Maria José de Abreu
The coronavirus pandemic has brought to the fore the powers of numbers. As a vast stream of graphics, numbers and curves in yielding the global spreading of the virus makes apparent, numbers appear to count for how we are breathing in the world. It is almost as though in allowing for the visualization of the virus’ propagation curve, mathematics could offer the illusion of capture within the pocketed circumscription of a number. As though to cipher is to decipher. The problem is that when it comes to breathing matters, the ability to count is somewhat at odds with accountability. In the case of SARS-cov 2 (as with SARS 1 or MEARS), counting and accountability are affected by the relational aspect of contamination intrinsic to the virus. As anthropologist Carlo Caduff (2012) pointed out, viruses often present us with teachable moments, epistemic shifts that lead us to draw upon the semiotic lives of the viruses themselves: their modes and mediums of propagation, its interspecies relational status, its mutational components, and so on. The fact that corona is transmissible primarily through the respiratory system prompts us to think along with and through new epistemologies of the air and its sculpted versions in the form of breathing.
Luce Irigaray’s book “The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger” (2005) highlights a relation between Western modern episteme and the air element. Specifically, Irigaray points to a historical complicity between masculinity and earthbound metaphysics as formative of the modern thinking paradigm, an arrangement that, she argues, was made at the expense of repressing air as its feminine counterpart. What is so perverse about this operation, she argues, is how earthbound logics draw on air’s own involvement in its own repression. Irigaray contends that the objective of modern science was to implicate the ontological qualities of air in the elimination of its own traces. For example, in order for humans to fly by airplane the qualities of air—its invisibility, penetrability and ubiquity—had to be considered. It involved exploring air’s intrinsic paradoxical nature given by its capacity to occupy all space while occupying none in particular; to be material and immaterial; visible and invisible; all and nothing; finite and infinite. In Irigaray’s reading, accordingly, the feminine becomes associated with the unacknowledged, yet indispensable, substance of air. Air is the invisible infrastructure that participates in its own withdrawal. Its indispensability for life—its “explication” as Peter Sloterdijk (2007: 41) puts it—becomes apparent only when some kind of rupture or breakdown ensues, thus bringing into the foreground what was otherwise kept as repressed background.
Literary scholar Steven Connor (2002) has written extensively on how a historical transition from the medieval into the modern period correlates to a change in the conception of airspace, namely, from thick substance into an empty dimension. Air, as concept as well as dynamic substance, was integral to the scientific and artistic concerns of the early renaissance period. It is not mere chance that the Quattrocento, the historical era that marks the transition between medieval and the renaissance, invested in understanding the role of air, particularly of the wind, in the development of an artistic style. Aby Warburgs’ study on Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera (1486) reflects the nineteenth-century interest in the formal aspects of aerial movement. Another example is photographer and physiologist Etienne-Jules Marcy whose manipulated wind landscapes resemble the Greek draperies of the Charites in Botticelli’s painting. Didi-Huberman (2003), in turn, in his study on Warburg’s work refers to Quattrocento art as a “mysterious form of aerial determinism.” It is as though the dynamic and re-creative transmutations of aerial motion reflected an era that was itself in transition from one conception of aer to another.
In my own work on Catholic Charismatics in Brazil I show how air becomes the theological element (pneuma qua spirit) with which to rethink and engage in religious practice (de Abreu 2021). There too, I point to an ongoing attempt by this religious movement to recuperate Brazil’s premodern conceptions of airspace into the contemporary—to reactivate a time in which air, far from thin substance and empty vacuum, was thought as thick and eventful. The Greek pneuma provides Charismatics with an aerial principle through which religion, technology, body and space form a relational continuum, rather than discrete independent entities. A form of Catholic Pentecostalism, Charismatics have redefined the role of religious images in the contemporary. Modernity in Brazil translated into a search for the highest geological points to implant Christian icons—crosses, statues—in an effort to emancipate air from its status as immersive substance. A kind of secularization of the air that entailed addressing it as empty dimension. This is how air could accommodate the aesthetic value of representation as part of its pedagogical and political effectiveness.
