Lecture Series

09 December 2021


Medical Action, Knowing Practice:


Medicine, especially the techno-logos of biomedicine, is the infrastructure that configures individual life in global modernity. But biomedicine is neither all-powerful nor is it the sole authority on the nature of human being. A pragmatist investigation of the "traditional" healing arts can challenge not only the mechanism and reductionism of "magic bullet" biomedicine, it can also lead us to reconsider how actionable worlds – especially the microcosmos of bodies – are being generated in many ways and many fields.

This lecture follows part of the argument in Judith Farquhar’s recent book A Way of Life: Things, Thought, and Action in Chinese Medicine 1 to show how common practices found in Chinese medicine clinics entail, deploy, and experiment with vast worlds of thought. Moreover, the imperatives of effective and ethical action in Chinese medical practice require making a commitment to the material-ideological things with which herbs, needles, and touching hands can work. Practitioners in East Asian clinics are quite aware that modernists deny the reality of such entities as qi, the five great organ systems, the life-gate, and acupuncture meridians. Working in an atmosphere of scientific skepticism has led many to articulate an alternative cosmo-epistemic form of thought on the emergence and transformation of the ten thousand things. Indeed, the explanatory logics available to the thoughtful diagnostician are so multiple that teachers have developed a theory for "finding the root" of disorders and prioritizing treatments of the roots and branches of pathology. This healing-specific ontological ethics goes beyond mere clinical decision-making. Chinese medicine accepts and appreciates a kind of person and a kind of causality that is decidedly non-modern. Biomedical ethics does not recognize this "patient," this "doctor," or even this way of knowing the real life of the ten thousand things.

  1. [1] Judith Farquhar, A Way of Life: Things, Thought, and Action in Chinese Medicine, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020.

Judith Farquhar is Max Palevsky Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on the history and practice of traditional Chinese medicine in modern China, and on cultures of health and embodiment in both rural and urban China. She is the author of Knowing Practice: The clinical encounter of Chinese medicine (1994), a study of the logic of practice in Chinese medicine; Appetites: Food and Sex in Post-Socialist China (2002), an ethnography of popular health culture in China’s 1980s; Ten Thousand Things: Nurturing Life in Contemporary Beijing (2012), a study of wellness practices and city life in Beijing, co-authored with Qicheng Zhang; and a short philosophical book from Yale University Press: A Way of Life: Things, thought and action in Chinese medicine (2020). Her most recent book results from field research on the traditional medicines of minority nationalities in southern and southwestern China: Gathering Medicines: Nation and Knowledge in China’s Mountain South (University of Chicago Press, 2021). She served as the faculty director of the University of Chicago Center in Beijing for more than three years.

About Lecture Series

The Lecture Series is an annual event revolved around a theme curated and presented by Media Lab, inviting scholars and artists from different fields to engage in a dialogue between art, technology, and philosophy to explore critical issues in media studies.