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Oriental Medicine or Medical Orientalism?

The following is the second adapted excerpt of an upcoming article called “The Untold Story of Acupuncture.” It is scheduled to be published in December 2009 in Focus in Alternative and Complementary Therapies (FACT), a review journal that presents the evidence on alternative medicine in an analytical and impartial manner. This section argues that the current flurry of interest in acupuncture and Oriental Medicine stems predominantly out of postmodern opposition to Enlightenment rationalism, and bears witness to Orientalism and consumerism in contemporary medicine.

In five years, from 1971 to 1975, l directly experienced Est [Erhard Seminars Training], gestalt therapy, bioenergetics, rolfing, massage, jogging, health foods, tai chi, Esalen, hypnotism, modern dance, meditation, Silva Mind Control, Arica, acupuncture, sex therapy, Reichian therapy and More House — a smorgasbord course in New Consciousness.1

 Jerry Rubin (1938 – 1994)

Although acupuncture has been known in the US since the 19th Century, its therapeutic claims were dismissed or judged to be “much overrated” by the medical community.2,3 Nonetheless, the publication of a report in the New York Times by James Reston, a reporter in President Nixon’s press corps who had received acupuncture for postoperative cramps in Beijing in 1971 changed this perception, and triggered a flurry of interest amongst the American public and some in the medical community.4 Within the following months, journalists, scientists and physicians rushed to China to withness this peculiar phenomenon, which the popular press and a few scientific journals sensationalized by reporting that thousands of successful operations of all sorts were being carried out in PRC using acupuncture anesthesia; some elaborated on its widespread use for a myriad of conditions, to include paralysis and deafness!5

These unconfirmed claims in the heady social and intellectual climate of the 1970s–meaning the American Counterculture; the rejection of mainstream values, beliefs and ideals; the youth movement, nonconformism and the hippie subculture, the belief in a “New” and  “Cosmic” consciousness and the cult phenomenon; revolutionary ideas mixed with environmentalism; organic farming and the avoidance of pollution, agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals; nonconformism and alternative lifestyles; a syncretistic mix of psychedelic drugs, Eastern religions and Native American spiritualities; the resurgence of the taste for mystic, occult, and magical phenomena;6,7 and the belief in the existence of a separate and non-ordinary reality, as upheld by one of the fathers of the New Age movement, Carlos Castaneda8–gave the justification to view acupuncture as a “heal all” therapy based on alternate perceptions of health and disease.  This amalgamation happened precisely when a whole generation of disenchanted Westerners were eager to find novel solutions for their existential predicaments; one that would be free from the constraints of the so-called “repressive rationality” of modern science in “overdeveloped” societies.9,10. Most Western publications on acupuncture therefore fostered the belief that Eastern healing arts have crucial characteristics directly and unequivocally opposite to the repressive rationalism of the West.

This unfounded belief seems to stem out of our collective amnesia about lancing and bloodletting, and the belief in the existence of pneuma, or other vitalist notions that have been part of European natural philosophy and medicine since the Greek Antiquity. Indeed, as a result of successive epistemological ruptures11 during the last five centuries, medicine in the West has gradually evolved from late medieval astromedicine and humoral pathology to the molecular medicine and cellular pathology of today. Therefore, fundamental notions that once underlined European medicine have gradually become so foreign to us that their Eastern counterparts now seem to be based on worldviews fundamentally different than ours. But in the eyes of many historians and epistemologists, they have always appeared as similar to ideas that prevailed in Pre-Enlightenment Europe, and based on which the Fasciculus Medicinae12 and other late medieval medical treatises were written.

These ideas continue to find an audience in todays’s post-Counterculture era due to the continued postmodern opposition to Enlightenment rationalism and the claim that modern science does not provide more access to the truth than any other fields of knowledge–that scientific discourse is mainly just another coherent “narrative” or “language-game” governed by a set of protocols and a special terminology.13,14 In this climate of incredulity toward “metanarratives” and universal knowledge, many nonscientific forms of knowledge have gained legitimacy and popularity as a result of the prevalence of postmodern culture, politics and economics. Many ancient, folkloric and traditional systems of medicine have thus appeared as compelling narratives, perceived by patients as legitimate and equivalent but opposite to the logical empiricism of modern science.

The persistence of such ideas is also due to what the late Edward Saïd (1935–2003) has called Orientalism. In a 1978 publication by the same name, Saïd convincingly argued that the idea that Eastern cultures have crucial characteristics directly and unequivocally opposite to the West is a Western construct that “exotices” the East while neglecting considerations of power. Saïd argued that the alleged distinction between Oriental and Occidental thought primarily derives from a set of scholarly and popular fantasies about Eastern civilizations, Classical Eras, Golden Ages, scriptures, works of art, philosophies and religions where mysticism is set against the rationalism and detachment of the West.15 Saïd also argued that this mythical Orient is a mere fiction that serves to represent the hidden desires of Western cultures, a mysterious “Other” onto which we project our fantasies.16 The pervasiveness of such projected fantasies about Eastern reactions to health and disease onto acupuncture and Chinese medicine, certainly confirms Saïd’s argument. The fictional character of this “Other” medicine can be further perceived in the indecisiveness of the professional associations and the regulatory agencies to refer to acupuncture and related modalities as “Chinese,” “Oriental,” “Asian” or “Eastern,” for these utterly broad “umbrella” categorizations are based on political correctness, and do not correspond to any geopolitical and historical reality other than a geographical and philosophical “orient”-ation.

