Tag: Gabriel Tarde


As promised more details about this event (below). Thanks to the organizers from Turku for putting together what looks to be a wonderful two day event unpicking the notion of affective capitalism.


5-6 June, 2014

Follow these links


Affective Capitalism Symposium abstracts

‘Tarde as Media Theorist’: an interview with Tony D. Sampson, by Jussi Parikka

‘Tarde as Media Theorist’: an interview with Tony D. Sampson, by Jussi Parikka

This discussion focuses on Sampson’s recently published monograph Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks, characterised by Brian Rotman as “offering a new theory of the viral as a sociological event.” In this conversation, Parikka and Sampson talk about Gabriel Tarde and assemblage theory, and why Tarde should be approached as a media theorist who is more interested in the somnambulistic notions of the social. Sampson’s interest in the non-cognitive – and non-cognitive capitalism – resonates with recent discussions of affect, but with a special focus on developments in HCI-design and research.
Read the rest of the interview on the Theory, Culture and Society Blog published Friday, 25 January 2013



Digital Culture: Anomalies, Archaeology and Contagion

Digital Culture: Anomalies, Archaeology and Contagion
– a seminar and wine reception at Kings College, London

20th March 2013

Seminar: 4.30-5.30 in K3.11 (K3.11 King’s Building, Third Floor, Room 11).  on the Strand Campus of KCL. Directions here: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/campuslife/campuses/strand/Strand.aspx

Wine reception: from 5.30-7.00 in the Small Somerset Room (second floor King’s Building).

books pattern copyIn 2009 Parikka and Sampson coedited The Spam Book, a collection of articles intended to probe the “dark side” of digital culture. The Spam Book addressed a shift from a digital culture very much defined in terms of the economic potential of digital objects and tools toward a discourse describing a space seemingly contaminated by digital waste products, dirt, unwanted, and illicit objects.

In this seminar and the following wine reception, Parikka and Sampson discuss emerging ideas and theoretical approaches to digital culture. Parikka’s media archaeological approach and Sampson’s research on virality provide insights into worlds of affect, anomaly and the alternative genealogy of which our network culture emerges. Parikka’s new What is Media Archaeology? pitches media archaeology as a multidisciplinary 21st century humanities field that resonates with a range of recent scholarly debates from digital humanities to software studies and digital forensics. Media archaeological excavations and discussions on such as Friedrich Kittler offer an alternative insight to the current digital culture/economy debates in the UK.

Sampson’s approach to digital culture brings together a Deleuzian ontological worldview with the sociology of Gabriel Tarde. His subsequent theory of network contagion does not, as such, restrict itself to memes and microbial contagions derived from biological analogies or medical metaphors. It instead points toward a theory of assemblages of imitation, viral events, and affective contagions. For Sampson, contagion is not necessarily a positive or negative force of encounter; it is how society comes together and relates. Sampson provides an assemblage theory of digital culture concerned with relationality and encounter, helping us to understand digital contagion as a positively sociological event, building from the molecular outward, long before it becomes biological.

Parikka’s media archaeology and Sampson’s contagion theory both figure the importance of a materialist approach to the imaginary and the nonconscious as central to an understanding of digital culture. Hence, the seminar asks the question: what is the nonconscious of digital culture?

The seminar is followed up by a book launch of Parikka’s What is Media Archaeology and Sampson’s Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks.

Both books are available at the event along with wine.

Jussi Parikka: What is Media Archaeology? Polity Press: Cambridge, 2012.


Tony D. Sampson: Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2012.


Jussi Parikka is Reader in Media & Design at Winchester School of Art, and author of Digital Contagions (2007) and Insect Media (2010) as well as (co-) editor several edited collections, including The Spam Book (2009), Media Archaeology (2011) and Medianatures (2011). He blogs at htt://jussiparikka.net.

Tony D. Sampson is a London-based academic, writer and Reader in Digital Media and Communications at the University of East London. A former musician, he studied computer technology and cultural theory before receiving a PhD in sociology from the University of Essex. His research blog is at https://viralcontagion.wordpress.com/
Directions: To find K3.11 you take stairs up from the Second Floor King’s Building at the Strand end of King’s Building. You can ask for directions at the Strand Reception.

