We do not pay rent for the air we breathe, but we do share it with a farrago of the built: windmills, airplanes, drones, satellites, kites, chimes, skyscrapers, clotheslines, balloons, radioactive clouds, automobile exhaust. What is overhead is not exactly free; it is merely unevenly owned. Nations claim airspace, militaries plot no-fly zones, and clouds reside without permits. Ideas are the correlate of air. Clouds are air’s objectifications, and, as perspiration and respiration, air is where effort goes once our effort is spent. This crowded air is the stage of everything dematerialized’s abiding dematerialization. Everything solid melts into it.
We suspect the difficult-to-grasp—gods, ghosts, abstractions—of residing in air, and philosophers, at least if we are to believe a tradition from Aristophanes on, have heads in the clouds and feet which stumble over the vulgar obstacle of earth. The air is the precinct of not only the difficult but also the adorable: songbirds, butterflies, bumblebees, stars, moons, heavens, rainbows, sunsets. Sound is made in air, and scent too. Angels are nearly exclusive to air: like the wind, messengers of unseen cause and undeniable effect. An angel is a machine of wings, sometimes six of them, and, according to the book of Revelation, “full of eyes within.”
Borders are helpless against angels, radiation, and migrant geese, ridiculed by winds and thwarted by what the winds can blow over them. Air is an engine of accelerated resistance of the nonhuman world to the violence of capital and its multi-specied count of corpses. It is in the air that the storms come and by it that the fires spread. It is via the atmosphere that the earth’s temperature rises. Infections move through air, too, traveling nearly immaterially from one to another in our coughs and our breaths. Time, too, is an aerial animal, flying but never landing, even when hunted by finance and ground into management. Light rises up through air, the darkness falls into it. And air is all we have to breathe, so before we had clocks or dollars, life was the measure between first and last breath.
The air, insofar as it is both completely necessary and generally invisible, offers all who breathe it an at-hand primer of belief. We gasp and die in the absence of what we cannot see, and in this way the invisible’s power is proved. That is, we know that air is real and necessary because of the miserable and deadly consequences of its absence, and by this we learn how to take a position of certainty about what evades the senses. The gods live both in the air and because of it, and our capacity for the sacred is allowed by air’s pedagogy in the transcendent. A wing means little without the sky, and without flight feathers are less impressive, but, as Plato explains in the Phaedrus, the air is some anatomy’s possibility: “The natural function of the wing is to soar upwards and carry that which is heavy up to the place where dwells the race of the gods. More than any other thing that pertains to the body it partakes of the nature of the divine.”
It is at a crosswords (insula/crossroads—Don Quixote) of breath and text that poetry often resides, as far as lyric poetry exists in a special, specific relationship to the air and what attends it: breath, flight, transcendence, sound. When Shelley imagines himself, in “Ode to the West Wind,” it is as air’s aspirant comrade. Emily Dickinson called herself an “inebriate of air.” Vladimir Mayakofsky proposed to “grow irreproachably tender / not a man, but a cloud in trousers!”
We know the certainty of air not just when we are gasping for it, but also when it becomes the substrate of something foul, dirty, or toxic. We can smell death in it, the approaching storms and rotting flesh, the tear gas that burns our eyes, the burning forests that choke us, pollution abrading our throats and sinuses. Despite the advice to breathe, no one can reconcile the agency of “breathing” with the collective helplessness of what it is we now ingest when we take a breath.
I come from a place where the hand of the wind gives shape to everything. All plants are in permanent sway and bow to it, trees bent over, all objects necessarily weighed or battened down, stillness nearly unheard of except in those green-skied moments before the tornados come. The blood/lead level of the adults who live in my hometown—a place with forty thousand people, directly in the center of the United States—has been twice that of all surrounding areas in the past two decades. The town’s battery factory releases lead through the winds and lands on and in everything: in the dogs that walk down the streets at dusk, in the catfish growing old in the beds of creeks, in the mosquitos and in the infants and schoolchildren and elderly, and in the workers at the factory, too. To work at the Exide factory is a “good job”—not like not having one or like working at Walmart, which is still a better job than some. No blood level of lead is safe. An anonymous couplet, attributed to a Roman hermit, describes the effects: “The feeble offspring curse their crazy sires, / And, tainted from birth, the youth expires.”
