Like a Fish out of Water, in the Water

By Alex Villar

From the coast of Mexico comes the Axolotl, an amphibian that did not progress to the next phase of its metamorphosis to become a terrestrial animal. Instead, it took a detour in its migratory journey to live its entire life cycle in water, much like the fish that comprises its infant state.[1] One could say that the Axolotl chooses never to grow up, except that it goes on to attain full reproductive capabilities. That is to say that in the process it contrives a new form of existence. For all intents and purposes it is still a fish in water, even if by default it shouldn’t have remained there. It is, in a way, out of place in that habitat, while at the same time insisting in affirming its life in that environment. It is possible to ‘correct’ for this ‘defect’ in laboratory by subjecting the Axolotl to Iodine injections to induce its thyroid to produce Thyroxine and force it to advance into its expected final stage as a Salamander. But the operation is known to shorten its lifespan from an average of 15 years down to about 5 years. It is clear that the life form of this organism is not completely determined by its environment; neither is its potential existence foreclosed by its morphological shortcomings. In this dual sense, the Axolotl is not so different from humans. In spite of a significant dependence on the environment, human life is never completely predicated by it. And, as a parade of prosthetic invention can attest, never have physiological limitations prevented humans from advancing into unknown territories.

A good example of this incursion into unlikely terrain is the human insistence in exploring situations in which our dependency on oxygen is put to test. Although the terrestrial environment provides optimum conditions for what human organs need to do to process consumed oxygen, humans persist in adventuring toward more challenging breathing situations. The aquatic environment provides an attractive contender due to its immediate proximity and inviting vastness when compared to the relatively small terrestrial surfaces that cover our planet. Although water contains oxygen, it does so in considerably less quantity than air. And humans, like other mammals, require large quantities of oxygen to sustain their bodies. There is substantial work involved in processing oxygen and much more work is required when the oxygen is extracted from water. This processing work, combined with the small amounts of oxygen available in water, result into a particularly challenging environment for mammals. What other warm-bodied species that live in the ocean do to retain their oxygen is to rely on a mechanism known as the Mammalian Diving Reflex. This reflex optimizes respiration to permit extended periods under water. It works first by slowing down the heart rate upon contact with cold water; this lessens the need for bloodstream oxygen. Next, it constricts the capillaries in the extremities of the animal’s body so as to require less blood in those areas, reserving the available blood to help with the functioning of more vital organs. Last, there is a blood shift that occurs in deep dives during which time plasma and water are allowed to pass freely throughout the thoracic cavity at a constant pressure rate so that the organs are not crushed. That’s what whales and dolphins do during their long diving periods. Other aquatic species have gills, which is a more suitable apparatus to process the dissolved oxygen found in water. Fish are doubly prepared for the aquatic environment. Their organism requires less oxygen, which compiles with the fact that they have an ideal equipment to efficiently process the bits of oxygen dispersed in water.

Unlike Axolotls, humans left behind the aquatic environment of their prenatal period in the Amniotic sac – the composition of the Amniotic fluid is considered to be similar to seawater. Newborn babies still retain, while not the ability to breathe underwater, at least the reflex to immediately hold their breath for a few seconds when immersed in water. Adults have long forgotten those reflexes. If not properly trained, they readily succumb to despair at the slightest obstruction of their breathing channels. An extreme example of this sensitivity, exploited to perverse ends, is to be found in the interrogation technique known as Waterboarding. During this procedure, a piece of absorbent cloth is wrapped around the victim’s face to block sight and inhibit other faculties, most pointedly to disrupt normal breathing. Next, water is poured over the subject’s wrapped face in a continuing fashion. Once the cloth is fully saturated with water, airflow is restricted anywhere between 20 and 40 seconds. The victim is then allowed to catch 3 or 4 breaths and the procedure is repeated. The practice dates as far back as the Spanish inquisition but has been perfected by many parties, including the Japanese during the Second World War and, most infamously, by the CIA on Al-Qaeda suspects, following from the polemical authorization of the practice by the Department of Justice during the Bush administration. The experience during this torture session is described as the exact sensation of drowning. The subject becomes convinced of impending death and succumbs to a state of desperation.

