A Body Worth Defending: Immunity, Biopolitics, and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body
by Ed Cohen
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2009
384 pp. Trade, $88.95; paper, $22.45
ISBN: 978-0-8223-4518-3; ISBN: 978-0-8223-4535-0.
Reviewed by C.F. Black
Griffith University Law School
Ed Cohen offers a provocative and demanding account of what he calls the ‘back story’ of the apotheosis of the modern body through the thought provoking trajectory of immunity as an unquestioned metaphor that unreflectively incorporates juridico-political assumptions. This unquestioning, he argues, has led to a disconnect between the body and its environment and the de-legitimizing of other ways of seeing humanness and the models of care and treatment.
This argument is tantalizing for those who may wonder why the ‘individual’ has become inordinately central to the thinking of the West. As though the individual is a bundle of rights floating ‘discreetly’ above the planet neither connected to nor responsible for that pours forth from such thinking. Furthermore, it empowers advocates in poverty-stricken domains with a substantive argument as to why the ‘drugs into the body’ type campaigns appear to suffer from the blindness of the poverty and conditions that bring about the disease in the first place. Cohen’s book, therefore, can be recommended to be of use beyond the Anglo first-world borders of the predominant neoliberal world, to that of those who depend on aid from wealthy nations. However, it is obvious that the author’s scholarship is directed at those of the academy and, therefore, not so accessible in its diction to the non–academic.
Cohen provides four substantive chapters to support his hypothesis. However, both the introduction and conclusion justify a close reading in themselves. The introduction provides a comprehensive overview of the book and a frightening revelation concerning the Darwinian phenomenon––that is, the dabbling and assumption of one scientist can become the scale by which the humanity of billions can be determined. The reductionism and individualism of the biomedical approach to health is writ large in this exposé.
Chapter 1. Living Before and Beyond the Law, or A Reasonable Organism Defends Itself
This chapter opens with a quote from the famous War of the Worlds sci-fi film and, then, goes on to demonstrate how the influence of such popular media shapes our understanding of germs and immunity. However, who can be blamed if he or she thinks germs and immunity come down to some kind of bacterial level of - a shoot out at the ok corral - taking place in our bodies on a daily basis?
The evidence for this argument begins in this chapter, and Cohen gives a rather surprising account of the co-opt of the words, immunity and defence, from the legal and political two thousand year old home into a new form of Natural Law that shaped modern politics and modern science.
Chapter 2 A Body Worth Having, or A System of Natural Governance
This chapter provides an insightful account for those who suffer under the public health system driven by neo-liberal values. The linkage between poverty and population highlights the tendency of the politico-economic arguments to intimate that it is the poor who are to blame for declining health standards. And even more sinister, that the poor are a threat to the national politics and economic stability. The notion of Medical police is provocative as a new political conjunction believer physician and the state that increasingly legitimates physician authority as experts about a populations general well being or ‘happiness’, as living organisms. Furthermore, Cohen takes the reader through historical debates that eventually lead to “As a result, medicine experience begins to assume some of the religion’s salvific responsibility.” (p. 98)
Chapter 3 A Policy Called Milieu, or The Human Organism’s Vital Space
This chapter descends the reader into the murky policy prisons of public hygiene and the funding of the holy sanctuary of the laboratory and that which issues forth from this holy of holies has the God given right to determine the truth about our bodies. I would add it is riveting reading to learn the source of the reductionist mentality that sees the human being as a health statistic and the cure for aliments reduced to a script on a piece of paper. Or is it the script from another sci-fi film - Star Wars -which we find in the next chapter?
Chapter 4 Incorporating Immunity or The Defensive Poetics of Modern Medicine
This final chapter reads like a scene from Star Wars in which he presents a bio-political conjunction of immunity as defence gives rise to the apotheosis of the modern body. Just like Anakin rising from the molten remains of the Death Star and his body is apotheosised as Darth Vader, so too does this chapter give us a much needed secret of how ‘our bodies in the West’ have been refashioned like a Darth Vader of defences against invading bacteria. The notion of immunity atomizes our bodies into the realm of defence – a body worth defending. In that our humanness no longer exists as part of a larger environment but rather something we must turn into a fortress in itself - the weapons of defence being those designed by the biomedical fraternity. As Cohen explains this is not an intentional shift but rather a matter of history.
In conclusion, A Body Worth Defending has much to offer the diligent reader, who is interested in tracing modernity’s genealogy and its shape-shifting over time in its understanding of the nature of the human and its present manifestation as a biological phenomena separated and distinct from the environment. A separation which has come to dictate not only how we care for the ill and our system of healing but more insidiously our entire political and economic relations (p 281).