A Case of Auto-immunity: A Response to Philip L. Tite


by Karen Zoppa

Note: This post is in response to Philip L. Tite’s short essay, “Editor’s Corner:  Critics or Caretakers? It’s All in the MappingBulletin for the Study of Religion 44.3 (September 2015): 38-39.

Philip Tite reflects on an important question raised by Randi Warne “about the authoritative voice claimed in scholarly discourse as to what should be a normative use of language in scholarly debates” (Tite 38). Tite argues that the observation of a progressive subtext raises the more troubling issues of:

What is the correct way to be a scholar? Who takes on the moral authority to make that very call? . . . .   And finally does this claim to normative discourse result in a prescriptive approach by theorists, thereby rendering them, in their own way, “caretakers” (though of a discipline rather than a religious tradition) by advocating the ideal of being “culture critics?” (38).

“Correct scholarship” displays a commitment to a certain progressive ideal of “cultural criticism,” an ideal that by its very existence suggests a normative “proper” register of scholarship that we, as “correct scholars,” become caretakers for. Tite muses that the multiplicity of “we-s” involved in contesting and establishing the “map” of the normative “is either the vitality of our discipline or the most dangerous threat to an already unstable field of study. It’s all in the mapping” (39).

This subtext of “progressiveness” and the normative ends it serves strikes me as an iteration of what Derrida describes as “autoimmunity.” In contemporary discourse about this thing “religion,” there is often an implicit endorsement of a certain style of cultural criticism, an articulating of meta-theoretical insights that reveal the political and ethical commitments of the scholar in question. But as Tite observes, “There is certainly an irony in the rhetoric raised in theoretical (as well as theological or confessional) circles in the study of religion, especially perhaps among those scholars (including myself) who challenge the place of normative discourse in academic scholarship” (38). This “rhetoric,” when viewed as tending toward a certain hegemony of cultural criticism, can be understood as the inevitable auto-immune response of an organism, the organism here being the contemporary discourse of humanities scholars.

Auto-immunity is an iteration of the logic of difference that Derrida discusses most thoroughly in “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of Religion at the Limit of Reason.” Following the biological model, auto-immunity is the process of an organism turning on its own defenses in its attempt to protect itself from a threat. In the case of “religion,” it is, on the one hand, the desire to indemnify, to protect, to keep whole, “holy,” healthy, a certain experience from a threatening agency – for example, to preserve an experience of the immediacy of the “spirit” from the threat of ubiquitous technologies of communication, communications counter to the experience one is trying to preserve; on the other hand, the community ends up protecting its “spiritual” experience by adopting the very technology it fears. In “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” Derrida offers a nuanced version of this in his rehearsal of Freud’s discussion of the vesicle – the simplest form of a cell. The cell prefers stasis, prefers to remain undisturbed. It possesses a thicker outer layer that can ward off any uninvited disturbance, but it does so by extending itself at the point of threat, engaging in an exertion that ironically forces the cell to disturb itself in order to protect itself from disturbance. These figures of autoimmunity are instructive, in that they reveal the mechanism, the “machine,” of auto-immunity as inevitable.

This implicit exhortation among scholars to adhere to a normative cultural criticism, scholars who are primarily engaged in contesting iterations of “normativity,” seems to function as just such an auto-immunity. Scholars of Religion, and of the Humanities generally, are trained to detect and critique monolithic theories, unexamined assumptions and uncritically held methodological approaches. Following the logic of auto-immunity, it seems the meta-theories by which we make such critiques are themselves repeated and refined into a de facto hegemony of acceptable critical perspectives, becoming a new norm which unless critically acknowledged, will require critical deconstruction down the line.

The exhortation that guided most of my graduate student life – to identify hidden assumptions and theoretical biases, my own and others – is often ignored in an implicit privileging of certain tropes of cultural criticism. It seems that there is an unstated understanding: that we all know , for example, the structure and limitations of gendered or ethnographic or political reading of a given text or datum, and therefore it is not necessary to make explicit the assumptions of such critiques. This “understanding” encourages the repetitive engagement of such critical approaches without a prefatory acknowledgement of them and of their limits, perhaps even encourages an uncritical acceptance of these approaches, silently rendering them “normative.” This produces the very dynamic that cultural criticism sought to expose and interrogate in the first place, a privileging of unchallenged normative assumptions. The organism (here, humanities scholarship) has neutralized its own immune system – the critically-aware interrogation of apparent norms of discourse – by privileging a certain set of its own critical resources and omitting the all-important task of critically framing one method.

I offer no remedy to this observation: the figure of auto-immunity describes a process that is non-negotiable. However, it also is a process that both repeats itself and issues forth new iterations. The unspoken “norms” of the contemporary critical discourse in the study of “religion” are destined to be disturbed. In the meantime, some of us can begin the disturbance.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of Religion at the Limits of Reason Alone.” Acts of Religion. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Derrida, Jacques.  “Freud and the Scene of Writing.”  Writing and Difference. Translated by Alan Bass.Chicago:  University of Chicago press, 1978.

Karen E. Zoppa is a PhD Candidiate in the Department of Religion at the University of Manitoba. Her research focusses on the texts of the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, and their tangents to Derrida and de Certeau.

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