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November 27, 2012

Epistolary: What the Heck is Epistemic Trauma?

Filed under: Uncategorized — thirdxlucky @ 9:16 pm

I’ve been talking with Dakota about epistemic violence and thinking to myself about the process of healing epistemic trauma. I want to write about it, but know that if I wait until I’ve got all my thoughts sorted out, I won’t. But I had this conversation today that I liked, so for the time being, I’m just going to drop it here and let it exist in the universe.

To start, I believe epistemic violence is a concept that comes originally from Postcolonial Theory, and the Wikipedia article on Postcolonialism describes it like this:

the term epistemic violence [describes] the destruction of non–Western ways of knowing the world, and the resultant dominance of the Western ways of perceiving, understanding, and knowing the world. Epistemic violence conceptually relates to the Subaltern, wherein the “Subaltern must always be caught in translation, never truly expressing herself”, because of the colonial power’s destruction of her culture, and the marginalization of her way of understanding and knowing the world.

(“[T]he term subaltern identifies and describes the man, the woman, and the social group who is socially, politically, and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure.”)

In other words, epistemic violence happens when the dominant culture strips a subaltern of the ability to “be who they are” by trapping them in a knowledge environment in which their authentic selfhood is not knowable and therefore not possible.

I also want to mention, in terms of context, that I work from Durkheim’s notion that suicide can result from a lack of integration into a society or community — and also from the gut sense I have that suicide is not always pre-meditated and that even pre-meditated suicide is not necessarily “chosen.” (At least for some definitions of choice. Blah blah pedantic philosophy major blah blah blah.)

. . .

So, I was at the park, on the swings, thinking about recent themes in my life, and then I said some stuff on Twitter:

. . .

Shortly afterwards, I got an SMS from a friend. It said:

FRIEND: True for sho

FRIEND: Binary opposites usually unreasonable

ME: *nods* But commitment to them often caused by some painful past personal experience that’s hard to shake.

FRIEND: But I would say trauma generally not epistemic per se but you should say more about epistemic trauma

ME: I think of epistemic violence as the experience of having one’s life [well-being, safety, etc.] threatened by the knowledge environment rather than by a specific individual. So epistemic trauma is the lingering unresolved after-effects of that threat experience (if one doesn’t die from it.)

FRIEND: Can I have an example?

ME: In other words, epistemic violence is the elements in a person’s environment that are likely to drive them toward suicide. And epistemic trauma is what’s left over when you narrowly avoid killing yourself.

FRIEND: You doing okay love?

ME: Oh. Yeah. I’m fine. 🙂 This is all academic today. (Tho rooted in an analysis of past xps — my own and others’ — of course.) But thank you for checking. ❤

ME: I think I’m actually on this path cuz I’m noticing how much better I’m doing than I have been for a while. 🙂

FRIEND: Examples though… Failing to see why you calling this EPISTEMIC rather than factual. Not just psychic conditions…but knowledge related… I’m confused.

ME: Most obvious one is self-starvation i.e. the knowledge environment to which I have access as a young girl lacks information about or models of bodies like mine (simultaneously fat, healthy, & desireable), so my immersion in this knowledge environment results in me taking self-destructive actions (starving, cutting myself, making weight-based suicide pacts, avoiding exercise out of fear of ridicule, beating myself up psychologically, etc.) It’s not another individual or even a conspiracy of individuals directly harming my body; it’s an overall knowledge environment inducing me to harm myself.

ME: That’s a really obvious example [because it’s specifically about harm to my body] but there are lots of other, more subtle ones. I’m sure you can think of some. Consider the epistemic violence against people w atypical neurologies. What do we “know” about what “crazy” people are like? What does this encourage crazy people to do to ourselves?

ME: I dunno. It’s an idea I’m still fleshing out. Happy to have any input. 🙂

ME: Also, d’you mind if I post some of this convo somewhere? Articulated some things in it in ways I like.

FRIEND: Feel free to share

FRIEND: Webs. They are freaking world wide.

. . .

As an aside: I really like it when people ask me if I’m okay in the context of a fairly academic discussion, because the intellectual and the emotional are often so tightly bound for me. As I’ve said to this same friend in the past, “Thank you for being intuitive, compassionate, and philosophically literate enough to understand when I’m upset.” 😉

But, in this instance, I really am doing okay. 🙂

. . .

Later, Dakota and I were talking about a creative non-fiction piece they’re writing on violence. It includes a number of intense vignettes from their life and the lives of loved ones, stories ranging from rape to child abuse to racial slurs to people having guns pulled on them by cops. Their aim with the piece is to expand our conception of what “violence” can encompass. We discussed the importance of sharing our stories about committing violence as well as our stories about surviving it, and the fear that comes along with both those vulnerable positions.We talked about opening up space for compassion as a necessary part of a feedback loop for creating self-awareness around our own capacities for violence.

“So, here’s a thing I said on Twitter today that you might find interesting,” I said. “What if binary oppositions are markers of epistemic trauma? Does that make sense?”

“Yeah, that totally makes sense. I mean, binary oppositions themselves are often used to perpetrate violence.”

“So, it’s kind of a cycle of abuse thing. If I see someone being violent, I can think they’re a shitty person, but I can also think about the fact that they probably learned how to do that by having violence done to them. So, if I see binary oppositions showing up strongly in a given social space, I can notice that the people who are clinging to them are committing epistemic violence, but have probably been epistemically violated in some way, too. That’s valuable. It tells me there are roots to look for.”

. . .

I want to think more about the idea of resolving epistemic trauma, somatic methods of resolving trauma stored in the body, and how those two things relate to each other (if at all.) But them’s my notes for now.


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