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Marina Abramović & Ulay, ‘Rest Energy,’ 1980, performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, SerbiaGryf/Alamy
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Against Immunity

A sane alternative exists to liberalism’s imagined rights to personal privacy and bodily autonomy—and to the invasive and totalizing biopolitics that is now sweeping the West

by
Blake Smith
November 02, 2021
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Marina Abramović & Ulay, 'Rest Energy,' 1980, performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, SerbiaGryf/Alamy

It is only in moments of crisis that the inadequacy of the vision of autonomous agents disposing of their own bodies, on which we have founded the liberal political order, becomes catastrophically evident. But even in such moments—and we are surely in one now—we still hardly let ourselves admit how slogans like “my body, my choice,” endowed with the moral authority of common sense, testify to a misguided, impotent understanding of ourselves as owning our bodies. Even as our liberal regime systematically violates its foundational principle of bodily autonomy in the name of public health, good liberals seem to hope no one will notice their silence.

COVID reminds us that my body is not my own, or even one body. Each of us is more an ecosystem than an individual; we are biomes. We insist that we have the right to do what we want with our bodies, provided we respect others’ right to do the same with theirs. But bodies, at every instant, thwart these demands. Swarming with unsuspected life, our bodies open themselves to the bodies of others, from which and toward which flow a constant, unseen stream of benign or dangerous beings. To have a body is to be subject to a terrible, unchosen responsibility for what befalls the flesh of others through those alien entities. That our bodies are radically open, vulnerable, threatening, and beholden to the bodies of others may be a deadly truth, one that our political life cannot survive.

Vaccination, it was promised to us earlier this year, will end the crisis. Once a sufficient portion of our population achieved immunity to the virus, we would go back to normal—back from the brink of the terrifying awareness of how all flesh is implicated and intertwined, returning to the everyday misperceptions from which liberalism arises. Immunization, as a political and medical process, would permit the restoration of normality. The right degree of compulsion would permit the return of relative freedom and the resumption of our ordinary sense of being our own personal property.

No thinker has more courageously challenged the false promises of immunization and sounded the danger inherent in the attempt to think past liberal myths of bodily autonomy than the Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito. Since the close of the 20th century, Esposito has cogently reimagined politics as a tension between community and immunity, arguing that the latter can be understood not as a particular political or medical condition, but as the very origin of law.

In his 2002 book Immunitas, Esposito traces the etymology of “community” and “immunity,” finding their common origin in the Latin munus, “a task, obligation, duty (also in the sense of a gift to be repaid).” The community is where we discover what we owe to one another, while “those who are immune owe nothing to anyone.” The original sense of “immunity” was exemption from specific civic responsibilities, from “paying tributes or performing services.” This meaning persists in our notion of diplomatic immunity, by which designated individuals enjoy special release from the ordinary legal consequences of their actions.

Rather than seeing the granting of legal immunity as an occasional and marginal procedure by which a community exceptionally exonerates certain of its members from given obligations, however, Esposito claims that law is itself founded on a logic of immunization. Law, defining the rights and duties that we are owed and owe each other, “immunizes” us against the potentially unlimited demands of our community. Just as our bodies are in fact not singular and separate but channels by which nonhuman life pours from and onto to other human bodies, so too does “common life” continually break against “the identity-making boundaries of individuals, exposing them to alteration.”

What my neighbors do makes who I am. The way they buy, sell, produce, and consume—their supposedly private economic choices—may make my own livelihood easier or harder to obtain. Their dress, taste, and speech may shape my own—or, influencing those of others, may change the world around me in ways I find troubling, abhorrent, even unlivable. The microbial balance in their bodies may kill me, or support my health.

Living in full consciousness of how we make each other, how common life exposes us to shared risks of transformation, would be intolerable. Not only would we lose any sense of personal freedom, but we would be confronted with endless, wrenching obligations toward all those around us. Seeing how our neighbors’ lives are of our own making, and how they make ours, we would seem to have an infinite burden to care for them—or an irresistible alibi for interfering. We could not live this way.

The “unsustainable contamination” by which my body, thoughts, and deeds ceaselessly flow into my neighbors, and theirs into mine, must somehow be limited. We must be able to tell ourselves that we have done enough, that our obligations to each other are finite, that we have, after all, rights of our own. Here the law steps in, telling us that there is such a thing as a fixed, delimited private domain in which we are not accountable for the effects of our actions on others. We set boundaries among individuals, agreeing to ignore the ways that our influences (biological, economic, cultural, psychological, etc.) flow around those barriers. We grant ourselves immunity from the consequences of those actions we have agreed to call private.

