Working Group on Emergence
February 22, 2006
Anne Dalke

All my past presentations to this group have been about teaching and meaning-making:
But I do wear another hat around here
(and out in the world),
which I'd like to assume today.

(With thanks to Laura and Lisa for reminding
me of its applicability in this space).

leaving a crack for fresh air to get in (12/14/05) : I'm hoping that, in the new year, the emergence group might attend more to this sort of social-science-y angle on the world: how we might most usefully construct communities that facilitate the emergence of what is new?

Laura (2/3/06) invited us to think about the "failure of feminism" (i.e. women ending up @ home w/ the kids) as an emergent phenomena. Lisa (2/5/06) called this a "descriptive rather than normative" approach: asking not just "how emergent phenomena work," but how to "modify these workings to produce a different result."
I'm interested in going beyond description,
to look @ the possibility of intervention...

On Beyond Cluelessness, or:
Feminism, Emerging

"nothing is indifferent to the arrangement of its parts": ("Alan," 9/7/05, on deliberate, programmatic efforts to add variables to a system so that both its predictability and its flexibility are reduced)

...what is distinctive about such systems is that the parts do not act independently of one another, that their interactions have consequences for both the whole and other parts that can not be known ahead of time ("Rob," 9/21/05)

I want to explore with you today
  • how useful it is to describe feminism (and other social movements?) as emergent phenomenon
  • if we might locate certain points of intervention in these complex systems, and
  • if we might then fruitfully intervene to direct their further emerging.

gender and sexuality home
Bryn Mawr Home Haverford Home

I'll draw on a local case history--
-- to ask what might happen to the projects of
both biological and social change,
if we re-conceptualize the human body and the social world
as non-binary and open systems.

Let's begin with the body.

Photograph by Simran Kaur, BMC '04

What do you see?

Sleeping Hermaphrodite, The Louvre, from ArtServe at the Australian National University

What do you see?

Saga. Photographe Jean-Francois Bauret.

From Southern Baptists and Homosexuality

What do you see?

What parts need to be changed,
to make this a man's body?
A woman's body?

What else needs to change...?

Intersex Society of North America
(working to end the practice of infant sex-reassignment surgery)

Some of the things that could change
are the ways we think about male and female--
both the way in which each side of the binary
keeps the other in play, and
the assumption that the biological and social world
is limited to those two possibilities.

...biological theories of sexuality, juridical conceptions of the individual, forms of administrative control in modern nations, led little by little to rejecting the idea of a mixture of the two sexes in a single body, and consequently to limiting the free choice of indeterminate individuals....From the medical point of view, this meant that when confronted with a hermaphrodite, the doctor was...concerned with...deciphering the true sex that hidden beneath ambiguous apearances...It is at the junction of these two ideas--that we must not deceive ourselves concerning our sex, and that our sex harbors what is most true in ourselves--that psychoanalysis has rooted its cultural vigor (Michel Foucault, Introduction. Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite. 1980. viii-xi).

There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all (Michel Foucault, The Uses of Pleasure. The History of Sexuality, Volume 2, 1976-).

It occurred to me, during some of our conversations earlier this semester, that our inclination to binarisms manifests itself in (@ least) two levels:

(2/01/06): 1. what Mark called "the inclination (of individuals) to seek confirmation for what we already believe" and
2. what Sandy called "deeply entrenched resistance (of social systems) to alter current structures/investments"...

might..."thinking emergently" help us to intervene in 1) and 2) above? (i.e.: is emergent thinking, in insisting on the unpredictable outcomes of complex, undirected interactions of many agents, refusing to use the binary as a means of organizing a story about the world?)

(1/27/06): What I was working my way towards is... a discussion of what difference it makes if we conceive of our object of study (the world, or any slice of it--economic, literary, biological, etc.) as an open system....Derrida's essay on "The Gift" that gifts (like credit! like going off the gold standard!) unsettle closed systems. They don't expect exchange or reciprocity (needed in a closed system, where energy cannot be lost) but rather bring in from outside something NEW, stringlessly, without expectation of return.

"An 'Other' Theory of Gift:
Jesus's gratuitous gift of his life for others."
From The Ethics of the Gift

Maybe--stepping off from last week's session on the
"Theory and Practice of Non-normal Inquiry," which --avoids premature story telling
--denies the existence of a pre-existing goal (and yet?)
--is capable of successful local puzzle-solving (and yet?)
--can create a context for social justice--
we can find our way to an "emergent" understanding of
(and means of facilitating) social change?

