Talks on Virality (part two)

(Goldsmiths 22nd Oct)

Durkheim and Tarde provided two distinct and competing theories of the social…

On one hand, there is Durkheim’s Collective Consciousness… Wherein anomalies are regarded as a “necessary evil,” since their common rejection helps to regulate the collective dynamic.

On the other, we find a collective unconsciousness in Tarde’s work… Wherein the anomalies of contagion constitute the social. Tarde’s influence on Deleuze is very clear here, given his focus a capricious repetition as the base of all contagious forces.

It is this “coming together” of Deleuze, Tarde and contagion theory that provides the theoretical frame for Virality.

The book is an endeavour, as such, to bring together assemblage theory and the Laws of Imitation into a series of diagrams.

This involved a number of requirements:

First, it required a resuscitation of late 19th century crowd theories, so that they could relate to the so-called age of networks.

Second, it required a theory of affect, notably borrowing from Brennan and Thrift’s notion of affective contagion… and also realising along the way the significance of a neurological component to contagion theory.

Third, I wanted to extend Tarde’s notion of social somnambulism to contemporary network experiences. The idea of a hypnotised subjectivity is of course controversial, and rather depressing, to say the least.

Fourth, (and following this trajectory), I wanted to draw attention to the role of a neurological nonconscious in contemporary methods of persuasion and influence.












There are two main Tardean diagrams presented in Virality.

 The first is adapted from Tarde’s Social Laws.

 The main point being to grasp that…

The social is never given… it is always being made.

It is an intermediary of small causes – a transmission of movement from one body to another.

It is a continuous, localized, and indirect epidemiological space where social inventions are always in passage, spreading out, contaminating, and varying in size. Social adaptation, requires repetition in order to become social, to become more generalized and grow. It is also through imitation repetition that social invention, the fundamental social adaptation, spreads. This yields new and more complex inventions and arouses oppositions. But Tarde’s oppositions are not like dialectical movements or neo-Darwinian struggles. They are collisions or accidents of contagion.

The second diagram presents a very simple idea Tarde forwards with regard to how social invention appropriates desire.

Here there is no distinction made between a socially constructed or biologically constituted social space.


                                                                                                                                                                       Tarde instead stresses the inseparability of volition and mechanical habit… and continuity between conscious and nonconscious states. Indeed, it is the absolute inseparability of biological flows of desire and colliding social inventions that renders Tarde’s social somnambulist vulnerable to imitation–suggestion.


Important to these diagrams is Brennan’s concept of affective contagion. A kind of biochemical revision of crowd theory. Brennan begins by clearing away the ambiguities of Gustave Le Bon’s claim that crowds think in images, and instead links social epidemics to biochemical and neurological factors.

Brennan’s affective contagion does not however originate in the evolutionarily determined or biologically hardwired drives of the individuals who compose the crowd.

On the contrary, affect is always, from the outset, social. Similar to Tarde though, the biological and the social are irreversibly blended together.

Brennan’s contagion spreads in affective social atmospheres before it passes through the skin of each individual.

Similarly, Thrift draws attention to an epidemiological affective atmosphere that can be primed, pre-mediated, anticipated and purposefully spread.

These are new epidemiological worlds composed of the hypnotic pull of mediated fascinations, intoxicating glories, and celebrity narratives, in which very small, accidental events can be encouraged to become bigger contagious overspills.

Perhaps a more unlikely influence on Virality is Stanley Milgram’s Manhattan Experiment. Milgram’s focus on the individual’s internal motivations guiding decision-making processes  — agentic states, as he called it — clearly differs in many ways from Tarde’s crowd. It is the evolutionary propensity of individuals to obey rather than to imitate that matters to Milgram (see part three).

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