Tag: English Riots

The Return of Crowd Contagion? 2 of 3

Christmas Comes Early: The English Summer Riots

The contrast between the student protests in London, which have, after the storming of Tory HQ in November 2010 and political defeat a month later in Parliament Square, seemingly lost momentum, and the contagious English Riots is worth considering. On one hand, the fury of the students was contained in police kettles, on the other, the spontaneity of the summer riots left the authorities mostly ineffectual. What kind of desire-event fuelled the riots? Perhaps they were an aberration of consumerism as some have suggested (The Guardian, Monday 5 December 2011). These were consumer subjectivities in the making. As widely reported the rioters couldn’t believe their luck. Christmas had arrived early, and stuff was for free! The good news quickly spread on the streets and through Blackberry too, as well as via wall to wall TV and press coverage. But more importantly the riots revive an old perplexing question concerning the subjectivation of the poor. That is, how astonishing it is that after centuries of exploitation they only riot and steal on rare occasions rather than on a regular basis (See Deleuze and Guattari, 1984)

Cameron: “this is criminality”

Perhaps the rioter’s desire to loot needs to be grasped in this light as a kind of perversion of the desire to shop: an anomalous desire-event that reappropriated, for a few days at least, the everyday enslavement of the shopping mall the consumer subject commonly desires for himself and others. The answer will certainly not be found within the riotous crowd itself, but rather within the problem of the viewing public. While a few thousand watched the protests and riots on YouTube, the larger public experienced a pacifying action-at-a-distance via coverage of student “attacks” on the royals and the fire extinguisher thrown at the police. The enduring media images of the rioters are of plasma TVs being ripped from the walls of an electrical store.

The Imbaba Contagion: Inzel! Iinzel!

It is difficult to put into words the vital force of a contagious desire-event as it flows upward through the stratifications of social power. Following Tarde, Thrift has called similar processes of affective contagion an imitative momentum of conversation and gesture, “boosted and extended by all manner of technologies.” It is a continuous “adaptive creep” which is both the background and foreground of the contagion that spreads (Thrift, 2009). Yet the Arab Spring has enabled us to witness firsthand the impetus of revolutionary contagion reach its threshold. For instance, take a look at Philip Rizk and Jasmina Metwaly’s short film of crowds pouring out of Imbaba on the 28th Jan 2011 on their way downtown to Tahrir Square. There are a few similarities here with the events in England. Certainly, Mubarak’s government has long “stigmatized neighborhoods like Imbaba as a netherworld of crime and danger” (New York Times, Feb 15 2011).

Imbaba, Cairo
Imbaba, Cairo

Like the many locations in which the English Riots took place it was rendered an apolitical zone. The intensity of the emotions of this disenfranchised crowd is comparable to the English looters too. But the energy is somehow steered from these deprived neighbourhoods toward the political centre of the capital city. This is not an event guided by Web 2.0 alone. Internet access in Egypt is amongst the lowest in North Africa and the Middle East. Imbaba in particular is not the domain of Facebook politics or the Twittering classes. The networkability of the desire-event spread from person to person tapping into the rage of Cario’s poor who bore the brunt of Mubarak’s brutal dictatorship for years. The crowd, Rizk tells us, chants “inzel! inzel!” (come down! come down!), a call to neighbours to join the march and demand the fall of the regime. Like the poor neighborhoods of Sidi Bouzid where the Arab Spring began in Tunisia with the immolation of the street vender, Mohamed Bouazizi, the momentum moves rapidly to the government buildings.

Alexandra Topping and Fiona Bawdon  “It was like Christmas’: a consumerist feast amid the summer riots” The Guardian, Monday 5 December 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/dec/05/summer-riots-consumerist-feast-looters

This is a somewhat adapted version of Deleuze and Guattari’s references to Wilhelm Reich on the mass psychology of fascism in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, (London: The Athlone Press, 1984), 37-38.

Nigel Thrift, “Pass It On: Towards a Political Economy of Propensity,” 8.

Philip Rizk and Jasmina Metwaly made this remarkable video of a huge popular protest in Cairo on 28 January.

Anthony Shadid, “In One Slice of Egypt, Daily Woes Top Religion,” New York Times, Feb 15 2011.

The Return of Crowd Contagion? 1 of 3

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

The Desire-Events of Revolutionary Contagion

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

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

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

The press baron and the dictator

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