by Ed Cohen

About Ed Cohen

Ed Cohen is a professor of women’s gender and sexuality studies. His most recent books are A Body Worth Defending: Immunity, Biopolitics, and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body (Duke University Press, 2009) and On Learning to Heal, or What Medicine Doesn’t Know (Duke University Press, 2023).


What makes an illness “chronic”? When does illness begin to be chronic? Does chronicity refer to the unfolding of a disease process, or does it constitute a temporal convolution that might entirely change one’s “lifetime”—that is, one’s awareness of life as both temporal and temporary? In ancient Greek myth, Kronos (whose name chronic immortalizes) was the leader of the Titans and the ruler of time, especially time viewed as violent and devouring (Marini 2019, 59). The myth itself invokes a chronological concept of time in which the past overtakes and consumes the present, if not the future, such that the “cause” of the present necessarily lies “behind it” somewhere in the past. Chronological time has always governed medicine, ever since it first began to be medicine around the fifth century BCE. In part, that’s because both disease and healing are processes and as such only unfold in time. They make time matter in the most material of senses. Thus, from the moment medicine entered the therapeutic marketplace 2,500 years ago, time has been of its essence. Since antiquity, medicine has promised to help us know what happens to us when we fall ill in the hope that such knowledge can reduce the time during which we suffer, if not help us recover. Indeed, medicine first defined itself as “medicine” when it distinguished itself from competing therapeutic modes (e.g., magicians, root cutters, temple priests, doctor-prophets, purifiers, drug vendors, herbalists, and the like—not to mention the gods) by insisting that its knowledge—and only its knowledge—offered the best shortcut to recovery (Holmes 2010).