Conference: Imitation, Contagion, Suggestion: Rethinking the Social
Conference at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark, 28–29 May 2015
The imagery of imitation, contagion, and suggestion, which played a key role in the formative years of the social sciences at the end of the nineteenth century, has, somewhat surprisingly, gained renewed foothold in much present-day public and scholarly discourse. In financial markets, for example, there has been a widespread adoption of the notion of contagion to account for the recent financial crisis, linking the alleged contagiousness of crises to ideas about pandemics. Recent reconfigurations of financial markets towards algorithmic and especially so-called high-frequency trading have further sparked debates about the risk that algorithms may imitate one another in negative spirals with potentially devastating effects. Yet the vocabulary of imitation, contagion, and suggestion has also attracted renewed interest in debates about phenomena that have little to do with financial markets. For example, much recent social and political theory harks back to this discursive repertoire in an attempt to come to terms with new forms of populism, or in order to rethink politics and the political. Somewhat relatedly, the affective turn in social and cultural theory has produced a renewed engagement with ideas that are tightly linked to previous discussions about suggestibility. This has not necessarily taken place in order simply to revive older notions in a one-to-one manner, as it were. As is the case with other attempts to reengage with the discursive repertoire of imitation, contagion, and suggestion, scholars emphasizing the importance of affect would usually rephrase the classical vocabulary in order, for instance, to analyze contemporary capitalism and how it allegedly operates by strategically utilizing suggestive means.
The resurgence of this discursive repertoire appears surprising considering the vehement critiques that were raised against notions of imitation, contagion, and suggestion in the first part of the twentieth century (and even before). Yet it might be that there is actually more to be gained from this repertoire for contemporary analytical and theoretical purposes than these critiques were willing to acknowledge. Further, it might be that recent developments (such as global digitalized connectivity) have rendered this conceptual horizon more apt today than in the context in which it was originally developed.
Against this backdrop, the aim of the ‘Imitation, Contagion, Suggestion: Rethinking the Social’ conference is threefold, namely, first, to explore the historical contexts in which the social sciences started to deploy this vocabulary; second, to examine how this vocabulary evolved in the social sciences, and beyond, from the late nineteenth century to the present; and third, to discuss if this conceptual horizon could, and should, be revived in a present-day theoretical and analytical context (and what that might entail).
Key questions to be discussed at the conference include: On what social, political, and historical (intra- as well as extramural) conditions were the development and utilization of the discursive repertoire of imitation, contagion, and suggestion premised in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? What hidden and/or explicit genealogies did this discursive repertoire build upon? How was it received and adopted in various sub-disciplines, and more broadly in culture and society, throughout the twentieth century? How and why was it critiqued? How did it evolve and transmute, both in intra- and extramural contexts? Do notions of imitation, contagion, and suggestion offer anything of relevance to the social sciences in a present-day theoretical and analytical context? Relatedly, might this discursive repertoire, or parts of it, be revived today in ways that avoid some of the problems ascribed to it by its twentieth-century critics? In other words, might notions of imitation, contagion, and suggestion – individually or in combination – shed new light on how the social is organized and plays out in various contexts?
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Time and venue: The conference will take place at Copenhagen Business School, Kilen Ks71, Kilevej 14, 2000 Frederiksberg, from Thursday 28 to Friday 29 May 2015.
Registration: attending the conference is free, but registration is needed. Please register at email@example.com.
The conference is organized under the auspices of the Sapere Aude research project on ‘Crowd Dynamics in Financial Markets’. For inquires about the conference, please contact Professor Christian Borch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thursday 28 May
08:45–9:15: Registration and coffee
9:15–9:20: Welcome: Christian Borch
9:20–10:20: Nidesh Lawtoo (Johns Hopkins University): ‘The Mimetic Unconscious: From the Socius to the Social’
10:25–11:25: Bjørn Schiermer (University of Copenhagen): ‘Extending the Crowd: Durkheim and the Mediated Collective’
11:30–12:30: Lisa Blackman (Goldsmiths, University of London): ‘Hypnotic Suggestion, Automatic Writing, Magic and Memory’
13:30–14:30: Ruth Leys (Johns Hopkins University): ‘The Chameleon Effect and Mirror Neurons: A New Vocabulary to Explain the Old Problem of Mimesis and Contagion?’
