This is an updated version of notes from a short talk on a keynote panel at the Viral/Global conference at University of Westminster (13th Sept, 2017) where I tried to provide six pointers for the study of virality.
The conference demonstrated that there’s some great work going on in this area, in particular I was struck by the way in which virality could possibly change how we conceive of the global in terms of inner and outer worlds. While we still need to have one eye on the spreading of conformity and docility, there’s also the potential for contagions to openly challenge fixed ways of doing things in set power structures.
There’s a continued interest in emotional contagion and the relation virality has to intimacy.
There’s also interest in the notion that capitalism is a fermenter and provoker of experiences that might go viral. This is very different from saying that capitalism is a virus.
There’s still a lot of perplexing discussion about the metaphor itself and the problem of biological determinism. I agree that we need to account for the discursive power of viral metaphors – how they evidently shape security discourses e.g. There’s also a tendency to see viruses as something malevolent that we wouldn’t want to pass on. For me, this missess the potential benevolence of virality. Moreover, a lot of the concern expressed over biological determinism is, I think, frustrating, since we end up in the habitual culture/biology impasse – and never the twain shall meet. One of the strengths of using Gabriel Tarde in this context is that we can draw on biology and psychology to understand the social and cultural without being deterministic. This is, after all, not neo-Darwinian memetics!
I also wondered if researchers referring to online content with a high hit count are really dealing with virality. There seems to me to be a difference between gaining masses of attention and a necessary focus on the spreadability of events that might leap from medium to medium, e.g.
1. Virality is nothing new!
Network contagion existed in pre-industrial and industrial crowds long before all this commotion about social media.
There are crowds in networks and networks in crowds.
e.g. in 1960s – Milgram’s research into social influence included his “skywards pointing people” experiment (see below) – suggesting that a social tendency to imitate could be manipulated.
Long before Milgram – in the origins of sociology – we find virality in Gabriel Tarde’s work – Famous for his spat with Durkheim concerning how the “social” emerges.
2. We are what we [unconsciously] imitate –
Following Tarde, imitation is the very thing that constitutes the “making of social subjectivities…”
This is a fundamentally different theory of social emergence…
On one hand, Durkheim’s dynamic density of social interaction leads to the emergence of a social “consciousness of consciousness.” An emergent whole, like collective intelligence.
Tarde, on the other, points to the emergence of nonconscious associations between relational parts.
There are no wholes in Tarde’s sociology, just differing scales of relational parts.
3. Virality is mostly accidental, but accidents can be steered –
Tarde’s Virality is a universal social condition, but unlike Milgram, he suggests that it is mostly accidental!
Despite this, Tarde’s virality resonates well with today’s neurocultures wherein the nonconscious brain is being exploited in so many ways by “experience capitalism.”
4. Social media introduces new vectors for contagious affective encounters
Achieved through, (a) the increased intimacy of connection, and (b), the various tools used to encourage and engineer imitation – e.g. “like” buttons!
Social media can be conceived of as an “affective atmosphere” in which the accidents of contagion can be fermented and provoked, and data traces sold on…
Facebook’s experiments with emotional contagion are an example of efforts made to steer “pre-emergent” affects of over 600, 000 users.
5. Virality is not something we can easily grasp with conventional conceptual tools of media theory
There are nonrepresentational and non-cognitive aspects to virality
e.g. Rebecca Coleman’s use of Raymond William’s “structures of feeling.” See the forthcoming Affect and Social Media book.
“Social media is experiential, and hence is pre-emergent. It is a series of practices, activities, flows and events that are not ‘fully articulated’ but hover ‘at the edge of semantic availability’ (Williams 1977a: 132 Cited in Coleman’s chapter).
6. Virality thrives in the relationality of the social medium –
Sharing is important here, but user data is analysed in relational
Unlike older ideas concerning capitalism’s role in commodifying the individual consumer’s sense of self, this is all about the social relations made in a network (or in an assemblage)
It is the assemblage of emotions e.g. that becomes productive.
“Marketers don’t need to infiltrate the self via the mirrors and mimicry of ideology [as Judith Williamson argued]. Marketing is not the creation of self-identity, but rather the production of sensory environments in which the contagious social medium can be encouraged and passed on. The social medium becomes the producer” (see Sampson, “Cosmic Topologies of Imitation: From the Horror of Digital Autotoxicus to the Auto-Toxicity of the Social” Parallax special issue on Autoimmunities 23(1) 2017).
