Emergence

From Plato we have learned that desire is not merely a matter of being drawn by the attractive, the beautiful and of a lack which must be fulfilled. It is equally a matter of travail, of expectant and obscure pregnancy, of frustration in something one is trying to say, make, or do. If desire is about "sex," it is equally about "birth." But both aspects are always present: "to have sex" is "to bring to birth." To "bring to birth" is to enter into a new erotic union with the world in some fashion.

But if the dimension of lack has been often explored, we understand less about the phenomenon of emergence. Likewise, applying desire to knowledge, we know more about "backwards recollection" than "forwards repetition." How are we to understand emergence?

The first thing to see here is that emergence is more fundamental than causality. In physical and cultural reality, there are genuinely new occurrences which cannot be deciphered merely in the terms of that from which they proceed. Indeed, one might say that unless causality is only a banal and mysterious repetition, causality itself involves emergence, because when something is a cause, it has mutated and emanated beyond itself. If something is acting as a cause, it has developed in some way. This is only predictable if one includes the development or the tendency to develop in the definition of the causing agent itself. One has to factor in the incalculable. As soon as one recognizes that there are such radical new events in reality, and that the ordinary is also newness, then one has to allow that emergence is a more fundamental phenomenon than causality.

It might seem, therefore, as if the notion of emergence marks a postmodern consciousness, and the end of an ultimately theological view which explains the world in terms of preceding causes and intentions. One can interpret the Enlightenment perspective as a secularized version of this outlook in which both teleology and eschatology seem to be linked with the notion of an all-governing intention or plan. This remains the case even where the intention or plan is immanentized and depersonalized.

Presently, I will somewhat question this assumption. But let it for the moment stand. One can in any case venture that the notion of emergence can be seen as postmodern insofar as it destabilizes reality and opens up aporias. This can be seen in relation to space, time, and the processes of subjectivity

First of all, in terms of space. The very word "emergence" is instructive here. It was first used in relation to the distillation of something from a liquid. It is linked therefore to chemistry, which, since the days of alchemy, has been the mysterious sphere of physical properties not reducible to physical operations, at least in the sense of mechanical operations. It often seems to be concerned with merely describable phenomenal properties - color, viscosity, smell, corrosive effects, and so forth. It is in fact the sphere of emergent properties. The latter are curiously elemental, and yet also already secondary. The word also suggests things coming out of the sea, yet it does not denote the coming-to-the-surface of concealed sea-creatures. Rather, it suggests things that are only defined when they do come to the surface.

This is an arrival in a radical sense. It does not betoken the invocation of another reality apart from the sphere of emergence, as would be the case when one adds one brick to another brick, and a wall starts to take shape. Rather, something new arises in an unexpected way merely from given resources. Nothing is really added, because this would suggest something coming from outside; yet neither is this predictable from within because the new thing needs the space into which it emerges, the externalizing action, in order to define itself.

One would in consequence be tempted to speak of a mutation, but even this is not quite right, because it would suggest something unfolding from within, perhaps like a butterfly from a chrysalis. Yet this cannot apply, because the emergent thing is definitely a new reality in its own right, with no traceable continuity of a developmental or mechanical sort with what went before.

Here is the problem of something new in space that is not from pre-given space, nor from super-added space. There seems to be no space anywhere for the emergent event, perhaps because it is what provides space in the first place. The problem is compounded by the fact that an emergent thing must be in some way connected with what went before, otherwise it would not be recognizable at all. Something wholly discontinuous could not be described or deciphered in any available categories whatsoever. So, we would simply not know about it. This raises the problem of the link between objective emergence and subjective recognition of emerging things. Nevertheless, the sense of continuity involved here will of necessity be very incomplete, and we will go on having to debate its nature (because it cannot be reduced).

This kind of connection between an antecedent and a consequent more or less defines the relation of passage from past to present, and so we cannot think through the problems of spatial emergence without invoking, in the second place, temporal emergence.

Here, we can only see a present event if we connect it in some way with what has gone before, and yet the present event was neither hidden in the past, nor is it added to the past, as it were, from another past; rather, the present emerges from the past and the future. But just as we saw that there is no space for emergence, so equally there is no time for emergence. The present moment, as soon as it occurs, takes on the aspect of something that was already there and somehow we had failed to notice - and this accounts for our odd sense of inevitability about things, and maybe for a sense of the uncanny or déjà vu. For just the same reason, the present moment has already transgressed on the sphere of the future, as if it were added to the past from the future. One can see this as the aporetic impossibility of presence.

But, more radically, one can also see this as the unthinkable primacy of presence, which is what gives rise to time in the first place. We may not be able to think presence and emergence, and yet we can live them and inhabit them, and thereby we somehow prove their reality beyond the inverted rationalisms of deconstruction.

