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Illustrated Report of the Annual Conference 2011

01. Mär. 2012

“Frontiers of Knowledge: Health, Environment and the History of Science” was the topic of the Cluster’s 2011 Annual Conference. Scholars from all over the world and across disciplines discussed and exchanged their research findings. The Annual Conference was held at Heidelberg University from October 5th to 7th. In the following report, Anna Andreeva, Johannes Quack and Dominic Steavu review the three-day programme. Pictures and filmed lectures that were held during the conference enhance the report.

Taking a Transcultural Perspective

At the Cluster’s 2011 Annual Conference “Frontiers of Knowledge”, scholars from all over the world participated in lectures, podium discussions as well as workshops on a variety of subjects related to the fields of Health, Environment and the History of Science. The aim of the conference was to gain a transcultural understanding of these areas of research, to exchange and share the findings of transcultural research and especially to challenge conventional intellectual divisions between Europe and Asia.

Keynote Lecture on Property, Rights and Indian Biomedicine

In the evening of October 5th, the first keynote speaker, Kaushik Sunder Rajan (Chicago), gave a lecture on “Property, Rights and the Constitution of Contemporary Indian Biomedicine” marking the opening of the conference. He focused on the contested relationship between intellectual property and the re-institutionalisation of pharmaceutical development in contemporary India. In addition he traced the development of a case of a patent on the anti-cancer drug Gleevec.

Flash ist Pflicht!
Kaushik Sunder Rajan’s lecture "Property, Rights, and the Constitution of Contemporary Indian Biomedicine: Notes from the Gleevec Case"

Lectures on Ancient Medicine

The first podium discussion, chaired by Joachim Friedrich Quack (Heidelberg), took place in the morning of October 6th, 2011 and focused on Ancient Medicine. Friedhelm Hoffmann’s (Munich) exploration of Egyptian medical receipts, dating from the second and early first millennia BCE and their relationship to Near-Eastern and Greek medical traditions, demonstrated that some basic prescription formulae appear in all otherwise divergent medical systems. Examining medical stories, medicinal recipes, and amulets from the Hippocratic and Galenic traditions, Ann Ellis Hanson (Yale) showed how earlier medical concepts from Hippocratic texts were appropriated and amended to fit into later medical writings in the Roman and Byzantine Egypt traditions. Continuing the theme of transmission, Vivian Nutton (University College London) drew attention to issues of translating medical texts and traditions with a focus on the re-contextualisation of Galenic medical writings into the Syriac and Arabic languages.

Joachim Quack and Ann Ellis Hanson during the panel session “Ancient Medicine”
Joachim Quack and Ann Ellis Hanson during the panel session “Ancient Medicine”

Lectures on Changing Conceptions of Knowledge

The second podium discussion was dedicated to the circulation and changing concepts of knowledge, the diverse ways in which knowledge is produced, and how it is shared and appropriated in cultural encounters. Marta Hanson’s (Johns Hopkins University) analysis of the geography of diseases in China from the 1870s to the 1920s clearly showed that certain concepts of knowledge can be visualised and circulated. On the one hand, they help rethink the relationships between the nature of disease and the environmental context. On the other hand, they also act as political images legitimating colonial control. Dissecting the processes of the rapid institutionalisation of science in colonial India, Dhruv Raina (Jawaharlal Nehru University) employed the interpretive frames of “engraftment” and “entanglement” to investigate the varied uses of traditional and modern resources of knowledge in learned communities. Likewise, challenging the standard dichotomies between tradition and modernity, as well as East as opposed to West, Joachim Kurtz (Heidelberg) explored the processes of searching for a new epistemological framework in Late Qing China. He presented a case study that focused on the attempts of Chinese philosophers to identify new sources of certainty in the face of the epistemic ruptures, which, he argued, continue to shape what we now understand as Chinese modernity.