It’s uncanny how certain ideas seem to converge all of a sudden. Just finished a CCT event in which Raymond Williams featured writ large, reading a great Rebecca Coleman chapter on Williams for forthcoming A&SM book, and now this invite to be on a keynote panel at a CAMRI international conference that seems to map “culture is ordinary” to “viral cultures”. The call looks good!
“VIRAL/GLOBAL Popular Culture and Social Media: An International Perspective” The University of Westminster Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI), Sept 13th 2017
Conference organised by the Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI)
Dave Morley (TBC)
Tony D Sampson
This interdisciplinary conference aims to examine how and why everyday popular culture is produced and consumed on digital platforms. There is increasing interest in studying and discussing the linkages between popular cultural and social media, yet there exist important gaps when comparing such cultural phenomena and modes of consumption in a global, non-west-centric context. The conference addresses a significant gap in theoretical and empirical work on social media by focusing on the politics of digital cultures from below and in the context of everyday life. To use Raymond Williams’s phrase, we seek to rethink digital viral cultures as ‘a whole way of life’; how ‘ordinary’, everyday digital acts can amount to forms of ‘politicity’ that can redefine experience and what is possible.
The conference will examine how social media users engage with cultural products in digital platforms. We will also be assessing how the relationship between social media and popular cultural phenomena generate different meanings and experiences.
The conference engages with the following key questions:
How do online users in different global contexts engage with viral/popular cultures?
How can the comparative analysis of different global contexts help us contribute to theorising emergent viral cultures in the age of social media?
How do viral digital cultures redefine our experience of self and the world?
We welcome papers from scholars that will engage critically with particular aspects of online popular cultures. Themes may include, but are not limited to, the following:
Analysing viral media texts: method and theory
Theorising virality: new/old concepts
Rethinking popular culture in the age of social media
Social media, politicity and the viral
The political economy of viral cultures
Memes, appropriation, collage, virality and trash aesthetics
Making/doing/being/consuming viral texts
Hybrid strategies of anti-politics in digital media
Viral news/Fake news
Non-mainstream music, protest, and political discussion
Capitalism and viral marketing
PROGRAMME AND REGISTRATION
This one-day conference, taking place on Wednesday, 13th of September 2017, will consist of a keynote panel and panel sessions. The fee for registration for all participants, including presenters, will be £40, with a concessionary rate of £15 for students, to cover all conference documentation, refreshments and administration costs.
DEADLINE FOR ABSTRACTS
The deadline for abstracts is Monday 10 July 2017. Successful applicants will be notified by Monday 17 July of 2017. Abstracts should be 250 words. They must include the presenter’s name, affiliation, email and postal address, together with the title of the paper and a 150-word biographical note on the presenter. Please send all these items together in a single Word file, not as pdf, and entitle the file and message with ‘CAMRI 2017’ followed by your surname. The file should be sent by email to Events Coordinator Karen Foster at email@example.com
Sharing this blog post from UCL because it (a), makes a very important point about “Trump Pedagogy”, (b), refers to the virality of Trumps “lessons” – discussed with my students this morning through this example used in the post, and (c), the co-author, Jessica Ringrose, is the keynote speaker at UEL’s Affect and Social Media 3.0 conference on 25th May 2017 (cfp here).
Tackling teaching about Trump: lessons from Black feminism
Many school and university teachers around the world have been asking how to discuss the 2016 USA elections with children, young people and students in the aftermath of what has been called the most divisive election in American history.
Wednesday night, in the wake of the election results, we were presented with the timely opportunity to re-tune our planned MA lecture in Sociology of Education on “Racism and Black Feminist Intersectionality” into a discussion about the global significance of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States. Since the lecture was on Black Feminism, we would naturally be addressing the issues of racism and misogyny and also the deep class divisions that became powerful focal points throughout the battle between Trump and Hillary Clinton.
We value the university setting as a place for open and informed debate among students from a wide variety of backgrounds, both regionally in the UK and internationally – from Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Hong Kong, China, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Canada and the USA.
Here are some highlights of our session
We opened by discussing some of the charged language championed by what we call “Trump Pedagogy” – that is a form of seemingly educative speech that is supposed to be hard hitting, honest and reflective of the ‘common interest’, but which we interpret as hate-speech that rejects global equality initatives and human rights. Trump has called women ‘nasty’ and ‘bitches’, and boasted about ‘grabbing them by the pussy’. He called Mexicans “rapists”, told African-Americans they were living in war zones, and suggested that all Muslims posed potential threats to security.
