Jonathan Rowson

What is Emerging?

As we find ourselves in an historical moment that seems to demand action, the ‘Emerge' network represents a determination to respond to the crises of our time with clear perception and deep understanding.


My Ancestors tell me: We are in an emergency. We have to slow down. - Bayo Akomolafe

Telling someone to ‘Relax!’ rarely has the desired effect. ‘Be spontaneous!’ fails for similar reasons. Injunctions have limitations. It is foolish to demand what should be invited, or force what can only be elicited. Emerge is the name of our platform and gathering. There is no hidden exclamation mark, nor a rallying cry. When we attend to the interplay of all the complex systems within us, between us and beyond us, some epistemic humility should arise. We don’t know what is going on. We are not in control. 

There is power in this provisional surrender. Political vision is often tempered by unpredictability, but it can also be inspired and directed by it. Emergence emerges, in its own sweet time and way. And because we are part of it, how we choose to respond to the experience of what is emerging will make all the difference in the world. 
Emerge, you say? Forgive me if I would rather act.
But is the world not on fire? Is this not a time of nuclear hurricanes, vanishing islands and drowning refugees? Did I not feel that toxic cocktail of anger, fear, disbelief and powerlessness again? Do we not watch in despair as man-child plutocrats close our parliaments, cage our children and burn our forests? 

Emerge, you say? Forgive me if I would rather act. Let me get arrested for blockading a bridge, let me create a new online currency, let me build a different kind of political party, invest in solar technology; something, anything, where I can feel the results of my actions.

Go ahead. Such actions are necessary, but others are acting with perspectives, interests and intentions that may never align with our own. Fossil fuel barons, data kleptocrats and proto-fascists also have action plans, and they are usually more single-minded and better funded than those who would resist them.
Normality is mostly something unconsciously given, not consciously created.
And when we call for action, we should not ignore the provenance of the jeans we are wearing and the coffee we are drinking, and all the other daily affordances we take for granted in our privileged and globalised lives; peer into those supply chains and see how much is done for us, to us, with our presumed consent. The point is not that we are guilty or hypocritical, but that we’re confused. We are ethically entangled in the props of social life and unreasonably complicit in their untold stories.

The Anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously said that we are suspended in webs of significance that we ourselves have spun. The ‘we’ in question may be a lingering shadow of decades long since gone. Our sense of how we should act is profoundly shaped by history, and a grounded but limiting sense of who we are and what is possible. We are more than our governance structures, political economies, technologies and cultural circumstances, but not that much more – we have to fight for the difference, and education plays a key part in that. Unless we can combine our agency and our imagination, our visions for a better world will remain, as Sting once put it, like butterflies trapped in a spider’s web.

Our sense of what is normal is mostly constructed for us, not by us. Whether we call it our collective imaginary, our sacred canopy, or simply our culture, normality is mostly something unconsciously given, not consciously created; something we are, not really something we have. Our sense of what is normal – the political spectrum, consumerism, the working week – such things can be deconstructed and recreated, and they have to be, but it cannot happen easily or quickly. That realisation that reimagining the world is both necessary and difficult; that’s part of what is emerging.

Our eagerness to act is understandable, but it leads to unintended consequences. In Angels Fear Gregory Bateson writes: 

“I have very little sympathy for these arguments from the world's ‘need’. I notice that those who pander to its needs are often well paid. I distrust the applied scientists' claim that what they do is useful and necessary. I suspect that their impatient enthusiasm for action, their rarin'-to-go, is not just a symptom of impatience, nor is it pure buccaneering ambition. I suspect that it covers deep epistemological panic."

Epistemological panic. It’s not just that we don’t know what to do, but that our sense of what to do is driven by cultural reactivity grounded in emotional compulsion, rather than clear perception or deep understanding.

So what, then, is emerging? One answer is that the world is becoming less intelligible. The cognitive function that drove the enlightenment and reigned supreme is now humiliated by hyper-objects like ‘climate change’, ‘inequality’ and ‘AI’. The prevailing notions that shape political understanding are beyond our cognitive and emotional capacity to grasp fully, and yet they are thoroughly implicated in our daily experience and presumed political agency. This dissonance between what we feel expected to understand and what we actually feel, and actually understand, confounds our capacity to make sense, or act with conviction. 
We no longer have a print media where messages can be carefully spun for mass consumption; people are ‘prosumers’ of information now.
There was a time, before globalisation took hold, before digitalisation changed our political sensibilities, before the climate crisis became palpable, before 9/11 and all that followed, when we could at least imagine planning a coordinated action plan or social change programme. The apotheosis of this approach was the Mont Pelerin Society which began through Friedrich Hayek’s initiative in 1947, whereby leading academics, journalists and politicians met in response to threats of collectivism and state coercion. Through writings and policy design and support for political leaders they built the infrastructure for what we now call neoliberalism, elegantly summarised by Will Davies as ‘The state-led remaking of society along the model of the market.’  

