Book review / Cultural Theory and Concepts

Eula Biss’ Immunity: A question of relation

By Laura Katherine Smith

BissWhile doing research for the then upcoming international conference hosted by the KU Leuven: Immunity and Modernity: Picturing Threat and Protection (May 2015), I picked up the book On Immunity: An Inoculation (2014). I thought that Eula Biss’ book might offer a straight forward, medical or law-based analysis that would help me to pin down or to grasp an answer to the question: just what is immunity? Biss’ book did not provide such a ready-made definition of immunity but rather, and to my benefit as a reader, documented a journey of discovery that outlines and embraces the complexity of this concept. Eula Biss, author of On Immunity: An Inoculation, is a senior lecturer in the Department of English at Northwestern University.

The book opens with an image of the myth of Achilles, “whose mother tried to make him immortal” (3). Through such stories of myth and fate, Biss shares her earliest memories with the reader; encounters with what she would later come to recognize as related to the question of immunity. These often cautionary tales were passed from parents to child. The stories, including Grimm’s Fairy Tales, remained in latent consciousness as Biss returned to explore the limits and possibilities of immunity as an adult. The author notes, “I do not remember the brutality for which those tales are famous as vividly as I remember their magic. (…) But it did not escape my notice, as a child, that the parents in those tales have a maddening habit of getting tricked into making bad gambles with their children’s lives” (4). The author’s struggle for clarity with regards to this concept is coloured by her own experience as the daughter of a doctor, as a nonfiction writer and as a mother. The book’s dedication reads: “to other mothers, with gratitude to mine”.

In addition to what Sarah Manguso defines as Biss’ ‘self-documentation’, the reader feels herself well informed by the obvious paramount research that has gone into Biss’ investigation of immunity (Manguso defines this extensive research practice as Biss’ ‘world-documentation’). The collected fragments for this project are drawn from medical journals and articles, nonfiction and fiction books, newspaper clippings, world events, politics, history, poetry, science and myth in an exhaustive effort to come to terms with this concept. Biss’ methodology creates an historical tapestry; stories and voices of Christopher Columbus, Karl Marx, George Orwell, John Keats, Søren Kierkegaard, and Rainer Maria Rilke are woven amidst various scholars, including Susan Sontag and Donna Haraway, as well as historians of immunology and other scientists. Data from the American Medical Association, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization entwine with these stories and voices. References to Alice in Wonderland and, in particular, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, reinforce this tapestry. Biss takes the reader back to the first vaccinations in the eighteenth century that were performed by farmers and involved transferring the pus of infected cows (cowpox) into humans – the author notes that this experiment was successful in the protection against smallpox. Themes and topics of vaccination, fearfulness, paranoia, germ theory, herd immunity, banking immunity, and governmental and pharmaceutical corruption fill out the context upon which we imagine our own and each other’s immunity.

To describe Biss’ book as ‘straight forward’ would be, on the one hand, to highlight the ease with which this book is read – the reader can immediately relate to its reminiscences of personal familial experience concerning, for example, childhood illness, debates about vaccination, and the confusion of frenzied consumerism – its trends and paralysing choices when it comes to ‘knowing what is best for our children’. However, overall, and to her credit, Biss takes the reader on an anything but ‘straight forward’ journey. With the author as guide, the reader discovers that this concept bends, twists, and metamorphoses as metaphor and imagination grip and drive perception and experience.

This book identifies that immunity turns around the central question of self and other. As a new, and she admits ‘fearful’ mother, Biss tries, through the collection and analysis of information, to find the best strategies of protection for her newborn son. Through this investigation, however, the blurring of lines – between imagined and physical self and other, individual and community – becomes evident and Biss posits that humans are not and cannot be immune to life since we are bound to the very elements that we perceive as threatening. We are ‘always already’ both threatened and dangerous it turns out although continuously, “we imagine our bodies as isolated homesteads that we tend either well or badly” (21). George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book, Metaphors We Live By (1980), is directly put to use here as Biss demonstrates that metaphor shapes the way we perceive ourselves and the world.

Rather than pinning down a static answer to ‘what is immunity?’, I have instead obtained, through Biss’ book, a much richer understanding of the nature of immunity. Rather than a definition of immunity that closes a conversation, Biss’ book creates fertile links that spark further thought – a meditation on the concept without beginning or end. A metamorphic image of immunity, gleaned from Biss’s book, proved a solid foundation for my further research – not despite but because of its malleability in confronting the question: just what is immunity? The image of immunity that Biss paints is one of relation, a continual negotiation, breakdown, and/or redefinition across and between self-other. Biss’ complex constellation, wherein all of life is implicated in the consideration of immunity, inevitably demonstrates that with protection comes vulnerability and vice versa.

Highly recommended reading for research and/or general interest.