Aug 142014


In my recent interview with the brilliant essayist Eula Biss, we spoke at length about one of the major themes in her new book: the continuity between human beings and the environment we inhabit, as well the continuity between all human bodies and human minds. I find this to be an evolution of a major theme in Biss’s last book, the remarkable 2009 essay collection Notes from No Man’s Land. This book, which established Biss as one of the great nonfiction writers at work today, is predicated on the continuity of past and present. There can be no separating ourselves from history. In Notes, Biss invokes of the great crimes of early America and confronts the myriad ways we encounter their echoes—in our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our fractured families and complicated identities. Best of all, Biss immerses herself in each essay, examining the place she occupies—as a researcher, a writer, a neighbor, a daughter—in the various attitudes, narratives, and institutions the book seeks to expose and challenge.

This lens, at once highly confessional and fiercely critical, is put to use once again in On Immunity: An Inoculation. Biss and I spoke about her desire for the book to highlight “the intellectual work of mothering.” Indeed, On Immunity might easily be read as a personal struggle with information; an intellectual odyssey. But the added drama here is that the life of one’s child depends on that struggle.

In the following excerpt, Biss confronts the common model of the human immune system as a defensive military force eternally on high alert. Our metaphors have consequences. Late in On Immunity, Eula Biss quotes George Orwell from his famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” I find that one of the driving forces behind On Immunity is a hopeful reworking of this idea: if thought enriches language, language can also enrich thought. On Immunity is a challenging book, often as sharply critical as its predecessor. But it is also, as Biss noted in our interview, about moving forward. It is an incitement to “live one’s life reparatively.”

— Adam Segal

Excerpt from On Immunity: An Inoculation. Copyright © 2014 by Eula Biss. Used by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved.


Three immunologists on a road trip in 1984 became excited about the possibility that the cells of our bodies might, like the humans they compose, use a system of signs and symbols—a kind of language—in their communication with each other. After traveling for seventeen hours in a VW bus with a ripe wheel of Taleggio cheese and an Italian edition of Umberto Eco’s A Theory of Semiotics, they determined, through some rough translations performed by the Italian among them, that a better understanding of semiotics, the study of how signs and symbols are used and interpreted, might enhance their work in immunology.

When I learned of the resulting conference on “immuno-semiotics,” I was excited by the possibility that it was devoted to the discussion of metaphor, a semiotic device. I thought I had found a group of immunologists interested in dissecting their own metaphors. To my disappointment, the conference papers revealed that they were much more concerned with the question of how our bodies, not our minds, interpret symbols. But as the immunologist Franco Celada proposed in a paper titled “Does the Human Mind Use a Logic of Signs Developed by Lymphocytes 108 Years Ago?” our minds may have learned the ability to interpret from our bodies.

“Immunologists are forced to use unusual expressions in order to describe their observations,” the semiotician Thure von Uexküll observed at the conference. “Expressions like ‘memory,’ ‘recognition,’ ‘interpretation,’ ‘individuality,’ ‘reading,’ ‘inner picture,’ ‘self,’ ‘nonself,’” he maintained, were unknown in physics or chemistry. “Atoms and molecules have no self, memory, individuality, or inner pictures,” he said. “They are not able to read, to recognise or to interpret anything and cannot be killed either.” Some of the other semioticians at that conference, most notably Umberto Eco, would question whether the cells of the body were literally engaged in acts of interpretation, but the immunologists seemed less skeptical.

When the anthropologist Emily Martin asked an array of scientists to discuss descriptions of the immune system that depended on the metaphor of a body at war, some of them rejected the idea that this was a metaphor. It was, they insisted, “how it is.” One scientist disliked the war metaphor, but only because he objected to the way war was being waged at that moment. In her study of how we think about immunity, which was conducted during the first Iraq war, Martin found that metaphors of military defense permeate our imagination of the immune system.

“Popular publications,” Martin observes, “depict the body as the scene of total war between ruthless invaders and determined defenders.” Our understanding of disease as something that we “fight” invites an array of military metaphors for the immune system. In illustrated books and magazine articles, the body employs some cells as “infantry” and others as the “armored unit,” and these troops deploy “mines” to explode bacteria, while the immune response itself “detonates like a bomb.”

But this war imagery does not reflect the full diversity of thinking Martin discovered in her interviews. Alternative medicine practitioners, as a group, consistently refused to use war metaphors in their descriptions of the immune system. Most other people, scientists and nonscientists alike, tended to gravitate toward militaristic terms, but many were able to suggest different metaphors and some explicitly resisted military metaphors. “My visualization would be much more like a piece of almost tides or something . . . the forces, you know, the ebbs and flows,” a lawyer remarked, clarifying that by forces she meant “imbalance and balance.” A number of other people, including scientists, echoed this idea of a body striving for balance and harmony, rather than engaging in armed conflict. The inventive metaphors with which they imagined the immune system ranged from a symphony to the solar system to a perpetual motion machine to the vigilance of a mother.

