Chronic Time, Afflicted Lives

This article is part of the following series:

“Mine is an illness of time.” […] “Time has no cure.”

— Catarina

(Joao Biehl, Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment, 2005: 107)

Chronic is a temporal loop: it recursively, discursively, iteratively reproduces human experience. In the domain of health and illness, this reproduction perpetuates passing time as extending suffering and stalling the very dynamic of living. Chronic, like the experience of temporality, is constant, perpetual, continuous, unending. Chronic slows down Bergson’s lived time, la durée (Bergson 2003). 

Chronic life, as indeed chronic living, is an intractable ensnarement, a white static (tinnitus) noise habituating the afflicted to the ever emerging (ab)normal. There’s immense variability undergirding the experience of chronicity: the chronic shifts within the anatomy of unfolding chronology. It is a constant textured churning that alters the experience without dissipating the presence of its unnameable nature. The experience of chronicity might feel like weakening resolve, or occasionally weakening of chronic intensity, its severity; but it is nevertheless typified by a refusal: a refusal to abandon that which it afflicts. 

If time, chronos – living present – afflicts us all, then some afflictions in time come to acquire certain chronicity. The chronic is the only normal, because it afflicts us all, it has no cure because it is a severe experience. It is a humbling admission that time regenerates via degenerating those who dare to experience its temporal promise. In this temporal cultural space suffering and pain, the twin corollaries of chronic living, like any experience, emerge demanding active management and care. And yet care can be withheld, management can go awry, and cultures can institutionalise forms of cruelty that single out certain chronic afflictions as unworthy of attention. 

Infertility or an inability to reproduce vital life suffused with a temporal trajectory is one such intractable biological and social condition. Human fertility and its absence are a cultural complex in which the biological and social become inextricably interpolated. Infertility or reproductive disruptions are as old as the cultural constructions of time. However, our focus and interest is better directed towards understanding how diverse human cultures conceive an inability to extend time through biological reproduction and capture as well as recast it as a biosocial affliction. There is a chronology to infertility as a reproductive disruption: a past, a present, and a future. These temporalities can be described and debated through concrete examples and philosophical objections (cf. Deleuze 1990 on Stoic time), however in so doing we risk neglecting the conceptual power of disrupted conception itself. 

Infertility, fertility and life itself, are chronic. Following Bourdieu, we can imagine these as practices demarcated by their “tempo” (Bourdieu 2002). And yet, most human cultures fear infertility because it disrupts the tempo of the living present, chronos, and like death, it threatens to end time.

Reproducing through sexual and asexual means and the resulting absence of conception can be processed as a temporary disruption until such time cultural tolerance towards a temporary lapse transmogrifies into chronic intolerance (Bharadwaj 2016). A fear that lies beyond the reasonable and tolerable temporal. This is the birth of a chronic moment, defined and divided by cultures and their exegetic modalities of inscribing and decoding a theology of expectations. After all, cultures both support and ensnare life; what could be more chronic than culture? For instance, in South Asia, stigma of chronic infertility is rendered polluting. Its imagined infectiousness can ensnare and defile the fertile spaces of possibility. It becomes chronic because its temporality is imagined as open-ended, in which anything can persist. However, it is mostly a process that renders the experience of suffering as chronic stagnation. As many women and men I have spoken to over the years across the sub-fertile and infertile reproductive landscapes of South Asia would attest: infertility is a chronic deadlock, one dies a social death and lives awaiting biological death. Infertility ensures total oblivion.

Intractable infertility is chronic living suffused with a certain “cruel optimism” in which the most desired (object/child) morphs into the obstacle to social flourishing (Berlant 2011). In this respect chronic infertility is a scene of cultural “slow death,” a [chronic] condition of being worn out by an inability to reproduce life (Berlant 2011, 100). This chronic impasse compels us to meditate on the many mutating meanings of a profound apophthegm that Catarina made comprehendible:

We’re all ill. Time afflicts us. It’s a chronic condition. Time. 

Aditya Bharadwaj is Research Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute Geneva. His research has focused on the global politics of biotechnologies with a particular interest in the ways in which assisted reproductive technologies and stem cell therapeutics have been developed and taken up in India. He is the author of Conceptions: Infertility and Procreative Modernity in India (Berghahn Books, 2016) as well as numerous publications on the governance, ethics and experience of biotechnologies in India and within a globalised research system.

Chronic living: ethnographic explorations of daily lives swayed by (multiple) medical conditions” is a series being published alongside the Chronic Living conference, as part of the VITAL project. The series is edited by Ayo Wahlberg, Jieun Lee, Anna Mann, Arseli Dokumaci, Natasja Kingod, Marie Kofod Svensson and Laura Heinsen.

Works Cited

Bergson, Henri. 2003. Time and Free Will: an Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. Dover Publications Inc.

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Bharadwaj, Aditya. 2016. Conceptions: Infertility and Procreative Technologies in India. Oxford, New York: Berghahn Books

Biehl, Joao. 2005. Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Bourdieu, Pierre. 2002. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1990. The Logic of Sense. New York: Columbia University Press