Thoughts on Humanity

Emergent entities, anticipation, and handshakes

Pygmalion et Galatée by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1890 (source)

A hand reaches out, my hand, your hand, an eerie hand from whence we came. There is something particularly warm in the unfamiliar, a sensation of what could be from what was. Chattering emanates from the adjacent room, the grinding of coffee beans disrupts the stillness, we laugh about the whole scene after a week… or is it a month. Another hand, this one covered in paint, emerges after a moment of anticipation and finds its way comfortably on a mantle to be admired and daydreamed of. ‘To make art is to interfere directly with the realm of causes and effects.’ And in an instant, all the buildup topples statues into piles of stones and the entire social order folds in on itself, like a black hole that finishes in a supernova. Or maybe it’s more like a conversation about how hot cholate is a suitable substitute for one too many cups of coffee.

In his consideration of works of arts and their similarities to persons, Margolis describes two integral properties; embodiment and emergence. For a work to be embodied it must have some sort of reference to physical objects, an easy to comprehend example would be the relationship between statue and slab of marble. While it may seem obvious, he cautions that this physical embodiment does not denote exclusivity. In the same sense, paintings have their own expressive qualities that are more than the physical pigments in which they are embodied. This all sounds a lot like the idea of objects being more than their parts, an old OOO favorite. And for a piece of art, an interlocutor standing in a gallery trying to interpret the artist’s intentions or its place in the historical canon is just an anthropocentric mess waiting to happen.

For a work of art to be an emergent entity, it must have a number of properties, including but not limited to redundant causality, retroactive action, and self-part generation. When we consider objects in such a way, we are left surprised, like ghoulish masks set aside near an ancient shield. As these entities emerge, we get caught up in their charisma even if it just us humans who seem to be bestowing that feature upon it. In the same sense, we are caught in a loving embrace with a statue that seems to emerge after our final strike of the mallet. And while this might be fine and dandy when your standing in your workshop, the emergence of a natural disaster that burns down a forest and kills 173 people is not exactly one in which surprise is all that exciting.

Anticipation, from the Latin anticipare meaning “taking into possession beforehand” is one of those feelings that seem to exist outside of reality. A little speculative engagement with that which is and which could be. The sensation of fingers sliding across one’s side, counting down the minutes before someone returns, planning for an event with eyes closed in your bed. Art is an act of anticipation, a cause and effect pouring out of everything. Even when Margolis decrees that ‘works of art are Intentional objects of a culturally emergent sort’, what he seems to be getting at is the anticipatory nature of the art to embody and be emergent. Standing in the gallery, we are struck by an arrow, coming alive, and exerting power over the objects around us. Gravitational pushing and pulling between viewers and artwork.

When we combine the act of anticipation with that of the emergent entity, we allow for an account of the world that is object-object related, where a vast network of relationships embody landscapes, where surprise is at the heart of everything we experience, and the messiness of the real is what defines our organizational prioritization. To anticipate is to be full of performative capacities, again, like a statue waiting to come alive in your arms. Like Barad’s exploration of the act of touching as a space for emergence between objects where we can never really know where one begins and the other ends, where we can never really touch the other, there is a strange relationship of separation between the human and the world.

These concepts seem foreign to a geographer, where one is so quick to orient, spatialize, and map actor networks as if everything is simply contained within the Place in which we happen to be studying. But like artwork, landscapes are causal and so are the objects that dance and twirl in and around the spaces with which one tries to define. There is no unified autonomous self, there are only things, entangled withdrawn data things. Data-objects that are a few steps away from the naturalistic views of Brassier’s disenchanted world and even further from the Heideggerian being-in-the-world. We can try to regulate the world into climate change models and sensual measurements of that which came before, but all we are left with is some mundane flatness that most certainly will surprise us when it comes to life.

A handshake is a work of art is an act of anticipation is an emergent entity. Seemingly out of nowhere it stretches forth, full of surprise and dripping with causal effects. Embodied amongst its material parts and its creators’ lives, but irreducible to either context. It’s incomprehensible and charismatic and frightening and magical. It’s a grasp (-capere) from before (ante-). It’s a performance between space and object and human, a radical event embodied and emergent in the tragedy of things. It’s a brief entanglement of fingers and heart minds. It’s a graviton mediating all other interactions. Wet paintings, feelings of suspense, unfinished movies, roasted vegetables, clean cars, unnecessary alarm clocks.

Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Tasmania, studying climate change adaptation, risk perspectives, and coastalscape values.

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