Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Topologies of Immunity, University of Exeter, April 10th 2014

Last week's fantastic 'Topologies of Immunity' workshop at the University of Exeter began with a keynote from Warwick Anderson (whose new 2014 paper is here, and absolutely worth a read for anybody interested in discussions of globalisation, biovalue and postcoloniality. Anderson's a self-termed 'postcolonial bore', but the paper is anything but boring). His keynote, Getting Ahead of One’s Self, discussed the last part of his new book Intolerant Bodies – A short history of autoimmunity. Co-authored with Ian McKay, the book offers a reflection on the cultural relevance of immunity. As in the book, Anderson's talk argued for a more generous understanding of immunitary logic, inclusive of philosophical and cultural reflections of immunology.

The keynote was held in Building:One's Bateman Lecture Theatre

The talk was a perfect ramp into a lively afternoon of discussion. Chaired by Professor Gail Davies, the workshop began with a lively paper from Jamie Lorimer and Richard Grenyer, that explored methodological issues in how to conceptualise and measure the 'micriobiogeographies' of the biomes we live in. Nadine Levin offered some important thoughts on the normative assumptions of data-intensive scientific work at the intersection of metabolism and immunology ('good' bacteria, and the 'healthy' microbiome.) 

The workshop was also an opportunity for the first outing of a paper Nik Brown and I have put together on the internationalised immunitary regimes of public and private cord blood banking and transplant. Using Roberto Esposito's conceptual work around immunitas and communitas, the paper argues that the cord blood paradigm confounds our current understandings of national solidarism and pernicious, 'selfish' marketisation of human tissue. 

University of Exeter
Astrid Schrader's paper gave a fantastic overview of harmful algal blooms known as red tides, and scientific work done around understanding programmed cell death (the fantastic title of the paper was 'suicidal microbial communities'). The paper toyed with conceptions of the temporality of death, and how we come to understand cells as - paradoxically - committing 'suicide'.

Artist Helen Scalway explored the use of materials in her work. She also touched upon some of the challenges she's been confronted with in understanding, representing, uniting and separating parts, pieces, shapes and movements. Along with an opportunity to see some interesting art (something I never really encounter), the space for an 'artist response' was vital in illuminating the role of metaphor in this discussion. I mean this particularly in regards to the necessary transposition of ideas across vital, political, and material platforms (or topologies), when we discuss immunity.

Nigel Clark's closing remarks tied the event together nicely. Noting that we were all about to exit the room as the singular individuals we'd been on entry, he made it clear that our ideas of flow and globalisation, sharing and hybridity, make very little sense without an appreciation of locality, location and more-and-less material borders. Importantly, he also raised a matter that hadn't been made explicit in any of the papers during the day. Politically, the matters explored here are all very fecund. But what can we do with immunity? What doors are opened and closed by thinking about the world through this lens? The philosophy of immunity is, I think, going to be taking up much of my own conceptual energy for some time to come.