Tony Sampson – The Assemblage Brain

Describe your book

My latest monograph is The Assemblage Brain: Sense making in Neuroculture (University of Minnesota Press). It sneaked out very late in December 2016. I work in digital design and technology education in the UK and over the years I’ve registered the creeping influence of the neurosciences in studies of human computer interaction and user experience design. This influence extends to industry seminars too, where everyone wants to know how value can be extracted from the brain-computer relation. The book expands on my interest in digital media cultures to look more broadly at emerging neurocultures in other areas and disciplines including art, science, philosophy, marketing, big pharma and politics. 

I must also mention an edited collection we published in summer 2018. Affect and Social Media is with Rowman and Littlefield International. I’m very pleased with this one as it’s the result of all the labours of those who have contributed to the Affect and Social Media conferences in east London. Someone recently called it a hybrid proceedings/edited collection. I can live with that.

Why did you decide to publish it with a university press?

It seemed a very natural thing for me to do. I’ve been inspired by lot of books published by Minnesota over the years. I wanted to see if my work could fit in there too. There was a big learning process on the first one (Virality), but I think by the time I came to write The Assemblage Brain I had a much clearer understanding of what needed to be done.

Do you enjoy the writing process?

I would say yes, most of the time it’s very fulfilling in a creative sense, but sometimes there’s a lot of pain. I’ve always written a lot. I used to write lyrics and compose music obsessively for many years. I’m interested in how that creative process has influenced my academic writing of late both in terms of working on a kind of lyrical tone, but also comparable processes of revision involved in lyric and academic writing. The writing process can nonetheless be extremely painful on occasions. Usually I’m quite productive. I spend a lot of time revising and refining. When that doesn’t work out too well it can be rather tormenting. Writing can be a lonely process too, of course. There’s not too people around you to talk about these problems, so it’s easy to feel isolated during moments of crisis.

What is the best piece of advice anyone has ever given to you?

If it doesn’t work, don’t spend too much labour reworking it. Delete it! Before this, I used to find it very difficult to discard material that I felt like I’d invested a lot of time in. I’d spend too much time trying to rework it. Nowadays I tend to move stuff that isn’t working to an excess folder and then check from time to time to see if it can be reintegrated. Generally though it doesn’t make it to the final text. It’s an ever expanding folder.

What piece of advice might you give to young academics looking to follow in your footsteps?

Ha! Yep, learn from all the mistakes I’ve made and continue to make. Firstly, very early on I was told, and ignored, some wise advice that your PhD thesis is not necessarily going to make a good book. I think that might be the case for UK based PhDs at very least. Give that some thought before sending the full thesis to a publisher. Secondly, it would appear to me that really successful writers have either chanced on a resonating subject matter or they have done it by design. I suspect most are just good fortune. I enter into every project usually driven by my current interests and obsessions. If you want big success then that’s probably not the best kind of approach.

Who inspires you?

Generally speaking it is whoever I’m enjoying reading at the moment. My interests have flipped about in recent years. I would have to say that the social theories and philosophies of Gabriel Tarde and Gilles Deleuze were the main works that initially inspired my two books for Minnesota. Colleagues like Tiziana Terranova, Luciana Parisi and Matthew Fuller, and more recently Patricia Clough have all influenced me a lot. However, I’d say that the most profound influence of late is without a doubt Alfred North Whitehead.

What’s next?

I’m currently (as of 2019) writing a new book provisionally titled A Sleepwalker’s Guide to Social Media. All things going to plan this should be published around spring 2020. I have a contract with Polity Press, so I’m excited about that. (Editor’s note: we originally asked Tony to write for the blog in the Before Times, in late 2019. A Sleepwalker’s Guide to Social Media has since published, and is available here.) It’s kind of the final book of a sleepwalker trilogy starting with Virality and The Assemblage Brain and probably going to be the most political of the three. The conceptual persona of the sleepwalker was inspired by Tarde and continues to have legs in terms of explanatory powers in these rather dark times, I think.

Tony D. Sampson is reader in digital culture and communications at the University of East London. He is author of Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), The Assemblage Brain (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) and A Sleepwalker’s Guide to Social Media (Polity Press, 2020)