Professor Cohen teaches transdisciplinary (or probably more accurately undisciplined) courses that involve both historical and theoretical interrogations of contemporary questions. His preferred archive ranges across discourses often considered philosophical, economic, political, historiographical, ethnographical, biological, and medical and he tries to juggle these in ways that encourage heartfelt intellectual inquiry.
Professor Cohen teaches transdisciplinary (or probably more accurately undisciplined) courses interrogating the historical and philosophical assumptions that underwrite our thinking about what it means to be human. His preferred archives range across discourses often considered philosophical, economic, political, historiographical, ethnographical, biological, and medical, and he tries to juggle these in ways that encourage heartfelt intellectual inquiry.
Professor Cohen's main theoretical and personal passions involve asking questions that make a difference to how we live. His work is deeply inspired by his intellectual hero Michel Foucault who described his own project by saying:
I am not a writer, a philosopher, or a great figure of intellectual life. I am a teacher. […] My role is to show people that they are much freer than they feel, that people accept as truth, as evidence, some themes that have been built up at a certain moment in history, and that this so-called evidence can be criticized and destroyed. To change something in the minds of people—that is the role of an intellectual.
The ways we make sense of the world inform--and deform--how we make the world and make ourselves along with it. Yet, even though we always actively participate in imagining our lives as individuals and as collectives, we do not invent the terms within which we do so. To paraphrase Karl Marx: we make the world, but not in circumstances of our own making. In order make the world differently, we first need to become aware of assumptions which we take to be true that may not be, and then to create other ways of thinking and living together. Only by changing the terms within which we think and act can we begin to realize the freedom that we all too often do not feel so long as we accept as self-evident certain unnecessary, if not counter-factual, limits on our thinking. This has been the lesson of Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, Critical Race, Queer, and Disability Studies, among others, all of which inform Professor Cohen’s work.
Professor Cohen began troubling the self-evidence of how we think of ourselves as human by reflecting on why sexuality and gender have come to seem so natural and true to us. He pursued this project in Talk on the Wilde Side: Towards a Genealogy of a Discourse on Male Sexualities (Routledge, 1993) and in numerous articles on LGBTQ identities and politics, as well as in his work as a co-convener of Fifth Annual Lesbian and Gay Studies Conference, sponsored by Rutgers and Princeton Universities (1991) which brought over 2000 scholars, activists, artists, and filmmakers to New Brunswick for this event.
Following this exploration, Professor Cohen began to investigate how the European legacy of "humanness" became fixated on distinguishing the living (human) organism from its life context and consequently why it came to seem as if "the body" naturally represents both the property and the place of the person. His book, A Body Worth Defending: Immunity, Biopolitics and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body (Duke University Press, 2009), asks how we came to believe that as living organisms our bodies separate us from the world rather than connect us—as is empirically the case. Focusing on the way that scientific medicine at the end of the nineteenth century appropriated the 2000-year-old legal and political concept "immunity" as if it were a natural fact, Professor Cohen traces how the contemporary idea that our immune systems "defend" us against microbial predation enfolds a complex of political, philosophical, economic, sociological, and biological assumptions which are neither natural nor necessary. In a number of subsequent essays, he has shown how these limited and limiting assumptions underwrite contemporary medicine’s failures to address persistent problems, especially autoimmune illnesses. For example, see “Self, Not-Self, But Not Not-Self: The Knotty Paradoxes of Autoimmunity” and his recent piece in Scientific American: “A Cure for COVID-19 Will Take More Than Personal Immunity.”
In the wake of these undertakings, Professor Cohen is currently finishing a new book, On Learning to Heal (Duke 2021) that address the biomedical devaluation of "healing"--which immunity effectively supplanted--in an attempt to reclaim the concept of healing as a vital resource for political, ethical, personal, and spiritual transformation. Today the notion of healing remains marginal to biomedical thinking. If you look up healing on Medline, the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s comprehensive database, you will find only four categories: faith healing, fracture healing, mental healing, and wound healing. Not healing as a possibility, as a tendency, as a vital function, or as that upon which all of medicine’s most prized bioscientific interventions depend. An autoethnography, On Learning to Heal draws on Professor Cohen’s experience of more than 40 years of living with Crohn’s Disease, a chronic and intermittently life-threatening autoimmune illness, in order to demonstrate that healing not only manifestly happens, but that we can help it happen by learning to desire and value it. Based on his decades long experience of living with and healing from Crohn’s, Professor Cohen hosts a small clinical practice that helps people with chronic and life-threatening illnesses to imagine other ways to live www.healingcounsel.com.
A Cure for COVID-19 Will Take More Than Personal Immunity, Scientific American, August 2020
Invoking Healing, or How to Think Therapeutically, September 2019
A "Special" Difference: For a Foucauldian/Feminist Genealogy of Freud, Published by Duke University Press, History of the Present (2019) 9 (1): 1–26.
A Secular Species: https://tif.ssrc.org/2018/06/21/a-secular-species/, Published by SSRC, The Immanent Frame, June 2018
Sometimes Sex Is Just a Pain in the Ass; or, The Paradox of Sexual Politics,a Pain in the Ass; or, The Paradox of Sexual Politics, Published by Duke University Press, Social Text 131 • Vol. 35, No. 2 • June 2017
Dare to Care: Between Stiegler’s Mystagogy and Foucault’s Aesthetics of Existence, Published by Duke University Press, Spring 2017
Self, Not-Self, Not Not-Self But Not Self, or The Knotty Paradoxes of ‘Autoimmunity’: A Genealogical Rumination, Published by Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, Jan. 2017
The Placebo Disavowed: Or Unveiling the Bio-Medical Imagination, The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine
Live Thinking, or the Psychagogy of Michel Foucault; Differences, 2014, 25(2): 1-32.
A Body Worth Having? Or, A System of Natural Governance; Theory, Culture & Society, May 2008, 25(3): 103-129
Foucauldian Necrologies: "Gay" "Politics"? Politically Gay?; Textual Practice, Spring 1988, 2(1): 87-101
Immune Communities, Common Immunities; Social Text, 2008, 26(1): 95-114
Metaphorical Immunity: A Case of Biomedical Fiction; Literature and Medicine, 2003, 22(2): 140-163
Myself as an Other: On Autoimmunity and "Other" Paradoxes; Medical Humanities, 2004, 30(1): 7-11
The Paradoxical Politics of Viral Containment, or How Scale Undoes Us One and All; Social Text, Spring 2011, 29(1): 15-35
AIDS; Ed Cohen & Julie Livingstone; Social Text, Fall 2009, 27(3): 39-42