One of the indirect impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic across the world was the sudden emergence of clean air. The India Gate photographs featuring air sans pollution was a reminder of its ferocious twin—air transformed by industrial metabolism, heavy with particles, distressing our lungs. The temporal dissolve in the sequenced photographs from hazy environs to clear surrounds exemplifies one genre of photojournalistic images of breathable air—breathable precisely when it disappears visually. This genre organizes air around iconic images such as the Eiffel Tower, the Venice canals, or Rio’s Christ the Redeemer, instantly instituting geographic difference; at the same time, the equivalence generated by the serial flow of the photographs universalizes utopic possibilities amid a global health emergency. In following COVID-19 vicissitudes in India, I frame my reflections on the politics of breathable air as the search for “Om” or the mystical breath/sound, in Vedic parlance, that births self and world. At stake is a renewed respiratory politics born in the crucible of the pandemic, one that envisions breathable air as the touchstone of life on the blue planet.
At the center of the current pandemic crisis lies the problem of breathable air as an all-too-transitive medium for the transport of SARS-CoV2. Visually imperceptible, bristling viruses were apprehensible in the ubiquitous visuality of masks as mediating technologies for controlling and regulating this medium. Like elsewhere, in Indian environments, mask visualities in public health messages, urban graffiti, and other popular media (see, for instance, the series published on the Reuters platform) proliferated, exhorting citizens to relearn their social habits of breath exchange. Like no other, the COVID-19 pandemic brought home the intensive movement of air-breath within molar bodies, exiting as droplets, drying as aerosolized particulates, drifting in the air in-between. The “air-breath complex” is shorthand for this processual understanding of COVID-19’s medium of transmission. Although closely tied to their site of origin, vital media like breath are environments of infection because of their transitivity: that is, their capacity to dissolve molar boundaries between individuals, between populations, and between species. As Tim Ingold argues, breathing involves not just embodied (inhalation) but also vaporized (exhalation) processes that breach the epidermal limits of individuated bodies. When the vital medium (respiratory mucous) transmuted into an elemental one (droplets and particles in air), air-breath’s endemic transitivity made it perceptible as the premiere risk environment for the current pandemic experience. In what follows, I mobilize “epidemic intensities” to conceptualize fraught encounters with the air-breath complex so differentially experienced as risk environments across the world. To document differences inevitably foregrounds the situated respiratory politics that they galvanize, a politics crucial to surviving this unending pandemic.
The trouble with air took a necropolitical turn in the manmade disaster that was India’s second wave in 2021, drawing attention to the lungs as critical to COVID-19’s “breath infrastructure.” In 2020, it was still possible to parley folksy remedies to SARS-CoV2 infection since the oxygen supply crisis had not arrived as yet. One video of a breathing exercise as prevention for COVID-19—an instructional demo of inhaling (A), holding one’s breath, then exhaling (B)—went viral on social media, even as news channels vociferously decried contagious misinformation (see, “India Today Fact Check” video, 0:26-0:48). The video exemplifies “media of breathing,” as John Durham Peters characterizes them, in promoting respiratory techniques culled from ancient yogic practices that train the body to transform air into breath. As inhalation and exhalation manifest in sound, Om has found myriad transcriptions into everyday respiratory techniques across media platforms; yet, during the health emergency, those techniques were quickly aggrandized as cultural commodity by the Hindu hegemon. In such videos, the universal mystical breath all but disappears in its branding as a particularly “Hindu” solution to vital entropy.
The commodification of Vedic knowledge-practices was on full display when business-minded gurus such as Baba Ramdev mocked those who gasped for air amid the unfolding tragedy of 2021 and touted widely-debunked plant-based cures for profit. “How can there be a shortage when God has filled the atmosphere with oxygen?” he argued. “Fools are looking for oxygen cylinders. Just breathe the free oxygen. Why are you complaining about shortage of oxygen and beds and crematoriums?” Now it is the case that systemic Ayurvedic treatments are often egregiously sidelined as “complementary” to allopathic medical hegemony; but that was not the most chilling part of Ramdev’s gambit. Rather it was his willed refutation of massive tragic losses that remains indelible as a spectacular instance of the necropolitical cynicism that had become the hallmark of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah regime. Ramdev’s gambit underscored what some saw as fear and confusion, and others as callousness and indifference, of that authoritarian regime while the air thickened with smoke from crematoriums and bodies floated down the Ganges. The wrenching search for Om poses the question: What can air/breath’s vicissitudes teach us about India’s COVID-19 experience? What breathable futures might emerge from the collective trauma?