This is of relevance, in the third place, to the question of subjectivity. First of all, the subjective "I" is also something only emergent. Its specificity and ability to reflect is an intense example of something that arises from the past and yet in an unpredictable fashion. Secondly, the subject is tangled up in the problems of space and time as just delineated. It emerges within space and time problematically, and its peculiarity is that it can reflect upon its emergence, as Judith Butler (2003) has indicated. As she also argues, the subject cannot perfectly carry out this reflection because emergence is an inexplicable phenomenon, and therefore the constitution of the subject is always more primary than its reflective reconstitution, even though the latter is always going on from the subject's birth, like a kind of emergence from emergence (perhaps rather like a return to the sea).

This inability to catch up with itself does not just apply to the past, which tends to be the compass of psychoanalysis. It also applies to present and future intentions. One often finds oneself saying "it has occurred to me that. . . "; this phrase exposes the way in which we are not in command of our ideas; they come to us almost as if from without, and Plato, as we have seen, for this reason thought of knowledge and all "arts" as derived from divine inspiration. We can exercise a kind of secondary censorship or editorial role, but that is all.

It is very extraordinary that most thought hitherto, forgetting Plato, does not seem to take much account of this state of affairs. What seems to be the case is that responsible thinking involves a kind of state of mystical responsive receptiveness, rather than technical control. Martin Seel is right to suggest that all of human activity is in the situation of creative art where we do not quite know what it is that we are bringing about (Seel 2003). In all our activity, ethical and political, as well as artistic, we seem almost to be spectators of emergent processes.

Yet just because emergence is not something pre-given, this is not quite true: in subtle ways that we cannot scrutinize, we elicit emergence, and we are able to refuse or accept an emergent thing in the name of a norm that seems to be itself only emergent. The fact that to recognize a new emergent object we must develop a new emergent capacity to recognize what emerges, suggests that there is a kinship between the deepest dimension of reality that is radical innovation and thought itself. As Plato indicated, knowledge is bound up with an obscure desire, both for what has always been there, and for an emerging which anticipates an eternal future.

Without this Platonic "postmodernism," then, it would seem that the priority of emergence opens up a chaotic or nihilistic prospect. It might seem to do so, if nothing is commanded in advance, and nothing occurs according to a graspable teleology. One might read the situation in terms of the rule of a random flux that throws up everything beyond the reach of choice or reason. However, this is not really what happens, according to the phenomenology of emergence in human culture. Rather, it seems to disclose an order beyond disorder which we cannot fully grasp.

We have already seen this in various ways: to be emergent, the radically new thing not only reveals its own new logic, but reorders the past in terms of this new logic, so that we can make some - but never perfect - sense of the reality of the thing's emergence. This is perhaps most intensely true in the sphere of the creative arts, where we are confronted with radically new things which nonetheless make sense to us, and to some extent cohere with what we already knew about. This does not mean that we are awakened to a logic we should already have known about, because the new way of looking at things is inseparable from the new beautiful object which we apprehend.

Is one to say, then, that this new meaning is simply a willed meaning, or else a kind of impersonal arbitrariness of which we are the passive recipient? The latter option would in effect negate the experience of art, or indeed the experience of a new social awareness. What we are confronted with here is the sense that something objective, as Alain Badiou acknowledges, has arrived, not from the past, in which it was hidden, nor from a concealed immanent eternity which was always available. We need these historical events to emerge if we are to see just this or that. As Badiou (2001) says, this is exactly like an event of grace.

Can this be a secular grace? It is hard to see how, because the secular alternatives of the permanently given, on the one hand, or the arbitrary, on the other, seem to be exhaustive. If the new compels us and redefines what went before, then, irreducibly, we have the sense of an arrival which cannot be from space, the past, or the future. To have this experience, and not to disbelieve it in a moment of rationalist deconstruction, is already to have entered in some fashion upon the field of theology The arrival can only be the reflection in time of the eternal. In this way, only the eternal saves the new.

It is true that traditional theology did not fully recognize the paradigm of thought as occurrence, yet, at the same time, pre-modern theology did not have our modern reductive notion of causality. For example, neoplatonic emanation sees causation as development of that which is causal; what is more, the pre-Newtonian God was not seen as a God with a plan plus a series of whimsical interventions. Instead, for Thomas Aquinas, for example, God's thinking is only contained in the emergence of the Logos or the Son from the Father, which is like a kind of infinite comprehension within God of his external creative action. This does not proceed according to a plan, but it is itself the plan. God is only self-constrained by the beauty of what He tries to produce externally and internally. There is therefore a case for saying that for Thomas and much pre-modern theology, God is not before the emergent but is himself the eternally emergent act (but not in a Hegelian predetermined sense, since he does not depend on his emergence); rather, God is the eternally emergent action which rescues finite emerging from arbitrariness or predictability, and therefore saves the phenomenology of the emergent (Kerr 2002: 181-207).

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