In counterpoint, we argued that Trump’s language should be called out as racist, and that his comments about women are entrenched in rape culture. Our students sought to make sense of the popular embrace of Trump despite of or indeed because of these attributes.
The early coverage of Trump’s win suggested that the disenfranchised of the ‘rust belt’ had voted for Trump out of ignorance, a similar view to the argument that working class Britain had made a ‘protest vote’ with Brexit. However, middle class white Americans (men and women) voted to secure their privilege, joining what commentators are calling a ‘whitelash’. Indeed it was noteworthy that 53% of white women (the ‘shy vote’) were what pushed Trump to victory. White women, especially from the Christian Right, were undisputed Trump supporters because of his anti-abortion rhetoric. These trends automatically raise questions for our students to discuss about which women support feminism and which women are anti-feminists and why?
We were also able to examine social media data showing that Black women in America were the heaviest supporters of Hillary Clinton (a White woman), and these statistics highlighted the importance of addressing the intersections of racism, sexism and class to understand how some women will identify with a misogynistic white male before someone of their own sex. This complicates the very idea of women’s natural commonality, since identity and position are always organised through class, race and gender as well as relative degrees of privilege and oppression defined through access to structural power. Meanwhile, people on the Twittersphere were weighing up whether America is “more sexist than racist”. Why is it is so common for people to say one aspect of identity is more important than the other? Can you actually tease apart these dimensions in the lived experience of Black women?
Our students worried that rape culture would flourish in a context where the man who made the original comment was now the leader of the ‘free world’.
Finally, however, returning to the pedagogical question of how to discuss these issues with young adults, teenagers and children, perhaps the most hopeful aspect of the election was the age demographic, with under 25s voting overwhelminingly in favor of Hillary Clinton. Perhaps Millennials were more repelled by racist slogans and less tolerant of misogynistic comments than were their ‘elders’.
Overall, then, we would conclude that it’s important to encourage discussion of young people’s own views and standpoints, and to not shy away from the idea that powerful leaders may be morally or materially corrupt. We need to place the logic of who leads in our poltical systems under critique and explanation, rather than sheltering young people from an analysis of institutionalised power and inequality.
Indeed we would encourage all educators to enable debate over theses issues so that young people can feel more empowered to engage in the political process. This should be defined not only through a party system and elections but everyday relationships in their lives. We need to keep reminding young people that respect, consent and consideration are tools of communication that they need to champion, even if this seems hypocritical at a time when ‘punch em in the face’ mentailty is being rewarded. Just because something has won out in the popular vote doesn’t make it right.
We concluded our session by invoking the feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’ and the black feminist mantra ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’ (Audre Lorde), along with quotes from Michelle Obama about the significance of the messages of equality we must champion alongside young people.
An interview published on 31st Dec 2016 by the editors Tara Robbins Fee and Samuel B. Fee
We are delighted to have the opportunity to talk with Tony about how his work touches on issues of imitation and contagion—a loaded term unpacked within his 2012 book.
Sam Fee: Tony, your book Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks seeks to explain networking behaviors that you argue have too often been inadequately captured in representational language. You propose that such language inaccurately describes human interaction in terms of identities and productions of resemblance, while assemblage theory offers a better way of describing behavior in terms of social encounter. First, could you describe for NANO readers how you believe that representational thinking falls short in describing the sociality of networking?
There was uproar in the British Labour Party last week when the chief of the Communications Workers Union, Dave Ward, argued that left wing leadership hopeful, Jeremy Corbyn, was an antidote to a malevolent Blairite virus. Not surprisingly, it was Blairite leadership hopeful, Liz Kendall, who criticised the rhetorical nature of the viral analogy used by Ward. She described it as “offensive language”. Kendall’s disgust was also not surprising perhaps. Viruses are, after all, malevolent infectors with a harmful payload. Former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, also predictably jumped to the defence of Blairism, claiming that it was “ridiculous” to call them a virus as many of Blair’s policies, like the introduction of the minimum wage, were benevolent. Like Blair and Alistair Campbell, Straw has warned that if the party ignores this fact and moves further to the left it faces “oblivion”.
The use of viral analogies to instil fear is recurrent in political rhetoric on the right and left. The fear of the red contagion dates back to pre-Soviet revolution anxieties expressed, for example, in Gustave Le Bon’s observations of mass crowd psychology in the late 1800s. Le Bon’s frequent references to the threat posed by contagious crowds was an aristocratic response to the revolutionary demands of socialism during his time. Interestingly, back in 2012, Blair himself referred to Eurosceptics as a ‘virus‘ blighting British politics.
