Time is a Difference of Pressure: Breath as Environmental Media in Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation”
This is a conference presentation I delivered as part of the panel Environmental Media at MLA 2021, held virtually. It draws substantially from my dissertation. When the recording is available, I’ll also link it here.
In Ted Chiang’s 2008 science fiction short story “Exhalation,” breath mediates the end of the world. The story tells of a mechanical species powered by air. Each day, members of this species consume two aluminum lungs of air, and each day they fill them back up from a reservoir hidden underground. Their universe has many towns and districts but is bounded at its edges by a “solid chromium wall” extending up to the sky.1 One day, a traditional new year’s ceremony, which always takes exactly one hour (timed to the species’ mechanical precision) runs a few minutes long. This is surprising. The news spreads, and they discover that the ceremony ran long all across their universe. The clocks themselves seem to work correctly; rather time itself has somehow slowed. The narrator, an anatomist, suspects that the truth resides in the species’ brains, and decides to perform an auto-dissection with an apparatus of his own design. Just as the nature of consciousness eludes us organic humans, so too does it for Chiang’s automata. Some believe their minds are inscribed on countless gold foil leaves in their brains; others suspect that the flow of air operates other more subtle media. During his auto-dissection, the narrator discovers the truth: consciousness isn’t inscribed in the brain, but rather constituted by the flow of air through the brain as it forms and reforms electrical connections with infinite plasticity. From this revelation, the narrator deduces that time itself isn’t slowing, but rather that the force of air through the brain is slowing, impairing cognition. The second law of thermodynamics: entropy increases in a closed system, as their universe must in fact be. Every action, thought, and motion increases their universe’s entropy, “hasten[ing] the arrival of that fatal equilibrium,” that is, the possibility of death.2
Like many of Chiang’s stories, “Exhalation” explores the extended cultural consequences of a scientific concept, in this case entropy. Through the physical principles of thermodynamics, breath enacts a tragic irony in the world-system. The work of sustaining a particular kind of life makes further life impossible. I read “Exhalation” as a rich archive of media theoretical possibility, as Chiang knits together problems of technology, mediation, consciousness, embodiment, temporality, and the environment. Breath is the lynchpin that holds these concepts together; and in particular, I argue, breath’s relationship to time. In this paper, I read “Exhalation” both through and as media theory to suggest that time’s measurement and perception, long foundational problems for media studies, have become urgently environmental. We can apprehend these environmental temporalities through the breath, which operates not linearly but rather recursively, traversing scale in its repetition.
“Exhalation” stages two different kinds of time: that of interior perception and that of exterior accounting. On the one hand, time is the embodied sense that one moment follows the next. On the other hand, time is the accounting of theoretically impartial technologies, themselves calibrated against physical phenomena. That “Exhalation”’s world is wholly mechanical permits Chiang to analogize fluidly across these two senses of time. Its drama then derives from the narrator’s discovery that these senses, which putatively share a material substrate, have become uncalibrated. The true substrate, the narrator discovers, is not matter in and of itself, but rather the difference across matter. “This is why,” the narrator writes,
…I said that air is not the source of life. Air can neither be created nor destroyed; the total amount of air in the universe remains constant, and if air were all that we needed to live, we would never die. But in truth the source of life is a difference of air pressure, the flow of air from spaces where it is thick to those where it is thin…. We are not really consuming air at all.3
As matter, air cannot be exhausted. Rather, the species’ actions exhaust difference, increase randomness, and thereby eliminate mechanical action and its concurrent temporality.
At first glance, Chiang’s approach to time comports with some foundational models in media studies, for which time is a side-effect of its technologization. For early twentieth-century critic Harold Innis for instance, a particular civilization’s available recording media determine available relationships to time.4 A paper-based civilization many favor synchronicity across great distance, facilitated by the speed of paper’s circulation, whereas a stone-based civilization would be more diachronic, favoring static media that span large swathes of time. Innis’s ideas inform later approaches to digital media. For media theorist Wolfgang Ernst, digital media are “time-critical,” in that they depend on precise timing in order to function at all.5 Digital time is measured by quartz crystals marking out ticks of UNIX time, which reckons the beginning of history from Thursday, January 1st, 1970, when atmospheric carbon measured only 325ppm. Ernst distinguishes between “hard” and “soft” time, or the time imposed on machines by physics and the time invented by machines in their operations.6 While the hard time of physics continues outside the media object, our apprehension of that time is ineluctably bound to the sustainability of soft, machine-generated time.
However, “Exhalation” complicates these approaches with its environmental consciousness. The story begins with reductions in air pressure slowing down the mechanical species' cognition and thus their lived experience of time. Their clocks, which operate by non-aerial means, march forward. Yet the ultimate consequence of maximum entropy, the narrator writes, is “the end of pressure, the end of motive power, the end of thought.”7 Entropy will come for the clocks as well. Clearly a neat division between hard and soft time, between human and mechanical time cannot hold. Here I turn to breath. Breath articulates the interdependence of (temporal) mediation with environmental phenomena, collapsing distinctions between mediation “outside” the device and mediation “inside” the device. Breath is critical as a theoretical model for media’s circulation and rhythmic repetition. Ernst’s and Innis’s media archaeological—we might also say “masculinist”—models explicitly restrict their purview to those kinds of time that emerge from technical media. In focusing on the breath, I want to follow a critical trail that understands temporal mediation, indeed mediation more generally, as a function of constant negotiation. Crucially, human technical involvement in the climate system has made speaking of a “hard” time outside the bounds of mediation impossible. Time, as “Exhalation” teaches us, is a difference of pressure: meaning only as relation.
