Autoimmunity in Extremis: The Task of Biodeconstruction
The essay situates the privileging of “autoimmunity” in Derrida’s late work in relation to Esposito’s philosophical paradigm of immunization. It shows that autoimmunity is prefigured by the hypotheses of absolute catastrophe and radical finitude put forward in Derrida’s “No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives)” and his thinking of the archive. The essay argues that the deconstructive thinking of life and biology, or the task of biodeconstruction, must come to terms with the radicalness of autoimmunity as both finitude and hospitality, and investigates its resonances with two biological accounts of the origin and constitution of life: Margulis’s theory of endosymbiosis and Ameisan’s generalization of the operation of apoptosis.
There is no life (“animal” or “human”) that does not suppose some aptitude for discerning, analyzing, distinguishing: between the forms of life as well as between the “living” and the “dead.” Let us begin then by applying this aptitude for discerning to life itself, in general; let us distinguish its structures and levels.--Jacques Derrida, For What Tomorrow … A Dialogue
In Bíos: Biopolitics and Philosophy, Roberto Esposito claims to have found the missing term that specifies the relation between life and politics, which seems to have evaded the discourse of biopolitics: “For my part, I believe I’ve traced the interpretive key in the paradigm of ‘immunization’ that seems to have eluded Foucault” (45). He goes on to ask: “How and in what sense can immunization fill that semantic void, that interval of meaning which remains open in Foucault’s text between the constitutive poles of the concept of biopolitics, namely, biology and politics?” (45).
The category of immunization, according to Esposito, lends specificity to the relationship between biology and politics; it names and articulates “the intrinsic character that forces together the two elements that compose biopolitics” (45). These elements, bios and politics, are not superimposed, juxtaposed, or related through subjection or domination as two domains that are exterior to each other, but assume their meaning through their interrelation as components of an indivisible whole:
Not simply the relation that joins life to power, immunity is the power to preserve life. Contrary to what is presupposed in the concept of biopolitics—understood as the result of an encounter that arises at a certain moment between the two components—in this perspective no power exists external to life, just as life is never given outside of relations of power. From this angle, politics is nothing other than the possibility or the instrument for keeping life alive.(Esposito, Bíos 46)
Insofar as immunity is the power of life to preserve itself and insofar as no power exists outside life, politics is interpreted as a form or expression or even instrument of life in the service of life’s own protection, that is, as part of its own immunitary defense. The relationship between life and politics is captured in an immunitary dialectic between protection and negation, life’s recoiling in the course of its self-immunization. Biopolitics, however, does not refer to the relationship between life and power, or life and politics in general, but to the form this relationship takes in modernity and even more so in what Esposito calls “second modernity”:
In its most general formulation, biopolitics refers to the increasingly intense and direct involvement established between political dynamics and human life (understood in its strictly biological sense), beginning with a phase that we can call second modernity.(Terms 69)
Life, of course, “even in its biological sense,” has always been the “material” frame within which politics is necessarily inscribed (69). It is with the advent of modernity that the material frame of life moves into the center of politics, which becomes instrumental for its defense and preservation. The shift to biopolitics occurs in the era of the European civil war (“first modernity”) that raged in the seventeenth century and is first signalled and best captured by Thomas Hobbes as the question of life that “embeds itself in the very heart of political theory and practice” (69). It is with the second phase of European modernity (“second modernity”) at the end of the eighteenth century that the terms of the political change into the vocabulary of security and the question of life gradually overlaps more and more with the political sphere, entering into a more direct and unmediated relationship with it.
Esposito’s discovery of the immunitary paradigm as the interpretive key for unlocking the relationship between the two constitutive poles of biopolitics authorizes a genealogical account of philosophical gestures that grasps the relationship between life and power according to the logic of immunity. This genealogy has its inaugurating, even if unrecognized, moment in Hobbes’s conservatio vitae and develops later in two decisive steps. First, the dialectical contradiction and the role of the negative implied in immunitary logic assumes a more reflective mode with Hegel and begins to be seen as the “motor of the positive,” the productive impulse in human history (Bíos 47). The second step is accomplished by Nietzsche, who shifts the focus of analysis from conscience to the body as the site of a vital power that is at once protected and constrained by the immunitary form or containment that is the soul. Nietzsche’s understanding of life as “will to power” constitutes, for Esposito, one of the most radical understandings of biopolitics and the complete elaboration of the category of immunization. With this triptych of philosophical gestures, Esposito claims, “the most innovative part of twentieth-century culture begins to make implicit use of the [immunitary] paradigm” (Bíos 47). This phase in immunological reasoning, which is illustrated by the philosophical anthropology developed in Germany by Scheler, Plessner, and Gehlen, is followed by the introduction of an explicitly immunological lexicon and orbit in discourses such as Niklas Luhmann’s “social immunology.” The rise of the modern science of immunology with Frank Macfarlane Burnet in the 1950s installs even more firmly the immunitary paradigm at the “neuralgic epicentre” between different traditions of thinking and at the center of modern self-representation (Bíos 50).
