Tony D. Sampson is reader in digital media culture and communication based in East London, and deals with philosophy, digital culture and new media. His work focuses on an unconventional intersection where political analysis meets the theoretical aspects of digital media and social behaviour, shaping the world of our contemporary era. Writing on substantial components like viruses, virality in communication, contagion and behavioural imitation, the brain and neuroculture in this “rotten world” built on an accelerated bond of technology and ideology of value and profit driven markets, Sampson catches, with a forward looking attitude, some “substantial issues” of the clash between control and technology, society and individual or collective freedom, shaping him not only as a brilliant new media theorist but as an essential political thinker as well. To scan his new book ‘The Assemblage Brain’ (Minnesota Press, 2017) is therefore urgent to understand the important challenge we will face in a very near future.
Let’s start with your first book, published in 2009, The Spam Book edited in collaboration with Jussi Parikka, a compendium from the Dark Side of Digital Culture. Why did you feel the urge to investigate the bad sides of digital culture as a writing debut? In the realm of “spam” seen as an intruder, an excess, an anomaly, and a menace, you have met the “virus” which has characterized your research path up until today.
As I recall Jussi and I jokingly framed The Spam Book as the antithesis to Bill Gates’ Road Ahead, but our dark side perspective was not so much about an evil “bad” side. It was more about shedding some light on digital objects that were otherwise obscured by discourses concerning security and epidemiological panics that rendered objects “bad”. So our introduction is really about challenging these discursively formed “bad” objects; these anomalous objects and events that seem to upset the norms of corporate networking.
We were also trying to escape the linguistic syntax of the biological virus, which defined much of the digital contagion discourse at the time, trapping the digital anomaly in the biological metaphors of epidemiology and Neo-Darwinism. This is something that I’ve tried to stick to throughout my writings on the viral, however, in some ways though I think we did stay with the biological metaphor to some extent in The Spam Book, but tried to turn it on its head so that rather than point to the nasty bits (spam, viruses, worms) as anomalous threats, we looked at the viral topology of the network in terms of horror autotoxicus or autoimmunity. That is, the very same network that is designed to share information becomes this auto-destructive vector for contagion. But beyond that, the anomaly is also constitutive of network culture. For example, the computer virus determines what you can and can’t do on a network. In a later piece we also pointed to the ways in which spam and virus writing had informed online marketing practices. (1)
In this context we were interested in the potential of the accidental viral topology. Jussi’s Digital Contagions looked at Virilio’s flipping of the substance/accident binary and I did this Transformations journal article on accidental topologies, so we were, I guess, both trying get away from prevalent discursive formations (e.g. the wonders of sharing versus the perils of spam) and look instead to the vectorial capacities of digital networks in which various accidents flourished.
Virality, Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks came out in 2012. It is an important essay which enables readers to understand virality as a social theory of the new digital dominion from a philosophical, sociological and political point of view (with the help of thinkers like Tarde and Deleuze). The path moves from the virus (the object of research) to the viral action (the spreading in social network areas to produce drives) to the contagion (the hypnotic theory of collective behaviour). How does the virus act in digital field and in the web? And how can we control spreading and contagion?
Before answering these specific questions, I need to say how important Tarde is to this book. Even the stuff on Deleuze and Guattari is really only read through their homage to Tarde. His contagion theory helped me to eschew biological metaphors, like the meme, which are discursively applied to nonbiological contexts. More profoundly Tarde also opens up a critical space wherein the whole nature/culture divide might be collapsed.
So to answer your questions about the digital field and control, we need to know that Tarde regarded contagion as mostly accidental. Although it is the very thing that produces the social, to the extent that by even counter-imitating we are still very much products of imitation, Tarde doesn’t offer much hope in terms of how these contagions can be controlled or resisted. He does briefly mention the cultivation or nurturing of imitation, however, this is not very well developed. But Virality adds affect theory to Tarde (and some claim that he is a kind of proto-affect theorist), which produces some different outcomes. When, for example, we add notions of affective atmospheres to his notion of the crowd, i.e. the role of moods, feelings and emotions, and the capacity to affectively prime and build up a momentum of mood, a new kind of power dynamic of contagion comes into view.