14:30–15:00: Coffee Break
15:00–16:00: Elisabetta Brighi (University of Westminster): ‘Imitation, Contagion and the Globalisation of Terror’
16:05–17.05: Andrea Mubi Brighenti (University of Trento): ‘The Reactive: Social Experiences of Surfaces and Depths’
17:05–17:30: Discussion across the Papers
Friday 29 May
9:00–10:00: Marc Renneville (CNRS. A. Koyré center, Paris): ‘Imitation and Contagion of Crime: From Scientific Debates to Penal Reform’
10:05–11:05: Christian Borch and Kristian Bondo Hansen (Copenhagen Business School): ‘Market Contagion: Imitation and Suggestion in Financial Markets’
11:05–11:30: Coffee Break
11:30–12:30: Peta Mitchell (Queensland University of Technology): ‘#contagion’
13:30–14:30: Robert Peckham (University of Hong Kong): ‘Epidemic Intelligence and the Futures of Contagion’
14:30–15:00: Coffee Break
15:00–15:30: Sebastian Vehlken (Leuphana University Lüneburg): ‘Contagious Agents: From Generative Social Science to the Computer Simulation of Epidemics’
15:30–16:00: Discussion across the Papers
16:00: End of Conference
Nidesh Lawtoo: ‘The Mimetic Unconscious: From the Socius to the Social’
Why do newborns mimic parental expressions? How are affects communicated? And how does the crowd (or the public) trigger effects of mimetic contagion? These questions have long been marginalized in the twentieth century, but they are currently returning to the center of heterogeneous disciplinary investigations in the twenty-first century. Be it at the level of continental philosophy (Borch-Jacobsen 1993), history of psychology (Leys 2000), philosophy of science (Stengers 2002), developmental psychology (Meltzoff 2011), the neurosciences (Iacoboni 2008), mimetic theory (Garrles 2011), crowds semantics (Borch 2012), and other fields, a still-minoritarian but nonetheless critical consensus begins to converge around two related realizations: 1) subjectivity is, for better and worse, radically open to affective influences that tie self to others; and 2) unconscious forms of imitation – linked to suggestion, hypnosis, and contagion – are constitutive of human behavior, both at the intersubjective and collective level. And yet, to this day influential figures in critical theory continue to rely on repressive or linguistic hypothesis predicated on the rejection of the so-called riddle of suggestion as the via regia to access the unconscious life of the subject. This paper aligns itself with present and past theories of imitation (or mimesis) to propose a mimetic hypothesis.
I argue that turning back to a pre-Freudian conception of imitation that informed the modernist period (ca. 1880–1940) is instrumental in tracing an alternative genealogy of the unconscious that is in line with post-Freudian developments in the contemporary period. In particular, I return to two marginalized figures that once dominated the French scene (the philosopher and psychologist Pierre Janet, and the social psychologist Gabriel Tarde) read in the company of two influential philosophers commonly associated with postmodern trends (Friedrich Nietzsche and Georges Bataille) in order to emphasize the role of involuntary – and in this sense un-conscious – imitation in the formation of both intersubjective and collective bonds. Extending some theses developed in The Phantom of the Ego (2013), I suggest that it is because the subject is born as relational, imitative, and open to unconscious, psycho-somatic communications with exemplary others (what Janet called socii) in childhood that subjectivity continues to be transected by fluxes of mimetic contagion in adulthood. Joining Janet’s ‘psychology of the socius’ (1937) with Tarde’s social Laws of Imitation (1890) contributes not only to establishing an alternative genealogy of the ‘mimetic unconscious’ that looks back to past theories of hypnotic suggestion in the crowd. It also establishes a theoretical bridge between the socius and the social that looks ahead to contemporary understandings of subject formation, non-verbal communications, and the power of virtual media to massively in-form (give form to) what Tarde called ‘public’ or ‘virtual crowd’ (1901).
