Sitting with the big questions

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Welcome to Contagion 2021, the ninth iteration of this course and the second actually to be taught during a pandemic. Starting our class remotely today was a bit of a reminder that our lives have been affected in any number of ways we may not yet be collectively aware of — and maybe that’s part of the work we need to do this semester. What was mostly hypothetical in 2012 when I started teaching this class is now world-defining for us, determining whether, where, and how we can travel, congregate, communicate effectively, or share experiences or feelings safely. “How do we respond to news that some among us are ill, and that the illness is, perhaps, contagious?” may not be how I would start the course description today. I would probably start with the question on the syllabus: “Are we too connected?” But I also want to think about a bunch of assumptions embedded in that question and the way it begs certain kinds of answers or evokes specific kinds of emotions.

If anything has happened to my thinking over the last eighteen months, it’s the clarification of this course’s central questions. I had seen them shape up over several years of teaching the texts we’ll read together — and several that are no longer part of the course.

For a few years, prior to the pandemic, I chose to begin the class with a very dense reading from Tony Sampson‘s book Virality. It was so dense, though, and so foreign to people who weren’t steeped in some specific jargon and conceptual frames, that I’ve decided just to give you the big takeaways and let the reading be optional. Sampson’s book sits at the nexus of poststructuralist literary criticism, continental philosophy, and media theory, drawing additional influence from late-19th-century sociology of crowd behavior. (Imagine all those early European sociologists, trying to make sense of overcrowded cities! The poor dears.)

Sampson’s project departs from some questions that I find quite useful in laying out a roadmap or orientation guide for the rest of our reading this semester. He’s the first one who prompted me to ask what it means to believe (or not) that we are “too connected”? Who is the “we” in that question? How do “we” quantify or measure “too”? What are the implications of a question like that? If the answer is yes, what then? Sampson lays out the stakes this way:

The proliferation of global transport networks makes this model of society susceptible to the spreading of biological diseases. Digital networks become volatile under the destructive potential of computer viruses and worms. Enhanced by the rapidity and extensity of technological networks, the spread of social conformity, political rumor, fads, fashions, gossip, and hype threatens to destabilize established political order. Likewise, financial contagions cascade through the capitalist economy, inspiring speculative bubbles, crashes, and aperiodic recessions. (Virality, 1)

Sampson sees the question “Are we too connected?” as rooted in a fear of human connectivity that accompanies the realities of globalization. He works hard to resist what he sees as a fear-based notion of “too much connectivity,” choosing to focus instead on the political operations of the fear that travels alongside the meme that connection places us in peril.

Political systems and marketers alike can play on such fears, but the fact of our connections very well may be moot: Is it possible at this point not to understand ourselves as already connected? Maybe, Sampson thinks, we’re better off asking exactly HOW we’re connected by networks — especially media/communication networks, but also by networks of interpersonal relations — and what these connections imply for how we understand individual and crowd behavior, especially in relation to “viral” media.

For Sampson, being “connected” in these ways is more than a metaphor. To make his point he asks another important question: What actually spreads when communication goes viral? The answer, for him, is affect, feeling, emotion: viral communications circulate not just fear, but also desire, love, a sense of belonging, a sense of being left out (#FOMO, anyone?). These affective transmissions result in what he calls “microimitations”: subtle adjustments in tone and behavior as we begin to conform to or imitate — or desire to conform to or imitate — mass behavior.

Sampson also asks whether the language of fear is overblown. He resists the too-much-connectivity thesis and biological metaphors for communication alike and worries that fear can be easily exploited. He has problems with the field of “memetics,” which seeks to treat the meme/gene analogy seriously. Nowhere is the problematic status of these ideas “more evident than in the … viral discourses surrounding network security, in which the recourse to immunological analogies and metaphors of disease shape the network space by way of igniting public anxieties concerning an epidemic ‘enemy’ that is ‘undetected, and therefore potentially everywhere’” (4). This is what he means by connection being more than metaphorical. The figurative language, that is, actually shapes the “forces of relational encounter” at play in social and political fields. The simplest way to put this: language matters, because feelings drive political and social forces and structure or reinforce power relations.

It’s easy for us to think about contagion in the register of social behavior, pandemic situation or not, when we think about memes or fashion or political sensibilities, especially as transmitted by social media. Something something something about TikTok and tweens saving turtles — “yeah, back in September 2019, maybe,” my own tween son observes. But what happens when we put these ideas into conversation with pandemics and the texts they have generated over time? That’s where we find ourselves starting this semester.

I said today that part of our work this semester will be to reflect on our own experiences of the pandemic — as varied and uneven as they may be. What connects “us”? When do we think of ourselves as belonging to collectives — the first-person plural — and when do we think of ourselves as individuals? Many of the connections you identified in your icebreaker introductions come back to the major questions this class centers on or circles back to again and again. Like Sampson, we will ask what it means to feel connected, what it means to worry about being too connected or not connected enough, to be unevenly networked, but also how the connections you talked about help us determine who we are. Like Sampson we will ask how communication matters in a time of epidemic disorder — and examine a range of authors who have thought about the relationship between communication about disease and the communication of disease. We will ask what the networks we belong to have to do with how we understand ourselves. Is individualism even possible? Is it possible not to be connected? Are all connections equal? How are we affected by the ways in which networks unevenly distribute social power and economic privilege?

With questions like these in mind, let’s embark. Here’s a slightly creepy but kind of cool and totally apt theme song for the semester from the artist Holly Herndon. Feel free to leave your thoughts about it, or anything else above, in the comments:

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