Flash ist Pflicht!
Joachim Kurtz talks about "Relocating Certainty in Late Qing China: Philosophy, Science, and the Call for a New Epistemology"

Podium Discussions on Politics, Environment, Beauty and Health

The afternoon session was divided into five separate panels. The focus of the panel on “Politics, Civil Society and the Environment” was the earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster in north-eastern Japan on March 3rd, 2011. Itō Kimio (Kyoto) offered a critical perspective on the issues that civil society in Japan is currently facing in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis, as well as matters pertaining to the government, media, and nuclear lobby. Focusing on the micro-history of the town of Kaminoseki in Yamaguchi prefecture, Martin Dusinberre (Newcastle/Heidelberg) demonstrated how nuclear politics at the local level came to be dominated by the rhetoric of a “brighter future” in post-war Japan. In contrast to this historical approach, Kerstin Cuhls (Heidelberg) offered an overview of how governmental research organisations in Germany and Japan provide predictions on future trends in societal change. Further they mapped out possible preventive measures and responses to earthquakes. Following the three papers, Gerrit Jasper Schenk (Darmstadt) discussed how such disasters can be properly assessed and analysed in the context of cultural histories.

The following panel “Between Beauty and Health” focused on the visual itineraries of changing bodies in China’s transcultural mediascapes during the 1900s and 2000s. The speakers Liying Sun, Ulrike Buechsel, Xuelei Huang and Barbara Mittler (Heidelberg) illustrated how the changing notions of beauty and health are reflected in the visual sources of twentieth-century Chinese media, such as pictorials, films, propaganda posters, and advertisements. The presentations addressed issues of healthy bodies in relation to mediatisation, ideology, consumer culture, transculturality, and gender relations. These notions were further problematised by the discussants Christiane Brosius, Thomas Maissen, and Katja Patzel-Mattern (Heidelberg), who questioned the concepts of cosmopolitanism and liberation, Baudrillard’s analysis of consumer culture, definitions of health, as well as media representations of disability and homosexuals from Indian and European perspectives.

Audience and Panel Members at Neue Universität Heidelberg
Audience and Panel Members at Neue Universität Heidelberg

Discussions on Large Dams in India and China

The panel “Large Dams”, moderated by Thomas Lennartz (Heidelberg), examined cases of contested environmental knowledge of riverscapes, focusing on the issues of dealing with water flows in India and China. Ravi Baghel (Heidelberg) described how rivers in India are seen as national entities and supplies of water are to be equally distributed all over the country. Alexander Erlewein (Heidelberg) discussed the changing perceptions of dams and how, in the context of climate change, they became re-evaluated as sources of renewable energy. Miriam Seeger (Heidelberg) explored how competing discursive factions include governmental narratives and exclude perspectives that take into account the interpretation and establishment of environmental knowledge in the contested field involving the Nujiang dams in Southwest China. Continuing this theme, Nirmalya Choudhury (TU Berlin) analysed how public involvement in the planning of large infrastructural projects becomes a slippery ground, where a mismatch of expectations on substantial outcomes reduces the legitimacy of the exercise, even if the legality of the exercise is fulfilled. The final panel discussion included a variety of topics revolving around the question how knowledge is integrated, changed, and domesticated in different socio-political contexts. Particular attention was paid to the socio-cultural impact of dams on local religious practices and the political impact of dam building on international relations.

Nirmalya Choudhury and Alexander Erlewein during panel discussions
Nirmalya Choudhury and Alexander Erlewein during panel discussions

Panels on Japanese Religions and Revolutionary Ideologies

Dominic Steavu during the panel session on “Large Dams”
Dominic Steavu

Another afternoon panel, this time with a focus on Japanese religions, traced the concepts of space and time in the emerging transcultural cosmologies of pre-modern Japan. Dominic Steavu (Heidelberg) investigated how Chinese cosmological discourses on the human body were re-appropriated and re-contextualised in Buddhist iatromanic rituals. Anna Andreeva (Heidelberg) analysed how mountains were conceptualised as cultic centres in the ritual activities of ascetics, engaged in mapping out a sacred geography of medieval Japan. Finally, Max Moerman (Barnard/Columbia) demonstrated how Buddhist notions of space shaped early modern debates on astronomy and political geography in Tokugawa, Japan.

“What Can(not) Be Said in Revolutionary Times” was in many ways a panel that followed up on key themes from previous  Cluster annual conferences, devoted to the flows of concepts and institutions in a transcultural context. The conversation focused on the borders of and obstacles to the aforementioned flows, as well as their relations to shifts in the meaning of concepts, such as despotism, democracy and, citizenship. In this context, Pascal Firges (Heidelberg) discussed Istanbul during the French Revolution, while Birte Hermann (Heidelberg) considered the Tian’anmen Square incident of 1989, and Julten Abdelhalim (Heidelberg) reflected on the events of 2011’s Arab Spring in Egypt. In her summary of the presentations, Antje Flüchter (Heidelberg) pointed out that notions pertaining to revolutionary ideology have become globalised to such a degree that comparisons to “authentic” European or Western predecessors have little relevance. Consequently, traditional analytical frameworks require a transcultural or epoch-spanning extension “beyond traditional affiliation of citizenship”.

