Accepted paper:

Making breath visible


Jane Macnaughton (Durham University)

Paper short abstract:

Breath is invisible and yet ever present and vital for living beings. It is most often made visible through the experience of breathlessness which may be perceived as normal or pathological. This paper will explore these distinctions and the potential for clinical technologies to manifest them.

Paper long abstract:

As the cultural historian Steven Connor said of air, we can also say of breath: 'how [is] the air to be brought before one when it is of necessity and at all times about?' This is the challenge for researchers interested in breath - that it is all pervasive and yet invisible. The concept of invisibility when used in relation to breath operates in concrete and metaphorical ways and can extend ideas about breath and breathlessness across disciplines, in clinical spaces and in life experience. This paper will investigate the meanings of invisibility in relation to breath across these spaces, and how it might be that breath is brought into view. Through breath the body is in constant engagement with the invisible in the external environment and I will explore how breath might be brought into awareness through the experience of breathlessness, 'normal' and 'pathological'. What part might cultural context, memory and emotion play in making a distinction between those two kinds of breathlessness? In the clinical context, cognition and affect are increasingly recognised as important determinants of that experience, but the usual method of bringing breathlessness to visibility - through spirometry - does not reflect those influences. I will suggest that although recent neuroscientific research is attempting to delineate the complex interplay of physical, emotional and cognitive determinants of breathlessness, this approach struggles to take account of the experience and contexts that may bring this research into visibility and relevance.

panel P01
Exposure: interdisciplinary perspectives on breath, air and atmospheres