This is the immunization on which political life is founded. Liberal democracy, with its formalized expression of individual rights, appears as an especially explicit form of politics’ immunitary logic, by which individuals set some portion of their lives aside from the community and the obligations to which it might summon them. Esposito warns, however, that this process “reverses the affirmative bond of common obligation into the purely negative right of each individual to exclude all others from using what is proper to him or her.” Community now appears not as our original ground of being, but as nothing more than a compact for respecting each other’s privacy.

The immunization that limits the claims of the community is both necessary and dangerous; “common life” in its full intensity would be intolerable, but by “immunizing life from community,” we risk a fatal separation from our fellow men. In ordinary times, the distance that political immunization sets among individuals might appear worthy of critique or even condemnation primarily insofar as it makes us indifferent to the fate of others—and one can find a plethora of such claims in any discussion of the ills of liberalism. But, in moments of crisis such as the present, the immunization that allows us to imagine ourselves as having private lives and autonomous bodies, protected by unbreachable rights, becomes not only an excuse for selfishness, but a danger to public health.

We cannot continue acting as if our bodies and lives were our own when they become the vectors of deadly illness. As an apparent remedy to the deficiencies of the primary immunization that founds politics, Esposito argues, comes another, secondary form of immunization, that of biopolitics.

Two years after Immunitas, Esposito published Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy. In it he warned, echoing his fellow Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, that liberalism had been eroded over the course of the 20th century by a new kind of politics aiming at “the protection of biological life” rather than the preservation of individual rights. The Nazi regime was in some ways the most dramatic, and obviously horrifying, expression of this evolution. There the supposed health of a population—the imagined Aryan race—its “purification” from the “contamination” and “degeneracy” posed by various supposedly inferior sorts of humanity, became the purpose of politics. Not only liberal human rights, but legality itself was sacrificed to a new “immunitary machine” that undid the primary immunization of the law in order to “immunize” every aspect of life against purported threats.

The celebrations of vitality in the work of Nazi artists like Leni Riefenstahl and Arno Breker, and in mass state-run leisure programs like Strength Through Joy, were as much a part of this machine as the mass murder of Jews, the disabled, homosexuals, and other groups judged threats to the Aryans’ biological flourishing. Where previous modes of politics had sought to immunize individuals against the unlimited and conflict-generating entanglements of common life, Nazi biopolitics sought to make every aspect of individuals’ existence available for political manipulation. It became, Esposito states in a provocative metaphor, an autoimmune disorder, by which politics, instead of limiting the possibility of violence and assigning some sphere of life to a protected private sphere, “destroys everything that it comes into contact with.”

Esposito follows Agamben, and Michel Foucault before him, in arguing that “the end of Nazism in no way signaled the end of biopolitics,” which now menaces Western liberal democracies from within. Writing in the early 2000s, the major vector of biopolitics then seemed to be the “war on terror,” in which the threat posed by Islamic terrorists to the United States and its allies was imagined to justify not only military interventions against particular regimes and networks, but a spiraling extension of the surveillance power of the American state against its own citizens.

Roberto Esposito

Roberto Esposito©Basso CANNARSA/Opale

Unlike previous “wars,” which appeared as crises in which liberal norms could be suspended to be later resumed, the war on terror had no clear objectives that might constitute a possible terminus; one could hardly imagine the danger of terrorism being reduced to zero, or victory over it being declared. Nor was there, as in World War I and II, any sense, except among perhaps the most deluded neoconservatives dreaming of a liberal democratic Middle East, that the United States government was calling on its citizens to participate in a collective effort to achieve some higher, transformative end. Citizens were assured that, within a smaller and more surveilled enclosure, normal life would continue.

The war on terror, Esposito insists, is symptomatic of modern politics, in which the legal “immunization” that preserved individual freedom (at the cost of “common life”) is erased by a new form of immunization he describes as the “biologization of the political.” In the face of terrorism—or, in our moment, the pandemic—the inadequacy of the primary immunization on which liberalism rests is brutally exposed. In its place “the only project that enjoys universal legitimacy” and can offer a substitute basis for politics is “the preservation of life,” understood in the narrowest biological terms.

