Attending to subjugated knowledge

Already during the first month that this project was running numerous letters and emails were received from individuals who wanted to share their borderline experiences with us. More than 60 letters or messages have to date been sent to the project. The sheer amount of material that has arrived, without prompting, was totally unexpected. Some texts have been short vignettes, others up to 50 hand written pages. Many of these messages conclude with a note of thanks to the project that research is finally being done on this issue. When mentioning the subject of this research project to neighbours, relatives and friends, more often than not, they will mention that someone they know or they themselves have had experiences of this nature. It is as if the flood gates have been opened. Much of this knowledge has already been silenced in families or simply never told due to the teller fearing stigmatisation. Valuable experiences have been lost; often swept aside as the ravings of mad people. And, indeed, one of the aims of this interdisciplinary project is to empirically collect, employ and investigate knowledge and theories on the human mind that have been overlooked. These spontaneously sent in stories attests to the fact that conducting research on this issue is long overdue and of vital importance for our understanding of the human mind.

 Previous historical and cross-cultural research indicates that various cultures maintain diverse theories about the human mind and that this is knowledge that is still largely excluded from investigation within modern sciences. This is knowledge that matters to those individuals that have atypical, supernatural experiences, but often, in the world of science, knowledge of this nature lacks evidence to back up the claim that it is real.  The core question is; who has the authority to define what is legitimate? Why are certain types of evidence or knowledge considered more legitimate than others?

 The exclusion of knowledge from below is what Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish: the birth of a prison (1975) calls subjugated knowledge. Shortly defined it is; ‘local, discontinuous, disqualified, illegitimate knowledges’ that are considered to be ‘beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity’. Power is realised and knowledge is placed in a subordinate position through discourses. There is a tug-of-war between discourses; they interact with each other, but also influence who can speak, what can be said and when it can be said.  Certain discourses dominate over others because they favour versions of social reality that justify existing social structures and power relations. Foucault (1975) reminds us that those in society, who validate what is true and what is false, are given a great amount of authority. The danger is that it may lead to the production of alleged truths.

 Why, then, do we need to listen to the out-of-the-ordinary experiences of ordinary people? The answer simply is because they lack the power to place their concerns on the agenda in a world where positivistic scientific evidence has an increasingly hegemonic position. As researchers we can validate their knowledge and aid them in taking part in the co-production of knowledge.  How to go about this? The starting point is an open mind and curiosity regarding phenomena that seem to lack a clear scientific definition. Besides, the lack of a scientific definition does not diminish the degree of truth. To those who have these extraordinary experiences they are real and true.

 The need to tell one’s story points to how there is a body of information out there to be tapped, recorded and seriously discussed. Is it not high time we take these experiences into consideration? We believe they can make valuable contributions to our knowledge of the mind and of how human consciousness works. From an ethical standpoint it will, thus, become necessary to negotiate what counts as evidence.

Written by Susanne Ådahl