Emergence and governance in the Anthropocene

Complexity theory presents a fundamental challenge to the rationalist principles of liberal modern thought and governance. Whereas the latter is premised on the ability of subjects to predict and control the world around them, complexity theorists propose that such attempts will always be exceeded by the unpredictable and non-linear nature of life itself.

emergence-antsVarious complexity theorists suggest that governance can only work by abandoning the reductionist frameworks of liberal modernity and instead unleashing the potential of life to self-organise. The key to understanding how complex life can be governed is the concept of emergence. In between the entropy generated by chaos and the reductionist order of modernity, emergence postulates that order exists through a process of continuous adaptation modelled on evolution. This means that order can be generated without an overarching designer or hierarchy, whether we are looking at a colony of ants or a human society.

Complexity and emergence are subject to wide consensus in regards to the natural world, but the entrance of emergence into the cultural realm should be subject to more examination. Questions can be asked about the rather deterministic overtones of the concept and its relation to human agency and intentionality.

This is the introduction to a workshop entitled Rethinking Emergence which is part of the UK Living in the Anthropocene series at the University of Southampton in January/February 2016.

The workshop aims to offer an opportunity to rethink emergence in the light of its implications for the nature/culture divide. Its convenor will be Tudor Vilcan, a postgraduate research student in Social Sciences: Politics & International Relations at the University of Southampton.

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