Olympo-Mania as Biopolitical Epidemic or how the Boris Johnson Contagion Spreads…

(This is work in progress)

In an attention grabbing headline published in the London Evening Standard just prior to the start of the Olympic Games in 2012, Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, declared that:

“No one in London is immune to this contagion of joy. Even hardened cynics are succumbing to Olympo-mania. Now let’s get on and produce the greatest Games ever.”

The intoxicating glory of the Olympic flame

This affirmation of the biopower of the big event to become an emotional force able to stamp out, or override, the depression, suspicion, pessimism, and doubt, abound in a population caught in the grip of austerity politics, is nonetheless proving to be a short lived contagion for many of those who would have clearly liked to have benefited from it. The crowds of curiously happy and unusually talkative English people have given way to a bleak mediated public still beleaguered by indebtedness, and caught up in media networks awash with stories of financial doom and corruption, establishment cover ups and celebrity distraction. What kind of emotional legacy is this?

The political legacy of this great emotional contagion has not played out well for Tory central government either. The booing of the chancellor, George Osborne, at the Olympic stadium will endure in the collective memory alongside the images of the opening ceremony and team GB victories. PM Cameron has clearly not profited in the way he’d most probably have liked to. He has been greatly overshadowed by his old Eton chum Johnson, who has used his political and geographic proximity to the big event well.

It is Johnson, not Cameron, who now carries the flag for the Right

Johnson has managed to shore up its affective charges and steer them in the same direction of his career trajectory; bolstering a surge in his popularity as the heir apparent to the Tory premiership. This adherent to the Murdoch press and defender of the over privilege and corruption of the financial sector in the City now comes gift wrapped in the joyful emotions of this biopolitical epidemic.

Yet, as the flames of Olympo-mania finally die out for most, and the rest of the country returns to the bleak reality of Tory austerity, it is perhaps a good time to reevaluate the “contagion of joy” and reintroduce a healthy dose of cynicism. Like the planners of the Olympic Village and its legacy, Johnson’s PR machine has produced a fragile new world for itself to reproduce in. Olympo-mania provided the brand with a sort of bubble or viral atmosphere in which the chemical energy of the big event could be captured – swashing and splashing about. Unlike McDonalds and Coca Cola, who paid a lot of money to rub themselves up against the hormonal flushes of Olympo-mania, the Johnson brand – always purposefully haphazard and bungling – seems to have been the most successful at surrounding itself in the emotional foam. Indeed, this this fool on a zip wire is like one of Goriunova’s contagious idiots. He is nutrition to a public desiring machine feeding on entertainment and sport more than it does gritty politics.

Idiocy (accidental or not) is contagious to a public desiring entertainment rather than gritty politics

In this short piece I want to draw on Nigel Thrift’s concept of affective contagion and Gabriel Tarde’s contagion theory as a way to perhaps make a connection between this big event and the viral atmosphere that surrounds Johnson.

The Olympic Park is where the crowd and the mediated public converged

Despite a historical fluctuation in the appeal of crowd theory, contagion theory seems to be making something of a comeback. To be sure, the nineteenth-century obsession with the crowd ends abruptly with a distinct cognitive turn in the twentieth century. In social psychology, for example, the focus on the commotions of the crowd shifts toward the self-contained cognitive subject. By the 1930s, the old ideas about mass manias, hypnosis, and hallucinatory delusions made popular in Le Bon’s The Crowd are briefly hijacked by the far Right and then become largely ignored in the social sciences when the positivism of Durkheim finally begins to take hold. As Thrift argues, Tarde’s contagion theory “fell out of fashion, not least because of its emphasis on process at the expense of the substantive results of social interaction.” That is, until fairly recently, when inspired by the new network ontology, cultural theory started to engage again in somewhat opaque and speculative viral models of contagion. Yet, as I have argued in Virality, through a resuscitation of Tarde, and an effort to reconnect him to contemporary debates, much of this obscurity might be cleared away. To help here, Thrift forwards a number of interrelated reasons (I look at just four subsequently) that support a Tardean resuscitation as essential to understanding how mediated events and the networks they permeate are the new prime conductor of the biopolitical epidemic.

First, Thrift highlights the universal feature of Tarde’s epidemiological encounter; that is, desire and invention are both underscored by imitation–repetition. Like Deleuze, an open-ended repetition becomes, as such, the “base of all action.” Again, importantly, the imitative ray (Tarde’s term for affective, emotional and suggestion contagions) is not reduced here to micro- or macrorepresentations but is part of a process of social adaptation linked to an unfastened and differentiating repetition of events. “The entities that Tarde is dealing with are not people, but innovations, understood as quanta of change with a life of their own.” To be sure, agency here is awarded, through Tarde’s idea of the inseparability of the repetition of the mechanical habits of desire and the mostly illusory sense of individual volition, to a vital force of encounter, certainly not centered on human subjects alone. This we can see clearly in Tarde’s approach to political economy, in which the individual’s rational drive to produce riches is supplanted by an economy of desire in which the “circulation and distribution of riches are nothing but the effect of an imitative repetition of needs.” Tarde’s economy is a reciprocal radiation of exchanging desires, related to passionate interests as well as the needs of labor.

