The Return of Crowd Contagion? 1 of 3

2010-11 will be looked back on as the beginning of a period of social uprising occurring in an age incessantly characterized by social media. Mainstream journalists were indeed quick to note the role of Web 2.0 in triggering new revolutionary and riotous crowds. However, this focus on the often over hyped potential of Web 2.0 applications perhaps loses sight of the event of social rebellion. For such events to ignite there is a requirement for the spontaneous and communicable desires of a crowd to actually spillover onto the streets. Take for example the seemingly disparate uprisings in Egypt and England. In the Cairo neighbourhood of Imbaba the impetus of rebellion was visibly guided by the leaderless contagious desires of the crowd. That is to say, its momentum was more readily related to local neighbourhood contaminations of rage than it was an orchestrated communication strategy. The English Riots were a somewhat perverted arrangement of antagonism and consumer desire. Yet this widespread contagion was similarly steered without a guiding hand. Indeed, both these events signal the return of a sometimes brutal crowd contagion that outspreads many protest movements endeavouring to increase their number by tapping into the virality of social media.

The Desire-Events of Revolutionary Contagion

Of course rebellions and riots are events boosted by communications, but it is not simply the technology that propagates the event. The network is “the relationality of that which it distributes . . . the passing-on of the event.” Be it word of mouth, telegraph, television or computer networks, it is the networkability of the event itself that opens up a space ready for the repetition of further events. The vital force required for the movability of the event comes from the rare intensity of a desire-event: the immolation of a street vendor or the fatal shooting of an unarmed gang suspect, for example. What spreads out from these shock events is felt at the visceral level of affective social encounter. The repetition of contaminating affects radiate reciprocal feelings, like anger, to a point where the thrust of collective desire builds into an effervescence of hormone and sentiment fit to burst. These are rare events because it would seem that most contagions eventually peter out or are rendered docile by outside forces. Some though build up into much bigger assemblages of desire with a capacity to spread further. Desire-events can in such cases follow a deadly line of flight whereby participants are prepared to die to satisfy their needs and wants.

There is nothing new in this event reading of social uprising. Indeed, aside from the recent kafuffle surrounding social media it is worth noting the early scepticisms of nineteenth century social contagion theory. Such events are exceptional, Gabriel Tarde claimed, even accidental. They are certainly not easy to predict, plan or steer. Furthermore, although now often regarded as a proto-network thinker, Tarde regarded most imitative outbreaks to be downward rather than democratically distributed movements. They were in the main aristocratic contagions – outbreaks of religious manias, patriotism, racism, and the like. Social examples flowed downward from a “superior” model to an “inferior” imitator. Conformity, obedience and a neurotic devotional fascination for those in power were generally the laws of imitation for the subjugated class. It is this descending flow of desire and social influence that magnetizes the social medium so that everyone infected passes on, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, the example set from on high. Only on very rare occasions do the downward movements of such social terracing reverse like water flowing uphill. Democratic contagion occurs only when the movement down the scale becomes exhausted and is transformed into an inverse movement. That is, when “millions of men collectively fascinate and tyrannize over their quondam mediums.”

From his unique intellectual vantage point at the dawn of industry capitalism Tarde also observed a shift from older social assemblages, namely crowds, to new mediated social arrangements he called publics. Unlike crowds, who like animal societies required physical proximity in order to make psychic connections, publics were newly animated and dispersed by newspapers, railways, telegraphs and telephone networks. This made psychic connection possible without the need for closeness. The potential to spread new ideas was astonishing. However, by freeing up of the collective psychology from its corporal choreography, the publics’ capacity to protest was, Tarde argued, decidedly muted.

The press baron and the dictator

Certainly, Tarde did not see mediated connectivity as a way to escape the notion of an easily led crowd. On the contrary, Tarde regarded crowds to be without leaders, and as the nearness of their neighbourhoods diminished, and mediation increased, they became more open to persuasion from on high. Yes, the crowd was more brutal and had something of the animal about it, but publics were a passive and powerless social condition. That is to say, while the crowd leads its chief, publics are inspired by a controlling action-at-a-distance. Tarde recognized early on, as such, how the new media primes its products like a honey pot, setting up a mutual selection process whereby public opinion is dependent on a pandering to known prejudices and passions. By way of the flattery of their audiences, the press barons took hold of publics, dividing them up into several publics, making them evermore docile and credulous, and easily directed. In contrast, the crowd was to be feared.

