Tag: Deleuze

Emerging Affinities – Possible Futures of Performative Arts

I have an article (introduction copied below) in this edited collection on the possible futures of performative arts. It adopts a Deleuzian method to critically address the buzzword of the silo. There are further reflections on Lancel/Maat’s E.E.G. KISS, Kuai Shen’s experiments with zombie ants (Ecologias Virales), Mikey Georgeson’s Wall Stains, Chris Salter, TeZ and Valerie Lamontagne’s Ilinx, and others.
Emerging Affinities – Possible Futures of Performative Arts

Emerging Affinities – Possible Futures of Performative Arts

The Blurb

This volume is a response to the growing need for new methodological approaches to the rapidly changing landscape of new forms of performative practices. The authors address a host of contemporary phenomena situated at the crossroads between science and fiction which employ various media and merge live participation with mediated hybrid experiences at both affective and cognitive level. All essays collected here move across disciplinary divisions in order to provide an account of these new tendencies, thus providing food for thought for a wide readership ranging from performative studies to the social sciences, philosophy and cultural studies.



Introduction to chapter in Emerging Affinities: Possible Futures of Performative Arts (please note this is a pre-published version of the text)

Collapsing Boundaries: Ambivalence and Interference

Although the collapsing of disciplinary boundaries might appear to be a theoretically promising move it is not necessarily a goal to aim for without concern for what might eventually emerge. To be sure, perhaps the desire for disciplinary mixture needs to be approached more ambivalently. For example, when art mixes with science the outcome is not always ‘great art’. There is always the potential for much methodological confusion to arise in the relation between art and science in which the aesthetic can become tainted by the rationalizing expression of scientific functions. Indeed, as boundary crossings in neuroaesthetics evidence, scientists can often objectify the aesthetic as a brain function: ‘There it is, inside the brain! Beauty itself!’ If this function is not located in the neuroimage, then ‘how can it possibly be good art?’ Herein the boundary crossings of art and science become part of a particular version of human rationality, which is given as the only starting point and end goal. The problem with neuroaesthetics becomes apparent, as such, in its claim to be able to discern between an objective aesthetic of beauty and the ‘dubious’ imposters of Conceptual Art (Ramachandran 2011: 192– 93). Marcel Duchamp is, as follows, presented as an absurd figure who, as any child in an art gallery can apparently see, parades himself in the emperor’s new clothes. Surprisingly perhaps, it has also been argued that art is not immune to the philosophic concept since when the aesthetic mixes with the concept some of its affective political potency is lost (Deleuze and Guattari 1994: 198). Sure, art and philosophy radicals can always try to subvert the rational brains of science, but if this attempt to disrupt function by bringing together concepts and sensations is rumbled as a critique rather than productive rapprochement, then where will the next funding stream come from?

We must further consider the ambivalent politics of collapsing boundaries. On one hand, capitalism works more effectively, it would seem, in the fluidity of borders and often encourages disciplinary mixtures if they offer more value for money. Collapsing boundaries can, like this, become part of an evil stratagem of neoliberal funding mechanisms that close the funding door to shut out criticality in favour of interdisciplinarity and industrial impact. Nonetheless, on the other hand, protective boundaries (from broader disciplines to categorized subject genres) are often negligible lines that are inexorably breached by the erosive flow of events. We cannot ignore these unrelenting events. They come at us like waves, carrying with them a multitude of novel objects that crash into (and often overwhelm) disciplinary defences. It is the interferences caused by these waves that are, at once, like Joseph Schumpeter’s (1976) mutational model of capitalism in the 1940s, creative and destructive. What should we do when we are all out to sea? Should we build new disciplinary defences or surrender ourselves to the ambivalence of the waves while trying to desperately hold on to criticality that might challenge the status quo?


Following such an ambivalent line of flight, this chapter begins by problematizing the notion of collapsing boundaries, focusing on the dilemma it poses in the institutional context of the neoliberal university. In short, the desire for interdisciplinary experimentation has to be considered in light of current conditions in which mixtures are supposed to take place outside of so-called silo mentalities. It is therefore important, before any boundaries collapse, to examine the extent to which disciplines can (or should) productively mix outside of these silos. That is to say, before taking the radical step of replacing boundary thinking with a Whiteheadian inspired notion of nonlocalized interferences, the discussion needs to step back a little to explore the Deleuzian inspired method of the interference which offers various experimental traversals between art, science and philosophy, via the interventional potential of disciplinary giants, conceptual personae, aesthetic figures and swarming demons.

Silo Mentality and Criticality

A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns. . . The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up (From Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, 1961 [1899]: 160)


Before challenging boundaries and genres, and the disciplinary methodologies and theoretical frames in which they are conceived, there is a need to provide some institutional context. Indeed, there is a new business buzzword that urgently needs our attention, and it is coming to a university near you soon: The silo! We have been told that we have been working in disciplinary silos for too long and it is not good for innovation and productivity. The pressure is on. We need to work across silos and get to the nexus that connects everything to everything else (Stirling, 2014). But the nexus is full of threats. Our internal disciplinary power structures and ways of doing things will be made visible to all, risking exposure to the peril of alien methodologies and external metrics. In times of budgetary cuts and precarious academic labour, being outside of your silo, and consequently wide-open to these threats, could potentially lead to career death.

