Throughout his text Immunitas. Protection and negation of life (2002), Roberto Esposito1 proposes the immune paradigm as a hermeneutic key to understanding our present. Indeed, it suggests that the category of immunity acquires greater interpretative value because it is capable of transversally cutting specific languages and redirecting them to the same horizon of meaning (cf.: Esposito: 2002, p. 3).
In this way, immunity is presented in apparently heterogeneous planes such as the fight against a virus, a discourse that has been strongly embodied in the recent outbreak of Covid-19 that gave rise to the pandemic that began in 2019 and has not yet ended, the opposition to the request for the extradition of a head of state accused of human rights violations, Esposito thinks of the example of the Chilean dictator Pinochet, the reinforcement of the borders to prevent clandestine immigration, the computer viruses that have recently been put in check to more than one international company making it lose millions of dollars. Only in Latin America can we think of the cyberattacks against Mercado Libre, the bank BR Partners, etc. Therefore, Esposito maintains, the horizon of meaning to which all these security practices that seek to restore order in the face of risk lead are intertwined in the immune paradigm.
Thus, a first approach to the concept of immunity is to understand it as the requirement to rebuild a balance that has previously been broken. However, in political terms we must say that the community forms that have occurred throughout history have had an immune system. In other words, and to say it with Esposito, it is not possible to think of some kind of community that dispenses with all immunity.
Now, if this is so, what is the characteristic of our present? Why resort to the immune paradigm as an interpretative key to our present if it can be extended as an analysis throughout history?
2. Immunity and the risk of contagion
From the examples we have taken from Esposito, we can be sure of one thing: both a disease and a violent intrusion, whether on the level of the individual or the common, always occurs in the realm of the body. The body is the place where the threat is located, but the body is also the limit between the interior and the exterior, between the individual and the common (cf.: Esposito: 2002, p. 4).
Immunity is, then, the response to the intrusion of something that penetrates our body from the outside —individual and/or collective— and transforms it, alters it, modifies it, corrupts it. Now, while it is true that communities have always given their own immune forms to protect themselves, it is also true that the characteristic of our contemporary times is the fear of contagion from an evil that can spread through all the ganglia of life. It is no longer a precise, punctual attack, but the fear of contamination that puts the whole body at risk of devastation. The fear of contamination, of contagion, the accelerated and generalized nature of the disease in the body at the same time, is what confers a special requirement on immunization.
This is the reason why Esposito explains immune modernity in two stages or two moments, without this implying the exclusion of one by the other. In philosophical-political terms, the first modernity is the one that was born with Hobbes and is understood as the elaboration of conditions of refractoriness of the body to eliminate disease. It is enough to think of the Hobbesian model proposed in Leviathan, in which it is clearly evident that what concerns the author of the s. xvii is the chaos, the civil war understood as disease, and not the excess of order. For Hobbes the dilemma is Leviathan or anarchy and, put in bio-medical terms, it is important to neutralize or eliminate all possibility of the disease; if this does not work, the death of politics follows.
Between the s. xviii and xix, science has made substantial advances in terms of the passage that Esposito points out between a natural immunity and an acquired immunity that characterizes this second modernity. Indeed, Jenner’s discovery of the smallpox vaccine or Koch and Pasteur’s experiments open up a new stage in the hands of medical bacteriology that completely changes the meaning of the concepts of disease and cure. To put it clearly, Esposito maintains that it is about the passage from a passive condition to an active condition in which non-lethal doses of the evil from which they want to preserve it are introduced into the body.
Esposito affirms that if for Hobbes it was about eradicating the disease, in the sense of at least momentary elimination, in this new conceptualization of immunity; it is about introducing the infection in an attenuated and preventive way.
The passage within modernity put in terms of natural immunity to acquired immunity generates some effects of meaning that are interesting to explain. In the first place, acquired immunity appears as the reaction of a force that is inoculated to prevent another force from developing. Secondly, this immunity mechanism assumes the existence of the disease that it must counteract.