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.


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: Full academic profile:
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