Idiotypic Networks, Normative Networks


How to Cite

Goffey, A. (2003). Idiotypic Networks, Normative Networks: Health. M/C Journal, 6(4).
Vol. 6 No. 4 (2003): Fibre
Published 2003-08-01


Health is a production, a process, and not a goal. It is a means and not an end state, required “to liberate life wherever it is imprisoned by and within man, by and within organisms and genera” (Deleuze). We live our health as a network, within networks, within social, technological, political and biological networks, but how does the network concept understand health? And how does the network concept implicate health within other networks, for better or for worse?

Biopolitical Relations

In its diverse forms, network thinking institutes a relational ontology, an ontology of connection and of connectedness. Whether the connections being explored are those governing the proverbial ‘six degrees of separation’, the small world in which “no-one is more than a few handshakes from anyone else”, the rhizomatic imperative that not only is everything connected but it must be, or even the ordinality of the mathematical regimen of belonging (Alain Badiou), one gains the impression that network thinking is the expression of a common world-view, a zeitgeist. Yet to think in this way is not only to lose sight of the important qualitative differences evident in the manifold conceptions of ‘network’ but is also to overlook differences in descent in the genealogy of knowledges and hence the differential inscription of those knowledges in power relations (another network…). The case of immunology is analysed here as one line of descent in network thinking, selected here for its susceptibility to exemplify a series of biopolitical implications which may not be so evident in other scientific fields. What follows is an attempt to address some of these implications for our understanding of the materiality of communications.

Self - Nonself

Since the groundbreaking work of Sir Frank MacFarlane Burnett in the 1940s and 1950s, immunology has become known as the ‘science of self-nonself discrimination’. In the first half of the twentieth century, as Pauline Mazumdar has argued, immunology was caught up in a classificatory problematic of the nature of species and specificity. In the latter half of the twentieth century, it might be argued, this concern becomes a more general one of the nature of biological identity and the mechanisms of organic integrity. Yet it is licit to see in these innocently scientific concerns the play of another set of interests, another set of issues or, to put it slightly differently, another problematic. We can see in the autonymic definition of immunology as the ‘science of self-nonself discrimination’ a biopolitical concern with the nature, maintenance and protection of populations: a delegation of the health of the body to a set of autonomous biological mechanisms, an interiorisation of a social and political problematic parallel to the interiorisation of the social repression of desire traced out by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their Anti-Oedipus.

There are a number of points which are relevant here. The intellectual roots of immunology are to be found in Darwinian theory. Socially, however, immunology develops out of a set of public health practices, a set of public health reforms. Immunology locates the mechanisms for maintaining the integrity of the organism ‘under the skin’ and in a sense shifts the focal point of the problem of health to the internal workings of the organism. In this way, it reconfigures the field of social action. The enormous success of vaccination programmes and a concentration on the ‘serologic’ of immunisation focalises immunological research on outer-directed reactions.

We can find a trace of the social field to which immunology is related in the name of the discipline itself. The term ‘immunology’ derives from the Latin term ‘immunitas’ which signified an exemption from public duty. The mechanisms of the immune system are routinely figured as weapons in a war against the enemy (Paul Ehrlich: “magic bullets”). And war, as Agamben has argued, exemplifies a state of exception. Given the way in which immunology shifts health inside the body, its enemies become ‘any enemies whatever’, microphysical forces with no apparent connection to the socius.

The ability to combat any enemy whatever offers decisive evidence of the miraculous abilities of the self, the sovereignty of its powers. The self which the immune system protects is imagined to be defined anterior to that system, on a genetic basis, independent of the rules governing interactions in the system itself.

The ability of the immune system to respond to and destroy any enemy whatever and thus maintain the organism’s sovereign identity demonstrates its ‘intolerance for foreign matter’ (Macfarlane Burnet). The molecular terrain on which its combat is waged is only apparently divorced from the socius.


Network theory offers an interesting response to this set of ideas. Niels Jerne developed idiotypic network theory as a way of overcoming some of the difficulties in the accepted version of how the immune system works. The immune system possesses the remarkable ability to distinguish between everything which is a friend of the organism and everything which is an enemy. The key question which this poses is this: how and on what basis does the immune system not react to self, why does it posses what Paul Ehrlich called ‘horror autotoxicus’? The standard wisdom is to maintain that those elements which can react to self are firstly only very small in number and, secondly, eliminated by a process of learning (‘clonal deletion’). Yet this view is wrong on both counts – there is a far higher concentration of ‘auto-antibodies’ in the individual organism than the standard theory suggests, and an organism which develops in the absence of contact with ‘antigens’ originating in the environment can nevertheless develop a perfectly functional immune system.

Jerne’s theory develops as a piece of self-organisational wisdom. Everything in the immune system is connected. The activities of all the elements in the system are regulated by the activities of every other. One type of cell specifically recognises and thus is stimulated into action (i.e. the production of clones) by another. However, this reaction is dampened down by another recognition event: the proliferation of clones of the first type of cell is regulated by the response of a third (also a production), and so on. This cascading chain of stimulus-response events is called an idiotypic network, by Jerne, a recurrent set of ‘eigen-behaviours’, and it reverses the conventional wisdom about the way in which the immune system operates: the destructive response to the other is no longer an exception but a limiting case in the auto-consistent behaviour of a self-organising network. An immune reaction is not a characteristic of the miraculous power of the immune system but a consequence of the network’s loss of plasticity.