4 thoughts on “The Return of Crowd Contagion? 1 of 3

  1. I am enjoying your book (just started) and learned about your work after stumbling upon your CTheory essay, which I very much liked. Your theory of virality will figure importantly in my theory of rumor bombs as I tie my book up soon. I began largely through Virilo on information bombs, accidents, speed and politics, the fast inter-agenda setting of new digital media and old journalism (press, TV, radio), infotainment in the crisis of journalism and the splintering of markets and attention (the latest issue in Culture Machine has also been timely and helpful for what I’m doing), and the professionalization of political communication following trends in branding and marketing that have used advances in neuro and cognitive sciences. Now I’m integrating Tarde, affect theory, and some stuff on immaterial (political) labor. Wanted to introduce myself (I’m just across the Channel!), but also wanted to ask you two things.
    First, I’m wondering if the early translation of Tarde’s use of “public” in French to “public” in English is a mistake, and certainly in the present after the work of the Habermasians and post-Habermasians on publics and counterpublics, which clearly have a different and more specific meaning than Tarde’s use of public in French.(I’m currently reading Tarde on the Dreyfus Affair) I normally translate the French “public” by “audience” or “readership.” I would say the contemporary (if not in Tarde’s day) translation of public is audience or readership. See this, for example:
    I realize that in English dictionaries a definition exists that pertains to those who watch or read a particular artist or writer:
    But especially with the current academic use of publics and counterpublics, I think readership and audience correspond more precisely to Tarde’s use of the French word.I think I will translate it according to context. What’s your sense?
    Second, wondering if you’ve read the (fairly) recent critique of cultural theory’s use of neuroscience to justify claims of affect theory: Biology’s Gift: Interrogating the Turn
    to Affect by CONSTANTINA PAPOULIAS AND FELICITY CALLARD, in Body and Society 2010.
    If so, would you change any of your positions on affect as you use it in your virality theory?
    cheers, Jayson

  2. Hi Jayson,

    Thanks for these comments. I very much look forward to Rumor Bombs! It sounds fascinating. Please tell me more.

    Sorry if my answers below are rather vague. It’s late and I’m off on a break tomorrow. I’ll gladly get back to this in a couple of weeks if you are dissatisfied with what I have to say.

    My reference above to publics and crowds comes from a reading of Tarde’s “The Public and the Crowd” (1901) translated in Terry N. Clark’s book Tarde on Communication and Social Influence. The important thing for me is the blurred distinction he makes in this text between crowds and publics. This is, for me anyway, Tarde the early media theorist. He draws a line as such between Le Bon’s “era of crowds” and the post revolutionary rise of publics. I agree that although the telegraph and the railway are mentioned, Tarde does indeed focus more on audiences and readers as examples of a public. This is after all the media of his time. He certainly discusses journalism. Like the Dreyfus affair “The Public and the Crowd” also covers similar ground with anti-Semitics papers (and the spread of Karl Marx too!). However, this is a blurry distinction. You’ll note that crowds have audiences too, and publics can descend back into crowds. I think the significant differences are found in Tarde’s action at a distance; that is to say, influence can spread via media without the physical contact of the crowd. This has the potential for effective control over a public, more than it does a crowd. “I know of areas of France,” he says, “where the fact that no one has ever seen a single Jew does not prevent antisemitism from flowering, because people there read the antisemitics papers.” I’m not sure what Habermas would have to say on this example, but it seems to speak in very easy to understand terms about how modern media can function negatively at a distance, and can be readily applied to new media.

    No I have not read this recent critique of cultural theory’s use of neuroscience (I will though). Nonetheless, I am aware of the problems ahead. The new starting point for my new project is the last chapter in What is Philosophy? I have become intrigued by the spread of the neuron doctrine. Neuroscience is everywhere. We cannot ignore it. I want to use my research to both critique it and learn from neurophilosophy, neuroaesthetics and neuromarketing.

    Change position? I’m not sure if I’ll even be using neuroscience to justify affect. I may (hopefully) come up with something quiet different. I have a paper published in a forthcoming issue of Distinktion which hints at how this might go. This is an update on some of the ideas on affect in Virality. Here’s a snippet.

