Wednesday 6 March 2024

Affective and Mnemonic Injustice

This is a report on the workshop held online on 30-31 January 2024, entitled: Affective and Mnemonic Injustice. Thanks to Felipe Carvalho, Nathália de Ávila and Em Walsh for their detailed and interesting report.

Workshop poster

One of us – Felipe Carvalho – is a philosopher of emotion with a keen interest in its political aspects, while the other two – Nathália de Ávila and Em Walsh – are philosophers of memory whose works address specially negative-valenced emotions in psychopathology. So, when the idea came of organizing a Zoom workshop together, we thought it would be a great idea to explore these two topics in combination. After all, there are obvious interconnections between them – provoking a traumatic experience upon another person, for example, is a kind of injustice that has both an affective and a mnemonic component. We thus hoped that the talks in this workshop, and the discussion that would follow them, could bring out these and other interconnections

Marina Trakas (CONICET, Argentina) opened the workshop discussing instances where fear generalization results in harm to others and represents forms of injustice, particularly through mnemonic capacities. Mnemonic injustice refers to the phenomenon wherein inequality and discrimination arise through how stereotypes influence the way we remember. In an effort to provide a tangible illustration rooted in real-life experience, she exemplified how the academic accomplishments of individuals belonging to minority groups, such as a woman or a Black candidate, may be misrepresented or undervalued by members of the hiring committee due to the impact of stereotypes on memory. 

This could result in their achievements and qualities not being duly acknowledged (epistemic harms) and consequently, facing difficulties in securing employment (practical harms), leading to feelings of stress and anxiety (affective harms). Ultimately, this could perpetuate the development of inaccurate or distorted beliefs regarding their own academic capabilities and talents (further epistemic harms). Marina claimed that on a personal level, by embracing strategies encouraged by society, mnemonic injustice stems from various memory biases that can be tackled through fostering mnemonic humility - an expression proposed by Vilius Dranseika that works as a sort of epistemic virtue that relies on metamemory (i.e. knowledge about how our memory systems work and their inherent processes). This relation will be the focus of her future works on the matter. For now, her aim was to show how mnemonic injustice sheds light on a previously unnoticed aspect of social epistemology, particularly evident in instances of fear generalization.

The next speaker was Francisco Gallegos (Wake Forest, USA), a Mexican philosopher who introduced concepts from Mexican existentialism to discuss affective injustice and authenticity—a philosophical discourse with a clear Heideggerian background. In his profound and captivating presentation, which adeptly referenced several interdisciplinary works by women and Latin American thinkers as if it were commonplace rather than exceptional, Gallegos analyzed the notion of "Zozobra." This concept refers to the inability to feel at home in the world in an anxious and oscillating manner that reflects cynicism, nostalgia, apocalyptic thinking, and inaction simultaneously. 

In a post-pandemic context that coincides with wars, genocide, and a collapsing economy and climate simultaneously, there is no need to assert the audience’s collective identification with an emotion of this kind. In philosophical debates, while some Mexican existentialists, like Jorge Portilla, argue that zozobra arises from social disintegration and societal dysfunctions, others like Emilio Uranga and Gloria Anzaldúa view the emotion as inherent to the human condition, capable of being utilized as a source of authenticity with the aim of reversing it. Gallegos, we understand, combines both approaches. By introducing the concept of "affective goods'' (i.e., all that contributes to an excellent emotional life), he identified which ones are fundamental and their conditions of possibility (i.e., their inherent affective freedoms, affective resources, affective opportunities, and forms of affective recognition) in order to define affective injustice as the morally objectionable deprivation of those affective goods. 

He then questioned how one can pursue authenticity (as something more individually-oriented) within contexts over which we have little power (as they adhere to pre-established rules beyond our control), such as restrictive work settings that censor personal expression, the inability to pursue personal projects due to excessive work demands, or being subjected to punishment for affirming one’s identity, as we daily see in the experience of the LGBTQIA+ community. The response, in turn, emphasized the roles of transparency, non-conformity, integrity, and growth. By concluding the presentation with more questions than definitive answers, Gallegos underscored the importance of exploring which affective and mnemonic environments contribute to emotional integrity, thereby reducing injustices.

People sharing ideas in an online meeting

The second day of the workshop began with Joel Krueger (Exeter, UK), a philosopher who has already explored, in previous works, the various harms and injustices faced by neuroatypical individuals (for example, here, here and here). This time, however, these harms were framed within the concept of affective injustice. In particular, Joel argued that significant theoretical gain could be achieved by framing affective injustice within an ecological psychology framework, in order to highlight how features of the built environment can be responsible for affective injustices. 

In order to argue for this claim, Joel focused on two cases studies: hostile architecture, such as spikes installed on flat surfaces to prevent individuals from sitting or lying down, dividers on benches to discourage lying down or stretching out, etc., as well as masking practices in autism, which refer to the adoption of behavior and styles of expression in order to conceal certain autistic traits, as a compensatory strategy that help autistic individuals navigate the social world. Both of these cases, Joel argued, deprive bodies of access to subsidiary affective goods (a notion Joel borrows from Francisco Gallegos), such as affective freedoms, resources and recognition, making people feel affectively powerless (the feeling that a significant portion of one’s life is manipulated by others with greater affective power). To put it in the vocabulary of ecological psychology, their affordance spaces are designed in ways that weaken their spatial agency and thus diminish their ability to feel at home in the world. 

Finally, the workshop ended with Katherine Puddifoot. Katherine is a philosopher at Durham University, whose interests encompass mental health, epistemology (implicit biases; memory errors, etc) and trauma. In her talk, she explored instances of mnemonic injustice, where memory processes contribute to unfair treatment of others, as well as situations where misunderstandings about memory result in injustice. This presupposition is an outcome of her recent collaboration with Marina Trakas, specifically the paper about fear generalization, which is listed below. 

This joint work led her to now advocate for a perspective on memory rooted in social justice. Those who embrace this viewpoint will judge a memory account acceptable only if it aligns with the principles of equity: arguing for a social justice perspective on memory requires a significant shift away from approaches that view memory as a natural kind. Nonetheless, she claims that adopting this stance is warranted due to the crucial role an accurate understanding of memory plays in promoting fairness. In order to clarify her argument, Katherine carefully examined different concepts of memory within the contemporary anglophone literature on philosophy of cognitive sciences, such as Markus Werning’s trace minimalism (2020).

Wonderful questions and discussions followed all the talks, and we wished we had more time to explore all the suggestions and interconnections that appeared in the Q & A. We thus hope that this blog post will foster the debate on affective and mnemonic injustice. We believe that philosophical accounts of memory and emotion harbor profound political implications, and that contrary to being peripheral, the political dimensions of memory and affectivity occupy a central position in inquiries concerning the mechanisms, objectives, and societal implications of memory and emotional processes. 

Workshop speakers: Katherine, Francisco, Joel, and Marina 

If you’d like to know more about these topics, we encourage you to get in touch with the organizers and/or the speakers, and check some of the papers that were discussed in the workshop, which are listed below:

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