Tag: assemblage theory

The Deadends – A celebration of a made-up culture

Thrilled to be celebrating Mikey B Georgeson’s Deadends (a made-up culture) show at Studio One Gallery in Wandsworth (6pm) on 23rd Feb.

The documentary The Deadends (in search of truth) was recently shown at the ICA 100 years of Dada giving rise to the misplaced idea that they are a made-up cult rather than culture. Bringing together the largest collection of Deadend material to-date, the celebration will also include speculative enactment as well as featuring the first ever discoveries of Deadend sonic artifacts; The Deadends resonance (recently detected by Andy Barrett) with extracts from The Assemblage Brain by Tony D. Sampson https://soundcloud.com/mbg-1/deadend-resonance-2

The somnambulist critique of the Deadends has been taken as an opportunity to contextualize the radical new theories developed in Tony D. Sampson’s new book The Assemblage Brain, which will be launched at the celebration. The book unravels the conventional image of thought that underpins scientific and philosophical accounts of sense making, providing a new view of our current time in which capitalism and the neurosciences endeavor to colonize the brain.

NB: The curators have requested that visitors be aware that the Deadends would not have referred to themselves as the Deadends and that this is a convenient moniker derived from the signature shapes in the artifacts.

Read and see more here: http://www.unlike.space/http://www.unlike.space/

The Man with Two Brains, but no Umbrella

This short piece features in a book produced as part of the Conway Actants exhibit by Deborah Gardner and Jane Millar at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London earlier this year – a ‘a unique, visual art project which directly responds to Conway Hall’s spaces, ethos, activities and archive.’ https://conwayhall.org.uk/event/conway-actants/. It’s adapted from a talk at a Club Critical Theory event at the Exhibit.

It also lightly engages with some of ideas developed in the forthcoming book The Assemblage Brain: Sense making in Neuroculture (Minnesota University Press) due early next year.

The Man with Two Brains, but no Umbrella

Tony D Sampson, reader in digital culture and communications, University of East London

My critical intervention into Conway Actants draws on two books by Deleuze and Guattari which problematize the relation between art and philosophy in very different ways by introducing two kinds of brain. These two brains might seem like an uncanny way to engage with an art exhibit, but I’m interested here in the critical spaces that open up when philosophical and artistic brains meet and the potential to disentangle art from the circuitry of capitalism.

Rhizomes Brains

Artists familiar with Deleuze and Guattari might already know the rhizome brain.[i] Although it rejects signifying practices, causing all kinds of problems for the visual arts, it’s easy to see why so many contemporary artists are drawn to its light. It’s a seductive image of thought that brings together philosophical concepts and artistic sensations in mixtures.

Rhizome brains closely follow the neuron doctrine. They are not, as such, a continuous reticular fabric. There’s a synaptic discontinuity between cells. Thoughts leap across gaps, making the brain an uncertain, probabilistic multiplicity, swimming in its own neuroglia. Indeed, as some artists might notice, many people have a metaphorical tree growing in their head, but axons and dendrites are more like bindweed than roots. The artist’s rhizome does not, as such, produce forms in representational space or objects of art under the scrutiny of subjective acts of signification. Rhizome art is an aesthetic propagation; a contagion, spreading outward in unquantifiable spaces of experience.

Another attraction of the rhizome is that it connects anything to everything. There are indeed many rhizomatic mixtures in Conway Actants. In the Brockway Room, for example, there’s a series of abstract machines, acting like transmitters and receivers. This is not information transmitted through a medium. These are assemblages of disparate materials, objects and structures. Like Franz West’s adaptive and portable art we find the open possibilities of relationality. This is art that teeters on a threshold between propagation and disintegration.

Conway Actants assembles the historical figures from Conway Hall, connecting them to organic and inorganic materials. We find networks in networks, lumps of matter, crystals, images of splatters, scattered beads, layered and hole punched surfaces. Matter is strewn across the images, submerged in clear resin and magnified in parts or conversely blurred. It’s a fractured kind of viewing; disturbing, obscuring and connecting by way of blots and blobs. These are also event-sculptures. The hives, for example, are infestations in the library and hallway. They remind us what is outside, on the roof!


