I had to think long and hard before writing this response to PhD candidate Lukas Verburgt’s Flows, Fluxes and Monads: the Conceptual Madness of Experimental Social Ontology (a review of Virality in Parallax, Volume 20, Issue 1, 2014) – well not too long. A train journey home in fact. Of course, the Web enables such a quick reply and perhaps I should just leave it for others to decide on the intrinsic worth of Verburgt’s account. But after MUP forwarded a copy of the review to me earlier this week and I began to absorb it I felt a very strong urge to address various misunderstandings in the text. The most vexing issue for me is the misreading of the politics of Virality. We can argue over the merits of assemblage theory and the thoroughness of the monadological method applied in the book (as I do below). I also accept that my work does not respect political neutrality – it is intentionally and unashamedly political. What point does this kind of theory have if it is apolitical? I am not however content to be misrepresented politically as an advocate of revolutionary love or indeed Obama love. This is a false impression!
Two Regimes of Conceptual Madness: A Brief Response to Verburgt’s Review of Virality
There are two regimes of madness: paranoid and schizoid. But they are not to be misconstrued as being in a binary relation with each other. In capitalism there are paranoiacs and schizophrenics. In trees there are rhizomes and in rhizomes there are trees. So to read into Virality a series of rigid binary oppositions one would need a brain made more of branches and leaves than grass. As the review correctly points out, the oppositions in Virality are all exposed to the same ‘monadological’ process of (deterritorialized, molecular) ‘becomings’. That is the method to which Virality sticks with throughout. A persistent tree thinker might however miss a crucial point about Deleuzian ontology; that is to say, binaries are introduced and experimented with (smooth/striated, molecular/molar etc.) for the purpose of tearing them down. The two becomes a multiplicity. There are not two kinds of virality pitting against each other. As the book makes clear, the molar and the molecular are in an ongoing relational encounter. The former may have capacities and tendencies that are representational, organizational, discursive, analogical and metaphorical, and the latter – the “virality of biopower” or the molecular – is subrepresentational, accidental, happenstance, prediscursive, but both flow into each other; both are taken as events, and both are part of the same relational ontology.
Relational how? Take, for example, nonrepresentation. No one following the development of this concept would deny that there are representations or assume that nonrepresentation negates representation. It is more likely to be the case that the product of representation emerges diachronically (and transversally) from nonrepresentational encounters, just as affect, feeling and emotion might be said to produce cognition, and vice versa. The two are, as the book repeatedly states; inseparable. Indeed, if one were to construct a word cloud using the text from the book the words Tarde and inseparable would be 15 foot high. The same can be said of the relation between discursive formations and prediscursive forces, which is addressed throughout the book as part of an “approach intended not only to unravel the many discursive and rhetorical references to viral disease but also to highlight how discourse is intimately interwoven with a prediscursive flow of contagious affect, feelings, and emotions” (p.3). To read into this interwoveness an enduring opposition is to have missed the point entirely.
So something is not either or a metaphor. It just depends on the starting point of the analysis. The position I take in Virality is that by beginning with the metaphor (or deeper analogy) we are probably approaching the problem of contagion from the wrong point of entry. The meme is a case in point. The meme was supposed to be graspable. It required a Crick and Watson to discover it (they never arrived). It was supposed to be a measurable unit that could be decoded (it never appeared). The meme has only ever really been grasped as an analogy, which is a poor abstract diagram of contagion in the sense that it functions on crude resemblances alone. That is why it is lacking. It is like starting with a shadow on a cave wall. Better, I think, not to begin with an analogical unit, but rather trace spreading phenomena diachronically from the potential to the actual; from the deterritorialized to the territorialized (and back again). The tendencies of this tracing may indeed be picked up by statistics, as Tarde suggested. I take that point. In fact, I have attempted to expand on this aspect of Tarde’s work in Tarde’s Deadly Line of Flight published in Distinktion shortly after the book was published.
But the point is that the potential (the space of possibilities) is supposed to be lacking a unit. It is, of course, utterly ungraspable, but it is nonetheless a material thing. It is an event (Tarde’s desire event), and as such, it becomes a pattern changer or abstract machine. It is indeed, as the reviewer puts it, “misplaced concreteness”. It is what Deleuze calls incorporeal materialism. Virtual but nonetheless material.
It is through the concept of the phantom event that Virality attempts to grasp the ungraspable incorporeal material. This is, I know, a paradoxical relation between the real and the imagined event. It requires an ontological commitment to an incorporeally coated surface. I should have known that such an absurdity would get caught up in the branches of a tree.
This is important stuff. The politics of Virality are entirely missed if the reader ignores the theory of the event (discussed extensively in chapter three) and continues to assume binary oppositions. There is, as such, no direct opposition posed between a capitalist ‘terror contagion’ and the transformative potential of ‘revolutionary love’ on p.144. A concentrated reading of this material would have discerned that the virality of love, according to Tarde, is as catching as any fear contagion. There is absolutely no “favouring” of the virality of love. Prune back the branches a little, and read again. On p. 144 I draw specific attention to Michael Hardt’s claim for the potential of revolutionary love, which Hardt says risks getting lost in a diluted form of romanticism. This is Hardt’s take. Not mine. Virality in fact goes on to use Tarde to single out Obama love as an example of what Hardt might call bad love. But the main point of this chapter is not to agree with Hardt’s love as a political concept, but to use Tarde to rethink it. Simplified, love is positioned as controlling as fear (for good or evil). I certainly do not forward a revolutionary kind of love, as the critique of Brennan’s affective love also makes perfectly clear (chapter five).
Finally, I feel no need to apologise for the articulation of the conceptual madness of virality, or indeed any of the words of the other authors I refer to. But it would be useful if the reviewer again managed to correctly attribute words to the right author. Nigel Thrift’s “continuous generation of neurophysiological ecosystems boosted by the cultural amplifiers of [. . . ] commodities [ . . . ] such as caffeine, sentimental novels and pornographic works”, for example, is, I think, an elegant evocation of Tarde’s imitation thesis brought back to life in the 21st century. I certainly wish I had said it! Indeed, to be able to move beyond tired old concepts of resemblance and dialectics and to confront the trees that seem to grow disproportionately in some people’s head, a new vocabulary is often needed.