Roberto Esposito’s Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life revisited

2002 — The Self-Destructive Dynamic of Immunitary Logic

Roberto Esposito’s »Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life revisited«

By Karin Harrasser

–> DE

Roberto Esposito’s »Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life revisited« at Google Books


Roberto Esposito’s Immunitas. The Protection and Negation of Life was published in Italian in 2002. It was written in the wake of the AIDS crisis and is thus centered on the self-destructive powers of the immunological discourse. Autoimmune diseases, hence disorders in which the immune system malfunctions and attacks the body’s own organs, have received great attention since longer, not least because of the omnipresence of allergies (literally: »activities foreign to the body«). Esposito’s patient and precise work on philosophical, anthropological, and biological texts of the last 2000 years unfolds the fundamentally antisocial character of immunitary discourse. He identifies the underlying mechanism to be the dosed and controlled incorporation of the foreign, the danger to the whole, the enemy, the risk, while isolating the organism from the external at the same time. In the biomedical field this procedure is familiar in the form of the vaccination, the inoculation of small doses of the pathogen to activate the immune system. Is it this pattern, translated to the political, which underlies the current biopolitical measures? Yes and no: The rigid closure of borders, the introduction of restricted zones around the vulnerable (read: everyone, hence »social distancing«); speculations on the necessary degree of »contamination« and »herd immunity«, on the one hand, the feverish search for vaccines, on the other. The taken measures refer, so it seems, to quite different historical situations and epistemologies. It appears that very different things are being mobilized in this convoluted scenario: from isolation actions reminiscent of the plague to semi-transparent strategies of modern immunology aimed at precise containment.

What is interesting here is that Esposito does not begin his study with modern medicine, rather with politics and law, more precisely with the immunity of officials. The Latin munus refers to an office, a task, burden, obligation, duty, also in the sense of a gift to be repaid. (5) Accordingly, communitas entails an obligation shared by its bearers. With Simone Weil, Esposito outlines law as the principle that contrasts reciprocal obligation with an individual claim: My obligation to the other is his/her right. In a positive legal claim, the reciprocal obligation is individualized, encapsulated, limited to an individual and his/her right. Law is sanctioned by the state monopoly so that a defined group can exercise violence with impunity. In this way, the violence, against which the law actually intended to immunize, nestles itself in the core of the communitas. It colonizes the space of shared obligations. As Esposito states: Immune is »someone who does not perform any office«, and it »occurs as an exemption to a rule that everyone else must follow«, which is common. (5–6) This process is particularly obvious in notion of immunity qua office. For example, the doctors in Rome were immune: Namely, in the sense that due to their medical privileges, which allowed them to receive payments for treatments, they were not permitted to assume a public office. And the fact that immunity from prosecution qua office engenders a potential abuse of power at the core of the community is quite evident. Hence, by incorporating a small dose of violence, immunitary devices in the realm of the political-legal attempt to preventively neutralize possible excesses and the collapse of the whole (or falling into war, as will be shown).

Esposito goes on to describe how vital immunitary logic is to the negative anthropology of political theory. In this context, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan is the most renowned and potent immunological figure, albeit grounded in ancient religious models of the sacrifice of the individual for the community. In Hobbes’ version, it is fear that is stimulated in small doses in order to justify the concentration of violence in the sovereign. As is well known, it is not the real war of all against all, rather the sheer possibility of an opponent’s wrongdoing in the future, which seals the contract of the monopoly on behalf of the sovereign. Hence, the theory and practice of people’s sovereignty is preventive in nature and corresponds precisely with the logic of excluding inclusion: In order to circumvent future violence, it is omnipresent in the state authority in small doses. Conversely, the social contract has the sovereign stand outside of the reciprocal obligations—in other words, he is immune.

Here it also becomes clear that it is not the war between agonal factions, which forms the operative and symbolic space of the immunological, but the civil war. This is a first hint at what the limit of the immunological is: its drift towards autoaggression and entropy in the name of security, care, and protection of life. In the famous figure of the Leviathan on the frontispiece of Hobbes’ text, whose supratemporal body is comprised of the mortal bodies of individuals, the constitution of modern politics, which—here Esposito follows Foucault—is biopolitics, is visualized. »The object of politics is no longer a ‘life form,’ its own specific way of being, but rather, life itself.« (112) And namely biological life in a dual sense of the term: The physical life of the individual, which »does not go together with death for very long« (113), and the prosperity and survival of the »body politic«. The fact that the former stands in the service of the latter is also tangible without racist excesses. Sure, the individual can, and should, optimize his/her individual life, but always with a view to the whole. That is why communal health systems sort and prioritize with the aid of insurers and other agencies of public health. And in times of crisis they do it in the most direct and cruelest way. The triage is but the peak of the iceberg: When the depleted health systems of the Global North or the rudimentary available ones of the Global South are more likely to treat those who have sufficient financial resources, there is as much Social Darwinism at work as in the first phase of the British crisis management strategy.