Our biopolitics, hunkered and defensive, aiming only at protecting life, may seem to be far removed from the Nazis’ ambitions for remaking the world in fire and blood. But, as the war on terror and the current campaign against COVID show, the ostensibly minimalist aim of self-preservation can easily become, in the absence of a commitment to rights and legality, an all-consuming project. Extending its reach further and further, the “immunitary machine” that is supposed to preserve the body politic “doubles back on itself,” unable to stop or set boundaries to its intensifying control of life, which it ultimately makes not safer but less livable.

One form of opposition to biopolitics, Esposito notes, was sketched out by Foucault, who argued that our capacity to resist those who control us in the name of preserving life depends on our willingness to risk death. Esposito describes his “impression of insufficiency, or indeed of an underlying reservation” regarding Foucault’s approach. It seems impossible from within the latter to distinguish desirable and productive forms of resistance from, as Foucault himself observed, the actions of madmen and criminals.

From a Foucauldian vantage, those who protest vaccine passports, masking mandates and other public health imperatives are trying to defend their freedom in the face of biopolitical overreach that, if not stopped, will continue to expand and endure, just like the war on terror. But without some more positive end for the sake of which these protests are carried on, they can appear indeed insane and criminal, as nothing more than an irresponsible desire to return to the world as it was before COVID, to the illusion of the liberal order in which each of us was the master of his own body. Thus understood, such resistance is almost indistinguishable from the biopolitics it purports to resists. Both seek the maintenance of mere life within more limited terms, either by accepting new restrictions on freedom or new risks of death.

Esposito finds that Foucault offered us something more useful when he claimed that what is at stake, at least potentially, in resistance to the biopolitical protection of life at the expense of freedom is a redefinition of “life.” Effective resistance to biopolitics, Esposito suggests, depends on breaking open the concept of life, distinguishing between life in general—which biopolitical actors purport to safeguard—and those specific lives, or ways of life, to which individuals commit themselves.

It hardly seems acceptable to risk one’s own death, let alone worth risking an increased chance of death for others, in order to avoid being inconvenienced by public health mandates. But to the extent that risks are undertaken in order to preserve our freedom to live in the ways that alone make life meaningful for us—a chosen, human life, rather than the mere living-on of an organism—they can take on more cogency and urgency. When people assume health risks to continue their religious services, when they engage in potentially dangerous practices that they understand as defining their identities, however risible or objectionable we may find such acts or the beliefs behind them, they confront us with something more than a case of egoistic nihilism, or a reckless clinging to liberal norms.

Esposito extends this insight in his discussion of Hannah Arendt, whose notion of “natality,” he argues, is a crucial resource for rethinking biopolitics. In The Human Condition (1958), Arendt claimed that philosophy has overemphasized the importance of our consciousness of death. Philosophers like her former lover Martin Heidegger—who greatly influenced Foucault—saw our awareness of death as uniquely human, and crucial to the possibility of an authentic life. In contrast, Arendt stressed that human beings are also to be distinguished from animals, and also become capable of assuming their individual freedom and responsibility, not only in their awareness of the fact of their coming death but also in their consciousness that they can give birth to new and unique lives. Esposito argues that this “natality,” our capacity to bring something novel into the world, applies not only to literal birth (the creation of new people, who are unlike anyone who has ever existed or will exist) but to the range of processes by which we “give birth” to new selves, either by transforming our own lives or by helping others to transform theirs.

From this perspective, Esposito insists, an “affirmative biopolitics” would aim not at preserving biological life and shielding it from all dangers (an impossible task that leads, the more it is pursued, to the destruction of freedom and eventually life). Nor would it aim at preserving the autonomy of our individual bodies from the demands and needs of the community. This “affirmative biopolitics,” overcoming both biopolitics as we know it and liberalism, sets as its highest value neither biological life nor bodily autonomy. 

Affirmative biopolitics would aspire not merely to ensuring human survival, or protecting a fixed set of individual rights, but to generating, sustaining, and transforming new forms of individual and collective life, fulfilling the potential of natality intrinsic to the human condition. The prerequisites for such living would include, surely, both public health and personal freedom—but these would not be, as they are now, balanced against each other in a securitarian calculus that tries to assess what quantity of compulsion is required to maintain liberty, or what risk of death is necessary to maintain life. Rather, they would both be negotiated in reference to a third, superior term: life understood in a positive sense as our capacity to give birth to the new. Only from such a vantage, Esposito urges, can we escape the autoimmune disorders that define our contemporary politics.

Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, is a Harper Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago, where he works on cultural ties between France and India. He is a writing fellow at Heterodox Academy.

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