Speculating Air Futures
One modality of India’s air futures arrives as universal possibility in scientific images of air. In a co-authored paper for Aerosol and Air Quality Research, published July 2020, Ram Lal Verma (part of the Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research) and Jatinder Singh Kamyotra (Director of the Central Pollution Board in Delhi) presented a series of technical images—satellite maps, graphs, charts—to track exactly what happened to air after the March 25, 2020 lockdown. They gathered information from 200 Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations all over India that reported a 21-47% decrease in several elements such as nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide. The monitoring stations measured particulate matter in air and composed the medium’s concentrations in spatial distributions. Constellating data from 115 India cities, the co-authors visualized breathable air in conventional cartographies deploying universal codes (intensifying greens representing environmental health in fig. 3) and in geospatial media based on satellite data (fig. 5).
The latter recorded the Aerosol Optical Depth (AOD) or the measure of aerosols (urban haze, smoke particles, desert dust, sea salt) distributed within a column of air from the Earth’s surface to the top of the atmosphere. Enacting epistemic cuts into air—that is, temporarily stabilizing a column of air as a snapshot and representative sample—these scientific images culturally performed the environment as emergent national surrounds. The data, argued the scientists, offered a novel opportunity for imagining India’s air futures. Globally legible as technical-aesthetic mediations, such maps linked India’s (becoming) breathable air to common, if differentiated, planetary futures.
This kind of mapping articulates air as an extensive media environment in ways familiar to contemporary media studies. Expansions of the media concept in environmental media studies now articulate the media-ecological with the media-technological: media are life-sustaining environments (air, water, and soil) as well as the technical media that render them legible. A TEOM (tapered element oscillating microbalance) device, for instance, is one media technology for measuring air as an elemental medium. As the glass tube vibrates in response to particulate accumulations, the TEOM transcribes them into numerical values; these values offer a snapshot of air’s configuration at a given point of time. The dual sense of media points to the geophysical and technical actions constitutive of what we perceive as air. This emphasis on the processual gestures toward air’s dynamic composition, its fluidity and mobility, its phase changes; air evaporates, dissipates, thickens, becomes moist, and moves. Tracking air’s media intensions (pace Joshua Neves), we begin to approach COVID-19’s air-breath complex. A breath infrastructure emerges, vital (the trachea, diaphragm, muscles, tonsils, lungs, mouth, and throat) and industrial (masks, hoses, oxygen tanks, medical equipment like the oximeter and the ventilator). In what follows, I pause on pandemic experiences of reading, feeling, and intuiting air-breath as unfolding epidemic intensities. Tracking epidemic intensities, I argue, tunes in to differential vulnerabilities in an otherwise globally synchronic airborne disaster.
Epidemic intensity traverses the universal and the particular. Etymologically, “intensity” signifies an extreme stretching tight resonant with the pandemic experience. We perceive the molecular stretch of a particular surround (a body, a room, a county, the globe), tensioned as we are between dangerous air rushing into our lungs even as we seek out oxygen from our surrounds. Intensity spatializes. We feel the risk environment spreading but not dissipating; epidemic intensity is sensing a piling on. Intensity is accumulation. When scientific images render air-breath calculable, intensity can be articulated in technical valence: it is a measure for concentrations of energy transmitted in acoustic or electromagnetic radiation, a measure including magnitude, degree, direction, or level of dilution. Alongside this seeming neutrality, epidemic intensities are deeply subjective. In the domain of feeling, intensity is the thickening, layering, or bundling of sensations and affects; it is a term that translates qualitative perceptions of energetic forces between things into subjective experience. Breath is felt in the gasp of a lung: intensity is intimate. In all these ways, epidemic intensities capture dynamic and layered historical experiences of the pandemic. Scientific, artistic, and popular images make epidemic intensities sensible, scattering breath into the air, infusing air into breath. Something latent, something imperceptible moves between us: we understand it informationally, and we sense it affectively.