The collapsing of disciplinary boundaries and the opening up to interdisciplinarity cannot be seen as a simple elixir. This was a point well understood in the university well before the current fashionable idea of escaping silos took hold (Benson 1982: 38-48). In effect, there has always been a well-intentioned, if not somewhat confused concern that we might find ourselves metaphorically emerging from the depths of the silo only to wade about in the shallows of interdisciplinarity. On one hand, in real practical terms, without investment in the time and resources necessary to master the discrete methodologies in which functions, sensations or concepts become manifest, it is argued that academics risk exposure to pedagogical and even intellectual limits (ibid). Indeed, divestment, not investment, is the institutional norm in the arts and humanities today, so we need to consider the argument that the production of so-called shallow interdisciplinarity is increasingly used by the neoliberal university as a marketing tool to promote low-cost content that lacks intellectual depth since it is neither in this nor that silo. On the other hand though, it is perhaps surprising that Deleuze and Guattari (1994), once the masters of disciplinary mixture, similarly contended, in their final collaboration together, that methodological limits are imposed on mixtures between art, science and philosophy. That is to say, by allowing mixtures we risk creating methodological confusion. The neuroaesthetic intervention into art risks, as such, confusing the sensation of artistic practice with a function of science. There is, inversely, a potential methodological limit imposed on art when an artist tries to make a sensation out of a function.
In spite of this methodological confusion, perhaps we also need to concede that it is often outside of the silo, in the inevitability of mixture, that we experience novelty. This is a contrasting sense of creativity that renders the notion of shallowness an ineffective metaphor. It is, as follows, outside of the boundary line, in nonlocations, where many novel genres, methodologies and theoretical frameworks are made. If this is indeed the case, then, the problem is how to collapse boundaries without entirely jeopardising the protection boundaries offer from the current neoliberal condition. One way to proceed is to step outside the discipline and advance with relations of suspicion (Summer 2003). Here I think the mixture of critical theory and interdisciplinarity provides some valuable resources since it interestingly occurs by way of a creative-destructive interference. In other words, via its alien-like presence, this ambivalent mixture might, at very least, disrupt the political status quo in the university. As Jennifer Summer (ibid) argues:

There are a number of commonalities that critical theory and interdisciplinarity share. To begin with, both paradigms are academic outcasts, interdisciplinarity for its disciplinary violations and critical theory for its critique of the status quo.

The notion of allying these two academic “outcasts” promises to imbue the relations established between, for example, art and science, with suspicion. Given the current neoliberal context such an allegiance of outcasts is clearly of use, but here I would like to move on from a mode of criticality established in the distancing function of a conventional critical theory that remains aloof from other disciplines to consider relations in terms of nonlocation. Indeed, what is proposed in this chapter is not a collapsing or distancing between disciplinary lines, but the transversal cutting of lines, or making of new patterns, understood here by way of a theory of wave interferences.

Significantly, wave interferences take into account a new materialist infused approach that does not look to distinguish between science and art in terms of a culture/nature artifice or indeed riven between human ideas and the nonhumans that we encounter in certain scientific experimentations. On the contrary, what might be referred to as non-art, non-science or non-philosophy must all welcome a blurring of the lines between nonhuman interventions into culture, and vice versa, raise concerns about Anthropocenic incursions into nonhuman worlds. To fully grasp the utility of nonlocation in this nonhuman context, it is important not to therefore mistake the relation of suspicion with the idealist’s traditional critical confrontation with a kind of science that is only concerned with natural forces. This is because, in many ways, the critical distance established between the arts and humanities defined, on one hand, by a cultural worldview of human ideas, and by the experiments into nature by the hard sciences and technologists, on the other, has led us to a wasteful theoretical impasse. Any slippage, we are told, toward a nonhuman paradigm in the arts and humanities threatens to open the door to rampant science and technological forces, and will, it would seem, lead to the ruination of human ideas (Krystal, 2014). Yet, as Katherine N Hayles (2017: 130-31) argues, it is surely the aloof position humanists adopt with regard to scientific and technological projects that in many ways ensures that important early collaborations and prior discussion of ethical considerations are missed out on. What is needed now is an alternative to the impasse of scientific and idealist determinism. As follows, wave interferences are not so much a new critical theory of distance established in disciplinary depths or shallows as they are a new method of doing criticality on the surface.

First copy of The Assemblage Brain arrived today!

I’m very pleased to announce that the first copy of my new book arrived in the UK today from the US. I was expecting it in early Feb, but it’s here all shiny and new!

sampsonI’ve also confirmed two book launch events.

The first launch has been added to a keynote I’m doing (along with Franco “Bifo” Berardi) at an event called What is Happening to Our Brain? Art and Life in Times of Cognitive Automation. It’s in Amsterdam on Tues 8th Feb at the Rietveld Studium Generale – and is open to the public!

The second event is in collaboration with the artists Mikey Georgeson and Dean Todd at Mikey’s The Deadends exhibit at the Studio One Gallery in South West London on Thurs 23rd Feb.

More details to follow.



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.

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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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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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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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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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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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.

DSC_0132 modified copy
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.



The First Club Critical Theory: Confirmed full details for Thurs 17th April

An evening of beer, philosophy, discussion, avant garde techno/ambient music – not necessarily in that order…

The first Club Critical Theory: making sense of place: creating a critical space for southend-on-sea

Date: 17th April

Time: 9pm

Heaths copy

Venue: Upstairs at the Railway Hotel, Clifftown Road, Southend On Sea (near to Southend Central Rail Station


Free entry

What’s Occurring…

Giles Tofield chairs this CCT discussion including introductions to Bourdieu’s habit (Andrew Branch, UEL) and Deleuze’s assemblages (Tony D Sampson, UEL).

