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Terror(ism) and Aesthetics (2015)

Derrida and the Immune System


The concept of autoimmunity appears first in Derrida’s explicitly political writings, which, after 9/11, have become thoroughly entangled with the problematics of “terror.”[1] In Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides, he defines the autoimmunitary processes of democracy as follows: “As we know, an autoimmunitary process is that strange behavior where a living being, in quasi-suicidal fashion, ‘itself’ works to destroy its own protection, to immunize itself against its ‘own’ immunity.”[2] This definition is the almost word by word repetition of the earlier, more openly biological description of the term in Faith and Knowledge (Foi et Savoir, 1996):

It is especially in the domain of biology that the lexical resources of immunity have developed their authority. The immunitary reaction protects the “indemnity” of the body proper in producing antibodies against foreign antigens. As for the process of auto-immunization, which interests us particularly here, it consists for a living organism, as is well known and in short, of protecting itself against its self-protection by destroying its own immune system.[3]

Although Derrida asserts that he wishes to “extend to life in general the figure of an autoimmunity whose meaning or origin first seemed to be limited to so-called natural life” (Derrida, Autoimmunity, 187, n7), few critics have taken the claim that the term derives from the domain of biology[4] seriously enough to investigate how the term functions in medical discourses, and ask questions about the political stakes involved in Derrida’s (mis-)reading of the medical definition of the term. [5]

In Derrida’s Politics of Autoimmunity, J. Hillis Miller avers that “Derrida uses the figure of the body’s disastrous autoimmunity in certain diseases to define an absolutely universal condition of any political order or community” (my emphasis), and backs up his argument with the Wikipedia definition of autoimmunity: “the failure of an organism to recognize its own constituent parts (down to the submolecular levels) as ‘self,’ which results in an immune response against its own cells and tissues.”[6] However, as the Wikipedia entry also testifies, Miller fails to recognise that Derrida’s definition of autoimmunity is different from its medical definition. Whereas Derrida claims that during autoimmuntary processes the protective system of the body destroys itself (i.e. the immune system), the Wikipedia definition rightly suggests that in autoimmune diseases the immune system destroys the body’s cells and tissues.

In 1989, one year after the publication of Sontag’s AIDS and its Metaphors, and 4 years before introducing the term autoimmunity in Spectres of Marx, Derrida, engaging for the first time with the body’s immune system, is still more wary of biological metaphors. In an interview later entitled The Rhetoric of Drugs, he discusses AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) at length, and argues that the politicisation of AIDS may bring forth “the worst political violence.”[7] Thus, despite the fact that deconstruction itself has often been associated with the subversive work of a virus, Derrida, quite uncharacteristically, wishes to disentangle the literal (biological) and the metaphorical (political)[8] uses of the term: HIV (the human immunodeficiency virus) is not like deconstruction, and cannot be used as a political metaphor. However, AIDS stands in an uneasy, almost spectral relationship with autoimmune diseases. For whereas in autoimmune diseases the immune system destroys the body’s own organs, during HIV infection, the immune system destroy itself, and becomes entangled in a process that inevitably leads to its total destruction. Thus, Derrida’s definition of autoimmunity echoes, in fact, the medical definitions of AIDS, but unlike AIDS, autoimmunity becomes a political concept in Derrida’s thinking.

The establishment of a metaphorical relationship between the human body and the body politic is widely recognised as one of the most prominent features of nationalist discourses, which conceptualise the political body as if it was a living, biological body, and thereby posit the “health” of the biological, and, therefore, the political body as the moral norm. By introducing the term “autoimmunity” Derrida seems to establish precisely such a relationship. However, the figure of autoimmunity is introduced in order to subvert the ideology of nationalism, and becomes associated with the work of deconstruction itself.[9] As Derrida says,

autoimmunity is not an absolute ill or evil. It enables an exposure to the other, to what and who comes — which means that it must remain incalculable. Without autoimmunity, with absolute immunity, nothing would ever happen or arrive; we would no longer wait, await, or expect, no longer expect another, or expect any event..[10]

Thus, instead of positing the “health” of the body politic as the moral norm, Derrida regards autoimmunity (a disease), and, therefore, the autoimmune (self-destructive) processes of democracy, as the unconditional condition of the ethical within (rather than beyond) the political. In fact, autoimmunity is intimately bound up with the concept of hospitality, with this first, ethical relationship to alterity, implying an unconditional opening to and welcoming of the Other — even if “this unconditionality is a frightening thing, it’s scary.”[11] On the other hand, Derrida is equally eager to underline that it is not “out of some excessive biologistic or geneticist proclivity” on his part that he uses a biological model. For the term “political autoimmunity” concerns precisely the question of the “relationship between the politikon, physis, and bios or zoe, life-death” (Derrida, Rogues, 109, my emphasis).

