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The Universal Right to Breathe

The Universal Right to Breathe
Achille Mbembe
Translated by Carolyn Shread
13 April 2020
Already some people are talking about post-COVID-19.
And why should
they not? Even if, for most of us, especially those in parts of the world where
health care systems have been devastated by years of organized neglect, the
worst is yet to come. With no hospital beds, no respirators, no mass testing,
no masks nor disinfectants nor arrangements for placing those who are in-
fected in quarantine, unfortunately, many will not pass through the eye of
the needle.
It is one thing to worry about the death of others in a distant land and
quite another to suddenly become aware of ones own putrescence, to be
forced to live intimately with ones own death, contemplating it as a real
possibility. Such is, for many, the terror triggered by connement: having
Is translation still permissible in COVID-19? We know that its reach is across borders, that it
comingles in a way that is rapidly disappearing into a seemingly distant past, that it transfers and
transforms. Now, under the regime of social distancing, where I show my care for you by step-
ping away, what is it to translate? For theres no reading more intimate than a translationa
bodily intimacy that adopts the rhythm of the lungs, the pulse of the heart, the coursing of the
blood through the text to the point that we ask, whose breath is it anyway?
I know that this text kept me alivemerci, Achille Mbembe. That it came out of the blue,
bringing a breath of fresh airthank you, Hank Scotch. And that Ill pass it on to you, readers
of Critical Inquiry, hoping that it frees up the atmosphere. Because we need to breathe together.
And there is no solitary breath.Trans.
1. A version of this post appears in French; see Achille Mbembe, Le droit universel à la res-
piration,AOC,4June 2020,
Critical Inquiry 47 (Winter 2021)
©2021 by The University of Chicago. 00093-1896/21/47S2-0026$10.00. All rights reserved.
to nally answer for ones own life, to ones own name. We must answer
here and now for our life on Earth with others (including viruses) and our
shared fate. Such is the injunction this pathogenic period addresses to hu-
mankind. It is pathogenic but also the catabolic period par excellence, with
the decomposition of bodies, the sorting and expulsion of all sorts of hu-
man wastethe great separationand great connement caused by the
stunning spread of the virusand along with it, the widespread digitiza-
tion of the world.
Try as we might to rid ourselves of it, in the end everything brings us back
to the body. We tried to graft it onto other media, to turn it into an object
body, a machine body, a digital body, an ontophanic body. It returns to us
now as a horrifying, giant mandible, a vehicle for contamination, a vector
for pollen, spores, and mold. Knowing that we do not face this ordeal alone,
that many will not escape it, is vain comfort. For we have never learned to
live with all living species, have never really worried about the damage we as
humans wreak on the lungs of the Earth and on its body. Thus, we have
never learned how to die. With the advent of the New World and, several
centuries later, the appearance of the industrialized races,we essentially
chose to delegate our death to others, to make a great sacricial repast of
existence itself via a kind of ontological vicariate.
Soon, it will no longer be possible to delegate ones death to others. It
will no longer be possible for that person to die in our place. Not only will
we be condemned to assume our own demise, unmediated, but farewells
will be few and far between. The hour of autophagy is upon us and, with
it, the death of community, as there is no community worthy of its name
in which saying ones last farewell, that is, remembering the living at the
moment of death, becomes impossible. Communityor rather the in-
commonis not based solely on the possibility of saying goodbye, that is,
of having a unique encounter with others and honoring this meeting time
and again. The in-common is based also on the possibility of sharing un-
conditionally, each time drawing from it something absolutely intrinsic,
a thing uncountable, incalculable, priceless.
There is no doubt that the skies are closing in. Caught in the strangle-
hold of injustice and inequality, much of humanity is threatened by a great
Achille Mbembe is the author of Brutalisme (Paris, 2020). He is the co-
founder with Felwine Sarr of Ateliers de la pensée in Dakar. Carolyn Shread
is senior lecturer in French at Mount Holyoke College and teaches as a faculty
exchange at Smith College.
Critical Inquiry / Winter 2021 S59
chokehold as the sense that our world is in a state of reprieve spreads far
and wide. If, in these circumstances, a day after comes, it cannot come at the
expense of some, always the same ones, as in the Ancienne Économiethe
economy that preceded this revolution. It must necessarily be a day for all
the inhabitants of Earth, without distinction as to species, race, sex, citizen-
ship, religion, or other differentiating marker. In other words, a day after
will come but only with a giant rupture, the result of radical imagination.
Papering over the cracks simply wont do. Deep in the heart of this crater,
literally everything must be reinvented, starting with the social. Once work-
ing, shopping, keeping up with the news and keeping in touch, nurturing
and preserving connections, talking to one another and sharing, drinking
together, worshipping and organizing funerals begins to take place solely
across the interface of screens, it is time to acknowledge that on all sides
we are surrounded by rings of re. To a great extent, the digital is the new
gaping hole exploding Earth. Simultaneously a trench, a tunnel, a moon-
scape, it is the bunker where men and women are all invited to hide away,
in isolation.
They say that through the digital, the body of esh and bones, the physical
and mortal body, will be freed of its weight and inertia. At the end of this
transguration, it will eventually be able to move through the looking glass,
cut away from biological corruption and restituted to a synthetic universe of
ux. But this is an illusion, for just as there is no humanity without bodies,
likewise, humanity will never know freedom alone, outside of society and
community, and never can freedom come at the expense of the biosphere.
