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Research Articles
Published: 2024-01-13

Challenging Epistemic Violence: Parrhesia, Counter-Hegemony and Transformation

Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Sydney
animal advocacy Gramsci Foucault parrhesia epistemic violence


A prominent tactic of pro animal advocacy is the use of imagery or knowledge of animal suffering to unveil to audiences “the truth” of human violence against animals, with the aim of prompting individual or systemic change. However, the efficacy of this tactic is undermined by what could be described as “epistemic violence” (Wadiwel 2015, 29-36): namely in the operation of systems of knowledge which render violence against animals as natural, acceptable, “necessary” or beneficent. This epistemic violence poses a tactical problem for pro animal advocacy, since the display of images of, or relay of information on, animal suffering may not necessarily lead to the hoped for individual or systemic change for the audiences that experience them. In this paper I explore the problem of how to challenge epistemic violence as part of a politics of institutional transformation. I examine Michel Foucault’s final lectures at the Collège de France, which feature a close analysis of “speaking freely” or parrhesia. Here, Foucault’s analysis of the truth telling subject who seeks to interrupt an order of knowledge has resonance with many of the tactics of animal advocacy. However, Foucault also reveals the limits of these tactics: this form of truth telling can only occur in a circumstance where the listener is ready to hear the truth, and thus a relationship exists between a truth teller and their audience. Focusing on this relationship – between the truth teller and their audience – I will speculate on the correspondence between Foucault’s understanding of parrhesiastic truth-telling, and the role of intellectuals in counter-hegemonic political movements as described by Antonio Gramsci. As I argue, Gramsci provides an alternative pathway for understanding the process of the cultivation of a relationship between frank truth telling and an audience who has the courage to hear: namely, in the form of the transformational political party which serves both as a method of cultivating alternative worldviews and facilitating truth telling, and also as a means to realise large scale institutional change.


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