Chapter 30. What we breathe is what we are

Who inhales? The question of who is speaking, writing or reading can be focused on the subject that breathes. But how do I breathe and what do I inhale while e.g. I am reading?

If there is a burning candle on my desk, then I will inhale the burnt particles (carbon dioxide) of the wax. Hence, I will become partially the candle as particles of the candle enter my body. But I wasn´t alone all the time, because my body is a more than human entity – inside and outside as Merlin sheldrake in his book titled Entangled life writes. My hair, my skin, my gout, “every surface, passage, and cavity you possess team with bacteria and fungi.”1

I am a folded passage a Möbius loop turning the inside out and vice versa. And for once the global pandemic of COVID-19 taught us humans that we are all connected through our breathe which is at the same time beautiful and terrifying. Terrifying every time, we us public transportation which arrived late and packed with people trying to get to their destinations for the day. We try to protect others and ourselves by wearing medical masks on our noses and mouths, but someone not everyone understands the situation. 

Therefore, one can figure out that this is not only stupidity or ignorance, selfishness or aesthetic narcissism, but a truly Kantian approach to the world. For Kant the world does not smell as Hsuan L.Hsu points out. He writes “smells must enter and interact with our bodies and surroundings in ways that we cannot fully control.” The same applies to viruses. They use air to infiltrate our bodies and do harm to them. And Laurel V. McLaughlin explains: 

“Often taken as a given, the act of breathing sustains normative human life and often occurs on the subconscious level.”2 But McLaughlin is interested in the intersections of human bodies, spaces, breathe and what is to inhale in those spaces. Aiming at a “performative aesthetics” she argues for the composition 

“[…] of the seemingly inseparable characteristics of everyday bio-‘rituals‘, a durational engagement with respiration (and the seeming non-choice of the action), and finally, the continuation of breathing in partial knowledge of their negotiations.”3

Breathing is an exercise and a form of communication with a world we tend to ignore. Inhaling means to experience a form of data processing which is highly biopolitical. That biopolitical level using a term of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari is not only molecular but also molar. That process of breathing transforms the biological entity. Breathe dips us into the flow of becoming.  

Try to hold your breath! It is almost impossible to stay in this state of mind and body for a longer time. You can try and train that ability but one might sense just detached from the world. It is a quite anthropocentric method of listening. And this is true for all the situations we hold our breath: a dangerous encounter, a thrilling scene in a movie, a sentence in a book we never understood before – a thought. 

Just as the candle in the beginning books seem to disperse particles. While one is reading our body experiences the letters, the paper, the flickering light of the screen, but also so much more. And also, there is a more than Kantian human smelling unconsciously hormones and pheromones. 

It is that “intimacy of strangers”4 which acts upon us not only while we are reading, but also while we are on the train or the bus. 

We become what we breathe and this is not only true in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic but also regarding air pollution in our cities. But what does this have to do with “understanding” as Dark Hermeneutics try to apply to deal with artistic artifacts from literature to artworks?

Dark Hermeneutics forces us to think about the mode of attunement towards our body as well the material and immaterial metabolism. It understands the human subject as many, a folded organism of non-human and human particles, parasites, symbiosis. Hence there is a specific biopolitical perspective to “understanding” which depends also on those parasites and symbionts, the hormones, smells and the air we are breathing.  

Understanding is also figuring out how we are connected and when and where we became disconnected as well. Instead of focusing understanding and misunderstanding Dark Hermeneutics targets the connections and disconnections in the networks of material and immaterial meaning as an ontological mode of intimacy with a stranger whom we already know.

Cite this blog post
Martin Bartelmus (2022, December 20). Chapter 30. What we breathe is what we are. Dark Hermeneutics. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

  1. Sheldrake 2020, 22 []
  2. McLaughlin 2022, 136 []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. Ibid. 141 []

By Martin Bartelmus

Martin Bartelmus is a Postdoctoral Scholar of German Literary, Media, and Cultural Theory at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf. He studied German Literature, Philosophy, Political and Social Studies at Julius Maximilians University Würzburg and received his PhD in Media and Cultural Studies as part of the DFG graduate program “Materiality and Production” from Heinrich Heine University. His PhD-Thesis is entitled Cultural Born Killer: Poetics of Killing around 1900. Before joining the department of German Literature at Heinrich Heine University for his current postdoctoral position, he worked as a curator for the Museum of Natural History of the Benrath Palace and Park Foundation and as a freelancer for the Julia Stoschek Collection. He is interested in Animal and Plant Studies, killing in literature and film, French theory, Object-Oriented Ontology, and literature without humans.

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