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Activist Neuroaesthetics in Cognitive Capitalism. Saas-Fee Summer Institute of Art 2021 | online

Activist Neuroaesthetics in Cognitive Capitalism. Saas-Fee Summer Institute of Art 2021 | online

This summer school/conference should be of interest to people into neuroculture.

Activist Neuroaesthetics in Cognitive Capitalism
SFSIA 2021 | online

in collaboration with
July 1 – 16

Faculty include: Elena Agudio, Ramon Amaro, Kathryn Andrews, Marie-Luise Angerer, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Ina Blom, Yann Moulier Boutang, Juli Carson, Shu Lea Cheang, Yves Citton, Arne de Boever, Matthew Fuller, Katie Grinnan, Ed Keller, Agnieszka Kurant, Cecile Malaspina, Anna Munster, Abdul-Karim Mustapha, Reza Negarestani, Warren Neidich (founder/director), Florencia Portocarrero, Tony David Sampson, Lorenzo Sandoval, Tino Sehgal, Anuradha Vikram, and Charles T. Wolfe.

The brain and mind are the new factories of the twenty-first century in what is referred to as cognitive capitalism, where workers have transitioned from proletariats to cognitariats. Here, the brain not only refers to the intracranial brain consisting of neurologic matter, but also the situated body and the extracranial brain composed of gestalts, affordances, linguistic atmospheres and socially-engaged interactions. Just as the pioneers of cognitive capitalism (such as Tony Negri, Maurizio Lazzarato, and Mario Tronti among others) realized the coming digital economy would have serious consequences for labor and the production of subjectivity, the transition from the information economy to the neural-based economy (or neural capitalism) is a new moment of crisis with even greater challenges. Activist Neuroaesthetics questions what neuro-enhancing drugs, new technologies (like brain-computer interfaces that link the brain to the internet currently explored by companies like Facebook and Neuralink), and the transition from artificial neural networks to artificial intelligence will do to our sense of self and freedom.

Activist Neuroaesthetics understands that our capacity to consciously and directly affect our complex environment of evolving relations through artistic interventions is key to an emancipatory ethics. By consciously refunctioning and estranginging the environment, we are estranging and refunctioning our material brain’s neural plastic potential – literally enhancing its capacity to ‘think outside the box.’ This cognitive activism forms the basis of Activist Neuroaesthetics which resists new forms of subjugation at work in neural capitalism. Activist Neuroaesthetics is more than simply an aesthetic response, but is also a way of reengineering what aesthetics as a philosophical concept means. As such, Activist Neuroaesthetics pro-actively forms a counter-insurgency against the tactics of the neural economy which attempts to privatize and normalize the suppression of free thought and produces a regime which further weakens the cognitariat and makes obvious neural capitalism’s totalitarian tendencies.

This year’s Saas-Fee Summer Institute of Art program will take place online in collaboration with ACTIVIST NEUROAESTHETICS, a celebration of the 25th anniversary of ACTIVIST NEUROAESTHETICS is a year-long festival of events curated by Warren Neidich, Susanne Prinz and Sarrita Hunn including a three-part exhibition (Brain Without Organs, Sleep and Altered States of Consciousness, and Telepathy and New Labor), conference, screenings, lectures and publications, developed by lead institution Verein zur Förderung von Kunst und Kultur am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz e.V. with various local partners that will take place online and in Berlin over the course of 2021. In July, an ACTIVIST NEUROAESTHETICS Conference will be held in collaboration with Saas-Fee Summer Institute of Art.

Priority Deadline: May 2

Applications for SFSIA 2021 | online are open to students, practitioners and scholars from the fields of art (including video, painting, photography, sculpture and installation), design, architecture, critical writing, neuroscience, science and technology studies, critical theory, cultural studies, film and media studies, and beyond.

Please note this online program is focused around discussion-oriented seminars and public lectures listed in the program schedule. Additionally, participants should plan extra time for the required Reader and to informally connect and engage with other participants as interest and time allows.

All information HERE

Viral Culture blog post

Exploring “Viral Culture”

Today’s guest post is authored by Mark Featherstone and John Armitage, editors of the new Cultural Politics issue “Viral Culture.” Learn more about “Viral Culture” or purchase the issue here.