Far more than the elaboration of a philosophical-political genealogy of modernity that marks the gradual transition from traditional political categories to the biopolitical and immunitary paradigms, what Esposito seeks to understand through the latter is a new configuration of life and politics, named or specified as modernity, that springs forth from the very foundations of life.1 It is life itself that “brings into being, or ‘invents’, modernity as a complex of categories capable of answering the question of the preservation of life” (Terms 70). Once life’s natural defenses—“this sort of primitive immunitary wrapping”—are rendered insufficient, or every time it finds itself exposed to new threats (civil wars, foreign invasions), life invents new defensive apparatuses for itself (for example, social contracts) and new (political and philosophical) languages to articulate its changing needs. This salvific scenario, which for Esposito is authored by life itself, becomes the script of modernity summed up in the principle of security, which later also forms the main dogma of immunology: its understanding of the immune system as self-defense against foreign assault. For Esposito, then, “the category of biopolitics must merge with that of immunisation” (84) as it is the latter that captures or reveals the lethal side or dimension of protection, the negation of life that reached its extremity with two totalitarian regimes of twentieth century Europe and their genocidal policies, Stalinism and Nazism. Nazi totalitarianism is not juxtaposed with communist totalitarianism, however, as it is in Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust. With Stalinism, Esposito argues, we reach an extremity that is still within the conceptual and sematic parameters of modernity and its philosophical tradition, while with Nazism we have the decomposition of the modern form and its translation into a new conceptual language. The particularity of Nazism as a totalitarian regime is that it thinks and speaks in the idiom of biology: “We’ve said that Nazism is not philosophy realized as is communism. But this is only a half truth that we should complete as follows: It is actually biology realized” (Esposito, Terms 80). This echoes Rudolf Hess’s declaration, which Esposito cites here, that “National Socialism is nothing but applied biology” (Terms 80); Esposito “accepts” this claim, but then goes on to qualify it as a “specific quality of the biological, and more specifically medical, semantics deployed by the Nazis” (Terms 81). In immunological terms, the specificity of Nazi biopolitics is best described through “the figure of autoimmune disease” (Terms 84), understood as a figure of self-destruction and the crossing of the threshold from bio- to thanato-politics. The planned extermination of a part of the German population spurred the immunitary paradigm of Nazi biopolitics to “the heights of its auto-genocidal fury” (Terms 86). Autoimmunity is defined as the height or hyperbolic negativity of the immunitary dialectic that could be both resistible and reversible by virtue of the antidote of an original and reciprocal communitas and an affirmative politics of life.
In a way that is consonant with Nietzsche’s “great health” and Canguilhem’s definition of life as the “formation of forms” or “normativity,” Esposito is able to envision the possibility of a positive immunity based on symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationships modelled, for example, on the mother/fetus relationship. Far from a harmonious, symbiotic unity between mother and child, their relationship is depicted as “a fight ‘to life’” rather than death, a conflict that results in “the spark of life” and the intersection of immunity with community (Esposito, Immunitas 171). Above all, it is a philosophical thinking of life itself out of its own sources and foundations that promises the reversibility of the most deleterious symptoms of immunitary logic. For Esposito, George Canguilhem’s “philosophy of biology,” with its resolute resistance to reductive and objectivist definitions of life, opens onto such a way of thinking, one that can confront perversities, such as the Nazi “programmatic antiphilosophical biology” (Bios 189), biologism at its worst.
Catherine Malabou situates Esposito’s critique of biopolitics in the same vein as Foucault’s and Agamben’s treatment of the body and bare life, while denouncing “philosophy’s antibiological bias” and the “unquestioned splitting of the concept of life” (Malabou, “One Life” 431). Malabou refers to Esposito’s essay “Nazism and Us” in Terms of the Political and to the claim that Nazism was “actually biology realized.” One could argue, however, that rather than assimilating biology to a biologism, Esposito proposes a philosophical thinking that draws on life’s own resources and responses and understands it in a wider and more diffuse sense than the partition between the symbolic and the biological allows. For Esposito, immunity, understood as a multivalent term, becomes key. It does much more than transfer a biological determinism onto the political realm; it brings into view the way life itself, or life understood as power, configures itself in the forms and terms of the political. If, as Malabou argues, there is “but one life, one life only,” and nothing outside of a materialism within which the biological and the symbolic coincide (“One Life” 438), then it is this life, or biology, that resists any power that seeks to control or regulate it by virtue of the possibilities inscribed in the living being itself. Biological concepts and discoveries—epigenetics and cloning are privileged examples here—are “the very ones able to renew the political question” and release the potential of a biological resistance to biopolitics (Malabou, “One Life” 431).
Esposito, as we have seen, situates his own philosophical contribution within a genealogy of modernist philosophers who, by his account, reflect on the question of life according to a bio-logic of immunization. If, however, “the thought of the living must take from the living the idea of the living,” and if this happens only if “intelligence” recognizes the “originality of life” (Canguilhem xx), then we must ask, what kind of gestures do philosophers perform towards life when they place it at the center of their thought? For whether philosophy chooses to reject or adopt a biologism that ignores the originality of life and the structures of the living constantly brought to light by biology, it shares in both cases the same antibiological bias that fails to recognize its own assumptions and their political stakes.
With this in mind, we now turn to another gesture in and out of line with Esposito’s immunological genealogy: Jacques Derrida’s situating of “the question οf life and of the living-being, of life and death, of life-death, at the heart of his remarks” (Rogues 109) in terms of autoimmunity. In Rogues, Derrida appears to be very careful while giving his reasons for privileging something that might look like “a generalization, without any external limit, of a biological or physiological model” (109). It is not out of some excessive “biologistic or geneticist proclivity” (109) on his part, he explains, but rather because autoimmunity seemed to offer a way to reflect on the self-constitution or formation of the living being before any opposition between life and its other (spirit, culture, technics, the symbolic, death, and so on). Further, Derrida claims that it provides a means to take something of psychoanalysis and the death drive into account in the thought of the living across all its articulations, especially in political autoimmunity. If immunity in Esposito becomes the missing link of biopolitics and the interpretive key opening onto that historical configuration between life and politics called modernity, autoimmunity in Derrida is formalized and generalized from the physiological to the transcendental as the implacable law in force in all self-formation, anticipating all oppositions and the identities and differences that come to demarcate individuality.
