A Body Worth Defending

Immunity, Biopolitics, and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body

A Body Worth Defending
Book Pages: 384 Illustrations: Published: October 2009

Author: Ed Cohen

Subjects
Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Politics > Political Theory, Science and Technology Studies > Philosophy of Science

Biological immunity as we know it does not exist until the late nineteenth century. Nor does the premise that organisms defend themselves at the cellular or molecular levels. For nearly two thousand years “immunity,” a legal concept invented in ancient Rome, serves almost exclusively political and juridical ends. “Self-defense” also originates in a juridico-political context; it emerges in the mid-seventeenth century, during the English Civil War, when Thomas Hobbes defines it as the first “natural right.” In the 1880s and 1890s, biomedicine fuses these two political precepts into one, creating a new vital function, “immunity-as-defense.” In A Body Worth Defending, Ed Cohen reveals the unacknowledged political, economic, and philosophical assumptions about the human body that biomedicine incorporates when it recruits immunity to safeguard the vulnerable living organism.

Inspired by Michel Foucault’s writings about biopolitics and biopower, Cohen traces the migration of immunity from politics and law into the domains of medicine and science. Offering a genealogy of the concept, he illuminates a complex of thinking about modern bodies that percolates through European political, legal, philosophical, economic, governmental, scientific, and medical discourses from the mid-seventeenth century through the twentieth. He shows that by the late nineteenth century, “the body” literally incarnates modern notions of personhood. In this lively cultural rumination, Cohen argues that by embracing the idea of immunity-as-defense so exclusively, biomedicine naturalizes the individual as the privileged focus for identifying and treating illness, thereby devaluing or obscuring approaches to healing situated within communities or collectives.

Praise

“As he adroitly delineates the development of the concept of immunity from late antiquity to the end of the nineteenth century, with frequent reference to present-day microbiology, Cohen takes his reader on a journey whose byroads are often unexpected, at times startling.” — Mary E. Wood, Literature and Medicine

“The book bristles with intriguing excerpts from primary sources—including fascinating comparisons of the French and English nineteenth-century approaches to quarantines—and will be especially useful to those in science studies.” — Jacqueline Stevens, Political Theory

A Body Worth Defending presents an erudite analysis of immunity that elucidates complex theoretical ideas through the patient weaving of historical narrative. Cohen’s text, which in itself constitutes a fascinating historical study, presents a strong, well supported case for how politics insinuates itself into the fabric of our being. This persuasive and timely critique makes an important contribution to political and philosophical engagements with immunology, and to histories of medicine more generally.” — Michelle Jamieson, Social History of Medicine

“[W]ith a decisive reading of Foucault, a well-researched insight into contemporary biopolitics and immunity, both philosophically and scientifically, and an historical genealogy of these topics that has no current rival, there is little doubt this work will have longstanding status.”
— Elliot A. Jarbe, Foucault Studies

“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. . . . 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. ” — C. F. Black, Leonardo

“Ed Cohen’s A Body Worth Defending provides an excellent example of the latter genre. . . . Cohen’s sociopolitical history brilliantly navigates through various nineteenth-century interfaces of the medical and the political domains. . . . A Body Worth Defending reinforces the importance of the idea of immunity to elucidate notions of personal identity in advanced Western societies.” — Alfred J. Tauber, Isis

“For those inclined to Foucauldian approaches—and I include myself here—it is a most welcome and thorough study that pushes the Foucauldian corpus further, conceptually and substantively. . . . [T]his book is unsurpassed.” — Alison Bashford, Metascience

“Inspired by Michel Foucault’s writings about biopolitics and biopower, Cohen traces immunity’s migration from politics and law into the domains of medicine and science. Offering a genealogy of the concept, he illuminates a complex of thinking about modern bodies which percolates through European political, legal, philosophical, economic, governmental, scientific, and medical discourses from the mid-seventeenth century through the twentieth. . . . In this lively cultural rumination, Cohen argues that by embracing the idea of immunity-as-defense so exclusively, biomedicine naturalizes the individual as the privileged focus for identifying and treating illness, thereby devaluing or obscuring approaches to healing situated within communities or collectives.” — Nelson Santos, VisualAIDS Blog

“Ed Cohen provides a breathtakingly original exploration of the ways in which the immunity, a concept defined and complicated through the strange interlocking of biological and medical with legal and political discourses, has come to explain modern bodies, both individual and collective. A brilliant, timely contribution to understanding the biopolitics of illness, contagion and defense.” — Elizabeth Grosz, author of The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution and the Untimely


“Ed Cohen’s original epistemological history sheds new light on the taken for granted modern imperative to care for our health by tending our immune systems. This important book reveals in startling and fresh ways the philosophical groundings that made this imperative seem natural.” — Emily Martin, author of Flexible Bodies: Tracking Immunity in American Culture from the Days of Polio to the Age of AIDS


“A Body Worth Defending will become a widely cited classic in the history of medicine, because of the range of its scholarship, the sophistication of its analysis, the significance of its findings for understandings of ‘the modern body,’ and its literary style. Ed Cohen’s voice is authoritative, engaging, and likable; by the middle of the introduction, I was hooked.” — Helen Keane, author of What’s Wrong with Addiction?


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Ed Cohen teaches cultural studies and directs the doctoral program in women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Opening Up a Few Concepts: Introductory Ruminations 1

1. Living Before and Beyond the Law, or A Reasonable Organism Defends Itself 32

2. A Body Worth Having, or A System of Natural Governance 68

3. A Policy called Milieu, or The Human Organism's Vital Space 130

4. Incorporating Immunity, or The Defensive Poetics of Modern Medicine 206

Conclusion: Immune Communities, Common Immunities 269

Notes 283

Bibliography 323

Index 359
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4535-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4518-3
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