Exploring Epistemic Violence Workshop, February 2016

Filmstill from“Halfmoon Files“, © Philip Scheffner 2006 http://halfmoonfiles.de/en

Filmstill from“Halfmoon Files“, © Philip Scheffner 2006 http://halfmoonfiles.de/en

Exploring Epistemic Violence

Workshop on February 22nd 2016, 9.30 am – 18.00 pm

Queen Mary University of London


by Claudia Brunner

Scope and Aim of the Workshop: What Is and What Does Epistemic Violence?

While the notion of epistemic violence is well-known in post- and decolonial studies, it is still still absent in IR, Peace and Conflict Studies, Political Philosophy and other fields of knowledge that deal with issues of violence of all sorts. The aim of the workshop was to discuss the supposedly simple question of what epistemic violence actually is and does, and how we can make use of it in the above mentioned fields of inquiry.

How can we frame it as a concept, and how can we approach phenomena that we would describe with that notion? How can we discern a post- and decolonial concept of epistemic violence from or link it with other wide understandings of violence, such as structural, symbolic, discursive, visual violence etc. that stem from a Eurocentrist tradition of thought? From a post- and decolonial point of view, should we give up common and narrow concepts of violence altogether or can we find plausible ways to link them with a thicker concept of epistemic violence? In which ways would it change our analyses of direct and physical political violence, if we developed a theory of epistemic violence?

At the same time, the concept of the workshop invited to reflect upon how epistemic violence unfolds especially in the privileged and powerful fields of academic knowledge production that the participants – students, scholars, teachers at Western European universities – were part of, and in which ways we can avoid or possibly overcome it.

Working Method: On the Entanglements between Process and Content

In accordance with the topic and aim of the workshop, we tried to cultivate an explorative, egalitarian and creative atmosphere, and to decentre powerful positions of speaking and being listened to, that are part of the tricky procedures in which epistemic violence often comes into being while “doing academia“, even of most benevolent or critical intentions.

The first way to reach this goal was a very conscious mix of participants that included BA and MA students, PhD candidates, junior and senior post-doc scholars (as presenters) and eventually activists.

Secondly, the format of not presenting your own paper (which was circulated among participants in advance), but the work of another person (which were carefully matched by the organisers), aimed at questioning existing hierarchies of status, knowledge and experience.

In addition to that, we tried to dissolve the conventional academic split between speaking/presenting and asking questions/commenting by having presenters and non-presenting participants read all the texts in advance and therefore being able to discuss from a common ground, and by reversing the “academically natural“ order of speaking that privileges the author-subject. After a short presentation given by another person (10-15 minutes), the entire group engaged in discussing the paper amongst each other, while the author had to remain silent and was not allowed to intervene (15-20 minutes). Only in the last 15 minutes, the author of the paper could come in and respond.

Finally, as in almost every academic meeting, but hardly ever made explicit as a powerful structure that is also linked to epistemic violence, English was not the first language of all participants. They came from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Austria and Germany, and many had a much more diverse background and therefore even more resources to draw upon. These varieties (and existing hierarchies between them) could be addressed much better in the given setting than they would in a conventional conference, due both to the methodological concept and the shared consciousness that the asymmetric recognition of these is part of the topic of the workshop itself – epistemic violence.

Contents, Topics, and Questions: From Epistemic Violence to Decolonization

Rolando Vázquez‘ paper on Relational Temporalities: From Modernity to the Decolonial (presented by Aoileann Ní Mhurchú) was the perfect introduction to the topic, since it allowed to frame the issue of epistemic violence towards the background of a larger “colonial condition“. The paper made a very concrete suggestion of how to overcome the dominant Western and Eurocentrist understanding of the world, including the limits of critique that stays within the modernist framework, by further engaging in “the decolonial option“ as a radical critique of modernity. Through revisiting global historical processes of colonial exploitation, the author argues, we should rethink the modern/colonial order from the concrete experiences of oppression. According to the paper, it is non-Western thought that we should try to retrieve, understand, and take as the basis for rethinking the world, because it is only from there that we can engage in “epistemic disobedience“ and overcome modern ontologies. Introducing the notion of “relational temporalities“, Rolando suggests a processural notion of time, as opposed to modernity’s all too linear conception, that allows for accessing knowledge that is located outside the empty and narrow focus on the present.

