On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss
Graywolf Press, 2014; 205 pp
Reviewed by Jordan Williams
On Immunity is ostensibly a collection of very short essays concerning the ethics of vaccination -- which poses a bigger risk to a newborn child: unmitigated contagion or the controlled introduction of immunity? However, “An Inoculation,” the book’s subtitle, suggests a genre that’s both strange and intimidating. By labeling her creation an inoculation, Eula Biss risks making readers as wary of her work as they are of the “shots” and “jabs” regularly administered by their doctors. In fact, the book’s third essay opens with a detailed examination of our inoculation phobia. Biss puts it simply: the way we talk about the process demonstrates our belief that “vaccination is a violence.” On Immunity doesn’t challenge this idea directly, although Biss is very interested in the comparison that many have drawn between vaccination and vampires. Instead, what this book challenges are notions of insularity. “Our bodies are not boundaries,” Biss insists. Putting aside the fact that inoculation is based on knowledge that’s both ancient and durable, Biss is a proponent of the morality of inoculation, which prioritizes the protection of whole communities, not just individuals. One vaccinated person may experience side effects or even contract the illness in question, but a vaccinated community has a much lower risk of experiencing an outbreak.
That’s the science, anyway, and Biss does a good job of explaining it for the layman. Her theoretical exploration of the public’s fears (fears she herself experiences as a new mother) is headier stuff. Biss introduces the work of Kierkegaard with humility rather than intellectual arrogance, but I don’t think I came away from this book with a better understanding of Kierkegaard. Voltaire also features prominently. Even Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto makes an appearance. But I doubt it will do graduate students much good to cite Biss’s take on these important works. These moments in the book are fine and appear naturally but they aren’t its strongest elements, by far. What Biss does best is engage with the language of science, and scientists themselves, from her dual perspective as both a new mother and earnest citizen. Biss’s challenge is to balance her desire to protect her own child from harm with her understanding that vaccinations are about protecting more than the individuals who receive them. This book is Biss’s engagement with the politics of vaccination.
Biss does a very good job of telling us how doctors and researchers consider human illness. She pays particular attention to how they disagree on the topic. For example, there has apparently been a debate in the area of “immunosemiotics” regarding whether our immune system is best described using the language and imagery of warfare. Alternative descriptions of the immune system have ranged from “a symphony to a solar system to a perpetual motion machine.” Biss has her own suggestions, like exchanging the term “herd immunity” for “hive immunity.” A hive better represents our interdependency, as her argument goes. Plus, people assume that herds are stupid. A member of a hive would have a duty to vaccinate their offspring; a member of a herd would just be tricked into doing it. As for Biss’s inoculation in book form, I suppose she’s introducing her readers to the kind of fear-based assumptions that impede the usefulness of community-saving vaccines. The idea, then, would be that readers approach future vaccinations with an immunity to those fears.
Readers should expect the same kind of sincere wit and keen observation that characterized Biss’s previous essay collection, Notes from No Man’s Land. On Immunity is different because it’s driven as much by her research as by her personal experience (the book’s endnotes and sources are extensive). This makes it a more authoritative text while preserving her clean prose and startling metaphors.