Affective Contagion: Social Practices and the Problem of the Uncanny (2 of 5)

Above and Below the Threshold of Consciousness…

There are, I think, a number of problems with this notion of a thick line drawn between conscious meaning making and prediscursive forces in the social field. First, it is important to stress that nonrepresentational theory is an effort to explain how the social becomes vulnerable to forces of encounter above and below the threshold of consciousness. The aim, it seems to me, is to tackle the problem of binary thinking (line drawing) by in fact tearing down the artifice that separates these two poles. What Wetherell seems intent on doing though is maintaining this artifice. I am not at all convinced however that, as her book claims, it is discourse that carries affect. It is perhaps better to highlight how discursive formations, like those that form around marketing and network security, are intimately interwoven with prediscursive flows of contagious affects, feelings, and emotions. It is true that marketers and network security experts, for example, tap into these forces, but the identities they impose are something that always comes after the event

This is why a Tarde-Deleuzian approach has proved so valuable to rethinking contagion theory in the age of networks. Although overall categories, like crowds, clearly exist as collective representations, Tarde’s laws of imitation, like Deleuze’s assemblage theory,  concerns the relationalities that bring things together irrelevant of a given identity. As Deleuze puts it, it is “within overall categories, basic lineages, or modern institutions” that Tarde’s microrelations can be found. Indeed, “far from destroying these larger unities,” it is the microrelation that composes the unity (Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, 36).

Second, it is important to question the very idea that the uncanny presents an analytical problem. Is it really the case that the study of the uncanniness of affective contagion “blocks pragmatic approaches to affect,” as Wetherell claims (p. 21)? Like this, the metaphors of contagion explain nothing, we are told, other than a strange and unknowable force, which can be better uncovered in less mysterious ways (the trusted tools of representation). In contrast, I would forward Tarde’s work (only one mention of his name in this book which prefers to use the much easier to burn straw man of Gustave Le Bon) as a mostly pragmatic attempt to uncover an uncanny neurological tendency to imitate.

Mirror Neurons are Uncanny

Tarde’s contagion is not in fact a metaphor at all. He argued that long before language came to define human culture the prevalent social action was to imitate. Wetherell’s many references to neuroscience, and the mirror neuron hypothesis in particular, demonstrate how this uncanny inclination to imitate is already being pragmatically approached, perhaps revealing that language is simply a by-product of such an imitative inclination.

About Virality

Tony D. Sampson is Reader in Digital Culture and Communications at the University of East London. He has a PhD in social-cultural-digital contagion theory from the Sociology Department at the University of Essex. He is a former art student who re-entered higher education in the UK as a mature student in the mid-1990s after a long stint as a gigging musician. His career in education has moved through various disciplines and departments, including a maths and computing faculty, sociology department and school of digital media and design His publications include The Spam Book, coedited with Jussi Parikka (Hampton Press, 2009), Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), The Assemblage Brain: Sense Making in Neuroculture (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), Affect and Social Media (Rowman and Littlefield, July 2018) and The Sleepwalker's Guide to Social Media (due 2020 with Polity Press). Tony is the organizer and host of the Affect and Social Media conferences in the UK (see archive on this blog). As a co-founder and co-director of the public engagement initiatives, Club Critical Theory (CCT) and the Cultural Engine Research Group (CERG), Tony has been project lead on a number of funded projects that bring impactful critical theories into the community and local political sphere to approach. These activities have included large conferences, symposia and informal lectures/workshops in pubs and community centres, co-organized with community groups and local authorities. Tony occasionally blogs at: https://viralcontagion.wordpress.com/ Full academic profile: https://www.uel.ac.uk/Staff/s/tony-sampson
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