(11/17/06): a *new* index to how *good* a story is might be how flexible it is: that is, how translatable, how adaptable to a variety of audiences ...just another way of saying that the best stories have the greatest *breadth,* the greatest possible extensions beyond local contexts?

Shifting the lens from Knowing the Body to The Body Politic

Transamerica Pyramid (San Francisco)

"By art is created that great Leviathan, called a Commonwealth or State--(in Latin, civitas) which is but an artificial man." Opening sentence of Hobbes's Leviathan ("Extracts," Moby-Dick)

Leviathan, from Espace Modial

Some Thoughts on Academic Structure (and Socio-Political Structures Generally): A Biological Metaphor as an Alternative to Both State's Rights and Federalism at Bryn Mawr College (and Elsewhere (11/01): 1. Local entities have the most information about local circumstances, and are in the best position to respond flexibly and appropriately to local needs
2. Local entities are interdependent parts of larger assemblies, take into consideration the differing circumstances and interests of both other local components and the larger assembly...
...there are demonstrable alternatives to states' rights on the one hand and federalism on the other, and hence to the recurring sense of conflict between the two positions...My are an infinite array of versions of...organizational structures and understandings that will satisfy both propositions.

A Possible (Local) Application?

What's In a Name?: Re-defining Feminism at Bryn Mawr: Does feminism in 2005 require laying down that word--because it keeps some folks out of the conversation, out of engaging w/ the issues (indeed, even seeing the work as being about their issues, rather than about well-to-do white women getting a piece of the action)? Does the word "feminism" prevent some folks from coming to the table and having an open conversation (and so hamper feminism from doing what all intellectual work needs to do continually: interrogate its own presumptions)? it "not feminist to have feminism in the title" of the program? Is setting the word aside a healthy action for the feminist movement, one that would enlarge its scope?....will removing feminism make the program and the work it fosters more inclusive, more accessible, more open to exploring various points of view?....

Or does the proposed re-naming of the Feminist and Gender Studies Program to Gender and Sexuality signal a move away from activism, from engagement in the practical work against women's oppression in which academic work in gender began, and where it continues to be focused? At a woman's college, do we want to claim the word, and the actions, of feminism?....does removing the name undermine what the program is trying to do?.... Will the removal of feminism from the title lead to the interpretation that Bryn Mawr is saying feminism is not significant here?....How much is the program invested in policing a certain line or kind of thinking?
Out of time...

What a pleasure, exploring with y'all way beyond cluelessness this morning. Thanks for interest/prodding/further thoughts-and-questions. 'Til the next round, I'm bookmarking these notes:

  • "markets are always a positive-sum game" (do I understand you aright, Mark? thinking like an economist means presuming NOT mere re-distribution of resources w/in a closed system, but actually generating new resources of production?)

  • "we never have perfect information; gains in trade are never guaranteed" (do I understand you right, Sandy? thinking like a political philosopher means being cautious about the positive outcomes of capitalist production)

  • "what would happen if you substituted for the contrast between open and closed systems the (less binary) distinction between binary and continuous systems?" (do I understand you aright, Al? thinking like a physicist means re-conceptualizing the social, as the natural, world in terms of multiple variables, not easily reducible/clearly separable into 0/1, off/on, up/down?)

  • "although the closed system is a very important concept in physics--i.e., the amount of available energy does not change--shifting the scale opens up possibilities" (do I understand you aright, again, Al? "all physics is local"; subsystems may be open "enough" for our purposes)

  • "but you can't really consider utility a subset of physics" (I'm not sure I understood you, Ronni--did you mean that it's 'way too glib/easy to use energy as a measure for social change?)

  • "there is an essential interface between economics and physics: the former assumes that expansion is good; the latter acknowledges that resources are limited" (do I understand you aright, Paul? thinking like a biologist means coming to grips with the "fact" that we cannot expand indefinitely, that--as per Malthus--there's no denying that there are constraints on the possible)

  • "let's question the presumption that it's a good thing to have more (rather than less) people engaged in any project--as well as the further presumption that involving more people introduces more flexibility and fluidity into the system" (do I understand myself aright? more flexibility and adapatability might result from fewer cooks in the kitchen, hands on the throttle, variables in the system....?)

On to revolution. Stay tuned.

A Possible (International) Application?

Lisa Belkin, "The Opt-Out Revolution," The New York Times Magazine, October 26, 2003.