No doubt perceiving medial environments as planetary connective tissue conveys the unfolding catastrophe in universal terms. At the same time, intensity is always a comparative measure or feeling, a rise and fall in states. As such, any discussion of epidemic intensities must account for the differential vulnerabilities of the pandemic experience—the ontological differences in living with catastrophes. Proposing “alterlife” as the condition of living in a toxic chemosphere, decolonial theorist Michelle Murphy argues that, even as molecular scales decenter any illusion of mastery over the environment, colonial, racial, military, gendered, chemical, biological, and geological structures constitute molecular life. The drift of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), hormones, and soils may be analyzed at molecular scale, but these assemblies are made of structural relations: some bodies bear more PCBs depending on which neighborhood you live in. If one substitutes PCBs for viruses, some bodies are less capable of handling SARS-CoV2 because of long-term inequities (healthcare provision, food security, and housing, to name a few). Thinking of structures rather than molecules, Murphy argues, attunes us to extensive and entangled relations: “Studying alterlife requires bursting open the categories of organism, individual, and body to acknowledge a shared, entangling, and extensive condition of being.” Even as we speculate our chemical or microbial relations, alterlife reorients us toward the possibility of “life otherwise,” of another kind of future. One might wonder what that might be for India’s COVID-19 experience: what respiratory politics are afoot in imagining breathable air? What can the epidemic intensity of air-breath galvanize?
Fording the Metabolic Rift
To think life otherwise refuses the disconnection between natural and industrial processes that Karl Marx defined as the metabolic rift. Enabled by scientific and technological hubris, such a rift separates and classifies non-human nature as the target of extraction. Instead of seeing the human as part of natural processes, capitalism sunders the connection so the human stands apart from non-human nature. The human appears not so much as part of energetic processes but as their master, capable of extracting energy as object or product, as coal or oil, and holding energy in reserve. Ecological thought attempts to challenge the rift: ultimately, air cannot be manufactured at mass scale to relieve a species while modern industrial metabolism continues to destroy the elemental medium. In India’s second wave, no amount of manufactured oxygen proved sufficient to relieve a species gasping for air.
To think of “our” own production as natural process means we cannot not take species survival for granted. We find such ecological reflection in one genre of photojournalistic images that featured wild or unusual domestic livestock wandering into once-bustling environs (see, langurs, buffalo, dogs, and peacocks in this series). As media, animals and birds in these images are sentinels of clean air futures: their re-habitation of planetary environs anticipates a “life otherwise.” Such images situate us in possible environments, if only we were to recognize respiration as a natural process emergent in industrial, geological, and atmospheric entanglements.
These reflections reframe the pandemic in ecological terms, following my argument on zoonotic spillovers in The Virus Touch (2023). Viral emergences will keep coming, I argue, if we do not address conditions of pathogenicity such as deforestation, industrial farming, or wildlife trading. But such long-term calls for planetary (and not just human) health fall by the wayside during pandemics; then we rush to short-term technological fixes (such as vaccines). We cannot do without them, to be sure; yet spiraling medical emergencies consistently obscure the need for long-term actions. Modern industrialism continues to create problems (the conditions for spillovers) and then resolve them in monetized solutions (vaccines and therapies, medical oxygen supplies and hospital beds). Hence, the need to imagine life otherwise: the deep timescales of breathable air. The wandering animals remind us that we once encroached on their habitats, and we are destroying the respiratory commons for all species. The metabolic rift points up planetary intuitions; epidemic intensities begin to hurt.
