Book of the Day: Virality. Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks

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


“Tarde’s diagram comprises of mostly unconscious flows of desire, passion, and imitative radiations of muscular, as well as cerebral activities. In sharp contrast then, Tarde’s society of imitation does not fall back on collective or individual representations. It is not at all about pure association as it concerns the disassociated connectivity (unconscious association) of a social somnambulist. Like this, Tarde’s social becomes an assemblage of relationality composed of self-spreading and mesmeric imitative waves or flows. [54] What comes together does not occur by way of a collective consciousness pushing down on the individual, but is instead the “coherent” outcome of “desires that have been excited or sharpened by certain [social] inventions,” which imitatively radiate outward, point-to-point, assembling what appear to be the logical arrangements of social form, like markets, nations and cities.[55] What radiates outwards are neither social facts nor collective representations, but the microrelations of shared passions, thoughts, conversations, beliefs, feelings and affects which pass through porous self/other relations in all manner of contagious environments, including corporate, economic and political arenas. [56] What comes together “socially” in these Tardean spaces is neither genetically subject-bound nor obligated to the wisdom of collective consensus, but is rather the outcome of an infra-individual relation that spreads below consciousness. The social, according to Tarde, is a vital force that self-spreads, radiates and vibrates out from capricious mechanism-independent social encounters with events and accidents”

Excerpt 1: Summary

“This essay presents four interventions intended to redirect theoretical attention away from the medical discourses that underpin microbial contagion theory. [5] Although ostensibly discrete, each intervention is intended to probe the analogical artifice between the human and nonhuman by way of a Tardean monadological understanding of “social form” composed of emotional vectors and affective contagious encounters. The first intervention concerns what it is that spreads through infectable social media. Here both Gabriel Tarde’s refusal to analytically separate psychological and biological realms from the wider social-physical world (of which they are both a part), and a more recent neurological understanding of the political unconscious, come together to foreground the importance of shared feelings in determining social influence. Yet, although feeling fear seems to be endemic to recent politically motivated contaminations of a population, there are other much-overlooked affects, like love, which are equally catching. Secondly, the essay confronts the deterministic thinking which seems to underline decidedly mechanistic interpretations of what spreads. This is equally evident in the analogical focus on microbes and memes as it is in a tendency in network theory to award agency to an emergent collective social consciousness.

The third intervention questions the validity of the network as an appropriate epidemiological diagram when evidently its standardization of space through nodes and edges tends to freeze out the temporality of epidemic events and accidents. This is, I contend, a “diagrammatic” problem at the center of contagion theory which can be interestingly re-approached via Tarde’s insights into economic crisis and celebrity culture. Lastly then, the essay focuses on a distinctive Tardean trajectory evident in contemporary capitalist business enterprise which looks set to exploit consumer mood and guide intention by targeting the mostly unconscious neurological absorption of human and non-human affective contagions.

These four interventions draw upon a resuscitation of crowd contagion theories dating back to the late nineteenth century. Such a revival is not without its problems, not least because of the negative notions it attaches to social collectivity, conformity, obedience and vulnerability. However, unlike the extreme conservatism of his contemporary, Gustave Le Bon, in a series of publications, Tarde forwarded an epidemiological diagram which arguably provides a much clearer understanding of social relation outside of the reductive limitations of organic social category, and at the same time probes between the artifice that divides biological and psychological phenomena from social theory. [6] In these texts Tarde sets out an approach that would go on to greatly influence Gilles Deleuze and Bruno Latour (among others). But as I aim to show in my work, he is much more than a mere footnote to assemblage and actor network theory.”

Excerpt 2. Resisting Contagion

“What Tarde proposes as an alternative seems to counterintuitively reject Hardt’s love of difference as a way to achieve spontaneous democracy insofar as he offers a distinctly cognizant “refusal . . . to copy the dress, customs, language, industry, and arts which make up the civilization of [this or that] neighborhood.” [97] Non-imitation requires a constant assertion of antagonism, “obstinacy,” “pride,” and “indelible feelings of superiority,” that empowers and produces a “rupture of the umbilical cord between the old and the new society.” [98] It involves a declaration that all other societies are “absolutely and forever alien,” and an undertaking to never reproduce the rights, usages, and ideas of any other society. It is indeed non-imitation that Tarde contends purges the social of the contagions of the other. It is only after this purge that old customs can be replaced by truly new fashions. For Tarde then, it is the long term maintenance of non-imitation which ensures that those who wish to resist the contagions of the present political climate will in a moment of spontaneous revolution “no longer find any hindrance in the way of [their own] conquering activity.”

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