I’m far from alone in pushing against these models of media temporality. I think, for instance, with Sarah Sharma’s argument that such models are obsessed with speed: the assumption that media accelerate temporality and collapse space, drawing cultures closer together and obliterating the time spent waiting for messages to transmit. For Sharma, speed is too simple; by contrast, she argues that media’s primary temporal subject is synchronicity, which takes constant cultural and material work to negotiate and maintain.8 One’s relationship to time, much like one’s relationship to the environment, is bound to one’s political position. It’s also bound to the body. John Durham Peters argues that the human body itself is a temporal medium, one that calibrates a dizzying multiplicity of time-scales. Circadian rhythms build the geophysical “pulse” of day/night into living things.9 Seen through this frame, the unconscious rhythm of the breath is only one part of a complex media system of temporality that constantly calibrates and re-calibrates. I want to take rhythm forward in my analysis here. Shintaro Miyazaki argues that rhythm has always been a central, if under-recognized aspect of algorithmic culture. Rhythm supersedes the notion of the “clock” or the “pulse,” which fail to account for the constant negotiation between states of matter characteristic to digital media.10 Rhythm then names the active work of synchronizing mediation. It follows then that we might characterize the drama of “Exhalation,” and perhaps our current climate crisis, as a disarticulation of rhythm.
As word of the narrator’s discovery spreads, so too does panic about the new possibility of death. For a few pages, “Exhalation” becomes an overt allegory for human responses to climate change. “Many called for the strict curtailment of activities in order to minimize the thickening of our atmosphere,” the narrator writes, “accusations of wasted air escalated into furious brawls.”11 A quasi-religious sect called the Reversalists gains popularity. In a parody of geo-engineering, they construct an engine that compresses air, thereby increasing overall air pressure. “Alas,” the narrator observes, “the engine itself was powered by air from the reservoir…. It did not reverse the equalization but, like everything else in the world, exacerbated it.”12 Faced with the impossibility of preventing atmospheric degradation, mechanics attempt to refashion the brain itself, paralleling trans-human adaptations to inhospitable climates. All come to naught. The narrator closes the story speculating on a possible future when some intrepid explorer breaches the chromium wall and turns the closed system into an open one. The automata may live again, through the introduction of new pressure, new breath, although their minds and culture would not survive.
But breath is if nothing else a technology of survival. Here I am thinking of Jean-Thomas Tremblay’s work on breath as feminist technics, or Ashton Crawley’s archive of the breath in Black cultural-spiritual practice. The mediated logics of its imperilment, its vulnerability, and its strength are, as Tremblay argues, “as much a phenomenological statement as a historical and cultural one.”13 To these respiratory archives I would add breath as environmental mediation. This mediation occurs on a variety of levels, from the breath’s blurring of the boundaries between media and body to the breath as a model for thinking with environmental time. Crucially, this is not a time with a beginning or an end, but rather interlocking cycles of birth and decay, mediation piling on itself. What new rhythms may emerge?
The temporality of “Exhalation”’s conclusion provides a provisional answer. Its last paragraphs offer a “valediction,” as the narrator directly addresses the reader. “Does the same fate that befell me await you?” they ask.14 While much of the story is in the past tense, its end inhabits an imagined future, addressing the reader in the imperative mood: “Visualize all these the next time you look at the frozen world around you, and it will become, in your minds, animated and vital again.”15 This is the temporality of speculation, which Chiang offers as a mode of thinking with ecological collapse that neither takes the collapse as a given nor naively believes that it can be forestalled. There is an end, and there is that which comes after the end. The after-the-end is a space of mournful possibility:
Our universe might have slid into equilibrium emitting nothing more than a quiet hiss. The fact that it spawned such plenitude is a miracle, one that is matched only by your universe giving rise to you.16
To breathe is to mediate time, for oneself but also for others. It’s to mediate the possibility of the next breath to come, to coordinate and connect across a host of natural and cultural systems. In climate crisis, we know now conclusively that our industrial media are breath-ending. The challenge “Exhalation” leaves us with is to refashion them as breath-sustaining.
Chiang, Ted. 2019. “Exhalation.” In Exhalation: Stories, pp. 37–57. Alfred A. Knopf, p. 39. ↩︎
Chiang, p. 50. ↩︎
Chiang, p. 50, ital. in original. ↩︎
Innis, Harold. 1951/2008. The Bias of Communication. 2nd rev. ed. Toronto: U of Toronto P, pp. 33, 62. ↩︎
Ernst, Wolfgang. 2013. Digital Memory and the Archive. Edited by Jussi Parikka. U of Minnesota P, p. 100. ↩︎
Ernst, Wolfgang. 2016. Chronopoetics: The Temporal Being and Operativity of Technological Media. Rowan & Littlefield International, p. 63. ↩︎
Chiang, p. 53. ↩︎
Sharma, Sarah. 2014. In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics. Durham: Duke UP, pp. 7–9. ↩︎
Peters, John Durham. 2015. The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. U of Chicago P, p. 178. ↩︎
Miyazaki, Shintaro. 2012. “Algorhythmics: Understanding Micro-Temporality in Computational Cultures.” Computational Culture. http://computationalculture.net/algorhythmics-understanding-micro-temporality-in-computational-cultures/. ↩︎
Chiang, p. 51 ↩︎
Chiang, p. 52 ↩︎
Tremblay, Jean-Thomas. 2019. “Feminist Breathing.” Differences 30 (3): 92–117, p. 97. ↩︎
Chiang, p. 56 ↩︎
Chiang, p. 56 ↩︎
Chiang, p. 57 ↩︎