The batteries made at the plant are used to power golf carts. In ancient Rome, those poisoned by lead were called saturnine. Lead eaters were said to become grim and cynical. Lead attacks all physical systems, remains in the bones and teeth, passes through the placenta, devastates the capacity to learn, distorts behavior, and in large quantities kills and maims, drives people insane.
Lead, like air, also provides its instruction. It is shorthand for what is heavy: when the world is unbearable, we have leaden feet, hearts, and skies. “Happinesses have wings and wheels,” wrote William Blake in a letter, and “miseries are leaden legged.” We know what is too much to bear by its leaden nature—Emily Dickinson wrote of the immediate period after death as “the Hour of Lead / Remembered, if outlived, / As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—/ First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go.” And so it is that a cloud of lead, the heavy industrial air, transforms “home” into the grievable and maddened, that which inspires the capacity to know the divine, now the inhalations of a capitalist profane. Saturn devours us, now his own.
There is no opposite of the air: only the defilers of it. Only villains attempt to invert the lightest, purest thing—air—so that it becomes the most poisonous and the heaviest. The air is a commons. The commons never has had an opposite. There is what we all need, like air, what we all make, like poetry, and what we are all born into and live among, like our homes; and there is profit’s anti-socialism—the private and public incursions, extractions, and expulsions into what is commonly produced and held. The nature of what we really need is demonstrated to us by the incursions of what we don’t. The neon-lit assemblages of all that vie toward the “opposite” of the commons—that which constitutes capitalism—requires, as its telos, ruin, in which the god of instrumentality is sated via the sacrifice of the all.
Day doesn’t fall: night does. Light is slick and fluid, but darkness is heavy and can grow heavier, deepening the experience of air. Everything we know about the night inspires catalogue but defies dissection, for the night, despite how it gets thick, doesn’t have a body.
Night has no anatomy, only inventory. Night contains: it is the version of air that holds.
Marx wrote a book obsessed with night (Capital, volume 1), or at least partly so. Marx despised the infringement of the working day on to what once was night. He wrote that the capitalists would do anything to keep labor working every available hour, that even “the prolongation of the working day beyond the limits of the natural day, into the night, only acts as a palliative. It quenches only in a slight degree the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor.” If these particular vampires could invent extra hours in the day, they would—and they still try to, always seeking condensations of productivity and amplifying nocturnal intrusions, such as the way people now sometimes get tricked into answering their work emails at 1 a.m. When they try to tell us that night is day, that is when, writes Marx, “Capital celebrates its orgies.”
Electric light does, too, but it never creates convincing forms of daylight: pineal glands are the body’s truth detectors, disrupted but refusing to believe that the overhead fluorescent of a predawn Walmart is the sun. Night workers are sicker and more depressed; they die earlier and with more stress, the sleepless night being what Theodor Adorno calls a “bad eternity.” The night of the sleepless often happens in the hidden-away places, the grossly lit prisons, the hulls of airplanes full of strangers who toss and turn in restless and intimate proximity, the nursing homes. Night lasts longer for the institutionalized. Hospitals are hostile to sleep: cold air infused with beeps, bright hallways, glowing screens, a would-be emergency hovering over any would-be sleeper, births and deaths and the suffering that is endured between. Nurses and paraprofessionals circulate in the false noon of hospital passages at midnight, speak softly when they enter rooms, rouse sick sleepers despite this. The night enters the hospital through the portal of emergency rooms, where parents hold their children and other people hold their injured limbs and hold up their heavy heads, too, waiting for their turn.
