Zahi Zalloua

The Ethics of Autoimmunity and the Autoimmunity of Ethics: Derrida’s (Un)compromised Democracy

            In the American neoliberal imaginary, democracy and the free market are symbiotically interwoven; the latter could not exist without the full presence of the former in the realm of public discourse. In addition to guaranteeing a way of life at home, neoliberalism serves in this imaginary as a global antidote to the most corrupt and tyrannical governments in the world. Winning the “hearts and minds” of Iraqi insurgents or would-be terrorists goes hand and hand with the promotion of neoliberal ideals. Take for example Paul Bremer’s 2003 observation that “rebuilding the Iraqi economy based on free market principles is central to our efforts.”[1] Yet what happens when this neoliberal ideology confronts the neocons’ aggressive defense of American sovereignty, of American exceptionalism?

            Against the virus that is terrorism, American democracy under the watch of neocons took unexpected if not unprecedented actions to protect itself, including actions that jeopardize democratic rule, turning the system against itself, so to speak. French philosopher Jacques Derrida has turned to the biomedical term of autoimmunity to account for this ambivalent state of democracy in such a time of terror. In the process of autoimmunization, Derrida writes, “a living being, in a quasi-suicidal fashion, ‘itself’ works to destroy its own protection, to immunise itself against its ‘own’ immunity.”[2] Autoimmunity in its original biological context signifies a disorder, a living organism’s failure to recognize that it is attacking a very part of itself—and not just any part, but the immune system, the system that protects the living being from foreign, harmful elements. Moving from the individual body to the political body, Derrida examines “this strange illogical logic”[3] of autoimmunity, as he calls it, in America’s response (its body politics) to the traumatic events of 9/11. In its desire to protect itself (to immunize itself against the spreading disease of terrorism), America has turned against itself, against its own self-protection, against, that is, its immune system: laws aimed at safeguarding the legal rights of its subjects, especially during states of emergency. In its fight against the virus of terrorism (that is, the “War on Terror”), American democracy, under the willful watch of “homeland security,” thus suppresses its own (traditional) mechanisms of auto-protection—and arguably compromises its own integrity—in favor of an alternative, hyper-vigilant mode of self-protection that must posit America in a state of perpetual war. John Yoo, for instance, makes explicit the ideological shift in what constitutes military normalcy after 9/11: “The world after September 11, 2001… is very different from the world of 1993. It is no longer clear that the United States must seek to reduce the amount of warfare, and it certainly is no longer clear that the constitutional system ought to be fixed so as to make it difficult to use force. It is no longer clear that the default state for American national security is peace.[4]

            In the same spirit, we could say that it is also no longer clear that the default state for the legal American system is due process. Take for example the egregious denial of habeas corpus rights for detainees, or rather “terrorist suspects,” at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. To be sure, the U.S. Constitution makes provision for the suspension the Writ of Habeas Corpus, but this option is reserved for truly exceptional situations: “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.”[5] The putative necessity of an open-ended “War on Terror” supersedes this fundamental legal protection, transforming its neutralization from an exceptional and temporary action into a far more normal and permanent condition. The “Patriot Act,” more generally, emblematizes this curtailing of individual civil liberties in the name of a greater/est good: American sovereignty. 

            Yet the logic of autoimmunity exposes the delusional quality and self-destructive potential for thinking of sovereignty in such absolute terms. Derrida not only reveals the danger of a political body incapable of discerning its own cells (citizens) from pathogens (hybrids, contagious others), but unravels the “phantasmatico-theological”[6] character of sovereignty: “it is not some particular thing that is affected in autoimmunity but the self, the ipse, the autos that finds itself infected.”[7] Moving back and forth between the individual body and the political body, Derrida foregrounds a kind of hybrid sovereign, or what he calls a “sovereign without sovereignty.”[8] Making an analogy with a body’s need for immuno-depressants (functioning as a necessary “supplement” to the immunue system) to counter its natural antibodies and render possible “the tolerance of certain organ transplants,”[9] Derrida stresses the self’s lack of self-sufficiency and autonomy. But what follows from this heteronomous condition is neither despair nor nostalgia but an awareness of the relational quality of the self, an awareness of the self’s exposure to otherness: “[A]utoimmunity is not an absolute ill or evil. It enables an exposure to the other, to what and to who comes—which means that it must remain incalculable. Without autoimmunity, with absolute immunity, nothing would ever happen or arrive; we would no longer wait, await, or expect, no longer expect one another, or expect any event.”[10] Autoimmunity entails then a radical or unconditional hospitality to the neighbor as radical Other, whose effects on the self (the host, the democratic citizen) cannot be determined (fully) in advance. Though, or rather because autoimmunity posits a “compromised” democracy, Derrida’s illogical logic may also serve to rethink the possibility of a democratic mode of being, one that is uncompromising, irreducible in the face of neoliberal attempts at containment.



[1] Paul Bremer, “Operation Iraqi Prosperity,” Wall Street Journal, Jun2 20, 2003.

[2] Giovanna Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, 94.

[3] Derrida, Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 123.

[4] John Yoo, “War, Responsibility, and the Age of Terrorism,” Stanford Law Review 57, 3 (2004), 816.

[5] US Constitution, art 1, § 9, cl. 2.

[6] Derrida, “Peine de mort et souveraineté,” 15 Divinatio, 18.

[7] Derrida, Rogues, 109.

[8] Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror, 191n.14. Putting it in slightly different terms, Derrida writes: “What must be thought here… is this inconceivable and unknowable thing, a freedom that would no longer be the power of a subject, a freedom without autonomy, a heteronomy without servitude” (Rogues, 152).

[9] Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge,” in Acts of Religion: Jacques Derrida, ed. Gil Anidjar (New York: Routledge, 2002), 80n.27.

[10] Derrida, Rogues, 152.