Autoimmune illness as a death-drive: an autobiography of defence

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Author: Alice Andrews
Date: Sept. 2011
Publisher: University of Manitoba, Mosaic
Document Type: Essay
Length: 7,075 words
Lexile Measure: 1530L

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I have been reading, thinking, and living the paradoxical logic of the autoimmune via the frame of a personal illness for some time now. This is a frame that readily lends itself to an exploration--some might say a self-indulgent exploration--of a certain pathology, an anxiety, or even a terror of a self-destructive death-drive; the death-drive as my own body's, or psyche's, defensive and forceful drive back towards death, or onwards towards a suffering, as an illness, which threatens worse. According to Freud in "Beyond the Pleasure Principle," one must distinguish between anxiety, which prepares for and thus protects against a perceived danger; fear, which requires a definite object; and terror (Schreck) as a sudden and unexpected fright (12). In the context of the autoimmune, which marks that self-destructive defence of the self, these modes of discomfort and displeasure are each opened to the terror of the unknown, for the autoimmune names a vulnerability and risk that persists on both sides of a decision: to defend life and risk death? To defend a certain death and risk a cruel and uncomfortable life? Autoimmunity opens onto the very uncertainty of a terrifying and risky future.

But a "self-indulgent" concern for and return to the self is effected, perhaps, by the insistence of the bodily symptoms of an autoimmune disease, symptoms that return in repetitive "flares," always unexpectedly, always painfully, always urgently, to interrupt my train of thought: unexplained pains in my legs and joints immobilize me, a low-grade fever makes me tremble, and pleurisy catches my breath, I fidget as my skin itches and blisters, and my thoughts struggle through the headache to be drawn back, again, always, towards this terrible experience of discomfort. As my body enacts this seeming drive towards death, I am driven too, in this situation, to give free reign to the self-indulgent desire to work through, treat, and resolve the repetitious trauma of this discomfort. So, I will employ this paper, in its moment of relative lucidity, to recount the psychoanalytic and deconstructive "treatments" of the traumatic effects of illness and the death-drive, to consider the impact of a certain terror and discomfort that is enacted along with the defensive paradigm of autoimmunity.

I will therefore be undertaking a novel reading of Derrida's appropriation of the bioscientific term autoimmunity. Derrida names biomedical autoimmunity as "that strange behaviour where a living being, in a quasi-suicidal fashion, 'itself' works to destroy its own protection, to immunize itself against its 'own' immunity" (Derrida and Borradori 94), it works by "protecting itself against its self-protection by destroying its own immune system" (Derrida, "Faith" 73n27, emph. mine). This definition, in suggesting autoimmunity to be the self-destruction of the immune system and its ability to protect, is pivotal to Derrida's use of the biological metaphor to explain the inevitable self-opening of a "body" to the other who comes. (1) However, this definition acts as a deconstructive supplement to the function of the biological process it appropriates. For with biological autoimmunity the immune system...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A268962458