    “So does the society of imitation point to the primacy of affect? Tarde certainly agreed with Bergson that the intensity of sensations needed to be considered apart from their relation to reason (Tarde 1903, 145). However, he strongly contended that ‘belief and desire bear a unique character that is well adapted to distinguish them from simple sensation’ (Tarde 1903, 145). Unlike the visual or auditory felt sensations, experienced in a theatre for example, which can simultaneously affect the attentive crowd, beliefs and desires have an intensity that may become, when ‘experienced by everybody else around,’ contagious (Tarde 1903, 145). It is, Tarde argues, the ‘contagion of mutual example’ which ‘re-enforces [and weakens] beliefs and desires’ according to whether or not they are alike or dissimilar, experienced together, or at the same time (Tarde 1903, 145). As Deleuze notes, Tarde’s flows of desire and belief are, unlike qualitative sensations and resultant representations, ‘veritable social Quantities’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 219). Desire and belief are indeed ‘the two aspects of every assemblage,’ and the ‘basis of every society’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 219).”

    Again thanks for your excellent comments and sorry for any confusion/error. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks and can perhaps tidy this up a little and expand.


  3. HI again, Tony. Thanks for your response.
    You can get an introduction to my work on rumor bombs here:
    and here:
    More recently, as I said, I’ve been trying to complicate the theory by an engagement with biopolitics, cybernetics, attention economy, contagion, imitation, and affect (via some neuroscience).

    I’m currently reading Tarde’s L’Opinion et la Foule in French. Clarke’s book only has excerpts. I’m not sure the translation issue is that important except in that within contemporary interdisciplinary theory circles, public and counter-public have a meaning different from the historical definition of “a public” as an audience or readership.
    According to OED public in the way Tarde is translated (as an audience) comes in the 19th century:
    ” The section of society which is interested in or supportive of the person referred to; esp. a writer’s readership; a performer’s audience.

    1823 Scott Quentin Durward Introd. p. xxxiv, My Public are to be informed, that I gradually sipp’d and smoked myself into a certain degree of acquaintance with un homme comme il faut.
    1893 H. James Let. 2 May in C. Mackenzie My Life & Times (1963) II. 309 If your public..can’t see any of that charm, and wants such a bêtise instead, we are engaged in a blind-alley.”

    Audience is much older and obviously comes from the same root as auditory, auditor, etc.
    ” The persons within hearing; an assembly of listeners, an auditory.

    1407 W. Thorpe Examin. (R.T.S.) 51 There was no audience of secular men by.
    1519 Four Elem. in W. C. Hazlitt Dodsley’s Sel. Coll. Old Eng. Plays (1874) I. 46 Such company..Will please well this audience.
    1667 Milton Paradise Lost vii. 31 Fit audience find, though few.
    1714 Byrom Spectator No. 597. ⁋9 The rest of the Audience were excellent Discourse.
    1817 T. Moore Lalla Rookh (1824) 128 He here looked round, and discovered that most of his audience were asleep.
    1885 N.E.D. at Audience, Mod. He lectured to large audiences in New York.”
    This emphasis on listening or listening and seeing gets transformed into reading, apparently in the 19th century:
    “b. transf. The readers of a book.
    1855 H. Reed Lect. Eng. Lit. (1878) vii. 225 ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’..has gained an audience as large as Christendom.
    1883 G. Hamilton in E. C. Rollins New Eng. Bygones Pref. 1 This book is published with no thought of an audience.”

    So I’m not suggesting that it’s completely wrong to translate the French public by the English public, but that the French public is probably most often translated today as audience or readership. That combined with the very different definitions of publics in the Habermasian and post-Habermasian public sphere theory leads me to think that we should stop translating (or following Clarke’s translation of) Tarde’s public as public, and call it audience or readership. But again, it’s not a huge deal. I’m just running into the issue in my own work and wondered what you thought.