Special Guest DJ: Stuart Bowditch

Stuart is mostly inspired by his love of open air, spaces and places. His interest in sound and the natural rhythms and routines of everyday life have shaped the methodology of his work, which revolves around noises and sounds which he finds, records and processes. He loves to travel, near and far, and the recordings he makes become a document, a sound memory, of his time spent in each place. He often works with individuals or groups to record new sets of sounds and over the years has built up a large archive of recordings which he draws upon to make songs, soundtracks to films and art installations. In this way of working he tries to make sense of the world he lives in and his place within it. Simultaneously, the creations and experiences of others end up intrinsically embedded in his work, creating a rich texture of layers, representing his life and those he as encountered along the way.

9-9.20pm: Sounds by Stuart Bowditch

9.20-9.30pm: Introduction to CCT by Giles Tofield (Chair)

The Talks


Deleuze, Contagion & the New Brighton
Tony D Sampson (UEL)

This talk will engage with the ideas of Gilles Deleuze in order to grasp how urban space, place and time might emerge. Firstly, we need to rethink the idea of Southend as a holistic entity (e.g. Southend as a whole community) and instead encounter the urban space as a multiplicity. The focus therefore needs to shift away from wholes and essential properties to consider local interactions and singularities that have the capacity and tendency to spill over into urban space (for good and bad). The talk will include a collaborative venture with the photographer Iry Hor whose work captures the assemblages of real Southend.

10-10.15pm: short break


Bourdieu, Habit and Social Space
Andrew Branch (UEL)

Morrissey once asked ‘When you want to live, how do you start? Where do you go? Who do you need to know? This talk will answer these political questions by illustrating how Pierre Bourdieu’s work can illuminate our understanding of how habitual behaviour forms, structures our sense of entitlement and frames our occupation of space and place. Using examples familiar to people living in Southend and its adjacent areas, the talk will conclude by exploring how transformation occurs, both at the individual and collective level.

10.45-11.00: short break

11.00-11.30: Discussion We welcome your contributions

11.30-til late: Sounds by Stuart Bowditch
External Links



CCT Banner photograph by Simon Fowler

Social Media: http://clubcriticaltheory.wordpress.com/; Twitter: @CCT_onSea https://twitter.com/CCT_onSea

Club Critical Theory (Southend) Stuart Bowditch

Thrilled to announce that we have the sound recordist, artist, musician Stuart Bowditch lined up for the first Club Critical Theory event on Thursday 17th April.

The event is free and starts at 9pm upstairs at the excellent Railway Hotel!

The discussion (making sense of place: creating a critical space for southend-on-sea) will be chaired by Giles Tofield and features talks on Deleuze, Contagion & the New Brighton (Tony D Sampson, UEL) and Bourdieu, Habit and Social Space
(Andrew Branch, UEL).

DSC_0126 modified copy

Photo by Iry Hor, specially commissioner for CCT 

More info on the CCT site


club critical theory: 17th April, 9pm upstairs at the Railway Hotel (southend-on-sea)


More details of the first club critical theory event. Click on the image to view.

Further details about the talks and music to follow…

UPDATE: See club critical theory blog for more details.

Olympo-Mania as Biopolitical Epidemic or how the Boris Johnson Contagion Spreads…

(This is work in progress)

In an attention grabbing headline published in the London Evening Standard just prior to the start of the Olympic Games in 2012, Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, declared that:

“No one in London is immune to this contagion of joy. Even hardened cynics are succumbing to Olympo-mania. Now let’s get on and produce the greatest Games ever.”

The intoxicating glory of the Olympic flame

This affirmation of the biopower of the big event to become an emotional force able to stamp out, or override, the depression, suspicion, pessimism, and doubt, abound in a population caught in the grip of austerity politics, is nonetheless proving to be a short lived contagion for many of those who would have clearly liked to have benefited from it. The crowds of curiously happy and unusually talkative English people have given way to a bleak mediated public still beleaguered by indebtedness, and caught up in media networks awash with stories of financial doom and corruption, establishment cover ups and celebrity distraction. What kind of emotional legacy is this?

The political legacy of this great emotional contagion has not played out well for Tory central government either. The booing of the chancellor, George Osborne, at the Olympic stadium will endure in the collective memory alongside the images of the opening ceremony and team GB victories. PM Cameron has clearly not profited in the way he’d most probably have liked to. He has been greatly overshadowed by his old Eton chum Johnson, who has used his political and geographic proximity to the big event well.

It is Johnson, not Cameron, who now carries the flag for the Right

Johnson has managed to shore up its affective charges and steer them in the same direction of his career trajectory; bolstering a surge in his popularity as the heir apparent to the Tory premiership. This adherent to the Murdoch press and defender of the over privilege and corruption of the financial sector in the City now comes gift wrapped in the joyful emotions of this biopolitical epidemic.

Yet, as the flames of Olympo-mania finally die out for most, and the rest of the country returns to the bleak reality of Tory austerity, it is perhaps a good time to reevaluate the “contagion of joy” and reintroduce a healthy dose of cynicism. Like the planners of the Olympic Village and its legacy, Johnson’s PR machine has produced a fragile new world for itself to reproduce in. Olympo-mania provided the brand with a sort of bubble or viral atmosphere in which the chemical energy of the big event could be captured – swashing and splashing about. Unlike McDonalds and Coca Cola, who paid a lot of money to rub themselves up against the hormonal flushes of Olympo-mania, the Johnson brand – always purposefully haphazard and bungling – seems to have been the most successful at surrounding itself in the emotional foam. Indeed, this this fool on a zip wire is like one of Goriunova’s contagious idiots. He is nutrition to a public desiring machine feeding on entertainment and sport more than it does gritty politics.

