‘Tarde as Media Theorist’: an interview with Tony D. Sampson, by Jussi Parikka

Jussi Parikka (Photo by Jonathan Lang)
This discussion focuses on Sampson’s recently published monograph Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks, characterised by Brian Rotman as “offering a new theory of the viral as a sociological event.” In this conversation, Parikka and Sampson talk about Gabriel Tarde and assemblage theory, and why Tarde should be approached as a media theorist who is more interested in the somnambulistic notions of the social. Sampson’s interest in the non-cognitive – and non-cognitive capitalism – resonates with recent discussions of affect, but with a special focus on developments in HCI-design and research.At the end of the interview, we’ve provided some links giving free access to relevant TCS material.


Jussi Parikka: I would like to start by asking why you are approaching your topic – contemporary network culture – via Gabriel Tarde, a 19thcentury social theorist? What is it that affords Tarde to be seen as a suitable theoretical source for an analysis of digital network culture, where agency does not lie only in human contagion, but also non-human actors?

Tony Sampson: It was Tiziana Terranova who first suggested Tarde, quite some time ago now. I was trying to think through these ideas I had about the contagions of network culture. I had, up until that point, been trying to develop an assemblage theory approach to networks referring to material from network and computer science. I wanted to keep well away from metaphorical renderings of digital contagion, which seemed to me to be the worst possible starting place. This approach worked OK, to a point, but Tarde’s imitation thesis opened up a lot of new possibilities. Interestingly I was able to take another look at Deleuze through Tarde’s work. It was like coming at him from a fresh direction. Although Deleuze didn’t write a book on Tarde – and I wish he had – he was, I think, influenced by him as much as he was by Spinoza, Bergson or Nietzsche. This is the point François Dosse makes in Intersecting Lives. Mainly, Tarde allowed me to reread assemblage theory as a social theory or more precisely a theory of social subjectivation. I would say that Tarde is possibly the first assemblage theorist insofar that he is only really concerned with desire and social relationality.

