The Fallibility of the Immune: Metchnikoff’s lie

by | 5 May 2011

On May 1st 2011 news was broadcast that the leader of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, had been killed following a ‘targeted operation’ executed by United States forces, in a northern town of Pakistan. Shortly afterwards, it was confirmed by US officials that bin Laden’s body had been buried at sea, according to Muslim custom. The details of this occurrence were delivered to the world by the US President, Barack Obama, in a speech where he described that the ‘achievement’ was to be seen as a ‘testament to the greatness of our country.’ [1] He also stated that in Bin Laden’s death it could be said to ‘…those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror: Justice had been done.’ [2] However, the presupposed finality of justice seemed to be lacking in Obama’s speech, for he also asserted that vigilance against al Qaeda would be required, ‘at home and abroad.’ [3] Indeed the somewhat paradoxical natures of an end without and end (life in death), justice without a telos (the ever present injustice), and an act of closure without closure (the ongoing ‘war on terror’), are only too familiar for those who are aware of the history concerning bin Laden’s political involvement with the US. To examine what can perhaps be seen as the paradoxical enemy within (or perhaps more accurately, the paradox where there are ‘…no longer anything but rogue states, and there are no longer any rogue states…’), [4] and the other complexities which surround this seemingly momentous instance, we can look to the work of the late French philosopher, Jacques Derrida.

In a time when the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was still immediate (July and August 2002), Derrida presented two lectures on the politics of that day, which would later become the book, Rogues: Two Essays on Reason. Translated into English and published in 2005, the book would prove to be one of the lasting testaments to Derrida’s blur of the boundaries of le politique, and la politique, for the book successfully wove a paradoxical web of concepts on ‘the political,’ through the then fresh-happening ‘politics’ which were still emanating from that September day. [5] One of the key themes which became apparent for readers of this work when it was published was its clear illustration of the rota which occupies democratic movements; ‘[i]t seems difficult to think the desire for or the naming of any democratic space without what is called in Latin a rota…’ [6] Further to this theme, was the ever-complex autoimmune reaction which forever seemed (seems) to complicate the workings of any democratic ipseity, or ‘self.’ [7] Both of these concepts have recently been astutely remarked upon by Stewart Motha, and although the comments made in his piece withheld from any detailed engagement with these concepts, their mentioning in that space was at the very least highly significant for the events which are currently unfolding in North Africa: ‘…pure sovereignty does not exist; it is always in the process of positing itself by refuting itself, by denying or disavowing itself…’ [8] However, for a reflection on the ‘news’ of May 1st 2011, let us re-visit, in an act of haunting, one specific topic which Derrida commented on roughly 10 years ago. [9]

In Rogues Derrida asserted that what could be seen from the implementation of then-current US foreign policy, was a complicated attempt, and failure, of a total immunisation from that ‘other’ (‘the other’) arbitrarily chosen as the enemy. This logic of ‘the other’ faces (at least) a two-fold split in how it can be theorised: following Emmanuel Levinas, it is ultimately ethical; whereas for Derrida, it has been argued to be both ethical, and ontological. [10] Nonetheless, whichever conceptual framework we ascribe to Derrida’s corpus, Derrida makes it clear that such a construction of ‘the other’ (in terms of that entity which is to be seen as the Schmitt-ian ‘enemy’), is merely (and here he summaries a then contemporary critical position), ‘…whomever the United States says it is.’ [11] Here, being influenced by the work of Noam Chomsky, Derrida then goes on to label the ‘most violent, most destructive of rogues states’ to be the United States.’ [12] This strange paradoxical situation is engendered through deconstruction’s dismantling of sovereign ipseities (cf. Motha’s aforementioned piece): ‘[t]he subject is a fable.’ [13] So here, the US serves qua bin Laden, and bin Laden serves qua the US, because there cannot be an exacting total immunisation which would split the two entities apart. Without delving too deeply, history will recall the already awkward partage which surrounds these two ‘proper names’: ‘[f]or let us not forget that the United States had in effect paved the way for and consolidated the forces of the “adversary” by training people like “bin Laden,” who would here be the most striking example, and by first of all creating the politico-military circumstances that would favour their emergence and their shifts in allegiance.’ [14] Accordingly, Derrida explicates how it is that there cannot be a total immunisation of one sovereign ipseity against another, due to the ramifications of deconstruction. As we find in Derrida’s ‘The Law of Genre,’ what we in fact have as ‘the law of the law of genre’ (the deconstructed ‘law of genre’), is an outcome which ‘is precisely a principle of contamination, a law of impurity, a parasitical economy.’ [15] From this we see that the question of sovereignty is once again asked.