Some who can afford beds lie sleepless in them despite the luxury, given the opportunity to sleep and yet unable to drift off. Screens, noise, stimulants, light pollution, thoughts of work, depression, anxiety, trauma, the necessity of caring for others, lack of adequate nutrition, inadequate housing intrude. Some take medicine. They become hyperactive somnambulists, eating, shopping, tweeting, nominally asleep but in motion: awake insofar as they can communicate and consume, in sleep only insofar as they are in amnesia, lost to themselves, deprived, too, of almost all dreams.
Night once was the matrix of dreams, and dreams are an at-hand instruction of the possibility of the impossible, and so it is utopia itself withheld from us in a world that withholds our sleep. Only the dream, Hélène Cixous writes, teaches us to write in an authorless way, “teaches us this sensation of ‘nobody knows.’”
As air was once the educational model for the transcendent, night and day were once a pedagogy in comparison and contrast. It’s as plain as night and day. Night, too, is our primal half-source of all analogy, so foundational to how we compare and organize our perceptions of the world that night is to the day as day and night are to each other. The rotation of the earth itself gives us a first and incontestable example of how to distinguish one thing from another, and so the affront of the working day upon the night was egregious not only against “nature,” God, and workers; it was also an affront to common sense. Because these are the two truly distinct things on earth—our enduring model for telling this from that—no one should ever be able to convince us that night is day, and yet they do.
Like air, time is visible in its effect but works with invisible tools. Its unseen hand marks us, and it is perceptible mostly for what encroaches on it. We do not so much waste time as we are wasted by it—its transit is the fabric of oblivion, and in its alchemy and ever-shifting social configuration is our instruction in life’s worth.
A prayer for time
No more duration as unit of infliction—no work hours, prison sentences, deadly prognoses.
No more believing in centuries, generations, war as what begins and ends, the rude periodizations of historians on the payroll.
Gestation is also not a clock.
Erotic love must finally be given its due as the greatest temporal burglar ever known.
And just to be clear, it is not “Father” Time, it is Time the androgyne who is more like Nature’s distant cousin—an exile, prosperous and alluring.
No one on earth should have to wish away his or her time on it.
All the epic struggle comes down to is people who believe in their own right to property versus people who must come to believe in our own right to time.
May the minutes of our own lives now be revered, unsold and eternally unsellable.
We share the air, share the night, share time, too—and share, so often, the degradations of all three. But what is the common composition of our—our shared plural possessive, a word that slides around and among us, the our an adrift pronoun moving through (our) birth and (our) death, fixing on any object or event—is sometimes one that refers to the amalgam of life, or of sentient life, or the human species, and it is sometimes the our of collections of us, the “our world” of any one of many cultures, identities, tribes, classes, scenes, individuals, ways of life. Our world is made up of our air, our dreams, our time, of these many worlds, any of them subject to the world-subtracting power of capital, including an end of the world as the end of the empire of capital that pretends/convinces us that our world is the only permitted kind of world, its world, capital’s.
Your world, capital seems to say to us with its world-undoing machinations, is ours, whether you know it or not, accept it or not; your night is our day, your air is our sewer, your lightness our lead, your transcendence our profanity, your dreams our evictions, your time that with which we sentence you. Even capitalism’s critics can mistake, when they have lost the plot of class struggle, the our of empire for the our of us, wallowing in inescapable universal complicity, universal gullibility, universal doom in the universal presentation of the world, and all the worlds it contains, as the content of capitalism’s.
Capitalism’s world isn’t the world: its deeds aren’t the totality of humanity’s deeds, its nature isn’t the totality of human nature, its motives aren’t universal motives, and what the global upper classes did and continue to do to the world is not what the human species in its entirety, even in the form of “civilization,” has done to it. The expansions and extractions of capitalism do, however, threaten the existence of planetary life. The living earth is being annihilated, we are told in the era’s passive voice, with the specific name of the annihilator omitted from the grammar. Sleep becomes more restless than waking. Sentences are deprived of subjects, and universal damnation mixes with self-condemnation. Overcome with dire predictions, lukewarm ethics, and grim entertainments, we watch the world’s end in our movies, use headlines as our prediction engine, capitalism’s death-wish fulfillment internalized as the nihilistic inner script that permits all to carry on in miserable false inevitability.