Keynote Lecture by Janet Hunter

The day concluded with the second keynote lecture by Janet Hunter (London School of Economics), who spoke about the market collapse and confusion that occurred in the aftermath of the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923. The lecture paid close attention to the responses of producers, traders, and consumers to the sudden collapse of infrastructure, dislocation of institutions, and altered patterns of supply and demand.

Janet Hunter during her lecture “Market Operation after the Great Kantō Earthquake of September 1923“
Janet Hunter during her lecture “Market Operation after the Great Kantō Earthquake of September 1923“

Podium discussions on “Seascapes and Shipping” and “Science, Medicine and Society”

Roland Wenzlhuemer and Martin Dusinberre during the podium discussion “Seascapes and Shipping“
Roland Wenzlhuemer and Martin Dusinberre

The third day of the conference opened with a podium discussion on “Seascapes and Shipping” chaired by Harald Fuess (Heidelberg) and discussed by Christopher Gerteis (SOAS). In his second conference presentation, Martin Dusinberre (Newcastle/Heidelberg) traced the maritime routes of a Japanese merchant navy ship, the “Yamashiro-maru”, from Newcastle to Hawaii between 1884 and 1912. Roland Wenzlhuemer (Heidelberg) offered insight into the redaction of ship newspapers and, more generally, life aboard the passenger steamers in the 1890s. His paper investigated transcultural phenomena in transit, unfolding within port cities or across ocean littorals and other liminal zones. Rolf Wippich (Tokyo/Lucerne) scrutinised 19th century piracy in Chinese territorial waters and the anti-piracy measures taken both by the Chinese authorities and the western treaty powers in the context of flourishing international trade, the Taiping Rebellion (1852-1864) and the Opium Wars.

Flash ist Pflicht!
Martin Dusinberre's lecture: "From Newcastle to New Nation: Japan, the World, and a Ship, 1884-1912"

The second podium discussion of the day was organised by Cluster scholars Sandra Bärnreuther, Sinjini Mukherjee, and William Sax. It critically engaged with Kaushik Sunder Rajan’s work on the attribution of epistemic shifts to different “techno-scientific regimes” and bio-capital. The sociologist-cum-anthropologist Aditya Bharadwaj (Edinburgh) presented findings from a long-term multi-sited ethnographic study and examined the notion of “subject mobility” in pursuit of the clinical application of human embryonic stem cells (HESC) in India. This theme was complemented by Sandra Bärnreuther’s (Heidelberg) introduction of her on-going study on in-vitro-fertilisation in India, emphasising the multi-dimensional notion of “biovalue”. Tsjalling Swierstra (Maastricht) examined the Dutch debate on organ transplants, outlining how new technologies shape old moralities and produce new moral frameworks, as well as how moralities influence technological developments.

Travelling Technologies and Shifting Transculturality

The afternoon was divided into four sessions. The first, chaired by William Sax (Heidelberg), continued the earlier podium discussion on travelling technologies and shifting transculturality. Sinjini Mukherjee (Heidelberg) focused on the case of family members donating organs for kidney transplants in India. She analysed the ways in which the transplant process is gendered and the problematic assessment of “intangible willingness” of possible candidates as “informed consent”. The discussant Kaushik Sunder Rajan presented an elaborate response to all the papers highlighting the differences between the approaches of Moral Philosophy, Medical Anthropology, and Science and Technology Studies.

The panel “The Many Shapes of the World” discussed concurrent regimes of spatial representation in early modern Asia. In their paper “Chinese Sages and Dutch Measures”, Martin Hoffmann and David Mervart (Heidelberg) addressed the diversity of spatial regimes in the writings and maps of the Japanese samurai-scholar Nagakubo Sekisui (1717-1801), approaching them from the perspective of the Chinese map-making and early modern Japanese political geography. Monica Juneja (Heidelberg) explored what she called “capricious reversals” of naturalist vision, by looking at pastiche as an art form in early modern Europe and Asia. The panel was chaired by Frank Grüner (Heidelberg) and commented by Dhruv Raina.