Imitation-Repetition-Suggestibility

Second, then, special attention is drawn to the way in which repetitive mechanical habit and the sense of volition (social action) become inseparable. Tarde questioned the world he experienced in the nineteenth century. Unlike the categories of sociology established by his contemporary Durkheim, Tarde introduces a complex set of associations (mostly unconscious) traveling between (and below) the artifice of a nature–society divide and therefore positioning biological entities as equidistant to “social” ones. In fact, the use of the word social needs to be carefully approached here because for Tarde, “all phenomena is [sic] social phenomena, all things a society”—atoms, cells, and people are on an “equal footing.” Tarde therefore anticipates a time when an indivisible contract, in which social and biological causes will no longer confront each other, reappears.

Third, Thrift’s concept of affective contagion provides a contemporary take on Tarde’s imitative ray, latching on to his ideas concerning how passionate interests radiate through social assemblages, mostly unawares, but adding an affective and neurological dimension. Thrift notes, as such, how Tarde’s focus on the spreading of fear, sentimentality, and social disturbance infers affective crowd behavior, with a tendency of its own making. Like the imitative ray, affective contagion is selfspreading, automatic, and involuntary and functions according to a hypnotic action-at-a-distance with no discernable medium of contact. Affective contagions are manifested entirely in the force of encounter with events, independent of physical contact or scale. This is how small yet angry social confrontations can lead to widespread violence and how accidental events, like the death of a royal celebrity, can perhaps trigger large-scale contagious overspills of unforeseen mass hysteria. Similarly, sizeable media-fueled epidemics of social vulnerability, fear, anxiety, and panic, as well as contagions of joy, can be ignited by large-scale mediated events like 9/11 or the Olympics or relatively small events, amplified out of all contexts by the media, further demonstrating the multiscalar nature of social contagion.

Fourth, we find an epidemiological atmosphere that can be affectively primed, or premediated, so that imitative momentum can be anticipated and purposefully spread. These are indeed viral atmospheres of the order of a Deleuzian wasp–orchid assemblage, in which corporations and politicians increasingly deploy the magnetic pull of big events, mediated fascinations, intoxicating glories, and celebrity narratives so that small events can be encouraged to become bigger contagious overspills.

The Olympic Park as a new “world” in which affective contagions can readily spread

Here we see the production of what Thrift refers to as new “worlds,” in which “semiconscious action can be put up for sale.”We might think of the Olympic Village as such a new world. But these viral atmospheres are also increasingly evident in the opportunities online and offline consumers have to share their intimacies, obsessions, and desires with producers. These are typical of viral atmospheres Thrift describes as having the capacity to “catch” the nearby desire of someone just like us, which works alongside older methods of mass attraction, such as the affective charge of celebrity, to “spark” desires for associated products. Indeed, the methods used to predict, measure, and exploit imitative rays are becoming ever more complex and neurologically invasive (something I cover in the latter part of Virality).

The Networked Idiot

A brand that becomes part of the crowd

The viral atmosphere marks the point at which the conscious thought of the self “arises from an unconscious imitation of others.” It is at this location that human susceptibility becomes assimilated in the Tardean desiring machine. To maintain the virality of the atmosphere, though, the business enterprise requires the mostly unconscious mutuality or emotional investment of the infected consumer to guarantee that the affective contagion is passed on. As follows, affectively primed and premediated atmospheres must allow for these emotional investments to be freely made so that feelings become “increasingly available to be worked on and cultivated.”

Although Tarde anticipates a material world of subject creation, his materiality has, like Deleuze, an incorporeal materialist dimension to it. It is a concreteness made of virtuality, affective flows, rays, and the like. It is in this world of incorporeal passionate relations that a consumer’s obsessive engagement with products and brands, as well as the slick empathetic performances of politicians, marks the increases and decreases of power implicated in “person-making.” Tarde’s imitation–suggestibility becomes a mesmeric affective flow intended to steer the imitative inclinations of consumers and voters to predetermined goals.

Rehearsing entrainment

Tarde prefigured an epidemiological relationality in which things (caffeine, sentimental novels, pornographic works, and all manner of consumer goods) mix with emotions, moods, and affects—an atmosphere awash with hormones, entrainment, making people happy or sad, sympathetic or apathetic, and a space in which affects are significantly passed on or suggested to others. These worlds are a Tardean time–space through and through, which Thrift contends “continually questions itself,” generating “new forms of interrelation” and activities and functioning according to Tarde’s action-at-a-distance and akin to mesmerism, hypnosis, telepathy, and mind reading. These epidemiological densities critically value the indirect over the direct, yet within the crisscrossing of associations, it is “increasingly clear that subconscious processes of imitation can be directed.”

Spontaneous outbreak of flag waving

The tapping into what spreads, or hormonally swashes about in these viral atmospheres, follows, to some extent, a Tardean trajectory of biopower. In what we might call a trend toward the virality of network capitalism, there is certainly a distinct ramping up of the repetitious spread of affective contagion. The point of this exercise of biopower is to mesmerize the consumer (and voter) to such an extent that her susceptible porousness to the inventions of others, received mostly unawares, becomes an escalating point of vulnerability. The inseparability of the ever-circulating repetitions of mechanical desires and the often illusory sense that our choices and decisions belong to us, as Tarde had already contended, make the social a hypnotic state: “a dream of command and a dream of action” in which the somnambulist is “possessed by the illusion that their ideas, all of which have been suggested to them, are spontaneous.”

Perhaps no one in London was immune to this contagion of joy, but just because something makes you feel good doesn’t mean it is good…

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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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