    As for affect, neuroscience, and contagion, I see that Tarde and Bergson are precursors to contemporary affect theory (and are cited as such). My question is rather about how neuroscience is being used to explain that these are not just theories, but quite convincing ones that should be accepted as such. It is there that we have to take seriously the critique of contemporary affect theory as expressed by the authors in the Body and Society article. They claim that the neuroscience stuff, as I understand them, seems to support habitual very restricted responses in people, not so much the liberatory responses about which I understand many affect theorists to be excited because of its capacity to escape capture. Thus, the way neuro-marketing and professional political communication is using neuroscience fits much more with the biopolitical project than with the liberatory one. I don’t know. I’m just saying it is something to engage. Lastly, I think we have to do more to theorize how new digital media relates to bodies separated in digital space (but with potentials to come together there and offline) but primed through representational phenomena (more what Protevi argues, clearly, than what Thrift argues). In some ways, that’s why I find Tarde’s analysis of the Dreyfus affair and journalist’s stories so interesting, since he seems to imply that the linguistic/ representational is a powerful trigger for influence “at a distance” (his words), a different way of thinking about the conduct of conduct! And that line about anti-semites who’ve never seen or known a Jew is great with regard to the power of this contagion. I think there is more to be worked out between the representational, the cognitive and pre-cognitive and unconscious, affective responses, and responses to affective responses. That’s just my sense. Thanks again for the exchange!

    1. Hi Jayson,

      Thanks for this. Your rumor bomb theory looks very interesting. I see that Obama is also a focus of your work – fascinating developments in US electioneering. I’ll certainly get a copy of the book when it come out.

      I found your comments on publics, audiences etc really helpful. This is very rich research. For me the interesting point has been the difference between “the persons within hearing [distance]” and those on a network. The point I try to make in the book is that networks are perhaps not the best way in which to register contagion. Better, I think, to look to assemblages, affects, events via Tarde/Deleuze. So I suppose I would have to say that distinctions made between social distances are not as important to me (they do not always occur in splendid isolation) as the contagious processes that make their way from point to point. Of course, social distances have an influence on speeds, qualities, intensities etc, but the focus of virality is on a universal process of contagion that borrows from Tarde’s social laws.

      I suppose what I’m also saying above (this blog entry is not in the book) is that despite their negative treatment in many disciplines crowds (also “persons within hearing [distance]) have some potential for escape. What needed to be better stated though is that the distinction between publics and crowds is extremely blurry. As Tarde seems to suggest, one can quickly become the other. It is possible to be both crowd and public – reading a newspaper at a protest, e.g.

      Regarding neuroscience. I see your point. Borrowing from neuroscience to support affect theory – as I do with Damasio, Lakoff. Yes, I can see why some cultural theorists wouldn’t like it. Yet, I also make the point throughout Virality about the worrying application of rational neuroscience in e.g. neuromarketing as something to escape. It is something I am very negative about in fact. I do however think that the neuro doctrine can provide some interesting concepts or ‘respectful betrayals’ that might offer these liberatory responses you refer to – to escape capture is the aspiration after all (the final chapter of Virality).

      My current research is looking at the role neuroscience plays in subjectification or how the neuron doctrine is put to work e.g. the use of neuropharmacology (in the military) and neuroimaging. I think these are very important areas to look into and question. We also have neurophilosophers like Metzinger to contend with… He gives a very interesting account of the “self” and representational spaces.

      I think it’s also remarkable to witness the conceit of rational neuroscientists as they try to resist other disciplines reaching out to neuroscience for inspiration (see Tallis Yet neuroscience itself does not hesitate to seek to explain everything according to neuroscience. Following the neuro trajectory, E.T Rolls’ new book Neuroculture (2012) is quick to put the neuron to work in studies of emotion, sociology, reason, philosophy, aesthetics, economics, ethics, psychiatry, religion and politics. This is one good reason for cultural studies to do neuroscience. Of course, neuroscience also offers many wonderful insights into how the brain survives the chaos of life. This is the point that Deleuze makes about the brain sciences in many places (the rhizome was never a communication network after all, it was a brain). Damasio’s work on the role emotion plays in decision making processes helps, as such, I think, to dispel the false dichotomy between rational and irrational beings. But when the rational sciences intervene it is important to observe the hideous logic at work. Similar to the logic of regime change, Rolls’ Selfish Individual, like Dawkins’ Selfish Gene, is intended to replace irrational “truths” (Rolls, 340) with a rational regime that advocates the “punishment” of “rogue” individuals that do not agree to “live within rationally agreed international guidelines.” Rolls proposes, as such, a world system built on “rational argument.” A kind of neuro-social contract.

      I agree that there is “more to be worked out between the representational, the cognitive and pre-cognitive and unconscious, affective responses, and responses to affective responses.” My approach though follows the logic that we either do the science or we don’t. I would prefer not to leave it to the neuroscientist.

      Once again thanks for the exchange and good luck with the book.

      Best wishes,


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