We saw that autoimmunity for Esposito is a capitalization of the negative dimension of the immunitary dialectic that can be countered through a revival of or return to the more originary sense of community, immunity’s antonym and antidote. More generally, within what is called the immunitary paradigm in philosophy, politics, anthropology, and to a certain extent immunology itself, autoimmunity has been marginalized as an exaggerated reaction, a hyperbole or malfunction of the immune system. How are we then to understand Derrida’s gesture, through which autoimmunity takes central stage even if it is tied to the worst or to suicide or, as we will see in a moment, to the extreme hypothesis of radical finitude? And when it comes to political stakes, what is wagered between Esposito’s understanding of autoimmunity as the interpretive key that best captures the specificity of Nazism, and Derrida’s far more radical understanding of autoimmunity as a “necessity inscribed right onto democracy” (Rogues 36)? If autoimmunity is the generalized law and constitutive condition of the living being and of life in all its layers and configurations, it must be so for better and for worse. Even though, or rather precisely because, it opens onto the vocation of hospitality and democracy to come, autoimmunity seems not to leave uninfected any salvific or critical moment. It is marked by an irreducibility that no communitas could reverse; it is the condition of communitas and what perpetually puts it to the test—its “auto-co-immunity,” as Derrida writes in “Faith and Knowledge” (87).
We are slowly moving towards our hypothesis or question. It regards precisely the test of autoimmunity in its extremity, which we will broach through Derrida’s “No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives).” Why resort to a text that predates the systematic preoccupation with autoimmunity in Derrida’s later work? I will argue that in order to understand the specificity of Derrida’s gesture alongside those of other philosophers, such as Esposito, who bring life to the center of philosophy according to the logic of immunity, we need to approach it from its extremity and in terms of the hypothesis of absolute catastrophe and radical finitude.
One may argue that it is not the “extreme” or “radical” view of autoimmunity in Derrida that finds currency with the life sciences (we will later question this in relation to the function of apoptosis), but rather its definition as a constitutive or normative perversion. The latter seems to be in step with recent critiques of immunology. In The Limits of the Self: Immunology and Biological Identity Thomas Pradeu argues that the immunological perspective can give a comprehensive account of biological identity for all forms of life. What seems to have some resonance with Derrida’s understanding of autoimmunity as general law is Pradeu’s twofold gesture: first, expanding the scope of immunology beyond the traditional field of jawed vertebrates, even to plants, and even to unicellular organisms and bacteria by claiming that all organisms have an immune system (23), and, second, broadening the concept of autoimmunity in terms of its function and reinstating the idea of normal autoimmunity as one of the components of the organism’s homeostasis. However, looking for direct correspondences or parallels between Derrida’s understanding of autoimmunity and later immunological arguments or findings or even trying to prove that Derrida’s insights were presciently accurate does not seem to be a fruitful task. As Estzer Timár argues in “Derrida’s Error and Immunology,” there is a danger in the temptation to claim that Derrida might have been right after all even by getting it wrong. Such “victorious” readings risk assimilating Derrida’s complex thinking of life to a reductionist “bioorganicism” that understands life on the whole as natural life.
The following questions are raised: does Derrida’s generalization of the law of autoimmunity and the hypothesis of radical finitude take us beyond autoimmunity as a normal homeostatic mechanism, and how far can we follow him in this? Is the thought of radical finitude that which is generalizable in autoimmunity, and how does that complicate, if it does, the thought of survivance as the perennial entanglement of life and death? Finally, although Derrida gives his reasons for privileging autoimmunity—a term with a more strictly biomedical background than the juridico-politico-medical hybrid of immunity—as the generalizable law of the living, could not other terms have served him better and perhaps not run the same risk of using a complicated biomedical condition inaccurately?
Autoimmunity, at least in late Derrida, is privileged as the category that articulates the question of life within deconstruction and it is the term that most explicitly inaugurates what is emerging at the interface between the latter and biology: biodeconstruction. Of course, Derrida’s thinking of life and preoccupation with the life sciences did not begin with autoimmunity, and the pertinence of his early work for a deconstructive thinking of and with biology is something that has already been shown by recent scholarship in this emerging field. Another example Derrida draws from biomedicine in Rogues is that of cloning. He gives his reasons:
This example, I said to myself, would force me to mobilize indirectly the philosophemes we have been questioning so as to allow them all to converge in the great question of reason and of life .... A well-chosen example on the side of life, I told myself, would allow me to tie together, in as rigorous and tight a fashion as possible, reflections of an ethical, juridical, political, and inseparably, technoscientific nature—and precisely in a place where technicity, the great question of the technical and the logic of the prosthesis, would be not accessory but essential and intrinsic to the problematic of reason.(145–146)
Discussing briefly the dilemmas and improbabilities surrounding therapeutic and reproductive cloning and the objections raised mainly against the latter in the name of the dignity and nonprogrammable and incalculable nature of the unique and irreplaceable living being, Derrida goes on to show the shared biologistic or zoologistic presuppositions and the fundamental but unacknowledged reductionism of both camps (for and against cloning). The common assumption is that of the pre-existence of a purely biological form distinct from other layers and forms of living (what is called culture, knowledge, language, and so on), whose duplication would produce an individual subservient to a calculability that is already there in the first place. For Derrida, however, this fails to perceive the duplication already present and at work “everywhere it is a question of reproduction and heritage” (147). There is and always has been reproductive cloning in all forms and organisations of life, before and across all division between nature and culture. Duplication is coextensive with the broader notion of technical prosthesis and with what Derrida calls “iterability,” of which cloning in the narrow sense becomes only an example, one that is good, however, at indicating the “true place of reason today: that of technicity, of what is proper to humanity or to the living body, of the proper in general[.] In every field” (148).