This paper constituted a challenging entry point into the workshop, mainly because of its claim that there exists an outside of modernity, or more specifically an epistemic outside from what he calls the epistemic territory of modernity. An outside with which we can uncover a radical critique of modernity as a falls totality. As critical scholars, many of the participants were also challenged by the idea of relying on other cosmologies, what got interpreted as spirituality, and other forms of knowledge that are very difficult to make intelligible within the existing modern/colonial framework: does such a radical alterity still exist at all? An important part of the debate was centered on how can we avoid the danger of  essentialising subjugated knowledges?

Eleonora Roldán Mendívíl and Matthias Hinkelmann presented Claudia Brunner’s paper on the question of Why Peace Studies Need a Better Understanding of Epistemic Violence, in which she compares and contrasts the few existing definitions of epistemic violence in Western peace studies, on the one hand, and in post- and decolonial studies, on the other. It becomes obvious that these two approaches are quite opposed to each other: while the first considers academic knowledge production as a remedy against epistemic violence (the roots of which are located either in culture or in psychological barriers or in ideological blindness of just errant/false knowledge), the second sees it at the very basis of the problem, because scholarly knowledge holds a prominent place in the constitution of modernity/coloniality, then and now. Both approaches involve the implicit assumption of non-violence of scholarly work and the academia as a field of engagement that becomes most explicitly visible within peace studies, but undergirds all academic knowledge production.

The presenters suggested a couple of questions for the debate, all centred around the main question of how scholarly work can learn from epistemic, social and political struggles in their own attempts of theorizing epistemic violence. They asked for a framework for “intellectual solidarity“ that could go beyond the paternalistic approach of one peace studies scholar presented in the paper. Throughout the discussion, it became clear that while epistemic violence is not a problem of academia alone, it is in this system that the author’s main interest lies. Moreover, it is also there, in the deeply colonial institution called university, where we, as students, scholars, and teachers, are most directly confronted and involved with epistemic violence.

Sophie Künstler’s paper titled Being (put) on the ‘Outside‘ or the ‘Edge‘ – Thoughts on the Relation Between Epistemic Violence and (De-)Subjectivation undertakes a close reading of Gayatri Spivak and Judith Butler in order to find out more about the differences and relations between their approaches to a similar problem: the process of excluding certain (groups of) individuals for the sake of creating a certain community or normality. Is there a difference between being othered (Spivak) and being made un-intelligible (Butler), between being put outside (Spivak) and on the edge (Butler), between being listened to (Spivak) and being visible (Butler)? Epistemic violence seems to be an important dimension in these processes, and it is difficult to point at it, especially when other forms of “more serious“ violence are involved.

While we found it obvious and interesting to compare Spivak to Butler, the ongoing discussion produced a certain confrontation around the notion of subjectivity/subjecthood that is to be achieved in order to become visible, intelligible, listened to, very obviously in Butler’s approach, but to a certain extent also in Spivak’s. From a radical decolonial perspective, the idea of individual subjecthood is part of the problem and a constitutive element of the very idea and practice of modernity/coloniality, because it denies relationality and communality and remains in a progressive understanding of time and emancipation (instead of more substantial liberation), and therefore should be rejected and overcome altogether. If confronted with concrete political and social struggles, however, be it as an activist or from a critical scholarly perspective, it is difficult to deny these bitterly necessary positions of relative power to those who suffer and who are suppressed.

Eleonora Roldán Mendívíl‘s and Matthias Hinkelmann’s co-authored paper asks what happens When Research on Epistemic Violence Becomes Violent. Towards a Dialectial Materialist Critique and poses a strong challenge to all kinds of critical research whose authors/proponents are somehow dissociated from those who they claim would profit from their critique. From the analysis that even the critical academia in the West has often lost its social basis and therefore has become complicit of both epistemic and other forms of violence, the paper calls for a resuscitation of Gramsci’s “organic intellectual“, who is supposed to overcome this problem mainly by a more community-based and dialectical, ergo both theoretical and practical, and therefore essentially Marxist engagement.

