Tag Archives: Warwick Anderson

Immune systems as two-way metaphors…

Donna Haraway is awesome.  Has lots to say about metaphors and science, especially around immune systems.  Immune systems are something I am interested in (For The Thesis). And so I came to read this –

Anderson, W. 2014. Getting Ahead of One’s Self? The Common Culture of Immunology and Philosophy. Isis, 105, pp.606-616.

Which is a total head-fuck (in a good way.)  I will have to come back to it, but for now, two chunks.

I want to consider the emergence in the late twentieth century of what might be called “immunological metaphysics”—but to do so I need additionally to sketch the philosophical roots of modern immunology. That is, I suggest that in this case a sort of “sociological fallacy” anticipated and rendered possible the “naturalistic fallacy,” that social thought has authorized the science of immunology as much as the humanities and social sciences recently have sought validation in immunological research, in the already socialized natural.
Therefore I am interested in the traffic of metaphor and model between social theory and the biological sciences—traffic so dense and intricate that it sometimes obscures any division between these domains. Indeed, that really is my point. Notions of an appeal to nature or a resort to culture are useful fantasies, figments of a convenient bipolar imaginary. Nature and culture, as critics such as Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour tell us, are hopelessly entangled no matter how assiduously we try to unravel them—hence the plausibility of mixed terms like “sociobiology,” “biosociality,” and “biopolitics.”
(Anderson, 2014:607)


Exploring the images dominating popular and scientific discussions of the immune system, Martin tried to understand what sort of social world immunologists were conjuring. She believed that immunology excelled at rendering “natural” certain social arrangements and cultural assumptions. In popular accounts, the metaphor of warfare against an external enemy still prevails; the body resembles a police state, protecting against foreign intruders. The boundary between self and other is rigid and absolute. These images of immunity make “violent destruction seem ordinary and part of the necessity of daily life.”17
In contrast, immunologists increasingly were inclined to depict the body as a “whole, interconnected system complete unto itself,” as a “homeostatic, self-regulating system.” Martin saw older militaristic models of the body, “organized around nationhood, warfare, gender, race, and class,” contending with a new immunological body “organized as a global system with no internal boundaries and characterized by rapid flexible response.” It was, for her, a new body transformed for “late capitalism.” Martin was convinced that immunologists did not “ignore the world outside the lab in devising their models of the body.” Therefore the cultural anthropologist recorded how the language of immunity increasingly “crashed into contemporary descriptions of the economy of the late-twentieth century with a focus on flexible specialization, flexible production, and flexible rapid response to an ever-changing market with specific, tailor-made products.”18
(Anderson, 2014:611)
17 Emily Martin, “The End of the Body?” American Ethnologist, 1989, 16:121–140, on p. 126; and Martin, “Toward an Anthropology of Immunology: The Body as a Nation State,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 1990, 4:410–426, on p. 417.
18 Martin, “End of the Body?” pp. 123, 129; and Martin, Flexible Bodies (cit. n. 14), pp. 111, 93.

After The Thesis I will get down to some ‘Hollow Land’ too..