As is increasingly shown by biodeconstruction but also in the work of biologists (for example, Lynn Margulis and Jans-Jörg Rheinberger), deconstructive concepts with which the notions of sameness and alterity, promise and program, finitude and infinity, chance and risk, technical prosthesis and ipseity, life and death are always entangled (iterability, writing, trace, différance, autoimmunity) find resonances in biomedical thought and open ways for questioning biological definitions and conceptions of life, death, and individuality. So why privilege autoimmunity, which, as Vicky Kirby points out in her paper “Autoimmunity: The Political State of Nature,” compromises and puts under erasure both of the terms it is composed of while assuming them at the same time? Is it the thought of the radical finitude of the autos (also the autos of reason) that Derrida finds irresistible, or of the possibility of the absolute erasure of the trace or the necessity of the worst (a suicidal drive that could reach extremes), that which we always need to remind ourselves of?
We now turn to “No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives).” Autoimmunity is not mentioned there by name; after all, this is a lecture delivered in 1984, nine years before the term first occurred in Specters of Marx. The logic of autoimmunity, however, is exemplified there from its extremity, from the place of absolute risk faced by that which could call itself autoimmune humanity. The hypothesis is that of a nuclear, total, and remainderless destruction, which is also described as an “absolute pharmakon,” one of autoimmunity’s old names (Borradori, “Autoimmunity” 124). One may well not give any credence to the nuclear hypothesis and to whether it menaces humanity and perhaps a few more species entirely; Derrida here does not bestow to this risk the generality and formal structure of an implacable law, as he will later do with autoimmunity. What is exemplarily threatened in its entirety is the archive, and first of all the archive of literature, because of the fabulous and “performative character of its relation to the referent” (Derrida, “No Apocalypse” 28) and the impossibility of its reconstitution as such after a total destruction. This impossibility accords it a radical form of historicity by ascribing to it an essential finitude. The peculiar historicity of literature and of everything that is constituted by the very act of archivization, argues Derrida, is “contemporaneous through and through” and is “structurally indissociable” from something like a “nuclear epoch,” by which he means both crisis and nuclear criticism, from “the historical and ahistorical horizon of an absolute self-destructibility without apocalypse, without revelation of its own truth, without absolute knowledge” (“No Apocalypse” 27). He clarifies:
This statement is not abstract, it does not concern general and formal structures, some equation between a literarity extended to any possible archive and a self-destructibility in general.(27)
Self-destructibility here does not extend to biological archives or to the living being in general. It concerns specific historical formations and archives that inform both the criticism and the crisis of the nuclear and that interestingly make a “sudden ‘synchronous’ appearance” (27): the principle of reason or rather its interpretation since the seventeenth century according to the order of representation, the dominance of the object/subject dichotomy, the metaphysics of the will, and modern technoscience and the project of literature in a strict sense that also dates from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The co-habitation of this specific interpretation—the modern era of the principle of reason and the project of literature—erupts in a crisis that threatens criticism at its core. What the principle of reason cannot but foreclose—and it even grounds itself through this foreclosure—is the radical finitude and precariousness that are essential to literature.
Employing terminology that foreshadows the autoimmune critique of reason in Rogues, Derrida considers the “homonymity” between Kantian criticism and nuclear criticism. As thoughts about finitude as the limit of experience, both cut their figure out on the (back)ground of the possibility of something exceeding the finitude of the intellect or even of life; finite rationality, Kant’s intuitivus derivativus, is only possible if it is grounded in an infinite intellect, intuitus originarius. The possibility of a finitude as radical as that embodied by literature, which is defined as “the body of texts whose existence, possibility, and significance are the most radically threatened, for the first and last time, by the nuclear catastrophe” (“No Apocalypse” 27), must be foreclosed by the principle of reason, as it would annul the basis of its constitutive opposition between finite and infinite. Such possibility would bring the limit of criticism into view in “the groundlessness of a remainderless self-destruction of the self, auto-destruction of the autos itself. Whereupon the kernel, the nucleus of criticism, itself burst apart” (“No Apocalypse” 30).
A remainderless “auto-destruction of the autos itself” is exactly what reason can never envision nor tolerate for itself, a shared condition with literature as originally archivable event. It is from a background of radical finitude and not infinity that literature cuts its figure out. This is why, for Derrida, literature and literary criticism belong to the nuclear age and speak of nothing other than nuclear catastrophe, or their own remainderless a-symbolic destruction, a destruction that could not even be assumed and worked through symbolically, an absolute reality that could not even take its place in memory or be mourned, softened, or transfigured:
The only referent that is absolutely real is thus of the scope or dimension of an absolute nuclear catastrophe that would irreversibly destroy the entire archive and all symbolic capacity, would destroy the “movement of survival,” what I call “survivance,” at the very heart of life. This absolute referent of all possible literature is on par with the absolute effacement of any possible trace; it is thus the only ineffaceable trace, it is so as the trace of what is entirely other, “trace du tout autre.” This is the only absolute trace—effaceable, ineffaceable.