Many view neoliberalism as a nightmare from which we must awake, driving socially corrosive inequality and climate collapse, but the Mont Pelerin society see themselves as heroes and liberators, not villains; and from a strategic perspective they were phenomenally successful in achieving their aims. Mont Pelerin matters as a counterpoint to Emerge, because progressive organisations sometimes speak of narrative and policy and movement building as if they were trying to replicate the strategy. As a guide to action the top-down approach of creating a story and building a policy programme around it is what the French call un faux ami – a false friend - something resembling a right answer that is actually off the mark. 
We have billions of people gradually waking up to their own thwarted political agency and often channelling it recklessly, without any obvious overarching purpose.
As Indra Adnan has made clear to me, the Mont Pelerin society’s strategy can never happen again. It was of its time. We no longer have a print media where messages can be carefully spun for mass consumption; people are ‘prosumers’ of information now, and messages are mashed up, remade and often faked to spread as strategic disinformation within filter bubbles. Truth is a casualty, but as the pace of events accelerates, sadly, there also appears to be diminishing epistemic shame – millions appear to be alarmingly untethered to ‘the truth’. Moreover we no longer have a political class ‘on message’ that populations willingly defer to. Instead we have billions of people gradually waking up to their own thwarted political agency and often channelling it recklessly, without any obvious overarching purpose. As philosopher John Gray puts it: “The world today is a vast, unsupervised laboratory, in which a multitude of experiments are simultaneously under way.”

Liberalism, Democracy and Capitalism are at least in question, if not fundamentally exhausted. In our state of material and ideological exhaustion we are called upon to make sense of our agency, but our information ecology is corrupted, and our reality-avoidant tendencies are fed by political polarisation. This is a time of crisis-riddled confusion and confusion-riddled crisis. 

And yet, glorious sunlight! And yet, radiant smiles. And yet, friendship, cooperation, zesty limes, glorious art, sublime music, strength, hope, potential, love. There may be no overarching narrative of what is going on, nor a coordinated global action plan that makes sense, but part of what is emerging is a strong and constructive desire to go beyond critique, which means transforming oppositional energy into generative energy. 

There’s a line in the Tao Te Ching: ‘The soft overcomes the hard. The gentle overcomes the rigid. Everyone know this to be true, but few can put it into practice.’ 
The challenge is to accept the miracle of our contingency and interdependence while also taking responsibility for our uniqueness and autonomy.
Drawing attention to the nature and meaning of emergence is about highlighting the possibility of a different intentional stance towards the world, grounded in receptivity, intuition and subtlety rather than ideology, reason and force. Some call it a spiritual perspective, in the sense that it’s less about imposing our wills than listening deeply to what we appear to be called upon to be and do; our own cosmic dance of being of becoming. The challenge is to accept the miracle of our contingency and interdependence while also taking responsibility for our uniqueness and autonomy. It is a different kind of game. All over the world, networks and organisations are rising up to explore unchartered intellectual, spiritual or cultural terrain that invites ways of being, thinking and doing and building new forms of institutional praxis and political capital around them; such initiatives are at the heart of our Emerge network.

It is too simple to refer to these approaches as a rise of ‘the feminine principle’, but that is part of the story. This case has been made, for instance by Scilla Elworthy and Riane Eisler, and is well articulated by Richard Tarnas in The Passion of the Western Mind.

“I believe that the West's restless inner development and incessantly innovative masculine ordering of reality has been gradually leading, in an immensely long dialectical movement, toward a reconciliation with the lost feminine unity, toward a profound and many-levelled marriage of the masculine and feminine, a triumphant and healing reunion. And I consider that much of the conflict and confusion of our own era reflects the fact that this evolutionary drama may now be reaching its climactic stages. For our time is struggling to bring forth something fundamentally new in human history: We seem to be witnessing, suffering, the birth labour of a new reality, a new form of human existence, a "child" that would be the fruit of this great archetypal marriage, and that would bear within itself all its antecedents in a new form...Each perspective, masculine and feminine, is here both affirmed and transcended, recognized as part of a larger whole; for each polarity requires the other for its fulfilment. And their synthesis leads to something beyond itself: It brings an unexpected opening to a larger reality that cannot be grasped before it arrives, because this new reality is itself a creative act.”
What really matters then is whether the generative relationships of our time are characterised by synergy or entropy.
That last line is particularly fertile for the Emerge network – we are called upon to create a new reality. When Daniel Thorson decided to name his celebrated podcast Emerge he did so because he wanted a term with ‘infinite scope’ and that captures the spirit of the network nicely – nothing is off limits in principle. And yet, while we need generosity of spirit, open minds and open hearts, we also need discernment, which requires a greater substantive awareness of what emergence really means.
In what might be one of the best short online lectures ever, Daniel Schmachtenberger proves worthy of his formidable name. He describes emergence as “the closest thing to magic that is actually a scientifically admissible term.” Emergence is a process of attractive forces – phenomena drawn to different aspects of itself - giving rise to relationship – non-random patterns of connection - then to ‘synergy’ – a whole that appears to be greater than the sum of its parts - and then emergence, which is about how that ‘greater’ manifests.