While we must not lose sight of Tarde’s accident, the idea that capricious affective contagion can be stirred or steered into action in some way so as to have a kind of an effect needs to be considered. Crudely, we can’t cause virality or switch it on, but we can agitate or provoke it into potential states of vectorial becoming. This is how small changes might become big; how that is, the production of a certain mood, for example, might eventually territorialize a network. Although any potential contagious overspill needs to be considered a refrain that could, at any moment, collapse back into a capricious line of flight.
The flipside of this affective turn, which has, on one hand, allowed us new critical insights into how things might potentially spread on a network, is that digital marketers and political strategists are, on the other hand, looking very closely at moods through strategies of emotional branding and marketing felt experiences. The entire “like” economy of corporate social media is, of course, designed emotionally. Facebook’s unethical emotional contagion experiment in 2014 stands out as an example of how far these attempts to steer the accidents of contagion might go.
Five years after the release of Virality, The Assemblage Brain is published in 2017. A year that has seen a new political paradigm: Trump has succeeded Obama in the United States, a country which we could define as the benchmark of the development of today’s western élites and as a metaphor of power. Both have used the social networks to spread their political message, political unconscious as you would say. As an expert of contagion, and political use of the social networks, what lesson can we learn from such experience?
In the UK we’re still arguing over what kind of dystopia we’re in: 1984, Brain New World? So it’s funny that someone described the book to me as a dystopian novel.
“Surely all these terrible things haven’t happened yet?”
“This is just a warning of where we might go wrong in the future.”
I’m not so sure about that. Yes, I make references to the dystopian fictions that inspired Deleuze’s control society, but in many ways I think I underestimated just how bad things have got.
It’s a complex picture though, isn’t it? There are some familiar narrative emerging. The mass populist move to the right has, in part, been seen as a class based reaction against the old neoliberal elites and their low wage economy which has vastly enriched the few. We experienced the fallout here in the UK with Brexit too. Elements of the working class seemed to vociferously cheer for Farage. Perhaps Brexit was a catchier, emotionally branded virus. It certainly unleashed a kind of political unconsciousness, tapping into a nasty mixture of nationalism and racism under the seemingly empowering, yet ultimately oppressing slogan “We Want Our Country Back.” Indeed, the data shows that more Leave messages spread on social media than Remain.
But those quick to blame the stupidity of white working class somnambulists rallying against a neoliberal elite have surely got it wrong. Brexit made a broad and bogus emotional appeal to deluded nationalists from across the class divide who feared the country had lost its identity because of the free movement of people. This acceleration towards the right was, of course, steered by the trickery of a sinister global coalition of corporate-political fascists – elites like Farage, Johnson and Gove here, and Trump’s knuckleheads in the US.
What can we learn about the role of digital media played in this trickery? We are already learning more about the role of filter bubbles that propagate these influences, and fake news, of course. We also need to look more closely at the claims surrounding the behavioural data techniques of Cambridge Analytica and the right wing networks that connect this sinister global coalition to the US billionaire, Robert Mercer. Evidently, claims that the behavioural analysis of personal data captured from social media can lead to mass manipulation are perhaps overblown, but again, we could be looking at very small and targeted influences that leads to something big. Digital theorists also need to focus on the effectiveness of Trump supporting Twitter bots and the affects of Trump’s unedited, troll-like directness on Twitter.
But we can’t ignore the accidents of influence. Indeed, I’m now wondering if there’s a turn of events. Certainly, here in the UK, after the recent General Election, UKIP seem to be a spent political force, for now anyhow. The British Nationalist Party have collapsed. The Tories are now greatly weakened. So while we cannot ignore the rise of extreme far right hate crime, it seems now that although we were on the edge of despair, and many felt the pain was just too
much to carrying on, all of a sudden, there’s some hope again. “We Want Our Country Back” has been replaced with a new hopeful earworm chant of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn!”