Wards’ use of the viral analogy is indeed similarly based on a malevolent infection of left wing politics by neo-liberal thinking. His Blairite virus ensured that the middle ground of politics would be defined for decades to come by a market agenda. Epitomized by the dark malevolence of Peter Mandelson, the Blairite virus not only infected the Labour Party with market values, it also gave further credence to a right-wing propaganda machine that rendered left wing politics opposed to neo-liberalism as somehow “bonkers” or “looney”.
Wards’ analogy does not however go far enough. The Blairite virus infected more than policy decisions. It spread like a fashion meme through the party and beyond. Like most fashions, Blairism was for the young, not the old. More profoundly perhaps, it infected the symbolism of the Labour movement. In 1997 purple became the new red. Blairite supporters began to don dark business-friendly suits. Linguistic utterances and gestural actions were further contaminated. Young imitators in other parties, like Clegg and Cameron, began to roll up their sleeves and affect characteristic Blairisms at party conferences.
Wards’ use of the malevolent virus also fails to grasp the potential revolutionary force of a benevolent contagion. Indeed, the desire for Corbyn the antidote misses the point. To succeed Corbyn needs to do more than combat a virus. He needs to go viral. To some extent Corbyn needs to become a virus in much the same way as Blair did in 1997. It is important to recall that before the War in Iraq Blair came to power on a surge of emotional contagion. After 18 years of Thatcherite contamination the mood of the population was ripe for a virus that promised something new; hope and change. As any viral marketer will tell you, if a virus is to succeed then it needs to reach a tipping point. Thereafter, the contagion will overspill.
The Corbyn virus must not however become, as the Blairite virus did, a Trojan. Blair’s third way was designed to convince people that market principles were compatible with a fairer society, which evidently they are not. Similarly, the UKIP contagion hides a deceitful viral payload that is not only intrinsically racist, but conceals malevolent policies intended to do the most harm to the people it tries to infect.
In contrast, the Corbyn virus must infect people with a benevolent sense that a fairer society is not, as the Daily Mail would have it, bonkers, or the dream of a lunatic.
Indeed, the spreading of a benevolent Corbyn virus has already started, and the Daily Mail knows it. Using another analogy common to political rhetoric, the right wing newspaper described how the Corbyn bandwagon has now become a juggernaut. Reporting from a rally in Tory dominated Norfolk last week, the Mail described a crowd contagion that “is not just stretching round the block. It’s stretching around the next block, too…”
“Inside the packed, perspiring, exuberant hall — once the headquarters of Barclays Bank, no less — the star of the show enjoys his first standing ovation a good 45 minutes before he has uttered a single word.”
The aim now, following the leadership election, is not to find an antidote to neo-liberalism. It is rather to fight a virus with a virus. The benevolent potential of the Jerry Corbyn virus has some much needed early momentum. After 10 years of Tory austerity, in 2020, perhaps the mood will once again be ripe for an emotional contagion that produces something that is, this time around, authentically new.
Short note on Vital Mobilizations Workshops in Paris
Just returned from this excellent event at Collège d’études mondiales organized by Vincent Duclos.
For the sake of accountability 😉 my paper focused on the noncognitive ecologies of network culture. That is to say, the inverse of the discourses of collective intelligence and cognitive ecology (or neurological manifestations of collective consciousness); a social media marketing model that can be seen to route around collective cognition. The recent Facebook emotional contagion experiment is just the tip of a iceberg of efforts to steer these mostly nonconscious contagious forces online. However, the most interesting aspects of the event for me were the attention it drew toward a possible exchange of concepts between disciplinary viralities. While in the digital culture field I have made a concerted effort to escape the metaphors of biological contagion, which seem to me to shroud the material concepts of viral ecologies, events, affects and assemblages in a figurative, cultural space of representation and discourse, I have not perhaps given enough thought into how these material concepts could be potentially (and productively) used in biological contexts, and incorporated in e.g. field studies of epidemiological work.
There was certainly some interest from Vinh-Kim Nguyen (Université de Montréal/Collège d’études mondiales) in the role some of these concepts (affect and events) might play in thinking through the recent Ebola outbreak.
Ebola shocked a global health system that had gravely underestimated how the virus could interact with the assemblages it came into relation with in unanticipated ways. In short, we might say that organizations like the WHO, and their standardized medical kits, were caught out by the events of life (Duclos’s vital mobilizations), which are not accounted for in their viral models or become manifest in the infrastructures designed to combat an outbreak.