There are a gazillion possible futures, but when you take emergence seriously as an underlying principle of life, it becomes clear that we are, figuratively speaking, at a fork in the road. One kind of future features emergence into one of many kinds of more complex civilisation, and the other kind sees one of many forms of decline into civilisational collapse. Daniel puts it like this:

“…Things are exponentially changing, which means changing at more and more rapid and more and more significant rates. You can cherry-pick metrics where things are getting exponentially better, and that’s true, and other things are getting exponentially worse, and that’s also true. The future that you predict if you just follow any of those curves is not happening. If things are getting exponentially better and worse at the same time, then that doesn’t mean that things are getting better or worse. It means the current system is destabilising—and that means self-terminating. Then, we either have a discrete phrase-shift to a lower order, entropic system, or the emergence of a higher-order system that is foundationally different from the current system we have in every way.”
As Hegel suggested, a civilisation only begins to know itself when it is so mature that it is approaching its own extinction.
This is a crucial statement for the Emerge network to understand. While attractive forces and resulting relationships are inevitable, they can either contain the seeds of transformation or self-destruction. Teachers attract pupils and vice versa, and great educational relationships may arise, but it’s also true that resentful populations attract demagogues, and they share a symbiotic relationship reinforced by scapegoating media. What really matters then is whether the generative relationships of our time are characterised by synergy or entropy, because that will determine whether we have a viable emerging civilisation or a collapsing one. 

It follows that we should focus our attention on the quality of our relationships of all kinds; relationships within, between and beyond ourselves. The obvious emotional response is: “I knew it! Relationships! It’s all about relationships!” There is some straightforward truth in that realisation, but the relationships in question are within people’s hearts and minds as much as between individuals, they are between people and institutions and between people and their ideas, and between ideas and their foundations (ontological, axiological, epistemological, meta-psychological, metaphysical) as well. To make sense of the patterns of relationality we need to survive and adapt, we may need to ‘go meta’ in various ways, but without gratuitous abstraction. 

As Bonnitta Roy has elucidated, while going meta can mean several things, the underlying pattern is the need to create some degree of observational gap between what is being experienced and the experiencer; we gain freedom and perspective when we have something we were previously had-by; that praxis is part of what is emerging, and part of what we mean by the ‘more conscious society’ we seek. And yet this aim is bittersweet, for as Hegel suggested, a civilisation only begins to know itself when it is so mature that it is approaching its own extinction – and that feels like it is happening today.

There is more to say. For now, it is useful to see the name Emerge as a way of honouring the timeliness of the idea of emergence. 

We also use Emerge as an acronym heuristic to remind us of our network’s touchstones and lodestars. In this sense, the EMERGE network is an encounter with emergence through Enquiry, Method, Epoch, Reckoning, Games and Ethos, and we hope to explore these connections further in Kyiv:

(Philosophical/Spiritual) The questions we need to keep on asking:
o   What is emerging? What is the human? How might we need to learn and unlearn? 

(Embodied/Enacted/Experimental/Emergent) What we do to build and direct agency:
o   Network reflexivity. Institutional praxis. Bio-psycho-social-spiritual development.

(History/Culture/Mood) What we are responding to:
o   A time between worlds. Liminality. Metamodernity. Anthropocene. Capitalocene.

(Systems, Souls and Society) How we envision desirable futures, and pathways to get there:
o   Existential risk. Crisis and meta-crisis. Collective imaginary. Seeds for a new civilisation.

(Political Economy/Anthropology) Our strategies, generator functions and societal DNA: 
o   From Game denial or acceptance to Game change. Game B. Omniconsideration.

(Praxis) How we seek to conduct ourselves intellectually, emotionally and politically:
o   Reintegrating the feminine. Transforming oppositional energy into generative energy.

The second Emerge Gathering will take place in Kyiv, Ukraine, from September 27-29, 2019.

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of Perspectiva and a co-initiator of the Emerge Network.
Words by Jonathan Rowson
Jonathan Rowson is Director of Perspectiva and author of The Moves That Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life.