The term immune system was used for the first time in 1967 by Niels Jerne, an immunologist who was trying to reconcile two factions of immunology—those who believed that immunity depended largely on antibodies and those who believed it depended more on specialized cells. Jerne used the word system to unite all the cells and antibodies and organs involved in immunity into one comprehensive whole. This idea that immunity is the product of a complex system of interdependent parts acting in concert is relatively new to science.

Even so, what we know of this system is staggering. It begins at the skin, a barrier capable of synthesizing biochemicals that inhibit the growth of certain bacteria and containing, in its deeper layers, cells that can induce inflammation and ingest pathogens. Then there are the membranes of the digestive, respiratory, and urogenital systems with their pathogen-ensnaring mucous and their pathogen-expelling cilia and their high con- centration of cells equipped to produce the antibodies responsible for lasting immunity. Beyond those barriers, the circulatory system transports pathogens in the blood to the spleen, where the blood is filtered and antibodies are generated, and the lymphatic system flushes pathogens from body tissues to the lymph nodes, where the same process ensues—pathogens are surrounded by an assortment of cells that ingest them, eliminate them, and remember them for a more efficient response in the future.

Deep in the body, the bone marrow and the thymus generate a dizzying array of cells specialized for immunity. These include cells that can destroy infected cells, cells that swallow pathogens and then display pieces of them for other cells to see, cells that monitor other cells for signs of cancer or infection, cells that make antibodies, and cells that carry antibodies. All of these cells, falling into an intricate arrangement of types and subtypes, interact in a series of baroque dances, their communication depending in part on the action of free-floating molecules. Chemical signals travel through the blood from sites of injury or infection, activated cells release substances to trigger inflammation, and helpful molecules poke holes in the membranes of microbes to deflate them.

Infants have all the components of this system at birth. There are certain things the infant immune system does not do well—it has trouble penetrating the sticky coating of the Hib bacteria, for example. But the immune system of a full-term infant is not incomplete or undeveloped. It is what immunologists call “naive.” It has not yet had the opportunity to produce antibodies in response to infection. Infants are born with some antibodies from their mothers already circulating in their systems, and breast milk supplies them with more antibodies, but this “passive immunity” fades as an infant grows, no matter how long it is breast-fed. A vaccine tutors the infant immune system, making it capable of remembering pathogens it has not yet seen. With or without vaccination, the first years of a child’s life are a time of rapid education on immunity—all the runny noses and fevers of those years are the symptoms of a system learning the microbial lexicon.

When I asked for help understanding the basic mechanics of immunity, a professor of immunology gave me a two-hour explanation of the immune system in a coffee shop. He never once, in those two hours, used a military metaphor to describe the workings of the body. His metaphors tended to be gastronomic or educational—cells “ate” or “digested” pathogens and “instructed” other cells. When he spoke of something being killed or destroyed, he was referring to literal death or destruction. The scientific term for a type of white blood cell capable of destroying other cells, he told me, is natural killer.

Later, I attended a series of lectures by the same professor. While I was learning the distinction between innate immunity and adaptive immunity and trying desperately to keep track of a proliferation of acronyms—NLRs and PAMPs and APCs—I would note that the cells of the immune system lead lives in which they kiss, are naive, eat, purge, express, get turned on, are instructed, make presentations, mature, and have memories. “They sound like my students,” a friend of mine, a poetry professor, would observe.

If a narrative of any kind emerged from those lectures, it was the drama of the interaction between our immune system and the pathogens with which it coevolved. This drama was sometimes characterized as an ongoing battle, but not the kind that involves Apache helicopters and unmanned drones— this was clearly a battle of the wits. “And then the viruses got even smarter,” my professor would say, “and did something ingenious—they used our own strategies against us.” In his telling, our bodies and the viruses were two competing intelligences locked in a mortal game of chess.

— Eula Biss

Excerpt from On Immunity: An Inoculation. Copyright © 2014 by Eula Biss. Used by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved.


Eula Biss  is the author of three books: On Immunity: An Inoculation, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, andThe Balloonists. Her work has been supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Howard Foundation Fellowship, an NEA Literature Fellowship, and a Jaffe Writers’ Award. She holds a B.A. in nonfiction writing from Hampshire College and a M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. Her essays have recently appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction as well as in The BelieverGulf CoastDenver QuarterlyThird Coast, and Harper’s. Eula Biss and John Bresland are the Chicago-based band STET Everything.


  2 Responses to “From On Immunity: Nonfiction — Eula Biss”

  1. […] In my recent interview with the brilliant essayist Eula Biss, we spoke at length about one of the major themes in her new book: the continuity between human beings and the environment we inhabit, as well the continuity between all human bodies and…  […]

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