Nidesh Lawtoo is a Visiting Scholar in The Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University, and the recipient of a SNSF Fellowship for Advanced Postdoc Mobility. He is the editor of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Contemporary Thought: Revisiting the Horror with Lacoue-Labarthe (Bloomsbury, 2012), and the author of The Phantom of the Ego: Modernism and the Mimetic Unconscious (Michigan State UP, 2013). He is currently finishing a book titled, Conrad’s Secret Shadow: Mimesis, Catastrophe, Theory (under contract with Michigan State UP).
Bjørn Schiermer: ‘Extending the Crowd: Durkheim and the Mediated Collective’
In this presentation I seek, through an analysis of selected key texts, to demonstrate the explanative potentials of Durkheim’s sociology of religion for an up-to-date theory of mediated collectivity. First, I seek to show how a timeless and positive understanding of mediated collectivity is to be found in the ‘symbolist’ template crystalizing in Durkheim’s late work. I then contour how this template could be transferred into a contemporary context. Second, I explore the various reasons why Durkheim did not develop this template for a modern context in any theoretical and empirical depth himself. In this regard I critically address Durkheim’s critique of traditional crowd theory, and I discuss the prejudices on Durkheim’s part which hindered him in understanding the true potentials of his late sociology in a present context. Finally, I seek to outline on a more general level some of the theoretical consequences following from turning Durkheim’s symbolist template into a central sociological explanatory concept.
Bjørn Schiermer holds a position as Associate Professor at The Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen. He is keenly interested in the late work of Emile Durkheim, in post-Husserlian ‘object-orientated’ phenomenology, in sociological theory, and in new tendencies in popular culture. Recent papers include: ‘Late-Modern Symbolism: Continuity and Discontinuity between the Modern and the Pre-modern in Durkheim’s work’, Sociological Focus 48, 2015: 49–67; ‘Late-modern hipsters: new tendencies in popular culture’, Acta Sociologica 57(2), 2014: 167–181; ‘Aura, cult-value and the postmodern crowd: A Durkheimian reading of Walter Benjamin’s artwork essay’, Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal for Social Theory 14(2), 2013: 191–210; ‘La raison sensible et ces limites’, Societés 118(4), 2012: 117–27.
Lisa Blackman: ‘Hypnotic Suggestion, Automatic Writing, Magic and Memory’
The title for my talk is taken from a recent BBC Radio 4 documentary, which was broadcast as part of the All in the Mind series. This documentary describes a series of experiments carried out by a team of neuroscientists at Kings College, University of London using hypnotic suggestion and an MRI scanner in order to explore the efficacies of automatic writing as a practice of automaticity. Automaticity is a field of research which crosses anomalistic psychology and the neurosciences, which explores how a subject’s sense of self can be altered such that they feel as if they are being directed by someone or something else. Such feelings are often attributed to paranormal or supernatural phenomena and linked to the phenomenology of experiences such as voice hearing, which often appear as signs and symptoms of psychopathology. The particular experiments in question used techniques of hypnotic suggestion to model experiences of automatic writing where people believe that their arm is being directed by someone or something else. The paper will explore the close links between suggestion, voice hearing and automaticity and consider what this recent interest suggests about the ongoing scientific controversies about contagion, imitation and suggestion as they intersect, trouble, disrupt and intrude on debates within the current turn to affect across the humanities and social sciences.
Lisa Blackman is a Professor in the Department of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK. She works at the intersection of body studies and media and cultural theory. She is the editor of the journal Body & Society (Sage) and co-editor of Subjectivity (with Valerie Walkerdine, Palgrave). She has published four books: Immaterial Bodies: Affect, Embodiment, Mediation (2012, Sage/TCS); The Body: The Key Concepts (2008, Berg); Hearing Voices: Embodiment and Experience (2001, Free Association Books); Mass Hysteria: Critical Psychology and Media Studies (with Valerie Walkerdine, 2001, Palgrave). She teaches courses which span critical media psychology, affect studies, embodiment and body studies, and experimentation in the context of art/science. She is particularly interested in phenomena which have puzzled scientists, artists, literary writers and the popular imagination for centuries, including automaticity, voice hearing, suggestion and telepathy. She is currently working on a project on Haunted Data.