In this blog post we want to explain the originality and relevance of the idea of ‘viral culture’, which we explore in the special issue of Cultural Politics devoted to the idea. However, before we talk about originality, it is important to note that it is possible to find precursors to what we are calling ‘viral culture’ in the work of a number of writers who understood what was happening with processes of globalisation and informationalisation from the 1960s onwards. It is important to acknowledge their influence upon our theory of ‘viral culture’ because in a sense what we have done is picked up the debates they started and explored them in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In looking for these influences we might track back as far as the 1960s and think about Jacques Derrida’s early work. In his early works, such as Of Grammatology, Derrida was interested in the informationalisation of biology through the discovery of DNA and communication processes filtered through computers that translated meaningful language into mathematical symbols. In his view this transformed everything, what he spoke about in terms of ‘the living’, into a kind of text that was endlessly on the move and fundamentally unfinished and unfinishable. In much the same way that one never finishes writing, Derrida saw that reproduction is endless and really represents the transmission or communication of DNA code to a new generation through sexual contact. This final point about sexual contact and the combination of DNA in the formation of a new person or animal was very important for Derrida because it represented communication and the emergence of new life, new meaning, and new possibilities. As the new is born, so the old must die out. This is why in his later works he writes about auto-immunity, which really means maintaining openness to the other through opposition to processes immunity that seek to shut down communication.

Read on Cultural Politics Blog

Cultural Politics Viral Cultures: Volume 17, Number 1

Pleased to have an article with Jussi Parikka in this issue of Cultural Politics. You can also look here:

Subject: Cultural Politics Table of Contents for March 01, 2021: Volume 17, Number 1

  Also view Duke University Press book selection
  Cultural Politics    
Cultural Politics    
Viral Cultures
March 01, 2021; Volume 17, Number 1  
Read This Issue   Articles      
Viral Culture     John Armitage; Mark Featherstone  
Protective Measures: An Exercise     Bruno Latour; Stephen Muecke    
In a Viral Conjuncture: Locking Down Mobilities     David Morley
Trump, Authoritarian Populism, and COVID-19 from a US Perspective     Douglas Kellner  
After the “Age of Wreckers and Exterminators?”: Confronting the Limits of Eradication and Entanglement Narratives     Eva Haifa Giraud  
Against the New Normal     Sean Cubitt  
The Operational Loops of a Pandemic     Tony D. Sampson; Jussi Parikka  
The Great City Is Fragile: Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary     Kevin Robins  
Circuit Breakers and Biopolitical Strategies     Cera Y. J. Tan  
Virus Is a Language: COVID-19 and the New Abnormal     Chris Hables Gray  
Life, Death, and the Living Dead in the Time of COVID-19     James Der Derian; Phillip Gara  
On the World of the Virus: Remaking Image Theory Anew     John Armitage  
Žižek’s Pandemic: On Utopian Realism and the Spirit of Communism     Mark Featherstone
On the Beach     John Beck  
Virus Is Other People     Irving Goh  

Speaking Engagements, Summer 2021

I’ve been invited to talk at the Activist Neuroaesthetics Conference in Berlin on July 9th or 10th – tbc. Part of this exciting project curated by Warren Neidich, Susanne Prinz and Sarrita Hunn.

“In celebration of the 25th anniversary of, ACTIVIST NEUROAESTHETICS is a festival of events including a symposium, three-part exhibition, conference, screenings, and publications, developed by lead institution Verein zur Förderung von Kunst und Kultur am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz e.V. along with various local partners that will take place online and at different venues on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz in Berlin over the course of 2021.”

I’m also confirmed for a guest lecture on my sleepwalker book at the Seminar of Aesthetics, University of Oslo on June 18th.  

The Seminar of Aesthetics is an interdisciplinary forum for new research at the intersection of aesthetic theory, philosophy and art. “Since 1988 the seminar has presented a long series of guest lecturers from all over the world, among them Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Derrida, Norman Bryson, Jean Starobinski, Julia Kristeva, Gayatri Spivak, Arthur Danto, Thierry de Duve, Sarat Maharaj, Michael Fried, John Rajchman, Boris Groys, Peter Kivy, Andrew Benjamin, Gianni Vattimo, Martin Seel, Hélène Cixous, Gernot Böhme, Gottfried Boehm, Mieke Bal, Peter Brooks, Eric Alliez, Wolfgang Ernst, WJT Mitchell, Hal Foster, Mark B. Hansen, Lorraine Daston and Mark Wigley.”

