- Touch Today: From Subject to Reject
Irigaray on Touching via Shared Breath
In Entre orient et occident, Luce Irigaray argues that humans, especially those of occidental heritage, still do not know how to breathe properly. To breathe properly (and Irigaray suggests we can learn this through yoga) would involve the conscious sharing of air around us. What this sharing does is open us to the fact that the air we breathe is always traced by the expiration of the other, and that, vice-versa, our expiration will always affect the other. It also makes us conscious of the fact that one breathes differently from the other, that there is always “a difference of relation to breath” (113, my translations) not just between man and woman, but also between each one of us. By acknowledging the fact that each of us breathes the shared air differently, we can also become conscious of sharing differences. In short, according to Irigaray, it is through this cultivation of shared breath, or through our openness to share the air around us, that we can begin to be in touch, literally and figuratively, with the respective difference of each being, and thereby begin to recognize and respect our individual differences.
For Irigaray, being in touch with differences has stakes for the acknowledgement of every being as an equal subject in this world: when we recognize and respect differences, we will recognize that the world is shared among at least two heterogeneous subjects, rather than being determined or dominated by a particular subject—especially the male, sovereign, occidental subject. In her analysis, the male subject has occupied a preeminent position in the world so far, while the female subject has been repressed and/ or oppressed. Worse, according Entre orient et occident, the projection and transformation of male breath into technical and economic inventions, has contributed to the ruin of both the natural world and mankind itself. Not only have those inventions polluted, if not destroyed, the natural world, including the air that we all share; they have resulted in crises for mankind itself, such as the 1997 Asian financial market crash, which forms the backdrop of Irigaray’s book. The unchecked dissemination of male breath has therefore led us to almost apocalyptic ends. According to Irigaray, the fundamental problem of humanity then [End Page 115] is the continued neglect or disregard for the female subject, whose breath has a life-affirming and regenerative reserve that can balance out or rectify the nihilistic trajectory of male breath.
The cultivation of shared breath can allow us to begin addressing this fundamental problem of humanity, for it brings us to recognize the existence (or co-existence, in Irigaray’s term), of the female subject, who is autonomous and not subjugated by any male, sovereign subject. In letting this female subject emerge, with the generative breath that she contributes, there will be a chance for sharing the world not only between humans, but also between humans and the natural world. Nearly 15 years after this book’s publication, the cultivation of shared breath in order to address humanity’s problems seems to have made little progress. Since 2009, the world has been touched by a worse economic crisis than that of 1997. Today there seems an urgency to reread Entre orient et occident, and to take seriously its lesson of recognizing and respecting differences through the cultivation of shared breath.
The present context, however, poses a problem for such a lesson. Something has changed dramatically since 1997, making the idea of cultivating shared breath almost unacceptable today. That change is the fact that we now live in the wake of at least two major waves of fatal airborne diseases of almost global dimensions. The first was the severe respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, which disseminated largely in Asia. The second was the H1N1 or swine flu pandemic in 2009, starting in Mexico, next infecting almost the entire United States, and then much of the rest of the world. Having lived through these two waves of airborne diseases, we are perhaps justified today in being cautious about sharing air or breath; we have learned to minimize contact with the...