Chaos Brains


The artist seduced by the rhizome might be surprised by Deleuze and Guattari’s second brain. It certainly disturbs the composed mixtures of sensation and concept. But it is here in the chaos brain that we find an unexpected critical turn enabling us to more closely inspect the space of possibilities in which artists and philosophers meet.


In their swansong, What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari unpredictably argue that concepts and sensations do not mix. Forget the nomads that used to cut across art and philosophy. We now have distinct planes. It’s not that artists or philosophers have different kinds of brains. This is not a crude neuroimaging exercise, differentiating between the location of sensations and concepts in the brain. It is the work of all brains to tear open the umbrella that shields the brain from chaos—and “plunge” into the infinity that confronts us all.[ii] The difference here is found in what artists and philosophers discern from the endless possibilities they encounter. What emerges from these plunges into chaos is a difference in kind. The promises of rhizomatic mixture are replaced by the almost biblical affirmation: Thou shalt not mix![iii]


Philosophers Produce Concepts, Artists Produce Sensations


How do these differences affect the relation between art and philosophy? To begin with, both need to be considered in relation to the endless possibilities we find in events. Some of the mixture of the rhizome is retained in the work of concepts. They give consistency to infinite chaos – they actualize the event. This is not, however, about giving form to the event. A concept is not a representation of events! Concepts are not forms of opinion. They are always relational.


“There is always an area ab that belongs to both a and b.”[iv]


The philosopher’s analytical tool of choice, the conceptual personae, is intended to surpass forms of opinions. But like one Nietzsche’s personae, concepts can only interfere with sensations. They can never become sensations.


The artist’s sensation never actualizes the event, but instead embodies the possibilities it produces. The sensation is, in fact, neither virtual nor actual. It is always about the possible. Like this, the hive sculptures give a body to the event, providing it with a universe of possibilities in which to live. So while the artist composes with her materials; offering contemplations and enjoyments,[v] she also produces a universe that constructs limits, distances, proximities and constellations.[vi] Importantly then, sensations are not perceptions or acts of signification. They are affects that deploy aesthetic figures to route around perception and signification.

The historical trajectory of art leads Deleuze and Guattari to a junction whereby the emergence of abstract art and conceptual art seems to promise to bring sensations and concepts together.[vii] The shadow of Duchamp looms large here since he assembles both in the same gallery space. But to what extent do they really mix? Indeed, the move to conceptual art is explicitly rejected by Deleuze and Guattari. This is because when art becomes too informative it also becomes unclear as to whether or not it is a sensation or concept.[viii] The problem is, it seems, that it’s not in the artwork itself, but in the spectator’s “opinion” that the sensation is, or is not, manifested as art. It is the audience who decide (as receivers of information) “whether it is art or not.”[ix] Like this, Duchamp’s readymade does not mediate affect through the experience of a sensation. It is a subjective act that mixes signification with sensation, and as a consequence, it seems, the artist loses some of the affective power of the work.

Deleuze and Guattari evidently favour abstract art. It refines the sensation by dematerializing matter. Turner’s chaotic seascapes, for example, produce a sensation of the concept of the sea. In contrast, conceptual art is not so refined. It dematerializes through generalization. This is undeniably a surprising denunciation given that conceptual art is the condition for contemporary art and Deleuze and Guattari are seen by many to be the philosopher kings of contemporary art. Nonetheless, the problem is clear: conceptual art produces signification not sensation.[x]

Maybe in its pursuit of mixture, contemporary art has been decidedly selective in its choice of Deleuzean brains. I’m sure the revelation of a second brain will cause a certain amount of discomfort. But perhaps art as sensation retains a political clout that art as signification can never achieve? The former is famously infused with autonomy while the latter has too much information, which might, Deleuze and Guattari feared, collapse into immaterial capitalism.