We must start afresh. To survive, we must return to all living thingsin-
cluding the biospherethe space and energy they need. In its dank under-
belly, modernity has been an interminable war on life. And it is far from
over. One of the primary modes of this war, leading straight to the impov-
erishment of the world and to the desiccation of entire swathes of the planet,
is the subjection to the digital.
In the aftermath of this calamity there is a danger that rather than offering
sanctuary to all living species, sadly the world will enter a new period of
tension and brutality.
In terms of geopolitics, the logic of power and might
2. Building on the terms origins as a mid-twentieth century architectural movement, I have
dened brutalism as a contemporary process whereby power is henceforth constituted, ex-
pressed, recongured, acts and reproduces itself as a geomorphic force.How so? Through
processes that include fracturing and ssuring,”“emptying vessels,”“drilling,and expelling
organic matter,in a word, by what I term depletion(Mbembe, Brutalisme [Paris, 2020],
pp. 9,10,11).
S60 Achille Mbembe / The Universal Right to Breathe
will continue to dominate. For lack of a common infrastructure, a vicious
partitioning of the globe will intensify, and the dividing lines will become
even more entrenched. Many states will seek to fortify their borders in the
hope of protecting themselves from the outside. They will also seek to con-
ceal the constitutive violence that they continue to habitually direct at the
most vulnerable. Life behind screens and in gated communities will become
the norm.
In Africa especially, but in many places in the Global South, energy-
intensive extraction, agricultural expansion, predatory sales of land, and de-
struction of forests will continue unabated. The powering and cooling of
computer chips and supercomputers depends on it. The purveying and
supplying of the resources and energy necessary for the global computing
infrastructure will require further restrictions on human mobility. Keeping
the world at a distance will become the norm so as to keep risks of all kinds
on the outside. But because it does not address our ecological precarious-
ness, this catabolic vision of the world, inspired by theories of immuniza-
tion and contagion, does little to break out of the planetary impasse in
which we nd ourselves.
All these wars on life begin by taking away breath. Likewise, as it im-
pedes breathing and blocks the resuscitation of human bodies and tissues,
COVID-19 shares this same tendency. After all, what is the purpose of breath-
ing if not the absorption of oxygen and release of carbon dioxide in a dy-
namic exchange between blood and tissues? But at the rate that life on Earth
is going, and given what remains of the wealth of the planet, how far away
are we really from the time when there will be more carbon dioxide than oxy-
gen to breathe?
Before this virus, humanity was already threatened with suffocation. If
war there must be, it cannot so much be against a specic virus as against
everything that condemns the majority of humankind to a premature ces-
sation of breathing, everything that fundamentally attacks the respiratory
tract, everything that, in the long reign of capitalism, has constrained en-
tire segments of the world population, entire races, to a difcult, panting
breath and life of oppression. To come through this constriction would
mean that we conceive of breathing beyond its purely biological aspect,
and instead as that which we hold in common, that which, by denition,
eludes all calculation. By which I mean the universal right to breathe.
As that which is both ungrounded and our common ground, the univer-
sal right to breath is unquantiable and cannot be appropriated. From a uni-
versal perspective, not only is it the right of every member of humankind,
Critical Inquiry / Winter 2021 S61
but of all life. It must therefore be understood as a fundamental right to
existence. Consequently, it cannot be conscated and thereby eludes all sov-
ereignty, symbolizing the sovereign principle par excellence. Moreover, it
is an originary right to living on Earth, a right that belongs to the universal
community of earthly inhabitants, human and other.
The case has been pressed already a thousand times. We recite the charges
eyes shut. Whether it is the destruction of the biosphere, the takeover of
minds by technoscience, the criminalizing of resistance, repeated attacks on
reason, generalized cretinization, or the rise of determinisms (genetic, neu-
ronal, biological, environmental), the dangers faced by humanity are in-
creasingly existential.
Of all these dangers, the greatest is that all forms of life will be rendered
impossible. Between those who dream of uploading our conscience to ma-
chines and those who are sure that the next mutation of our species lies in
freeing ourselves from our biological husk, theres little difference. The eu-
genicist temptation has not dissipated. Far from it, in fact, since it is at the
root of recent advances in science and technology.
At this juncture, this sudden arrest arrives, an interruption not of his-
tory but of something that still eludes our grasp. Since it was imposed upon
us, this cessation derives not from our will. In many respects, it is simulta-
neously unforeseen and unpredictable. Yet what we need is a voluntary cessa-
tion, a conscious and fully consensual interruption. Without which there will
be no tomorrow. Without which nothing will exist but an endless series of
unforeseen events.
If, indeed, COVID-19 is the spectacular expression of the planetary im-
passe in which humanity nds itself today, then it is a matter of no less than
reconstructing a habitable earth to give all of us the breath of life. We must
reclaim the lungs of our world with a view to forging new ground. Human-
kind and biosphere are one. Alone, humanity has no future. Are we capable
of rediscovering that each of us belongs to the same species, that we have an
indivisible bond with all life? Perhaps that is the questionthe very last
before we draw our last dying breath.
3. See Sarah Vanuxem, La propriété de la Terre (Paris, 2018), and Marin Schaffner, Un sol
commun. Lutter, habiter, penser (Paris, 2019).
S62 Achille Mbembe / The Universal Right to Breathe
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