Decolonizing Immunity

McGuire, Kelly | $19,205

Ontario Trent University 2021 SSHRC

The body remembers. We refer to this capacity as “immunity” when invoking the experience of previous infection. While scientists agree that “remembering” is an apt characterization of the body’s recall of viral encounters, there is less consensus on how to describe the response that follows, although most now agree on the inaccuracy of the pervasive metaphor of militarized “defense.” Nonetheless, we take this process as a given in the west, assuming that the immune system as we conceive of it has an essential nature and is understood uniformly across cultures. However, as J.M. Anderson states, “there are no spaces that have not been colonized” (239), and this applies to our cultural imagining of immunity in the west. If, as numerous scholars have argued, immunity is an invention of western political philosophy, then we might read this as a particularly westernized construct that borrows from and is contoured by race and the legacy of colonialism. This project explores how popular notions of immune function as conveyed by language, media and culture are shaped by individualist ideas originating in the eighteenth century and colonial projects that continue to inform contemporary biomedicine, public health and pandemic response. Historically, the anti-vaccine movement mobilized around an idea of freedom that was contingent on race; those who were “less free” than others were subjected to mandatory vaccination while those with the power to resist did so on the basis of privilege and complexion. The cross-contamination of anti-vaccination sentiment and white supremacism on display at COVID lockdown protests suggests the persistence of racialized ideas of immunity. The current pandemic provides us with a specific context for examining the discourse of immunity in the public sphere in relation to public health practices and addresses the following questions: what does immunity mean to us in the time of COVID-19? What will it mean to us after COVID?

This project offers a valuable corrective to the distortions that continue to inform our thinking and which the pandemic has only served to amplify. Our archival and interview-based research will demonstrate the value of applying a critical race theory and decolonial lens to issues relating to biomedicine and in the process open up a significant space for non-westernized knowledge within the ambit of health humanities. In questioning the role of race in the anti-vaccine movement, this project does not impugn hesitancy per se or reject traditional healing practices, which may, as Camaray Davalos explains, constitute “a way of taking back the power to heal ourselves, without colonial ideologies” (44). Indeed, in mapping out an alternative to an idea of westernized immunity, we hope to move beyond colonial knowledge production and look to alternative understandings of how cultures beyond mainstream North America understand the body’s response to infection. In this sense, in addition to appealing to medical historians, cultural theorists, philosophers, and health humanities scholars, this project will be valuable to the general public seeking to understand the entanglement of anti-vaccination and white supremacist discourse and the relationship between social movements and individual bodies. Ultimately, we hope to reach a non-academic audience through arts-based approaches integrated into our publications that may help render a fairly abstract, intangible idea like immunity more widely accessible. If immunity is memory, in remembering our pasts we may reconcile our futures.

As a multidisciplinary project, Decolonizing Immunity is ideally assessed by health humanities researchers with arts backgrounds or by theorists in cultural studies and Indigenous studies.

With funding from the Government of Canada

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