Art in the Cultural Circuits of Immaterial Capitalism

In his Control Society thesis, Deleuze expressed concern about art’s relation to capitalism. Art had already left the gallery and “entered into the open circuits of the bank.”[xi] As Rivera must have asked himself in the Rockefeller Center in the early 1930s, “how can art find a critical space in this place?” Conceptual art is indeed part of an art system today; made up of critics, uber dealers, advisors, bankers and oligarchs. It’s these nodes in the circuitry, not the spectator, who decide if a concept is art (or not) by attributing a discourse, and ultimately, a price tag to it. This is a system that even Charles Saatchi calls “too toe-curling for comfort.”

How can art escape the cultural circuits of capitalism? Can a post-conceptual art create new conceptual weapons or frame its own concepts? [xii] Can art become non-conceptual?[xiii] Does art need to become, as Deleuze and Guattari contend, non-art! If nothing else the uncomfortable critical space produced by this second brain asks art to search for new rhizomatic lines of flight that might become disentangled from the circuitry in which it seems to be presently trapped.


[i] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

[ii] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy? (London: Verso, 1994), 202.

[iii] See Isabelle Stengers, “Gilles Deleuze’s Last Message.” published online at: http://www.recalcitrance.com/deleuzelast.htm (accessed May 2016).

[iv] Deleuze and Guattari, 1994, 20.

[v] Ibid., 212.

[vi] Ibid.,177.

[vii] Ibid., 198.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] This is point of contradiction nicely captured by Stephen Zepke.

  • Deleuze and Guattari explicitly reject Conceptual Art.
  • Conceptual Art is the condition of Contemporary Art.
  • Deleuze and Guattari are touted far and wide as the philosophers of Contemporary Art.
  • . . . Huh?

See Stephen Zepke, The post–conceptual is the non–conceptual, Deleuze and Guattari and conditions of Contemporary Art, Autumn Art and film through Deleuze and Guattari (2009). http://www.actualvirtualjournal.com/2014/11/the–post–conceptual–is–non–conceptual.html (accessed April 2015).

[xi] Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Control Society,” in Neil Leach (ed.) Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory (New York: Routledge, 1997), 295.

[xii] As for example, Ricardo Basbaum’s work seeks to do. From a discussion between Basbaum and the author in London (July 2013).

[xiii] As Zepke argues.


Dr. Tony D. Sampson is reader in digital culture and communications at the University of East London. His publications include The Spam Book (coedited with Jussi Parikka, 2009), Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks (Minnesota, 2012) and The Assemblage Brain: Sense Making in Neuroculture (Minnesota, 2017). He has also published numerous journal articles and book chapters. Tony is a cofounder of Club Critical Theory: Southend and director of the EmotionUX Lab at UEL.

Short note on Vital Mobilizations Workshop in Paris

Short note on Vital Mobilizations Workshops in Paris

Just returned from this excellent event at Collège d’études mondiales organized by Vincent Duclos.

For the sake of accountability 😉  my paper focused on the noncognitive ecologies of network culture. That is to say, the inverse of the discourses of collective intelligence and cognitive ecology (or neurological manifestations of collective consciousness); a social media marketing model that can be seen to route around collective cognition. The recent Facebook emotional contagion experiment is just the tip of a iceberg of efforts to steer these mostly nonconscious contagious forces online. However, the most interesting aspects of the event for me were the attention it drew toward a possible exchange of concepts between disciplinary viralities. While in the digital culture field I have made a concerted effort to escape the metaphors of biological contagion, which seem to me to shroud the material concepts of viral ecologies, events, affects and assemblages in a figurative, cultural space of representation and discourse, I have not perhaps given enough thought into how these material concepts could be potentially (and productively) used in biological contexts, and incorporated in e.g. field studies of epidemiological work.

There was certainly some interest from Vinh-Kim Nguyen (Université de Montréal/Collège d’études mondiales) in the role some of these concepts (affect and events) might play in thinking through the recent Ebola outbreak.

