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The uses and abuses of air (1)

The header shows Ascent of Lunardi’s Balloon from St George’s Fields, London, 1788-90 by J. C. Ibbetson, which will be part of the Royal West of England Academy exhibition ‘Air: Visualising the Invisible in British Art 1768-2017’, as does this post (and part 2), which appears in the publication accompanying the exhibition. Life of Breath PI Havi Carel writes:

Air surrounds us. It is always there, its absence abhorred by nature. Unlike other natural elements, it is invisible, unlimited, and freely available. It is a plenitude, nature’s generosity; it is seemingly endless and expansive. Air is also of and for sharing. We share air when we laugh or talk together, when we breathe together, when we kiss. Air mediates the space between people. Thus air is both plentiful and shared. The atmosphere envelops us, providing oxygen, warmth, and shielding us from radiation. Wrapped around our planet, it is a protective layer within which all life exists.

No wonder we are generally positive about air. It has many positive connotations: of freedom, wellness, and possibility, even adventure. We soar into the air on our way to an exotic holiday destination, or sky dive as a memorable experience; the image of hot air balloons drifting majestically in the sky is one of Bristol’s most recognisable images, and is depicted in several paintings in the exhibition.

When coming out of a car after a long drive to the countryside, we inhale deeply, taking in the fresh air. We fill our lungs with the cool breeze at the seaside, carrying a sharp, salty scent. Convalescence homes were historically located where the air was thought to be good – high up a mountain, as in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, or by the sea, for its fresh breeze. Mountaineers and hill-walkers cherish the sharp winds whipping at mountain tops and peaks.

Air is also essential for any activity. We accept its presence and necessity with every breath. We celebrate air when we use it to sing, dance, make music, or perform athletic feats. In fact, air is needed for everything we do; we rely on it completely and cannot do without it for more than a few minutes. Air is not just needed for breathing. It also transmits sound and so enables us to have music, conversation and theatre. It is transparent, and so enables us to see. It is a medium, infinite, benign, within which life itself takes place.

Air’s invisibility requires us to use other means of representing it, as the paintings in this exhibition do. John Constable’s cloud studies refer to air by depicting the sky and clouds. Bubbles by Sir John Everett Millais, shows the lightness of air and our playful attitude towards it by depicting a young boy blowing bubbles. Ascent of Lunardi’s Balloon from St George’s Fields by Julius Caesar Ibbetson shows our ambition to explore air by depicting a hot air balloon soaring into the sky. These images portray air as nature’s generous, pure, penetrable element.

Other paintings in the exhibition show us something else. Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby shows a scientific experiment involving placing a bird in a vacuum. The bird is dying, and a lady turns her head away; children are frightened. Thus this painting forewarns of what a purely scientific attitude to air might result in and also depicts the absence of air; the vacuum and its deadly impact on life.

The exhibition’s paintings depict air in a variety of ways. They celebrate air and its artistic representations. They show our relationship to air as a means for play, flight, relaxation, and exploration. In the most general terms, one can say that air is a facilitator of human action. Moreover, air – and breath – facilitate speech and more broadly communication via speech, song, cries, groans, sighs, babbling, shouting, whispering, and other forms of utterance. Air connects us and generates commonalities via speech, shared spaces and joint endeavours, such as that of science. Air is a facilitator, a connecting medium giving shape and volume to space, and that within which life exists. It is foundational to life and experience.

But air can also be polluted, sooty, stifling or poisonous. Air can carry disease in the form of airborne viruses and bacteria, such as the ‘flu and SARS viruses and TB. It can carry irritants and pollutants, poisonous gases and chemicals, from sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides to pollen to micro-particles PM2.5 and ultrafine particles that lodge themselves in the lungs, penetrate the body and even reach the brain, causing a wide range of illnesses, including possibly even dementia.

Air composition is easily disturbed by excess of nitrogen oxides, fumes and smoke, or by altitude, which alarmingly quickly reduces the concentration of oxygen in the air. In this darker sphere air is – and ought to be – a source of anxiety, when we think of preserving and sustaining clean air and of the ways in which air can be abused for warfare, the disposal of industrial waste, monetary gain, and even murder. Thus this essay not only celebrates air, but examines the ways in which air fails us either through human actions, whether deliberate and criminal or accidental, or through disease.

Air, we now know, is not only the benign substance of singing, sea breezes and wellbeing. Air can also be a source of terror. This terror can take on several forms, depending on its cause. It can arise from change to the air itself, in the form of pollution or poisoning, whether deliberate or negligent. It can also arise from a change to the airways or lungs, such as that caused by respiratory disease or chest injury. I now turn to explore the two ways in which air can be a source of terror, of distress, and how air can become pathologised and abused.

