Breathing in Science Fiction

From Darth Vader’s laboured respiration, to the divers gasping for air in James Cameron’s The Abyss, the sounds of breathing in science fiction are not only memorable, they also draw attention to the act of breathing itself. In this talk from our Late Summer Lectures 2016 series, Arthur Rose breathes new life into the genre. While most of the time we do not think about our own habitual breathing, science fictional adventures in places where air is in short supply help us to reflect upon the importance of our breath, and the significance of its loss.

Some of us only think of our breath when we’ve short of it, whether we are reminded of it while running, or just walking up to Palace Green. Others, those we might call aware breathers, spend much more time thinking of their breath, for reasons that include highly focused activities, like sports, yoga, or music, and movement in everyday life, as for the sufferers of chronic breath conditions. This podcast explores breath in the cultural industry, with a particular focus on Science Fiction.

Breath has a realist function in most artistic media. It serves to remind the reader, the viewer or the spectator of the exigencies of the body. Science Fiction literature and film is no exception. Often tied to particularly scientific discourses, it is often a plot device for human encounters with otherness, either with alien peoples, who may not breathe oxygen, or environments, where there may not be oxygen to breathe. But this technoscientific use-value also has its limits. It forgets the affective, non-scientific qualities of breath as a metonym for life and a metaphor for anticipation. Through an engagement with diverse examples from Sci Fi literature and film, Arthur Rose considers the tension between technoscientific and affective responses to breath in order to demonstrate the co-determinacy of breath in scientific and artistic discourses. Drawing on Sci Fi favourites, that range from Fahrenheit 451 to Darth Vader, his podcast explores the various ways in which writers and directors show that most ephemeral of creaturely essentials: the breath.

Arthur Rose is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of English Studies, working on the Life of Breath project, which is funded by the Wellcome Trust and which is led jointly by Prof Jane Macnaughton (Durham University) and Prof Havi Carel (University of Bristol). Listen to more lectures in the Late Summer Lectures series below.

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