Ebola shocked a global health system that had gravely underestimated how the virus could interact with the assemblages it came into relation with in unanticipated ways. In short, we might say that organizations like the WHO, and their standardized medical kits, were caught out by the events of life (Duclos’s vital mobilizations), which are not accounted for in their viral models or become manifest in the infrastructures designed to combat an outbreak.

I also stayed on for Andy Lakoff’s fascinating and revealing talk on Ebola. What we have here also brings together some of the notions of assemblage theory and questions concerning failures in global health infrastructures. There was a lot said about the failure of existing risk models in biomedicine and moves towards Beck’s models of anticipation.

This quote from an issue of LIMN nicely captures Lakoff’s examination of how…

… the [Ebola] epidemic has put the norms, practices, and institutional logics of contemporary global health into question, and looks at the new assemblages that are being forged in its wake. The concept of “disease ecology” typically refers to a pathogen’s relationship to a natural milieu—particularly animal hosts and their environmental niche—and to how this milieu is affected by human behavior. Here, however, we conceive of Ebola’s ecologies more broadly to include the administrative, technical, political, and social relationships through which disease outbreaks evolve, and into which experts and officials are now trying to intervene in anticipation of future outbreaks.

Returning to noncognitive ecologies at a talk on June 16th at Winchester School of Art. Some of these ideas will be very useful to that discussion.

See the Paris workshop blog

Full LIMN issue on Ebola’s Ecologies

Deleuze in Southend-on-Sea

Deleuze in Southend-on-Sea

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Tony D Sampson

Text based on a talk given at the first Club Critical Theory night at the Railway Hotel in Southend, Essex, UK on April 17th 2014. Corrections may still be needed.

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Photo by Iry Hor

Applying Deleuze to Southend in the context a Club Critical Theory discussion is a doubly difficult task. To begin with Deleuze introduces a new vocabulary that sits atop of an already complex layer of philosophical debate. We will need to grapple with complexity theory and a strange incorporeal materialism. Then there are personal reasons that make this task problematic relating to my own situation here as a Southender. Deleuze, for me, represents an escape from certain aspects of my early working life in Southend at the local college and particularly my time spent in what we referred to then as the School of Media and Fascism. Deleuze was part of my escape plan from this horror, so returning to Southend with him in mind presents all kinds of problems, but let’s put those aside for a moment and see where Deleuze in Southend takes us.

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Photo by Iry Hor

The point of this introduction to Deleuze is to apply some critical distance between our material and expressive experiences of Southend. So let’s begin by saying what I think Deleuze is not. He is not postmodern or poststructuralist. Such generalities are, as I will try to explain, not acceptable in Deleuzian ontology. With regard to the latter, language or linguistic categories, while not discounted, they are not the major concern. I also do not see Deleuze’s post-Marxism as necessarily antithetical to the Left or indeed Marx. He was supposedly planning a book on the latter before he died. Shame we missed that one! What attracted me to Deleuze was his attempt to rally against all kinds of totality, fascism and authoritarian regimes. But there are many Deleuzes. His project is vast. What I’ll focus on here are some aspects of Difference and Repetition which seem to me to map out the trajectory of his philosophical project born out of the frustrations of 1968 and extending into his work with Guattari – a time marked by a unrequited desire for revolution. A time that instigated a need to rethink what revolution really means.

Simply put, we need to overcome an old philosophical problem; that is to say, the problem of the One and the many. This is a mereological problem – meaning the study of the relation between parts and wholes and an ongoing debate concerning what constitutes an emergent whole. Before applying this to Southend directly I want to draw a little on crowd theory to illustrate what I mean by mereology.  The origins of social theory are rooted in a question concerning what constitutes individuals and crowds. That is, what happens to an individual when she becomes part of a crowd? In the late 1800s Gustave Le Bon thought that once the socially conscious individual became part of a crowd she was incorporated into a stupid and mostly unconscious collectivity. A great influence on Freud’s group psychology and 1930s fascism, Le Bon applied a kind of emergence theory that assumes that the whole has properties independent of the parts that compose it.

We can illustrate Le Bon’s claim by visiting Roots Hall Football ground every week.