There are some comparisons here with Obama’s unanticipated election win. A good part of Obama love grew from some small emotive postings on social media. Similarly, Corbyn’s recent political career has emerged from a series of almost accidental events; from his election as party leader to this last election result. Public opinion about austerity, which seemed to be overwhelmingly and somnambulistically in favour of self-oppression, has, it seems, flipped. The shocking events of the Grenfell Tower fire seems to be having a similar impact on Tory austerity as Hurricane Katrina did on the unempathetic G.W. Bush.
It’s interesting that Corbyn’s campaign machine managed to ride the wave of social media opinion with some uplifting, positive messages about policy ideas compared to the fearmongering of the right. The Tories spent £1million on negative Facebook ads, while Labour focused on producing mostly positive, motivating and sharable videos. Momentum are also worked with developers, designers, UI/UX engineers on mobile apps that galvanized campaign support on the ground.
Let’s now turn to your book, The Assemblage Brain. The first question is about neuroculture. It is in fact quite clear that you are not approaching it under a biological, psychological, economic or marketing point of view. What is your approach in outlining neuroculture and more specifically what do you define as neurocapitalism?
The idea for the book was mostly prompted by criticism of fleeting references to mirror neurons in Virality. Both Tarde and Deleuze invested heavily in the brain sciences in their day and I suppose I was following on with that cross-disciplinary trajectory. But this engagement with science is, of course, not without its problems. So I wanted to spend some time thinking through how my work could relate to science, as well as art. There were some contradictions to reconcile. On one hand, I had followed this Deleuzian neuro-trajectory, but on the other hand, the critical theorist in me struggled with the role science plays in the cultural circuits of capitalism. I won’t go into too much detail here, but the book begins by looking at what seems to be a bit of theoretical backtracking by Deleuze and Guattari in their swansong What is Philosophy? In short, as Stengers argues, the philosophy of mixture in their earlier work is ostensibly replaced by the almost biblical announcement of “thou shalt not mix!” But it seems that the reappearance of disciplinary boundaries helps us to better understand how to overcome the different enunciations of philosophy, science and art, and ultimately, via the method of the interference, produce a kind of nonlocalised philosophy, science and art.
What is Philosophy? is also crucially about the brain’s encounter with chaos. It’s a counter- phenomenological, Whiteheadian account of the brain that questions the whole notion of matter and what arises from it. I think its subject matter also returns us to Bergson’s antilocationist stance in Matter and Memory. So in part, The Assemblage Brain is a neurophilosophy book. It explores the emotional brain thesis and the deeply ecological nature of noncognitive sense making. But the first part traces a neuropolitical trajectory of control that connects the neurosciences to capitalism, particularly apparent in the emotion turn we see in the management of digital labour and new marketing techniques, as well as the role of neuropharmaceuticals in controlling attention.
So neurocapitalism perhaps begins with G.W. Bush announcement that the 1990s were the Decade of the Brain. Thereafter, government and industry investment in neuroscience research has exceeded genetics and is spun out to all kinds of commercial applications. It is now this expansive discursive formation that needs unpacking. But how to proceed? Should we analyse this discourse? Well, yes, but a problem with discourse analysis is that it too readily rubbishes science for making concrete facts from the hypothetical results of experimentation rather than trying to understand the implications of experimentation. To challenge neurocapitalism I think we need to take seriously both concrete and hypothetical experimentation. Instead of focusing too much on opening up a critical distance, we need to ask what is it that science is trying to make functional. For example, critical theory needs to directly engage with neuroeconomics and subsequent claims about the role neurochemicals might play in the relation between emotions and choice, addiction and technology use, and attention and consumption. It also needs to question the extent to which the emotional turn in the neurosciences has been integrated into the cultural circuits of capitalism. It needs ask why neuroscientists, like Damasio, get paid to do keynotes at neuromarketing conferences!
Another Spinozian question. After What can a virus do? in Virality you have moved to What can a brain do? in The Assemblage Brain. Can you describe your shift from the virus to the brain and especially what you want to reach in your research path of Spinozian enquiry What can a body do? What creative potential do you attribute to the brain? And in Virilio’s perspective how many “hidden incidents in the brain itself” may lie in questioning: What can be done to a brain? How dangerous can the neural essence be when applied to technological development? The front line seems to be today in the individual cerebral areas and in the process of subjectivity under ruling diagrams of neural types...