Another important thing about Tarde’s role in Virality is that he does not distinguish between nature and society or similarly between biology and culture. He helped me as such to break through the artifice of metaphorical contagion which makes it seem like the biological is always invading the social, at least where biological language and rhetoric seem to impose themselves on social phenomena. Once that artifice is removed we nevertheless see that it is the other way round. The biological is always social, and it’s the social that is contagious. So what I in Virality call a resuscitationof Tarde positions him as a media theorist within a nature-society zone of indistinction. This wasn’t hard to do. After all, when he writes about imitative radiation or imitation-suggestibility, Tarde is really pointing to a monadological mediation that does not distinguish between humans and nonhumans, just as it does not seek to separate nonconscious from conscious states or mechanical habit from a sense of volition. As he puts it, all phenomena are social phenomena, all things a society. So like Whitehead to some extent, he put atoms, cells, and people on an equal footing: a society of things. This is why I also think it important to stress that there are networks in crowds and crowds in networks.
JP: Virality pitches an intriguing idea about somnambulist media theory – can you talk a bit more about that concept and it’s relation to non-volition?
TS: Again the somnambulist comes from Tarde, of course, and what I try to do in the book is grasp how this concept resonates with network culture. It seems to me that the tendency toward contagion in networks seems to be related to the implicit brain functions that Tarde describes as unconscious associations – through which he contends that the social assembles itself. This relation between virality and nonconscious association could be grasped as the spreading of a capricious state of false conscious, if you like, wherein, on one hand, the social is infected at the infra level of brain function by imitation-suggestibility, and on the other hand, we find that everyone is just kept too busy, and too distracted, to really grasp that their shared feelings are being steered toward this goal or that goal.
The idea of sleepwalking media, or media hypnosis, is similar in many ways to Jonathan Crary’s work on attentive technologies. Crary in fact provides a wonderful repositioning of the attention economy thesis. Unlike the account given by business school gurus who see attention as a precious resource to be fought over, he grasps the controlling and disciplinary nature of attention. Fuller and Goffey have similarly referred to this as the inattention economy, which like Crary does not distinguish between attention and inattention. They are not polar opposites.
JP: Related to those ideas, you insist on talking about non-cognitive capitalism and its techniques. Why this emphasis that takes you in a slightly different direction than the previous years of discourse in cultural and political theory about cognitive capitalism? What is it that makes this approach different?
TS: So yes non-cognitive capitalism does not stray too far from the familiar Taylorist and post-Taylorist flow of labour. In terms of human-computer work we might think of this as a shift from ergonomic relations; the best possible physical fit established between human and machine during the labour process, if you like, toward a cognitive model focused on mental labour. We see this shift between paradigms everywhere in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) literature and practices, but now something else seems to be happening. The emphasis is increasingly on the labour of emotions, affect and experience. These are measured using biometric and neurotechnologies alongside more traditional cognitive tools that probe memory and attention.  This is just one aspect of the neuroculture we find ourselves in today where it is not the person, but the neuron, or perhaps the neurotransmission itself, that is being put to work in all kinds of ways to produce a new kind of molecular subjectivity.
It was not until the latter stages of writing the book that I started to read the social psychologist Robert Zajonc’s work on preferences needing no inferences; that is to say his idea that feelings might have thoughts of their own. Indeed, if marketers, political strategists and designers can make us feel a certain way then they can also influence the way we think. This mirrors a trend in commercial design at the moment to grasp the importance of the relation between emotions and cognition. Zajonc goes even further though by saying that affective systems are both independent of, and possibly stronger than, cognitive systems. Potentially then marketers, politicians and designers needn’t bother appealing to thought at all. This is the trajectory I think non-cognitive capitalism follows.
In addition to the labour of neurotransmission there is also this well publicized shift in media technology to so-called ubicomp. I think this is important too. Here we see nontask interactions also occurring below attentiveness. Pervasive computing works by producing interactions that work on the user simply by way of the user coming into contact with a “hot” zone or becoming part of a device-to-device network, triggering an event that they need never know about.
JP: Your ideas seem to relate closely to Evil Media, a recent book by Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey. Is there a wider interest in the non-communicative, and non-representational sort of aspects of media culture?
TS: Absolutely, this is why I was so pleased to do my first Virality talk with Matt and Andy at Goldsmiths. I think there’s a nice synchrony between my book and what they call the unobtrusive greyness of certain media practices. This is not solely the strategic use of media for specific goals, or the uncovering of some embedded or hidden ideology, but instead points to the unintended, the re-appropriated or the steering of accidents that just crop up. I wrote about the immunologic stratagem as a kind of deceptive fearmongering originating from the accidents of computer science in the 1970s and 80s. This is how I see viral culture. It’s not as viral marketing would like it to be – a step-by-step procedure that leads to effective zero cost marketing. Instead we find that the digital entrepreneur needs to nurse virality into being by priming brands so that they become stickier than their rivals and their potential to spread all the more likely. In network marketing nothing is for certain. All you can really do is bide your time while waiting to navigate the next accident.

Another connection I’ve recently made to Evil Media is with the artist group YoHa. They asked for contributions to their Evil Media, Curiosity Cabinet project which is being exhibited in Berlin in the New Year. I’ve opted for Modafinil. This neuropharmaceutical is mainly used to treat sleeping disorders, some of which are related directly to malfunctioning labour processes, like shift work disorders. That’s hideous enough, but the greyness of Modafinil becomes apparent in its off-label uses by students and soldiers who need to keep attentive in the university exam and on the battlefield.

JP: Although the difference from Evil Media seems to be that you talk of love in your book too – can you elaborate on that point, relating to affects?