The introduction of the Byzantine icon by Catholic Charismatics in the 1970’s attempts to counter such representational logics as well as the conception of airspace as dimension upon which such logics rely. In schematic terms, the modern icon was an object identified by the borders of its materiality, whereas the Byzantine icon opens up a large corridor (comparable to the www) for the “coming-to-pass” of spirit; the first is about a differentiation between object and atmosphere, the second involves a non-distinction between event and background. Indeed, Charismatics seek the icon that can best articulate the idea of a relational network (a synthetizing apparatus or, in patristic terms, an oikonomia) between heterogenous elements. Such an ideal would be best actualized in the aesthetic praxis as per Christian orthodox tradition. As Marie-José Mondzain (2005) explains, the Byzantine icon shows nothing but the economy of its own operations. The Byzantine icon is an articulator of elements, a complexio oppositorium, stretching in opposite directions. Such explains the intertwining of pneumatic techniques- popularly formatted as aerobic religious exercise- and Byzantine iconography in mediatic Charismatic events. The image-body relationship communicates the elasticity that binds them; it is a training in muscularity more than a standing for, or even mediation of, something sacred. What is key to understand in all this, is how the image-body relation shows nothing other than the intensity of relation. Such is the essential formula of Charismatic orthopraxis: the manifestation of relationality as such (skhésis).
Living under the current pandemic stresses the logical dispositive Charismatics adopt in Brazil. Covid-19 further explicates the relational we that breathing institutes. It does so through the physiological operations of reciprocation between inspiration and expiration; operations that complicate the classic separation between inside and outside by which otherwise countable individuals become co-implicated in each other. The modern notion of the individual as a discrete countable entity thus gives away to (or better makes explicit what was always the case only but, pace Irigaray, “forgotten”) an indiscrete level of being. But my point is that parallels between Charismatic pneumatology and the corona pandemic call for an assessment of the concept of relationality. While covid-19 -much like Charismatic practice – brings awareness to the fact that breathing is a collectively shared event -a global atmosphere -, there is also the question of how hegemonic powers capitalize on the idea of a global relationality so as to, paradoxically, forward its privatizing agenda. At stake is a displacement of the ideological mechanisms that were once involved in denouncing how power operates today. Such displacement is disorienting because it involves the rationalization of contradictions that neutralize classic idioms of critique. Specifically, it concerns the process by which right-wing conservativism invites into its own discursive field, normative progressive criteria – like transparency, freedom of expression or relationality – that would seem to be adversarial to it. A logical dispositive of paradox is thus enacted by which, for instance, the more power exposes its operations, the more obfuscation it produces.
Such twists in logic are at the heart of contemporary politics in Brazil, and elsewhere, across regimes. It is what explains that massive anti-corruption crusades, as the mega-operation Lava-Jato exemplifies, are being spearheaded by the very groups that more actively participate in it in the hope of hiding behind the very spectacular exposing they encourage. Philosopher Vladimir Safatle (2008) has poignantly described this logical dispositive in Brazil’s contemporary politics as an instance of cynical reasoning given by power’s capacity to welcome the conditions of its own undoing. Similarly, anthropologist Piero Leirner’s (2020) ethnography on the military in Brazil, and its connections to Bolsonarismo, expresses how the maintenance of paradoxes within a system of reason pervades Brazil’s politics as a manifestation of what he terms “hybrid warfare” (:43). In my own work among Catholic Charismatics, the strategy happens by tapping into the universal and relational aspects of breathing – the fact that all human’s breath-but in order to explore a particular Christian reading of universality itself. The exposure of air (spirit) becomes the very figure of power whereby what is now repressed is repression itself.
In times of corona, “breathing in the spirit”, as Charismatic’s often put it, has heightened a tendency running within the movement since their arrival in Brazil from the United States in the late 1960’s. It concerns an investment in drawing analogies between the pneumatic qualities of the Holy Spirit, Charismatic-produced technological airwaves and breathing body. Charismatics have often encouraged followers to tune into what is in the air as “spirit of the times”, and the aerial corona is no exception. And yet emphasis on the fluid mechanism of spirit also leads this form of Catholic revivalism to mirror an internal schism of the concept of relationality in times of pandemic. On grounds of inspirited relationality, Charismatics ask people to both stay home and follow their own media events online or on LIVE TV; to both experience the interactive powers of spirit-qua-media technologies and extol President Bolsonaro as an envoy of God; to both broadcast on their televangelical channels the numbers of victims to Covid-19 and elide responsibility on the part of the sovereign they support for those very fatalities.
