“I know you, I love you, and I can be your friend, I could follow you anywhere, even through solid air.” John Martyn, Solid Air
The holding onto air moment occurs when the scene set before one is so resolutely, ethically and morally ghastly, or is so uncomfortable to view, that one feels the need – the unstoppable, thoughtless urge – to reach out and hold onto the nothingness before one.
This is not a screaming moment or a time for looking away from the screen. This is not a moment when you clutch or claw at the person sitting next to you. This is a moment of deafening silence and absolute centeredness. One’s eyeballs ache and one’s fingers and hands reach out, reach out…
It as if holding down ‘air’ will somehow and in some way stop the trauma; and will re-connect one to terra firma and the material underpinnings of everyday life. We hold onto air to arrest the drama unfolding before us.
In these moments of vaporization, one attempts to anchor oneself on a property that is groundless because the ground has been swept from beneath one’s feet. One reaches out, stretching ones arms to their limit, and grips, grasps, grabs clutches at it – the very act a moment of self-help, a closing off of narrative possibility, and a helpless attempt to intervene in the storyworld. Your eyes and fingers silently whisper, stop!
We hold onto air as if the thing in the fictive (or factual) world that disturbs us so can be changed and challenged. It can’t. We hold onto air and undergo a quiet death in the process – helpless witnesses who are rendered complicit in the gaze that wounds, wounds us so.
While not from television, I recently had a holding onto air moment while watching the masterpiece, Under the Skin. The scene that wounded me so and compelled me to alter the state of air was the baby-crying sequence, set on a desolate and remote beach.
The scene touches upon the core moral values most of us share, uses the sound of an innocent crying to weep its way into the very ontology of the narrative. The film has already anchored our expectations that this can only end badly, but one still hopes for a different resolution to take place. This is a baby, for fuck’s say, I do not whisper under my breath. When it dawns on us that death will have its dominion, there are few places for us to to go except with and through solid air.
This is an embodied phenomenon: the body is rendered taught, rigid, and yet it reaches into and towards the abyss that offends it so. The act demands inertia and physical exertion. It has quasi-religious overtones, mirrors the act of worshipers who, fixed in their position on road side or at a huge rally, reach towards their messiah, who is always just out of reach. In attempting to touch the abyss, the messiah, one imagines one will be cleansed and re-born.
The holding onto air moment can be elicited or given in a wide number of audio-visual contexts, spanning genres and media forms.
In the pursuit thriller, we hold onto air as the victim hides from their (her) psychotic killer. The air a concealment strategy; it becomes a bubble she may be protected in, and from which we can protect her. Your out-stretched hands cup her up and out, outside and beyond the mortal danger she has been placed in.
Holding onto Horror
In the body horror text, we hold onto air as a character enters a room where we know the alien/monster is hiding-in-waiting; or when a torso is slowly unpeeled. Here we protect ourselves through readying ourselves for the violence (we grab onto air before the horror is revealed); and through the secure belief that in holding onto air our bodies cannot be turned inside-out in the same way.
In disgusting television programmes, such as Disgusting Bodies, we hold onto air to keep our disgust at bay – the air becomes a decontamination mask that prevents the stench or disease touching us. In this context, we are putting disgust out of (h) arms way.
Holding onto Embarrassment
In texts that generate incandescent scripted and unscripted moments of embarrassment, such as the situation comedy, reality television, or in programmes such as the quiz show where the contestant gets a question so very badly wrong, we hold onto air in mutual recognition of the person’s humiliation.
This is shared solid air; we turn purple as they do, the colouring and the gripping a throw-line back into our uneven biographies and the moments where we suffered our own electrifying excruciation. This solid air, however, is less portentous; it can be laced with humour, and register also as esteem (we would never be caught like that!). We hold onto air to confirm and re-affirm our superiority.
Holding onto Warp Speed
In the time travel text, or in programmes that render time and space immaterial and expansive – full of immense velocity and ‘distance’ – we hold onto air as a tethering mechanism, and to take part in the liquid movement of time and space. The solid air belongs to the future, to the cosmos and the streams of light shapes that wash over our fingers and hands. We hold onto air and travel through it.
In news reporting, factual television programmes, and hard-hitting documentaries, the holding onto air moment may take place in any number of harrowing and distressing contexts. Images of the young and vulnerable wounded by suicide bombers or drones; scenes of starvation and forced migration; and heroic acts of rescue and recovery all create the material for which one will hold onto air.
However, here the air does seem particularly life-threatening, its quality calibrated by the actuality of the footage, and the realist codes that render it so. We are witnessing life being extinguished or saved, and the air between our fingers ebbs and flows in the same way.
The context for holding onto air is important: whom we watch with and where we watch can impact on the way we reach out. Alone viewing at home, on a mobile device on the crowded commute train home, or at the darkened multi-plex or art cinema, can affect the way we respond to the drama we are presented with. If you reach out to hold onto air on a bustling tram on the way to work, one might get simply arrested. We are in part trained and regulated by social life for when we are being sanctioned to hold onto air.
That said, we hold onto air in an unconscious way, which for me is a phenomenological response that establishes an experience that is, at least for its duration, without language. We hold onto air when words fail us, when we cannot speak, when only our carnal bodies can make sense of it all. We hold onto air when meaning collapses.
Nonetheless, I think that when and why we hold onto air isn’t always fully collective – the power and beauty of the moment is partly due to its specificity to the viewer, their own life story, and their investment in the text before them.
What the holding onto air moment confirms, whether collectively or individually, is its ability to sting us into action, to wrestle us free from language, offering us a moment where we intend to intervene. It may help foster an interventionist culture in a restless age of pathetic passivity.
Then again, it may simply be that cathartic moment, where our (re)action is meaningless. Holding onto air changes nothing, not even the air quality.
I just do not know what my fingers are telling me.
Television has played off the metaphor of air since its inception with phrases such as air time, off and on-air. In its own way, then, it has given air a solid quality, and commodified it at the same time. We are being sold air, and the holding onto air moment is just apart of the commodity relationship we are all asked to buy into.
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre uses the story of meeting a friend in a Paris café to demonstrate the presence of absence. He regularly meets his friend there, at the same time each week, and they sit at the exact same table. His friend is always there before him. On this one occasion, Sartre arrives to find that his friend is not there, the first time that this has ever happened. He experiences his friend’s absence as vey much a presence – the air where he should be is filled, made solid and comprehensible. This is what we are doing when we are holding onto air: filling the void with materiality, recasting the elements of the world, where we can and do walk through solid air.
Note: a warm thank you to Virginia Murray who came up with the title for this paper.
Sean Redmond is an Associate Professor of Media and Communication at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. He writes on stardom and celebrity, science fiction, screen aesthetics, and authorship. His latest book is The cinema of Takeshi Kitano with Columbia University Press (2013).
Sean Redmond, Deakin University, Melbourne: email@example.com