- “God has No Allergies”: Immanent Ethics and the Simulacra of the Immune System
“[T]he science of life always accommodates a philosophy of life.”1
Conventional approaches to bioethics long for a purified set of principles in order to guide the application of scientific knowledges of the body — the life sciences — to individual “cases.” In the realm of bioethics, the possibility that these knowledges might themselves constitute entities such as the individual, or the possibility that the individual body might itself be something other than the more or less governable a-historical object of technoscientific action, awakens a kind of horror autotoxicus. Nor do the prevalent modes of ethical discourse react kindly to the possibility that the “living” body of an individual is also a self, an actor within a complicated set of narratives, codes and apparatuses whose various registers — medical, economic, racial, sexual, religious, and so on — intersect. In short, conventional bioethical discourses refuse to acknowledge that, as Emmanual Levinas has written, “the body is a permanent contestation of the prerogative attributed to consciousness of ‘giving meaning’ to each thing; it lives as this contestation.”2
Traditional bioethics disappoints us insofar as it overlooks the ways the body contests the prerogatives of consciousness, contests reason and self-identity. Instead of opening onto the possibility of divergent ethea, bioethics’ universalizing adjudicative principles legitimate the biomedical normalization of differences by trying to deal only with the moral rights of the rational self and by leaving the differing character of embodiment — a most profound aspect of the ethical habitat — aside. In its separation of scientific theory and “ethical” practice, and in its unwillingness to transit any borders into the epistemological territory of science, conventional bioethics misapprehends the active and ambivalent role of technoscientific intervention, an intervention which both produces these crucial differences in embodiment and participates in their effacement. Traditional bioethics allergically responds to the ethical issue — the maintenance of ethos, of embodied differences, of the character and habits of individual bodies.
“Now it is over life, throughout its unfolding, that power establishes its dominion.”3
Foucault’s well-known description of a shift during the last two centuries from sovereign to disciplinary power or “bio-power” implies a displacement in the substance of ethics.4 In diverse discourses and domains, it becomes increasingly obvious that the presumed exclusion of ethics from the theoretical-pragmatic complex of science itself, from the very concrete operations and forces of technoscientific discourses engaging living bodies, significantly limits the relevance and effectiveness of the traditional notion of ethics.5
As Donna Haraway describes it, “the power of biomedical language . . . for shaping the unequal experience of sickness and death for millions is a social fact deriving from on-going heterogeneous social processes.” 6 The morality-displacing power of biomedical discourse and practice does not confine itself to sickness and death, but branches out into the normalization of whole populations. At many different scales and under different aspects — birth, death, sexual relations, work, fitness, stress, leisure, and so on — life is targeted by the vectors of biomedical intervention.
Again, Foucault makes this point succinctly when he writes of the emergence of bio-power: “For the first time in history, no doubt, biological existence was reflected in political existence; the fact of living was no longer an inaccessible substrate that only emerged from time to time; amid the randomness of death and its fatality; part of it passed into knowledge’s field of control and power’s sphere of intervention.”7 The propagation of bio-power — designating “what brought life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculation and made knowledge-power an agent of transformation of human life”8 — powerfully challenges any responsive ethics to address the realm of physiology and to reframe the ethical substance to include the embodiment of biomedical materiality. In other words, so-called “physiological” or “biological” questions increasingly raise ethical issues in ways that cannot be disentangled from the historical conditions of life as a locus of power relations or, conversely, solved through an a-historical ethico-moral calculus. Under the auspices of bio-power, biological knowledge increasingly presents itself as the ground of self-realization and governance...