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…

Animal Societies of Imitation

Tarde’s Animal Societies of Imitation

Having watched this canary-like beluga whale doing a very bizarre bugle imitation this week reminded me of Tarde’s interest in animal societies. In the short piece below (adapted from a full article due to be published in the Scandinavian journal Distinktion in December) these references to the imitative cerebral functioning of animals are used to think through nonrepresentational theory as well as open up various questions on the primacy of affect.

Imitation is Nonrepresentational

Tarde’s unconscious association is not structured like a language. It is mostly nonrepresentational. That is to say, imitative cerebral functions reach out to the social world in ways that surpass language. Like animal societies, who, Tarde declares, ‘seem to understand one another almost without signs, as if through a kind of psychological electrisation by suggestion,’ (Tarde 1903, 204) the social seems to be composed of molecular flows of desire, sensations and feelings that influence cognitive beliefs and social action. It is thought that simple beliefs emerge from sensations of pain or nausea helping certain animals to determine what foodstuff is nutritious or harmful (Griffiths 1997, 26-27). In humans more complex feelings relating to hope, fear, anxiety, love, anger and willing seem to trigger more complex beliefs and actions. The point though is not to distinguish between rudimentary animal and complex human beliefs systems. I am not claiming here that animals possess religious beliefs, for example. Instead what Tarde argues corresponds to some extent with noncognitive approaches insofar as he regarded both humans and animals to have thoughts that do not represent a thing but are transmitted through feelings that potentially have a mind of their own (Zajonc 1980).

Affective Contagion?

So does the society of imitation point to the primacy of affect?Tarde certainly agreed with Bergson that the intensity of sensations needed to be considered apart from their relation to reason (Tarde 1903, 145). However, he strongly contended that ‘belief and desire bear a unique character that is well adapted to distinguish them from simple sensation’ (Tarde 1903, 145). Unlike the visual or auditory felt sensations, experienced in a theatre for example, which can simultaneously affect the attentive crowd, beliefs and desires have an intensity that may become, when ‘experienced by everybody else around,’ contagious (Tarde 1903, 145). It is, Tarde argues, the ‘contagion of mutual example’ which ‘re-enforces [and weakens] beliefs and desires’ according to whether or not they are alike or dissimilar, experienced together, or at the same time (Tarde 1903, 145). As Deleuze notes, Tarde’s flows of desire and belief are, unlike qualitative sensations and resultant representations, ‘veritable social Quantities’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 219). Desire and belief are indeed ‘the two aspects of every assemblage,’ and the ‘basis of every society’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 219).

Memes versus Contagious Assemblages

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. 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.


Deleuze, G and Guattari, F. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Continuum.

Dosse, F. 2010. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: Intersecting Lives. New York: Columbia University Press.

Griffiths, P. E. 1997. What Emotions Really Are: The Problem of Psychological Categories. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tarde, G. 1903. The Laws of Imitation, trans. E. C. Parsons. New York: Henry Holt.

Zajonc, R. B. 1980. Feeling and Thinking: Preferences need no inferences. American Psychologist. 35, no.2: 151-75.

Talks on Virality (part four)

(Goldsmiths Oct 22nd)

Virality then returns to digital networks by referring to two Evil Media style stratagems.

The first, “immunologic,” permeates the very matter and functionality of network security. The binary filtering of self and non-self, and known and unknown, exceeds abstract diagrammatic forces… becoming part of the concrete relations established between end users and the software they encounter.

In contrast to a rhetorical analysis of security discourses, what is acknowledged here is how the immunologic affects the matter-functions of a network, imposing the molar force of the organism on software designed to filter out viral anomalies.

 The “immunologic” does more than represent the defense of the organic body via the importation of biological language.

It concretely organizes these defenses in terms of organs or organisms, which ward off bodily threats according to the binary divisions of self and non-self, and known and unknown.


Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous use of the “immunologic” to justify the War in Iraq demonstrates how it can be universally applied across all kinds of networks.