I also stayed on for Andy Lakoff’s fascinating and revealing talk on Ebola. What we have here also brings together some of the notions of assemblage theory and questions concerning failures in global health infrastructures. There was a lot said about the failure of existing risk models in biomedicine and moves towards Beck’s models of anticipation.
This quote from an issue of LIMN nicely captures Lakoff’s examination of how…
… the [Ebola] epidemic has put the norms, practices, and institutional logics of contemporary global health into question, and looks at the new assemblages that are being forged in its wake. The concept of “disease ecology” typically refers to a pathogen’s relationship to a natural milieu—particularly animal hosts and their environmental niche—and to how this milieu is affected by human behavior. Here, however, we conceive of Ebola’s ecologies more broadly to include the administrative, technical, political, and social relationships through which disease outbreaks evolve, and into which experts and officials are now trying to intervene in anticipation of future outbreaks.
Returning to noncognitive ecologies at a talk on June 16th at Winchester School of Art. Some of these ideas will be very useful to that discussion.
Text based on a talk given at the first Club Critical Theory night at the Railway Hotel in Southend, Essex, UK on April 17th 2014. Corrections may still be needed.
Applying Deleuze to Southend in the context a Club Critical Theory discussion is a doubly difficult task. To begin with Deleuze introduces a new vocabulary that sits atop of an already complex layer of philosophical debate. We will need to grapple with complexity theory and a strange incorporeal materialism. Then there are personal reasons that make this task problematic relating to my own situation here as a Southender. Deleuze, for me, represents an escape from certain aspects of my early working life in Southend at the local college and particularly my time spent in what we referred to then as the School of Media and Fascism. Deleuze was part of my escape plan from this horror, so returning to Southend with him in mind presents all kinds of problems, but let’s put those aside for a moment and see where Deleuze in Southend takes us.
The point of this introduction to Deleuze is to apply some critical distance between our material and expressive experiences of Southend. So let’s begin by saying what I think Deleuze is not. He is not postmodern or poststructuralist. Such generalities are, as I will try to explain, not acceptable in Deleuzian ontology. With regard to the latter, language or linguistic categories, while not discounted, they are not the major concern. I also do not see Deleuze’s post-Marxism as necessarily antithetical to the Left or indeed Marx. He was supposedly planning a book on the latter before he died. Shame we missed that one! What attracted me to Deleuze was his attempt to rally against all kinds of totality, fascism and authoritarian regimes. But there are many Deleuzes. His project is vast. What I’ll focus on here are some aspects of Difference and Repetition which seem to me to map out the trajectory of his philosophical project born out of the frustrations of 1968 and extending into his work with Guattari – a time marked by a unrequited desire for revolution. A time that instigated a need to rethink what revolution really means.
Simply put, we need to overcome an old philosophical problem; that is to say, the problem of the One and the many. This is a mereological problem – meaning the study of the relation between parts and wholes and an ongoing debate concerning what constitutes an emergent whole. Before applying this to Southend directly I want to draw a little on crowd theory to illustrate what I mean by mereology. The origins of social theory are rooted in a question concerning what constitutes individuals and crowds. That is, what happens to an individual when she becomes part of a crowd? In the late 1800s Gustave Le Bon thought that once the socially conscious individual became part of a crowd she was incorporated into a stupid and mostly unconscious collectivity. A great influence on Freud’s group psychology and 1930s fascism, Le Bon applied a kind of emergence theory that assumes that the whole has properties independent of the parts that compose it.
We can illustrate Le Bon’s claim by visiting Roots Hall Football ground every week.
Le Bon’s football crowd is an emergence of a kind of collective intelligence in reverse in which smart individuality dissipates into the unruly wholeness of the crowd. We can also see this in terms of the discourses of local policy makers when they refer to the Southend community as a whole. The properties of the emergent whole are assumed to become superveniant – meaning that the interaction between parts produces a whole that has its own properties. It is this immutable wholeness that has a downward causal power over the parts from which it has emerged. This is the kind of sociology that claims that we are the product of the society we are born into, i.e. a member of a certain class.