Ruth Leys: ‘The Chameleon Effect and Mirror Neurons: A New Vocabulary to Explain the Old Problem of Mimesis and Contagion?’
This paper provides a discussion of how neuroscientists and cultural theorists today are attempting to solve the old problem of social contagion and mimesis by appealing to the existence of the ‘mirror neuron system’, with comments on the problems raised by those attempts.
Ruth Leys is an intellectual historian with a doctorate in the History of Science. Her work focuses on the history of 20th- and 21st- century developments in psychoanalysis, psychiatry, cognitive psychology and the neurosciences. Book publications include Trauma: A Genealogy (2000) and From Guilt to Shame: Auschwitz and After (2007). She is presently finishing a book entitled Why Has it Been Nearly Impossible to Theorize the Emotions? A Genealogical Investigation. Relevant essays include: ‘Mead’s Voices: Imitation as Foundation, Or, The Struggle Against Mimesis’, Critical Inquiry 19(Winter 1993): 277–307; ‘How Did Fear become a Scientific Object and What Kind of Object Is It?’, Representations 110(Spring 2010): 66–104; ‘The Turn to Affect: A Critique’, Critical Inquiry 37(3)(Spring 2011): 434–72; and ‘“Both of Us Disgusted in My Insula”: Mirror Neuron Theory and Emotional Empathy’, nonsite.org #5 (Spring 2012).
Elisabetta Brighi: ‘Imitation, Contagion and the Globalisation of Terror’
Mimetic motives have amply permeated the events and narrative around the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. Much of the popular reaction to the attacks was constituted through apparent contagion, with slogans such as ‘Je suis Charlie’ offering perhaps the ultimate assertion of identity based on imitation. Further, the terror attacks themselves provided an interesting example of a relatively new trend in terrorism in which imitation and contagion seem to play a key role. Rather than featuring large hierarchical organisations, the current so-called ‘fifth wave’ of terrorism is about horizontal networks of lone operators and self-radicalised individuals who often find their ways to violent empowerment largely through imitating the actions of others. Thus, terrorism seems to be constituted by imitation just as much as our response to it. Walter Benjamin (1991 : 210) famously stated that ‘Nature creates similarities.[…] The highest capacity for producing similarities, however, is man’s. Perhaps there is none of his higher functions in which his mimetic faculty does not play a decisive role’. If that is true, perhaps it is also true that globalisation – understood in terms of revolution in communication and information technology, but also as the process of privatisation and informalisation of violence – provides the ultimate setting for an acceleration of imitative processes. According to scholars such as Rene Girard, it is imitation that holds the key to interpreting the contemporary condition and illuminate the prospect for peace – and increasingly, as it happens, violence – in the contemporary global society.
Elisabetta Brighi is a Lecturer in International Relations at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster. Her field of expertise encompasses international security and international political theory. Amongst her recent publications is an edited Special Issue on “Mimetic Theory and International Studies” for Journal of International Political Theory and a paper on the mimetic politics of lone-wolf terrorism. Forthcoming for Bloomsbury is also her edited book The Sacred and the Political: Explorations on Mimesis, Violence and Religion.
Andrea Mubi Brighenti: ‘The Reactive: Social Experiences of Surfaces and Depths’
In this contribution to our general discussion on imitative, contagious and, more generally, diffusive social phenomena, I would like to focus on the notion of ‘reaction’. My attempt is to understand reaction as a social, rather than personal, experience – in other words, as a ratio between a plurality of forces. The first reference is to Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptualisation of language as ‘hearsay’, in other words, as a phenomenon that does not take place between ‘I and Thou’ (between a ‘first one’ and a ‘second one’) but rather as something that originally connects an impersonal someone to a likewise impersonal someone else, a ‘second one’ to a ‘third one’.