Since the ways in which Derrida actually theorises, or asks questions about, the relationship between autoimmunity and democracy, [12] or else, the way in which he posits autoimmunity as both the condition of and the consequence of democracy, is far beyond the scope of the present argument,[13] I will restrict myself to a few introductory remarks. According to Derrida’s definition of autoimmunity, the immune system, which is responsible for the body’s self-protection, attacks and destroys itself, thus making the body vulnerable. Consequently, the introduction of the figure of autoimmunity in the ethico-political discourse suggests that the political body always contains within itself the possibility of its own undoing. But it is precisely democracy’s self-protection against any total(ising) self-protection, that is welcomed, by Derrida, as hospitality, as an inherent openness to the possibility for the other (the “event”, or “death”) to arrive. At the same time, autoimmunity not only entails the potential destruction of (the protection of) the self as both the object and the subject of the suicidal event (and of the events still to come), but it is also something that has always already compromised the supposed integrity, or else, ipseity of the self. As he puts it: “Autoimmunity is more or less suicidal, but more seriously still, it threatens always to rob suicide itself from its meaning and supposed integrity” (Derrida, Rogues, 44).

In Rogues, Derrida gives two examples for the suicidal tendencies of democracy, which immediately indicate that autoimmunity, rather than necessarily being a threat, can be best understood as risk. On the one hand, there is always a potential suicide involved in democratic institutions themselves, since democratic elections may well lead to the rise to power of anti-democratic forces that thus gain the right to put an end to the very institutions that made their victory possible in the first place. On the other hand, democracy can always, temporarily, suspend itself in order to protect itself (following the logic of autoimmunity), and prevent the rise to power of such anti-democratic forces. For instance, democratic leaders in Algeria suspended the democratic elections to prevent the rise of an Islamist party that would have put an end to all democracy. As Derrida puts it: autoimmunity is “a double bind of threat and chance, not alternatively or by turns promise and/or threat but threat in the promise itself” (Derrida, Rogues, 82). However, there is no parallel between the situation in Algeria and the measures taken by the Bush administration following 9/11. For these latter, while restricting democratic freedom under the pretext of protecting democracy, have failed to recognise that the risk is always already inside, and, therefore, cannot be definitively erased. Thus, rather than facing up the challenge that “there is no absolutely reliable prophylaxis against the autoimmune” (Derrida, Rogues, 150-51), the US administration has defined its own fear (resulting from the “risk” and the uncertainty) as a “threat” coming from the outside: they called it “terrorism”, and waged “a war against the ‘axis of evil’” (Derrida, Autoimmunity, 41).[14]

In a plea for the unconditional renunciation of sovereignty in the democracy to come, Derrida discusses the autoimmune vulnerability of juridical performatives as follows:

I just referred in passing to the distinction between the constative (the language of descriptive and theoretical knowledge) and the performative, which is so often said to produce the event it declares. Now, just like the constative, it seems to me, the performative cannot avoid neutralizing, indeed annulling, the eventfulness of the event it is supposed to produce. A performative produces an event only by securing for itself […] the power that an ipseity gives itself to produce the event of which it speaks — the event that it neutralizes forthwith insofar as it appropriates for itself a calculable mastery over it. If an event worthy of this name is to arrive or happen, it must, beyond all mastery, affect a passivity. It must touch an exposed vulnerability, one without absolute immunity, without indemnity; it must touch this vulnerability in its finitude and in a nonhorizontal fashion, there where it is not yet or is already no longer possible to face or face up to the unforeseeability of the other. [Derrida, Rogues, 151-52]

The above passage easily offers itself to an analysis that examines what Derrida actually “means” by “autoimmunity”. Such analyses have indeed abounded, but critics have failed to notice that Derrida’s term “autoimmunity” is itself a performative, which cannot avoid attempting to master the eventfulness of the event it produces. For autoimmunity is not only about vulnerability, the vulnerability of (juridical) performatives, but being itself a performative, it also stages this vulnerability: autoimmunity is an autoimmune term, subjected to autoimmune processes, that is, it can undo itself at the precise moment of its performance. In other words, if “there is no absolutely reliable prophylaxis against the autoimmune” (Derrida, Rogues, 150-51), then the term “autoimmunity” is just as vulnerable as democracy, just as vulnerable as any process it describes.

How to examine, then, the autoimmunity of the term autoimmunity? And what are the unforeseeable events that it produces but, indeed, cannot master? First, I am going to show that Derrida’s definition of autoimmunity, and especially his claim that during autoimmunitary processes the immune system turns against itself, is at odds with the way in which experts of immunology coming from what Derrida calls the “domain of biology” define the term. I shall push to its extremes Sontag’s Aristotelian claim that the metaphorical transfer is the mental operation of “Saying a thing is or is like something-it-is-not.[15] Secondly, I will investigate the stakes involved in Derrida’s rhetoric that posits, as a catachresis, the term autoimmunity to describe the biological workings of HIV, which will turn out to parallel, to some extent, the description he gives of the “terrorists.” Thirdly, I shall ask whether it is possible to establish any kind of metaphorical relationship between the laws governing the biological body (the “is”), the laws determining the functioning of the social body (another “is”), and the ethico-political imperatives that should govern the political community (the “ought”).