Despite these frequent epidemics of panic and terror, it is contagions of hope, faith, and more significantly perhaps, love that Tarde contends are far more catching.

 He clearly regarded love as a powerful political stratagem.

In his 1905 novel Underground Man, Tarde 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 out.

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 it becomes the force by which social power circulates.

Love becomes the very air the Underground Man breathes.

Not surprisingly…  perhaps, humans soon become embroiled in a bloody conflict for this precious resource.

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 also endemic to the extra-logical influences that underpin The Laws of Imitation…

…and by pointing to the desire to love as an exercise of biopower, Tarde similarly raises 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, a tyranny of love that controls.

There is nothing more natural, Tarde states, than those who love each other… should copy each other, but love-imitation is a distinctly asymmetrical relation. It is the lover who generally copies the beloved.

So Tarde’s social man is famously the somnambulist. We know how credulous and docile this hypnotic subject becomes… What is suggested to him becomes incarnated in him. It penetrates him before it expresses itself in his posture, gesture and speech.

For writers like Thrift…

… it is the absorption of affect that produces these incarnations.

They become comparable to, schools of fish briefly stabilized by particular spaces, ephemeral solidifications, which pulse with particular affects.

More relevant perhaps to the age of networks, is the question of what constitutes the nonconscious incarnations of software culture.

Here Evil Media grasps contemporary media practices of trickery, deception, and manipulation, as key.

Like this, the persuasion-management of the end user occurs via an array of sophist techniques… cropping up like a mesmerizing flow that intercepts points of intersection between attention and inattention, and cognitive and noncognitive registers.

As Evil Media puts it:

The end-user has only finite resources for attention.

She will slip up sooner or later. . . . A keen interest in the many points at which fatigue, overwork, and stress make her inattentive is invaluable.

In attention economies, where the premium is placed on capturing the eye, the ear, the imagination, the time of individuals . . . it is in the lapses of vigilant, conscious, rationality that the real gains are made.

And despite the hyperbole, the capture of inattention is not really a trick viral marketing can pull off…

The problem with viral marketing is that it’s just not viral enough.

Inattention and distraction are nevertheless, becoming increasingly targeted in the practices of the neuromarketer, and its object: The brain!

This returns us to the rhizomatic network. Not necessarily the digital networks of the Spam Book though. Rather the neuron network. It was, after all, the discontinuous synaptic event that inspired the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, as well as featuring writ large in What is Philosophy?

I conclude here with two questions concerning what might be called neuroculture:  These are…

what can be done to a brain? 

…and what can a brain do?

The first follows the development of a raft of neurotechnologies, initially intended to map the brain’s surface structure and functionality.

Research began in the late 1800s to microscopically trace the discontinuities of the nervous system.

Since then the neuron has been put to work in a variety of ways.

For example, neuropharmaceuticals and technologies, initially developed to diagnose and treat ADD, OCD and dementia, have been re-appropriated by marketers, the military, and for other off-label uses in education and the science lab. 

However, alongside the manipulation, enhancement and inhibition of neurotransmitters,

… there is a brain that confronts, and becomes a junction between itself and chaos.

This is not a metaphysics that transcends matter. Instead, the incorporeal spreads on the material surface.

Perhaps this points to a materialist understanding of a synaptic collective, which is as much nonconscious as it is conscious.

Tarde was indeed quick to refer to cerebral imitation functions reaching out to the social world in ways that surpass language. His laws of imitation have not surprisingly perhaps been attributed to so-called mirror neurons.

This prompts only more questions though

To begin with, what kind of neuroculture is this, when it is not the mind or the person, but the brain that thinks.

And lastly, what kind of subjectivity is this which coincides with events at the molecular level of neuron transmission?



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)

Talks on Virality (part two)

(Goldsmiths 22nd Oct)

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

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

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

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

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

This involved a number of requirements:

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

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

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

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












There are two main Tardean diagrams presented in Virality.

 The first is adapted from Tarde’s Social Laws.

 The main point being to grasp that…

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).