Idiocy (accidental or not) is contagious to a public desiring entertainment rather than gritty politics

In this short piece I want to draw on Nigel Thrift’s concept of affective contagion and Gabriel Tarde’s contagion theory as a way to perhaps make a connection between this big event and the viral atmosphere that surrounds Johnson.

The Olympic Park is where the crowd and the mediated public converged

Despite a historical fluctuation in the appeal of crowd theory, contagion theory seems to be making something of a comeback. To be sure, the nineteenth-century obsession with the crowd ends abruptly with a distinct cognitive turn in the twentieth century. In social psychology, for example, the focus on the commotions of the crowd shifts toward the self-contained cognitive subject. By the 1930s, the old ideas about mass manias, hypnosis, and hallucinatory delusions made popular in Le Bon’s The Crowd are briefly hijacked by the far Right and then become largely ignored in the social sciences when the positivism of Durkheim finally begins to take hold. As Thrift argues, Tarde’s contagion theory “fell out of fashion, not least because of its emphasis on process at the expense of the substantive results of social interaction.” That is, until fairly recently, when inspired by the new network ontology, cultural theory started to engage again in somewhat opaque and speculative viral models of contagion. Yet, as I have argued in Virality, through a resuscitation of Tarde, and an effort to reconnect him to contemporary debates, much of this obscurity might be cleared away. To help here, Thrift forwards a number of interrelated reasons (I look at just four subsequently) that support a Tardean resuscitation as essential to understanding how mediated events and the networks they permeate are the new prime conductor of the biopolitical epidemic.

First, Thrift highlights the universal feature of Tarde’s epidemiological encounter; that is, desire and invention are both underscored by imitation–repetition. Like Deleuze, an open-ended repetition becomes, as such, the “base of all action.” Again, importantly, the imitative ray (Tarde’s term for affective, emotional and suggestion contagions) is not reduced here to micro- or macrorepresentations but is part of a process of social adaptation linked to an unfastened and differentiating repetition of events. “The entities that Tarde is dealing with are not people, but innovations, understood as quanta of change with a life of their own.” To be sure, agency here is awarded, through Tarde’s idea of the inseparability of the repetition of the mechanical habits of desire and the mostly illusory sense of individual volition, to a vital force of encounter, certainly not centered on human subjects alone. This we can see clearly in Tarde’s approach to political economy, in which the individual’s rational drive to produce riches is supplanted by an economy of desire in which the “circulation and distribution of riches are nothing but the effect of an imitative repetition of needs.” Tarde’s economy is a reciprocal radiation of exchanging desires, related to passionate interests as well as the needs of labor.


Second, then, special attention is drawn to the way in which repetitive mechanical habit and the sense of volition (social action) become inseparable. Tarde questioned the world he experienced in the nineteenth century. Unlike the categories of sociology established by his contemporary Durkheim, Tarde introduces a complex set of associations (mostly unconscious) traveling between (and below) the artifice of a nature–society divide and therefore positioning biological entities as equidistant to “social” ones. In fact, the use of the word social needs to be carefully approached here because for Tarde, “all phenomena is [sic] social phenomena, all things a society”—atoms, cells, and people are on an “equal footing.” Tarde therefore anticipates a time when an indivisible contract, in which social and biological causes will no longer confront each other, reappears.

Third, Thrift’s concept of affective contagion provides a contemporary take on Tarde’s imitative ray, latching on to his ideas concerning how passionate interests radiate through social assemblages, mostly unawares, but adding an affective and neurological dimension. Thrift notes, as such, how Tarde’s focus on the spreading of fear, sentimentality, and social disturbance infers affective crowd behavior, with a tendency of its own making. Like the imitative ray, affective contagion is selfspreading, automatic, and involuntary and functions according to a hypnotic action-at-a-distance with no discernable medium of contact. Affective contagions are manifested entirely in the force of encounter with events, independent of physical contact or scale. This is how small yet angry social confrontations can lead to widespread violence and how accidental events, like the death of a royal celebrity, can perhaps trigger large-scale contagious overspills of unforeseen mass hysteria. Similarly, sizeable media-fueled epidemics of social vulnerability, fear, anxiety, and panic, as well as contagions of joy, can be ignited by large-scale mediated events like 9/11 or the Olympics or relatively small events, amplified out of all contexts by the media, further demonstrating the multiscalar nature of social contagion.

Fourth, we find an epidemiological atmosphere that can be affectively primed, or premediated, so that imitative momentum can be anticipated and purposefully spread. These are indeed viral atmospheres of the order of a Deleuzian wasp–orchid assemblage, in which corporations and politicians increasingly deploy the magnetic pull of big events, mediated fascinations, intoxicating glories, and celebrity narratives so that small events can be encouraged to become bigger contagious overspills.

The Olympic Park as a new “world” in which affective contagions can readily spread

Here we see the production of what Thrift refers to as new “worlds,” in which “semiconscious action can be put up for sale.”We might think of the Olympic Village as such a new world. But these viral atmospheres are also increasingly evident in the opportunities online and offline consumers have to share their intimacies, obsessions, and desires with producers. These are typical of viral atmospheres Thrift describes as having the capacity to “catch” the nearby desire of someone just like us, which works alongside older methods of mass attraction, such as the affective charge of celebrity, to “spark” desires for associated products. Indeed, the methods used to predict, measure, and exploit imitative rays are becoming ever more complex and neurologically invasive (something I cover in the latter part of Virality).

