The Gift of Bewilderment
Our story stretches all the way back to that mythical, archetypal encounter between a man and a God. In the Judeo-Christian texts, the book of Job records a tale of sorrow and mourning and haunting questions about the nature of suffering. Job, our protagonist, has lost his children, his cattle, his sheep and his reputation. His name whispered with regret, his body dotted with itchy sores, Job asks God for answers. Why do good people suffer? Has he not been faithful, devoted to the letter? Then why has all of this befallen him? Job’s questions are not rhetorical, poetic musings of a man who has the luxury of that sort of play. He needs a response. God is in the dock.
As the story goes, God eventually answers – but in an unusual way that leaves anyone reading the account begging for resolutions. Instead of directly engaging the all-important questions, God reportedly asks: “Were you there when I laid the earth’s foundations or when I shut up the seas behind doors?” He goes on to boast about the chains of Pleiades and Orion’s belt, ostrich wings and ostrich eggs, the strength of horses, the obstinacy of an ox, the glory of a hawk in flight, mountain goats giving birth, and the spontaneity of rain. What have these to do with Job’s condition? At first blush, it might seem like an insensitive, puerile display of cosmic power to distract from the damning mortal matters at hand. But there is a sense in which answers are not only not useful, but hurtful. And, seen through different lenses, one might recognize that bewildering responses often serve greater purposes than satisfying our inner logic and quests for resolution.
That same confounding logic of answering questions with weirder questions permeates Tibetan debate performances – where the challenger assumes a stance, his arms open into a wide arc, mimicking the open jaws of a crocodile. He poses a question not to win an answer but to explore strange reality. The deliberate non-linearity of the encounter between the challenger and the challenged, the way the conversation snakes out into bizarre branches, seemingly without regard for any ‘core issue’, reminds us that the world works in weird ways, disturbing the easy binary of questions versus answers. Lightning is not the uncontroversial chord of light that connects dirt and sky; there is seeking, yearning, and drifting. Each experimental quest produces ‘stepped ladders’, branching out like fibrous rootlets in soil. A question lingering in the charged air.
In Job’s story, in Tibetan debate practices, in many indigenous worldviews, and even in quantum physics and new materialisms, we are forced to confront a material world that cannot be easily resolved, a world that cannot be reduced to Newtonian formulas where answers are the direct (or expected) consequences of questions. A world we learn is so queer that we must rethink our concepts of time, identity, causality, space, and nature.
Such is the gift of bewilderment; such is the startling eloquence of a gasp. We scratch our heads in awkward cluelessness, but that awkwardness – that straying from pre-set paths and plot points – affords us the grace to notice the boxes we are contained by. We come to see the frames by which our thinking is made possible. By which we ourselves are shaped.
It is like a fish noticing it is wet only by coming out of water. We touch ourselves as if for the first time. We realize that emphasizing, say, lower carbon emissions in a bid to ‘stop climate change’ is part of a neoliberal framework that hijacks time as a forward-moving principle along a linear trajectory of progress. This framework emphasizes anthropocentric activity and permanence under the guise of sustainability, and asserts the deadness of the world around us. We come to recognize that the ways we have considered the crisis that faces us may be part of the crisis. The way we frame the problem is also part of the problem.
Even today, with a growing appreciation for indigenous traditions, there is often an unexamined practice of thinking of indigeneity as friendlier means to the same modern ends we had before – so that when the story is told that we should slow down in times of crisis, we ask ourselves: “How does slowing down reduce carbon emissions or achieve negative emissions? How does slowing down help us stamp out poverty or assure a future for our children?” And these questions are justified within the frameworks we work from, but they are not the only frameworks. By coming to the edges; by staying longer in the place that is supposedly without utility, empty, null and void; by dwelling with the bewildering awkwardness and staying with the trouble; other places of power become visible.
Finding our edges: Forming The Emergence Network
And so, keenly affected by the increasing unproductiveness of orthodox modes of engagement in conventional activisms, a small group of five assembled in response to an invitation to form the core curatorial team of The Emergence Network. In Nigeria, India, Portugal, Canada, and the USA, we huddled behind our screens to talk with each other. To ask questions. To conjure trickster spirits in the way we talked about the world. To ask: what are we missing? What escapes us and our sticky fantasies of getting it right? In what ways are we already in response to the goings-on around us? If we took the proposal (that we are not atomized creatures but entangled performances with the nonhuman world around us) seriously, how would that inform a different ethos of responsiveness? What does that open up? What does it close us too? And how can we give ourselves to building a coherent exploration without replicating some of the practices that are part of the wordless doctrines of contemporary activism – in short, without attempting to save the world?
Where are the edges?
A series of weekly conversations and budding friendships spilled into an online summit we called “An Expedition to the Borderlands of Activism”, hosted in October 2015. We gathered 70 well-known healers, veteran activists, speakers, authors, permaculture practitioners, hacktivists, scientists, poets and policymakers together to hold tough questions with us in five 3-hour sessions. We began sessions with silly questions like “What did you have for breakfast this morning?” We refused to introduce our guest participants or cater to their needs for acknowledgement, if there were any. We allowed for awkward silences, stuttered responses, and little to no coordination. Our desire was to create an online context that allowed us to be vulnerable. We wanted to underline the way expertise and easy talking points often served to replicate the very realities we sought to escape.
