On Immunity civer

Feministing Reads: Eula Biss’s On Immunity

On Immunity civerLast week I went to my pharmacy with the intention of getting my first flu shot. While waiting, I had the bad idea to search “flu shot conspiracy theories” on my phone, and I read them until I was convinced not only that the flu shot might kill me, but that I was also already dead. I grabbed my paperwork and left, un-inoculated, in a hurry.

At the time, I had not yet read On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss’s third non-fiction book, which takes seriously the American strain of myths and fears surrounding immunity as its subject. If I had, I would felt the shame that shimmers when failing to recycle or to perform some other fairly easy action that leads to an arguably greater good. Biss’s lucid prose makes many things clear, but most pressing among them is the devastatingly simple fact: “We owe each other our bodies.” In a nation that valorizes self-reliance, this demand that we give to strangers, to others like and unlike ourselves, runs contrary to the common sense of many. Biss succeeds in making this concept a little easier to understand, so that we are not only less sick, but also, ideally, less selfish. On Immunity is as much a meditation about community in an era of increasing privatization, as it is a sweeping synthesis of scientific research.

An essayist celebrated for her lyricism and unflinching eye for detail, Biss begins her research as a soon-to-be-mother, worried that vaccinations might have an adverse effect her unborn son. By the end of her extensive interviews with doctors and immunologists, her sharp readings of philosophy and public health studies, and casual conversations with friends and family, her views on vaccination, with its “labyrinthine network of interlocking anxieties,” have evolved. The hope is that, by guiding us through her journey, ours do too.

When it comes to immunity, the notion that a certain population, because of their race, class, sexual orientation, diet, living conditions, is more vulnerable than another has been produced by those in power to stigmatize those without it; besides being an ignoble myth, its also just plain wrong. Public health, an emergent phenomenon predicated on collective, communitarian action, cannot be realized unless everyone–and this is truly one of the few times in which the universalizing impulse holds firm–takes part. In this sense, the process of reading this conversion narrative–a journey from doubt to certainty–unfolds as an insistently political project. Biss’s address to readers becomes a carefully wrought call to universal action: inoculate.

At a time when Republican demagogues have secured a congressional victory through their own well-worn metaphorical apparatus–linking the Ebola crisis to immigration and terrorism in a series of clumsy and confused immunological allusions–Biss’s probing, self-critical analysis can be seen as a panacea to this racist, hawkish fever. Biss reveals how the same Us-versus-Them logic that drives the country’s endless wars frames our conversations around inoculation. We have come to understand ourselves as readying for battle with our diseases. We liken the specialized cells of the immune system to types of killers; we fundraise for the “war” on cancer;” we buy antibacterial soaps that promise to kill every last germ. These military metaphors make us forget that our bodies, like our bacteria, are neither our enemies, nor friends. The situation of our selves and our boundaries is messier. It’s fluid.

The anti-vaccination rhetoric that attacks science directly stems from a misunderstanding of herd immunity. Common immunity can be understood (in the metaphor-prone descriptions of immunology) as a well, where “those of us who draw on collective immunity owe our health to our neighbors.” The borders between my body and yours are as porous as the water we all drink. Entangled and interdependent members of our environment, we have never been pure. Nor is purity, with the veiled racism it connotes, desirable–metaphorically or literally. Toxicity, scientifically speaking, is not a zero-sum game but a question of dose: even too much water (or too many metaphors about water) can kill you.

Much of Biss’s argument is devoted to deconstructing binaries like pure/impure, self/other, friend/invader, individual/population, care/cure, help/harm, good/bad, modern/old wives’ tale, inside/outside, private/public–that structure how we understand pathology and society. Eroding these distinctions in favor of a gradient or blur, Biss shows us that the body being vaccinated is the social body–or, to borrow words from Anne Carson, the vaccinated body is not my body, not a woman’s body, but the “body of us all.”

This practical goal–to explain the facts and circumstances of immunology, as doctors currently understand them–is invigorated Biss’s interrogation of the social contexts that have come to construct and create these scientific categories. Just as Biss displays how our bodies tangle with society, Biss presents science, especially medicine, as a profoundly social practice, informing and formed by culture. This is why–no matter how many times the scientific evidence gets explained–these fears of contagion and of contamination persist. The realization that our bodies belong to the “general population” deeply troubles liberal theory’s conception of the body as a singular, sacrosanct subject.

Anti-vaccinators in 19th century England framed their cause as a struggle for individual autonomy, drawing on the abolitionist rhetoric of liberty, to articulate their class oppression by the state’s medical forces, (but had no interest in the actual antislavery movement). Today, a popular Quantified Self movement promises (wealthy) individuals that through buying expensive equipment to track one’s own pulse, calories, sleep, workout regimen, and so forth, they might live longer, fitter lives. The pursuit of such a personalized regime of purity is a privilege, and perhaps indulgence. It can be hard to stomach that it doesn’t matter how much we protect ourselves if we don’t protect each other. To take a stand against vaccination (sprinting, for instance, out of a pharmacy before the deed is done) signals a will to power in a situation where we are, without others, powerless.

Ava Kofman is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn. She is a guest contributor to Feministing.

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