Soccer - FA Cup - Third Round - Chelsea v Southend United - Stamford Bridge

Le Bon’s football crowd is an emergence of a kind of collective intelligence in reverse in which smart individuality dissipates into the unruly wholeness of the crowd. We can also see this in terms of the discourses of local policy makers when they refer to the Southend community as a whole.  The properties of the emergent whole are assumed to become superveniant – meaning that the interaction between parts produces a whole that has its own properties. It is this immutable wholeness that has a downward causal power over the parts from which it has emerged. This is the kind of sociology that claims that we are the product of the society we are born into, i.e. a member of a certain class.

Oxford v Southend

What Deleuze does is replace the One and the many with the multiplicity. We need to draw here on a little bit of complexity theory, but before that Deleuze and Guattari set out a really nice case against superveniant wholes in their book Anti Oedipus.  In short, all things become parts. Wholes are just bigger parts. Instead of the One, we encounter populations of parts. The multiplicity becomes the organizing principle in a complex relationality between parts, which we will call here assemblages.  Unlike the timelessness (synchronic) of emergent superveniant wholes, we find that assemblages are exposed to historical (diachronic) processes. A population of parts becomes a territorialization: a territory held together by relationality, but exposed to deterritorializations and reterritorializations. Assemblages also have material and expressive parts. For instance, material parts might be the buildings we surround ourselves with or without the financial capital we require to build them. Expressive parts might refer to the availability of cultural capital (knowledge e.g.) or the flow of conversations, routines, rituals, habits and discourses that co-determine the social spaces we inhabit.

The question therefore moves away from simply locating the properties of the emergent whole to the question of what brings assemblages together. What are the interactions that give life to a novel territory? We also need to take into account how interactions between parts and the wider environment: the way in which the football crowd interacts with the materiality of the stadium or the weather or the expressive voices and gestures of the away supporters.

Bury v Southend

It is nonetheless crucial that the multiplicity is not mistaken for a master process that determines the territory – the crowd e.g. We need to see this rendering of a crowd as what the Deleuzian Manuel Delanda refers to as a space of possibilities. This is a brand of Deleuze that draws heavily on complexity theory. Herein the properties of the crowd have identities that are not fixed or essential. The crowd has capacities that can affect and be affected. The interaction between home and away supporters, e.g. The crowd also has tendencies that function as pattern changers. Say Southend United actually manage promotion this season, and that’s of course more virtual than actual at this point, but should it happen then the crowd will swell in number perhaps requiring a new stadium. There is also the complexity of universal singularities to follow, which, in simple terms, provides the trajectories or lines of flight that the crowd follow. Continuing with the football theme this line of flight can be guided by fixtures, but again the design of the stadium the crowd encounters is important here, since to a great extent it provides the crowd with its contours and flows, and plays a role in its emergence. Finally, singularities are drawn to basins of attraction. Again, the shape of the crowd becomes a territory because of the material, expressive and environmental factors it is coupled to.


We can draw on another example: a building. Take Carby House and Heath House in Victoria Avenue. The so-called Gateway to Southend!

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Photo by Iry Hor
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Photo by Iry Hor

As spaces of possibility buildings have properties. They are big or small, predominantly this colour or that colour. They generally have windows. These windows also have capacities. They are windows that can be opened or smashed. But importantly, they need someone to open or smash them. Without this interaction taking place the capacity remains virtual rather than actual. It is a double event in this sense. There are tendencies too. Buildings can decay over time for all kinds of reasons; weather, lack of maintenance, vandalism etc. Investment, or a lack of it, can act as a basin of attraction which singularities are drawn to forming areas of regeneration or decay. Furthermore, decay can lead to other buildings decaying. This last point is very important to my work in assemblage theory or what I call contagion theory. Urban spaces can emerge as contagious material assemblages converging with expressive social epidemiologies. What we might call crime waves, for example, can begin with very small interactions between parts. These are events, like one solitary broken window, that can lead to further events, such as more windows being smashed. This leads to break-ins, fire, perhaps even a death.

