Tag: Nigel Thrift

Streams of Consciousness: Data, Cognition and Intelligent Devices cfp

Call for Papers

Streams of Consciousness: Data, Cognition and Intelligent Devices conference at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, Warwick University, 21st and 22nd of April 2016

“What’s on your mind?” This is the question to which every Facebook status update now responds. Millions of users sharing their thoughts in one giant performance of what Clay Shirky once called “cognitive surplus”. Contemporary media platforms aren’t simply a stage for this cognitive performance. They are more like directors, staging scenes, tweaking scripts, working to get the best or fully “optimized” performance. As Katherine Hayles has pointed out, media theory has long taken for granted that we think “through, with and alongside media”. Pen and paper, the abacus, and modern calculators are obvious cases in point, but the list quickly expands and with it longstanding conceptions of the Cartesian mind dissolve away. Within the cognitive sciences, cognition is now routinely described as embodied, extended, and distributed. They too recognize that cognition takes place beyond the brain, in between people, between people and things, and combinations thereof. The varieties of specifically human thought, from decision-making to reasoning and interpretation, are now considered one part of a broader cognitive spectrum shared with other animals, systems, and intelligent devices.

Today, the technology we mostly think through, with and alongside are computers. We routinely rely on intelligent devices for any number of operations, but this is no straightforward “augmentation”. Our cognitive capacities are equally instrumentalized, plugged into larger cognitive operations from which we have little autonomy. Our cognitive weaknesses are exploited and manipulated by techniques drawn from behavioural economics and psychology. If Vannevar Bush once pondered how we would think in the future, he received a partial response in Steve Krug’s best selling book on web usability: Don’t Make Me Think! Streams of Consciousness aims to explore cognition, broadly conceived, in an age of intelligent devices. We aim to critically interrogate our contemporary infatuation with specific cognitive qualities – such as “smartness” and “intelligence” – while seeking to genuinely understand the specific forms of cognition that are privileged in our current technological milieu. We are especially interested in devices that mediate access to otherwise imperceptible forms of data (too big, too fast), so it can be acted upon in routine or novel ways.

Topics of the conference include but are not limited to:

– data and cognition

– decision-making technologies

– algorithms, AI and machine learning

– visualization, perception

– sense and sensation

– business intelligence and data exploration

– signal intelligence and drones

– smart and dumb things

– choice and decision architecture

– behavioural economics and design

– technologies of nudging

– interfaces

– bodies, data, and (wearable) devices

– optimization

– web and data analytics (including A/B and multivariate testing)

Please submit individual abstracts of no longer than 300 words. Panel proposals are also welcome and should also be 300 words. Panel proposals should also include individual abstracts. The deadline for submissions is Friday the 18th of December and submissions should be made to cimconf@warwick.ac.uk. Accepted submissions will be notified by 20th of January 2016.

Streams of Consciousness is organised by Nathaniel Tkacz and Ana Gross. The event is supported by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Memes, spam, nodes and moods: On creating super–clusters of attention

There’s a nice summary of a talk I did on virality for the Global Media Cultures masters programme at the University of Warwick yesterday. Some really interesting points came up about links between network science and the attention economy and the relation between science and cultural theory.
Read on…

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 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?



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.

Affective Contagion: Social Practices and the Problem of the Uncanny (4 of 5)

The Atmosphere of Affect…

A big influence on Thrift’s notion of affective contagion is Teresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect. So not surprisingly this book too becomes a target for Wetherell’s critique, particularly Brennan’s choice of words. Perhaps transmission is not the right word? It seems to imply that contagion spreads between self-contained individuals – not Brennan’s intention it must be said, as Wetherell later concedes. But the word does make us think of old communication models which to some extent present messages as locked inside the encoding/decoding minds of senders and receivers, as well as pushing them through the sealed, noiseless channels they communicate through (see Genosko’s new book on communication models to dispel such notions). However, what Brennan is really getting at in her sadly incomplete but wonderful little book is what she calls the atmosphere of affect.

Brennan's The Transmission of Affect
Brennan's The Transmission of Affect

This is not a readable atmosphere as Wetherell would like it to be (p. 146). The atmosphere is not a text! Brennan considers instead senses outside of representational space, and in doing so introduces, among other spreading phenomena, the contagions of pheromones. Indeed, Brennan uses smell as an example to help us rethink the relations that connect self to other by dipping below conscious states of meaningful message sending. Similarly, and in sharp contrast to the representational viewpoint in which identity and social practice define the flow, the object, and the kind of affects a crowd display (p. 148), Tarde considered how the imitative microrelation guides the flow of the crowd. This is a neurological relation as much as it is a relation to pheromones, but it is, like Brennan’s atmosphere, all about a porous and mostly unconscious self/other relation.

Affective Contagion: Social Practices and the Problem of the Uncanny (3 of 5)

New Neural Pathways…

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).

Gabriel Tarde
Gabriel Tarde

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.1

Significantly, discursive formations do not simply disappear from bodily movements, reflexes, and contagious transmissions. On the contrary, discourse is transmitted along with the prediscursive emergences of faces and stances. There is nonetheless an analytical requirement to map the changes in connectivities of prediscursive spaces and explore contemporary Tardean mediascapes, like the Internet, which as Thrift argues “act as new kinds of neural pathways . . . forging new reflexes.”(Thrift, Non-representational Theory, 236).

1. taken from a talk I presented in Hamburg last year. I am now working on a journal article expanding on Tarde’s notion that the brain has an innate capacity to imitate.