Breathless in Beijing: Aerial Attunements and China’s New Respiratory Publics

Victoria Nguyen

Abstract


For all of its protean and ephemeral qualities, air exerts a remarkably muscular influence on urban form and contemporary life in China. In recent years, as the breakneck speed of China’s development has altered the very chemistry of the atmosphere, the boundaries between breathing subjects and their toxic environments have become increasingly blurred. In this climate, Beijing inhabitants have sought out various modes of respiratory refuge, reorganizing the city into new spaces of atmospheric fortification. As deadly air divides Beijing into a series of protected insides and precarious outsides, life is increasingly being reoriented toward the dangers and imperatives of breathing in the Chinese city. Yet alongside the growing stratification of breathing experiences in the capital, shared exposure is also reconfiguring public life and landscapes through new solidarities and entwined fates. Engaging Beijing’s emergent respiratory publics online, behind face masks, and inside conditioned air spaces, I explore how collective exposure is galvanizing new modes of atmospheric recognition in China. Specifically, I suggest that respiratory publics make invisible threats visible by mobilizing everyday objects, practices, and social life to render air both an object of concern and a site of intervention. Ultimately, by attending to how attunements to air pollution emerge through everyday practices and quotidian habits, this article expands upon a growing body of STS scholarship investigating how social life is increasingly constituted in and through atmospheric entanglements.


Keywords


air pollution; publics; China

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.17351/ests2020.437



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