Marissa Golden, Can Women Have It All? (2/10/06) what was most striking to me were three things:
  • the use of an economic concept--that of that of "human capital"--to calibrate the worth of family-friendly policies
  • the underlying assumption that children belong to their families (who are therefore responsible for their well-being), rather than to the whole society
  • the big question of WHY WE ALL WORK SO MUCH: who are we doing it for? And what are we avoiding by doing it?
earlier feminist theory assumes a rather instrumentalist account of the motility and spatiality of the lived body. Its body as subject is a purposive actor, with specific objectives it moves out into the world to accomplish....privileges plan, intention, and control....One could imagine a less limited...project...rather than unified and singly directed. What might a phenomenology of action look like which started from the mundane fact that many of us...often do several things at once? (Iris Marion Young, "'Throwing Like a Girl': Twenty Years Later," 1998; rpted. Keeping Our Heads Above Water: No Buoys Allowed, 11/15/05)

... and do those several things in interaction with others?

Laura, More on parenting (2/11/06): I ran into this blog post this morning which might further contribute to our thinking about gender equality, parenting and the workplace. The author questions the assumptions we might be making about the nuclear family as the baseline from which to work....perhaps the nuclear family is an emergent phenomenon itself.

emerging parenting (02/07/06): I was struck--surprised--by Laura's invitation to us to think about the "failure of feminism" (i.e. women ending up @ home w/ the kids) as an emergent phenomena--since I have come to think of emergence as a principle that enables change (see, for instance, my quarrel w/ Appiah: "the duty of [wo]man respect to [her] own nature...not to follow but to amend it").

The sort of analysis Laura sent us to, such as the piece on America's Stay-at Home Feminists, which describes women who think they are "voluntarily taking themselves out of the elite job competition" under the assumption that they are 'choosing' their gendered lives," actually seems to be strongly anti-emergent in both its presumptions and its prescription (i.e., it argues for a linear single-causal intervention: "find the money," use your "college education with an eye to career goals," etc. etc.)

Consider, alternatively (emergently?) the question that has come up repeatedly in a series of conversations on Representing Parenting, being held on Friday afternoons this year over @ the Multicultural Center on the Bryn Mawr campus: Why/how has the work culture in this country become too deeply entrenched to create a space to mother?
Sandy (2/11/06): gender is a complex system of circular causality that we are all implicated in....We recreate it even as we change it.....Derrida's point is the impossibility of the gift--i.e., there are no real gifts because all gifts...imply obligations in return....the real to be free here now in the "present," free of past debts and future obligations....

(Brief pause to consider our psychological need for both beginnings and endings--
vs. the capacity to focus on "now"??

"We cannot be in the present and run our story lines at the same time!"
Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

(After Tim's 9/28/05 presentation on): stories as "disaggregations"...we prefer the psychologically satisfying drama of identifying a single cause to the meandering complexities of many of them...looking for a way to manage/control... disasters, we "disaggregate"--that is, build firewalls to minimize ("dampen"!) the positive feedback that generates catastrophe....I really, really have trouble with closed systems. On any level....

(Sandy, continued:) We need to resist insisting that people have to perform gender in ways that deny them their self-ownership and therefore their freedom....As an emergent system, gender will only change if we consider the possibilities to transgressively exploit the opportunities to do so, each and every time it arises. I call this kind of micropolitics "radical incrementalism".... Otherwise, the emergent system's possibilities for generating change will be squandered on inventing new ways to reinscribe gender oppression.

Doug, "inspirational" e-mail (2/10/06): How would you go about changing a large emergent system?...the "law of unintended consequences" just another way of saying that you can't predict the outcome, and sometimes (most times) the system doesn't do what you want.... how do we affect the masses to make people act in a more rational way?....Is it immoral to craft a order to get your message more easily digested? Is it more moral to not try to game the system?

An Emergent Feminism: Adolescence, the Revolutionary Girl Utena movie

No Turning Back: The Historical Emergence of Feminisms

Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America, 1848-1869.

The Emergence of Feminism Among Indian Muslim Women: 1920-1947

In Praise of Difference: The Emergence of a Global Feminism

I think we have--and should continue--to game the system.

( Ted (10/26/05): "Games are not isolated experiences:
we recognize them as games because we know we can always start over."

"'s not for nothing that Einstein put the word heuristic in the title....
When do stories become real?"
Roald Hoffman, "Storied Theory"
(American Scientist Online, July-August 2005)

So, what do you think? In the realm of social change,
what opportunities does thinking emergently open for us?

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