Introduction: “Translating Vitalities: Spacecraft(ing)”

This article is part of the following series:

Medical practice treats the body as an active field. Growth, pathology, healing, immune response, digestion, atrophy, arousal, pain, panic – none of these organic processes is stable, fixed, or indeed ‘a thing’; yet, they are all objects of interest for medicine. Medical intervention, whether it takes the form of an antibiotic or an acupuncture treatment, interrupts a flow of causes at a strategic point deemed to be crucial. Note that this point is not the cause of disease but a decisive moment in its (patho)genesis. Bodies are lived processual assemblages, as comparative medical anthropology has shown; their (our) powers and experiences extend beyond the skin and involve more than mere physical presence. The somatosphere is a site of activity, its scale and scope always emergent, always being negotiated, the specific nature of its spatiality always in question.

A processual and dynamic notion of lived embodiment informs the series of Somatosphere posts that follows this Introduction. These posts, appearing over the next six days, arise from a collaborative writing and art-making project entitled Translating Vitalities. Helped by generous funding from the Wellcome Trust[1] and the University of Chicago,[2] Translating Vitalities brings together a group of anthropologists, China scholars, artists, physicians of bio- and Chinese medicines, historians, musicians, physical scientists, and clinical researchers with the shared goal of exploring ‘translation’ – specifically that which engages with and arises from the criss-crossing vitalisms of contemporary medicines, humanities, art and science – as both a problem and an enabling space for creative trans-disciplinary engagements.

The posts in this series are a first attempt to translate our collective work into productive forms that, we hope, will engage wider audiences sharing our goals and orientations. They stem from a week-long workshop in Croatia in the summer of 2015, where – having posed to ourselves the topic of boundaries as a focus for the exploration of vital translations – five of us spent an intensive week making things that emerged and took shape from this starting point. These ‘five of us’ are Suzanne Cochrane (poet and practitioner of Chinese medicine and qigong), Vincent Duclos (anthropologist of medicine in Africa and India and media theorist), Judith Farquhar (anthropologist of traditional medicines in China), Volker Scheid (historical anthropologist of China and practitioner of Chinese medicine), and Clare Twomey (ceramicist and installation sculptor). The efforts of our small group – which for reasons that will be revealed below became known as the Spacecrafters – were helped by ‘daily quarrels’ with a larger group of thirteen, who forced us to think and communicate more clearly about ideas and concepts that flowed from the more intimate discussions and collaborations of the core group. What we post here, likewise, are not finished things but reflections, allegories, poems, pictures and thought pieces intended to engage, connect, and flow onwards from here.

Translation of any kind hinges on boundaries across which something may or may not move, shapeshifting as it goes (or pauses). Boundaries thus posed themselves as an obvious phenomenon to explore for a group of people brought together by shared goals but separated by many things: by disciplinary boundaries, certainly, but also, by differing pasts and futures, and by our existence as moderns for whom boundary work is an existential necessity.

Space(crafting) by Vincent Duclos, published as the first post in this series, is a series of meditations on precisely this problem. Following the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, Duclos argues that modernity is the attempt to craft safe spaces against the vicissitudes of a world from which we humans have alienated ourselves. If the boundaries that create such spaces protect us, and in doing so make space habitable, they as easily constrain its flows and in doing so threaten the very life they claim to protect. Boundaries, from this vantage point, require above all an attitude of care that mediates our relations with that which lies beyond.

The Great Wall as Spacecraft by Judith Farquhar, the second post in our series, employs the Great Wall of China as an allegory that shows how boundary walls appear to craft space, and also how they fail to produce separate and distinct purities. Widely imagined as an active line of defense that demarcated and protected China from the ‘barbarians’ beyond, the Great Wall never actually did any of that – nor was it ever constructed for that purpose. Yet, it did do many other things in both the past and the present, some intentional, others emergent at specific historical moments. The Wall itself prompts us to think anew what boundaries and translations may be.

Moving from words to images, from thinking to doing, Clare Twomey’s The Boundary That Holds Its Own Narrative, our third post, seeks to capture the dynamic agency of boundaries through an installation – a sort of wall in itself – that our group produced collectively but under Clare’s creative guidance. Situated on the stairs that led from the patio where we met to talk, discuss, and write, to the inside of our guest house, this track of white powder on a black ground posed endless uncertainties to walkers. As revealed in the photographs that accompany Clare’s description of what happened over the two days that our installation was in place, the simple beauty of boundaries as idealised (and often fetishized) objects begins to break down the very moment they encounter life, even as they actively shape and bend that life.

If the first three pieces meditate on, allegorize, conceptualize, and challenge boundaries as abstract representation, Sue Cochrane’s post, the fourth, Emptiness and the Medical Encounter: The Interior Spatial Requirements of Encountering, shifts perspective to place Chinese practices center stage. Writing as a clinician, Sue argues that Chinese medicine crafts possibilities for encountering the other that are predicated on the temporal dissolution of boundaries. Such dissolution is not a negation of boundaries but an awareness of their always arbitrary nature and of the possibility of different flows, an ability of perception and action that stems from the embodiment of an enabling emptiness.

