- An Aesthetics and Ethics of Emergence, or Thinking with Luce Irigaray’s Interval of Difference
The notion of emergence is conspicuous, but its processes are regularly concealed in contemporary theory. Emergence has substituted for change, transformation, and movement. It has become a lifeboat on which critics have embarked to fill the sensory, phenomenal, or processual gap between two or more delineated states of being in an entity or a situation’s becoming. Before, there was A. Now, there is B. Emergence is everything in between. Or is it nothing?1 Does such a distinction even matter, considering that we know what A and B are, and can therefore locate emergence between the two? Yes, what emergence is does matter: emergence qualifies what Pheng Cheah terms mattering, that is, “the process where history and nature become uncannily indistinguishable in a manner that is both enabling and disabling for political transformation, its condition of (im)possibility.”2 Emergence designates the process through which potentialities inscribe themselves in duration, or actualize themselves, via the creative negotiation of restrictions that are both natural and social. To attend to A and B, or to delineated states of being, to the detriment of emergence, or of creative negotiation in processes of becoming, is to let go of the potentialities implied by natural–social mattering.
The repression of emergence often coincides with its subjection to the states of being it is assumed to disrupt or enable. In The Creative Mind (1934), Henri Bergson offers the term retrograde movement to expose human beings’ epistemological limitations when it comes to grasping change or movement.3 Bergson warns his readers against the impulse to measure movement once it has been accomplished by subtracting a preexisting reality (A) from resulting conditions (B). “[Taken] from another angle,” he states, “an entirely different reality (not just any reality, it is true), could just as well be linked up to the same circumstances and events.”4 After a space has been crossed, the mind, which seeks the fixity of positions over the mobility of transitions, assumes that the movement was perfectly fitted onto this space.5 Such a cognitive reflex forces a mobile phenomenon [End Page 279] into an immobile space.6 Bergson calls for a metaphysics of experience that would reveal the full force of duration, his term for the perpetual creation of a possibility grasped as neither unity nor multiplicity.7
So, why study emergence? Because to limit ourselves to states that we perceive as stable entails wasting the myriad of unsuspected entanglements between material and ideal that emergence insinuates. The potential for transformation is not obvious in the natural–social configurations to which we are currently exposed; it moves, bounces, cavorts in the dynamic indeterminacy toward which emergence gestures. Emergence, as a segue into potentiality, conveys alternatives to current social, political, and economic conditions—alternatives that exist in the present.8 For Bergson, again, “[It] is not the ‘states,’ simple snapshots we have taken once again along the course of change, that are real; on the contrary, it is flux, the continuity of transition, it is change itself that is real.”9
And why study emergence now? Because, as William Connolly suggests, in a moment marked by an apparatus of social and economic control that hinders the self-organizing power of alternative modes of being toward others, considering the full range of relational potentialities afforded by natural–social change is a necessary first step toward the deflation of a system in which we can no longer afford to dwell.10 More than a theory of emergence, it is an ethics and an aesthetics of emergence that we crave: a capacity to respond affectively to emerging potential and endow it with value in a way that does not quite fit accumulative framings.
This essay dwells in the intricacies of emergence in order to highlight its status as a creative impulse characteristic of a relational ontology of difference. The main figure with whom I interact is Belgium-born philosopher Luce Irigaray, whose emphasis on the number two provides emergence with some breathing room. As a means to expose the logic behind my turn to Irigaray, I propose a detour...