The Networked Idiot
A brand that becomes part of the crowd

The viral atmosphere marks the point at which the conscious thought of the self “arises from an unconscious imitation of others.” It is at this location that human susceptibility becomes assimilated in the Tardean desiring machine. To maintain the virality of the atmosphere, though, the business enterprise requires the mostly unconscious mutuality or emotional investment of the infected consumer to guarantee that the affective contagion is passed on. As follows, affectively primed and premediated atmospheres must allow for these emotional investments to be freely made so that feelings become “increasingly available to be worked on and cultivated.”

Although Tarde anticipates a material world of subject creation, his materiality has, like Deleuze, an incorporeal materialist dimension to it. It is a concreteness made of virtuality, affective flows, rays, and the like. It is in this world of incorporeal passionate relations that a consumer’s obsessive engagement with products and brands, as well as the slick empathetic performances of politicians, marks the increases and decreases of power implicated in “person-making.” Tarde’s imitation–suggestibility becomes a mesmeric affective flow intended to steer the imitative inclinations of consumers and voters to predetermined goals.

Rehearsing entrainment

Tarde prefigured an epidemiological relationality in which things (caffeine, sentimental novels, pornographic works, and all manner of consumer goods) mix with emotions, moods, and affects—an atmosphere awash with hormones, entrainment, making people happy or sad, sympathetic or apathetic, and a space in which affects are significantly passed on or suggested to others. These worlds are a Tardean time–space through and through, which Thrift contends “continually questions itself,” generating “new forms of interrelation” and activities and functioning according to Tarde’s action-at-a-distance and akin to mesmerism, hypnosis, telepathy, and mind reading. These epidemiological densities critically value the indirect over the direct, yet within the crisscrossing of associations, it is “increasingly clear that subconscious processes of imitation can be directed.”

Spontaneous outbreak of flag waving

The tapping into what spreads, or hormonally swashes about in these viral atmospheres, follows, to some extent, a Tardean trajectory of biopower. In what we might call a trend toward the virality of network capitalism, there is certainly a distinct ramping up of the repetitious spread of affective contagion. The point of this exercise of biopower is to mesmerize the consumer (and voter) to such an extent that her susceptible porousness to the inventions of others, received mostly unawares, becomes an escalating point of vulnerability. The inseparability of the ever-circulating repetitions of mechanical desires and the often illusory sense that our choices and decisions belong to us, as Tarde had already contended, make the social a hypnotic state: “a dream of command and a dream of action” in which the somnambulist is “possessed by the illusion that their ideas, all of which have been suggested to them, are spontaneous.”

Perhaps no one in London was immune to this contagion of joy, but just because something makes you feel good doesn’t mean it is good…

Talks on Virality (part three)

(Goldsmiths 22nd Oct)

…. Continuing on Milgram.

Agentic states are generally traced to the disposition of an individual caught up in a natural chain of command rather than a disassociated state.

 For Milgram, imitation leads to conformity, but obedience ultimately requires the explicit social action of the individual.

Nevertheless, Milgram was famously the great manipulator of the social encounter. His triggering of crowd contagion was unquestionably socially engineered.

In Virality Milgram is positioned as a hypnotist, planting suggestibility — via the points of fascination provided by his skyward looking actors — into the neurological, biological, and sociological composition of the crowd.

From this privileged position, Milgram not only observed, but also controlled the implicit, involuntary, and contagious responses his experiment induced.

Virality also makes an important distinction between Tarde and his contemporary Gustave Le Bon.

 First, these two crowd theorists seem to be at the base of two distinct theoretical lines of influence.

One characterized by Le Bon’s direct link to Freud’s psychoanalysis.

The other by Tarde’s role in the development of Deleuzian ontology.

Second, there are conflicting ideas about the role contagion plays in social movements.

Unlike Le Bon’s conservative concerns for the stability of an old aristocratic order, Tarde introduces a novel media theory that considers both the potential and improbability of rare movements of democratic contagion.

Last, there are two very different notions of hypnotic power at work in Le Bon’s The Crowd and Tarde’s Laws.

The former falls back on a direct representational means of control (the crowd that thinks, or hallucinates, in images), while the latter speaks of indirect subrepresentational and reciprocal hypnotisms.

The coupling of Tarde/Deleuze and Le Bon/Freud presents a very different relation between conscious and unconscious states. As Deleuze and Guattari argue, Freud tried to approach the crowd from the point of view of the unconscious. But he didn’t see that the unconscious itself was fundamentally a crowd.

He was perhaps myopic and hard of hearing insofar as he misconstrued the crowd for a certain individual. In contrast, schizoid analysis does not “mistake the buzz and shove of the crowd for Daddy’s voice.” Daddy’s hypnotic authority is grasped instead as symptomatic of the psychoanalyst’s predisposition to repress the desiring machine by locking it away (inside) the representational space of the unconscious.

Like this, Le Bon’s crowd contagion acts on the social, forcing it to reproduce a unified collective mentality.

As an alternative to The Crowd’s delusional fantasy, Virality explores how the tendency to pass on real and illusory contagions can be attributed to phantom-events.

Significantly, phantom-events are outcomes, or effects, of actions and passions, not their Oedipal representation. The phantom is paradoxically without a body but is nevertheless a material thing (an incorporeal materiality). The event becomes detached from its causes, spreading itself from surface to surface. This is not the point at which affect turns into fantasy, but rather where the ego spreads to the surface.