But it is not just the natural and the industrial processes that part ways in the metabolic rift. Early theorists of the rift such as Alexander Bodganov drew attention to the social rupture under capitalism, a familiar story that returns in the scramble for industrially-produced oxygen during India’s second wave. Famously, Bogdanov saw vital media as collective resource, as natural/social commons; this was the basis of the Institute of Haematology and Blood Transfusions that he founded in 1925-60. But in India’s COVID-19 experience, such vital commons were inaccessible because of a catastrophic industrial failure catalyzed by inept (and virtually absent) governance. Holding and organizing “common life,” in Lauren Berlant’s words, the breath infrastructure became spectacularly visible in its resounding failure: in empty oxygen tanks, in makeshift tubing, in gasping bodies, in black fungus creeping along oxygen pipes. Extracted as “the basic part of breathable air,” as Marjin Nieuwenhuis notes, oxygen became a coveted commodity as did the mediating apparatuses that manufacture it. The struggle over the commodity instantiated the social rupture in the extreme: those who could afford it resorted to technological fixes (cost-effective bipap machines, for example) while others were “let die” as Foucault’s powerful axiomatic in “Society Must be Defended” goes. The latter became the countless “human interest stories” in a historical record of collective loss.
One might argue that this is an unsurprising scene in pandemic histories since global public health emergencies habitually call the liberal-democratic bluff that values all human life equally. Pandemics emerge differentially for vulnerable communities who live with the structural violence of endemics (tuberculosis, malaria, dengue) and long-term social inequalities. And when resources are scant—as we saw with ventilators in the early days and later with vaccine distribution—a sorting and segregating of populations ensues. India’s COVID-19 experience exemplified the norm. Narendra Modi’s government literally went “missing” for three weeks during the oxygen crisis, turning its back on the most vulnerable; close allies such as the thanatopolitical Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, ordered property seizures of those who “spread rumors” about the lack of oxygen supply. Amid cascading death, the Modi-Shah regime chose to spend their resources drumming up political victories and religious capital. Spectacular evidence of a callous realpolitik surfaced in the multiple super-spreader events of April 2021 such as huge election rallies to contest the West Bengal State elections and the massive Kumbh Mela gathering. The metabolic rift hardened: no vital commons could be expected when national coffers were held hostage by narcissistic self-promotion and oligarchic accumulation.
If there was recompense, it came from ordinary citizens physically and digitally organizing oxygen, food deliveries, home visits, and medicines in unforgettable ways. Contra lining billionaire pockets, digital India showed up in expected corners in the making of contingent commons; in other corners, modest acts of everyday care mushroomed, exemplified in the iterative instances of autorickshaws equipped with oxygen tanks plying passengers for free. Threadbare as they were, these attempts to make breathable air collectively accessible thought “life otherwise.” They pointed to the social necessity of breathable air to be protected and mass-manufactured when required, but they also wondered if there would come a time when breathable air would be a right and not a commodity. Born of epidemic intensities, in the political demand for breathable air, we see a nascent respiratory politics of the present—but one which could blossom only if the collective trauma remained unforgotten. That should not seem difficult with the vast multimodal archive on the search for Om in India’s epidemic intensities. And yet, the surplus intimidates; the images fade unless they are, perchance, brought back into circulation.
In serially constellating heterogenous image clusters, my critical labor attempts to configure a political aesthetic of air-breath. Such an aesthetic endures when the image ensembles are “quilted together,” as Ernesto Laclau once suggested, by a powerful, culturally-rich signifier. I close with one that folded the many-layered experiences of air-breath during India’s second wave: a photograph of smoke rising from India’s cremation grounds (cover image). A hazmat-clad figure watches over the departure of Om. Expiration trembles in the thickening air enveloping those who work amidst pyres; in the image, we witness their witness of death become quotidian. Culled from a series taken by photojournalist Anindito Mukherjee in New Delhi, May 2021, this photograph is impressionistic rather than realistic. Unlocalized, the image highlights the stark loneliness accompanying mass death even as the smoky thickness reminds us of those who died without oxygen. Photographs like these were aplenty those days. Invoking synesthesia—the crackle of fire, the stench of death, the feeling of one’s lungs running out of oxygen—the photographs link air to sorrow, despair, and loss. Other photographs sought to situate viewers in concrete surrounds, in known or makeshift cremation grounds, instituting difference and disjuncture in the global respiratory debacle. Universal and particular in their epidemic intensities, these images mobilize others, cascading, spilling, accumulating. They linger in their recirculation, touching fresh unhealed wounds.
In the end, the media that sustain us are inescapable and the damage we have wrought is catastrophic. We are out of breath and, indeed, out of air.
Cover image: Anindito Mukherjee, India’s Covid-19 Crisis Intensifies. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images News.