The eliding of numbers in the very act of numbering is in line with the Christian theological tradition Catholic Charismatics draw upon. It pertains to a distinction between number and the possibility of enumeration key to certain mystic traditions that focus on the reality of nothingness. As Niklaus Largier (2008) notes, the qualitative aspects of numbering in ascetic Christian medieval tradition involved the evacuation of a quantifying element in the very practice of counting. What is distinctive about this potentialized “nothing,” through the paradigmatic figure of the “0” (say, the void in negative theology) in such tradition is that it is neither something, nor anything but the being of possibility itself. It is, in sum, the principle of non-entity on which relationality itself depends. Nowhere is this theological matrix as apparent in Brazil’s Charismatic movement, as in their techno-public confessions whereby, to confess is less about foregrounding the particular sinner than is it a matter of honing the body to confess through techniques of repetitive prayer, which induce all sorts of collective somatic displaying, that sin happens in the world. The notion of the accountable self-contained individual – which we once deemed as problematic in its association with modern logics of capture – thus, dissipates in favor of a model of anonymous inter-corporeal relationality.
Technologies of numbering in corona times present us with different engagements with life and death. In places like the U.S. Brazil, or India, numbers have been used as a way to make death a wild abstraction, a faceless and anonymous indexing, a form of bare death that dispenses grief or sorrow (Safatle 2020). The staging of numbers on the media allows individuals to become spectators to their own survival, but also, importantly, to take seriously the survival of others when the infrastructure that should be in place is not. In his important essay, Carlo Caduff (2020) draws our attention to the conditions that made the great lockdown the inescapable solution, ironically, in the name of the great repressed, but now threatening, air element and of the values it rallies, such as responsibility, survival and relationality, the evocation of which make it hard to disagree with. Understanding our corona moment means addressing this difficulty, precisely. It is to identify and problematize the semiotic mobius-strip so characteristic of our current culture of public discourse; the kind that takes life and survival into account only in order to hollow out its regime of effectiveness when it comes to ultimately determine what and who counts and what and who does not.
Maria José de Abreu is an assistant professor of anthropology at Columbia University. She is the author of The Charismatic Gymnasium: breath, media and religious revivalism in contemporary Brazil (2021, Duke University Press). The book examines how Charismatic Catholicism produces total power through a concatenation of breath, theology, and electronic media. Her second project explores the concept of home to think an oikopolitics of the present. Based on Portugal, she moves across distinctions such as the private and the public, family and nation, inheritance and meritocracy, the colonial and the postcolonial so as to theorize spaces of tension that make decision—though not governance—difficult.
Thanks to Reinhilde Konig and to Emily Ng for their comments. Special thanks to Birgit Meyer for her suggestions.
Caduff, Carlo. 2020. What Went Wrong. Corona and the World After the Full-Stop. Medical Anthropological Quarterly. Vol. 34 (4): 467-487. Source.
Caduff, Carlo. 2012. The Semiotics of Security. Infectious Disease Research and the Biopolitics of Informational Bodies in the United States. Cultural Anthropology. 27 (2): 333-357.
Connor, Steven. 2000. Dumbstruck. A Cultural History of Ventriloquism. Oxford University Press.
de Abreu, Maria José de Abreu 2021.The Charismatic Gymnasium: breath, media and religious revivalism in contemporary Brazil. Durham: Duke University Press.
De Abreu, Maria José. 2015. Worldings: the aesthetics of authority among Catholic Charismatics. Journal Culture and Religion. 16:2: 175-192.
Didi-Huberman, George. 2003.“The Imaginary Breeze: Remarks on the Air of the Quattrocento” in Journal of Visual Culture, 12/1/ Vol.2(3), pp.275-289.
Irigaray, Luce. 2005. The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger. Translated by Mary B. Mader. University of Texas Press.
Largier, Niklaus 2008. Praying by Numbers: an Essay on Medieval Aesthetics. Representations. Vol. 104 (1): 73-91.
Leirner, Piero C. Hybrid Warfare: The Highest Stage of the Military Insurgency, Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. 10 (1): 41-49.
Mondzain, Marie-José. 2005. Image, Icon, Economy. The Contemporary Origins of the Byzantine Imaginary. Stanford. Stanford University Press.
Rotman, Brian. 1987. Signifying Nothing. The Semiotics of the Zero. Macmillan Press.
Safatle, Vladimir 2020. Beyond the Necropolitics Principle: Suicidal state and Authoritarian Neoliberalism. Crises and Critique. Vol 7(3): 361-373.
Safatle, Vladimir. 2008. Cinicismo e Falência da Critica. Boitempo Editorial.
Sloterdijk, Peter. 2009. Airquakes. Environment and Planning D. Society and Space. Vol 27 (1): 41-57.