Lively discussion between audience and  panel members
Lively discussion between audience and panel members

"Stress" as a "Modern" Phenomenon

The panel succinctly titled “Stress” focused on the anthropological, historical and epidemiological approaches to this supposedly modern phenomenon. Saskia Rohmer (Heidelberg) offered insight into the historical roots of stress as a concept first appearing in Western scientific discourse. Reporting on the results of his research, Hasan Ashraf (Heidelberg) examined the genesis of stress as an effect the neoliberal textile production regime had on the health of garment factory workers in Bangladesh, as well as the global roots and socio-cultural implications of this phenomenon. Maria Steinisch (Heidelberg) presented the status of a new study that considers stress in the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh from an epidemiological perspective. Finally, Adrian Loerbroks (Heidelberg) presented a different kind of epidemiological data, this time on the variability of the association between stress/mental health and respiratory diseases (asthma and COPD) in Europe and Asia.

On Asymmetrical Translations

William Sax on “Asymmetrical Translations”
William Sax

The last panel of the conference, “Asymmetrical Translations”, focused on the mind and body in Indian and Western Medicine. William Sax opened this panel with an analysis of the activities of Ayurvedic doctors in the Malappuram district of Kerala by employing the conceptual framework of Bruno Latour, pertaining to the categories of “pre-modern”, “non-modern”, “modernizing” and “hybridity”. Johannes Quack (Heidelberg) presented two case studies from his ethnographic study of mental health care in India. The final day of the annual conference closed with a presentation by Ananda Samir Chopra (Heidelberg), who examined translations and asymmetries in Ayurvedic nosologies and biomedicine. The three papers offered rich perspectives on the conceptual diversity of the Cluster project C3 on “Asymmetrical Translations” in the conceptualisations and practices of European and Indian medicine.

Bringing together scholars from all over the world, the Annual Conference “Frontiers of Knowledge” furthered international exchange on health-related, environmental issues, as well as on the history of science. In addition to historical issues, such as reassessments of Ancient Medicine in Asian and European contexts, the conference also traced the development of health- and environment-related conceptions of knowledge across time. In this respect, the conference highlighted both Asian and European perspectives on, for instance, large environmental projects and their political or social implications. Moreover, talks and discussions on the transcultural aspects of medical technologies raised controversial contemporary issues, such as stem cell research, in-vitro fertilisation, and their impact on modern globalised societies. The 2011 Annual Conference “Frontiers of Knowledge”, chaired by Harald Fuess, was organised by Research Area C “Health and Environment” of the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context” (www.asia-europe.uni-heidelberg.de). The Cluster’s next Annual Conference will take place in October 2012.

Additional Information

About the organisers:

The 2011 Annual Conference “Frontiers of Knowledge”, chaired by Prof., Ph.D., Harald Fuess, was organised by Research Area C “Health and Environment” of the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context”.

Research Area C “Health and Environment” is one of four research areas at the Cluster. It focuses on the transfer of practices concerning institutions for, ideas about, and perceptions of health and environment between Asia and Europe.

Prof. Harald Fuess is Speaker of Research Area C “Health and Environment” and Professor for “Cultural Economic History” at the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context”.

About the authors:

Dr. Anna Andreeva is a member of research project C11 “Medicine and Religion in Premodern East Asia” and affiliated with the Chair of Cultural Economic History at the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context”.

Dr. Johannes Quack is a member of the Cluster’s research project C3 “Asymmetrical Translations: Mind and Body in European and Indian Medicine”.

Dr. Dominic Steavu is Assistant Professor of Intellectual History at the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Text”.

The pictures have been taken by Inci Bosnak, Verena Vöckel, Dr. Alexander Häntzschel and Hanna Klein.

More Information:

Watch more videos of talks given at the Annual Conference 2011.

Read more:

Heidelberg Research Architecture at the Annual Conference - Oct 07, 2011

Keynote Lecture by Janet Hunter at the Annual Conference - Oct 06, 2011

Keynote Lecture by Sunder Rajan at the Annual Conference - Oct 05, 2011

Cluster holds Annual Conference - Oct 04, 2011


  • Opening of the Annual Conference 2011