Once we have set ourselves within such an impersonal domain of circulations which take place within a multiplicity of socii, how – I ask – can we make sense of the phenomenon of reaction? It is only at this stage that we need to reintroduce a well-known, terrible yet inescapable figure, namely the individual. The individual is an uncanny entity of surfaces and depths, both of which are ways of dealing with social flows from a spatial, temporal and energetic point of view. So, how is the individual related to reaction? Bergson, I hypothesise, can help us to distinguish action and reaction. He might also be nicely complemented by the work of a zoologist such as Portmann. Indeed, action and reaction belong to two different biological circuits: the first one is a ‘stimulation-reaction’ circuit, while the second is a ‘perception-action’ circuit. Bergson’s theory of perception seems to match well with late 20th-century neurological research. In the latter, however, the social dimensions of perception have been increasingly emphasised well beyond Bergson’s conception. Similar discoveries – such as those by Giacomo Rizzolati – are quite important for social theory today. Once we place social life at the root of individual perception at large, the nature of the stimulation-reaction circuit can also be reframed in new ways. Questions such as ‘Is reaction really a social phenomenon?’, and, ‘What type of social experience is it?’ can now be tackled more extensively.
In the last part of my contribution, I briefly flesh out a few key dimensions and some of the principal components of the reactive experience as a form of social life. Here, I venture into a preliminary attempt to describe specific forms of space (territories), time (synchronisation) and energy (in terms of morphogenesis, or, relations between forces that give rive to forms) that are involved in this process. My conclusion is provisional and interlocutory.
Andrea Mubi Brighenti is aggregate professor of Social Theory and Space & Culture at the Department of Sociology, University of Trento, Italy. Research topics focus on space, power and society. He most recent book is The Ambiguous Multiplicities: Materials, episteme and politics of some cluttered social formations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). Andrea is the founder and editor in chief of the independent online web journal lo Squaderno as wel as currently co-editor of Etnografia e ricerca qualitativa.
Marc Renneville: ‘Imitation and Contagion of Crime: From Scientific Debates to Penal Reform’
Contagion and imitation are key concepts in the scientific debates on the causes of crime during the nineteenth century in France. Before the famous Gabriel Tarde’s theory, many others authors argued and wrote about the question. Moreover, the attempt to explain criminal behavior in medical concepts involved new conceptions of penal reform to avoid the spread of crime and recidivism. The aim of this presentation is to explore the relation between scientific studies of imitation and the evolution of penal legislation in France from the Revolution to 1914.
Marc Renneville is Senior Research Fellow on CNRS. A. Koyré center. History of sciences and technology and Director of a Digital Humanities center in Paris (Huma-Num). His research focuses on history of criminology, phrenology, medico-legal expertise and sentencing in France. Furthermore he is Director of Criminocorpus, a digital publication on History of Justice, Crime and Punishment (http://criminocorpus.revues.org and http://criminocorpus.org).
Christian Borch and Kristian Bondo Hansen: ‘Market Contagion: Imitation and Suggestion in Financial Markets’
With some important exceptions, a reading of central contributions to financial economics – i.e. economic theories about financial markets – easily lends the impression that the central axiom constituting this field is the notion that markets consist of a multiplicity of actors, each conceived of as a homo economicus. One important exception to this picture is behavioural finance, a field that has been booming since the 1990s, and which argues that market actors should not be seen as isolated, profit-maximizing individuals, but rather, more ‘realistically’, as subjects whose market decisions are prone to be influenced imitatively by others. By emphasizing this imitative aspect of market activity, behavioural finance seems to place itself at the opposite pole of ‘mainstream’ financial economics: while the latter is indebted to an anti-mimetic position, the former subscribes to a mimetic framework. In this paper, we wish to argue that this strong opposition is misleading. On the one hand, a close reading of the behavioural finance literature suggests that this field is more indebted to anti-mimetic thinking than its proponents like to recognize. On the other hand, mainstream financial economics itself seems more committed to mimetic ideas than its advocates and critics acknowledge. What transpires, in other words, is the notion that financial economics, across its internal divides, seems united in a tension between mimetic and anti-mimetic strands of thinking. In the presentation, we discuss various instantiations of this tension, just as we examine traces of its emergence by focusing on ideas associated with late-nineteenth-century theories of suggestibility (Sidis, Tarde, etc).