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Photo by Iry Hor

What I have tried to do in preparation for this talk is grasp Southend as an assemblage. The questions we could ask about these spaces need to account for historical processes, the material and expressive parts, the spaces of possibility, the interactions between parts and environments, the properties, capacities, tendencies, singularities, and basins of attraction. More than that, we also need to ask what kinds of assemblage we can make from these relations.  What novel critical networks, new artworks and performances can interact with existing parts? Our venue, the Railway Hotel is in many ways one such place. It was after all known locally as the BNP pub. The BNP would, I’m told, meet here, in this room. The landlord has transformed this building. He is a true Deleuzian. Hopefully Club Critical Theory can continue to provide an expression to this kind of positive change in Southend.


With photographer Iry Hor I have started to look at some of the urban assemblages that surround us. These include, on one hand, the lines of flight of regeneration; most notably, the Forum, the so-called Lego Building and the new college and university campuses. This is regeneration we can understand in part as financial territorialization. Territories formed around access to vast amounts of capital resources; for example, £54 million in 2004 for the new college campus, £14 million from the government and £9 million from EEDA for the new University of Essex building. In the case of the Forum there has been £27million invested by Southend Council, the University of Essex and South Essex College.

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Love them or loathe them these new shiny buildings have the capacity to affect and be affected. I found this nice quote about the Forum in the local paper from an OAP resident living in Sunningdale Court sheltered housing in nearby Gordon Place.

“I love it. When I go out, I have to pass the building and I have this great big smile on my face as I do. I’m just so happy.”

But this area in Southend is not an indelible whole. Its access to resources is never permanent. With £8.6million cuts to government funding to the college in the next few years many of the expressive internal parts of this shiny new building will begin to dissipate. Indeed, the external interactions between the new campuses and the adjacent derelict buildings are a constant reminder of the tendencies of decay that can affect all buildings that fall into financial decline.

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Again, things are never whole. Indeed, on the other hand, there is the trajectory of urban decay in Victoria Avenue, including Carby House, Heath House and the old college building in Canarvon Road. A report on the planning application for the new campuses in 2003 made it clear that “the disposal of the existing campus buildings is an important part of the delivery process for the new campus.”

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Photo by Iry Hor

It seems strange to me that these building are owned by developers. What kind of perverse development is this? To try to find out I traced back the various interactions between these so-called developers and Southend Council as reported in the local papers. These interactions are perhaps best summarized by Anna Waite, the former Tory Southend councillor responsible for planning in 2008 who said then: “I wish I knew what was happening. I haven’t heard anything from the developers for months.” Is this evidence enough for the need for public intervention into private property?

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Photo by Iry Hor

Perhaps Victoria Avenue is an example of deterritorialization? Well, things are not that simple in Deleuze’s onology because parts are at their most creative when they are deterritorialized. Carby House and Heath House are not only the rotting Gateway to Southend. They are the central hub of a contagion of decay.

Heath House closed when the remaining 300 workers were made redundant in 2000. Along with Carby House it has, in the past 14 years, become a mesmerizing example of a transformative decomposition of material parts brought about by its open interaction with the environment and a withdrawal of access to resources. But Carby House and Heath House are perhaps in the process of expressive and material reterritorialization. They are certainly a defiant example of what affordable housing means in times of austerity in Southend-on-Sea. They have become a home to the homeless.

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Photo by Iry Hor
Tony D Sampson introduces Deleuze at the first Club Critical Theory night upstairs at the Railway Hotel
Andrew Branch from UEL introduces Bourdieu to Club Critical Theory
Giles Tofield (The Cultural Engine) chairs the first Club Critical Theory

A few notes

The School of Media and Fascism is attributed to Jairo Lugo currently at University of Sheffield.

Gustave Le Bon’s contribution to Crowd Theory is The Crowd.

For more on parts and wholes see Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia 42-50.

To better grasp Manuel Delanda’s approach to assemblages via complexity theory see A New Philosophy of Society and Philosophy and Simulation.

For more on contagion theory see Tony D Sampson’s book Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks.

