Talks on Virality (part three)

(Goldsmiths 22nd Oct)

…. Continuing on Milgram.

Agentic states are generally traced to the disposition of an individual caught up in a natural chain of command rather than a disassociated state.

 For Milgram, imitation leads to conformity, but obedience ultimately requires the explicit social action of the individual.

Nevertheless, Milgram was famously the great manipulator of the social encounter. His triggering of crowd contagion was unquestionably socially engineered.

In Virality Milgram is positioned as a hypnotist, planting suggestibility — via the points of fascination provided by his skyward looking actors — into the neurological, biological, and sociological composition of the crowd.

From this privileged position, Milgram not only observed, but also controlled the implicit, involuntary, and contagious responses his experiment induced.

Virality also makes an important distinction between Tarde and his contemporary Gustave Le Bon.

 First, these two crowd theorists seem to be at the base of two distinct theoretical lines of influence.

One characterized by Le Bon’s direct link to Freud’s psychoanalysis.

The other by Tarde’s role in the development of Deleuzian ontology.

Second, there are conflicting ideas about the role contagion plays in social movements.

Unlike Le Bon’s conservative concerns for the stability of an old aristocratic order, Tarde introduces a novel media theory that considers both the potential and improbability of rare movements of democratic contagion.

Last, there are two very different notions of hypnotic power at work in Le Bon’s The Crowd and Tarde’s Laws.

The former falls back on a direct representational means of control (the crowd that thinks, or hallucinates, in images), while the latter speaks of indirect subrepresentational and reciprocal hypnotisms.

The coupling of Tarde/Deleuze and Le Bon/Freud presents a very different relation between conscious and unconscious states. As Deleuze and Guattari argue, Freud tried to approach the crowd from the point of view of the unconscious. But he didn’t see that the unconscious itself was fundamentally a crowd.

He was perhaps myopic and hard of hearing insofar as he misconstrued the crowd for a certain individual. In contrast, schizoid analysis does not “mistake the buzz and shove of the crowd for Daddy’s voice.” Daddy’s hypnotic authority is grasped instead as symptomatic of the psychoanalyst’s predisposition to repress the desiring machine by locking it away (inside) the representational space of the unconscious.

Like this, Le Bon’s crowd contagion acts on the social, forcing it to reproduce a unified collective mentality.

As an alternative to The Crowd’s delusional fantasy, Virality explores how the tendency to pass on real and illusory contagions can be attributed to phantom-events.

Significantly, phantom-events are outcomes, or effects, of actions and passions, not their Oedipal representation. The phantom is paradoxically without a body but is nevertheless a material thing (an incorporeal materiality). The event becomes detached from its causes, spreading itself from surface to surface. This is not the point at which affect turns into fantasy, but rather where the ego spreads to the surface.

It is the hypnotized subject’s distance from the phantom-event that makes her prone to variable appearances of the real and the imagined.

Arguably, this is the logic of sense apparent in the spreading of chain letters, Trojan viruses, false rumors, and fake video virals.

These are the emergent forces of a contagious encounter, in a social field, which function according to an action-at-a-distance. The phantom-event contaminates those caught somewhere in the loop between the imaginary and the real events she encounters and believes in

(see part four)

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About Virality

Tony D. Sampson is a London-based theorist, writer and 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. An ongoing interest in contagion theory is reflected in his publications, including The Spam Book, coedited with Jussi Parikka (Hampton Press, 2009) and Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks (University of Minnesota Press, 2012). Tony is currently writing his next book on neurocultures. He occasionally blogs at: https://viralcontagion.wordpress.com/ Academic profile: http://www.uel.ac.uk/research/profiles/adi/tonysampson/
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