We're ongoing projects of emergence

advaya’s Spiritual Ecology study club returns in 2023! Below, a reflection on the monthly theme of our Spiritual Ecology study club. What is emergence? What does it mean to practice emergence? How do we embody it in our lives?

“Emergence”, in its fateful combination of vowels and consonants, sounds like what it is. It is a word that rolls off your tongue, beginning comfortably and ending naturally. To turn the word into a picture, it sounds like it would be a well-crafted arrow shooting across the sky, making a round arc, landing in a mist: you can almost hear it, but the view is obscured from your line of sight.

adrienne maree brown, author of Emergent Strategy, defines “emergence” as “the way complex systems and patterns arise out of relatively simple interactions.” Think of the example of birds flapping their wings and flocking together, which are “relatively simple interactions”, but when birds doing that together and “avoiding predation can become the most complex, gorgeous patterns of murmurations, migration, and survival.” I’ve also come across the phrase, “architecture without architects”, as a way of understanding emergence.

In other words, according to Wikipedia, “emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own, properties or behaviors that emerge only when the parts interact in a wider whole.” Some may better understand the alternative framing from the commonly misquoted phrase, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” (Aristotle actually wrote, “the whole is something beside the parts”.) Whichever way you slice it, the idea is that we are privy to—and ourselves evidence of—one of the greatest mysteries of life: how parts of a system fail to individually have certain characteristics, capabilities, but then put them together, and they do.

The famous book by Steven Johnson, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, presents the example of an ant colony. In this example, “each ant is an autonomous unit that reacts depending only on its local environment and the genetically encoded rules for its variety of ant.” Individual ants respond to stimuli “in the form of chemical scent from larvae, other ants, intruders, food and buildup of waste”, leaving behind a chemical trail which is stimulus for other ants. The queen gives no direct orders, there is no town hall in which ant communities decide collectively, and yet, “ant colonies exhibit complex behavior and have even demonstrated the ability to solve geometric problems.”

Think also about the biological organisation of life: “individual atoms can be combined to form molecules such as polypeptide chains, which in turn fold and refold to form proteins, which in turn create even more complex structures. These proteins, assuming their functional status from their spatial conformation, interact together and with other molecules to achieve higher biological functions and eventually create an organism.” And then, “[a]t the highest level, all the biological communities in the world form the biosphere, where its human participants form societies, and the complex interactions of meta-social systems.”

Skeptics may assert that none of this “emergence” is mysterious, that even the properties and behaviours that emerge only in interaction are formulaic, following a set of rules that we have yet to discover. I am content with the unexplainable. The idea that it is evidence of the sacred, the divine, whatever you want to call it, is much more compelling than the belief that everything can and must be explained, and thus known. In any case, whether you believe emergence is a mystery or not, it is nonetheless a compelling case for why we should (at least sometimes) be embedded in wider systems and communities. It is a reminder that try as we might, our collective, full-bodied intelligence, when made collaborative, can be greater than simply us putting our heads together.

It is a compelling case for entanglement: not merely that we should force ourselves to become a sum of parts, i.e. a group of people, but that we need to become a wider whole, an interacting system. Whole here isn’t meant to be homogenising, or unifying; underlying this whole is an acceptance of difference and diversity. And perhaps this is where we find one plausible explanation of why emergence works: because in putting ourselves together and interacting, we begin to see what we are not.

As Bayo Akomolafe says: “I think of identity as the criss-crossing crossroads. It's the place absences intersect. Like identity is the embroidery of absence, not just presence, because we're not just made by what we are, or what shows up. We're also made by what doesn't show up.”

What he’s saying here is explained by emergence and explains emergence too: there will always be parts of ourselves that can only be made by other persons (more-than-humans inclusive), and those absences will be a part of us—only clarified in the interactions with the other. In the coming together, we realise those absences, and emergent properties and behaviours… well, they emerge.

Elsewhere, Bayo Akomolafe writes that failure is emergence. “If we must change as a species, as a society, we must seek out places where failure is celebrated, held in sacredness, and embrace.” He says, “[t]hen, like seeds, buried in dirt, forces keener than our best intentions, older than our wisest stories, sterner than sharper tools, will work their spells… and change us.” Why is it that embracing where failure happens makes way for emergence? If I could hazard a guess, it would be imagining ourselves putting our failed attempts in conversation. If we amalgamate our failures, our absences, if we interact our lacks, with humility and sheepish, childlike bravery, we begin to see a picture of how we can flourish together.

Perhaps it can be thought about this way: if we were all lost in a maze—and we are, indeed, very lost—our best bet wouldn’t be ourselves attempting to find the way out. Neither would it be smart to gather and all try the same route. Instead, the way out (let’s say there was one) could be found through each of us trying and failing, and putting together our failures. By elimination, we would begin to observe what routes are left, and maybe we would find the answers. We would have to be ready to fail, by ourselves and together, probably repeatedly and painfully. We would have to leave our deeply rooted (not naturally so, but artificially planted) desire for heroic success at the door. Now, identity is the embroidery of absence. We are made of what we are not.

There is a way in which this reframing leans into the idea that what we are facing cannot be individually diagnosed and treated: that we cannot hope to simply subtract what we don’t like about ourselves until we become a pure, righteous, desirable version of ourselves. That instead to slay and lay to rest the monsters that have been created and then imaged within ourselves, we must meet each other and let the monsters emerge too, together. Perhaps we are being called to together brew a ghastly soup of nightmares and monsters and failures and wounds, because if wayfinding can emerge collectively, collaboratively, then the worst of us can emerge collectively, collaboratively, too; only when we face the worst of us can we get to the heart of the work that needs to be done.

Bayo Akomolafe says that “we’re bodying, we’re ongoing projects of emergence. So we're not static things already predetermined features in a Euclidean space, invited to geometrically align ourselves to a truth that is outside of our relationships. We are the ongoingness, the teenage ongoingness of a world that is never finished.”

I like that, the teenage ongoingness of a world that is never finished. In many ways I think many of us may be unknowingly still teenagers: a time of exploration and rapid change, ripe with possibility, discovery, firsts; but also plagued with fear and judgement of ourselves and each other. A time of intense emotion: everything matters so much. Approaching others with a fear of not being accepted or understood, reaching out anyway—sometimes forced, sometimes out of our own volition.

A tentative, teetering time, one that is shaped as much by ourselves as what goes on around us. What sort of new identities and discoveries and experiences, uncertain friendships, insecurities and fears, would emerge (warts and all—or maybe pimples, confusing growth spurts, awkward moments and all)? What if we fully leaned into the teenage ongoingness of ourselves?


Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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