The big questions

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Welcome to Contagion 2020, the eighth iteration of this course but the first actually to be taught in a pandemic. After class today, one of you asked how our current situation — with courses being taught remotely and our lives affected in any number of ways we may not yet be collectively aware of — has shaped the way I’m approaching things this semester. The short answer is: the stakes are higher than ever! What was mostly hypothetical in 2012 is now world-defining for us, determining whether 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.

But if anything has happened to my thinking over the last six or seven 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.

I mentioned today that after leading the course for a while now with a very dense reading from Tony Sampson‘s book Virality, I’ve decided just to give you the big takeaways and let the reading be optional. His 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.

Sampson’s project circles around some questions that I find quite useful in laying out a roadmap or orientation guide for the rest of our reading this semester. What does it mean to believe (or not) that we are “too connected”? What are the dangers implied in being too closely connected?

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 resists this 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 asked you today to offer key lessons you’ve learned in the last six months, and much of what you came up with reinforces what I think are the major questions this class centers on or circles back to again and again. Like Sampson, we will ask what it means to worry about being too connected, but also how these connections determine who we already are. Like him 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. Are we individuals? Nodes in a series of networks? Members of collective bodies with their own conscious or unconscious identities? If so, how are we affected by the ways in which these networks unevenly distribute social power and economic privilege?

With those questions in mind, let’s embark. Here’s a theme song for the semester from the artist Holly Herndon:

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