Breathing and Nothingness


First published in The Polyphony, hosted by the Institute for Medical Humanities at Durham University.


We have a first breath and a last breath. When a newborn baby inflates her lungs for the first time, this moment signals the beginning of a life-long relationship with air. The sudden rush of air flooding into her body leaves a trace of residual air. From then on, she is engaged in regulating a flow of air between inside and outside her body. Most of the time this regulation is involuntary and unconscious.

Breathing is an intra-action in air. We humans do not live in water, nor fire, nor earth. We live in air. We are immersed in the stuff. It is our only habitable element. This simple yet profound observation was made by French philosopher Luce Irigaray. She criticised Martin Heidegger’s metaphysics which conflated solidity with existence without taking air into account (1983). Of course, air is the very precondition for our existence in the first place. There is no being-in-the-world, to quote Heidegger, without air recycling through our bodies (Dreyfus 1990). We may as well speak of being-in-air.  

The title of Irigaray’s book L’oubli de l’air chez Martin Heidegger has been translated into English as The forgetting of air […] (1999). While it is correct to translate ‘oubli’ as ‘forgetting’, the French word can also signify ‘oblivion’. While ‘forgetting’ could be described as a slippage of consciousness that happens from time to time, ‘oblivion’ denotes a state of total unawareness towards surroundings. It is a complete disconnect.

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Sabin, L. (2019). Breathing and Nothingness. The Polyphony [online]. Available at: Accessed: ___.