Article published in The Funambulist 14 (November-December 2017) Toxic Atmospheres. Click here to access the rest of the issue.
Welcome to the fourteenth issue of The Funambulist. Various scales of space were mobilized in the first thirteen issues, yet nevertheless, all of them were manifested through the ‘hard’ physicality of their containment (walls, fabric, and other physical surfaces). This present issue intends to consider space through another perspective: that of its atmosphere. Mainstream environmentalist discourses regularly mobilize this concept, with various degrees of moralization (i.e. judgments based on universalist beliefs, rather than political and/or ethical considerations), and usually create two opposing groups, with humans on one side and an ill-defined and obsolete notion of nature on the other — though this binary is occasionally expanded to include less anthropocentric approaches. This issue differs radically from such discourses. One can observe such a differentiation in the terminology — the words “anthropocene,” “ecology,” “ecosystems,” and “biosphere” do not appear in it for instance — although it is less these words that create a problem than their systematic use in the moralizing imaginary. The real differentiation occurs in the resolutely politicized approach to atmospheres: this issue does not challenge the idea according to which the totality of the Earth is being affected by human actions; however, it problematizes these actions, not merely as a sum of undifferentiated sources of pollution, but, rather, as the consequence of different but non-mutually-exclusive systems of domination: colonialism, imperialism, and/or capitalism. In order words, the discourse articulated in these pages has much less to do with 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.
This is why the notion of toxicity that this present issue proposes to investigate is crucial to apprehend. In order to do so, it is also 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 (a reflection on the nature of “being”) 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 against French soldiers in the WWI trenches. “Terror operates on a level beyond the naïve exchange of armed blows between regular troops; it involves replacing these classical forms of battle with assaults on the environmental conditions of the enemy’s life,” 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 resonates 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 fifty 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 (Year Five of The Algerian Revolution, 1959, published in English under the title 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 — almost exclusively represented through maps — 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 what Sharpe calls “microclimates” in the decolonial efforts.
Combat breathing is a direct result of the struggle between the toxic state apparatus and the resistance opposed to it. Sometimes, this compromised respiration is literal, as in Dariouche Tehrani’s text in this issue on the chemical warfare many governments of the world employ against bodies — in particular racialized bodies — through the use of tear gas. The localized atmospheres of high toxicity that this weapon produces are indeed the most explicit forms of state control of space through the control of atmospheres. The same can be said of the forms of chemical warfare practiced by colonial or imperial armies — often with absolute impunity — such as Israel’s use of white phosphorus over Gaza in 2009, or the U.S. army’s systematic use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, described by Ylan Vo in her article below. In other situations depicted in this issue, be they the nuclear fallout in colonial Africa (Samia Henni) or in Fukushima (Lisa Torio), the methane cloud created by the U.S. oil & gas industry (Sonia Grant), the management of waste in Lebanon (Jessika Khazrik), or the neocolonial designations of toxicity in Madagascar’s medicinal plants (Chanelle Adams), the combat breathing is perhaps less literal or immediately spectacular; yet the struggles against the toxicity of colonialism, nationalism, capitalism, and/or state racism that these articles describe or call for mobilize the enduring strength of this organ that Fanon invites us to figuratively consider as political muscles: the lungs.
Léopold Lambert is a Paris-based architect and the editor-in-chief of The Funambulist. Since 2007, he attempts to raise questions around the politics of the built environment in relation to the bodies. He is the author of Weaponized Architecture: The Impossibility of Innocence (dpr-barcelona, 2012), Topie Impitoyable: The Corporeal Politics of the Cloth, the Wall, and the Street (punctum, 2016) and La politique du Bulldozer: La ruine palestinienne comme projet israélien (B2, 2016). Read more on his contributor page.