Helium's material form is unstable, moving from gas to liquid under temperature. Lighter than air, it evades the immediacy of perception. Thinking through helium offers an approach to the entanglement of forms of matter that makes movement the locus. Helium shifts an understanding of “between” to one of motion, of phase shifts and plasticity rather than difference, in which the durability of matter—and of the human—withdraws.
Helium is slippery. It is gas, it is liquid. When cooled to extremely low temperatures, it is “able to flow without friction, squeeze through impossibly small holes and even run up hills.”1 Helium never solidifies. Instead, under pressure and extremely cold temperatures its atoms crystallize into a moving array of gaps that are continually filled, a supersolid flowing without resistance.
Helium is the matter of stars and was first discovered as lines in the sun's spectrogram. Children's books poetically pose the notion that “we are all stardust”—atoms released during the Big Bang imbuing all life forms ever after. Helium renders irreducible micro and macro, the structure of the atom from the elemental, the earth in its solar system. At once atomic and cosmic, helium undoes scale as we know it, that of the bounded, container model of scale that pivots on the nation-state, becoming larger and smaller, each scale an entity unto itself in the model of its orienting form.2 And though the “dust” of stardust suggests a durable form—a solidity to that which circulates within and across species, between stone and flesh—the atom is an energy field, a component of matter that is not matter itself. It is the shimmer of the micro, not yet ossified as solid, liquid, or gas—as skin, blood, or oxygen.
“Lighter than air,” on Earth helium resides underground. Created by the radioactive decay of elements such as uranium, thorium, or tritium, helium finds itself in pockets and porous crevices of the Earth's crust, mingling with other gases. Formless, it takes the shape offered by granite or limestone or anhydrite, staying there, undetected, unearthed, until it emerges in a volcanic eruption or is extracted along with natural gas.
Helium seeks an escape—the tiniest hole or the joint of a pipe, a volcanic eruption that with the force of heat allows gases, long trapped in crevices deep underground and never imagining another world, to surface with the energy of the blast, free to drift and disperse, to encounter, if not become, sunlight.
Is its shriek upon finding an escape route one of joy or of fear? Or is it a melancholic moan, echoing a child's heartbreak in anticipation of the loss of a balloon?
Helium is between. Between states of matter, between gas and air, between the sun that touches Earth as light and heat and geologic processes of radioactive decay that surface in the tectonic eruptions of molten lava. Able to be isolated and contained, helium does not maintain a stable form—in a balloon it is gas, in its extraction and use for testing leaks it is an extremely cold superfluid. Moving from one state of matter to another, from gas to liquid, its “between” is that of “flux” rather than distance. And though its transformation is rendered via the application of temperature and pressure, helium is elusive, fugitive, withdrawing from the immediacy of human perception. We can only touch helium by inhaling it, allowing it to become breath, if only for a moment, before it escapes and dissipates.
Helium reminds us to not assume a stability of matter. Gas escapes, and liquid is temporary, suspended, while solids are fluid. Liquidity as form and concept expands. Helium's unstable material properties figure relationships in terms of transformations, modulations, absorption, saturation, resonance, inhalation. Hence helium offers what Jane Bennett describes as a metaphysics from within, a “system of relations between (rather than beyond) bodies or molecules” in which thought is rendered a “matter of perception”—sensory engagement with and through moving matter.3 The im/materiality of helium is a poiesis that seeks a form of writing adequate to its subject—writing that conveys the qualities of helium, its vagueness, its ever shifting form that renders it tendency, on the cusp of becoming otherwise. Writing as thought in the act, experimenting with matter that is always already experimenting with the world.4
Thinking (and sensing) helium, I turn toward its tendency to evade, to escape if not contained or constrained. A tendency is movement, and while “a tendency may be prevented from manifesting itself by some constraint acting on a process . . . that does not make it any less real since it will become actual the moment the constraint is removed.”5 When helium imbues a balloon with lift, raises the pitch of our voice, or becomes liquid, it betrays its status as tendency—a tendency to rise, a tendency to not be isolated or contained, a tendency toward plasticity, a tendency to move, a tendency to move matter.
With helium, “between” is sensible as a “crossing of a threshold” or “perceptible change.”6 “Between” is not about distance or “space” or even “ether”—but rather permeability and porosity, movement as oscillation across forms at once material and imagined, across already moving forms and forces. Distinguishable by their quality, such forms take shape in a momentary configuration of atoms held stable by energetic polarities that attract and repel. Between is movement from one form of matter to another so gradual that it is imperceptible until the shift is complete or so fast the transformation startles. Between is the connection formed as one thing meets another, bumps into and maybe merges, or is at least immersed—the gradient of touch in an encounter between one and another. Between is the illumination of a receding horizon.
