When confronted with epistemic injustice, the initial impact is often sensed in the gut. It manifests as an acute, at times elusive, yet undeniably visceral feeling. If one is conditioned to question (inner) perception, or to require proof or permission to feel what one feels, it may take longer for this gut feeling to sink in - a coming to awareness that sometimes can be more painful than the actual hit. The body will take the blow, regardless of what the mind can or cannot consciously assume.
In opposition to his-toric predominant treatment of justice as a lofty, aspirational concept, a growing body of literature and practices is emerging that approaches the concept as a phenomenon affecting all layers of the body—political, physical, social and even cosmological (1). Injustice is able to traverse personal and collective sympathetic nervous systems, triggering autoimmune responses, settling within connective tissues and transforming into an "indigestible" entity—inflaming, draining and eventually ripping all these interconnected systems from within.
This is not the kind of welcome inflammation that heralds a clean and clear cut healing. It is one that behaves as what Tyson Yunkaporta would call a curse: ‘The curse is a deception made real—either an outright lie or a true law or pattern applied where it doesn’t belong. It is like a computer virus, a sneaky line of code that ends up crashing the whole system.’ Or what Michel Serres would call a parasite: an interrupting noise, like the static in a system or interference on a channel, thwarting every attempt at smooth, efficient communication.
Parasite and curse are both charged, epistemologically violent words that have been used to dehumanize people and legitimize atrocities. For the sake of this essay—in the original sense of the word: an attempt at connecting concepts—I will embrace these words as pièces de resistance, thwarting easy digestion or quick solution.
I imagine all indigestible remnants agglutinating and animating a larger than life dybbuk (fig. 1), a amalgamation of souls unjustly murdered, attaching itself to all the aforementioned interconnected bodies.
I imagine the indigestibility of injustice also to be defended by Janus, the Roman god of beginning and endings (of specifically conflict), dualisms, doors, passageways and transitions. With its angry face it makes (t)issues swell and fester, with its fearful face it freezes and transfixes them. Janus will obstruct any passage until every facet of injustice is thoroughly contemplated, confronted and faced. Facing: acknowledging the irreducible, otherness of the other in the face of the other (2): you are another myself (3).
Clearly, facing all the faces of Janus demands a willingness to "lose face," and many may be tempted to look away. The mere prospect of experiencing shame and guilt in the presence of the victim is sufficient to cause some to crumble into ashes. That is why so many will try to corral this ‘problem of injustice’ with legalistic frameworks, reductive methods and pseudo solutions, while appealing to authority, (capital) realism and/or an insidious ‘right to self defense’. Meanwhile, Janus, continues to dismantle obsolete frames, rendering the (t)issues underneath untreatable, incuratable, indigestible.
Miranda Fricker eloquently introduces the two faces of epistemic injustice on the first page of her insightful book (4): the testimonial kind arises when the speaker is disregarded and/or taken less seriously because of implicit and explicit prejudices surrounding a person's identity (e.g. homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, ableism). The hermeneutical kind is more elusive and perhaps even more fundamental, as it’s about who gets to decide on and controls the rules of the language game, that is: the conceptual frameworks that allows one to recognize and articulate the suffered injustice in the first place. After all, the best prison is the one that is not perceived as a prison at all. But no matter how much these language games are able to enclose one’s sense of reality, bodies remember, and the indigestion will continue to inflame and fester, albeit in more subterranean ways.
Lastly, Janus and the dybbuk pay tribute to the “moral residue” as defined in biomedical ethics: the feelings of anxiety that come from an integrity-compromising situation that finds no satisfactory resolution. It is conceived as an occupational hazard for those working closely with life and death and often face impossible choices between several inescapable evils. This residue follows the logic, and creates the same kind of stress, of what system thinkers Paul Watzlawick and Gregory Bateson have described as the double bind: when one is caught in a ‘closed system’ in which one receives two or more mutually conflicting messages, one will always find themselves on the failing, losing side. Damned if you do (or have done), damned if you don’t (have done), and waht’s more, there will be no language or framework to metacommunicate what one is going through, let alone call this ‘epistemic injustice’.
The dream space is also no stranger to “epistemic injustice”, as dreams have often been reduced in the West as the irrelevant, irrational and background noise of a day-consciousness, and therefore not to be taken seriously as a legitimate form of knowledge.
Nevertheless, after a prolonged period of devaluation brought about by ancient Greek logos and the European Enlightenment's ratio, dreaming experienced a resurgence of interest with the advent of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud notably asserted that 'the interpretation of dreams is the Royal road to the unconscious,' emphasizing that dreams are constructed from the residue of yesterday. This perspective resonates with contemporary psychologists like Rubin Naiman, who likened the brain during REM sleep to a "second gut," processing and digesting information accumulated throughout the day. Naiman suggests that during dreams, everything we perceive and every conversation we engage in is chewed on, swallowed, and filtered, either excreted or assimilated. This concept of dreams as a 'residual space' has significantly influenced ongoing dream research, framing dreams as a means through which the brain detoxifies, integrates daytime experiences, promotes deep learning, and imprints memories in the neural network.
In all cases, night time dreams prepare the brain for a better performance during the day, wheels of the capitalist machinery spinning. And one leaves to wonder, after all this processing, what kind of residuals does this ‘useful’ dreaming excrete? What happens to the bile?
At present, with climate catastrophe reaching new harrowing frontiers, and a devestating genocide happening in Gaza, our collective dream space is working overtime because it cannot remediate today’s world events that are adding lots of indigestible, non compostable material to the stack. I find solace in the fact that dream pallets - oneiric bone, splinter en stone - will continue to infiltrate and haunt our (collective) dreaming, resurface time and again in different guises, or in recurring dreams. Where else can they go, if not that realm where conflicting realities can coexist and intermingle?
As practitioner and writer Premtis Hemphill writes: ‘We are witnessing pain, suffering, and grief that will last a lifetime; we are witnessing the effect of generational trauma and the creation of new traumas that will span several life times. What will become of it?’ And I would add to that: we will dream different collective dreams after these events, as there is no space and time to grieve this ungrievable.
This inconclusive essay does, however, not propose that the dream space be instrumentalized, once again, as the space to digest on some ‘other’ mysterious level the indigestible, or find the luminous consciousness that will help us overcome. It’s again placing too large of a burden on a space that is at once deeply intimate, and at the same time so other, and therefore absolutely not up to humans to “colonize” perhaps one of the last sites where we rub against mystery unexplained and undigested on a daily basis.
. . . . .
For further reading, see: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/aug/17/inflamed-by-rupa-marya-and-raj-patel-review-covid-race-colonialism
Check also the chapter on Inla k’ech in An Ecotopian Lexicon (2019), Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Brent Ryan Bellamy, Editors.
Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing
This piece was commissioned by Home Cinema as a text contribution to their closing event of 2023: The Deep: Last Dream of the Year.