References to interactions between Southend Council and developers, investments in new buildings and local reaction sourced in the Evening Echo archive.



BKM talk

Various circumstances in the run up to my BKM appearance back in Dec last year prevented me from doing the talk I had intended to do. It’s a bit of a jumble as a result. This is more an experiment with a range of virality and post-virality ideas than an articulation of neuroculture and noncognitive capitalism – mainly focusing here on noncognitive HCI.

As the transition from virality to neuroculture becomes more evident I will of course elaborate on, for example, the mereological problem at the centre of Wittgenstein’s brain/body emergence and the assemblage theory that replaces it etc etc.

Thank you very much to Erich Hörl for the kind invite and Robin Schrade for his wonderful effort to bring in the visuals.

Recent Talks on Virality (part one)

The following posts are adapted from the notes of two recent Virality related talks. The first, a much longer effort, begins at the University of East London on the 22nd October. The second (the latter half of these posts) continues at Goldsmiths later the same day to celebrate the launch of Evil Media (Goffey and Fuller), Virality and the latest issue of Computational Culture.

UEL 22nd Oct

The introduction of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s concept of the rhizome to the digital media cultures debate in the 1990s was followed by a lot of speculative writing concerning the democratic nature of hypertext and the Web.

For example, in 1993, Kathleen Burnett’s “Toward A Theory Of Hypertextual Design“, claimed that  “At its most political, connectivity is a democratizing principle”

But networks have proven to be both democratic and aristocratic.

Not surprising perhaps. In Deleuzian ontology there have always been two kinds of multiplicity…

There are lines of flight and refrains, smooth and striated spaces. Rhizomes becoming knots.

In many ways then, my research interest begins with trying to grasp these multiplicities by exploring the computer virus problem.

One way to approach the virus was to see it as a discursive formation of the network security industry, where it has predominantly been viewed as a “threat”.

 For example, in one journal article I wrote about the plight of a Canadian lecturer who had been severely criticised by the AV industry for teaching his students to code viruses.

Jussi Parrika’s book (inset) was the first to approach the computer virus problem without falling back on merely rhetorical analysis.

Around this time I also met up with a future collaborator (Jussi Parikka) who was similarly using Deleuze to look at viruses as discursive “bad” objects.

The bad virus is not simply a discursive formation. The “threat” has a material affect, and defines, to a great extent, what you can and cannot do on a network.

After reading Fred Cohen’s PhD thesis (the first computer science paper on viruses), I became interested in Cohen’s notion that viruses could in fact be benevolent. That is, viruses could function as an alternative mode of communication…

Gary Genosko’s book traces communication models from cybernetics to network cultures

 Some of these ideas, first published in M/C journal in 2005, have recently been used in Gary Genosko’s new book, Remodelling Communication.

Cohen concluded his thesis by pointing to a problem not solely to do with code, but to do with networks. A network that is open, he says, (i.e. open for sharing) is also open to viral contamination.

There were others working on the viral. Alex Galloway and Eugene Thacker, for example, approached viruses via Deleuze’s control society thesis. The control society breaks with Foucault’s disciplinary society, A move away from heat factories, toward a society controlled by computers and continuous networks. The passive danger of entropy and active danger of sabotage, is replaced in the control society by the crash, and viruses and piracy.

“There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.” (Deleuze, 1990)

In her book, Abstract Sex, Luciana Parisi similarly draws on the capacity of the viral to apply Deleuzian ontology to biotech reproduction.

Parisi’s viruses provide a significant alternative to dominant neo-Darwinist accounts of reproduction, according to an evolutionary survival mechanism, pointing instead toward an assemblage theory of the viral.

In 2009 I co-edited this collection focusing on the anomalies of network culture.

We invited contributions from Parisi, Galloway and Thacker, Sadie Plant, and Matt Fuller and Andy Goffey, to name but a few.

We described our approach as “topological,” requiring us to focus on the forces that constitute moral judgements of good and bad. We also deployed the famous Monty Python spam sketch as a counter to George Gerbner’s effects theory. We were less interested in media meaning than we were in the accidents of communication. Like this, anomalies are not counter to a network architecture. They are the becoming of a network.