It is the hypnotized subject’s distance from the phantom-event that makes her prone to variable appearances of the real and the imagined.

Arguably, this is the logic of sense apparent in the spreading of chain letters, Trojan viruses, false rumors, and fake video virals.

These are the emergent forces of a contagious encounter, in a social field, which function according to an action-at-a-distance. The phantom-event contaminates those caught somewhere in the loop between the imaginary and the real events she encounters and believes in

(see part four)

Images from Virality – future project with artists at UEL

As part of a potential joint project between authors and artists at UEL (intended to explore how the concepts in a book like Virality might be morphed into media other than a book, or how the material below might be rematerialized) I’m posting images from the book along with some context (includes some images that never made it through the final edit).

Resuscitating Tarde’s Diagram in the Age of Networks
Virality begins with an interpretation of the foundational sociological ideas Gabriel Tarde forwarded in three key texts: Social Laws, The Laws of Imitation, and Psychological Economy. These books introduced a complex series of interwoven microrelations, the diagram of which provides a novel alternative to dominant micro- and macroreductionisms so often attributed to social, cultural, and economic relationality. The aim here is to disentangle Tarde from Durkheim’s collective consciousness and unravel contested claims that try to make him a forefather of both memetics and actor network theory. Virality instead aligns Tarde to Deleuzian assemblage theory, connects him to a disparate series of past and present contagion theories.

These include approaches to imitation and conformity, crowd manias, and contemporary perspectives drawn from cognitive neuroscience and the theory of affect. By breathing new life into these microrelations, Virality intends to further connect Tarde to present-day network ontology.

What Spreads? From Memes and Crowds to the Phantom Events of Desire and Belief

The Virality of the LG15 YouTube videos. A so-called Internet meme
Virality focuses on various aspects of Obama love. Photo by Jeff Ellis, Photoshopped by the author

What spreads through a social network is all too often attributed to two largely uncontested logics of resemblance and repetition. First, cultural contagion is assumed to correspond to a distinctive biologically determined unit of imitation (the meme). This is unquestionably a mechanistic virality analogically compared to the canonical imprint of genetic code. Second, what spreads is said to occur in a representational space of collective contamination in which individual persons who become part of a crowd tend toward thinking in the same mental images (real and imagined). Like this, the reasoned individual is seemingly overpowered by a neurotic mental state of unity unique to the crowd, which renders subjectivity vulnerable to further symbolic contagious encounters and entrainments.

Milgram’s Manhattan Experiment

A big influence on Virality, although not entirely aligned to Tarde’s diagrams, it must be added, is Milgram’s Manhattan experiment. Nearly eighty years after Tarde’s ruminations about the society of imitation, a research team headed by the social psychologist Stanley Milgram set up an experiment intended to better understand how social influence spreads through the urban crowd. Mirroring to some extent Tarde’s late-nineteenth-century interest in how imitative contagions propagate through social collectives mostly unawares, Milgram’s experiment in 1968 was designed to stimulate the imitative behaviors of individuals as they encountered a crowd. To begin with, an actor was planted on a busy Manhattan street corner and told to look up at a tall building while the researchers observed the actions of unwitting passers-by. A few of the passers-by noticed and looked up too. However, Milgram then increased the number of skyward looking actors to five.

Stanley Milgram’s skywards pointing people (as carried out by our new media students at UEL) provides an interesting example of the contagiousness of phantoms (Photo by Jeff Ellis)

The idea was to gauge how this increase in stimulus would influence the decisionmaking processes of the urbanite passers-by and to record how many more of them would subsequently imitate the skyward looking crowd. In the first test, 20 percent of the passers-by looked up, but when five actors appeared on the street corner, the number apparently jumped to 80 percent. From these results, Milgram deduced his theory of social proof; that is, as our performance piece at UEL (image above right) shows, on encountering the crowd, the individual makes a contagious assumption based on the quantity of evidence that there is something worth looking up at. To put it another way, the individual’s imitation of others is largely dependent on his cognitive assessment of the magnitude of social influence.

The LG15 viral video, another example of the contagiousness of phantoms (Photo by Jeff Ellis, Photoshopped by the author)

As becomes apparent in Virality, Milgram’s impact on the new network sciences approach to contagion has been considerable.

Network scientists, like Albert-Laszlo Barabási (influenced by Milgram), have developed the scale-free network. This network model has become the favoured diagram of contagion.

Not only has his work greatly influenced the models used but his ideas figure writ large in the stress given to an individual’s instinctual tendency to herd or cascade, particularly in times of bubble building and subsequent financial crisis but also during the spreading of fashion and fads. In many of these accounts, imitative decisions (rationale or irrational) conforming to the social actions of others are assumed to be biologically hardwired into the brain, enabling a person to make snap judgments to avoid, for example, threats to her physical, emotional, or financial well-being. Notably, even when using online systems like e-mail, it is argued that “the human brain is hardwired with the proclivity to follow the lead of others.”

