Tag: nonrepresentational theory

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.

Affective Contagion: Social Practices and the Problem of the Uncanny (2 of 5)

Above and Below the Threshold of Consciousness…

There are, I think, a number of problems with this notion of a thick line drawn between conscious meaning making and prediscursive forces in the social field. First, it is important to stress that nonrepresentational theory is an effort to explain how the social becomes vulnerable to forces of encounter above and below the threshold of consciousness. The aim, it seems to me, is to tackle the problem of binary thinking (line drawing) by in fact tearing down the artifice that separates these two poles. What Wetherell seems intent on doing though is maintaining this artifice. I am not at all convinced however that, as her book claims, it is discourse that carries affect. It is perhaps better to highlight how discursive formations, like those that form around marketing and network security, are intimately interwoven with prediscursive flows of contagious affects, feelings, and emotions. It is true that marketers and network security experts, for example, tap into these forces, but the identities they impose are something that always comes after the event

This is why a Tarde-Deleuzian approach has proved so valuable to rethinking contagion theory in the age of networks. Although overall categories, like crowds, clearly exist as collective representations, Tarde’s laws of imitation, like Deleuze’s assemblage theory,  concerns the relationalities that bring things together irrelevant of a given identity. As Deleuze puts it, it is “within overall categories, basic lineages, or modern institutions” that Tarde’s microrelations can be found. Indeed, “far from destroying these larger unities,” it is the microrelation that composes the unity (Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, 36).

Second, it is important to question the very idea that the uncanny presents an analytical problem. Is it really the case that the study of the uncanniness of affective contagion “blocks pragmatic approaches to affect,” as Wetherell claims (p. 21)? Like this, the metaphors of contagion explain nothing, we are told, other than a strange and unknowable force, which can be better uncovered in less mysterious ways (the trusted tools of representation). In contrast, I would forward Tarde’s work (only one mention of his name in this book which prefers to use the much easier to burn straw man of Gustave Le Bon) as a mostly pragmatic attempt to uncover an uncanny neurological tendency to imitate.

Mirror Neurons are Uncanny

Tarde’s contagion is not in fact a metaphor at all. He argued that long before language came to define human culture the prevalent social action was to imitate. Wetherell’s many references to neuroscience, and the mirror neuron hypothesis in particular, demonstrate how this uncanny inclination to imitate is already being pragmatically approached, perhaps revealing that language is simply a by-product of such an imitative inclination.

Affective Contagion: Social Practices and the Problem of the Uncanny (1 of 5)

Affect and Emotion
Wetherell's Affect and Emotion

The Rubbishing of Discourse…

Margaret Wetherell’s new book Affect and Emotion: a New Social Science Understanding (Sage) arrived on my desk last week. Although it covers similar territory to Virality, namely affective contagion, it moves in a very different direction. It does so by forwarding a series of contentious problems facing nonrepresentational theory which require some attention here. Indeed, nonrepresentational theorists should perhaps take heed of the efforts of some social scientists intent on forcing the entire social through the lenses of the representational paradigm. They are no longer simply content to dismiss the claims of nonrepresentational theory as an incomprehensible and misguided fascination with the uncanny, but look to further impose the tools of representation on subrepresentational forces. In effect, what Wetherell attempts to do is wrestle affective contagion back from the likes of Brennan and Thrift, trying to force it into a representational space. Her distain for nonrepresentational theorists is abundantly clear. Her argument is indeed decisively aimed at what she sees as their “rubbishing of discourse.” This feels like payback time.

Affect and Emotion argues that for many people working in cultural studies, including Clough, Massumi, Sedgwick and Thrift, affect is interesting only because it is “not discourse” (p. 19). Massumi, for example, “draws a thick line between bodily movements or forces and social sense making.” Contrary to such Deleuzian flights of fantasy, it seems, human affect is rather “inextricably linked,” Wetherell claims, to meaning-making, the semiotic and the discursive. For Wetherell these are the guiding forces of affect.