According to immunologists, the basic function of the immune system is to fight off foreign microorganisms but tolerate self tissues. As Kronenberg puts it, “From a teleological point of view, an ideal set of immune receptors would recognize foreign organisms but ignore all components that make up our own bodies.”[17] There are two types of autoimmunity: one comprises the various forms of autoimmune diseases, in which the immune system fails to remain tolerant towards the self and starts to destroy self-tissues, the other is called natural autoimmunity, which is necessary for the body’s normal functioning.

In natural autoimmunity, the central role is played by the “immunological homunculus”, the immune system’s internal image or representation of essential body molecules. This allows for the recognition of those self-antigens that are necessary for the body’s survival.[18] Since any foreign pathogen attacking the body may contain elements that are the same as, or similar to, the essential molecules of the body, and these elements need to be preserved rather than destroyed, the immune system contains immune cells that can recognize self antigens without giving or generating any aggressive, destructive response to them. In other words, the non-aggressive autoimmune cells that participate in the body’s natural autoimmunitary processes effectuate the recognition of the self even in the foreign other. At the same time, low level self-reactive immune cells also play a role in surveilling uncontrolled cell growth, and may thus reduce the incidence of cancer.[19] All in all, natural autoimmunity, ensuring the tolerance of self-antigens, has a self-protective function, and plays a positive role in the regulation of the immune system as a whole.

On the other hand, autoimmune diseases are associated with high level auto-reactive immune cells and the subsequent loss of immunological tolerance towards the self.[20] In fact, one of the tasks of the immune system is to control those immune cells that display a high level of autoimmunity, that is, to regulate those self-reactive cells that not only recognise, but may also turn against the body’s own tissues, and thereby “pose an immediate threat of autoimmunity” (Kronenberg et al., Regulation of immunity…). Hence, when the immune system is healthy and natural autoimmunity is properly controlled, some immune cells recognise and tolerate the self, while others attack the non-self. In autoimmune diseases, on the other hand, normal regulatory processes fail, and self-reactive immune cells launch an aggressive attack on the body’s own tissues and organs. As Cohen puts it, “[a]utoimmune disease often involves the disregulated activation of natural autoimmunity” (Cohen, The Cognitive Paradigm…, 216).[21] Consequently, contrary to Derrida’s suggestions, in autoimmune diseases, the immune system does not make itself vulnerable, it does not undermine its own protection by turning against itself. Instead, it works all too well and attacks the body’s own cells.

Hence, the political implications of the medical or biological approaches to autoimmune diseases (i.e. the misrecognition of the self as a foreign other) would certainly not be welcomed by Derrida. For the metaphorical transfer between the biological and the political body would suggest that the autoimmunitary processes of democracy entail the disavowal, the misrecognition, and the subsequent destruction of certain elements proper to the community as if they were improper, foreign, “rogues”, non-self. And this, as history has so often shown us (and still does so), has disastrous consequences with regard to democracy. To be more specific, it could well include the banishment, or deportation of elements considered as non-self.

The effects of natural autoimmunity, on the other hand, are somewhat similar to the effect of immuno-depressants that, according to Derrida, equally inscribe themselves in a “general logic of autoimmunisation” (Derrida, Faith and Knowledge, 72-73, n27) These, as he puts it, “limit the mechanisms of rejection and facilitate the tolerance of certain organ transplants” (ibid.). Transplants are necessary for our survival, which indicates that Derridean autoimmunity, as has already been suggested, is a risk: it implies not only a potentially life-threatening, but also a potentially life-saving openness. It offers a chance to let the other in, who, as Naas puts it, is not “properly our own,” but potentially saves our life (Derrida, Faith and Knowledge, 31).

Yet, whereas Derrida claims that “[o]ne function of the concept of autoimmunity is to act as a third term between the classical opposition between friend and foe” (Derrida, Autoimmunity, 152), the discourse of immunology remains structured by and keeps producing binaries between inside and outside, tolerance and intolerance. It maintains that the immune system gives distinctive responses to self and non-self (unless this process is inhibited by immune-depressant drugs). Thus, biological tolerance does model indeed the way tolerance works in the existing, actual socio-political sphere. As Derrida puts it, political tolerance is the acceptance “of the foreigner, the other, the foreign body up to a certain point, and so not without restrictions”, and the concomitant, “natural” rejection of immigrants “who do not share our nationality, our language, our culture, and our customs” (Derrida, Autoimmunity, 128). However, Derrida clearly rejects any idea of democracy functioning according to the binary logic of tolerance and intolerance: although tolerance is clearly preferable to intolerance, tolerance, according to Derrida, must always be conditioned by that impossible, “unconditional hospitality”, which is beyond any definable politics or law. Hospitality is what must be offered to the absolute, wholly other, it is something that is “in advance open” to whoever or whatever arrives (ibid). As he puts it in Rogues:

