What is Emergence?

What does it mean to be emergent? What are the characteristics properties of something that is in the process of emerging? What is emergence and what is non-emergence? Working out what is meant in practice by the idea of emergence is important, for it helps our understanding of the notion of metamodern phenomenon, as they are conjoined in their mode of being. Emergence is the form of expression of things, ideas and experience that are in development and/or process, and for which there is no recognised form of outcome, unity or teleology of presence. The outcome and final form of an emergent idea, gesture or expression is unclear and uncertain.

In an emergent state, there is no recognisable form, but instead we can posit a potential for, or probability of, forms that are fluid and malleable, and for which the final outcome may be endlessly deferred and unfinished. Emergence, then, follows the route of indeterminacy and intuition. It does not follow a path of concrete sensory function, for which categorisation and description are signs and indicators of presence, but instead allows aesthetic expression and contemplation to happen over indeterminate incremental periods of time, in indeterminable places, and by indeterminable mechanisms of appreciation and cognition.

Emergence, then, is a felt sense or intuitive (maybe spiritual) recognition that builds in accord with the unconscious regulatory dynamic of the collective and personal unconscious. Emergence is a process of waiting, observing, responding, cogitating, feeling and reflecting. Emergence is a holding back and deferral of determinate conclusions. Emergent art, therefore, must be separated from explanatory and material accounts of the supposed intervention of the artist, and the process by which the artist is supposed to have constructed their work, and instead seeks to follow the flow and pattern of the zephyrs as they bring forth the renewal of spring.

What is valued in the emergent aesthetic of the metamodern, then, is the way that art and forms of symbolic representation interact dynamically in a cosmology, thereby following of similar organic and natural expressions of the unknown. We are dominated in Western society by what we know, and what we can describe as a phenomenological experience. But we sense that we are missing the greater potential of the noumenon, and the encounter with numinous experience. The encounter with the unknowable and the unconscious. It is through art, poetry, music and performance that we encounter, or draw into consciousness, those things that are expressed in our dreams and our non-conscious existential states, and the imagination is an intimate universe of endless riches that we have not yet even begun to explore.

Carl Jung draws a distinction between the ‘psychological’ work of the art or literature, and that of the ‘visionary’ work of art or literature. On the one hand, according to Jung, we can seek to understand the way that an artist or poet’s psychological mode “deals with materials drawn from the realm of human consciousness” (Jung, 1961, p. 179), or, we can seek to grapple with the artistic vision that, which usually offers us something strange and unclassifiable because it “derives its existence from the hinterland of man’s mind” (Jung, 1961, p. 180). In art, we have to deal with both the creative product and the psychic activity by which an artistic expression is shaped and is representative. One mode of expression is a concrete and analytical activity, while the other calls on our primordial understanding and our inherited mode of living, in the collective unconscious, of which the artist and poet are manifestations.

The challenge is not to seek to resolve such a matter as where art comes from, and what it is, but instead to seek to understand the unknown and the unconscious nature of the human condition in its energetically creative form. If we seek to determine only causal connections for the creative and artistic expression that artists produce in the emergent form, as might be sought in a scientific or organisational setting, then we may miss the wider ‘vision’ that the arts offer us. As Jung points out, “it is only in the realm of the psycho-physiological instincts and reflexes that we can confidently operate with the idea of causality” (Jung, 1961, p. 176).

The emergent expression found in art may, though not always, seek to subvert those expectations of causality, either consciously or unconsciously. If we only seek to investigate and “establish causal relations in complicated psychic events,” Jung adds, then we would reduce aesthetic expression and artistic practice to a narrow example of psychological processing, for, as Jung argues, “the creative aspect of life which finds its clearest expression in art baffles all attempts at rational formulation” (Jung, 1961). Merely positing that art is a product of stimulus and effect mechanisms, as a reaction to a thesis, would negate any potential for human understanding. This is not to eliminate the benefit offered by derivable psychic actions and events, but rather that we ought to seek to understand both the numinous encounter with the unknown, while at the same time seeking to understand the sensory encounter with the phenomena of art.

Typically, we seek to narrate a myth that locates an artist within their defined milieu, battling great psychological disturbances and attempting to navigate the undercurrents of the age. This mode of understanding, however, is only one pole of the dynamic which must be understood as an enantiodromatic relationship. The psychological and the visionary modes of artistic expression each hold the potential to dissolve the other, but never presuming to do so. It is by transcendental growth, therefore, that we move beyond our present state of being and consciousness. This makes it essential that we maintain a watchful eye on the psychological processes that drive the manifestation of creative forms of media. For this will allow us to see the flow of human behaviour and the experiences of human life in the context of their ‘lines of entry’ into the social field, and will enable us to examine, in a specific form, the “electable expression of human life with its eternally recurrent sorrow and joy” (Jung, 1961, p. 179). Artistic expression of this kind, moreover, can keep us occupied for many years, given that it is drawn from the vast wealth of human experience and the “vivid foreground of life” (Jung, 1961, p. 180).