The irreversible destruction of the entire archive and all symbolic capacity would then be the ultimate reality of a nonarchivable event, the absolute effacement of any possible trace, that is to say, the absolutely ineffaceable trace, the entirely other. Unassimilable, a-symbolic, untraceable, absolutely not there. A catastrophe of such scope and dimension—that is, not merely the physical destruction of the archive, of all archives, but the destruction of all possibility of archivization in general—would destroy the movement of survival, of survivance, and all entanglement between life and the symbolic: life as we know it. What begins as an hypothesis about the destruction of historical and positive archives escalates or generalizes its threat to the very movement of survival, to the effacement of all trace of life/death. The hypothesis of total, remainderless destruction that threatens the very movement of survival is directly linked in “Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides” to the risk run by the movement of the world: a “terrifying autoimmunitary logic” endangering “nothing less than the mondialisation or the worldwide movement of the world, life on earth and elsewhere, without remainder” (Borradori 98–99).
In “Autoimmune Illness as a Death-drive: An Autobiography of Defence,” Alice Andrews argues that this figure of the worst that resembles “the silence of death, of pure death uncontaminated by life” (195) amounts to a homeopathic autoimmunity, an autoimmunity that protects and maintains itself as risk, that is, that defends both life and death, life/death, the best and the worst to come. Derrida’s gesture of generalizing autoimmunity in this way would become “the means of survival of all traces, that is of the trace as life” (Andrews 194). The remainderless effacement of the trace, the hypothesis of the absolutely pure trace, “‘the pure worst’ homeopathically treats the manifestation of the worst,” which in “No Apocalypse, Not Now” is the possibility of the closure of the archive “epitomised … by Modern Literature” (Andrews 198–199). The manifestation of the worst, literature’s obsessive and ultimate referent, leaves no room but for the multiplication of strategic manoeuvers and tactics of deterrence in the attempt to make the conversation between warring parties—or, as Derrida writes at the end of “No Apocalypse, Not Now,” life itself—last longer. Does this mean that even as “the necessity of the worst,” autoimmunity constitutes the archive’s homeostasis after all? Perhaps, but it also affronts it with a radicalness that threatens to dissolve the entanglement of life/death with an irreversible, pure, a-symbolic death. It is from this place of extreme or absolute vulnerability that the hypothesis of total destruction, says Derrida, “watches over” and “guides [the] footsteps” of deconstruction (“No Apocalypse” 27).
It is plausible to argue that Derrida’s long preoccupation with the archive prefigures his formalization of autoimmunity into a general and implacable law. The destruction of the autos of reason and of everything that finds itself in precarious cohabitation with literature is rethought in Archive Fever in terms of psychoanalysis and the psychical archive. The archive here takes up the Freudian hypothesis, or rather “irresistible thesis,” of “the possibility of a radical perversion, indeed, a diabolical death drive, an aggression or a destruction drive: a drive, thus, of loss” (9). The archival drive of conservation, what institutes the archivable event and preserves the archival body, does not exist without the threat of the death drive, of an a priori forgetfulness that can expire in radical finitude: “there would indeed be no archive desire without the radical finitude, without the possibility of a forgetfulness which does not limit itself to repression” (19). The archive is defined as what is threatened with total destruction, with a threat that extends to the act and possibility of all archivization, to all mnemotechnical exteriority, both psychical and factual: “this threat is in-finite, it sweeps away the logic of finitude and the simple factual limits, the transcendental aesthetics, one might say, the spatio-temporal conditions of conservation” (19). Archive fever is the inflammation of an interiority with exteriority, a prosthesis of an inside that multiplies all the internal and external partitions that are supposed to constitute the subject. The condition of the archive is generalized by virtue of the sweeping away not only of factual limits but of the conditions of their constitution and preservation.
In The End of the World and Other Teachable Moments: Jacques Derrida’s Final Seminar, Michael Naas contrasts Derrida’s preoccupation with the archive with the notion of the trace. Naas points out that archive and trace are not the same insofar as the former involves the organisation of the latter always under “the authority of some power of selection or interpretation” (136). This does not mean that the trace only suffers archival violence without bearing violence itself. It means, however, that to the extent that the trace is defined by its nonarchivability—the trace cannot be kept as such—it becomes the symptom of a finitude without limit. The condition of the archive extends, according to Naas, from the materiality of the archived entity to “everything from which the tissue of living experience is woven”: “If the archive preoccupies us so greatly, it is perhaps because there seems to be no outside of the archive, no hors-archive, or at least no outside of the general text and thus outside the movement of archivization” (133).