Jean-Luc Nancy eloquently expresses the matter in his essay ‘Ex Nihilo Summum (Of Sovereignty),’ found in his book The Creation of the World or Globalization. [16] In this text we can once again see a questioning of sovereignty, for it serves as that ‘Most High’ which is never able to renounce its own reliance on the cum which it inevitably exists in relation to: thus it cannot be sovereign. From Nancy we find that the sovereign is the ultimate paradox, for it is the Most High which would, if ever reached, be the very undoing of that which reaches said Most High. On this image, we can here recall Franz Kafka’s short story ‘The Bridge,’ which sees the same paradox: the bridge is suspended over a gorge, but when it turns itself over to see who is walking across its back, it unhinges itself from the sides of the gorge, and plummets to the abyss below: [17] ‘The Most High is the one or that toward which the head itself cannot turn without toppling immediately off the axis that attaches it to the body. It ceases then to be the head. Either it loses itself in the height or it falls back into the equivalence of the body itself.’ [18] As we have seen above, Derrida too unearths this cataclysmic fate which befalls all ipseities intending to posit a sovereign existence.

Perhaps at this point we should consider if it is indeed possible to theorise what could be called a ‘totality of immunity’?; where there is no partage, no milieu, no différance; where one could wholly separate the actions and terms of one ipseity from another; where we could see the divisions and separations which could herald the finality of justice, or indeed the positing of a sovereign. In attempting this we could perhaps turn to the definitive elements of immunology to seek out the answer, in order that we may then enact a critical reflection upon the current dilemmas which May 1st 2011 discloses. However we may find ourselves left wanting, for here the paradoxes continue.


In 1881 when Élie Metchnikoff discovered the biological reaction which was then to be termed the first ‘immunological’ reaction (the action of a star-fish larva ‘defending’ itself from a barb), his discovery was not explained by the rigour of scientific method, but rather by metaphor. In taking from the legal term of immunity (immunis), Metchnikoff sought to explain how this ‘entity’ seemed to be able to remain at a distance from another entity (‘self/non-self’), through the ancient legal right of immunity. [19] Turning back to Derrida on this point, we find that Derrida was acutely aware of how immunity as a legal term had permeated into the ‘truth’ of immunology. On this he remarked, ‘[t]he “immune” (immunis) is freed or exempted from the charges, the service, the taxes, the obligations (munus, root of the common of the community),’ when speaking of the complications of the autoimmune. [20] So it would seem that we are perhaps denied the exemplary within the exemplary. As we can see, the autoimmune exists as the pharmakon, the poison and the medicine (or the différance), within the discourse of immunology. As Derrida informs us, ‘[t]he pharmakon is another name, an old name, for this autoimmunitary logic.’ [21] What it forcefully conveys is that there in fact can be no reliable account of the ‘self’ which is wholly premised upon the ‘self/non-self discrimination’ as it exists in the traditional frameworks of immunological studies. [22] Taking from Kafka once again, perhaps it is here that we find the point which speaks most vividly to our current concern: ‘[b]ut how can a wall protect if it is not a continuous structure? Indeed, not only does such a wall give no protection, it is itself in constant danger.’ [23]

However it would be foolish to pronounce that such a ‘totality of immunity’ should be the normative goal, serving as a telos to be strived for through a posited project of la politique. Rather, we must once again heed Derrida’s warning: ‘… autoimmunity is not an absolute ill or evil.’ [24] For what it in fact enables is the very exposure to ‘the other’ which allows for all happening to occur. And here we are not coding programs for emancipation, human rights or justice; we are merely opening the sources which would allow such things to be possible. As Nancy forewarns us, to remove ‘the other’ from all relationships and interactions would engender the very opposite of what a relationship is. Recalling the warning from The Inoperative Community, we are told that the ‘…community that becomes a single thing (body, mind, fatherland, Leader…) necessarily loses the in of being-in

1 Comment

  1. Great piece of work Chris!! Congrats…


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