken a few hours before by the scientists. This data is then fed into the wearables so that the colours reveal the air pollution that you are breathing in on the street you are walking along. The performers mask also detects the performers breathing in real time so that the colours fade in and out with the performers breathing rhythms. (Invisible Dust)

The idea of making the invisible (particles) visible is something that I have tried to do in a recent publication (entitled: “breathing materialities“). Much of what academics write, however, remains contained within the narrow realm of the University. The artist has arguably much more power to visualise and politicise the effects of particle pollution.

The big challenge we have is that air pollution is mostly invisible. Art helps to makes it visible. We are trying to bring air pollution into the public realm. Scientific papers in journals work on one level, but this is a way to bring it into the street where the public is (King’s College senior air quality analyst, Andrew Grieve in the Guardian)

Making the abstraction of air concrete is for more than one reason a political project. It should be remembered that around 7 million people die prematurely each year from toxic pollution. That number is likely to rise rather than fall in the future. The vast majority of these deaths primarily come from urban centres in “developing” countries, especially India and China are known to suffer. To know what one breathes is perhaps an even more fundamental issue than knowing what one eats. And yet, few of us have an idea of the materialities that sustain and damage our bodies every second of the day. Being able to measure the toxicity of the air should be a human right, I think.


One of the objectives of the Invisible Dust project is to make particle pollution visible through the means of technology and art. Molga explains the motivations for her Human Sensor project:

I started thinking about the fact that because of the rising temperatures and also rising populations, especially in urban environments, things are happening, which we can’t see, but they will of course affect our bodies very drastically … It’s not just a display of the air quality, but it’s about also displaying something so invisible and ephemeral and very important for us to be alive as human breathing (in Hartford Courant).

The idea of caring for the breath by making it visible and felt is something that French feminist Luce Irigaray has propagated already some time ago in her wonderful book Forgetting of the Air. I am currently working on a chapter in an edited volume of the Slovenian thinker Lenart Skof and the philosopher Petri Berndtson. The book brings together geographers, philosophers, medical practitioners and artists and is, similar to the Invisible Dust project, a good example of how different disciplines converge on the subject (and practise) of breathing. Although I have intermittently been working on the breath for a couple of years now, it remains (and will always be) fascinating to see how something so simple can be so utterly complicated and beautiful. Inspirational, if you pardon the pun

Of course, the Invisible Dust project is not the first cross-disciplinary project on breathing and atmospheric materiality. Last year academics and artists came together for the launch of the wonderful Life of Breath project. I did not visit the event but the website gives you an idea of the wealth of creativity and originality of the contributions.

“The child stands enraptured in the balcony, holding its new present and watching the soap bubbles float into the sky as it blows them out of the little loop in front of his mouth. Now a swarm of bubbles erupts upwards, as chaotically vivacious as a throw of shimmering blue marbles. Then, at a subsequent attempt, a large oval balloon, filled with timid life, quivers off the loop and floats down the street, carried along by the breeze. It is followed by the hopes of the delighted child, floating out into the space in its own magic bubble as if, for a few seconds, its fate depended on that of the nervous entity. When the bubble finally bursts after a trembling, drawn-out flight, the soap bubble artist on the balcony emits a sound that is at once a sigh and a cheer. For the duration of the bubble’s life the blower was outside himself, as if the little orb’s survival depended on remaining encased in an attention that floated out with it.” (Sloterdijk, Bubbles)

Laughing Gas

I am currently writing a short chapter on breathing and gases. I am particularly interested in 19th century developments in the chemistry of various types of gases. One of the gases that has grasped my attention is nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas” as it is commonly known. It was used for pneumatic therapies in Britain, the US and France. It was also the favourite drug of choice by the Victorians and in the US exploited in so-called “laughing gas sideshows”.

Apparently the UK government has been trying to ban the sale, arguing that “Young people who take these substances are taking exceptional risks with their health and those who profit from their sale have a complete disregard for the potential consequences” (BBC).

Laughing gas is now the fourth most used drug in the UK, according to the Global Drug Survey 2015. In the past year, only people in the Netherlands used it more.

In 2013-14, some 470,000 people took nitrous oxide, according to the Home Office. It’s especially popular with young people, with 7.6% of 16 to 24-year-olds taking it that same year. This was a greater proportion than took cocaine (4.2%) and ecstasy (3.9%).


Breathing and Dying

I am in the process of reading an article entitled “The Breath of Life and Death” written by Katrina Jaworski (University of South Australia) and published in 2014 in Cultural Critique. The paper, which uses the work of Butler, Derrida and others to understand the relationship between breathing and dying, contains a very reflective passage about the last breath of the author’s mentor. The emphasis on the final breath as the last activity before separation is impressively described.

There is a moment when Louise is dying. She takes a breath, her eyes grow wider: it is as if she is seeing something in amazement, in wonder. She breathes out, more slowly and less laboriously than before. As she breathes out, it is already her last breath, but I am yet to comprehend this, despite having witnessed it. Her body relaxes, grows limp in the arms of those who are holding her—holding on to her. It is as if Louise herself has been holding on to something and suddenly has let go. For Louise, this is a wordless moment. It is wordless because she cannot speak anymore and because she does not say to us that this is going to be it. She cannot warn us, cannot tell us to be prepared for what is about to happen. She herself may not have known the moment exactly, or at least we the living cannot know if she knew when it was going to happen. She could not tell us that she was about to breathe her last breath, nor could she tell us that she herself knew, if she knew. Those around her are either speaking softly or not speaking at all. The waves of grief surging through my body and the continuous Xow of my tears subdue my own speaking. Knowing that she is dying, followed by a slow realization—a sinking-in sensation—that she has possibly died, renders me mute. My hand rests on her knee. Her body still feels warm, its warmth mingling with the warmth of my hand. I realize more fully that she has died, having registered that she is no longer breathing and that her eyes have grown still and lost their focus. I keep staring at her face. She stares back, without recognition. It then really hits me: Louise is dead. Someone says, “She’s gone. I think Louise has died.” The certainty of this knowledge is confirmed a little later when one of the doctors comes into the room to pronounce the time of death, and the nursing staff begin to attend to her dead body.*
*Jaworski, K 2014, ‘The breath of life and death’, Cultural Critique, vol. 86, pp. 61-95.