Derrida imagines a project of “general archiviology”—which he describes as “a word that does not exist but that could designate a general and interdisciplinary science of the archive. Such a discipline must in effect risk being paralysed in a preliminary aporia” (Archive Fever 34). The aporia is sketched out in topological terms, especially with regard to the peculiar place (neither inside nor outside) that psychoanalysis would hold in this discipline. It would either be included in it or, after having been integrated with it, raised above it (as a critical authority in the Kantian sense). A general, interdisciplinary archiviology would absorb and also submit itself to psychoanalysis, to its logic, concepts, topics, that is, it would give itself over to the unconscious and the death drive, to the fever that unsettles all kinds of principality, commencement, and commandment, be they physical, historical, biological, ontological, or nomological, as well as all egological ipseity or individuality. In other words, it would accept the irreversibility of its autoimmune symptomatology and condition. In Rogues the logic of autoimmunity appears to outsource one of its most privileged sources, the death drive:
What psychoanalysts call more or less complacently the unconscious remains, it seems to me, one of the privileged sources, one of the vitally mortal and mortally vital reserves or resources, for this implacable law of the self-destructive conservation of the “subject” or of egological ipseity. To put it a bit sententiously in the interest of time, without autoimmunity there would be neither psychoanalysis nor what psychoanalysis calls the “unconscious.” Not to mention, therefore, the “death drive,” the cruelty of “primary sadism and masochism”—or even what we just as complacently call “consciousness.”(55)
As both a constitutive process and an implacable law that operates in all self-formation or delimitation while sweeping away all onto-topological, biological, and nomological limits, autoimmunity follows from the hypothesis of a radical finitude and a generalized archive fever. From the archive of literature to the psyche, to the heart of the living, it inflicts all the configurations and organisations of life/death with a finitude so radical that it threatens a priori with absolute dissemination everything it allows to form. Autoimmunity watches over deconstruction; it bears the necessity of the worst in its indissociability with the possibility of the best. No criticism--Kantian or pharmacological—and no biopolitics, no matter how affirmative, will resolve or eradicate this indissociability.
We might ask how generally Autoimmunity reaches. Could something like radical finitude be conceivable in biological accounts about the origins of life, the emergence of biological individualities, and the formation of the living out of the nonliving? We will pursue this question by contrasting the metaphysical assumptions of two biological theories: first, the theory of endosymbiosis, which was brought to prominence by life scientist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s, and second, Jean Claude Ameisen’s theory of apoptosis, which, according to Francisco Vitale, is a source for Derrida’s thinking of autoimmunity.
In What is Life? Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan advance the hypothesis of endosymbiosis in order to explain the emergence and evolution of complex organisms out of the first membrane-bounded cells. One of the major events or innovations in the history of life occurred some two thousand million years ago and involved the evolution from the prokaryotic to the eukaryotic cell, that is, from cells lacking a nucleus to cells containing a nucleus. The protagonists of this account are bacteria, “Earth’s tiniest life forms” (Margulis and Sagan, What is Life? 69) and its greatest innovators, and the process of their merging is called endosymbiosis. The evolution from prokaryotes to eukaryotes, from bacteria to protocists, “catapulted life to a greater level of complexity and gave it different potentials and risks. Not just by gradual mutation but suddenly through symbiotic alliance did the first eukaryotes form” (91). Symbiotic alliance came about as a result of “hunger, crowding and thirst amongst teeming bacteria” (90).
This new form of life, which is our kind of life, that of the enucleated cell, first emerges and evolves through a process that is variously described as cannibalism, long-lasting sexual encounter, infection, permanent disease, or parasitism. The symbionts are members of different species that do not just live near or on each other but inside foreign bodies. Margulis and Sagan claim that bacteria are the best endosybionts for at least four reasons:
First, because they have been entering into stable relationships with one another for several thousand of millions of years, as they are good at forming permanent relationships. Second, their tiny bodies fluidly lose and acquire genes, making them amenable to rapid genetic change. Third, bacteria have only a limited expression of individuality; no circulating antibodies guard them–an “infection,” far from being rejected as it might be in an animal with immune system, can thus become the basis for life-long association, a mutual evolution. Fourth, bacteria’s vast chemical repertoire leads to a tendency of metabolical complementarity less often seen in association between highly individualized members of plant and animal species.(97)
The symbiotic or interactive view of the history of life as a cellular phenomenon is propelled by symbioses, the physical and chemical association between organisms of different species, which results in the production of new individuals and is a major source of evolutionary novelty. Each body, as Margulis and Sagan describe, “is the charitable gift of a biochemical museum, and each bacterial cell an unplanned time capsule” that contains fragments of preliving systems and embodies the processes of early Earth (What is Life? 63).
Closer to life’s original structures, bacteria are said to be forms of a larger life, free of aging and in principle immortal:
Although, of course, like all life, bacteria can be killed by starvation, heat, salt, and desiccation, these microbes do not normally die. As long as the ambience permits, bacteria grow and divide, free of aging. Unlike the mammalian body which matures and dies, a bacterial body has no limits. A disequilibrium structure thrown up by an evolving universe, it is, in principle, immortal.(Margulis and Sagan, What is Life? 76)
Programmed death evolved much later with the emergence of multicellular organisms: “These new cells were the first protocists and their coming brought the kinds of individuality and cell organisation, the kind of sex, and even the kind of mortality (programmed death of the individual) familiar to us animals” (Margulis and Sagan, What is Life? 90). Endosymbiosis or bacteria sex came with a price: “Fatefully for the future history of life forms such as ourselves, in protocists sexuality became inextricably linked to death …. Programmed death as the final stop of a lifelong metabolism was absent at the origin of life– and for a very long time afterward” (113). Death then, according to Margulis and Sagan’s account, evolved at a later stage in evolution as “the first—and … still the most serious—sexually transmitted ‘disease’” (113). Death here refers to programmed death, what is called apoptosis or cellular suicide, and not to the possibility of dying in general. Bacteria can be killed and can suffer necrosis, but they do not naturally die. We will soon look at these different kinds of death and at the metaphysical exigencies or hypotheses that underlie them.
In Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution (1986), Margulis and Sagan link their hypothesis of immortality to the hypothesis of a nuclear catastrophe: “even nuclear war would not be a total apocalypse, since the hardy bacteria underlying life on a planetary scale would doubtless survive us” (15). In their 1997 preface, reflecting on Microcosmos’s approach to life, earth, and humanity from the perspective of a “planet whose evolution has been largely a bacterial phenomenon” (18), they recognize having articulated a critique of anthropocentrism in the style of deconstruction. Margulis and Sagan directly refer to Derrida’s “dismantling of hierarchical oppositions,” including humanity/animality, according to a strategy of “reversal and displacement” (18). They acknowledge a shortcoming or naïveté in having restricted their approach only to the reversal of this hierarchy; by merely taking humanity off of the top and putting it at the bottom of “nature,” they had not ventured to dismantle the “oppositional distortions imposed by the hierarchy itself” (18). As “one among other microbial phenomena” (18–19), humanity holds no metaphysical priority, and if there is a speck or sperm or egg of immortality in it, it comes from its bacterial past, present, and future.
Radical finitude or the death drive has no place in this account of early life. Symbiosis is about the connectivity of all life, life as a network of ever renewed and evolving encounters, literally about living together and pioneering ways of doing so. It was the bacteria and not the animals that “pioneered symbiosis and the organisation of individuals from multicellular collectives” (Margulis and Sagan, What is Life? 131). The symbiotic hypothesis proposes an account of the formation of individuality prior to the categories of immunization and in ways that already anticipate and unsettle these categories. Symbiosis is characterised by an openness that undermines fixed individuality but can take many different forms, not all beneficial to all symbionts. In this way it could be considered closer to Esposito’s notion of a primordial communitas in terms of its affirmation of an originary relationship of mutual indebtedness and exchangeability but also of life as power and expansion before individual insulation and the immunitary inflection of community. It could be argued that the foreclosure of something like radical finitude in the early promise of immortality and the possibility of reversibility to such primordiality share the metaphysical hypothesis of a life that could finally be relieved of the evolutionary cost of the “disease” of death. We also come across this hypothesis in the increasing tendency to medicalize old age.
Margulis and Sagan’s theory of symbiosis offers an account of evolution that deviates from a linear Darwinism and natural selection in favor of symbiotic encounter as the resource for the engineering of evolution and expansion. It does not account for everything; it does not account for the origin of the eukaryotic cell in its entirety and it certainly does not account for the origin of life and for all evolution of its forms. As John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry argue, the origins of the nucleus as well as of other structures not found in prokaryotes, including whether the eukaryotic cell evolved symbiotically, still require explanation (60). This argument claims an absence of immunity and thus also of autoimmunity (or even of the inverse of this derivation) in early life. This has been contested by more recent claims regarding evidence of immunity in bacteria and the function of apoptosis, or cellular suicide, in the early formation of life. Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg argue that CRISPR, a most versatile region in bacterial DNA whose discovery has opened the way to gene editing, is actually part of the bacterium’s adaptive defense system, which includes methods of sensing an oncoming infection and committing suicide before it progresses in order to protect the great bacterial community (50). This discovery has put single cell organisms “on an equal footing with humans” in terms of “incredibly complex cellular reactions to infections” (59). The true pioneers of gene editing are not humans but the recombinational mechanisms of the microscopic bacteria’s genome. With unforeseeable implications for the future of humanity, human technology is only beginning to discover and manipulate a technology in practice by bacteria thousands of millions of years ago.
With its enormous plasticity, gene editing seems to revive for many the dream of immortality. If this technology is related to the cell’s immunity and to the function of apoptosis and thus to the inseparability of defensive and sacrificial mechanisms, how far (back) can therapeutic imperatives—either medical or metaphysical—reach in resolving the mystery of the living?
In his book La Sculpture du Vivant, Le Suicide Cellulaire ou la Mort Créatrice, Jean-Claude Ameisen examines apoptosis as a mechanism of cellular self-destruction, and while this might initially sound perplexing, he also considers it to be at the heart of the living organism.2 Before going into its complexity, it would be useful to give the standard definition of this phenomenon. Apoptosis is usually contrasted with another cause of cellular death called necrosis. As Nicole Le Douarin explains in Dictionnaire Amoureux de la Vie, some of their defining differences are: 1) in apoptosis death comes as the activation of a genetic program, as the result of an actualization of a possibility internal to the cell, while in necrosis death comes as an accident, a result of a traumatism or pathology that inflicts the cell from the exterior; 2) in the process of necrosis, cells begin to swell until they explode, releasing enzymes that alter the architecture of their neighbouring cells and initializing in them the same process. Necrosis is released in successive waves that cause inflammation and scarring. During the process of apoptosis, cells implode rather than explode as they do in necrosis, and undergo major internal modifications. While the nuclei of apoptotic cells become fragmented and their cytoplasm is split out in small parcels, the exterior membrane of the cell remains intact impeding the release of enzymes on the outside. The apoptotic bodies are very quickly absorbed by neighbouring cells, which have the capacity, all living cells do, to pick up the molecular signals emitted during apoptosis. In less than an hour all apoptotic bodies are devoured while still alive and completely disappear. And 3) in general, as apoptotic death causes no inflammation and leaves no scar or trace, it can pass totally unnoticed, and this is why biologists were not able to detect it until the 1980s. The cellular carcasses of necrosis, which is a cataclysmic process, can be easily observed with the microscope (Le Douarin 86–88).
