Transnational Transformations: Daoism, The Neurosciences, And The Politics Of Knowledge


Johanna Pokorny, University of Toronto

This paper follows on a moment during my ethnographic research with a neuroscience laboratory in Canada when scientists discussed connections between the Daoist Zhuangzi, Chinese medicine and the neurosciences. The moment was the result of transnational collaborations with scholars from Taiwan and China. At first, this moment might be surprising given the ways in which Daoism’s analytic possibility has been unworlded, that is, when it is taken as not belonging in a scientific lab, its influence is unacknowledged or excluded (Zhan 2011, 2018, Law and Lin 2017). Instead, I argue the moment is not surprising but symptomatic of changes occurring more widely in the neurosciences through transnational connections with China and Taiwan. In both Taiwan and China, the neurosciences have been expanding, and, in the latter especially, the field connects with Chinese medicine, though this is not much reported in the “West.” In other words, the transnational movement of neuroscience reproduces an uneven politics of knowledge. Even further, I show that there have been multiple historical sideways connections between the neurosciences, Daoism and Chinese medicine, but that these are either not taken seriously or interpreted as science-at-its-limits, intersecting with religion or mysticism. I argue that these interpretations are problematic, especially when this conceit is reproduced in STS. A question that emerges is how to analyze critically the transnational movements of science and its accompanying transformations without relying on approaches that inadvertently reiterate uneven analytic constructs. I also raise the possibility of sideways connections with Daoism in STS that remain unacknowledged.


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Contributed date

March 20, 2020 - 7:41am

Critical Commentary

Abstract submitted to 4S 2020 open panel on Transnational STS