The problem however with Le Bon is that he never really explains how his mechanism of hallucination produces such idiots. Rather than figuring out how these subjects are made, he simply describes what he sees. Here again though, like Goriunova, I find Deleuze useful. His notion of the phantom event in The Logic of Sense provides something more to add to the idea that idiots are volatile to Trojans. Like this, in the phantom events of both Belle Poule and Lonelygirl15 a relation is established between social corporeality (bodies) and the incorporeal event (the imitative encounter or passing on of the event). This hallucination is not a hypnotic paralysis resolved solely in the depths of a repressed mental unity (as Le Bon’s proto-psychoanalysis would have it), or for that matter is it the hardwiring of an evolutionary meme code. It is rather an event that affects the crowd on the surface. As Deleuze puts it, “[the phantom-event’s] topological property is to bring ‘its’ internal and external sides into contact, in order for them to unfold onto a single side.” At the surface, the hallucinatory event disengages from its source and spreads itself. Like this, phantom-events are surface effects that can appear as spontaneously intersecting simulacra like the figure of a giant or a mountain range that materializes in the ephemeral formations of clouds in the sky.
Similar to the floating branches and leaves of Le Berceau, a religious apparition, or the sudden appearance of a pouting teenage blogger on YouTube, these surface effects can, albeit briefly, become detached from direct experience and autonomously spread their affective charge. Indeed, it is the hypnotized subject’s distance from the phantom-event that makes him evermore prone to variable appearances of the real and the imagined.
This is the logic of sense apparent in the spreading of Trojan viruses, chain letters, and contagious false rumors. These are not simply preprogrammed units of imitation but emergent forces of contagion in the social field that function according to an action-at-a-distance. The phantom-event is a surplus, or excess, of the nonconscious. It contaminates those who are caught somewhere in the loop between the imaginary and the real events encountered and believed in.
The idea of idiocy is nothing new to contagion theory. In Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd, for example, the social collectives through which contagion spread were considered to be stupider than the individual minds that compose them. To put it another way, it is not simply the case that what spreads is idiotic. It is also the infected social medium that is made up of so many idiots. To be sure, Le Bon’s The Crowd is like the smart mob thesis in reverse: we are stupider together than we are alone. Le Bon was of course afraid of the crowd. In an age of revolutionary contagion it posed a real threat to his social class. But despite his acute aristocratic paranoia concerning the crowd’s revolutionary potential (paranoia that still reverberates within the neo-liberal power structures of today) what he does usefully point to is the collective idiot’s vulnerability to Trojan-like events. Unlike the anomic regulatory forces of his contemporary Durkheim, which were supposed to detect such anomalous contagions, this straw man of 19th century contagion theory provides a few compelling examples of how Trojan virals slip under the collective consciousness, appearing to function according to a “mechanism of hallucination.” As follows, Le Bon recounts how one of Napoleon’s frigates, the Belle Poule, fell victim to a hallucinatory Trojan event. The ship was“cruising in the open sea for the purpose of finding the cruiser Le Berceau, from which she had been separated by a violent storm.” He continues:
“It was broad daylight and in full sunshine. Suddenly the watch signaled a disabled vessel; the crew looked in the direction signaled, and every one, officers and sailors, clearly perceived a raft covered with men towed by boats which were displaying signals of distress. Yet this was nothing more than a collective hallucination. Admiral Desfosses lowered a boat to go to the rescue of the wrecked sailors.”
“On nearing the object sighted, the sailors and officers on board the boat saw “masses of men in motion, stretching out their hands, and heard the dull and confused noise of a great number of voices.” When the object was reached those in the boat found themselves simply and solely in the presence of a few branches of trees covered with leaves that had been swept out from the neighboring coast.” Before evidence so palpable the hallucination vanished.”
And what idiots Napoleon’s sailors and officers must have felt like – just as stupid perhaps as those YouTube visitors caught out by the present day Trojans of internet viral marketers. Take for example an early video viral from YouTube called Lonelygirl15. In 2006 a series of webcast blogs were uploaded to the video-sharing website YouTube. Set in the bedroom of an often-pouting teenager, Lonelygirl15 attracted the largest number of visitors to the file-sharing site since its creation the year before.
The video also triggered a wave of imitative video clips and feverish comments posted by fans of the blog. These comments reveal a distinct lack of awareness on behalf of these fans concerning what would be later exposed as a hoax. Lonelygirl15 was an actress, and the video blog was designed to promote the work of a couple of budding Internet moviemakers. Here the viral marketers not only set out to publicize their work and make some money, but they also made idiots out of those YouTube visitors who were, it seems, fooled into believing in what turned out to be a ruse.