An emerging revolution…

About ten days ago I gave a talk at an SVA ATOA panel on which I was to speak on the waning influence of art critics as compared to the rise of curators and collectors.  Shortly I’ll post a revised draft of that talk on my ‘Essays and Talks’ page, but here I want to return, if however briefly, to something I broached toward the end that talk, which, for me, is the importance of the concept of “emergence.”

I was reminded of this today by an Op-Ed piece in the NYTimes that challenges the conventional wisdom of “market equilibrium” when it comes to thinking about just how we find ourselves faced with the current financial shit show.  The author of the piece essentially espouses the practice of agent-based market modeling, which “builds” or “grows” models of market behavior, rather than working from first principles–e.g. equilibrium–and then deducing from there how things “should” work.  In discussing a Yale economist’s model of credit levels and market stability, the author offers this key passage:

…the model also shows something that is not at all obvious.  The instability doesn’t grow in the market gradually, but arrives suddenly.  Beyond a certain threshold the virtual market abruptly loses its stability in a “phase transition” akin to the way ice abruptly melts into liquid water.  Beyond this point, collective financial meltdown becomes effectively certain.  This is the kind of possibility that equilibrium thinking cannot even entertain.

What is being described here, of course, is emergence–that is, the emergent behavior (which can tend towards order or disorder depending upon which direction one is moving) of a collection of independent “agents.”  These can be people with individual economic interests or, as the ice-to-water example demonstrates, even atoms or molecules.  What matters here is that emergence is opposed to a kind of reductionist thinking which believes that if you understand the behavior of a single agent (homo economicus for econmics; a point particle for physics) then you can understand everything.  (The billions of dollars spent on the LHC at Cern is a large and expensive demonstration of the power of this kind of reductionist thought).

Now, why might the concept of emergence be important for art, or for art history, criticism and theory no less?  It seems like a silly question to be sure.  After all, we’re talking here about economics and physics, fields which always seem to bear a bit more urgency for everyday life than do the arts as we confront them today.  But here are some initial thoughts: in terms of history, the concept of emergence recasts our understanding of the shift from modernism to its subsequent iterations (postmodernism or what have you) as a shift away from aesthetic reductionism.  Understanding those subsequent iterations, then, would benefit from an understanding of emergence in all of its varied interdisciplinary manifestions.  (That P. W. Anderson’s “More is Different,” perhaps the seminal text on the dialectic of emergence and reduction, appeared at the very moment–1972–as debates were raging over the fate of modernism in the arts, gives the concept a very attractive historical specificity as well.)

In terms of criticism, emergence would require that we begin to look at entire populations of agents and objects rather than continuing to focus on those agents and objects alone.  This may seem anathema to what art critics do, which, on the standard thinking, is to write about, assess and judge works of art.  But it should come with little suprise that I find this notion of criticism obsolete.  It is “art writing,” not criticism, and yes, it has its place and function, but we should not fool ourselves that it is “critical” in any rigorous or robust sense of the term.  Though it takes literature as its object, Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees (Verso, 2005) offers a promising example of how an emergence-based criticism would look in practice.

But if we are faced with confronting individual agents and objects, which is to say art works and artists, emergence offers us not only a framework but an incredibly versatile conceptual tool with which to approach the job of building and defending arguments about the work at hand.  I have tried to do this through a comparison of certain of Tara Donovan’s sculptures to installations by Sarah Sze.  Some, but by no means all, of Donovan’s work not only illustrates certain principles of emergence but also restages the negation of artistic subjectivity–think John Cage–which played such a large role in the demise of modernist aesthetics.  Sze, on the other hand, offers only the “appearance” of emergence–in the form of complex, artificial, biomorphic “worlds”–without any of the underlying dynamics, and so puts into place an updated but no less mythological, and outmoded, image of the artist as Creator.

Finally, from a more purely theoretical perspective, emergence offers us a way out of the genesis/structure aporia that runs through philosophical phenomenology (Husserl) and structuralism (Saussure) to deconstruction and beyond.  The figure of the “symmetry breaking phase transition,” which is central to emergence, is a figure of the pure “event” which arises not in spite of, but as a fundamental feature of, a given dynamic system, be it physical, economic, social or historical.  Of course, the work of Gilles Deleuze has probably done most to stir this pot, which is why thinkers such as Brian Massumi and Manuel Delanda have gone very far in articulating general theories of emergence.  Nevertheless, one cannot begin to understand the full ramifications of this powerful idea without the incomparable efforts of Stuart Kauffman.

Written by Jonathan T. D. Neil

October 1st, 2008 at 8:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized