Anthropologies of the breath

The storm called progress; the promise of lightning

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. —Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940)


your goodbye is a promise of lightning
in the last angels hand
unwelcome and unwarning
the sands have run out against us

—Audre Lorde, “Movement Song” (1973, excerpt)


A remarkable aspect of the pandemic, which is at the same time so obvious and regnant a condition as to go unremarked, is the absence of a shared spiritual imaginary—of any sense, beyond the most anodyne pabulum, of any persistent role for the dead in the world of the living. We honor the dead; we remember their sacrifice; but we don’t speak to the dead, much less grant them voice. Whether we observe this as evidence of progress or decay—for these I think comprise the dichotomy by which the question of the spirit is addressed in public life—there can be little doubt that the dead are banished, barred by the gates of memory. I would like to understand better how this comes to be so—how the dead come to be removed from active social or political agency in our affairs. It seems crucial to reimagine this banishment as an active practice, a form of discipline, a matter of ideology.

The memorials for George Floyd have obtruded into this public denial of the dead like a long-drawn, restive, insistent peal of thunder, the resonant irruption of a hole torn in the sky. Like thunder, it is directional; it comes from a place; it is ineluctably an event—at the same time it is transcendent, the growl of time and history and profound enormities; the sonic sigil of a universal judgement. The presence of that history, qua collision, alive in the present.

The home-going travels of George Floyd’s remains included services in Minneapolis, North Carolina, and Texas—a memorial itinerary calling to mind the funeral processions of heads of state. It seems in keeping with the tragic species of our public life that, if black lives are to begin to matter, this black death must come to matter first. And this itinerary charts more than Floyd’s biography—it’s a map out of the Great Migration, too, rehearsing in reverse a path out of immiseration, commemorative of the geographical history of Black aspiration.

Aspiration: to breathe desire toward; to breathe into. The extent to which our public language trades in pulmonary terms seems like a haunting now. From the inequities of the covid pandemic to the scourge of the chokehold, the economy of the breath, the anthropology of the breath, have been laid bare as systems of oppression. And yet even now, I write as if these had ever been truly invisible. And thus, aspiration—as I reflect on my impulse toward this word, I want to strike out my usage. I’m shamed of the presumption, the obscenity of my own associations, the greed of my white writerly consciousness. To call freedom, autonomy, flight, escape, resistance by this word, aspiration—who am I to style it so? We say the air is colorless—but there is white breath, and there is black breath. Black breath matters. And our air must teem with the voices of the dead.


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