What Deleuze does is replace the One and the many with the multiplicity. We need to draw here on a little bit of complexity theory, but before that Deleuze and Guattari set out a really nice case against superveniant wholes in their book Anti Oedipus. In short, all things become parts. Wholes are just bigger parts. Instead of the One, we encounter populations of parts. The multiplicity becomes the organizing principle in a complex relationality between parts, which we will call here assemblages. Unlike the timelessness (synchronic) of emergent superveniant wholes, we find that assemblages are exposed to historical (diachronic) processes. A population of parts becomes a territorialization: a territory held together by relationality, but exposed to deterritorializations and reterritorializations. Assemblages also have material and expressive parts. For instance, material parts might be the buildings we surround ourselves with or without the financial capital we require to build them. Expressive parts might refer to the availability of cultural capital (knowledge e.g.) or the flow of conversations, routines, rituals, habits and discourses that co-determine the social spaces we inhabit.
The question therefore moves away from simply locating the properties of the emergent whole to the question of what brings assemblages together. What are the interactions that give life to a novel territory? We also need to take into account how interactions between parts and the wider environment: the way in which the football crowd interacts with the materiality of the stadium or the weather or the expressive voices and gestures of the away supporters.
It is nonetheless crucial that the multiplicity is not mistaken for a master process that determines the territory – the crowd e.g. We need to see this rendering of a crowd as what the Deleuzian Manuel Delanda refers to as a space of possibilities. This is a brand of Deleuze that draws heavily on complexity theory. Herein the properties of the crowd have identities that are not fixed or essential. The crowd has capacities that can affect and be affected. The interaction between home and away supporters, e.g. The crowd also has tendencies that function as pattern changers. Say Southend United actually manage promotion this season, and that’s of course more virtual than actual at this point, but should it happen then the crowd will swell in number perhaps requiring a new stadium. There is also the complexity of universal singularities to follow, which, in simple terms, provides the trajectories or lines of flight that the crowd follow. Continuing with the football theme this line of flight can be guided by fixtures, but again the design of the stadium the crowd encounters is important here, since to a great extent it provides the crowd with its contours and flows, and plays a role in its emergence. Finally, singularities are drawn to basins of attraction. Again, the shape of the crowd becomes a territory because of the material, expressive and environmental factors it is coupled to.
We can draw on another example: a building. Take Carby House and Heath House in Victoria Avenue. The so-called Gateway to Southend!
As spaces of possibility buildings have properties. They are big or small, predominantly this colour or that colour. They generally have windows. These windows also have capacities. They are windows that can be opened or smashed. But importantly, they need someone to open or smash them. Without this interaction taking place the capacity remains virtual rather than actual. It is a double event in this sense. There are tendencies too. Buildings can decay over time for all kinds of reasons; weather, lack of maintenance, vandalism etc. Investment, or a lack of it, can act as a basin of attraction which singularities are drawn to forming areas of regeneration or decay. Furthermore, decay can lead to other buildings decaying. This last point is very important to my work in assemblage theory or what I call contagion theory. Urban spaces can emerge as contagious material assemblages converging with expressive social epidemiologies. What we might call crime waves, for example, can begin with very small interactions between parts. These are events, like one solitary broken window, that can lead to further events, such as more windows being smashed. This leads to break-ins, fire, perhaps even a death.
What I have tried to do in preparation for this talk is grasp Southend as an assemblage. The questions we could ask about these spaces need to account for historical processes, the material and expressive parts, the spaces of possibility, the interactions between parts and environments, the properties, capacities, tendencies, singularities, and basins of attraction. More than that, we also need to ask what kinds of assemblage we can make from these relations. What novel critical networks, new artworks and performances can interact with existing parts? Our venue, the Railway Hotel is in many ways one such place. It was after all known locally as the BNP pub. The BNP would, I’m told, meet here, in this room. The landlord has transformed this building. He is a true Deleuzian. Hopefully Club Critical Theory can continue to provide an expression to this kind of positive change in Southend.
With photographer Iry Hor I have started to look at some of the urban assemblages that surround us. These include, on one hand, the lines of flight of regeneration; most notably, the Forum, the so-called Lego Building and the new college and university campuses. This is regeneration we can understand in part as financial territorialization. Territories formed around access to vast amounts of capital resources; for example, £54 million in 2004 for the new college campus, £14 million from the government and £9 million from EEDA for the new University of Essex building. In the case of the Forum there has been £27million invested by Southend Council, the University of Essex and South Essex College.
Love them or loathe them these new shiny buildings have the capacity to affect and be affected. I found this nice quote about the Forum in the local paper from an OAP resident living in Sunningdale Court sheltered housing in nearby Gordon Place.