                                                                                                                                                                 My chapter looked specifically at the idea of universal contagion, and asked: “what makes a network become viral?” I compared the notion of rhizomatic communication with what network science was telling us, at the time, about how network architectures emerge. Before the 1990s, and the invent of the Web, most network modelling had assumed complex networks to be randomly connected.

However, using the Web as a new, rich source of data, researchers began to observe a scale free model of connectivity. Scale free networks are both random and organised, and paradoxically, unstable and stable at once. They have been compared to a capricious fractal. Scale free networks are generally characterised by the growth of giant nodes. 20% of these nodes can have 80% of the connectivity.

In a more recent co-written chapter (with Parikka) we have again looked at how network dysfunctionalies are informing certain marketing practices. We argue that business enterprises are learning from spam and viral tactics, so as to develop new epidemiological worlds of consumption.

For example, The DubitInsider concept presents a very simple marketing idea. It seeks to recruit 7-24 year olds who consider themselves to be peer leaders with strong communication skills to act as Brand Ambassadors. In short, this requires the clandestine passing on of online and offline product suggestions to their peers via internet postings on social networks, emails, instant messenger conversations, and organising small events and parties.

 The chapter also follows a recent challenge to a widely accepted law of viral marketing; that is, the power of the influential.

Drawing from epidemiology Malcolm Gladwell argued that a few trendsetting individuals can tip the threshold of an epidemic.

 However, this mainstay of word-of-mouth marketing  is confronted by the network scientist Duncan Watts, who points to the accidents of network contagion. Given the right conditions, he argues, anyone can spread a virus.

My contribution to the Spam Book concludes by referring to early 19th century French sociology, and Gabriel Tarde’s appealing counter Durkheimian social contagion theory.

At the end of the 19th (and beginning of the 20th) century, Durkheim and Tarde provided two distinct and competing theories of the social.

It is this initial interest in Tarde that leads to Virality (see part two).

The Blurb for Virality the Book

ImageThe blurb for Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks

A new theory of viral relationality beyond the biological

“Impressive and ambitious, Virality offers a new theory of the viral as a sociological event.” Brian Rotman, Ohio State University


“Tarde and Deleuze come beautifully together in this outstanding book, the first to really put forward a serious alternative to neo-Darwinian theories of virality, contagion, and memetics. A thrilling read that bears enduring consequences for our understanding of network cultures. Unmissable.” – Tiziana Terranova, author of Network Culture  

In this thought-provoking work, Tony D. Sampson presents a contagion theory fit for the age of networks. Unlike memes and microbial contagions, Virality does not limit itself to biological analogies and medical metaphors. It instead points toward a theory of contagious assemblages, events, and affects. For Sampson, contagion is not necessarily a positive or negative force of encounter; it is the way society comes together and relates.

Sampson argues that a biological understanding of contagion has been universally distributed by way of the rhetoric of fear used in the antivirus industry and other popular discourses surrounding network culture. This understanding is also detectable in concerns over too much connectivity, including problems of global financial crisis and terrorism. Sampson’s “virality” is as universal as that of the biological meme and microbe, but is not understood through representational thinking expressed in metaphors and analogies. Rather, Sampson leads us to understand contagion theory through the social relationalities first established in Gabriel Tarde’s microsociology and subsequently recognized in Gilles Deleuze’s ontological worldview.

According to Sampson, the reliance on representational thinking to explain the social behavior of networking—including that engaged in by nonhumans such as computers—allows language to over-categorize and limit analysis by imposing identities, oppositions, and resemblances on contagious phenomena. It is the power of these categories that impinges on social and cultural domains. Assemblage theory, on the other hand, is all about relationality and encounter, helping us to understand the viral as a positively sociological event, building from the molecular outward, long before it becomes biological.

Dr. Tony D. Sampson is senior lecturer and researcher in the School of Arts and Digital Industries at the University of East London.