Among the figures of unconditionality without sovereignty I have had occasion to privilege in recent years, there would be, for example, that of an unconditional hospitality that exposes itself without limit to the coming of the other, beyond rights and laws, beyond a hospitality conditioned by the right of asylum, by the right to immigration, by citizenship, and even by the right to universal hospitality […] Only an unconditional hospitality can give meaning and practical rationality to a concept of hospitality. Unconditional hospitality exceeds juridical, political, or economic calculation. But no thing and no one happens or arrives without it. [Derrida, Rogues, 149]

Tolerance, designating the event when this absolute desire for justice gets determined in a “particular language and culture” (Naas, Derrida from Now On, 24-25), inevitably perverts hospitality: it turns it into conditional hospitality, existing within the confines of particular politics and laws. And since Derrida goes as far as to say that tolerance (as “conditional, circumspect, careful hospitality”) “is actually the opposite of hospitality” (Derrida, Autoimmunity, 127-28), he would also oppose any metaphorical transfer between what immunologists call “natural autoimmunity” (the “tolerance” of the “other” in case it is necessary for the survival of the “self”), and the political concept of autoimmunity (an ipseity in advance open to its own undoing).

In what follows, I am going to show first that Derrida draws, in fact, his arguments on autoimmunity from the discourse of AIDS. In the framework that I propose, the first question to be answered will be whether it is possible to regard HIV, which clearly comes from the outside, as a metaphor for something that blurs the distinction between friend and foe.




The causative agents of AIDS are HIV, that is, human immunodeficiency viruses. The major targets of HIV are immune cells called helper T cells (a type of white blood cell developed in the thymus). Helper T cells play an essential role in the self-protective system of the body, because they are involved in activating and directing other immune cells. During HIV infection, the virus infects and thereby destroys precisely those immune cells that are responsible for the immune response as a whole. However, since not all of the helper T cells are infected at the same time, the healthy ones can still activate the immune cells specific to the virus. These, in their turn, start to destroy those helper T cells that are infected by HIV. As a result, the major helper T cells are attacked on two fronts: healthy T cells are attacked by HIV itself, while the infected T cells are eliminated by the specific immune cells. Despite this double attack, the body could still gain victory over HIV infection, since the immune cells specific to the virus could very well eliminate all the infected helper T cells. However, since HIV is a mutating virus, that is, it can constantly change its antigen (the very thing to which the immune system specifically responds), by the time the immune cells specific to the virus could destroy all the infected helper T cells, another, new type of HIV emerges, which needs another kind of specific immune response. This process, that is, the mutation and remutation of HIV, the resulting infection of new helper T cells, and the concomitant development of new types of immune responses can last for years and decades, but, eventually, the immune system gives up the fight. In the end, the whole immune system is destroyed by the parallel attacks of HIV and the specific immune response eliminating all the infected immune cells. In what follows, I shall first outline the most conspicuous parallels between the workings of the immune system infected by HIV on the one hand, and Derrida’s outline of the logic of autoimmunity on the other, and then show the reasons why these parallels are, in fact, untenable.

Firstly, the specific immune cells that destroy the major immune cells infected by HIV, and eventually make impossible the working of the immune system as a whole, perform precisely what Derrida says of autoimmunity, which “consists for a living organism […] of protecting itself against its self-protection by destroying its own immune system” (Derrida, Faith and Knowledge, 73, n27).

Secondly, the fact that the virus keeps mutating and remutating all along, in an unforeseeable, incalculable way, and without ever being identifiable once and for all, parallels the unidentifiable, anonymous character of terror. As Derrida puts it, “From now on, the nuclear threat, the ‘total’ threat, no longer comes from a state but from anonymous forces that are absolutely unforeseeable and incalculable” (Derrida, Autoimmunity, 150-51).

Thirdly, since the virus lives and reproduces itself within the body’s own immune cells, that is, within the immune system itself, it does not leave the boundary between self and other, friend and foe intact. It acts, precisely, as a “third term” between friend and foe. As Derrida also claims in The Rhetoric of Drugs, the virus “belongs neither to life nor death”, and “may always already have broken into any ‘intersubjective’ trajectory” (Derrida, The Rhetoric of Drugs, 251, my emphasis). There is no virus without the immune cells that act as hosts, in other words, there is no other without the self. This is exactly the reason why the immune system, infected by HIV, has to destroy itself, which destruction obviously entails both the death of the other, the virus, and the death of (the protective system of) the self.