Following an excursion through the diverse nexuses of political and medical discourses, which, as Esposito lucidly describes, are a hallmark of European political thought, he comes to the core question of his study in the chapter »War games«: »But in what sense does immunity constitute the strategic focus of contemporary societies?« (153) He demonstrates just how rhetorically fit the medical discourse on immunology is, and, paradoxically, that it is threatened to collapse precisely when confronted with the reality of infectious diseases. Biomedical immunology posits the individual body as an integral whole, which transforms into a battlefield upon the incursion of the pathogen. A cursory reading of medical and popular treatises on viruses reveals the Manichean character of this battle. Viruses figure into this narrative as the ultimate evil. They appear to be programmed solely for reproduction, eternal opponents of the organism. A Hobbesian natural state of the organism unfolds. Once the boundaries of the body have become porous, things proceed rapidly: »The narrative sequence leads in a crescendo of dramatic intensity from the detection of the enemy, the activation of the defense lines, the launch of the counterattack, the physical elimination of the captured opponents, to the clearing away of casualties from the field.« (156) In my eyes, this inner war translates the current media images of crisis (mis)management way too directly: barriers, full-body masking, artificial respiration, coffins awaiting their transport away. Nevertheless, at the end of this immunological narrative awaits a temporary happy end. Once the body has immunized itself, it regains its integrity, and, double triumph: The enemy can no longer harm it. The body freed from the foreign intruder emerges from the battle as a true Sigurd—if it weren’t for the aforementioned drift of the immunological to autodestruction, as Sigurd’s vulnerable spot lies within, in the functioning of the immune system itself. With the autoimmune HI-virus, this crux became well known beyond the realm of medical immunology. Furthermore, the medical world has been familiar with immune excesses of organisms at least since Paul Ehrlich, the founder of chemotherapy, who coined the term »horror autotoxicus« in 1906. Not just in the case of AIDS, but also with systemic lupus erythematosus, hepatitis, type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis, just to name the most known, the immune system overreacts. To stay with the vocabulary of war: The intruding viruses use mimetic processes, tricks in which they disguise themselves as the »own«, to successfully turn the defensive system against itself. A cellular civil war commences, which is hard to bring back under control. The battlefield scenario turns into one of espionage and counter-espionage. In this light, why shouldn’t authorities and officials be equipped with forensic competences of sorts, which surveil the inner worlds of our bodies to track down the double agents?

Medical studies on autoimmune diseases are centered around an inevitable question, which also preoccupies philosophy: the recognition of own and other/foreign. The immunologist Edward Golub formulated the question in a way that could also be posed in a philosophy lecture: »On the one hand, we have seen that recognition of self is necessary, but on the other, we know that this reaction against the self may be suicidal.« (cited by Esposito, 164) So advanced medical research returns to the fundamental problem, which has been plaguing immunological theory for 2000 years: The problem of the common, the indistinguishability between that which belongs and that which threatens to destroy the common.

In closing, Esposito asks whether such a self-destructive reading of the immune system (double: as organism and as community) is the only possible interpretation. (165) For the moment: It is not so important in order to value Esposito’s study. The study systematically and clearly spells out the different components of the immunological discourse, and the reader learns quite a lot, which can help to better sort out the material-semiotic patterns activated in the current crisis. Nonetheless, one naturally hopes that there was still another interpretation of the immunological. And in fact, Esposito proposes one. It is one about the development of immunological »tolerances«. Donna Haraway wrote about it under the slogan »living and dying together«, Jean-Luc Nancy wrote about it in connection with developing tolerance toward his heart implant, and every pregnancy provides vivid evidence that the immune system can and must learn tolerance, otherwise the embryo would be repelled. The development of tolerances would be the medical counterpart to »reciprocal recognition« in political discourse. The common ground is that the precondition for tolerance is an active, sincere perception of the other, a sensibility for the non-self, which does not belittle it, dose it, immediately try to contain it. Esposito sees the source of such an active perception of otherness, which is accessible to all, in the experience of the finite nature of human existence: I know I used to be someone different, and I know at some point I will not be here. This expands the horizon for other ways of being together.

Hence, what Esposito proposes is the disarmament of immunological discourse and an opening toward the acknowledgement of a shared finiteness. This means, in a somewhat different vocabulary: to socialize and cultivate how we deal with the virus. Not explaining away its existence, but also to resist framing it as »an external enemy, which must be neutralized as quickly as possible«. I would like to add: staying aware of the destructive dynamics in the immunological discourse itself—for example, the inequality that is right now being accepted and still forced in its name. We need a future founded in solidarity, for the non-self is not going to go away—hence, inclusively excluding it as an enemy cannot be desirable. As a self-technique, this could mean: getting on with dividuality, with a »shared individuality« (177), instead of the bitter defense of an individuality imagined as threatened. Against the backdrop of Esposito’s portrayed longue durée of immunological theory with its knots and detours between fields of practice and knowledge, one thing, however, is clear: Jumping outside such a way of thinking will not be easy, but being aware of your our own abysses is a good first step.


Many thanks to Katrin Solhdju and Nicola Condoleo for their valuable suggestions and improvements.


Roberto Esposito’s »Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life revisited« at Google Books