Presenter Rolando Vázquez‘ critique agreed insofar as he also thinks that the academia has to be humbled, and that the intellectual is not the primary agent of social and policital change. At the same time, he states that with the idea of the true Marxist organic intellectual, we would remain in the modernist framework and again centre-stage an authoritative figure that cannot escape its colonial/modernist heritage and therefore would not be able to bring forth radically democratic ways of knowing and being in the world. This point was vividly taken up in the debate, in which, again, the difficulties of reconciling Marxist and decolonial critique came up as an important obstacles to tackling and eventually even overcoming epistemic violence.

With the next presentation, the deeply colonial project of education came into the forefront in Robbie Shilliam’s paper on The Aims and Methods of Liberal Education: Notes from a Nineteenth Century Pan-Africanist, presented by Sophie Künstler. Public culture, a highly problematic and contested concept in itself, has not been destroyed by neoliberal logics of today’s corporate universities, but is historically deeply racialized – and it manifests in curricula of (higher) education. Race, the author argues, constitutes the connection between epistemology and politics, then and now, and it revolves around the question of who is or can eventually be made competent enough to cultivate the public sphere through knowledge, and who is not. The paper introduces an unkown voice to the canon of debates on liberal education, namely the Black intellectual Edward Blyden, president of Liberia College in Liberia in the middle oft he 19th century, who suggested to teach ancient Greek and Latin Classics to Black Liberian students in the struggle for epistemic justice as a basis for political rights and equality – not because they were European and therefore acknowledge sources of knowledge, but because the were ancient and therefore were seen not to be part of the colonial project.

While everybody agreed on the central argument of the text, it became clear how difficult it is to disentangle race and class as categories of analysis and critique, and with respect to dominant cultures and practices of power that systematically perpetuate epistemic injustice. It became obvious that epistemic violence starts long before a certain individual is actively excluded, that it is deeply entangled with the structural and also with direct and physical violence that the colonial condition implies and builds upon. One suggestion was that the quest for epistemic justice therefore would have to start elsewhere, in a critique and transformation of knowledge claims that reach back to and have co-developed with the beginnings of colonial exploitation, for which the race-based international division of labor and wealth has laid the ground.

The last paper, written by Aoileann Ní Mhurchú and presented by Robbie Shilliam, dealt with Epistemic Justice and/in IR: What Does it Mean to ‘Listen‘ or ‘Hear‘ Voices and Experiences of Those Located at the Intersection of Global/Local Relations? The paper explores the practice of “Verlan“, the French tradition of inversing the syllables of word, today creatively used in a  creative subcultural way of mixing French standard language with words from Arabic and other immigrants‘ or so-called second generation’s language. In her attempt to start International Relations from the everyday and its resistances, the author introduces a fascinating way of challenging the sovereign autonomous conception of the political subject and displace Western knowledge from the centre both of political practice and IR efforts to theorize the world. Not asking for inclusion, but rather disorienting dominant paradigms is the understanding of striving towards epistemic justice at stake. The paper suggests that everyday aesthetical practices are a promising way of provoking “epistemic breaks“ from which something new and liberating can develop, while it is obvious that these aesthetics do not take place beyond the ambivalences of capitalism.

This tension between “individual resistance/liberation“ and the context of a certain commodification of all aesthetic expression constituted a key aspect of the discussion of the paper. It became clear that the practice of Verlan is not primarily aimed at becoming a subject, but rather to create a community that does not necessarily address the hegemon, the sovereign in the first place. At the same time, not all those who use Verlan subculture are political activists or strive towards politically revolutionary changes at all. It is, however, a very powerful example of an aesthetical epistemic break in conventional knowledge-power-relations that forces us to think otherwise, to reflect about the impact of translation and the space of what is not translatable into hegemonic discourse, while it allows for more creativity in exploring ways towards epistemic justice.