We have to be weary, however, that this determinate mode of artistic expression will not transcend the forms of human experience, but will recall that which is already familiar, and avoids an encounter with the abyss of the unknown and the unconscious. An encounter with the ‘visionary’, on the other hand, and according to Jung, “bursts asunder our human standards of value and of aesthetic form” (Jung, 1961, p. 181). Art and poetry, all forms of creative expression, have the potential to break the bonds of possibility and to reach back into the primordial beginning, or to project forward into the “unborn generation of the future” (Jung, 1961, p. 181). Visionary works of art, Jung suggests, are often very strange, and are the exact opposite of what we would anticipate finding in standard psychological modes of creation. For in the psychological mode we never need to ask what a meaningful encounter consists of, or what it means, for the expression will be consistent and obvious. In the visionary mode of creation, however, we are “astonished, taken aback, confused, put on our guard, or even disgusted” (Jung, 1961, p. 182).

To help assimilate this mode of visionary expression, we usually call for commentaries and explanations that guide us through the complex and convoluted routes of thinking that the artists or poet takes to bring forth in their work. In the visionary work there is little that reminds us of our everyday human life, though we may be made aware of “dreams, night-time fears and the dark recesses of the mind that we sometimes sense with misgiving” (Jung, 1961, p. 182). The visionary form of art is the opposite of the psychological, and too often we dismiss the visionary artistic expression as being irrelevant to daily life experience. We have difficulty, according to Jung, in taking the visionary experience seriously, even though each is equally ‘real’ in the circumstances of comprehension and intuition. This is why so much art is thrown back onto the life of the artists. It is easier to project a known pattern of behaviour or motivation onto that figure – that archetypal figure – so they represent and are a sign of something that is said to make an outstanding contribution to our human experience. It is easier to describe the biography of the person than it is to tap into the symbolic vision that is being offered.

As Jung says, because human passions falls within the sphere of conscious experience, it is difficult for us to comprehend the “subject of the vision [that] lies beyond it” (Jung, 1961, p. 187). Art, like dreams, has the ability to manifest in symbolic form what is held in the unconscious and the unknown. “Through our feelings,” Jung writes, “we experience the known, but our intuitions point to things that are unknown and hidden” (Jung, 1961, p. 187). Our rational consciousness places great faith in science and reason, and they serve us well when we materially intervene in the world. These tools of the senses and of rational contemplation service us less well, however, when we are buffeted by the unknown forces of existence, and we use them to attempt to alleviate our fear of chaos that besets us all by night. To respond to our dream, we need more than rational analysis.

We are deluding ourselves if we think we are in full possession of our complete souls, for which visionary art instils a reminder from time to time. Art, poetry and music opens the human experience to that which is otherwise bounded by science and reason. These can tell us what life presently is, but they cannot point us to a life and existence that goes beyond what is presently known and understood. Art gives us a peek into things that are strange, and which have the potential to take us beyond our present grounded disposition in rational sensing experience.

Jung points out that the source of our creativeness comes from primordial sources that are difficult to fathom, especially for modern people. To do so requires mythological imagery in order to give these creative powers form, separate from our conscious states and ego. This is a journey through the many layers of our personal unconscious, and the shared experiences and our collective unconscious. As Jung explains

“Great poetry draws its strength from the life of mankind, and we completely miss its meaning if we try to derive it from personal factors. Whenever the collective unconscious becomes a living experience and is brought to bear upon the conscious outlook of an age, this event is a creative act which is of importance to everyone living in that age” (Jung, 1961, p. 191).

Our acts of creativity, then, can never be resolved for certain, and must remain open to interpretation and reinterpretation as part of a process of dialogue and discussion with the past, the present and what our intuition is telling us of the future. We can assert, though, that like every symbolic manifestation emanating from the unconscious, that this will be a compensation of forces that we are active in our psyche.

Art, then, is a “kind of innate drive,” according to Jun, “that seizes a human being and makes him its instrument” (Jung, 1961, p. 195). In the psychological mode of artistic encounter, our conscious ego simply gets swept along by the currents at play in our world. We become an observer of events that we can’t control or manage, and must seek guidance and the wisdom of our teachers if we are to avoid a one-sided and false attitude. The emergence of synthetic consciousness, then, is a response to the challenge of living in a world that expects ‘outcomes’ or ‘performance indicators’ to guide our sense of being. We no longer reply on our dreams to guide us, or the numinosity of the religious or aesthetic experience. We seek, instead, that which we presume to know already, as the basis for figuring out what we don’t know. Kant pointed out that this is an antinomy, a contradiction whereby the answers to what we seek cannot be established in empirical reasoning because what we seek goes beyond possible sensory and rational experiences. What we seek in art, poetry and music is a transcendental occurrence. Emergence, then, is the pathway to transcendence.

Jung, C. G. (1961). Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Routledge and Keegan Paul.

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