The breath as an organ

DSC01951_33860634The snoring man on the train, just behind and to our left, revolts us. Their noise is more penetrating, more cutting, even though it is lower in decibel than the irritating child a few seats in front with their high pitched and hyperactive voice testing the patience of the father figure accompanying them. The snoring man is filthy in his activity, that rasping breath, that grasping for life calling out to be silenced and with its silence comes death. The sound of the breath is a broken tool that reveals its function, its equipmentality as Heidegger would call it, precisely by being heard. That filthy, contaminating breath, no gentle rythmn of life but a crushed, rushing in-out-in-out intimacy that brings the Other too close, too far within the experience of living together that repulses us within our modernity, repulses us because of its forced confinement amongst each other.

Not all snoring makes us respond like this. The lovers gentle breath, post-coital satisfaction perhaps, offers a kind of intimacy that wraps around our skins, entering through our ears and the silence of the night. It indicates the choice of separation taken by the lovers from the herd, that space they create as a moment of sacred heart.

I want to rush away from this snoring filthy pig of a man on the train, rush out of the situation but instead, having to think about breath and breathing, wanting to think about breath and breathing because tomorrow is the deadline for a proposal, the deadline to perhaps find a space in which to open my own mouth, breath out and infect someone else other than me. Instead I stay, noting that this synchronicity is revealing, amusing, repulsive, welcome in its unwelcomeness. It is the external, the outside and it is work, it is difficult, to engage with this outside. It is meant to be difficult, the ascetic impulse, forcing me to wonder again whether I should simply move, stop thinking about the snoring filthy man whose breath breaks back into my thoughts, rippling through my skin as I write this, as I write to find a line of flight from the outside other than the line of flight that would be simply to get up and leave.

The train carriage is that one at the back of the train, the one that says it is a ’Quiet Zone’ and which then, of course, raises expectations. No-one is there to note this fact to each of the dumb animals that enter the carriage, so many of them simply wander in, plainly unaware of the signs around them, incapable of reading even that which is most readable. Oblivious to the indications, of course, the quiet zone becomes a simmering tension of silence-intentions and the other, those outside that intention, those that that are illiterate, incapable, or unwilling to read the signs. The snoring filthy man just behind me and to my left sat next to another man who himself had raped my nostrils with his death-burger garbage only moments after the train initially left on its journey. He also was the only one so far to express the simmering tension of silence-versus-the outside, something he did when the young brummagen girl behind me began the inevitable mobile phone call with the punctuated calls of a loud ’hello’ separated by a too long gap from the next over-loud ’hello’ which itself led, in another over-long gap, to the next over-loud ’hello’.

The dynamic of the ’quiet zone’ is itself quite strange. Presumably it offers the aspiring silencer a legitimacy that previously was missing, which must imply that previously a mere request would not have been enough to get someone to turn something down. As though the right to make noise was something to be defended. As though my noise level was somehow part of me, part of my body which it was an outrage to interfere with. Or perhaps it was mere provocation since it is part of some movements through the world, some resistances to the world, to attempt to provoke any response possible. I remember this myself, a kind of destructive joy in the provocation, a joy in inserting your own life into someone else, almost a sexual pleasure at this penetration.

The snoring man reveals the functionality of the breath, that it is equipment except that equipment is only such within an equipmental totality, according to Heidegger, and this totality is constituted by a project, an intention, a value, by something that is given by the human. The equipmental totality is another name for the human context within which a tool is a tool and outside of which it is merely a curiously shaped lump of matter. The functionality of the breath, then, is either equipment, in which case it is dependent upon the context given it by the human or it is not equipment, in which case does it still have a function?  The biologist might respond ’of course it has a function’, specifically, to maintain the organism. Yet this function is not what the breath is within the human and perhaps not what the breath is within any organism.

If breathing is a function, then to that extent the breath is not a ’natural given’. A function is a production mechanism, a combinatory conjunction. The human breath in particular is a cultural and evolutionary production. At this point it might seem like a loss of realism is about to be announced, once more the cultural constructivists raise their banners and cry, see, science is wrong, science is naive, even something as supposedly natural as breathing is culturally constructed. If they do this, I won’t be joining them. I have no desire to entertain such lunacy, though I also think such lunacy doesn’t exist, that no-one really denies denies scientific realities, merely question their edges, where they end and where they begin. It is a question of who gets to speak, who gets to breath their infection into the airwaves and contaminate our loves and lives some more.

If breathing is a function is there even any doubt about this? – obviously breathing is a function and like almost all functions of the body, in fact, like all (absolutely) functions of the body – the subject or agent can intervene to re-arrange the production dynamics of the combinatory conjunction that is the function. Consciousness can decide to alter or at least initiate the alteration of – the function. This it does through another aspect of the body. One organ is played against another within the organism as a whole. Consciousness can mobilise an organ against another organ or set of organs or even against the whole organism itself, reaping a self-destruction. Such is the nature of consciousness, its nature as an organ of the organism.

Breathing then, is a function formed through cultural production, amongst which one of the most dominant forces is the evolution and production of language and the materiality of control of the tongue. One wonders, perhaps, whether a by-product of the evolution of the hypoglossal nerve that enabled greater motor control of the tongue was the prospect of tongue centred oral sex?

The tongue plays a major role in producing articulate speech. In modern humans the hypoglossal nerve is much larger than in other nonhuman primates. Researchers at Duke University have measured the size of the hole through which this nerve runs in fossil humans. They found that by 400,000 years ago, the nerve was apparently already enlarged to modern standards. They infer that this indicates at least the ability to speak was present early on. This is, however, controversial.

Lastly, Ann McLarnon, of the Roehampton Institute, London, notes that the cross-sectional area of the spinal cord in humans in the thorax region is relatively large. This is, she says, related to the need for fine control of breathing, via the diaphragm, which is required for speech. It is much smaller in Homo ergaster, as seen in the Turkana boy skeleton, 1.6 million years ago. By 400,000 years ago, the spinal cord was already of modern proportions, which, like the hypoglossal canal data, may indicate a capacity for speech early on. (Roger Lewin; Human Evolution – an illustrated introduction, 5th ed. 2005  p.222)

Meditation teachers will rapidly and quickly focus on breathing techniques, certain amongst which will often inform their students of the way in which unthinking breathing is effectively un-natural. They pose their techniques as a way of getting back to an authentic breath, one that is more ’in tune’ with the body. This is not universal, since practitioners of fire-breath or other techniques perhaps associated with kundalini yoga or hyper-ventilation are almost incapable of claiming that they teach more natural breathing than the culturally present one since the claim would be so plainly absurd with reference to a breathing technique that overpowers the body, that renders it incapable of acting in any coherent fashion and produces altered states of consciousness – that is plainly not a technique that for returning to the ’natural’.  It is an artifact and its artifactuality reveals, again, the artifactuality of the breath. It also reveals that the breath is an organ of the organism, one which can be turned against the other organs, this time, and most notably, against consciousness. The simplicity and sheer speed with which the breath can alter consciousness is staggering. If you want to test this claim, hyperventilate for five minutes if you can. If you make it to five minutes, hyperventilate faster, increase the degree of hyperventilation until you find the maximum speed and degree of change in your consciousness. The breath is potent and a change in its rhythm is capable of releasing potentialities of consciousness, not all of them pleasant.

Article written by

philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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