Host in the Shell

Sara Black McCulloch in The New Inquiry:

ImmuneWe “contract” disease, as if it were something we could sign for, sign up for. We “fight” disease, as if we were drafted in service of our country. We “fall sick,” as if in battle. Cancer patients who do not fall permanently are “survivors.” The sick can be ostracized, and the sick can be glorified, but in almost all cases, the sick cease to be civilians and become fighters either for or against us. In a climate of perpetual war, Eula Biss resists the metaphors, giving us instead a different way of looking at illness and disease. She speaks of “herd immunity,” i.e. the idea that if whoever can get vaccinated does get vaccinated, we can protect those most prone to disease (and those who can’t get vaccinated), like cancer patients and pregnant. She rephrases, saying it’s a “banking of immunity,” a trust fund: We know that immune individuals won’t carry infectious diseases, won’t diminish our value.

Language is said to be a virus, but anxiety is the virus that language only carries. “Only,” and yet a virus is nothing without a carrier. Old misconceptions thrive on and on in our words. “We are not being invaded,” Susan Sontag wrote inIllness as Metaphor, decades ago. “The body is not a battlefield. The ill are neither unavoidable casualties nor the enemy… About that metaphor, the military one, I would say, if I may paraphrase Lucretius: Give it back to the war-makers.” Yet in our words we are still more often war-makers than nurses, far from immune or safe, terrified often that our bodies won’t heal without a fight.

Sometimes our immune systems lie to us. Autoimmune disorders attack the nonthreatening self, destroying vital body tissue, as with rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and Graves’ disease. Like even the best intelligence agencies, our immune systems sometimes fail to recognize when the self becomes a threat, the body a double agent: the cancer is coming from inside the house, at least where the house is flesh, and the immune system doesn’t see its cells as foreign. Some of us get chicken pox again, and shingles. Many of us still have allergies. A simple answer is that the immune system isn’t a perfect system. Another answer is that the immune system is perfect, and we just don’t know it well enough yet.

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