Tony D. Sampson: The Assemblage Brain

I managed to refuse to have a mobile phone... I can sit there in a train carriage, look out the window, and, of course there’s some kind of mediation going on there, but it’s free from the kind of mediation which seems to consume most of us most of the time.
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Tony D. Sampson discusses his book The Assemblage Brain: Making Sense of Neuroculture with Chris Richardson. He is reader in digital media cultures and communication at the University of East London. His publications include The Spam Book, coedited with Jussi Parikka (Hampton Press, 2009), Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), The Assemblage Brain: Sense Making in Neuroculture (University of Minnesota Press, Dec 2016) and Affect and Social Media, coedited with Darren Ellis and Stephen Maddison (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018). Tony is the organizer of the Affect and Social Media conferences and a co-founder of Club Critical Theory. He works with UG and PG students from design, technology, media and communications and fine art.

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The Assemblage Brain argues that the assumed neurocorrelates between microlevel synaptic interactions and an emergent cognitive consciousness are very problematic. Bergson’s analogy between the hook and the coat on which it hangs brilliantly captures this problem back in the early 1900s. I was also interested to find out that Aldous Huxley was reading Bergson while writing The Doors of Perception. So all the references I make to our current Huxleyesque dystopia started to resonate beyond the more obvious references to Brave New World.

I was given the impression that these two authors are regarded as quite controversial antagonists in orthodox theoretical neuroscience circles. In a roundabout way, they certainly made me rethink my whole approach to the kind of emotional neuroscience put forward by people like Damasio and LeDoux and the influence it has had on affect theory in particular.

This one comes from a well-respected expert who was, I think, at the forefront of brain imaging technology. Along with William R. Uttal’s Neural Theories of the Mind: Why the Mind Brain Problem May Never Be Solved (London: Routledge, 2014), Shulman reminds us that there’s an incredible amount of instability in the brain sciences. Most things are still up for grabs and may well stay that way.

So this was my starting point. As I tell Chris in the interview, I wrote The Assemblage Brain, in part, as a response to criticism about some comments I made about mirror neurons in Virality. I’d been following a neuro-trajectory set out in the early sociology of Gabriel Tarde and then Deleuze and Guattari. It’s a great book which continually surprises. Not least because of the ostensible contradictions it offers with the philosophy of mixture they present in the earlier A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

I received an email from Greg Seigworth at Millersville University in Pennsylvania telling me about the release of this book. It soon became obvious why he drew my attention to it. It came out after my book, but now needs to be read alongside it. It provides a very challenging counter-theory to the new materialism of The Assemblage Brain that requires much debate.