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

Encountering Counter-Contagion…

Wetherell’s critique of Brennan reminds me of the Durkheimian’s attack on Tarde. They called him a spiritualist. Likewise, Wetherell tries to dispel the spooky, uncanny and magical encounter with affective atmospheres by saying that it just feels as if we are encountering some kind of transforming affect, when in reality we are in fact engaged in some pre-given encounter. But it is perhaps Wetherell who mistakes the “magic” of the encounter for an already anticipated event that can be somehow reflected on before it actually occurs.  Nonrepresentational theory argues differently. The encounter is a mostly unconscious association that dips below cognitive consideration, entering via sensations and feelings that potentially have, according to noncognitive psychology, a mind of their own (Zajonc, “Feeling and thinking: preferences need no inferences,” 1980). Empathy can, for example, infect feelings below cognition and redirect attention toward previously unidentified beliefs.

Interestingly, I think, Wetherell’s interest in the mirror neuron hypothesis does not detract from the magic of affective atmospheres. It points instead to how contemporary neuroscience is increasingly uncovering the magical relation we have to others.

Anger Produces Fear

Our brains, Wetherell claims, are “made for social practices” (p. 150). Well yes, but the problem I find with this definition of the brain is that these social practices are reduced to a pre-given identity. Indeed, since representational theory, like Le Bon to some extent, mostly thinks in images, it often misses the transformational movements of imitative encounter. Like this, Wetherell aguably mistakes affective contagion for a semiotic copying machine that churns out reproductions of affect and emotion. Imitative encounters are never simple mirroring relations. The mirror neuron hypothesis may also be poorly named. Anger does not replicate itself as a thought contagion. It spreads as an influence or a suggestion that affects the psychology and physiology of what is infected. Anger may indeed become anxiety or empathy. It might also lead to an attempt to resist through, for example, apathy, but resistance is regarded by Tarde as futile since by counter-imitating the other we simply become more and more assimilated.

“There is nothing more imitative than fighting against one’s natural inclination to follow the current of these things, or than pretending to go against it.” (Tarde, Laws of Imitation, xvii).

To be sure, by going up against the uncanniness of affective contagion the argument in Affect and Emotion simply becomes assimilated into yet another binary way of thinking. More than that though, it seems that the book is desperately seeking to provide a representation of something that is by and large nonrepresentational.

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: Full academic profile:
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1 Response to Affective Contagion: Social Practices and the Problem of the Uncanny (5 of 5)

  1. @renatagames says:

    Couldn’t agree more with you on this (even though I didn’t read the Wetherell’s book). I come from a semiotic approach (but from the ‘biossemiotic’ of Uexkull, which is totally “non-textual” if we could put it like that) and there is no doubt in my mind there is a gigantic unconscious ground to affective contagion. Indeed, neuroscience seems to be prooving just that, like you point out, including the mirror neuron hypothesis.

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