In his book Terror from the Air philosopher Peter Sloterdijk presents the idea of ‘atmoterrorism’ as indicative of modern warfare. In this era, he argues, we attack not only the body of the enemy but the air they need in order to fight or even survive. Sloterdijk provides a chilling account of the first military use of chlorine in 1915, when an especially formed German ‘gas regiment’ attacked French and Canadian troops at Ypres by releasing 150 tons of chlorine gas into the air (Sloterdijk, p. 10-12). The discovery of this potent form of warfare paves the way for further uses of poisonous gas, as Sloterdijk states: ‘If an enemy’s body can no longer be liquidated with direct hits, then the attacker is forced to make his continued existence impossible by his direct immersion in an unlivable milieu for a sufficiently long period of time’ (ibid., p. 16). With the trenches making military progress impossibly slow, warfare has turned to an attack on air, on the atmosphere surrounding the enemy.

The most extreme intensification of this modern, technological, chilling logic are the gas chambers used by the Nazis to murder Jews, political dissidents, other racial minorities, as well as disabled and mentally ill people. This involved the systematic murder of around 1 million people, all civilians, in a concerted effort on the part of the Nazis to perfect mass-extermination. They did this, their so-called ‘final solution to the Jewish question’, through the use of the gas zyklon B. Zyklon (hydrogen cyanide) was originally developed by a group of German chemists, including Nobel-prize winning chemist, Fritz Haber, and Ferdinand Flury. It was used against humans in chemical warfare in World War I, and was later converted for use as an insecticide. The gas was later developed into a more stable product named zyklon B by Walter Heerdt and Bruno Tesch. Zyklon B was initially used to fumigate clothes and living quarters prior to its novel application as a mass murder tool by the Nazis (ibid., p.35ff.).

The first half of the twentieth century also saw the use of gas for the execution of individuals sentenced to death in the criminal justice system in several countries, and most commonly in the USA, as Sloterdijk notes (ibid.). In 1924 the state of Nevada, USA, introduced such a gas chamber, including a glass window to enable spectators to watch the execution. In short, Sloterdijk claims, the idea of killing through the air was developed, trialled and deemed tragically effective throughout the first half of the twentieth century, with violence so cruel and so calculated so as to leave us gasping at such total suffocation of morality. The idea of gassing people to death has remained one of the most chilling and horrific images of the twentieth century, in particular as it touches on a most terrifying atavistic human fear: the fear of suffocation.

‘By using violence against the very air that groups breathe, the human being’s immediate atmospheric envelope is transformed into something whose intactness or non-intactness is henceforth a question’, writes Sloterdijk (ibid., p. 25). In other words, what is most notable about air now, at the start of the twenty-first century, is that it is not unlimited and boundless. It is, on the contrary, the fact that air is precarious, threatened and threatening. That air can lead to suffocation, be used to kill, become polluted, and fail to sustain us. Air is no longer taken for granted, no longer taken as the shared substrate of all life. This is true of air pollution, now claiming thousands of lives each year in the UK alone. This is true of atmoterrorism, which led to the murder of millions in the Second World War. It is also true of respiratory disease, to which I will turn in part II of this post.

We normally think of air as freely available. But in fact, for around 12 million people in the UK, air is all but taken for granted (The Battle for Breath, British Lung Foundation Report). Those are the 12 million diagnosed sufferers of respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, cystic fibrosis, lung cancer and dozens of other diseases, including many rare ones. There are many other people with undiagnosed respiratory illnesses, who may feel guilt (e.g. because they are smokers) or shame about being unfit and breathless and therefore delay seeing their doctor about their symptoms. These undiagnosed ‘missing millions’, too, suffer from a pathological relationship to air and breath.

For those sufferers, the relationship with air is all but straightforward. With some conditions, the problem is not getting enough air in; with others, the problem is not getting the oxygen-depleted old air out fast enough. Some diseases cause low oxygen levels, others also cause raised levels of carbon dioxide. Many of these diseases are progressive and for many, treatment is palliation and symptom management only. In other words, for these millions of people, air is anything but taken for granted. It is a precious commodity, the access to which is limited, and whose relationship with it is therefore troubled.



Carel, H. 2016. Phenomenology of Illness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carel, H. 2013. Illness. London: Routledge.

Freud, S. 1957. On transience. In The Standard Edition of Freud’s Psychological Works, Vol. 14, pp.304-307. London: Hogarth Press.

Heidegger, M. 1996. Being and Time. Oxford: Blackwell.

Phillips, A. 1999. Darwin’s Worms. London: Faber and Faber.

Sloterdijk, P. 2009. Terror from the Air. Boston, MA: MIT Press.

Toombs, S. K. 1992. The Meaning of Illness. Amsterdam: Kluwer.

The Battle for Breath. 2016. British Lung Foundation report.


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