Francisco Varela and the so-called ‘Paris School’ have managed to draw out the radical consequences of this way of looking at organic processes.

The first point they make is that idiotypic network theory substitutes an autonomous conception of immunity for the predominantly heteronomous view of immunity as a set of defensive mechanisms. A variant on the more general autopoietic postulate of the circular causality inhering in living systems, the eigen-behaviour used to characterise immune networks attempts to move our understanding of biological processes away from the biopolitical problematic of defence and security. As Varela and Anspach put it, “to say that immunity is fundamentally defence is as distorted as saying that the brain is fundamentally concerned with defence and avoidance. We certainly defend ourselves and avoid attack, but this is hardly what cognition is about, that is flexibility in living”. An idiotypic network is thus conceptualised as a radically autonomous system, which effectively knows no outside.

The idea that the immune network has defence as its prime function is argued by Varela to result from the epistemically relative nature of the claims made by the biologist: it is a claim which makes sense from the specific point of view of the observer but does not – cannot – explain what the immune network is doing in its own terms. The place of the observer in biology is fundamentally contingent. The assertion of the contingent nature of the observation in biology is not, however, accompanied by an analysis of the immanent implication of these observations in the socius. As Maturana himself has noted, “the fact that science as a cognitive domain is constituted and validated in the operational coherences of the praxis of living of the standard observers as they operate in their experiential domains without reference to an independent reality does not make scientific statements subjective”. Certainly not, if these statements can be demonstrated to belong to a specific set of discursive ‘regularities’.

The argument that the immune network does not have defence as its primary function of course raises the question of what the immune network is actually for. The research carried out by Varela and his associates suggests, and this is the second point, that the immune network is responsible for the assertion of organic identity. Far from being a secondary mechanism for the protection of a sovereign identity defined elsewhere and otherwise, the organisation of the immune network as a recurrent set of mutually reinforcing chemical interactions (in which defence is instead the result of an excessive perturbation of the system), suggests that the network has a primary role in defining identity. To put it another way, the immune network is a means of individuation.

The field of theoretical immunology more generally has explored the logic of the network constitution of individuality. Experimental evidence suggests that vertebrate organisms replace up to 20% of the chemical components constituting the immune network daily, thus demonstrating a highly productive processual character, but how does this activity cohere into the development of a consistent set? Theoretical immunologists use some of the arguments of complexity theory to show that even the continuous random production of notional molecular compounds (which would correspond to the elements of the immune network – B-cells, T-cells and so on) can yield an organised consistent set. They argue that this set or network of interactions forms a ‘cognitive field’ which determines the sensitivity of the network to any one of its elements at any moment in time. The sensitivity of the network – equally its degree of connectedness – determines the likelihood that any element will be integrated or rejected. The less connected the network to any element, the more likely that element will be rejected. Interestingly, the shape of the cognitive field of the network – what it is sensitive to – varies over time, and the network is more flexible, or plastic, at earlier stage in its history than later. The crucial point, however, is that there are no necessarily enduring components to this network. A useful term to describe this is metastability: immune networks provide evidence for an ongoing process of individuation, itself a more or less chaotic process.

Such a view is far from gaining univocal adherence in the immunological community and yet it certainly offers an interesting and inventive way of looking at the anomalies of currently available experimental evidence, not least the difficulties standard theory has of grasping auto-immune diseases. But does the network conception of immunity displace the biopolitical problematic ?

As mentioned above, for Varela this view of the immune network as an autonomous, cognitive system offers a way out of the predominantly militaristic characterisation of the organism’s maintenance mechanisms, and thus permits the conceptualisation of what he calls ‘flexibility in living’. Yet, if the claim sketched out above concerning the link between immunology and biopolitics is correct, one is entitled to ask about the extent to which network thought as a way of grasping biological processes can really constitute a locus of resistance to contemporary biopolitical imperatives.


To finish, it is worth noting firstly that with biopolitics, in the genealogy sketched out by Foucault, mutations in power are accompanied by a shift in its phenomenal manifestation: the noisy destructiveness of sovereignty, with its power over life and death, is replaced by the anonymity of the grey procedures of knowledge. Cognition could perhaps be another form of power. And power is for Foucault, of course, a network. Or, to take another view, contemporary power may be characterised by the state of the exception becoming the rule (Agamben): the exceptional response of the sovereign has spread across the whole social fabric or by the generalised diffusion of the death drive across the whole of the socius (Deleuze and Guattari). The diffuse cognitive qualities of the network conception of immunity might in this sense correspond to contemporary shifts in the nature of power and its exercise. As Francois Ewald has put it in his discussion of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, “[n]ormative knowledge appeals to nothing exterior to that which it works on, that which it makes visible. What precisely is the norm? It is the measure which simultaneously individualises, makes ceaseless individualisation possible and creates comparability”.

Author Biography

Andrew Goffey