Thursday, August 26, 2010

Clarifying on immunity (or, It's never Lupus)

Levi has a good post up on immunity, which ends this way:
Am I missing something? I’m not quite clear as to why Scu sees the necessity of distinguishing between immunity and autoimmunity and why he thinks Derrida is insufficient here. If anything, I think Luhmann comes up short here in not sufficiently exploring the possibility of systems auto-destructing or devouring themselves from within (which isn’t to say that a Luhmannian account of this couldn’t be developed, only that he doesn’t seem to explore this phenomenon very closely).

This caused me to reread my last post, and it made it me realize, uhm, how rambling and unclear it was. So, once more. A lot of this will be repetitive for many of you (including Levi), but it should help me being clearer.

An autoimmune disease is when the body's immune system cannot recognize part of its self as self, and therefore responds to healthy cells and tissues as if they were harmful (allergies are distinct from autoimmune diseases, but are similar and the treatment tends to be similar as well). You can see why this is such an important trope for understanding the ways that protective systems in society can actually be harmful. Levi gives the example of the Patriot Act, but let's take another example, the invasion of Iraq. In this case America is attacked. There are any number of proper immune responses, but invading Iraq is certainly not one of them. This entails a fundamental confusion, unable to tell one set of Muslims apart from another set in much the same way our own immune system gets confused. And like any allergic or autoimmune response, this caused a great deal of harm. (And I think we can all see why this goes to the heart of questions of biopolitics, no?).
Now, my argument isn't against the importance of thinking about autoimmunity, but against the particular way that Derrida talks about these issues. There is a way for which the immune for Derrida slips so easily into the autoimmune. Thus, if you look at "Faith and Knowledge" where Derrida introduces this concept he repeats "once immunity and auto-immune" at least twice, and then goes on and argues:
But the auto-immunitary haunts the community and its system of immunitary survival like the hyperbole of its own possibility. Nothing in common, nothing immune, safe and sound, heilig and holy, nothing unscathed in the most autonomous living present without a risk of autoimmunity. (p. 81 and p. 82 in Acts of Religion).

And that is all true, and important, and unarguable against, and yet....
Yet, this doesn't provide a way to think the immune without it seeming to always slip into the autoimmune. And that worries me, it worries me that people will see every action of immunitary logic as autoimmunitary. The immune system is, well, important. While autoimmune disorders and allergies are important threats, only an idiot would get rid of their immune system in order to cure themselves of those threats. When I talked about Haraway's comments on the obsession with autoimmune diseases distracting us from global distributions of health and the problem of, say, parasites, I think this has important implications for the model of immune system for society. Think about the Zapatistas for a minute. They went to war against the Mexican government on January 1, 1994, the same day as NAFTA went into effect. If you read "A Storm and a Prophecy" neo-liberalism is expressed in exactly the terms of a parasite, set to destroy the indigenous peoples of Chiapas. The actions of the EZLN, including the early direct military actions, are understandable as an immunitary response to the parasites of neo-liberalism. If the figure of the immune system is going to be useful, then that means we need to be able to think both immunitary response and the threat of autoimmune diseases which is just one threat among others. If our fear of the autoimmune becomes hegemonic, then we will have trouble taking appropriate immunitary responses. This becomes all the more true, because it is the immune system that makes you feel bad. So, for example, many patients in late stage AIDS don't feel sick. Because the feeling of sickness comes from the immune system, not from those infections and cancers and parasites that are killing you. Thus, we end up with the issue of Immune Reconstitution Syndrome, where a person's immune system starts working again and paradoxically makes the patient feel much, much worse. The reactions of the immune system are both necessary and uncomfortable, at best. If this holds true socially (and indeed, that should be one of the questions for those eager to extend the logic of immunity to sociality) then there is already a great impetus for people to oppose the immune reactions. To always see them as dangerous and unnecessary.
Another note here, the hemoglobins that attack parasites are also the hemoglobins that are behind allergies. There is a theory that allergies are so much worse in the developed world because of the fact that parasites is a significantly less of a problem here, and therefore the bored hemoglobins engage in hyper-immune responses. I think the focus on autoimmunity in our social theory might also be a question of perspective, of a people that do not as directly feel the parasites.
So, I agree that autoimmune diseases are bad things, both socially and physically. But they aren't the only problem, and we need to be able to think immunity broadly and usefully. Otherwise, the insight of autoimmunity will become a bit like how Virno has characterized the concept of biopolitics:
my fear, is that the biopolitical can be transformed into a word that hides, covers problems instead of being an instrument for confronting them. A fetish word, an "open doors" word, a word with an exclamation point, a word that carries the risk of blocking critical thought instead of helping it. Then, my fear is of fetish words in politics because it seems like the cries of a child that is afraid of the dark..., the child that says "mama, mama!", "biopolitics, biopolitics!". I don't negate that there can be a serious content in the term, however I see that the use of the term biopolitics sometimes is a consolatory use, like the cry of a child, when what serves us are, in all cases, instruments of work and not propaganda words.

The last thing we need is for autoimmune to function that way. For every time we see an immunitary action we automatically assume it is an autoimmune response that needs to be avoided. Remember, it's never lupus.