The end of the world is not the end and never has been, for any end of the world is the end, merely, of a world. Empires collapse, populations are displaced, ways of life dissolved. What is new is that capitalism produces an ever intensified worldlessness. Primitive accumulation has always been an act of apocalypse. Colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade, proletarianization, and the ongoing oppression of women and queer people are all the ends of worlds, and all foundational to capital. In capitalism’s power to render wordlessness as its norm for all but the wealthiest as the wealthiest build their world of death, any sense of a stable, shared, regular world is constantly upended, thrown into a vortex of need. The only world we can count on to share is one of doom-y contingency doled out according to race, gender, and geographical position: the non-world of the virtual for some; the peripatetic one of fleeing, searching, and displacement for others; the netherworlds of prisons, refugee camps, mines, garment factories, cancer wards, and detainment centers for others.
It is likely that if capitalism continues on unchallenged, many more species will die before our own does, but one of the ways in which we know that capitalism is composed not of one human class but of distinct classes is that when humans die, too, of the ecocide committed by capital, they die for the most part according to class, with ecological catastrophe’s victims almost always drawn from the members of the global poor and working class. The extraction of the earth’s resources is also the extraction of our resources, as what capitalism takes from us is our life, sometimes in the form of the hours we must sell to live, sometimes in the form of the air we breathe—and with it, a safe home on earth—sometimes in the form of the dreams we need, sometimes in the form of any happiness we must have to want to live, sometimes in the form of life itself. The human majority is, it turns out, made one with so-called external nature by the very process which seeks to extract all possible profit from human and nonhuman nature alike.
Capitalism is growth against life, by which I mean it is a war against us and all we require to live and all we require to find life worth living, fought via continual expansion. A world without capitalism could be one in which there are many worlds, the ones with the seeds in the now, all existing in simultaneity, one in which we will liberate time itself, the darkness and the light, sleep and each other, life and death in equal measure, and one in which, having found other human things to do than endlessly extracting parts of the earth and each other, we can discover a relation to the other species on the planet that does not mean our existence is an end to theirs. These will not, of course, be worlds free of suffering, but they will be free of the magnitude of extra, needless suffering that comes from a world in which profit is the relation that attempts to govern the all. The world to come, in fact, is the one which develops out of the lessons and grounds of this one: and if existing relation is one of instrumentalizing all, a different relation could be one of reverence, not just for one another, but for all that exists, in which each thing or being as itself and in relation to all else is revered in its own state.
“The commons” is a noise we make on our way to scaling up political desire to its existentially necessary proportion. As we know that air exists by how impossible it is to live without it, and through that knowledge are led to all that might count as the divine, and as we know how one thing is different from the other by the beneficence of the contrast of day and night, and as we know the possibility of what does not yet exist through the appearance of our dreams without authors, and as we know our hours are all we have, so it is that the hours must become the grounds for all we want and need. If we are sometimes allowed “the specter of the commons” in moments like this one, where our being together transcends, it is a specter, too, of an emancipatory possibility whose name can feel too big to say.
This essay appears in the Winter 2020 print issue of The Yale Review. Purchase a downloadable version of the issue at the low rate of just $5, and get writing by and conversations with Anne Boyer, Julia Cho, Samuel R. Delany, Aleshea Harris, Bhanu Kapil, Yiyun Li, Jonah Mixon-Webster, Namwali Serpell, and Maria Tumarkin.
Anne Boyer is a poet and essayist who lives in Kansas City. Her honors include the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, the Cy Twombly Award for Poetry, and a Whiting Award in nonfiction and poetry.
Image: Per Olesen, Dark Clouds, photograph, 2010. CC BY-SA 2.0.