Affective Contagion: Social Practices and the Problem of the Uncanny (4 of 5)

The Atmosphere of Affect…

A big influence on Thrift’s notion of affective contagion is Teresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect. So not surprisingly this book too becomes a target for Wetherell’s critique, particularly Brennan’s choice of words. Perhaps transmission is not the right word? It seems to imply that contagion spreads between self-contained individuals – not Brennan’s intention it must be said, as Wetherell later concedes. But the word does make us think of old communication models which to some extent present messages as locked inside the encoding/decoding minds of senders and receivers, as well as pushing them through the sealed, noiseless channels they communicate through (see Genosko’s new book on communication models to dispel such notions). However, what Brennan is really getting at in her sadly incomplete but wonderful little book is what she calls the atmosphere of affect.

Brennan's The Transmission of Affect
Brennan's The Transmission of Affect

This is not a readable atmosphere as Wetherell would like it to be (p. 146). The atmosphere is not a text! Brennan considers instead senses outside of representational space, and in doing so introduces, among other spreading phenomena, the contagions of pheromones. Indeed, Brennan uses smell as an example to help us rethink the relations that connect self to other by dipping below conscious states of meaningful message sending. Similarly, and in sharp contrast to the representational viewpoint in which identity and social practice define the flow, the object, and the kind of affects a crowd display (p. 148), Tarde considered how the imitative microrelation guides the flow of the crowd. This is a neurological relation as much as it is a relation to pheromones, but it is, like Brennan’s atmosphere, all about a porous and mostly unconscious self/other relation.

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