Fourthly, the way in which the biological body reacts to the attack of HIV, and the desparate attempts it makes to neutralise it, bears uncanny resemblances to the way in which the political body destroys itself while wanting to protect itself in Derrida’s account of autoimmunity. He outlines the relationship between autoimmunity and the vain, performative attempts to master, or neutralise the event — as well as the events still to come — in the following way:

all these efforts to attenuate or neutralize the effect of the traumatism (to deny, repress, or forget it, to get over it) are but so many desperate attempts. And so many autoimmunitary movements. Which produce, invent, and feed the very monstrosity they claim to overcome. What will never let itself be forgotten is thus the perverse effect of the autoimmunitary itself. [Derrida, Autoimmunity, 99]

The more the immune system struggles to overcome traumatism, the more it becomes entangled with it, and the more it becomes exhausted by the vain struggle to neutralise it. In fact, one of the most conspicuous parallels between the immune system’s reaction to HIV infection, and the political community’s reaction to terrorism is their common, lethal exhaustion in trying to suppress or repress the trauma caused, and still to come.

However, whereas in Derrida’s version of autoimmunity, the protective system (of democracy) destroys itself in order to make itself vulnerable (“a living being, in quasi-suicidal fashion, ‘itself’ works to destroy its own protection, to immunize itself against its ‘own’ immunity” [Derrida, Autoimmunity, 94, my emphasis]), in the medical definition of AIDS, the immune system destroys itself in order to eliminate the virus. It is this virus that, at first sight, appears to parallel Derrida’s “terrorist”, who cannot live without (as both outside of, and deprived of) the system it invades. As Derrida puts it:

the aggression […] comes, as from the inside, from forces that are apparently without any force of their own but that are able to find the means, through ruse and the implementation of high-tech knowledge, to get hold of an American weapon in an American city on the ground of an American airport […] these hijackers incorporate, so to speak, two suicides in one: their own (and one will remain forever defenseless in the face of a suicidal, autoimmunitary aggression — and that is what terrorizes most) but also the suicide of those who welcomed, armed, and trained them. [Derrida, Autoimmunity, 95, my emphasis]

And although the double suicide implied in the “autoimmunitary aggression” of the terrorists seems to parallel the double suicide of the immune system infected by HIV (which destroys both itself and the virus), in Derrida’s account, the viral logic of terrorism is predicated upon that of autoimmunity: “terrorism” has always the potential to happen when democracy, as something necessarily autoimmune, is in place. As if the openness resulting from the autoimmunity (the vulnerability) of democracy always potentially entailed the unforeseeable arrival of the virus, of any virus. In this sense, Derrida seems to imply that infection is the potential risk generated by a protective system that is always already autoimmune.[22]

In the same vein, what Derrida calls an (always necessary) “autoimmunitary perversion” is very much like (and I emphasise like again, because we also have to see the difference in the similarity) having unprotected sex and then welcome its risks: its potentially deadly or potentially happy consequences. The aporia that thus seems to emerge from Derrida’s writings is the unconditional imperative of opening up to a potentially lethal and potentially life-giving contact with the “Other” — which “unconditionality”, as he says, “is a frightening thing, it’s scary” (Derrida, Politics and Friendship). Consequently, the imperative of unconditional opening becomes always perverted by the conditionality of the same opening: the possibility of the arrival of HIV through sex, or better to say, love, is, indeed, much less welcomed by Derrida than what the imperative of a politics of autoimmunity (unconditionally conditioned by an ethics of “hospitality”) would dictate. According to the argument presented in The Rhetoric of Drugs, HIV, which is at the heart of any rapport (Rapport), at the heart of any intersubjectivity, of any bond, is “the mortal and indestructible trace of the third party”. However, this “third” does not act as a “third term” between friend and foe, this “third party” is not understood as “the condition of the symbolic and the law”, nor is it “the Third” that turns ethics into politics. On the contrary: this “third party” is interpreted as social disconnection, as something that has become “fatally installed at the heart of the social bond” (Derrida, The Rhetoric of Drugs, 251). As he goes on to say, anticipating, again, his argument on the traumas of terrorism (past and still to come),

even should humanity some day come to control the virus […] still, even in the most unconscious symbolic zones, the traumatism has irreversibly affected our experience of desire and of what we blithely call intersubjectivity, the relation to the alter ego, and so forth [ibid.]

At the same time, Derrida also warns us: the politicization of the virus is able to bring forth the worst political violence. He would starkly oppose all identification between terrorists (humans) and a virus, or terror and AIDS. First, the analogy between the terrorist and the virus is always already undermined by the human agency he attributes to terror: the terrorists “are able to find the means, through ruse and the implementation of high-tech knowledge, to get hold of an American weapon” (Derrida, Autoimmunity, 95). Without the framework offered by autoimmunity, this acknowledgment of the human agency of the terrorists would immediately amount to the politicisation of the virus, entailing democracy’s entanglement in a xenophobic discourse. However, the (non-)concept of autoimmunity allows for the recognition that a discourse simply shifting the responsibility from “us” (who refuse to acknowledge that democracy always contains the seeds of its own undoing) to “them” (who actively attacked “us” through “ruse”) would only show up its own failure to actively embrace the ethical position of passivity in the face of the Other. This might be one of the reasons why one has to have recourse to the metaphor of autoimmunity, which, for Derrida, implies a body, a community always open to its own undoing, to an undoing that may happen, from within, even without enemies outside. Autoimmunity thus becomes a catachresis that points to the question of the relationship between politikon and bios, but averts the terrifying consequences, so well remarked by Derrida, of any transfer between viruses and humans, as well as that of any parallel between the functioning of the self-protective systems of biological and political bodies.