Yes, the second part of the book looks at the liberating potential of sense making ecologies. I don’t just mean brain plasticity here. I’m not so convinced with Malabou’s idea that we can free the brain by way knowing our brain’s plastic potential. It plays a part, but we risk simply transferring the sovereignty of the self to the sovereignty of the synaptic self. I’m less interested in the linguistically derived sense of self we find here, wherein the symbolic is assumed to explain to us who we are (the self that says “I”). I’m more interested in Malabou’s warning that brain plasticity risks being hijacked by neoliberal notions of individualised worker flexibility.
Protevi’s Spinoza-inspired piece on the Nazis Nuremburg Rallies becomes more important in the book. So there’s different kinds of sensory power that can either produce more passive somnambulist Nazis followers or encourage a collective capacity towards action that fights fascism. Both work on a population through affective registers, which are not necessarily positive or negative, but rather sensory stimulations that produce certain moods. So, Protevi usefully draws on Deleuze and Bruce Wexler’s social neuroscience to argue that subjectivity is always being made (becoming) in deeply relational ways. Through our relation to carers, for instance, we see how subjectivity is a multiple production, never a given – more a perpetual proto-subjectivity in the making. Indeed, care is, in itself, deeply sensory and relational. The problem is that the education of our senses is increasingly experienced in systems of carelessness; from Nuremburg to the Age of Austerity. This isn’t all about fear. The Nazis focus on joy and pleasure (Freude), for example, worked on the mood of a
population enabling enough racist feelings and a sense of superiority to prepare for war and the Holocaust. Capitalism similarly acts to pacify consumers and workers; to keep “everybody happy now” in spite of the degrees of nonconscious compulsion, obsolescence and waste, and disregard for environmental destruction. Yet, at the extreme, in the Nazis death camps, those with empathy were most likely to die. Feelings were completely shut down. In all these cases though, we find these anti-care systems in which the collective capacity to power is closed down.
Nonetheless, brains are deeply ecological. In moments of extreme sensory deprivation they will start to imagine images and sounds. The socially isolated brain will imagine others. In this context, it’s interesting that Wexler returns us to the importance of imitative relations. Again, we find here an imitative relation that overrides the linguistic sense of an inner self (a relation of interiority) and points instead to sense making in relation to exteriority. Without having to resort to mirror neurons, I feel there is a strong argument here for imitation as a powerful kind of affective relation that can function on both sides of Spinoza’s affective registers.
Let’s talk about specialized Control and neurofeedback: the neurosubject seen as the slave of the future of the sedated behaviour. Is it possible to train or to correct a brain? Let’s go back to the relation between politics and neuroculture. Trump’s administration displays neuropolitics today: for example “Neurocore” is a company where Betsy DeVos (current Trump’s US Secretary of Education) is the main shareholder. It is a company specialised in neuro-feedback techniques where one can learn how to modulate and therefore to control internal or external cerebral functions like some human-computer interfaces do. Neurocore affirms that they are able to positively work the electric impulses of the cerebral waves. What can we expect from mental wellness researches through neurofeedback and from self-regulated or digitally self-empowered cerebral manipulations, in politics and in society?
Of course, claims made by these brain training companies are mostly about gimmicky, money spinning, neuro-speculation. They are money spinners. But I think this focus on ADHD is interesting. It also addresses the point you made in the previous question about being neurotypical. So Neurocore, like other similar businesses, claim to be able to treat the various symptoms of attention deficit by applying neuroscience. This usually means diagnosis via EEG – looking at brainwaves associated with attention/inattention – and then some application of noninvasive neurofeedback rather than drug interventions. OK, so by stimulating certain brainwaves it is perhaps possible to produce a degree of behavioural change akin to Pavlov or Skinner. But aside from these specific claims, there’s more a general and political relation established between the sensory environments of capitalism and certain brain-somatic states. I think these relations are crucial to understanding the paradoxical and dystopic nature of neurocapitalism.