How old is apoptosis in the evolution of life and death? Ameisen considers two scenarios: the first, Margulis and Sagan’s scenario, postulates the existence of two radically different periods in the history of the living: an initial period during which cellular societies did not yet possess the power of auto-destruction, and a subsequent period in which the potentiality of an “untimely” death had begun to spread across the universe of the living. This vision evokes the past as a “golden age” and as a primordial time when each living being still carried within itself the promise of immortality (Ameisen 312). The second scenario, the one proposed by Ameisen, does not require imagining a universe without or before “suicide.” It allows us to glance at the capacity of self-destruction at the heart of early cells, at the birth of life itself (Ameisen 312). It is widely known and established that apoptosis plays an essential role in embryogenesis—one of the most common examples of cellular suicide—during the construction of the organs; it creates the spaces between and models the parts of our body (for instance, the space between our fingers) through a process of elimination similar to the “carving of a sculpture” (40). But apoptosis is also active throughout the life and aging of the individual and is a potentiality that is present in all cells in general, a surging death that needs to be suppressed. It is necessary at every instant to suppress the onset of cellular suicide (285). Even if the cell’s death sentence still depends on the environment of the cell, the “initiation of its execution, the ultimate decision between life and death depends on the cell itself … death seems to be inscribed at the heart of the cell, as a potentiality ready to actualise” (51). Because cellular death is a phenomenon of active self-destruction—and not the result of a brutal murder or a paralysis- it is accompanied by a discourse, the emission of precise signals and messages (61). Cells are programmed to speak the language of living and the language of dying, to wit, to post molecular signals on their surfaces. All cells need to signal constantly to other cells that they are living so as to fend off scavengers. Apoptotic cells erase the signature of life even before advertising their imminent death: a moment of suspension, a “moving frontier” between the “kingdoms” of life and death (67). Although the apoptotic cell still has the capacity to suspend it, once the signal of death has been emitted or the surface receptors of surrounding cells have detected that suicide is underway, the end becomes inevitable and irreversible. The “funereal rites” that accompany this rapid and solitary death leave no lesion, inflammation, or scarring. No corpse. The surrounding living cells completely devour and fill in the space of the dead. No trace is left of the rapid and discreet work of auto-destruction (57).
Self-destruction is a potentiality carried in every cell; it is at the heart of the living and needs to be counterbalanced by its capacity for survival. But more than that, it is perhaps the same cellular tools—the executors and protectors—that control the potentiality of suicide, that fulfil functions essential to life, and that are the architects of cellular survival and duplication. Death does not come as the price of evolution. The same tools used to “sculpture the face of cellular life” also possess, perhaps from the beginning, “the potentiality to sculpture the face of death”: “The answer to the question of ‘when’, of the mystery of the birth of the tools that allow for suicide, appears to be of overwhelming simplicity: since always, at the origin of the first living cell” (Ameisen 316).
Why does this matter to us? What does it matter if death was there at the origin or if it was a late arrival, since it is certain that death will come sooner or later? Perhaps the ineradicability of the suicidal drive in the constitution of life—what Derrida (perhaps drawing on Ameisen, according to Vitale’s hypothesis) calls the general law of autoimmunity—is to be reckoned with in all ontological, biomedical, and biopolitical approaches to disease and cure. Could the irreversibility of cellular suicide, the death that leaves no trace, be another example of the radical finitude postulated in Derrida’s nuclear hypothesis? And is this radical condition not inextricably linked to a radical hospitality at the heart of the living? Is the absolute risk run by the radically finite not also the openness to the absolute trace of the other? Might not total erasure also be the giving way to what or who is to come? Always for better or for worse.
I am not proposing that the biological concept of apoptosis proves Derrida’s pronouncements about the law of autoimmunity to be right. We remain aware of the dangers of extending biological concepts and functions beyond the specificity of their field, especially those involved in the evocation of a complex operation such as apoptosis as a model for hospitality. But the complexity within the minimal structures of the living and the material entanglements and encounters that form them might offer us new insights for understanding and engaging with larger configurations and formulations of the living in our world.
Is biologically inspired critique possible? Can biology give us deconstructive strategies for a deconstructive thinking of life—a biodeconstruction? Can it help us develop an aptitude or cultivate a taste for different modes of relatedness within the living? For this to become possible it is necessary first of all to think through the different uses of the term bios and also differences between the bio- in biodeconstruction and in biopolitics, to deconstruct the bios of biopolitics and its ideological stakes and operations of normalization or, in Malabou’s words, to “deconstruct biopolitical deconstruction” (“Will Sovereignty” 37). Perhaps the ineradicable entanglement of radical finitude and hospitality, which we sketched here through the figure of apoptosis, points to nothing less than the (trans)formation of form that is life itself, a force of openness and erasure always at absolute risk. Perhaps being more in tune with the “self-transformative tendency of life” (Malabou, “Will Sovereignty” 45) could also inform our aptitude for discerning and for knowing. If, as Derrida points out, life is marked by this aptitude for discerning, that is, for marking and remarking its finitudes, the task of what is today called biodeconstruction will be to respond to and to apply new forms and levels of discernibility while at the same time taking more and more into account. This is the task intimated by Derrida in his conversation with Elisabeth Roudinesco in For What Tomorrow … A Dialogue when he brings the aptitude for discerning between life and death to life itself; this is the task of biodeconstruction.
Elina Staikou teaches Modern Liberal Arts at the University of Winchester. She is the author of Deconstruction at Home: Metaphors of Travel and Writing and of numerous articles in the field of deconstruction and medical humanities.
1. Life here refers to its Western conception but also more broadly to life as power of transgression and expression of the multiplicity of its forms beyond their particular philosophical and historical conceptualizations and manifestations. Biological critiques of deterministic attitudes and definitions of life and identity add their own questions and insights to the deconstruction of Western biopolitics. The task would then be to question the extent to which biological discourses are embedded in Western conceptualizations of life and open to non-Western ones.
2. Unless otherwise noted, translations from the French are my own.