TS: So there is this really intriguing Machiavellian thing going on in Evil Media, right? It is fear that is preferable to love. My work simply turns that idea on its head. Tarde writes on love in several places, in his novel Underground Manand the extralogical part of The Laws of Imitation. He thinks that love is, albeit often transitory, far more catching than fear. He also regards it an asymmetrical power relation in which it is mostly those in love who copy their beloved. I took inspiration from that and a couple of others. Teresa Brennan, for example, writes that love, unlike fear, does not need a medium to cling to. Love for Brennan is both affect and medium at the same time, which sort of boosts its affective contagion. Michael Hardt’s love as a political concept is also interesting to me. His notion that the love of family, race, god and nation tends to unify populations in ways that are “bad” becomes significant, I think, to understanding love as a far more effective and sinister Trojan than fear. Indeed, just because an experience makes you feel good doesn’t mean it will be good for you. I look at Obama love like this – as a kind of grey viral media practice of love. Aside from the obvious uses of love in his campaign, like the I Love Obama websites, T-shirts and badges, there are also those haptic images of Obama, with his family on the eve of his first election victory. We hear how this very cool guy wants to make a new partnership with the Middle East and close Guantanamo, but all we get are surges in troop numbers, his initial support for the Mubarak regime, and the relentless rise of the drones. His supporters say that he wants to see Guantanamo closed down, so he’s either deceitful or totally ineffective. That’s the greyness of Obama love.



JP: One of the most intriguing bits in the book is when you look into concrete technologies that are emerging, like such interface design techniques that tap into the involuntary. Is this another sort of a level of affect modulation, for instance in emotion/affect based interface design, and how does it relate to the recent wider debate concerning “affect” in cultural theory?


TS: I see somnambulist media theory as a useful way to understand the so-called third paradigm of HCI. This is the move to exploit emotions and affect, social context, and experience processing already mentioned. Indeed, as a part of this shift, experience design consultancies and neuromarketers are fast becoming the next big thing in the persuasion business. Their biggest customers are apparently the banks and other financial institutions. Not surprisingly these enterprises have an image problem at the moment. So they are keen to tap into the potential to connect the end user to their brand via the visceral level of experience processing, appealing straight to the gut. This is what emotional design promises to do.


This stuff is slowing taking hold. I’ve attended a number of design related industry events lately where biometric techniques are being put into practice by the designers of apps, advergames and eCommerce, for example. They are enthusiastically hooking up user generated affect to GSR [galvanic skin response] and EEG [electroencephalography] devices which can work alongside facial and posture recognition software and eye tracking technology to explore how states of arousal across the affective valence might correspond to such things as brand identification and purchase intent. There is a desire here to understand what is happening to the user at the nonconscious level of experience processing so that brands can be primed and users steered toward certain windows of opportunity.


Again these concrete practices are steeped in greyness. These technologies and methods were initially intended for neurological treatment of conditions like ADD and dementia. There are no hidden agendas in their repurposing though. There is no effort to cover up the intrusiveness of these marketing techniques. The practice of persuasion, which became something of a taboo in old media arenas, has returned, it would seem, with a vengeance.


The interview was conducted in December 2012 via email.



Tony D. Sampson: Virality.Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012



Tony D. Sampson is a theorist and writer who works as Reader at the University of East London. He has written on virality and networks, and with Jussi Parikka co-edited the Spam Book: On Viruses, Porn and Other Anomalous Objects from the Dark Side of Digital Culture (2009).


Jussi Parikka is Reader in Media & Design at Winchester School of Art and Adjunct Professor at University of Turku, Finland. He is the author of various books on digital culture, including Digital Contagions (2007), Insect Media (2010) and What is Media Archaeology (2012). He has edited books such as Media Archaeology(2011) and most recently, the collection of Wolfgang Ernst writings (Digital Memory and the Archive). In 2009, he co-edited with Sampson The Spam Book. He blogs at http://jussiparikka.net.




For a limited time only, you can read for free Jussi Parikka’s forthcoming TCS review of Tony D. Sampson’s Virality, as well as his earlier TCS article on Wolfgang Ernst and media archaeology, by clicking on their titles.



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Theory, Culture & Society Special Issue on Topologies of Culture, Jul-Sep 2012, 29.4-5 (co-edited by Tiziana Terranova, and featuring an article by Matt Fuller and Andrew Goffey)


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