For example, ADHD is assumed by many to be linked to faulty dopamine receptors and detected by certain brainwaves (there’s a FDA certified EEG diagnosis in the US), but the condition itself is a paradoxical mix of attention and inattention. On one hand, people with ADHD are distracted from the things they are supposed to neurotypically pay attention to, like school, work, paying the bills etc., and on the other, they are supposed to be hyper- attentive to the things that are regarded as distractions, like computer games, and other
obsessions that they apparently spend disproportionate time on. There is a clear attempt here to manage certain kinds of attention through differing modes of sensory stimulation. But what’s neurotypical for school seems to clash with what’s neurotypical in the shopping mall. Inattention, distractibility, disorganization, impulsiveness and restlessness seem to be prerequisite behaviours for hyper-consumption.
Not surprisingly then, ADHD, OCD and dementia become part of the neuromarketer’s tool bag; that is, the consumer is modelled by a range of brain pathologies e.g. the attention- challenged, forgetful consumer whose compulsive drives are essential to brand obsessions. All this links to the control society thesis and Deleuze’s location of marketing as the new enemy and the potential infiltration of neurochemicals and brainwaves as the latest frontier in control.
What I do in the book is look back at the origins of the control society thesis, found explicitly in the dystopias of Burroughs and implicitly in Huxley. What we find is a familiar paradoxical switching between freedom and slavery, joyful coercion and oppression. In short, the most effective dystopias are always dressed up as utopias.
What then is an assemblage brain? It seems to me that a precise thought line passing from Bergson, Tarde, Deleuze, Guattari, Whitehead, Ruyer and Simondon has been traced here. You write: Everything is potentially «becoming brain». Why? And which difference is there with the cybernetic model of brain, prevailing today?
Although I don’t really do much Whitehead in the book, I think he’s demand for a nonbifurcated theory of nature is the starting point for the assemblage brain. Certainly, by the time I get to discuss Deleuze’s The Fold, Whitehead is there in all but name. So there’s this beautiful quote that I’ve used in a more recent article that perfectly captures what I mean...
[W]e cannot determine with what molecules the brain begins and the rest of the body ends. Further, we cannot tell with what molecules the body ends and the external world begins. The truth is that the brain is continuous with the body, and the body is continuous with the rest of the natural world. Human experience is an act of self-origination including the whole of nature, limited to the perspective of a focal region, located within the body, but not necessarily persisting in any fixed coordination with a definite part of the brain. 2
This captures the antilocationist stance of the book, which rallies against a series of locationist positions in neuroculture ranging from what has been described as fMRI- phrenology to the neurophilosophy of Metzinger’s Platonic Ego Tunnel. The cybernetic model of sense making is a locationist model of sense making writ large. The cognitive brain is this computer that stores representations somewhere in a mental model that seems to hover above matter. It communicates with the outside world through internal encoding/decoding information processors, and even when this information becomes widely distributed through external networks, the brain model doesn’t change, but instead we encounter the same internal properties in this ridiculous notion of a megabrain or collective intelligence. We find a great antidote to the megabrain in Tarde’s social monadology, but The Fold brilliantly upsets the whole notion that the outside is nothing more than an image stored on the inside. On the contrary, the inside is nothing more than a fold on the outside.
To further counter such locationist perspectives on sense making – Whitehead’s limitations of the focal region - we need to rethink the question of matter and what arises from it. For example, Deleuze’s use of Ruyer results in this idea that everything is potentially becoming brain. There are, as such, micro-brains everywhere in Whitehead’s nonbifurcated assemblage – the society of molecules that compose the stone, e.g. which senses the warmth of the sun.
There’s evidently politics in here too. The ADHD example I mentioned is a locationist strategy that says our response to the stresses and disruptions experienced in the world today can be traced back to a problem that starts inside the head. On the contrary, it’s in our relations with these systems of carelessness that we will find the problem!
You declare that the couple “mind/brain” is insolvable. Against the ratio of the scientific concept of the «mind» you counterpose the chaotic materiality of the «brain» writing that the brain is the chaos which continues to haunt science (p.195). Can we say that such irreducible escape from chaos expressed in your metaphor of Huxley’s escape from Plato’s cavern, shows your preference for What is Philosophy by Deleuze and Guattari rather than A Thousand Plateaus where the assemblage theory is displayed?