Nipples, memes, and algorithmic failure: NSFW critique of Tumblr censorship

Elena Pilipets, Susanna Paasonen First Published December 15, 2020 Research Article

During a week when the UK Online Harms bill starts to see the light of day, here’s a welcome critique of social media censorship by Pilipets and Paasonen.


In November 2018, after being suspended from Apple’s App Store for hosting child pornography, Tumblr announced its decision to ban all NSFW (not safe/suitable for work) content with the aid of machine-learning classification. The decision to opt for strict terms of use governing nudity and sexual depiction was as fast as it was drastic, leading to the quick erasure of subcultural networks developed over a decade. This article maps out platform critiques of and on Tumblr through a combination of visual and digital methods. By analyzing 7306 posts made between November 2018 (when Tumblr announced its new content policy) and August 2019 (when Verizon sold Tumblr to Automattic), we explore the key stakes and forms of user resistance to Tumblr “porn ban” and the affective capacities of user-generated content to mobilize engagement.

Read on…

Experiential Capitalism

In A Sleepwalker’s Guide to Social Media I write more generally about the onset of experience capitalism. Here’s a link to a short piece by Cynthia B. Meyers (published by open access journal Flow) based on a visit to The World of Coca-Cola. It provides some useful insights into a significant component part of experiential capitalism.

Audience members at the World of Coca-Cola wear 3-D glasses while watching a video.

Experiential Advertising:
Cynthia B. Meyers / College of Mount Saint Vincent

The World of Coca-Cola, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a museum/indoor theme park that includes a gift shop and a tasting room, and is a prime example of effective experiential advertising. In exchange for their ticket purchase and their attention, visitors are educated in all things Coca-Cola: its history, icons, philosophy, and products. In March 2016, I joined other visitors, paying $16 for the privilege of standing in a series of lines: first to watch an introductory film showing happy people of all kinds consuming Coke everywhere; then to have a photo taken with an actor costumed as the advertising icon polar bear; then to enter “The Vault,” where the secret formula is supposed to be safely stored, away from competitors; and finally to taste Coca-Cola products from all over the world. Following the paths and the lines, visitors are ultimately funneled through a store where they can buy more Coca-Cola advertising to take home with them: toys, games, clothing, dishes, and mementoes.

“Advertising” usually differs from “content” in that content is what the audience wants to see, while advertising is what the advertiser wants the audience to see, so much so that advertisers pay media companies to expose audiences to it. Magazine ads appear next to magazine articles, television commercials interrupt narrative programs, and it is easy to tell which is content and which advertising. The media companies finance and create the content to attract audience segments advertisers target; the advertisers (“brands”) and their agencies create the interstitial advertising and pay for its placement. This distinction between is harder to parse in the World of Coca-Cola. Most people claim they strive to avoid advertising, but visitors to the World of Coca-Cola pay money for it. Perhaps not many brands can get away with this. In light of the decline of linear television, however, which developed as the single most powerful brand-image building medium ever by forcibly exposing mass audiences to interstitial commercials, such experiential advertising strategies may be a sign of things to come.

Experiential Advertising:
Cynthia B. Meyers / College of Mount Saint Vincent

The New Sleepwalker

The New Sleepwalker

Tony D Sampson

Artist Mikey Georgeson as the Somnambulist

During the height of Covid-19 lockdown in April 2020 nearly four billion people across the world habitually accessed social media. These platforms enabled people to stay in touch with each other, share amusing memes and news stories about political failures and heroic keyworkers. Although exacerbated by the extraordinary circumstances, most of these interactions would appear to be fairly ordinary. It was ostensibly business as usual for social media. Yet, during this period, there was an intensification of highly anomalous social media contagions. These contagions included Instagram-fuelled panic buying of toilet roll and paracetamol, crazy conspiracy theorists implausibly linking the roll out of 5G networks with Covid-19, and a new wave of anti-vaxers.

It would perhaps seem that our own friendship networks are immune to such contagions. However, they are far more entrenched than we might think. So, why do seemingly rational social media users become implicated in the spreading of irrational network contagions? Before the very real viral threat of Covid-19 arrived, social contagions of this kind were often compared to biological viruses. Popular books like The Tipping Point reasoned that social contagions spread through promiscuous social hubs, building up and spilling over into epidemiological thresholds. Early computer simulations pointed to a far more accidental pass-on-power in which just about anyone can start a contagion if the collective mood is right.