On the back of that most interesting outing, we are building an organization that serves to examine the particular ways we address problems, while simultaneously seeking to amplify what has been occluded in the very act.
The Emergence Network is inspired by a feminist new materialist ethos, one that seeks to examine the ways differences and boundaries are enacted, how we are in turn shaped by the world we shape. Our activating thesis is that the world is borne out of entangling, diffracting relationships. There are no essences or foundations or ontological givens. The very act of measuring any phenomenon grants that phenomenon attributes in a way that also ropes in the act of measurement. Light is either wave or particle depending on the apparatus used to measure it. To settle for one is to exclude the other complementary reality.
We think the world is alive – not in the fluffy sense that might make some say, “Oh I appreciate the sentiment! Poetic and nice. Now let’s get back to business!” That the material world acts, resists, initiates, suspends, reiterates, sustains, dissolves, plans, organizes and responds to itself is the very business that makes us – ‘humans’ – even possible! We are not beings ‘in’ the world; we are the world in its ongoing iteration or iterativity. Or, we should say – since it is not a matter of arriving at final iterations – reiterativity. We are part and parcel of a compost heap that dissolves our claims to uniqueness; that resituates human activity within a web of posthuman streams and flows of emergence; that makes ‘mind’ or sentience material and matter a queer thing very much unlike the mechanical, deterministic matter of old Cartesian imagination.
What this implies is that we cannot look out on the world in a bid to solve its problems, as if there is an external ‘thing’ to stand on to do this. There is no estranged observation, no separate fixing, no tinkering that does not unravel us in the process. We are already part of an ongoing response that involves the world ‘around’ us. We are part of a stream of many doings. As such, many things will remain closed to us – for we are not creatures of ‘free will’, ensouled to the exclusion of nature. We are of nature in its radical incompleteness. There are no resolutions.
However, saying nature is culture and culture is nature does not mean we are trapped – it means we can work in ways that make other natures possible. It means we can do the work of examining how we think, our limitations, what we tend to replicate in a bid for innovative getaways, and what other politics beckons in the near distance. It means we can respond in other ways, that we can deepen our accountability to a world in flux, and that we can be ‘otherwise’.
The Emergence Network is not about designing new societies or publishing blueprints and manifestoes for utopian societies. Our work is to generate spaces, provocations, adventures, courses, and performances that bring us to the edges, that help us hack the normal, that lead to the proliferation of different rituals and different practices of co-becoming. Our task is to help us see our seeing. An avid figure or metaphor for what we do might be going to the edge of one’s village, to the shaman’s hut, to the places that lingers between worlds. To be there is to be silent enough to hear other voices – other songs, other movements, other gestures we are often blind to in the village square.
Many labels might feel appropriate for what we suppose we do: ‘sacred activism’, ‘deep activism’, ‘post-activism’. However, to the extent that those labels presume that there is some deeper layer of truth to be arrived at, we dispute those terms. We do not proffer a ‘better’ activism, indigenous ‘solutions’, or even better questions. We do not subscribe to some ‘successor regime’ of philosophies – for to do so would be to create other troublesome binaries that do not account for the ongoing traffic between ‘old’ and ‘new’, ‘this’ and ‘that’, ‘light’ and ‘dark’. We do not dismiss ‘old’ ways of doing protest or fundraising or whatnot. We do not presume to be ‘new’ – and definitely do not think humans can summarily tell a new story, as if we were divorced from the world that makes the telling possible. We are also not a postmodern ‘anything goes’ platform.
Instead, we want to understand the specificity of each approach to change-making, and examine what it brings and what it leaves out. Inspired by new conceptual-material openings in how we think about ourselves and our place in the world, we want to find new questions; break open ‘new’ fields where multiple, sensuous modes of responding ‘with’ a world of queer causalities might take place. We want to instigate hesitant steps into open fields of play, and see how a different paradigm of response-abilities can bring us to the otherwise – or other places of power. Our constantly rewritten methodologies (that never congeal fast enough to become replicable models!) take us to wild places. Our projects invite the re-opening of ‘old’ texts and diffractive readings with ‘new’ concerns.
At the heart of The Emergence Network is a question – “what if the ways we think about crisis is part of the crisis?” – as well as a lively concern for the wellbeing of those that have been called to hold that question. In a world where work is often a matter of giving one’s service to giant corporate interests in return for wages, we ask: what if we could create a space where the things we really want to do can be supported by caring communities of people we want to serve? What if we can articulate organizations differently?
We can only hope for partial recuperations and modest proposals of living with the earth. And so we take seriously this work to come down to earth, to work with the new material of our present moments, to loosen the parenthetical remark a bit so that the sentence of our becoming can flourish in unexpected ways. Our dream is to exhaust this calling, to stay with its nuances and ironies and paradoxes and shadows, until its heart stops beating. As every other earthly thing, even dreams must die. We long for a time when this may no longer be needed; we will always have questions, but these sores that itch – these problems that beleaguer our neighbourhoods and families and communities – will hopefully disappear one day, reiterated in the emergence of things. And new shadows will emerge with new inquiries. And we will not know our former pains or vocations in the same ways anymore.