So yes, in The Fold there is no mind/brain distinction, just, as What is Philosophy continues with, this encounter between matter and chaos. The brain simply returns or is an exchange point for the expression of chaos – Whitehead’s narrow “focal point” of the percipient event. This is, as Stengers argues, nothing more than a mere foothold of perception, not a command post! Such a concept of nature evidently haunts the cognitive neurosciences approach that seeks, through neuroaesthetics, for example, to locate the concept of beauty in the brain. We might be able to trace a particular sensation to a location in the brain, by, for example, tweaking a rat’s whisker so that it corresponds with a location in the brain, but the neurocorrelates between these sensations and the concept of beauty are drastically misunderstood as a journey from matter to mental stuff or matter to memory.
I think the metaphor of Huxley’s acid fuelled escape from Plato’s cave, which is contrasted with Dequincy’s opiated journey to the prison of the self, helps, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way, to explore the difference between relations of interiority and exteriority or tunnels and folds. The point is to contrast Dequincy’s need to escape the harsh world he experienced in the early industrial age by hiding inside his opiated dream world with Huxley’s acid induced experience of “isness.” Huxley was certainly reading Bergson when he wrote Doors of Perception, so I think he was looking to route round the kind of perception explained by the journey from matter to the mental. My attempt at a somewhat crude lyrical conclusion is that while Dequincy hides in his tunnel Huxley is out there in the nonbifurcated fold...
One last question (maybe more ethical than what we would expect from new media theorists today) involves the aspect of a meeting between a virus and a brain. Which ethical, biological, political, social and philosophical effects may occur when viruses are purposely introduced/inoculated into human brain, as with «organoid» derived from grown cells in research laboratories? Growing a brain from embryonic cells and wildly experimenting modifying its growth can take the zoon politikon to a critical edge? Neither machines, or men or cyborg, but simple wearable synthetic micro- masses. Are we approaching in huge strides the bio-inorganic era that Deleuze defined in his book on Foucault, as the era of man in charge of the very rocks, or inorganic matter (the domain of silicon)?
One way to approach this fascinating question might be to again compare Metzinger’s neuroethics with an ethics of The Fold. On one hand, there’s this human right to use neurotechnologies and pharmaceutical psychostimulants to tinker with the Ego Tunnel. It’s these kind of out of body experiences that Metzinger’s claims will free us from the virtual sense of self by enabling humans to look back at ourselves and see through the illusion of the cave brain. On the other hand, the ethics of The Fold suggests a more politically flattened and nonbifurcated ecological relation between organic and inorganic matter. The nightmare of the wearable micro-masses ideal you mention would, I suppose, sit more concretely in the former. Infected with this virus, we would not just look back at ourselves, but perhaps spread the politics of the Anthropocene even further into the inorganic world. In many ways, looking at the capitalist ruins in which we live in now, we perhaps already have this virus in our heads? Indeed, isn’t humanity a kind of virus in itself? Certainly, our lack of empathy for the planet we contaminate is staggering. I would tend to be far more optimistic about being in the fold since even though we still have our animal politics and Anthropocene to contend with, if we are positioned more closely in nature; that is, in the consequential decay of contaminated matter, we may, at last, share in the feeling of decay. I suppose this is again already the case. We are living in the early ruins of inorganic and organic matter right now, yet we seem to think we can rise above it. But even Ego Tunnels like Trump will eventually find themselves rotting in the ruins.
1) Tony D Sampson and Jussi Parikka, “Learning from Network Dysfunctionality: Accidents, Enterprise 1 and Small Worlds of Infection” in The Blackwell Companion to New Media Dynamics, Hartley, Burgess and Bruns (eds.), Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
2) Whitehead cited in Dewey, J “The Philosophy of Whitehead” in Schilpp, P.A (ed.) The Philosophy 2 of Alfred North Whitehead. Tutor Publishing Company, New York, 1951.