Putting these analogies and simulations aside, there is an older, yet compelling sociological account of contagion. To fully grasp its persuasive explanatory force, we need to revisit the early roots of European social theory. By doing so, we revive a forgotten conceptual figure which came to prominence in nineteenth century crowd theories and figured writ large in early sociological debates: the sleepwalker. Such a revival cannot evidently occur without taking into account over two hundred years of developments in sociology, brain science and the humanities. Nonetheless, a reconfigured sleepwalker helps us to understand some of the dynamics of social media contagion that biological analogies and computer simulations simply cannot explain.

Interest in sleepwalkers can be traced back to the study of ‘irrational’ crowds in France in the late 1800s. Gustave Le Bon’s book, The Crowd, argued that when reasoned individuals become subsumed by the irrational crowd, they take the position of hypnotized sleepers prone to the contagions of others since they lose their capacity to self-reflect. At the similar time, the sociologist, Gabriel Tarde, presented a more sophisticated sleepwalker or somnambulist. Unlike Le Bon, Tarde’s distinction between individuals and collectives is considerably blurred. He instead drew on social, biological and psychological explanations to present a complex, somnambulists microsociology. For Tarde, somnambulists may well feel like individuals, but this feeling is part of an illusion that obscures their place in a society of imitation. This is not an illusion simply triggered by Le Bon’s crowd. Instead, sleepwalkers possess innate propensities, as well as a social tendency, toward imitation. Indeed, Tarde was interested in the budding sciences of the brain and his work has been linked to fairly recent discoveries of so-called mirror neurons. However, a revived sleepwalker is not biologically determined. To be clear, what is often imitated is primarily outside in the social before it enters through the skin or the skull.the-crowd-a-study-of-the-popular-mind-12

Another way to consider the sleepwalker is via psychoanalysis. Indeed, it is through Freud’s development of Le Bon’s crowd that a different sleepwalker emerges as an expression of a sexually repressed individual. It is the interiority of the dreamlike theatrical unconscious that becomes externalized in the act of sleepwalking. Nevertheless, in their homage to Tarde, the philosopher’s Deleuze and Guattari accused Freud of being myopic. He mistook the unconscious voice for mother. On the contrary, they contended, the voice of the unconscious is a crowd. Along these lines, it is important to note that other authors have replaced the term unconscious with the neurologically nuanced term, nonconscious. In the brain sciences this new term simply means the multitude of processes that function outside of consciousness.

“Freud tried to approach crowd phenomena from the point of view of the unconscious, but he did not see clearly, he did not see that the unconscious itself was fundamentally a crowd. He was myopic and hard of hearing; he mistook crowds for a single person.”

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 29-30

These neurological explanations are of obvious interest to contemporary sociology, but it is actually an old spat Tarde had with the more famous forefather of sociology, Durkheim, that helps us to understand social media contagion. This argument can be simplified by considering two opposing terms. On one hand, Durkheim’s concept of society emerged from the dynamic densities of the collective. Society was in effect the emergence of a collective consciousness. This idea is reflected in more recent emergence theories of collective intelligence and the wisdom of crowds. These are societies of cognitive excess that are supposed to distinguish between social norms and anomalies. The idea that the media could emerge as a global brain was very popular in the 1960s as were similar notions of smart mobs and other variants on collective intelligence during the early days of the Internet.


On the other hand, for Tarde society does not emerge since the society of imitation is already made up of unconscious (or nonconscious) associations. Individuals do not become sleepwalkers. On the contrary, these imitating subjects are socially positioned between illusory conscious states and nonconscious relations. Their seemingly separate sense of individuality is always etched with the contagions of others and primed for suggestibility.

It is perhaps not surprising that Tarde’s revival coincided with the social media age. Back in the mid-2000s, the French sociologist, Bruno Latour, declared that the Internet was well and truly Tardean! Indeed, the role of social media is to stir up the imitative associations of the sleepwalkers and make them go viral. These platforms are designed to bring together artificial crowds, nurture and steer them toward social contagion. The social media business model prefigures the big data model. Certainly, without the spreading of likes, posts and shares, there will be no data traces to monetize. The real value of social media is in the pass-on-power that produces data. Even at our most reasoned and rational, once we are part of these viral networks, we might imitate this or that act and eventually pass on something that is suggested to us.

Tony Sampson’s new book is published by Polity