Yet, one might still ask the question, as Mitchell did,[24] whether an ethical community can actually “learn” anything from the functioning of the biological body. According to the latest findings of immunology, the processes of natural autoimmunity indicate that the binary between self-protection and auto-destruction is untenable.[25] Derrida also points to the non-contradictory relation between the immune and what threatens it, when he evokes, for instance, the double meaning of the term salut as both greeting (the hospitality of visitation) and salvation (immunity, health, security) in an analysis of Heidegger: “the relation is neither one of exteriority nor one of simple contradiction. I would say the same about the relationship between immunity and autoimmunity” (Derrida, Rogues, 114).

Immunologists also maintain that the task of the healthy immune system is to find “appropriate responses” to changes and to keep the system “fit”.[26] In fact, it is precisely the term “change” that introduces a third term between self and non-self in recent discourses of immunology. Further, as Cohen argues, the immune system, rather than giving one singular response to change, “orchestrates the spectrum of responses dynamically over time according to the shifting needs.”[27] In other words, the self-protective system of the body finds appropriate responses to changes, which responses always correspond to the extent to which the change affects the system’s “fitness.” As Cohen claims, “The immune system is about fitness. […] The answer is not a single discrimination [between self and non-self], but a series of ongoing discriminations” (Cohen, The Cognitive Paradigm…, 216, my emphasis). Thirdly, the physical body makes the series of discriminations that generate responses always appropriate to the given situation by either “dialogue” or “correspondence.” As the immunologist puts it, “I think it is fitting to talk about an immune dialogue because the immune system continuously exchanges molecular signals with its interlocutor, the body” (Cohen, The Cognitive Paradigm…, 217). “Correspondence,” on the other hand, implies that

each cell type is led by the responses of the other cell types to respond with more or less vigor, and with different response molecules and behaviors. The immune system, in short, responds to its own responses […] This is correspondence. Correspondence is decision-making by committee. [Cohen, The Cognitive Paradigm…, 218]

The decisions that the “committee” make are, therefore, always singular, and are always dependent upon the given context. Consequently, even though Cohen does not deny the fact that the immune system, which is endowed with “memory cells,” learns how to give appropriate responses to changes,[28] the decisions it makes are always singular and are always orchestrated dynamically, according to the shifting needs.

In the Derridean analysis of the body politic, the “fitness” of the system would amount to “peace,” best defined as “tolerant cohabitation” (Derrida, Autoimmunity, 127). Putting aside, for a moment, Derrida’s misgivings concerning tolerance, it is worth pursuing Cohen’s argument. His focus on processes, appropriate responses and dialogic negotiations, rather than one immediate reaction and one singular decision, may already point towards Derrida’s emphasis on the necessity of responsible and irreducibly singular decisions, which are not dictated by any normative program (Derrida, Autoimmunity, 132). This, however, would also necessitate a universal alliance or solidarity that extends well beyond the interests of the nation-state: transformations, and as yet unheard-of forms of shared and limited sovereignty (Derrida, Autoimmunity, 131). As he puts it:

in a context that is each time singular, where the respectful attention paid to singularity is not relativist but universalizable and rational, responsibility would consist in orienting oneself without any determinative knowledge of the rule. To be responsible, to keep within reason, would be to invent maxims of transaction for deciding between two just as rational and universal but contradictory exigencies of reason as well as its enlightenment. The invention of these maxims resembles the poetic invention of an idiom whose singularity would not yield to any nationalism, not even a European nationalism-even if, as I would like to believe, within today’s geopolitical landscape, a new thinking and a previously unencountered destination of Europe, along with another responsibility for Europe, are being called on to give a new chance to this idiom. Beyond all Eurocentrism. [Derrida, Autoimmunity, 158]

Consequently, it is only by considering the physical body as a metaphor for a universal community understood as a web of carefully orchestrated decisions, responses and responsibilities, which respect the always shifting needs, that the analogy between the animate and the political bodies can escape the trap of biologism. Still, as has been suggested all along, the metaphorical transfers between the processes of biological body and those of the political community are far from being easy ones. These are difficult transfers, transfers that respect distinctions more than similarities. For “democracy,” as Nancy puts it, “is not figurable,” after all.[29]



