On Breathing in Times of Pandemic

In 2017, an interview was published between myself and Judith Butler entitled, ‘We are Wordless Without One Another,’1 of which I was reminded in reading the hauntingly similar front page of a recent USA Today that bore the headline, ‘We are failing one another.’2 The United States is currently in the midst of its forth COVID-19 surge as a result of the newest highly contagious delta variant and a large portion of the immunocompetent population’s resistance to the vaccine. Combined with the already disproportionate effects of the pandemic on migrants and people of color, the situation has gone from dire to worse. With a steep rise in deaths daily, according to the CDC, ‘the war has changed.’3 As of August 2021, there have been 213 million confirmed cases and a reported 4.4 million deaths around the world.4 This essay is written in response to Achille Mbembe’s seminar, “Theory in Times of Pandemic” presented at The European Graduate School in July 2021, and will further examine the intersection of breathability in the work of Frantz Fanon, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the persistence of racial violence.

To begin, it is worth examining the concept of breathability: what this term entails, highlighting both an independency as well as an interdependency — that is, how breathing establishes oneself as a being, but also as a being in relation — and how this corresponds to the act of taking a breath, of being allowed to breathe whenever one has need to do so, and for that inhale to also be clean air, as a universal right. In Atmospheres of Breathing, David Kleinburg-Levin writes that breathing is our body's first openness to the world and our first articulation of being, following the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty who argues that from the moment of birth, ‘the body is already a respiratory body [emphasis added].’5 Luce Irigaray refers to breathing as our first autonomous gesture, she writes: ‘Breathing in a conscious and free manner is equivalent to taking charge of our life, to cutting the umbilical cord in order to respect and cultivate life for ourselves and for others.’6 Breathing is the in-common, a universal right as Mbembe suggests.7 As such, it highlights our interdependency in the world — your exhale is my inhale; where breath ends, wind begins.8 On this latter point numerous articles have been written pertaining to the global pandemic as an attack on lungs foreshadowing an impending global climate crisis. Furthermore, it is through breathing that we are opened up to the possibility of speech. Thus, one could argue that to strangle is to cut off speech. To cut off speech is to cut off the ability to breathe, to suffocate, to snuff out life. When it comes to breathing, we're all vulnerable — though, for the precarious, this is doubly so. What we witness under such conditions, Frantz Fanon writes, is an occupied or combat breathing.9

George Floyd, like many other Americans, became unemployed when the pandemic hit. In April 2020, he contracted COVID-19 and recovered. But in the following month, just two days before the United States took the lead in deaths due to the coronavirus, Floyd lost his life while in police custody, pinned down and unable to breathe, arrested under suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill. He wasn’t the first Black man in America murdered by police whose last words were, ‘I can't breathe.’ George Floyd's lungs were doubly attacked. As Julia Schade emphasizes, one could go so far as to suggest that ‘breathing while Black has proven to be especially dangerous.’10 Contrary to the CDC’s claim, for the precarious, the war has not so much changed, but persisted. Fanon uttered a similar phrase in 1970 in the fight against colonization: ‘We revolt simply because, for a variety of reasons, we can no longer breathe.’11 Those words are equally haunting today, as the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on people of color reveal just how intertwined the fight for the right to breathe is in connection with anti-Blackness.

Across the United States, African Americans have contracted and experienced the highest rates in death from COVID-19. It has been more difficult for low-income families to shelter in place due to overcrowded housing. Fewer vaccines have been distributed to low-income neighborhoods, or are more difficult for people in said neighborhoods to access. However, perhaps of most importance is the phenomenon that racism is the most dangerous pre-existing condition, facilitating the likelihood that victims of racism will fall sick to COVID-19. Fanon himself documented this condition as a physician living under colonial rule. He called it the ‘North African Syndrome’ and offers case study after case study of ‘the face of this pain without lesion, this illness distributed in and over the whole body, this continuous suffering…’12 Historically, Fanon explains, medical procedures move from symptom to lesion. But with the North African under colonial rule, and arguably for people of color living in America today, traditional medical thinking such as this is no longer applicable. Fanon’s words apply then and now as he was forced to confront a ‘body which is no longer altogether a body or rather which is doubly a body since it is beside itself with terror…’13 He further describes this condition as asymptomatic (worth noting here is Giorgio Agamben’s writings on the figure of the asymptomatic unwell pertaining to the potential contagion within us all during the pandemic in his text, Where Are We Now? The Epidemic as Politics), but also it is a condition that designates a perpetual state of insecurity. As Judith Butler has highlighted, ‘police violence works in tandem with health systems that let people die. It is systemic racism that links the two forms of power.’14

In his seminar, Mbembe describes the pandemic as an insecure moment. History, Mbembe suggests, ‘is understood as that process that promised something at the end of its course.’15 However, an insecure moment is characterized as that which promises nothing. Considered through the lens of racial violence and the differential redistribution of vulnerabilities, for migrants and people of color the pandemic isn't simply a one-off insecure moment but a continuation of their already insecure lives. Agamben writes from a perspective that is less concerned with the pandemic itself, but rather, with what our responses to the pandemic reveal about ourselves and the world at large. Agamben hypothesizes that perhaps the ‘plague was somehow already present.’16 Although he does not make this hypothesis with regard to racial violence, or racial violence in times of pandemic in particular, when considered through this lens, that the plague was already present is undeniable.