Barabasi describes the power law behind the scale free model like this: “If the heights of an imaginary planet’s inhabitants followed a power law distribution, most creatures would be really short. But nobody would be surprised to see occasionally a-hundred feet-tall monster in fact among six billion inhabitants there would be at least one over 8,000 feet tall.” This picture was snapped by Jussi Parikka while at a conference in Barcelona a few years back. I thought it captured something of the power law (Photoshopped by the author)

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. It is the evolutionary propensity of individuals to obey rather than to imitate that matters. He is not, as such, untypical of the cognitive turn in the twentieth century (discussed in the introduction to Virality), in this case in social psychology, in which crowd behavior was generally traced to the disposition of individuals caught up in a natural chain of command or hierarchy rather than association or disassociation. As Milgram argues, imitation leads to conformity, but obedience ultimately requires the distinct social action of the individual. Whereas crowd theory ascribed contagious affect to mania and hypnosis, the cognitive turn would contrastingly dismiss such ideas as fanciful psychologism. Nevertheless, Milgram was famously the great manipulator of the social encounter. Resembling his other famous experiments linking social conformity to authority and obedience, his triggering of crowd contagion in Manhattan was unquestionably socially engineered. He might even be considered a hypnotist of sorts, or an authentic viral marketer, insofar as he planted suggestibility, via the points of fascination provided by his skyward looking actors, into the neurological, biological, and sociological composition of the crowd. From this privileged position, Milgram not only observed but also controlled the involuntary, semiconscious, and imitative responses his experiment induced.

Two Stratagems of Virality (borrowing approach from Evil Media)

Stratagem 1: Immunologic

The immunologic stratagem has two parts. The first is explained here by way of registering the efforts made by the antivirus (AV) industry to counter the computer virus writing scene (VX). Both AV and VX have been complicit in a discursive and prediscursive immunological conflict that associates digital contagion with anxieties concerning biological contamination. This decidedly asymmetrical conflict involves the stirring up of a kind of misotramontanism (a fear of the other) that is endemic to an entrepreneurial endeavor to sell more security via appeals to insecurity as well as being inserted into the materiality of AV software systems. Indeed, immunological conflict is more than a rhetorical war of words intended to “legitimize” the immunity (and integrity) of a discursively designated self pitted against a hostile nonself. It also features in the software infrastructures that organize the network space. Clearly language plays a major role. As Sean Cubitt eloquently puts it, the “metaphor of contagion is at once to presume the integrity of the cell” and therefore legitimatize “a counter-attack based on maintaining that integrity and limiting, if not destroying, the virus’s ability to mutate.” Nonetheless, these linguistic associations have become more concretely embedded in the logic of future network conflict. The persuasive force of this logic is not fixed or limited by linguistic representations but is transformed by the discursive events of language that order the contents of the assemblages to which they relate. Unlike a linguistic representation, then, the immunological binaries of self and nonself operate as an incorporeal transformation via expressions “inserted into” contents, that is, not represented but delimited, anticipated, moved back, slowed down or sped up, separated or combined. As follows, the second part of the immunologic stratagem cunningly positions a wide range of new network threats at the center of further anxieties concerning the lack of an assignable enemy.

Like the War on Viruses, then, the deceptions of the War on Terror exemplify how the heightening of fears associated with a transmittable and infectious unknown enemy becomes endemic to the subterfuge of a progressively more indiscriminate network security paradigm.

Stratagem 2: Viral Love

Tarde clearly regarded love as a powerful political concept. In fact, in his science fiction–climate disaster novel Underground Man, published in 1905, he writes about the fate of the human race as it is forced to live beneath the surface of the earth when the sun begins to die. This catastrophic environmental event provokes social instabilities marked by a shift from social hierarchy to social harmony. As a consequence, love not only replaces the energy of the sun but becomes a major force of social power. Love becomes the very air that the Underground Man breathes. Not surprisingly, perhaps, humans soon become embroiled in a bloody conflict for this precious recourse. On one side, there are those who fight “to assert the freedom of love with its uncertain fecundity,” and on the other, there are those who want to regulate it. In the “forced intimacy of a cave,” Tarde writes, “there is no mean between warfare and love, between mutual slaughter or mutual embraces.” Love is war.

Obama love spreads via Facebook

It is also endemic to the “extra-logical” influences that underpin the laws of imitation, and by pointing to the desire to love as central to the exercise of power, Tarde similarly raises some very interesting questions concerning what is located between the “uncertain fecundity” of love and the tyrannies that seek to regulate its flow. Indeed, there seems to be a very thin line separating, on one hand, the spontaneity of a love that spreads freely and, on the other hand, a love that controls. There is “nothing more natural,” Tarde states, “than that those who love each other should copy each other,” but love-imitation is a distinctly asymmetrical relation insofar as it is the lover who by and large copies the beloved.

Obama Love

In contrast to the microbial contagions of the neo-Cons, and their appeal to the political unconscious through the cold, emotionless channels of advisors like Cheney and the fearmongering of Rumsfeld, Obama’s campaign of hope and change managed to empathically tap into the infectable emotions of many U.S. voters. Indeed, empathy became the political tool of choice—a response to Bush’s failure to connect with the public mood, particularly after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana. But Obama-love was also a contagion befitting the age of networks: the political shift in power from the G. W. Bush administration’s spreading of fear via the repeated use of TV images of 9/11 to Obama’s election campaign of hope and change propagated via Facebook and Flickr photos.

