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.

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About Virality

Tony D. Sampson is Reader in Digital Culture and Communications at the University of East London. A former musician, he studied computer technology and cultural theory before receiving a PhD in sociology from the University of Essex. His publications include The Spam Book, coedited with Jussi Parikka (Hampton Press, 2009), Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), The Assemblage Brain: Sense Making in Neuroculture (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) and Affect and Social Media (Rowman and Littlefield, due 2018). He is organizer and host of the Affect and Social Media conferences in the UK, a co-founder of Club Critical Theory and Director of the EmotionUX Lab at UEL. He occasionally blogs at: https://viralcontagion.wordpress.com/ Full academic profile: https://www.uel.ac.uk/Staff/s/tony-sampson
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