Mermaids and Snow Crystals in the Great Chain of Being

Third Thursday lecture - Sainsbury Institute

Thursday 21 February, 2019
6:00pm GMT

Weston Room, Norwich Cathedral Hostry, Norwich NR1 4EH


Dr Mateja Kovacic (Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies, University of Oxford)

About the Talk

From the Meiji Restoration (1868) onwards, “modern Japan” has been imagined in the mainstream scholarship as industrialising, rationalising, civilising and enlightening – through its never-ending opening to the West. Similarly, “modern science” is defined in mechanistic terms based on reason, technology and human power over natural processes. This talk, on the transnational cultural history of science, rethinks “modern” science in Japan by situating the wondrous and the curious, and its transnational links, in the Great Chain of Being – the architecture of everything. The unlikely objects of scientific research, mermaids and snow crystals, are taken to discuss how knowledge is understood during the late Tokugawa Japan (1600 – 1868). By examining material objects as intersections between three distinctive knowledge systems – Neo-Confucian, European studies (Rangaku), and herbal studies (honzōgaku) – I discuss the role of material culture in shaping modern knowledge in Japan following Alfred North Whitehead’s claim that the global modern scientific project was anti-intellectual. By examining the place of mermaids and snow crystals in the world structure and hence their role in modern science, I propose a new way to understand scientific modernity in Japan and beyond.

About the Speaker

Dr Mateja Kovacic is a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow based at the Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies, University of Oxford. She specialises in the transnational history of technology and science with focus on Tokugawa Japan, and the contemporary social robots and artificial intelligence. Her current project researches humanoid machines and artificial intelligence in Japan, from historical, sociological, anthropological, and philosophical perspectives. Mateja is also a Visiting Research Fellow at the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield where she researches global urban robotics and automation, with focus on sociocultural contexts and governance. In addition to these core interests, she does research in Japanese popular culture, Japanese arts and crafts, cyberpunk and posthumanism, and semiology of fashion.

This event is part of the Japan-UK Season of Culture 2019-2020

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The Third Thursday Lecture series is funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation and Yakult UK.