The works of Frantz Fanon, Achille Mbembe, and Judith Butler provide a framework for understanding this plague that has already been present for migrants and people of color, or precarious populations. Precarity, as defined by Butler, ‘designates that politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death.’17 Elsewhere, Butler notes a particular violence against the precarious as a violence against those who are already not quite living, as a mark that leaves no mark, so to speak.18 This brings to mind Fanon’s ‘zone of non-being’ and Mbembe’s necropolitical ‘death worlds’ of the ‘living dead.’ The zone of non-being is a sort of living ‘hell’ of Blackness, the condition and perpetual confrontation of being Black in an anti-Black world.19 Mbembe’s necropolitics builds upon Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower which refers to social and political powers that dictate who may live and who should die or be exposed to death, but also concerns those who experience social and political death, those who, as aforementioned, aren’t quite living wherein a person or entire populations no longer have sovereignty over their own bodies.20 Worth considering here is the racial demographic of those dubbed ‘essential’ during the pandemic (e.g., restaurant workers, delivery drivers, grocery store employees, etc.), all put at risk so that certain other populations can stay safely at home. For people of color, defending their right to breathe is one and the same with defending their right to be counted as human. The fight has always been one of emerging from this state of suspension between living and dying, this ‘and’ between the two understood as designating the zone of non-being.

To conclude, in the final session of Mbembe’s seminar, the question was posed of whether or not we care about keeping people alive. Has the answer to this question ever changed? The extent of our care has been reserved for those certain populations who are fully alive, those who have sovereignty over their bodies, those whose lungs aren’t at risk for being attacked doubly or thrice (if we add climate crisis to those already differentially affected by racial violence and the COVID-19 pandemic). To this end, we are indeed failing one another. And to fail one another is to become worldless. As Butler suggests, loss makes a tenuous ‘we’ of us all.21 The writings that have emerged during this time of global pandemic acknowledge the ties to both racial violence and climate crisis. But to continuously fail those who are already worldless from the start, as we have done so for generations, is unacceptable. Emmanuel Levinas wrote, ‘peace is awakeness to the precariousness of the other.’22 To be awake in this Levinasian sense is akin to staying woke to social and political injustices of precarious populations in each of the pandemics at work in the world today.

1. Judith Butler and Stephanie Berbec, “We are Wordless Without One Another: An Interview with Judith Butler,” in The Other Journal 27 (June 26, 2017), https://theotherjournal.com/2017/06/26/worldless-without-one-another-interview-judith-butler/.
2. “We are failing one another,” USA Today (August 6, 2021).
3. Yasmeen Abutaleb, Carolyn Y. Johnson and Joel Achenbach, “‘The war has changed’: Internal CDC document urges new messaging, warns delta infections likely more severe,” The Washington Post (July 29, 2021), https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2021/07/29/cdc-mask-guidance/.
4. “Coronavirus World Map: Tracking the Global Outbreak,” The New York Times (August 15, 2021).
5. David Michael Kleinburg-Levin, “Logos and Psyche: A Hermeneutics of Breathing,” in Atmospheres of Breathing, ed. Lenart Škof and Petri Berndston (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2018), 6-10.
6. Luce Irigaray, “Ethical Gestures Towards the Other,” in Building a New World, ed. Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 253-254.
7. Achille Mbembe, “The Universal Right to Breathe,” in Critical Inquiry (April 13, 2020),
8. Kleinburg-Levin, “Logos and Psyche: A Hermeneutics of Breathing,” 9.
9. Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 199.
10. Julia Schade, “Society for Sick Societies: The Breathing Machine,” Social Text Online, December 2020, https://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/society-for-sick-societies-the-breathing-machine/.
11. Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 2008), 201.
12. Frantz Fanon, Toward the African Revolution: Political Essays (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 7.
13. Fanon, Toward the African Revolution, 9.
14. Judith Butler, “Judith Butler: on COVID-19, the politics of non-violence, necropolitics, and social inequality,” interview by Amia Srinivasan, Verso, July 29, 2020.
15. Achille Mbembe, “Theory in Times of Pandemic” (seminar, The European Graduate School, July 10, 2021).
16. Giorgio Agamben, Where Are We Now? The Epidemic as Politics
(London: Eris Press, 2020), 23.
17. Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (Brooklyn: Verso, 2010), 25.
18. Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (Brooklyn: Verso, 2006), 36.
19. Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks, xii.
20. Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture (2003) 15 (1): 11–40.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-15-1-11
21. Butler, Precarious Life, 20.
22. Emmanuel Levinas, “Peace and Proximity,” in Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. Adriaan T. Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 167.