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Chapter 6. Breathe under water – Bachelard and the depth of hermeneutics (Part 1)

Bachelard’s famous works on elements and poetry (fire, earth, wind and water) embark a method of re-reading, which should be like 

“to take re-soundings like sonar, sounds of the depths. He explains that, by participating in the resonances, we hear the poem. Its repercussions invite us to give greater depth to our experience. Once gathered into its reverberations”1

“re-soundings, resonance, repercussion, reverberation” are all words belonging to a method which best works under water. And under water, we humans are not able to breathe. We must hold the breath and extend the gap between inhale and exhale to a period of time, which is connected to the space we are sinking in. We do not need to hold our breath on the surface of bodies of water. But if we dive deep, we expand our lungs take as much air with us as we can manage to hold, and we swim/float under the surface, beginning to become a body of water. I refer here to Astrida Neimani’s concept of bodies of water trying to reconfigure Bachelard’s watery readings with my own thought about hermeneutics and breath. What happens, when the rhythm of inhale and exhale has to stop? Is the gap now the ontological and epistemological status of our reading/understanding? While under water we hold the breath giving in in the gap, being present in the gap and also not being present at all because the cycle of breath is put on hold.  

Our bodies become a vessel, filled with air. The water around us seems to be shielded by our skin. Remembering Derrida’s term “hymen”, which he develops in his book “dissemination” it seems that our bodies/our skin, once we dive under water become the hymen itself and the gap between inhale and exhale gives space and time to the abeyance: the hymen is always the in-between. And now we become in between to elements – air and water. 

Fire, Water, Earth and Wind, the elements Bachelard works with are especially interesting for an object-oriented ontology because those elements have a strong affection through their different appearance and their possibilities of appearance in different shapes, but also are not reducible to its parts (underminig) or abstractable to a principle (overmining). Instead, they are plural und singular at the same time. They allure and allude as Bachelard argues poetic reverie. 

Another correlation with Derrida, Bachelard and water lies in the term of grafting. Both, Derrida and Bachelard seem to emphasize the concept of grafting onto poetic writing, literature in general. Derrida finds his terms of dissemination, supplement and différance within the material-semiotic node which is grafting. Regarding the opposition of the gardener and the florist, Plato exaggerates the relation between water and the pharmakon. For Derrida only the latter is important. But water as we shall see is actually the key to Derrida’s deconstructivism. Why? Let me turn back to Bachelard’s “water” 

Water then is as Bachelard describes it related to Heraclitan philosophy and being in flux. Such a philosophy is tackled by OOO pretty often. It is pretty interesting to deal with Bachelard’s philosophy in relation to OOO, especially because for Harman all pre-Socratics were “underminers”.2 

Also, Whitehead-Deleuzian process-ontologies which focus on all entities being in motion or in a flux, emphasizing the relation OOO would call them “overminers”.3 

But, how can one unlink the “metaphysics of flux”4 from the materiality of water and understand water as an object.

Bachelard writes:

“Because we fail to de-objectify objects and deform forms – a process which allows us to see the matter beneath the object – the world is strewn with unrelated things, immobile and inert solids, objects foreign to our nature.”5

And: “By grouping images and dissolving substances, water helps the imagination in its task of de-objectifying and assimilating.”6

It seems that “water” is the antagonist of objects. Dark hermeneutics which is focused on the object-ness of literature and uses breathing technics to understand poetic objects finds its medium in “water”. As I mentioned, if one finds himself in water, one must hold his breath extending the gap between inhale and exhale to his ontological state of stasis. The stasis of breath and the flux of water then generate a tension. This tension can be bodily inverted. Try to do some yoga poses with water in your mouth. This exercise will keep you focus on a certain way of breathing: ujjayi. This inverts the relation between water and breath. Now the breath is the medium of the water. Water becomes an object (in the sense of OOO).

Therefore, water and breath keep each other de-objectifing and objectifying, but not in the negative sense, which Bachelard implies, but in a productive sense. To become an object does not mean to become a commodity, but to become an entity which can be understood in its own rights.7 The opposition of water and breath also shows the distinction which OOO makes between real objects and sensual objects.6 That distinction lays ground for the communication of objects with other objects and is described until now through the terms of medium and object. 

Bachelards attempt to materialize poetics seems related to OOO, because he attributes to water (and other elements) an agency which triggers the creativity of poetic writing but also an object-ness. Water can be understood not only as a flux (or a medium) but also as an object, a real object. And its sensual object-ness opens up to a relational writing. Water writes itself through humans. Humans become the medium for the articulation of water by describing its sensual object-ness. Humans will never touch the essence of the object water, nor will water itself be able to understand its essence, but we will manage to give each other words, make stories together. 

What is fascinating about Bachelard is the fact, that he searches for the connection points by which non-human entities use humans as a medium to become written: “the voices of

water are hardly metaphoric at all; […] the language of the waters is a direct poetic reality;”8

With that said, poetry is not only a subjective mode of humans to talk in a pretty way about nature and other things. But poetry is the very mode of communication between the material and the non-material, the objective and subjective, the non-human and human. 

  1. Stroud 1983 []
  2. Harman 2018, 47 []
  3. Harman 2011 []
  4. Southerland 2013 []
  5. Bachelard 1983, 12 []
  6. Ibid. [] []
  7. Harman 2018, 9 []
  8. Bachelard 1983, 15 []

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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