Christian Borch is Professor of Political Sociology at the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. He is the PI of a larger Sapere Aude research project on ‘Crowd Dynamics in Financial Markets’. His most recent books include Urban Commons: Rethinking the City (ed. with Martin Kornberger, Routledge, 2015); Foucault, Crime and Power: Problematisations of Crime in the Twentieth Century (Routledge, 2015); Architectural Atmospheres: On the Experience and Politics of Architecture (Birkhäuser, 2014); and The Politics of Crowds: An Alternative History of Sociology (Cambridge University Press, 2012; awarded the 2014 Theory Book Prize by the American Sociological Association).
Kristian Bondo Hansen is a PhD fellow at the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. Kristian is part of the Sapere Aude research project ‘Crowd Dynamics in Financial Markets’. In his research Kristian examines popular representations of financial markets from the late-19th to the mid-20th century, with particular emphasis on the ‘psychologicization’ of markets and market participants.
Peta Mitchell: ‘#contagion’
The advent and growth of large-scale, online social networking has brought with it not only a near-ubiquitous rhetoric of virality, but also a new wave of social contagion research focused on mathematically modeling and visualising the spread of ‘contagious behaviour’ on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
In their use of terms such as ‘social contagion’ and ‘emotional contagion’, these studies of social media and online social networking tacitly draw on a long and rich history of social contagion theory that has its roots in late-19th-century crowd psychology. Treating ‘social contagion’ as a scientific given and therefore as a dead metaphor, these studies, on the whole, elide their foundations in proto-social-psychological debates over the nature of imitation and suggestion and their role in crowd behaviour. They similarly do not engage with the ‘digital’ or ‘network’ contagion theory that has arisen out of the work of Jussi Parikka and Tony D. Sampson, among others – a theory that, in contrast, is in part driven by a rehabilitation of Tardean social contagion theory (via Latour), but that also has had very little to say, so far, about its application to social media platforms and dynamics.
In this paper, I address this disconnect with the aim of positing an approach to ‘big’ social data that brings computational methods for social media analysis into closer dialogue with social and digital contagion theory. Focusing on the hashtag as viral artefact, I examine the emergence, spread, and evolution of #illridewithyou, a hashtag that emerged during and in response to the December 2014 siege by a lone gunman in Martin Place, Sydney. In doing so, I aim to suggest the ways in which a theoretically informed digital methods approach can assist in understanding the networked, viral politics of the hashtag.
Peta Mitchell is Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Author of Cartographic Strategies of Postmodernity (Routledge, 2008) and Contagious Metaphor (Bloomsbury Academic, 2012) and co-author of Imagined Landscapes: Geovisualizing Australian Spatial Narratives (Indiana UP, in press), her research has spanned media and cultural studies, digital humanities, literary and critical theory, cultural geography, and human–computer interaction. Mitchell’s current fellowship project sees her working across QUT’s Social Media Research Group and Urban Informatics Research Lab to investigate geocultural research and the new spatial turn.
Robert Peckham: ‘Epidemic Intelligence and the Futures of Contagion’
Today, even as we extrapolate from biology to elucidate the operations of a human-made world, we make use of synthetic systems as explanatory models for the biological. This paper explores notions of emerging contagion that are being constructed on the interface of the social and the natural. Over the last decade, virologists have sought to develop a preemptive capacity, using bush hunters as sentinels for monitoring unusual intensities of ‘chatter’ between humans and wildlife viruses. The term ‘viral chatter’, employed to describe this cross-species traffic, derives from the activity of intelligence agencies who listen in on the frequency of terrorist communications in order to anticipate terrorist acts. What are the consequences of framing virology as a counter-insurgency operation, particularly in regions where viral and terrorist threats converge (the Taliban in Pakistan, Boko Haram in West Africa)? How have new approaches to viral emergence fed back into our understanding of human-afflicted violence? And to what extent are our assumptions about contagion being redefined by preemptive technologies that purport to decipher the patterns of contagion before contagion itself has had time to manifest? In addressing these questions, we reflect on the ways in which the biological and the social are being securitized through a newly reconfigured discourse of lethal emergence.
