provocations in east asian modernity (II): schemes of sight

Some notes on the 2013 Harvard Reischauer Lectures

Part I: Schema
Part II: Schemes of Sight
Part III: Schemes of Travel

Yet if I do not do what is useless, how can I take pleasure in a limited life?
若復不爲無益之事,則安能悅有涯之生

Zhang Yanyuan (唐·张彦远) (c. 815-877)

Throughout the Reischauer lectures, Shigehisa Kuriyama was arguing for what he called a historically particular “East Asian epistemology”. How East Asians, or Europeans, see the world is deeply related to what they think they know about it at any given time. And how we see the world, he thinks, begins with philosophical inquiry: what truly matters in this limited life (有涯之生) of ours? One answer to that might be found in how society thinks about distraction.

Why, he asked, do we so frequently counterpose “attention” and “distraction”, regarding them as opposites, when it seems more accurate to think of distraction as simply a refocusing of attention elsewhere? if attention here is good and attention elsewhere is bad, then we need to recognize that there is a normative judgment implicit in what society views as the bad “elsewhere”. (Today, it’s bad cats, twitter and facebook, perhaps, which “distract” us from good productive office work). What truly matters, what is worthwhile and good: these are deep questions—the moral roots of society. Each society resolves these questions differently, and these differences produce many ways of looking at the world.

Much of what Kuriyama had to say in this vein reflects his previous and ongoing work on comparative medical traditions in Europe and Asia. For example, contrasting Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica with the Daoist Neijingtu 內經圖 or the Japanese Inshoku yōjō kagami offers us three very different conceptions of the human body—or, to use the scheme at hand: three different ways of paying attention to the human body, and consequently, three culturally different conceptions of what is important and what matters in it. For Vesalius, the anatomically correct skeleton was literally the centerpiece of modern scientific thought: an empiricist’s miracle, born of new methods in dissection. There are hardly any skeletons in pre-20th century East Asian art, medical or otherwise, and the ones which do exist (often themselves influenced by the spread of Western anatomy) are inflected not with the memento mori aesthetic, as is the European wont, but with different connotations: for example, playfulness, in this case.

In contrast, both the neijingtu and the kagami depict an inner landscape, filled not with a skeleton, but with organs and glands, and indeed with a whole social world!—demons, deities, people, to whom attention is paid in the course of medical treatment.


In these East Asian medical texts, the individual’s gaze is directed not outward, onto a corpse lying on a dissection slab—or indeed, onto a superabundance of objects that could fill a room, filling us at the same time with despair at the impossibility of seeing everything. It is turned inward: an act of meditative visualization (存思) whose limits are not how much we can see, but how well and consistently we attend to this inner world. This signals, Kuriyama says, an “East Asian scheme of sight”. Instead of the distinctions often drawn between observer and observed, between self and object, between our limited vision and all-that-there-is-to-be-seen—what we excavate from these texts are wholly different ways of seeing things, and consequently, of knowing them. Rather than indexing a “lack” or “absence” of skeletons in East Asian art, then, these different pictures of the human body, as Kuriyama reads them, are instead residues of different gazes: they record different ways of paying attention to the world.

And is one good and right (and—dare I say it, “modern”) attention, while the other is bad and wrong (and “traditional”) distraction? It depends, Kuriyama suggests, on what truly matters to you.

The inevitable questions in this sort of cultural comparison: how does one translate divergent worldviews? How do they travel? What happens when they meet? These are the subject of the third lecture.

Next: Part III: Schemes of Travel

This is the second in a series of articles on the Reischauer lectures. Links to all articles in this series may be found here


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