- Collective Tissue
The trick about breath is that what goes in does not come out. Alveoli, dendritic sacs in the lungs, collect oxygen and exchange it for carbon dioxide, the fuel and waste of cells respiring at microscopic scale. Breath mediates in the word’s fundamental sense. In an unfolding ecological crisis and acute respiratory pandemic, twin technobiological catastrophes, we now face the question: What do media make us?
Breath offers provisional models. In an inhale, we become storage media, collective tissue recording trace inscriptions. Take the ultrafine dust sloughed off a 3D printer, whose heady aromas testify to a technocultural vanguard. In the nozzle’s heat, thermoplastic metastasizes into vapor and particulate matter. Under a tenth of a micrometer—five times smaller than smoke—these particles pass through the lungs and into the blood. With each breath near a 3D printer, its users accrete a plastic materiality. Two decades of media materialism have taught us what media are made of: rare earth metals exhumed in Inner Mongolia, aluminum refined from Australian bauxite, all fated to the e-waste trash dumps littering the global South. Breath maps this circuit’s expansion. The mediated logics of [End Page 211] its imperilment, as Jean-Thomas Tremblay forcefully argues, are “as much a phenomenological statement as a historical and cultural one.”1
While multicellular life has always been an assemblage of matter, media technologies activate new dimensions of impurity. When standing near a 3D printer, each breath lodges the fine dust of progress deeper in the body. On a fundamental level, digital mediation relies on the careful management of gaseous impurity. Through an industrial technique called “vapor-phase epitaxy,” microprocessor manufacturers introduce arsenic or gallium gas to silicon, rendering it a semiconductor. Various combinations of thus-treated silicon comprise diodes, foundational technologies to modern computing architecture, including that of the 3D printer. But who poisons, and who is poisoned? The “clean rooms” of Silicon Valley, where microprocessors are born, filter and recirculate air to mitigate dust’s impact on chips. Yet the humans who work in those rooms, disproportionately women and ethnic minorities, suffer higher rates of cancer, aneurysms, and birth defects due to their proximity to toxic gas.2 Of course, these are “new” media relations only for some. Marx wrote of the “mephitic” atmospheres of cotton mills, Carolyn Steedman of anthrax spores in parchment sparking meningococcal “archive fevers.”3 Without (un)willing flesh, there are no media.
There is a temporality to breath’s vulnerability. Over time the printer’s metal body will rust, its rubber wiring degrade, its silicon chips tarnish. Some of its plastics may biodegrade, while others, effectively immortal, may linger in sea and air, blood and cells. Even if the early twenty-first-century thrill of 3D printing wears off and we resign the technology, like so many before it, to the dust heap of gimmickry, our planet—and our selves—bear its signature. These are interlocking times of birth and decay, mediation piling on itself. Breath teaches us to hold on to simultaneity: a circle, a cycle, a somatic rhythm that requires attention and sustaining care. [End Page 212]
jeffrey moro is a PhD candidate in English with a certificate in digital studies at the University of Maryland, where he researches digital media and the environmental humanities. His writing has appeared or will soon appear in Amodern, Media Fields, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
1. Tremblay, “Feminist Breathing,” 97.
2. Stranahan, “The Clean Room’s Dirty Secret.”
3. Marx, Capital, 612; Steedman, Dust, 29.