Robert Peckham is Associate Professor in the Department of History and Co-Director of the Centre for the Humanities and Medicine at the University of Hong Kong. He is interested in the history of infectious disease and epidemic control, and a key focus of his current research is on the appropriation of biomedical models in economics and financial theory from the nineteenth century, including the contemporary ‘biologization’ of finance, and ‘ecological’ approaches to intra-financial systems. Recent and forthcoming publications include the edited volumes Disease and Crime: A History of Social Pathologies and the New Politics of Health (2014) and Empires of Panic: Epidemics and Colonial Anxieties (2015), and the book Epidemics in Modern Asia.
Sebastian Vehlken: ‘Contagious Agents: From Generative Social Science to the Computer Simulation of Epidemics’
‘Contagion’ can be perceived as one of the vital concepts of classical mass psychology. With reference to early studies on social animals in entomology and ethology, authors like Gabriel de Tarde or Gustave LeBon described emerging dynamics in human masses as induced by peculiar interactions in dense aggregations. Tarde at length writes about the ‘contagions psychiques’ produced by physical contact in animal societies, and LeBon imagines a ‘contagion mentale’, rapidly spreading in a crowd as if transmitted by ‘microbes’, and thus already incorporating an epidemic element.
Whilst these authors allude to biological principles of contagion in a mere metaphorical sense, for the past 25 years, such principles have expanded into the rule sets of a particular type of computer simulation. In 1996, Robert Axtell and Joshua Epstein developed a computer program called Sugarscape, a Cellular Automaton (CA) which simulated interactions in ‘societies’ of simple artificial agents from the bottom up. Their publication Growing Artificial Societies on the one hand can be characterized as a formation scene of a new domain of sociological mathematics that led to new perspectives on the relation of aggregates and individuals. It was built on Thomas C. Schelling’s findings that complex global effects and social structures in human societies can emerge from very basic local interactions of autonomous agents.
On the other hand, the agent-based simulation paradigm (ABM) proved significantly useful for the description of disease spreading. Axtell and Epstein’s approach, through the following years, has explicitly been developed in this direction: Since 2006, the Epidemic Simulation System (EpiSimS), based on a former traffic simulation (TRANSIMS, 2000), models the infrastructure and person-to-person social networks of an artificial model of the USA. EpiSimS is used for the assessment of disease prevention, intervention, and response strategies and as an experimental test bed for analyzing the consequences, feasibility, and effectiveness of response options to disease outbreaks. Recently, Epstein sought to trump this model with a Global Scale Agent Model (GSAM, 2009) that incorporates several billions of artificial agents and combines ABM with Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) simulations, used e.g. for the dispersion of contagious particles in the atmosphere.
In my talk I am going to first examine the genealogy of ‘contagion’ as a principle for dynamic local interaction processes in artificial agent societies. Second, I will analyze how ‘contagion’ is being objectified in Computer Simulations (CS) as an element of governmental disease control along the abovementioned examples. And third, I will delve into the novel combination of inductive and deductive approaches introduced by CS – an epistemic switch that utilizes ‘contagion’ as a productive force for describing the multiple interactions in societal models.
Sebastian Vehlken is Junior Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Media Cultures of Computer Simulation (mecs), Leuphana University Lüneburg. In 2014, he was a Research Fellow of the IFK Vienna. He studied Media Studies and Economics at Ruhr-University Bochum and at Edith Cowan University, Perth. From 2005–2007, he was a DFG scholarship holder in the Graduate School ‘Media of History – History of Media’ at Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, and from 2007–2010 Research Associate (PreDoc) in Media Philosophy, University of Vienna. In 2010, he finished his PhD thesis on a media history of biological and computational swarm research at the Institute for Culture of the Humboldt University Berlin. From 2010–2013, he was a Research Associate (Post-doc) at the Institute for Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media, Leuphana University Lüneburg. His current research project explores the media history of computer simulations in the context of civil nuclear energy technology in West Germany (FRG), with a focus on the development of fast breeder programs. Its preliminary title is Plutonium Worlds: Computer Simulation and Nuclear Energy 1960–1980.
Sebastian’s main research interests focus on media theory, Cultural Techniques, the media history of computer simulation and supercomputing, the history and epistemology of think tanks, and oceans as media environments.
Last updated by: Tobias Brask 07/04/2015