“I love it. When I go out, I have to pass the building and I have this great big smile on my face as I do. I’m just so happy.”
But this area in Southend is not an indelible whole. Its access to resources is never permanent. With £8.6million cuts to government funding to the college in the next few years many of the expressive internal parts of this shiny new building will begin to dissipate. Indeed, the external interactions between the new campuses and the adjacent derelict buildings are a constant reminder of the tendencies of decay that can affect all buildings that fall into financial decline.
Again, things are never whole. Indeed, on the other hand, there is the trajectory of urban decay in Victoria Avenue, including Carby House, Heath House and the old college building in Canarvon Road. A report on the planning application for the new campuses in 2003 made it clear that “the disposal of the existing campus buildings is an important part of the delivery process for the new campus.”
It seems strange to me that these building are owned by developers. What kind of perverse development is this? To try to find out I traced back the various interactions between these so-called developers and Southend Council as reported in the local papers. These interactions are perhaps best summarized by Anna Waite, the former Tory Southend councillor responsible for planning in 2008 who said then: “I wish I knew what was happening. I haven’t heard anything from the developers for months.” Is this evidence enough for the need for public intervention into private property?
Perhaps Victoria Avenue is an example of deterritorialization? Well, things are not that simple in Deleuze’s onology because parts are at their most creative when they are deterritorialized. Carby House and Heath House are not only the rotting Gateway to Southend. They are the central hub of a contagion of decay.
Heath House closed when the remaining 300 workers were made redundant in 2000. Along with Carby House it has, in the past 14 years, become a mesmerizing example of a transformative decomposition of material parts brought about by its open interaction with the environment and a withdrawal of access to resources. But Carby House and Heath House are perhaps in the process of expressive and material reterritorialization. They are certainly a defiant example of what affordable housing means in times of austerity in Southend-on-Sea. They have become a home to the homeless.
A few notes
The School of Media and Fascism is attributed to Jairo Lugo currently at University of Sheffield.
Gustave Le Bon’s contribution to Crowd Theory is The Crowd.
I had to think long and hard before writing this response to PhD candidate Lukas Verburgt’s Flows, Fluxes and Monads: the Conceptual Madness of Experimental Social Ontology (a review of Virality in Parallax, Volume 20, Issue 1, 2014) – well not too long. A train journey home in fact. Of course, the Web enables such a quick reply and perhaps I should just leave it for others to decide on the intrinsic worth of Verburgt’s account. But after MUP forwarded a copy of the review to me earlier this week and I began to absorb it I felt a very strong urge to address various misunderstandings in the text. The most vexing issue for me is the misreading of the politics of Virality. We can argue over the merits of assemblage theory and the thoroughness of the monadological method applied in the book (as I do below). I also accept that my work does not respect political neutrality – it is intentionally and unashamedly political. What point does this kind of theory have if it is apolitical? I am not however content to be misrepresented politically as an advocate of revolutionary love or indeed Obama love. This is a false impression!
Two Regimes of Conceptual Madness: A Brief Response to Verburgt’s Review of Virality
There are two regimes of madness: paranoid and schizoid. But they are not to be misconstrued as being in a binary relation with each other. In capitalism there are paranoiacs and schizophrenics. In trees there are rhizomes and in rhizomes there are trees. So to read into Virality a series of rigid binary oppositions one would need a brain made more of branches and leaves than grass. As the review correctly points out, the oppositions in Virality are all exposed to the same ‘monadological’ process of (deterritorialized, molecular) ‘becomings’. That is the method to which Virality sticks with throughout. A persistent tree thinker might however miss a crucial point about Deleuzian ontology; that is to say, binaries are introduced and experimented with (smooth/striated, molecular/molar etc.) for the purpose of tearing them down. The two becomes a multiplicity. There are not two kinds of virality pitting against each other. As the book makes clear, the molar and the molecular are in an ongoing relational encounter. The former may have capacities and tendencies that are representational, organizational, discursive, analogical and metaphorical, and the latter – the “virality of biopower” or the molecular – is subrepresentational, accidental, happenstance, prediscursive, but both flow into each other; both are taken as events, and both are part of the same relational ontology.
