by Sruti Bala
Researchers face the challenge of engaging with the topic of epistemic diversity. We know that we should consider diverse knowledges in our research, but how can this be operationalised? This blog post engages with this question and shows us that it first of all means calling into question what we hold dear—the very ground on which we stand as researchers and the means by which we distinguish knowledge from non-knowledge.
I am not sure if I can claim with any certainty that I practice epistemic diversity in my research. At first glance, following from epistêmê, the Greek word for knowledge, one could assume epistemic diversity to mean a diversity of knowledge. Sounds straightforward, for who would not seek a diversity of knowledge? Yet following Michel Foucault, the brilliant innovator of method, an episteme is not literally knowledge (connaissance)—something that is out there waiting to be known—but a historical set of relations or founding assumptions that unite, formalise, and systematise what comes to be regarded as knowledge.
An episteme tends to consist of unspoken, tacit modes of sensemaking that allow us to recognise something as knowledge, i.e. scientific, and therefore distinguish it from what is not knowledge, and call this by other names, like belief, ritual, gossip, superstition, crime. Epistemic diversity, in this Foucauldian sense, implies a diversity of ways of recognising knowledge and distinguishing it from non-knowledge. This is anything but straightforward!
What if my system of knowledge formation has taught me that knowledge must have a name, a language? Then I will try to acquire knowledge by naming the things I encounter, by making them enter an episteme through nomenclature, typology, or categorisation. If it cannot be named or ordered, then it must not be knowledge, but belonging to another realm—that of dreams or fantasies, for instance. What if my system of knowledge conceives of knowledge as something to be acquired, possessed, or accumulated? Then knowledge to which no ownership is attached will not count as knowledge. It may come to be regarded as folklore or rumour. What if the episteme I have been inserted into by way of education gives great importance to empirical verifiability or to linear progression? Then something that defies the rules of empirical verifiability and does not move in a straight line from simple to complex may come to be regarded as superstition or ritual or magic, but not as knowledge.
One might argue that epistemic diversity tends to come to our notice primarily when certain forms of knowledge production are in danger. Foucault’s conception of the episteme in The Order of Things (English translation 1970) points to such moments of rupture, and theorisations following from his, such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s notion of “epistemic violence” in her essay ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ (1988), reveal how certain types of practices and ways of life are criminalised and destroyed, not necessarily through physical violence, but through modes of knowledge production. The extinction of a language or of an art form are instances of epistemic violence. The silencing of certain aspects of history in public memory, such as the history of colonialism and resistance to slavery, is another. To some extent it feels simpler to say that we have to strive to preserve subjugated knowledge forms, because that is a charitable task, undertaken elsewhere, as it were. It is far more difficult to know how we should practice epistemic diversity within the four walls of our own edifices of research and study. It means calling into question what we hold dear, the very ground on which we stand as researchers and the means by which we distinguish knowledge from non-knowledge.
Where Spivak emphasises the issue of epistemic violence done to subjugated knowledges, the challenge I face in my research is better described as epistemic poverty, the loss that accompanies my set of epistemic assumptions and privileges. As a researcher I realise that it is important to listen to articulations radically different from the frameworks that I may be trained in, but more than good listening is required in order for those articulations and insights to translate themselves into what we might call knowledge. Just by desiring epistemic diversity, or proclaiming it, doesn’t mean it will have been accomplished.
Placing ourselves in others’ shoes
The task of epistemic diversity could perhaps begin with persistently training ourselves to recognise how certain epistemic privileges are ingrained in our disciplinary histories, and train ourselves to challenge and revise them. It is about learning to imagine the conditions of knowledge formation differently. One must be able to first imagine that something might be valuable, even if it does not appear valuable to oneself at all. One must be able to break the habitual rejection of something because it appears distant and irrelevant at face value. The absent potential of what one does not yet know can only be recognised when its possible presence can be imagined.
There is a specifically gendered and sexual politics at play when epistemic diversity becomes a matter of accumulation and possession of difference. I regularly encounter public declarations of the idea that the intimate encounter with difference, especially with minoritised, primitivised others, is full of pleasure and has the capacity to transform and redeem the dominant self. Authoritative claims, for instance, of intimacy with a certain culture on the grounds of one’s spouse or sexual partner being from that culture, are indicative of this stance. Bell Hooks brilliantly reflects the underlying desire for pleasure and their erotic connotations in popular cultural expressions and fantasies in Black Looks (1992). Under which conditions is the longing for and affective appreciation of otherness a move of acknowledgement, when is it a form of ‘imperialist nostalgia’ or primitivism, or fantasy of possessing and claiming the other?
It is my strong belief that the quest for epistemic diversity must be accompanied and guided by what Rolando Vazquez and Rosalba Icaza, following Maria Lugones, call a ‘politics of coalition building’ (Pilgrimages/peregrinajes: Theorizing coalition against multiple oppressions, 2003). I am acutely aware that appropriation, theft, erasure, blind spots, equivocation and over-simplification are real problems in research in the humanities and social sciences. The relationships between researcher and researched or between disciplinary formations continue to remain painfully asymmetrical when it comes to the life worlds of the Global South or of those marked as minorities. Yet we cannot overcome these asymmetries without reaching out and learning from and with each other. Epistemic diversity calls upon us to engage critically with all kinds of bodies of knowledge, even and especially if we don’t (fully) agree with them.
Dr Sruti Bala is Associate Professor at the Theatre Studies Department of the University of Amsterdam and Research Affiliate with the Amsterdam Centre for Globalisation Studies and Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis. Her research interests are at the crossroads of theatre and performance studies, cultural analysis, post- and decolonial thinking and feminist theory.