Emergence in affect theory refers to the moment in which an amorphous substance comes into a unified mode. Brian Massumi stresses the role of individuation in the process of emergence: pre-unified potential “converges” around some self-organizing principle (Massumi 93). One sees emergence in the simple physiological example of stem cells. Stem cells begin as an undifferentiated state and develop into particularized cells for specific body parts: organs, bones, muscles, blood. In fact, the entire human body starts as an undifferentiated mass of cells that emerge into cells with unified functions. This becoming, or the self-unifying of cells prior to particular cell formation, represents what is termed emergence.
Another illustration may come by way of a neurological experiment cited by Massumi. Researchers monitored subjects with an EEG (Electroencephalography) machine to measure the amount of brain activity when individuals performed simple tasks. The scientists asked participants to flex a finger and note the time of their decision on a clock. The results consistently showed that participants clocked their decisions 0.02 seconds prior to flexing. The EEG machines, however, indexed a flood of brain activity 0.03 seconds before the decision. Massumi points out that while the cause of higher functions, such as volition, are often attributed to the conscious mind, volition, in fact, may emerge from a myriad of unconscious impulses from the brain in the half-second before action. Volition here emerges from the self-unifying potential of the brain’s electrical activity and ends with self-willed action.
Massumi elaborates further using Gilbert Simondon’s notion of individuation. Massumi likens the emergent to the “pre-individual” where “a germinal or ‘implicit’ form cannot be understood as a shape or structure” but rather as a “bundle of potential functions localized, as a differentiated region, within a larger field of potential” (Massumi 95). The emergent unifies a combination of possibilities with a new, forming logic. Massumi calls this particular point in the process intensity, which he deems the “unassimilable.” Emergence, as a result, occurs when an event comes into being but not yet into cognition. The moment the event meets human cognition, or the subject identifies it as a feeling, determines the ultimate limit of the emergent. This ultimate limit, however, coincides with his notion of affect: it exists in the virtual, that which is forming, and the real, that which is already formed.
Massumi hints at the political ramifications of the emergent, suggesting that we identify the process by which ideologies or social practices emerge. Raymond Williams delineates this historical process and designates what he terms “structures of feeling” as the emergent social experience or consciousness of historical eras as demonstrated primarily through literature and art. These “structures of feeling” represent the historically emergent. He describes this notion as a cultural hypothesis that attempts to identify relationship among social customs and patterns in a historical moment, particularly those that stand in tension with prevailing views of the time period. His use of the terms “hypothesis” and “feeling” indicate an emergent quality that has yet to be formalized, what he terms “fixed forms,” in the same way Massumi’s notion of emergence stops short of cognition. In fact, he avoids the terms “ideology” and “word-view” precisely because they imply some institutionalization or convention. Williams argues, for example, that the literature of Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, and others exemplify a changing attitude in the early Victorian period. To these writers, “exposure and isolation” were “general conditions” linked by “poverty, debt, and illegitimacy,” although the prevailing ideology labeled this exposure as “social failure or deviation.” Only a later ideology attributed this exposure to the “nature of the social order” (Williams 134). Structures of feelings, as a result, represent the lived experience of the past, the emergence of which connects the pre-forming of an ideology to successive generations.
Very similar to Williams’s historical structures of feeling, Lauren Berlant applies the emergent to literature by discussing the writing of the present, “any present, even a past one” (Berlant 845). The historical novel particularly emphasizes the emergent through a unity of experience in a developing storyline. The convention allows the reader to suspend historicizing, or contextualizing it in appropriate historical epoch. Similarly, the crisis genre imposes an affective response similar to the experience of particularly historic moments, like the gunshot heard around the world, the day Kennedy was shot, or 9/11. The persistent crisis places the reader in the emergence of a historical moment. The emergent in literature thus transpires in an unfolding experience of the plot that both precedes the story’s closure and momentarily suspends the historical contextualization of the story. Closure and contextualization, ultimate formations of the textual experience, are aligned with Massumi and Williams’s cognition and fixed forms, respectively.
David A. Garner
Berlant, Lauren. “Intuitionists: History and the Affective Event.” American Literary History 20.4 (2008).
Leys, Ruth. “The Turn to Affect: A Critique.” Critical Inquiry 37.3 (Spring 2011).
Massumi, Brian. “The Autonomy of Affect.” Cultural Critique 30 (Autumn, 1995).
Williams, Raymond. “Structures of Feeling.” Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.