Relational how? Take, for example, nonrepresentation. No one following the development of this concept would deny that there are representations or assume that nonrepresentation negates representation. It is more likely to be the case that the product of representation emerges diachronically (and transversally) from nonrepresentational encounters, just as affect, feeling and emotion might be said to produce cognition, and vice versa. The two are, as the book repeatedly states; inseparable. Indeed, if one were to construct a word cloud using the text from the book the words Tarde and inseparable would be 15 foot high. The same can be said of the relation between discursive formations and prediscursive forces, which is addressed throughout the book as part of an “approach intended not only to unravel the many discursive and rhetorical references to viral disease but also to highlight how discourse is intimately interwoven with a prediscursive flow of contagious affect, feelings, and emotions” (p.3). To read into this interwoveness an enduring opposition is to have missed the point entirely.
So something is not either or a metaphor. It just depends on the starting point of the analysis. The position I take in Virality is that by beginning with the metaphor (or deeper analogy) we are probably approaching the problem of contagion from the wrong point of entry. The meme is a case in point. The meme was supposed to be graspable. It required a Crick and Watson to discover it (they never arrived). It was supposed to be a measurable unit that could be decoded (it never appeared). The meme has only ever really been grasped as an analogy, which is a poor abstract diagram of contagion in the sense that it functions on crude resemblances alone. That is why it is lacking. It is like starting with a shadow on a cave wall. Better, I think, not to begin with an analogical unit, but rather trace spreading phenomena diachronically from the potential to the actual; from the deterritorialized to the territorialized (and back again). The tendencies of this tracing may indeed be picked up by statistics, as Tarde suggested. I take that point. In fact, I have attempted to expand on this aspect of Tarde’s work in Tarde’s Deadly Line of Flight published in Distinktion shortly after the book was published.
But the point is that the potential (the space of possibilities) is supposed to be lacking a unit. It is, of course, utterly ungraspable, but it is nonetheless a material thing. It is an event (Tarde’s desire event), and as such, it becomes a pattern changer or abstract machine. It is indeed, as the reviewer puts it, “misplaced concreteness”. It is what Deleuze calls incorporeal materialism. Virtual but nonetheless material.
It is through the concept of the phantom event that Virality attempts to grasp the ungraspable incorporeal material. This is, I know, a paradoxical relation between the real and the imagined event. It requires an ontological commitment to an incorporeally coated surface. I should have known that such an absurdity would get caught up in the branches of a tree.
This is important stuff. The politics of Virality are entirely missed if the reader ignores the theory of the event (discussed extensively in chapter three) and continues to assume binary oppositions. There is, as such, no direct opposition posed between a capitalist ‘terror contagion’ and the transformative potential of ‘revolutionary love’ on p.144. A concentrated reading of this material would have discerned that the virality of love, according to Tarde, is as catching as any fear contagion. There is absolutely no “favouring” of the virality of love. Prune back the branches a little, and read again. On p. 144 I draw specific attention to Michael Hardt’s claim for the potential of revolutionary love, which Hardt says risks getting lost in a diluted form of romanticism. This is Hardt’s take. Not mine. Virality in fact goes on to use Tarde to single out Obama love as an example of what Hardt might call bad love. But the main point of this chapter is not to agree with Hardt’s love as a political concept, but to use Tarde to rethink it. Simplified, love is positioned as controlling as fear (for good or evil). I certainly do not forward a revolutionary kind of love, as the critique of Brennan’s affective love also makes perfectly clear (chapter five).
Finally, I feel no need to apologise for the articulation of the conceptual madness of virality, or indeed any of the words of the other authors I refer to. But it would be useful if the reviewer again managed to correctly attribute words to the right author. Nigel Thrift’s “continuous generation of neurophysiological ecosystems boosted by the cultural amplifiers of [. . . ] commodities [ . . . ] such as caffeine, sentimental novels and pornographic works”, for example, is, I think, an elegant evocation of Tarde’s imitation thesis brought back to life in the 21st century. I certainly wish I had said it! Indeed, to be able to move beyond tired old concepts of resemblance and dialectics and to confront the trees that seem to grow disproportionately in some people’s head, a new vocabulary is often needed.
Various circumstances in the run up to my BKM appearance back in Dec last year prevented me from doing the talk I had intended to do. It’s a bit of a jumble as a result. This is more an experiment with a range of virality and post-virality ideas than an articulation of neuroculture and noncognitive capitalism – mainly focusing here on noncognitive HCI.
As the transition from virality to neuroculture becomes more evident I will of course elaborate on, for example, the mereological problem at the centre of Wittgenstein’s brain/body emergence and the assemblage theory that replaces it etc etc.
Thank you very much to ErichHörl for the kind invite and Robin Schrade for his wonderful effort to bring in the visuals.
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…