The fifth post, Volker Scheid’s Desires: Capitalism, The Pope and Chinese Medicine likewise takes Chinese medicine seriously as a tool for thinking about the most pressing problems facing spacecraft earth, as identified by Pope Francis in his recent encyclical Laudato’ Si (Be Praised): the intertwined threats to human life posed by ecological catastrophe and untrammeled capitalism. This is not, then, an engagement with what boundaries are and do, but with what becomes possible for us when we engage across boundaries conventionally imagined as not even touching. For how can a bunch of late 19th century Chinese physicians who had never heard about global warming or untrammeled consumer capitalism speak on these topics here and now? Scheid argues that they do, when we bring their conceptions of embodied desires into conversation with Pope Francis and his critics. It only happens, however, if we craft a space for this to happen by folding things in just the right way for flows to emerge.

The concluding piece in our series is Exchange/s, a poem by Sue Cochrane that, like all good poems, is best read without any commentary. But it may be about the rewards and dangers of our spacecrafting collaboration.

Besides the (we hope) obvious threads that run through and connect our different posts, their interconnections are deepened through a series of Magic Words. As we spacecrafters worked alone and together, we found ourselves returning again and again to a few key philosophical concepts. Some of these were Chinese, some were translated from rarefied theory, some reached us from within the domain of medical practice. Even as we sought to assemble our objects of interest into narratives and activities that were significant in the real world (which sometimes seemed a little remote from our guest house in Croatia) certain abstractions drawn from our reading and playing about with words kept forcing themselves onto our (very small) table. These notions have become our magic words: a list, in which we take various approaches to glossing these words, follows this introduction.

The magic words and their definitions do not amount to a stand-alone philosophy; rather, via their numbers, they are meant to be invoked and made present by certain other terms that appear in our essays. The numbers are inserted in brackets in our written posts as hypertext notes, in the hope that they will distract readers and thicken the folded riches each of us tries to offer in writing. We encourage you to hunt them up as you read this series of posts.

One of our magic words is a Chinese word for the body’s surface, biao , a concept that focuses on exchange, responsiveness, communication, transmission, and even – by way of biao’s root metaphor of a silk-lined fur garment – warmth and pleasure. We spacecrafters enjoyed ourselves immensely as we struggled to bring diverse experiences of thinking and seeing to the surface where they could be read (and now, posted in Somatosphere). The work of making and breaking down boundaries, reading, translating and responding to novel manifestations in writing and in spaces, took place in an embodied lifeworld that was unusual for all of us. We hope some of the exuberant pleasure of our trans-disciplinary collaboration will be evident in the series to follow.


The Space-crafters

Suzanne Cochrane, who teaches at Western Sydney University, has had a 30-year career of study and practice of Chinese medicine. She is interested in the practice of Chinese medicine and the transmission of skills– how do we (and how do we learn to) work well with other people’s vitality? Doing an acupuncture related doctorate has led her to speak outside the discipline of Chinese medicine. She has used qigong disciplines as a means to work with her own qi and connect with the wider matrix of interior/exterior intra-actions.

Vincent Duclos is a Steinberg Global Health Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Social Studies of Medicine at McGill University. He is an anthropologist of medicine, writing about digital health systems and practices. His work is inspired by cultural anthropology, media studies and philosophy of science and technology. He has conducted field research in India and West Africa.

Judith Farquhar is Max Palevsky Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Chicago.  Her research focuses on the development and practice of traditional Chinese medicine in modern China, and on cultures of health and embodiment in both urban and rural China. Her most recent book, co-authored with Qicheng Zhang of Beijing, is Ten Thousand Things: Nurturing Life in Contemporary Beijing. Farquhar’s current research in China is a collaborative study with Professor Lili Lai of Peking University; it focuses on the development of new systems of traditional medicine among minority nationalities in China’s southern mountains. 

Volker Scheid is Professor of East Asian Medicines and Director of EASTmedicine (East Asian Sciences and Traditions in Medicine) in the Faculty of Science and Technology, University of Westminster, London. He has practiced Chinese medicine for over 30 years. Out of this conjuncture, he seeks to make the humanities talk to Asian medicine, and make Asian medicines relevant to the contemporary world.

Clare Twomey is an artist and a research fellow at the University of Westminster, London, who works with clay in large-scale installations, sculpture, and site-specific works. Over the past 10 years she has exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate, Crafts Council, Museum of Modern Art Kyoto Japan, the Eden Project and the Royal Academy of Arts. In these works Twomey has maintained a concern with materials, craft practice and historic and social context.


[1] Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award in the Medical Humanities (Award 097918/Z/11/Z) to Volker Scheid (PI): Beyond Tradition: Ways of Knowing and Styles of Practice in East Asian Medicines, 1000 to the present.

[2] The Marion R. and Adolph J. Lichtstern Fund, special project grant to Judith Farquhar and William Mazzarella for “Translating Vitalities.”