We reside, apparently, in the age of the ‘self’ – of selfies, self-help and self-perpetuating celebrities who luridly self-expose. On Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and everything that ebbs across the cyber-ether, we find compelling, sensitive or lunatic selves revealed to anyone who wants to ‘friend’ or follow them. The whole thing is teasingly Cartesian: we are told that ours is an age of secular materialism, that consciousness is matter and so on, and yet for much of the time we exist as incorporeal cyber-entities, wafting through a virtual nowhere. Meanwhile our bodies attract the fervent interest of medical and political authorities, who advise us on how to be physically healthy and therefore, apparently, ‘good’. At the same time, our environment is rife, under the aegis of the same authorities, with toxins, pollutants and pesticides.
On Immunity, by the American writer Eula Biss, manifests and analyses a general state of anxiety caused by the riotous contradictions of hyperindustrialism. In a previous book, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays (2009), Biss wrote eloquently on fear, prejudice and oppression. In On Immunity, she describes her own fears about technocratic medicine and environmental risk. She focuses on contagion, pollution, the history of vaccination – a life-saving and yet at times controversial process – and her own uncertainties about whether she should inoculate her newborn son.
Biss enters the hallucinatory realm of motherhood by way of a ‘natural birth’ (a