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Abstract

“We Don’t Breathe Alone: Forms of Encounter in Anglophone North America since the 1970s” tracks the emergence of an aesthetics both formed by and about breathing in North American literature and film from the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The dissertation argues that breathing comes to articulate self- and world-making that cannot be defined through speech or action. Breathing operates across various avant-garde and minoritarian aesthetics as the foremost concept for configuring multiple kinds and scales of encounter—with oneself, with the world, with alterity, and with finitude—under conditions of openness or vulnerability. Even when it appears to be an individual process, breathing implicates a milieu and its human and nonhuman organisms; hence, we don’t breathe alone.,The aesthetics of breathing intensifies at a historical moment when the resources necessary for the reproduction of life, notably breathable air, are endangered, unequally distributed, monetized, and weaponized. Since the 2014 murder by chokehold of Eric Garner, the phrase “I can’t breathe” has denounced the asphyxiating atmosphere in which African Americans have declared that black lives matter. Since the 1970s, rates of respiratory afflictions like asthma, allergies, and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) have exploded. The epidemiologies of these afflictions reveal patterns of disability and debility that stress inequalities pertaining to race, class, age, and gender. Although part of a longer history of international conflicts, biological warfare has been increasingly used as a tool for domestic law enforcement, such that it has become a symbol of the repression of progressive political struggles. The rarity of pure air under pollution has concurrently led to its unprecedented valuation and turned breathing into a luxury activity.,Breathing aesthetics are bound up in the history of social movements that have denounced structures of oppression and exploitation and speculated more livable worlds. Contemporary writers and filmmakers mobilize breathing to capture the experience of literal and figurative toxicities (e.g. atmospheric pollution or ambient racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism) and from there to reimagine life in common. I tackle the sociopolitical and environmental shaping of embodiment and experience using a critical grammar indebted to gender studies, feminist theory, queer theory, critical race studies, disability studies, environmental studies, science studies, and medical theory.,The archive I assemble spans traditions, movements, and trends in Anglophone, North American writing (prose and verse) and film that derive sociopolitical force from an aesthetic engagement with breathing. The archive includes Asian American and Canadian prose and verse (Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Fred Wah), queer life writing (Dodie Bellamy, CA Conrad, Bob Flanagan), black and indigenous feminist prose and verse (Toni Cade Bambara, Linda Hogan), African American speculative fiction (Samuel Delany, Renee Gladman), and cinema-vérité (Frederick Wiseman, Allan King). I frame the literature and cinema on which I center as experimental to highlight the way their creators, while rejecting scientific positivism, experiment with form, genre, and point of view as they develop protocols to address problems of contemporary living. ,“We Don’t Breathe Alone” examines the aesthetics of embodiment and experience in light of environmental concerns. My project has an affinity with ecocriticism at the same time as it complicates the criterion that a novel, poem, or film’s worth hinges on its capacity to raise the reader or viewer’s awareness of environmental degradation. The objects I explore compel us to consider the social and political worlds generated through breathing while emphasizing the forces that compromise the fantasy of a liberal individual capable of taking action or speaking out. Recognizing respiration as a social and political process also expands beyond visual and aural registers a study of “minor” aesthetics that pays attention to subjectivities that do not fit a sovereign model. “We Don’t Breathe Alone” considers contemporary literature and film in light of the notion that subjectivity is in excess of individuals and their bodies, specifically in depleted or oppressive environments.

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