Between, helium is not in between—conveying, thus the impossibility of such a space, even if there might yet be a pause or ellipsis that opens in the movement from one milieu to another. Between is an expanse manifest in (or manifesting) indeterminacy, indiscernibility, uncertainty. A gap that percolates or settles in as melancholy—an ache for an unknown or unknowable otherwise. An orientation or attunement that draws one to another within a palpable yet tenuous magnetic field. A between that hovers, expands into a “superabundant plenitude, overflowing our received explanatory categories.”7 There is no between. Everything is between.
Lighter than air, helium allows sound to move faster, with less resistance. This does not mean sound travels in a straight line, moving directly from its moment of transmission to its audition, zipping through helium in an efficient trajectory. Instead, it stretches and expands, wavering as widely as possible, delighted in its ability to move as it animates helium's atoms in a lively dance of lightness and laughter.
Untying the balloon, I put my lips over the opening and inhale. I talk, and my voice is pitched at an unusual frequency, a tinny, silly sound that makes us laugh. In the alteration of my voice I find I am alienated from myself—a self seemingly constituted through voice, “my” voice a measure of individuality and subjectivity, of standing apart from others and from a milieu at once categorical and material.
Yet my voice is not an expression of my (a) self—it is already in and of air, its perceptible quality a factor of transperception of moving atmospheric gases, a quiver of pulsing vibrations drawing together lung, vocal chords, mouth, room, and ear.8 Transperception is perception in and through air—air that is always conditioning what we hear. Lungs and vocal cords and mouth become bellows moving air-like helium—helium that momentarily raises the pitch without any change in bodily physiology. Helium comes into perceptibility through its effect on the voice; it is heard, by me, speaking, and by those around me in a shared sensory moment. Laughing, we attune toward it and toward one another. Helium's immateriality composes this moment—its lightness, its movement, its tendency to dissipate and escape, making audible a more than human materiality that renders the body atmospheric. With every breath and every sound, we become elemental, like the body of Francis Bacon's figure that “disappears into the plain color or becomes part of the wall or, conversely, the plain color buckles and whirls around in the body's zone of indiscernibility.”9
What if we shift the locus of bodies to breath and water—moving, elemental, and interspersed already with atmospheric conditions? “Between” is dynamic, moving matter, similar, perhaps, to the Japanese concept of “ma”:
Immaterial forms and forces that move through a body compose a mode of intra-action that is not so much an undoing of boundaries as a continuity across milieus. There is a tangible quality to this, a physicality that offers possibilities for tracing connections through the elemental as it becomes perceptible in its movement, perception an encounter with something that extends beyond, exceeding our grasp.11
The fixity of “skin” becomes peripheral, loses focus. As Elizabeth Povinelli urges, “Animals and minerals, plants and animals, and photoautotrophs and chemoheterotrophs are extimates—each is external to the other only if the scale of our perception is confined to the skin, to a set of epidermal exposures. But human lungs are constant reminders that this separation is imaginary.”12 Through the rhythm of breath, lungs make humans creative participants in the carbon cycle.
Breath is also touch: its planetary entanglement drawn back into the intimacy of an other. “Imagine someone's breath on a sensitive part of your skin, say the cheek. It is only air, invisible, intangible, yet one feels the caress or touch of the cheek by the breath.”13 Breath is the movement between us—“us” in a capacious, more than human sense.
The murmur is the message: the background hum of life—desolate, excessive, neither language nor silence—is what links us to one another. . . . We do not relate to the light, the earth, the air, and the warmth only with our individual sensibility and sensuality. We communicate to one another the light our eyes know, the ground that sustains our postures, and the air and warmth with which we speak. We face one another as condensations of earth, light, air, and warmth, and orient one another in the elemental.14
The caress of the cheek by the breath of another is a distributed intimacy that, born in proximity, disperses. As breath becomes air, intimacy is not simply between everyone in air but between humans and air.
What if the elemental, the breath, the ephemeral physicality of sound were prior? If touch were first that of air or smoke or wind? And the qualities of sunlight and shadow and rain were how we then understood skin and wood and stone—rather than the other way around, always anchoring touch in matter that is durable, even as the other senses attune toward a fleeting scent, salivation activated by food, vibrations that are slower for sound, faster for light. If our senses are so enmeshed in immateriality, why insist on the solidity of skin and bones as defining a body, and not the air of breath, folds of skin as it turns inside, fluids of blood and tears and sweat, electricity of cells and nerves? With this kind of movement, how do we even hold ourselves together?
Though Karen Barad's formulation of “intra-action” wonderfully destabilizes matter (and the human), it largely remains a relationship between entities, even one as indeterminate as a photon-emitting and absorbing electron (Barad, “On Touching”). Hortense Spillers addresses the violence of atomization in the context of slavery: “This profitable ‘atomizing’ of the captive body provides another angle on the divided flesh: we lose any hint or suggestion of a dimension of ethics, of relatedness between human personality and its anatomical features, between one human personality and another, between human personality and cultural institutions” (Spillers, “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe,” 68).
Alphonso Lingis, quoted in Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, quoted in Barad, “On Touching,” 218.