Thinking Breath

Arthur Rose, post-doctoral researcher on the Life of Breath project, writes:

The supplementary task in any interdisciplinary work worth its salt is to formulate a ground on which the work might be based. This ground may be some central unifying theory, or it might address a shared problem, or, taking one discipline as its intellectual ‘home’, it makes forays into other disciplinary domains. These modes of grounding are potentially productive, but they each have their pitfalls: the ground may exclude useful information because it doesn’t fit within the confines of the theory, or it might assume a problem is shared, when the structure of the problem itself needs to be addressed, or it creates a false hierarchy amongst the disciplines. Shifting my focus from the complex and fraught debates around interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity to the specific challenges and opportunities emerging for Life of Breath, I want to think about the launch of the Durham side of the project as a form of ’emergent thinking’, to adopt an expression used by Professor Patricia Waugh in her work for Hearing the Voice.

Emergent thinking, as I understand it, is thinking in motion: forcing epistemes and concepts to reformulate themselves in response to new conditions at the moment in which they occur. To adopt a position that prioritises either the arts over the sciences, or vice versa, forgets this contingency and its provisionality of thought. Breathing can demonstrate this conceptual provisionality in a very practical way: our lungs adapt, automatically, to atmospheric changes (whether in temperature, pressure, humidity, or dust counts), even as emergent thinking adapts us to new situations that we are still trying to digest through our old conceptual frames. Breathing realises emergent thinking in concrete terms; our immersion in the event, like our immersion into air, requires us to be imminent to the object we are trying to reflect upon, in our moment of reflection.

The Durham Launch of Life of Breath comprised of a series of thoughtful provocations punctuated by a number of breathing spaces. The provocations were designed to make the audience think analytically and sympathetically about conditions of breathing; the breathing spaces were arranged to engage the audience aesthetically with breath as it is realised. In a philosophical sense, the provocations led us to reflect on the conditions of breathing in a number of contexts, while the breathing spaces immersed us in the circumstances of the Launch itself as a moment to “think breath”. However, this was not merely a philosophical experiment; it was a superbly orchestrated theatrical event, whose interactions were designed to keep us ‘in the moment’ for a substantial period of time. Too much reflection and we may have been overtaxed; too much immersion and we would have dispersed into our individual thoughts. The success of the event, as an event, was to keep us balanced between our collective identity as a reflective audience and our individual identities as breathing entities.

This stability, even comfort, of reception should not forget, however, the very real discomfort to thought that such an event brings. By ‘discomfort to thought’, I simply mean the disruption to casual, preconceived notions of how interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary work actually happens: it is not merely the interaction of diverse specialists who, like so many magpies, descend on the studies of their peers to pick out the shiniest and most ostentatious decorations for their own work. Rather, it is something that emerges, as does the breathwork, half-perceived and half-created, through shared moments such as these: moments where thinking precedes its concept, and, through dynamic shifts from the reflective to the aesthetic, is permitted to recede from its conceptualisation.

Arthur Rose

Arthur is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow on Life of Breath at Durham University. His work for the project focuses on how breath, breathlessness and respiratory illness are represented in different literary and audio-visual media.

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