Bioethics Blogs

Messianic Medicine: Treating Disease in the Time that is Left by Janina Kehr

In “The Time that Is Left”, Giorgio Agamben sketches the problem of messianic time. He writes that the messianic is “not the end of time, but the time of the end. (…) the time that is left between time and its ending” (Agamben 2002, 2). In the following article, I want to take his reflection on messianic time as a starting point to think about the treatment of epidemics in such time that is left. I will take tuberculosis in Western Europe, on which I have done ethnographic research since 2006, as an example. For tuberculosis, there have been numerous announcements in medicine of the near end of disease with a promise of societies’ salvation, most famously by Salman Waksman in his Nobel Lecture of 1952. And yet, the end of this disease has never occurred, neither in the Global North, and even less so in the Global South. I will conceive of the time between the announcement of men’s medical salvation from disease and its accomplishment, the actual conquest of disease, as medicine’s messianic time. During this time that is left, tuberculosis has come to exist as a “disease without a future” (Kehr 2012), a disease that should not endure, that should no longer exist. I argue that tuberculosis can therefore only be conceived of in the form of a revenant, even if it has never been actually gone. Yet how is such a revenant treated in Western Europe today? How do patients live with this revenant disease they should not have after all? In sum, how does medicine’s messianic time shape the life with and reaction to a disease whose end was announced but has failed to arrive?

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