Conclusions: From Epistemic Violence towards Epistemic Justice

After these six presentations and paper-focused debates, the workshop concluded with a plenary discussion along three main sets of questions:

  1. Do we see epistemic violence as something that needs to be further conceptualized, or is it enough to take the term and then apply it to the many instances we define as epistemically violent throughout our fields of inquiry? If it is not, and if we need a stronger, thicker concept of epistemic violence, what should be its main ingredients and how can we (not) proceed towards such a concept or theory? Or is the bare idea of a theory of epistemic violence a contradiction per se, because it duplicates the Eurocentrist idea of abstraction and universalisation?
  2. If we consider epistemic justice as something to work and strive for in order to challenge or potentially overcome epistemic justice, what can we do in our own scholarly/academic/political practice at different levels of higher education, and what should we stop doing? What are the things that would really make a difference with respect to epistemic violence and (in)justice across teaching, research, and educational/university politics?
  3. In which ways did this workshop change our understanding of epistemic violence and/or our ideas of how to deal with it?

While this summary cannot sum up all individual experiences and insights (question 3), I can formulate a few arguments that were articulated in the conclusion of the workshop:

  • when exploring epistemic violence, we cannot claim a position of abstraction, but we necessarily have to start from our own positionality. Epistemic violence appears as a structural issue and is not reducible to a question of identity politics and individuality.
  • the topic highlights how deeply political “doing academia“ is, since the university is a deeply colonial and capitalist institution itself; even if we do not use the term epistemic violence, focusing it enables us to see all kinds of violence at work much more clearly
  • there is still a lot of work to be done to name and frame and blame the manifold instances in which epistemic violence unfolds in the field of academic knowledge production/dissemination/consumption
  • theoretical canons, even critical ones, will not save us, and it is not suitable for a decolonial approach to create a new meta-theory; it is an ongoing process of becoming, thinking, and practicing alternatives
  • if we want to proceed towards epistemic justice, not in a simple sense of more inclusion, but as a mode of dis- and reorientation, we have to think harder about different sources for research and teaching, and for other methods as well
  • most crucial is to show the links and entanglements between epistemic violence and many other forms of violence, since it will surely not be overcome as long as so many other forms of violence are in place; with a better understanding of epistemic violence, we can perceive other forms of violence much better, sharper, in their complexity and work towards overcoming them in a much clearer way
  • epistemic violence will not be over once we have the best concept to speak about it – this will be a long and multi-layered effort and struggle
  • we have to focus efforts on thinking about and practising intellectual solidarity amongst those in the field of academia (including across generations, genders, races, positions, geopolitical locations…), and more importantly between the academia, political activists and the affected communities
  • we can make use of privileged positions within the field of higher education and scholarly knowledge in order to make a difference that reaches beyond this micro-cosmos


  • Claudia Brunner, Centre for Peace Research and Peace Education, Alps-Adriatic-University of Klagenfurt
  • Matthias Hinkelmann, Otto-Suhr-Institute for Political Science, Free University Berlin
  • Sophie Künstler, Department of Social Pedagogy and Adult Education, University of Frankfurt
  • Aioleann Ní Murchú, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester
  • Eleonora Roldán Mendívil, Department of Political Science, University of Hamburg
  • Robbie Shilliam, School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London
  • Rolando Vázquez Melken, Social Science Department, University College Roosevelt, Utrecht
  • Alexander Blanchard, School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London
  • Melany Cruz, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham
  • Christine Holike, Berlin
  • Nadine Knab, Peace Academy Rhineland-Palatinate, University of Landau

Supported by the CPD (Colonial/Postcolonial/Decolonial) Working Group of BISA (British International Studies Association)

organised by

Dr. Claudia Brunner

Centre for Peace Research and Peace Education, Alps-Adriatic-University of Klagenfurt, Austria, claudia.brunner@aau.at

Dr. Robbie Shilliam

School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London, UK, r.shilliam@qmul.ac.uk