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Ed Cohen “Self, Not-Self, Not Not-Self But Not Self”

Cohen, Ed 2017. Self, Not-Self, Not Not-Self But Not Self, or The Knotty Paradoxes of ‘Autoimmunity’: A Genealogical Rumination. Parallax 23(1): 28-45.

[…] the preponderance of contemporary immunological accounts continues to rely, mutatis mutandis, on a theoretical axiom classically formulated in the late 1950s by Frank Macfarlane Burnet’s Clonal Selection Theory. Following Burnet, immunology by and large takes as its shibboleth the precept that the immune system serves to discriminate ‘self’ from ‘not-self’, as Burnet robustly framed it in his seminal textbook, Self and Not Self: Cellular Immunity, Book I. (29)

Given the persistence of this organismic aporia, it seems there might be more to the paradox that autoimmunity ‘is’ than conventional bioscientific thinking about human organisms recognizes. If by virtue of their very existence ‘autoimmune’ phenomena defy basic immunological dogma (i.e., self/not-self discrimination), then might we begin to wonder whether the theory adequately accounts for all the vital facts? Perhaps immunology’s unquestioned appropriation of a logical opposition – derived from and embedded in Western thought’s governing epistemo-political ontology – as a bio-logical axiom unnecessarily limits our capacity to grasp our own complicated nature as living beings.10 Indeed, the tensions and tendencies that the autoimmune illnesses incorporate suggest that as living beings we might not be so ‘logical’ after all. (30)

In fact, from the Roman empire until the end of the nineteenth century, immunity’s primary meanings remained legal and political. Only in the 1880s did a Russian zoologist, Elie Metchnikoff, recruit the juridico-political metaphor to describe how living organisms of radically different scales comingle and coexist. Metchnikoff’s innovation occurred in the context of the numerous pandemics that plagued Europe during the nineteenth century and in the wake of the subsequent emergence of microbiology (under the auspices of such luminaries as Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur) in response to these infectious events.14 Prior to the 1860s, immunity rarely appeared in medical discussions of disease because its juridico-political valence clashed with the humoral theories that informed prevailing medical explanations. (31)

[…] the International Sanitary conference [in 1866, Constantinople] invoked ‘immunity’ for the first time as a simultaneously biological, political, economic, medical and military solution. They decided that while cholera could in fact be transmitted from one person or place to another, not all people and all places were equally susceptible. Hence, places with greater susceptibility (due to hygiene, climate or other environmental factors) might warrant the imposition of quarantines; however, more favorably situated locales need not resort to such (economically) restrictive measures because they possessed natural ‘resistance’. They called this resistance ‘immunity’: “This immunity, as a general rule, when closely regarded, can be linked to good hygienic conditions existing in these localities, or to notable improvements which have operated there for a while. The relative immunity answers to those who are too inclined to commend the safety of nations against cholera exclusively to quarantine measures.” (32)

Thus, when immunity first appeared as a biological – or actually bio-political – concept, it did so not because it explained how individual organisms respond to pathogenic challenge, but rather because its primary juridicopolitical valence enabled a compromise formation among medical, diplomatic, economic imperatives. If a nation was deemed ‘relative[ly] immune’ (in a biological sense) from cholera, then it could remain entirely immune (in a legal sense) from quarantine. (32)

Drawing on his previous observations that the intracellular digestion characteristic of unicellular organisms remains evolutionarily conserved in the ‘phagocytes’ (now called macrophages) of multicellular organisms, Metchnikoff argued that if bacteria ‘invade’ larger organisms this cannot be a one-sided battle, or else we’d all just be collateral damage. Instead, he conceptualized infectious disease as an inter-species struggle in which an infected organism mounts its own ‘defensive’ response and then, mobilizing the juridico-political term that the International Sanitary Conference settled on, he named this defensive capacity immunity. (33)

However, Metchnikoff’s analogy of immunity with host defence contained its own germ of a contradiction: in its original legal sense, if immunity obtains then there is no need of defence – it is literally a moot issue – and if one must mount a defence immunity does not obtain. Nevertheless, despite this conceptual contradiction, Metchnikoff’s hybrid legal-political-military metaphor stuck, implicitly characterizing life as war by other means. (33)

While Jerne himself did not employ the language of self and not-self, Burnet nevertheless lauds him for providing a ‘method of recognizing self from not self’. Moreover, he extrapolates from Jerne’s notion that ‘auto-antibodies’ are ‘removed’ during embryological development, to the notion that this constitutes the mechanism by which self produces immunological ‘tolerance’: ‘Clones with unwanted reactivity can be eliminated in the late embryonic period with the concomitant development of immune tolerance’.23 Yet Burnet’s idiom is somewhat peculiar. If ‘immune tolerance’ refers to ‘the absence of immunological response to “self” antigens’ (and all ‘self’ is potentially antigenic), then self is defined negatively as that which does not react to itself. The choice of ‘tolerance’ to describe this situation underscores Burnet’s curious and somewhat nebulous understanding of self as the absence of self-relation. (35)

The immunological self remains ‘the same as’ itself insofar as it does not respond to itself during the course of its life. It maintains itself as a self by immunologically tolerating itself. Conversely, autoimmunity corresponds to the event in which this self finds aspects of itself intolerable. Consequently, Burnet found the proof of his immune pudding in the autoimmune failure of self-tolerance: ‘It is only when things go wrong that it becomes possible to perceive that there is something in normal function which requires understanding’. In other words, for Burnet, the regular existence of autoimmune pathologies demonstrated that Metchnikoff’s defensive rendering of immunity essentially prefigured and corresponded to his own opposition of self and not-self. (36)

[…] self is predicated on the recognition of not-self as enemy insofar as its self-recognition (à la Hegel) must always be mediated through an other. Burnet’s paradigm hence affirms ‘natural’ hostility as the essential condition of life (or at least of human life, which is what he’s ultimately concerned with). The problem that Burnet defines as fundamental to ‘the new immunology’ – and which immunology has taken as its raison d’etre ever since – is how the organism can properly direct its hostile negativity towards the other. On this interpretation, autoimmunity constitutes a failure of defence ‘intelligence’ and hence manifests an instance of ‘friendly fire’. If it escalates it can turn into ‘a chronic immunological civil war’. (37)

It [the dominant immunological framework] supposes that multicellular life, and especially that of humans, incarnates hostile opposition as its condition of possibility – which means our condition of possibility – as living beings. Finally, by using the Greek reflexive pronoun ‘autos’ (αὐτός) (which refers the action of a verb back to its subject) to modify a Latin legal concept (immunitas) (which it takes to mean the opposite of what its legal valence entails), immunology suggests that autoimmunity represents the inversion of this ‘natural’ defensive hostility back towards the organism itself. (38)

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