Tardean Hypnosis: Capture and Escape in the Age of Contagion

Neuropersuasion and Noncognitive Capitalism

An eye tracking heat map capturing the attention (or distractions) of the consumer (image by the author)

The force of imitative encounter is a difficult event to grasp insofar as it is by and large insubstantial. The imitative ray is indeed a constituent of “unknown and unknowable . . . universal repetitions.” This is because a social contagion has a subrepresentational affective charge that seems to pass through social atmospheres, entering into the biology of the contaminated body via the skin before it triggers social actions, emotions, and thoughts. The organizing principle (if that is the right word to use) of affective contagion is after all its deterritorialized flow and the capacity of that flow to contaminate whatever it comes into contact with. But what matters to the marketer today does not necessarily need to have a substance to persuade. Although imitation-suggestibility is, it would seem, without a body, the intensity of its flow is not entirely untraceable or, indeed, immeasurable. Technological innovations have allowed business enterprises to detect flows of influence at the surface of the skin and regions of the brain even before a decision is made. As follows, the Tardean trajectory becomes traceable in the efforts marketers make to tap into the affective absorbency a consumer has to imitation-suggestibility. For example, so-called neuromarketers are deploying a combination of eye tracking, galvanic skin response (GSR), and electroencephalography (EEG) to develop new methods of persuasion. These practices map out correlations between what draws a consumer’s spontaneous attention and changes in skin conductance and brain activity linked to inferred emotional states to better prime a “propensity to buy.” This is a deeper intensification of the technological unconscious currently entering into the realm of neuropersuasion, where the pretesting of involuntary and spontaneous consumption helps to ensure that marketing messages move more rapidly to memory, without the need for costly posttest surveys. Of course, this technoexpansion into neurological unconsciousness raises big ethical questions concerning social power. Indeed, the technologies used to tap into the visceral relations consumers have with brands and products intervene in a seemingly entrenched ocularcentric Western paradigm. The pure reason of Enlightenment Man, linked as he so often is to a visual bias, representational objectivity, and the exclusion of subjective affect, comes into direct conflict with the idea that irreducible subrepresentational flows might actually have a mind of their own. There is nothing new in such a challenge. The notion of an unaffected ocularcentric reason has already been confronted by questions concerning the problematic distancing function the visual system establishes between subject and object, and here I similarly approach problems relating to the pureness of the objective pathway that is assumed to relate objects to eyes and minds.

Bird Brains

The below is taken from an article to be published in Distinktion in December. It not only links nicely with the cover (an accident), but it points toward my next project concerning neuroculture.

Tarde’s society of imitation has multiple territorial arrangements which can be understood through the Deleuzo-Guattarian conceptions of refrains and lines of flight. As a pianist Guattari grasped how the rhythm of a ritornello composes the time and space in which music is played (Dosse, 2010, 253). How the return to a repeated theme brings together the singularities of an improvisation and the repetition of imitation brings unity to composition. Like Guattari, Tarde used the example of birdsong refrains to think through how species produce territorial unity.

Cover Design by Martyn Schmoll

The memetic bird is generally understood to imitate the song of their mothers, and others in their specie line, so as to delineate territorial boundaries. However, territorial unity is complicated by what appears to be the many examples of cross-kingdom imitation. As Deleuze and Guattari (1987, 302) suggest, the ‘labor of the refrain’ can be used for ‘very subtle deterritorializations.’ It does not remain territorial, but ‘selective lines of flight’ transverse ‘across all coordinates—and all of the intermediaries between the two,’ before lapsing back into the refrain. Quite unlike memetic birdsong which requires a particular species to learn an exact copy of a catchy song before passing it down the hereditary line, the Tardean bird reaches out and borrows from an arrangement of interconnecting lines of communication. Like Proust’s fat bumble bee fertilizing the orchid, the social reaches outside the species line to borrow the desires and inventions of others. Tarde in fact refers to a ‘deep-seated desire to imitate for the sake of imitation,’ noting how ‘[a] mocking-bird can imitate a cock’s crow so accurately that the very hens are deceived’ (Tarde 1903, 67). Imitative birdsong, as Guattari similarly argues, becomes an unintentional occupation of frequencies (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 331). The more birds, the more the species lines get crossed, and the more lines of communication get crossed, the more the refrains are exposed to the outside. The social relation becomes a multiplicity ‘defined by the outside: by the abstract line, the line of flight or deterritorialization according to which they change in nature and connect with other multiplicities’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 9). The occupation becomes inseparable from the decomposing lines of flight that lead to other assemblages, producing an intermixing of birdsong. Think of it as a remixing or scrambling of codes which can lapse back into the refrain, disrupt its repetition, before becoming a new line of flight.

While memetics would perhaps render all endeavours made by animals to be social in the human world abortive due to their failure to evolve imitation into developed cognitive capacities lie language, Tarde contends that every animal, like every human ‘reaches out’ to the social life to satisfy their innate capacity to imitate (Tarde 1903, 67). This is Tarde’s ‘sine qua non of mental development,’ a precondition of all social life which predates language (Tarde 1903, 67). As he puts it, ‘[t]he adaptive capacity of cerebral functions, the mind, is distinguished from other functions in not being a simple adaptation of definite means to definite ends.’ (Tarde 1903, 67) The adaptive mind is ‘indeterminate’ and depends more or less on the chance ‘imitation of outside things’ (Tarde 1903, 67).  Prior to a late twentieth century neuroscientific understanding of a hardwired imitative capacity which may have evolved initially to help animals improve physical movements and eventually became available for more complex functions like language, Tarde located the social mind in an ‘infinite outside’ or ‘outer world’ of imitation-repetition (Tarde 1903, 67). Mutual examples are not simply imitated by way of top down, internalized cognitive processes of the mind, but also filter through the noncognitive sharing of feelings, sensations and emotions. These are reciprocated magnetisms that form part of a ‘universal nature’ – a ‘continual and irresistible action by suggestion upon the… brain and muscular system,’ (Tarde 1903, 67) which spreads through the social environment.