Paradoxically, while the theme of “evidence of effectiveness” was gradually becoming a central part of international, national, and regional public health dialogue in the 1980s and 1990s,17 medical Orientalism became an important commercial phenomenon by becoming synonymous with the fashionable and eclectic New Age notions of “natural,” “alternative,” “holistic” or “integrative,” and has since catered to health-consumers who aspire towards traditionalism and spirituality,18 and who believe in a vast spectrum of ideas and practices sourced by Eastern religions, paganism, alternative science, astrology, and a range of other beliefs emanating out of a general interest in the paranormal.19,20 In a fascinating article on cults in American, Camille Paglia explains how the New Age movement gradually became an international commercial success in the 1990 with specialty shops and mail-order catalogs supplying the “ritual paraphernalia of amulets and talismans, healing crystals, angel icons, incense, candles, aromatherapy bath salts, massage rollers, table fountains, wind chimes, and recordings of trance music in Asian or Celtic moods.”21 To this, she could have added herbal products, various types of yoga, chakra and energy healing, tai chi, qi gong, reflexology, reiki, shiatsu and also acupuncture, where, as Robert Frank and Gunnar Stollberg have argued, “physicians tailor their practice to the individual patient’s (perceived) demands.”22 This international commercial success has undeniably benefited China’s export of medicinal herbs and acupuncture related products, especially when their domestic use is in sharp decline due to the broader availability of modern medicine in a country that strives to reach the top in science and technology. 

At last, considering how the popular press in the 1970s created an enormous interest for acupuncture in the West; how many books by authors who often did not have any familiarity with Chinese history, culture and language popularized a set of unexamined assumptions about the mythical Oriental and its medicine; and how they persists merely due to a set of social, intellectual and economical factors; it is pertinent to evoke Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle’s (1657–1757) words of wisdom, who in 1687 in Histoire des oracles wrote what should be the “mantra” of all serious endeavor and publication in alternative medicine: “if the truth of a fact were always ascertained before its cause inquired into, or its nature disputed, much ridicule might be avoided by the learned.”23

REFERENCES:

  1. Cross G. An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America. Columbia University Press. 2000.
  2. Cassedy J. Early uses of acupuncture in the United States, with an addendum (1826) by Bache F, MD. Bull N Y Acad Med 1974; 50: 892–906.
  3. Gross S. A System of Surgery. Philadelphia: Blanchard & Lea, 1: 1859.
  4. Reston J. Now, about my operation in Peking; Now, let me tell you about my appendectomy in Peking. New York Times. July 26, 1971:1.
  5. Reisser PC, Reisser TK, Weldon J. New Age Medicine: A Christian Perspective on Holistic Health. Intervarsity Press. 1988.
  6. Turner F. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, University of Chicago Press. 2006.
  7. Roszak T. The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition. University of California Press; New Ed edition. 1995.
  8. Castaneda C. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. University of California Pres. 1968.
  9. Unschuld PU The reception of Oriental medicine in the West. Lecture given in Kobe, Japan, May 1995. www.paradigm-pubs.com/sites/www.paradigm-pubs.com/files/u1/reorme.pdf. Accessed March 2009.
  10. Marcuse H. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Beacon Press. Boston. 1964.
  11. Bachelard G. Formation of the Scientific Mind. Clinamen Press, Manchester. 2002.
  12. Ketham, J de. The Fasciculus Medicinae of Johannes de Ketham, Alemanus : facsimile of the first edition of 1491. With English translation by Luke Demaitre ; commentary by Karl Sudhoff ; trans. and adapted by Charles Singer. Birmingham: Classics of Medicine Library, 1988.
  13. Lyotard JF, Thébaud JL, Godzich W (translator). Just Gaming. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1985.
  14. Powell J. Postmodernism For Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers. 1998.
  15. Powell J. Easter Philosophy For Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers. 2000.
  16. Sim S. Introducing Critical Theory. Totem Books. 2002.
  17. Anderson LM, Brownson RC, Fullilove MT, Teutsch SM, Novick LF, Fielding J, Land GH. Evidence-based public health policy and practice: promises and limits. Am J Prev Med. 2005 Jun;28(5 Suppl):226-30.
  18. Sedgwick M. Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century. Oxford University Press, 2004.
  19. Siapush M. Post-modern values, dissatisfaction with conventional medicine and popularity of alternative therapies. J Sociol 1998; 34: 58-70.
  20. Partridge CH. The Re-enchantment Of The West: Alternative Spiritualities, Sacralization, Popular Culture, and Occulture. T. & T. Clark Publishers. 2005.
  21. Paglia C. Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Vision in the American 1960s, Arion, Winter 2003.
  22. Frank R, Stollberg G. Medical acupuncture in Germany: patterns of consumerism among physicians and patients. Sociol Health Illn. 2004 Apr;26(3):351-72.
  23. Fontenelle BLB (Author), Bergier J (Editor). Fontenelle: Entretiens sur la Pluralité des Mondes suivi de Histoire des Oracles. Marabout Université. 1973. 

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