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.


  • Catherine Spaeth

    I have been thinking about this for a while, in fact my most recent post on the sublime and the picturesque is in a sense a response, raising a question about concepts and the appearance of old dualisms that show up like uninvited guests.

    I’m curious about the following:

    “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.”

    I regard this as my own practice, and it really doesn’t find its place in the critical establishment, which is why I prefer to write on a blog. But let’s say that the above statement won’t necessarily lead to what you seem to call emergence – for example, my pieces on what I got for free, and the sublime/picturesque, both investigate, differently, “entire populations,” but I don’t think they line up adequately to what you want emergence to be. Can you say more about what emergence does as a form of criticism?

    Can you elaborate on how Tara Donovan’s repeated name is something other than historical reflection? I see what you are after, and it is quite beautiful, but I am asking for it to be extended beyond the level of very lucky opportunism and to support this rather huge claim for a paradigmatic shift (?) – which I would be very happy for you to name.

  • JTDN

    The notion of focusing on populations of agents and objects rather than upon individuals and works is a way of opening up art criticism to this premise of “more is different” (Anderson’s speedy caricature of “emergence”). Emergence is then not so much a “form” of criticism I guess as it is the sought after object in critical analysis of shifts in artistic practice. For example, the rapid growth in the numbers of artists and exhibition spaces (galleries included) that resulted from the professionalization and popularization of the art MFA throughout the 80s could very well be seen as the driving force behind the “emergence” of independent curatorial and relational aesthetic practices (I’ve just been thinking about the latter a lot recently, hence the example). At some point, the numbers themselves determine the shift. To use the technical analogy, a phase transition occurs, and this new pattern of artistic behavior sets in.

    Donovan, as you note, is opportunistic I admit, and I look to her mostly because some of her work is demonstrative of emergence in its physical manifestation. As I look at what’s necessary to conceive of this concept as an operative one in the field of history and criticism, however, I realize that my Donovan example won’t hold. But for the time being, I still like it.

    Perhaps the thing to do, then, is to attempt to recognize these patterns of behavior (in artistic, curatorial, critical and historical practice) and to see at what point the numbers themselves (practitioners; entities) begin to count. This may seem too quantitative for some, but I think that’s the interesting thing; as historians and critics, we’re very bad with the quantitative, but here’s a concept that offers us a way of thinking the quantitative and qualitative in conjunction (which is also a way of thinking the temporal and the synchronic together too).

  • Catherine Spaeth

    The opportunism that I saw in the repeated name was in your finding in a letter to the editor another Tara Donovan – and you do it here again! You have a strong desire for intellectual thought to be visibly, palpably embedded in culture. There is perhaps a form of the rhizomatic blogosphere that you are feeding on here, without wanting to merely appeal to some savvy layer of visual culture.

    My own desires for knowledge to become visible as an achieved and histroical form are similar, but I think that, with some unhappiness, I’m closer to finding what you call patterns of behaviour (manifestations of thought) closer to that savvy layer of visual culture, in gallery give-aways and such.

    I don’t know that I’m interested in the quantitative, per se, but I do know that things have reached such a scale and that things are changing so rapidly, that the little gallery reviews just don’t cut it any more, as much as I love to write them.

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