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  • ———. “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone.” In Religion. Cambridge: Polity. 1998.
  • ———. “The Rhetoric of Drugs.” In Points: Interviews, 1974—1994, edited by Elisabeth Weber. Translated by Peggy Kamuf et al. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.
  • ———. Politics and Friendship: A Discussion with Jacques Derrida. http://www.
  • ———. Rogues. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.
  • Eisenbach, Lee, and El-Shami, Khaled M. “Antigen Specific Anti-Tumour Vaccination: Immunotherapy versus Autoimmunity.” In Cancer and Autoimmunity, eds. Yehuda Shoenfeld and M. Eric Gershwin. Elsevier: Amsterdam, 2000.
  • Falus, András et al. Az immunológia alapjai. Budapest: Semmelweis, 2007.
  • Kronenberg, Mitchell et al. Regulation of Immunity by Self-Reactive T Cells. http://
  • Miller, J. Hillis. “Derrida Enisled.” Critical Inquiry 33/2 (Winter 2007).
  • ———. “Derrida’s Politics of Autoimmunity.” Discourse 30/1-2 (Spring—Winter, 2008).
  • Mitchell, W. J. T. Picturing Terror: Derrida’s Autoimmunity. http://www.cardozo
  • Naas, Michael. Derrida from Now On. New York: Fordham University Press 2008.
  • Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Truth of Democracy. New York: Fordham University Press, 2010.
  • Sontag, Susan. Aids and Its Metaphors. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989.
  • Thomson, Alex. What’s to Become of ‘Democracy to Come’? http://pmc.iath.virginia. edu/text-only/issue.505/15.3thomson.txt.



[1] For the history of the term in Derrida’s writings, see Michael Naas, Derrida from Now On (New York: Fordham University Press 2008), 128-29.

[2] Jacques Derrida, “Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides — A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida”, in Philosophy in a Time of Terror, ed. Giovanna Borradori (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 94.

[3] Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone,” in Religion (Cambridge: Polity, 1998), 73, n27.

[4] Even though Derrida explicitly refers to biology and the life sciences, J. Hillis Miller warns us that biologists actually borrowed the terminology from the social world: „the term Immune was originally a social term applying to those, for instance the clergy, who were in one way or another exempt from the ordinary citizen’s obligations. They were immune, indemnified, just as those who took sanctuary in a church were immune from arrest or just as legislators in some democracies today are immune from prosecution for some crimes. Biologists appropriated an entire social and political vocabulary, including the notion of aliens to the community or foreign invaders who must be repelled, to name the operation of the body’s immune system and the catastrophe of autoimmunity,” J. Hillis Miller, “Derrida Enisled,” Critical Inquiry 33/2 (Winter 2007): 248-76. The present paper shall take at face value Derrida’s own claims, and focus on the biological meaning of the term.

[5] A rare exception can be found in W. J. T. Mitchell, Picturing Terror: Derrida’s Autoimmunity,

[6] J. Hillis Miller, “Derrida’s Politics of Autoimmunity,” Discourse, 30/1-2 (Spring—Winter, 2008): 208.

[7] “If we consider the fact that the phenomenon AIDS could not be confined […] to the margins of society […], we have here, within the social bond, something that people might still want to consider as a destructuring and depoliticizing poly-perversion: a historic (historical) knot or denouement which is no doubt original. In these circumstances, the (restructuring and supposedly repoliticising) reactions are largely unforeseeable and may reproduce the worst political violence,” Jacques Derrida, “The Rhetoric of Drugs,” in Points: Interviews, 1974—1994, ed. Elisabeth Weber, trans. Peggy Kamuf et al. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 252.

[8] My equation of the literal with the biological and the metaphorical with the political is, in fact, misleading. For, as Mitchell rightly claims: “The whole theory of the immune system, and the discipline of immunology, is riddled with images drawn from the socio-political sphere — of invaders and defenders, hosts and parasites, natives and aliens, and of borders and identities that must be maintained. In asking us to see terror as autoimmunity, then, Derrida is bringing the metaphor home at the same time he sends it abroad, »stretching« it to the limits of the world. The effect of the »bipolar image,« then, is to produce a situation in which there is no literal meaning, nothing but the resonances between two images, one biomedical, the other political,” Mitchell, Picturing Terror, 917.

[9] See Naas, Derrida from Now On, 14.

[10] Jacques Derrida, Rogues (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 152.

[11] Jacques Derrida, Politics and Friendship: A Discussion with Jacques Derrida, http://www.

[12] “Democracy” itself is a highly saturated concept in Derrida’s writings. As he argues: “it is precisely the concept of democracy itself, in its univocal and proper meaning, that is presently and forever lacking” (Derrida, Rogues, 34). It has to be mentioned, however, that democracy is, among others, precisely the right to self-questioning, the questioning of democracy itself, which equally follows the logic of autoimmunity: “When I seemed to imply that it was necessary already to live in a democracy in order for anyone not just to have access to the clear and univocal meaning of this word whose semantic range is so overdetermined (and all the more so, as we have confirmed, inasmuch as it oscillates between an excess and a lack or default of meaning, inasmuch as it is excessive, so to speak, by default), but in order for anyone to be able to debate and continuously discuss it, this seemed already rather circular and contradictory: what meaning can be given to this right to discuss freely the meaning of a word, and to do so in the name of a name that is at the very least supposed to entail the right of anyone to determine and continuously discuss the meaning of the word in question? Especially when the right thus implied entails the right to self-critique — another form of autoimmunity — as an essential, original, constitutive, and specific possibility of the democratic, indeed as its very historicity, an intrinsic historicity that it shares with no other regime?” (Derrida, Rogues, 72).

[13] On this, see Alex Thomson, What’s to Become of “Democracy to Come”? http://pmc.iath.virginia. edu/text-only/issue.505/15.3thomson.txt.

[14] This problem is also treated by Naas, Derrida from Now On, 136-37. On the logic of such metaphorical transfers and the way they lead to “naming”, see also Paul de Man on Rousseau’s “giant”, in Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), 150-51.

[15] Susan Sontag, Aids and Its Metaphors (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989), 5, my emphasis.

[16] I owe special thanks to Dr. Laszlo Timár, Professor of Infectology at Semmelweis University, Budapest, Hungary, for giving me all the information on the workings of the immune system.

[17] Mitchell Kronenberg et al., Regulation of immunity by self-reactive T cells, http://www.nature. com/nature/journal/v435/n7042/full/nature03725.html.

[18] Irun R. Cohen, “The cognitive paradigm and the immunological homunculus,” Immunology Today 13 (1992): 490-94. See also Falus András et al., Az immunológia alapjai (Budapest: Semmelweis, 2007), 175.

[19] As Eisenbach argues, “immune reaction to normal tissue antigens can lead to cancer regression,” see Lee Eisenbach and Khaled M. El-Shami, “Antigen Specific Anti-Tumour Vaccination: Immunotherapy versus Autoimmunity,” in Cancer and Autoimmunity, eds. Yehuda Shoenfeld and M. Eric Gershwin (Elsevier: Amsterdam, 2000), 403. Or, as Cohen puts it: “Tumor antigens, for the most part, are normal self antigens, and tumor immunity is mostly autoimmunity,” Irun R. Cohen, “Discrimination and dialogue in the immune system,” Seminars in Immunology 12 (2000): 215–19.

[20] Autoimmune disorders fall into two general types: those that damage many organs (systemic autoimmune diseases) and those where only a single organ or tissue is directly damaged by the autoimmune process (localized). See Marin P. Allen et al., Autoimmune Diseases, http://www.nlm.nih. gov/medlineplus/autoimmunediseases.html.

[21] The main questions asked by immunologists dealing with autoimmunity concern the ways in which the aggressive autoimmune processes of the body become so successfully regulated and controlled. Kronenberg and his colleagues formulate their wonder as follows: “Since only 3–8% of the population develops an autoimmune disease, it is remarkable that this enormous burden of self-reactive receptors is so well regulated in most of us” (Kronenberg et al., Regulation of Immunity). They ask how it is possible that we generally remain tolerant to our own self tissues, how autoimmune processes are regulated, and how this regulation goes wrong in autoimmune diseases.

[22] This, of course, contrasts the tenets of immunology, which posit “natural autoimmunity” as part of the “healthy immune system” and necessary for our survival, while “autoimmune disease” is regarded as something “abnormal”, as an excess of “natural autoimmunity”, that destroys the body’s own tissues.

[23] The references to the works of Irun Cohen could seem somewhat arbitrary for those outside the field of immunology. However, Cohen is a leading figure in the latest development in the field, cf. Irun R. Cohen, The Helen and Morris Mauerberger Professor of Immunology, il/immunology/CohenPage.html.

[24] Mitchell, who equally investigates the political implications of the metaphor of the immune system argues that “one clue [to fight terrorism] is offered by the metaphor (and the literal operations) of the immune system itself. […] the immune system […] learns by »clonal selection«, the production of antibodies which mirror the invading antigens and bond with them, killing them. The implications of this image are quite clear. The appropriate strategy for international terrorism is not war […] The best strategy is highly targeted and intelligent intelligence, […] infiltrators who can simulate the enemy, who speak his language, understand, sympathize — who can clone themselves as »friends« of the terrorists,” Mitchell, Picturing Terror, 6.

[25] Falus et al., Az immunológia alapjai, 174.

[26] Cohen, op. cit.

[27] Cohen, op.cit.

[28] See Mitchell, who sees the functioning of memory cells as something that can serve as a model for the functioning of democracy: “Immunity is a form of cellular »memory«; the body learns by experience how to fight measles, and it doesn’t forget. The most dangerous threat to the immune system, then, is amnesia, the forgetting of what it has learned,” Mitchell, Picturing Terror, 219.

[29] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Truth of Democracy (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 27.