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Ed Cohen “A Body Worth Defending”

Cohen, Ed 2009. A Body Worth Defending. Immunity, Biopolitics, and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Introductory Ruminations

Despite our ready acceptance, however, immunity is not a natural choice of images for our ability to live as organisms among other organisms of various sizes and scales – nor is defense, for that matter. Instead, both terms derive from the ways that Western legal and political thinking accounts for the complex, difficult, and at times violent manner that humans live among other humans. (3)

[…] biological immunity as we know it does not exist until the late nineteenth century. Nor, for that matter, does the idea that organisms defend themselves at the cellular and molecular levels. For nearly two thousand years, immunity, a legal concept first conjured in ancient Rome, has functioned almost exclusively as a political and juridical term – and a profoundly important and historically overdetermined one at that. “Self-defense” also originates as a political concept, albeit a much newer one, emerging only 350 years ago in the course of the English Civil War, when Thomas Hobbes defines it as the first “natural right.” (4)

One hundred and twenty-five years ago, biomedicine fuses these two incredibly difficult, powerful, and yet very different (if not incongruous) political ideas into one, creating “immunity-as-defense.” It then transplants this new biopolitical hybrid into the living human body. (4)

[…] the modern body proffers a proper body, a proprietary body, a body whose well-bounded property grounds the legal and political rights of what C.B. Macpherson famously named “possessive individualism.” (7)

[…] until the end of the nineteenth century, the modern individual’s atomized body does not accord with prevailing scientific theories that apprehend living organisms as contiguous with, rather than fundamentally distinct from, their lifeworlds. Indeed, this book holds that only with the advent of biological immunity does a monadic modern body fully achieve its scientific and defensive apotheosis. (8)

With immunity as its avatar, modern biomedical dogma holds to the contrary that as organisms we vitally depend on a perpetual engagement against the world to maintain our integrity or indeed our selves. (8)

Immunity incarnates ideas about human being culled from modern politics, economics, law, philosophy, and science, which then belatedly achieve scientific status when immunity inoculates them into the living organism and thereby validates them as essentially “natural.” (8)

[…] we might characterize the transformations that European modernity incorporates by saying that they enable the essential metonym for the person to morph from immortal soul to mortal body. (9)

Modernity might thus appear as an ensemble of practices that literally incorporates – or incarnates – a historical paradox: modernity produces and reproduces humans as both natural and cultural, biological and social, empirical and transcendental, finite and infinite, insofar as it conjures the body as a hybrid biopolitical formation which we must have in order to be a person. (10)

[…] biopolitics names a “hybrid domain,” or a domain of hybridization. It makes visible and intelligible relations of force which, on the one hand, seek to distinguish biology and politics epistemologically and ontologically and, on the other, endeavor to mobilize “life” as a vital resource for, and target of, power. (15)

When it conceives immunity as its physiological doppelgänger in the last decads of the nineteenth century, medicine naturalizes this governmental project by proxy. According to the new bioscientific doxa, the organism’s own cells now seem to engage in the very warlike actions that the modern state itself enlists to protect its subjects’ lives as its most vital asset. […] by relegating defense to the organism’s interior, modern medicine transforms the body into the apotheosis of the modern. (22)

Today immunity informs us deeply: as organisms, as individuals, as citizens, as peoples, and as a species. In the wake of immunology, we no longer just live our politics, but our politics literally live in us. Conversely, the world in which we live has been recast according to this new “natural” order such that overtly political acts of violence and aggression can be interpreted immunologically […]. (31)

  1. Living Before and Beyond the Law, or A Reasonable Organism Defends Itself

[…] immunology’s enthusiastic investment in biochemical reductionism led it to devote itself almost single-mindedly to analyzing the biochemical events underlying specific antibody-antigen reactions throughout the first half of the twentieth century. As a consequence, it largely ignored the biological dynamics of cellular immunity from which it first emerged (i.e., Metchnikoff’s “phagocytosis”), which have become so interesting to immunology since then. Instead immunology so effectively promoted biomolecular specificity as its main object of interest that this paradigm became an overarching frame for much biomedical theorization during the period. […] the case of immunity, rather than simply applying reductionism as a bioscientific premise, instead provides one of its exemplary instances. Furthermore, by borrowing against its ancient juridico-political capital, immunity makes the “lawfulness” of such biochemical reductionism seem entirely natural. (48-49)

[…] we might say […] that immunity makes the law matter for biology and consequently makes biology a matter of law. (49)

If property supposes dominium and dominium implies control, then loss of control means loss of property. To retain property as property requires a defense against its loss. In the mid-seventeenth century, when natural law construes the body as a human possession, that is, as personal property, it mandates bodily defense as a possessive imperative that politically safeguards the person as a person. Thus, at least two centuries before bioscience conjures immunity to describe how the (human) organism defends itself, self-defense already appears as a foundational principle of natural law. (54-55)

In its original juridico-political context, the doctrine of self-defense literally and naturally establishes the individual as the paramount form of personhood. It locates the person in a body constituted as its own property – that is, in a body “owned” by “the self”. (55)

Life appears only negatively as that which resists its own negation. In its natural habitat, human life possesses no positive attributes. Hobbes rhetorically emphasizes this constitutive negativity by elaborating a long list of everything it lacks: “In such a condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation; nor use of the Commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much Force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society.” (59)

This negative formulation provides the (negative) basis for Hobbes’s quintessential definition of liberty: “By liberty is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of externall Impediments”. Or as he reframes it later, “Libertie, or Immunitie from the service of the Commonwealth”. (59)

Here immunity receives a new inflection under the sign of liberty. Drawn from its early modern extension to the denizens of immune domains, immunity now appears as a negative form of freedom. Immunity gestures toward a “free” space carved out from the sphere of obligation entailed by the commonwealth, an obligation incurred in exchange for the commonwealth’s protection against – or negation of – the state of nature’s life-negating effects. (59-60)

[…] when modern politics imagines itself as distinct from nature, as determining its own order (as Latour suggests), it construes itself not as a part of, but rather as apart from – or even opposed to – the natural world in which it lives. When bioscience recruits immunity at the end of the nineteenth century to describe the abilities of – and the presumed necessity for – organisms to “defend themselves” against the pathogenic microbes that live around and within them, it turns this quintessentially modern trope back into animate nature. In other words, it identifies a hybrid legal and political mechanisms, immunity-as-defense, as the natural basis for the endurance of living organisms. (61)

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