On the flipside of this technique of abject subjection is another practice that pivots the objective to exert control by inducing drowning into its obverse. That is to say that it seeks to enhance, rather than subject, the subject’s inherent, while underdeveloped, ability to endure longer periods without breathing under water. This diving technique has two basic modalities; one is called Static and the other Dynamic Apnea. While during the static modality the subject is expected to float underwater usually in a pool for as long as possible, on the dynamic modality the goal is to descend as much as possible toward the bottom of the sea. In both cases the goal is to extend the body’s ability to stop breathing underwater for extended periods of time. The practice of diving on a single breath has been around for a real long time; some accounts date it back to the 5th century. It still persists today and its practitioners continue to cross previously unimaginable limits; athletes have been able to descend to depths greater than 250 meters and hold their breath for over 10 minutes. In the end of the 1940s, it was accepted as fact the idea that humans could not dive deeper than 50 meters. It was thought that at lower depths, the water would impose an unbearable pressure over the body’s respiratory organs that would crush as a result. After individual divers broke through many thresholds established by the doctors of the time, the phenomenon known as Blood Shift was then discovered to happen in humans. Similarly to what happens for other animals, the process reduces the lungs’ residual volume resulting on the widening of the lungs’ capillaries. It turned out that humans also have their own diving reflex, indeed a variation of the Mammalian Diving Reflex.

After the fact, both the Apnea practitioner and the victim of waterboarding seem to undergo a period of adjustment. Beside the immediate risks of death during waterboarding – heart attack, lung damage, actual drowning – there are post-traumatic effects that are typical in cases of abuse. Apnea also poses immediate risks ranging from actual drowning to Shallow Water Blackouts, i.e. a loss of consciousness caused by cerebral Hypoxia. Apnea practitioners may also experience problems long after their immersion in water–anything from Hypothermia to a variation of Decompression Disease. The post-traumatic situation of the tortured victim and the sickened diver resemble the fate of the Axolotl when it is subjected to the aforementioned lab-enforced procedure used to extract the truth about its condition by forcing it to complete its transformation, therefore resulting in the reduction of its lifespan. Both the truth extraction technique deployed during the torture session and the idealized truth about the human potential sought by the crossing of limits exhibited in the diver competition result in potential damage to the subjects of the experience. While the ethical circumstances of these situations are completely distinct and perhaps precisely because they are so polar, the commonality that exist in the procedural steps of both practices becomes all the more striking. The meticulousness in which divers train and perform their breathing deferral techniques is very much on pair with the degree of methodical attention devoted to sessions of torture. Compared in such a manner, by the symmetry of their procedure and results as opposed to by their intent, these two drastically different human activities begin to recede into a zone of indistinction.[2] That is not to say that they can ever be confused with one another, only to suggest that the tools of a procedure can be employed to radically distinct purposes.

Human praxis engenders a vocabulary through its actions that operates within an elaborate system of codifications. Although this system provides its conditions of possibility, they can also be articulated in a multiplicity of inflexions.[3] There is a pivotal moment that occurs during limit-experiences as reported by human subjects that undergo such experiences that could be described, by borrowing once more from our observation of the Axolotl, as a short-circuit that interrupts an otherwise continuous process. At that turning point, the subject’s hold on material reality is replaced by a perceived sense of displaced spatiality that may be what sets in motion a change of course in the subject’s purview. Perhaps when the experiential shift is radical enough to effect a modification in the structural ordering of the subject’s way of perceiving the world, a new horizon of possibilities opens up. What happens next could instantiate an entirely new form of life.


  1. For a discussion of the Axolotl in relation to Neoteny – a condition known as the retention of juvenile features in adult animals as being a significant characteristic of human potentiality, see Agamben, Giorgio. “The Idea of Infancy,” inIdea of Prose (Albany: State University of New York, 1995), 95–98.
  2. Agamben derives the notion of a ‘Zone of Indistinction’ from Deleuze’s discussion of indiscernibility instantiated by Melville’s Bartebly’s assertion of his preference ‘not to be (or to do)’ something that was requested of him. Agamben, Giorgio, and Daniel Heller-Roazen. “Bartleby, or On Contingency,” in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1999), 243–74.
  3. For a discussion of multiplicity in relation to the application of a rule and the possibilities it presents for innovative action, see Virno, Paolo. Multitude: between Innovation and Negation(Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2008).

More Posts

Prev  Connecting Nodal Points

Next  City Beats: A Different Approach to the Urban