The space between [her / his] face and how I felt about it
where sunlight condensed from what once was sun
a perspiration of minutes sweating between us
the door love practiced in me swung open
to look at you and lodge it in my heart
an attitude of love, called Ritual Disaster
—Eleni Sikelianos, Body Clock
After nearly five years of trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant and what seemed like the failure of science to explain why I hadn’t gotten pregnant, I suddenly was. Between these two states—not expecting and expecting—I first wanted something I couldn’t have and then attempted the process of accepting the reality that I wouldn’t have it. Sometimes it is difficult to categorize the parts of reality that are the most real. Prayer and invitrofertilization were possibilities, and, given the arrogant male doctor who would only address my husband as he discussed my ovulation as well as the enormous fee he charged us for a procedure that was not guaranteed to work, to rely on either possibility felt like what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism” or “the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object” (24). Heteronormative cultural expectations had nearly convinced me that there was a right way and a wrong to start a family. I began to fear that if I got pregnant the wrong way, the pregnancy would be cursed by the means by which I got pregnant because it would force something into being that wasn’t “meant to be.” And anyway, I wondered, wasn’t it dangerous to bear a child to a world in a perpetual state of emergency?
When I did get pregnant the “right way,” the comforts of spontaneous joy and conformity to the status quo could not allay the fear that I had provoked an emergency by getting exactly what I wanted. While conception and a healthy full-term pregnancy seemed to make accepting the reality of infertility unnecessary, it drove the need for inquiry deeper into the emergency of my own thinking, and it made so obvious that to encounter the emergency of life I need to do more than accept reality; I need to consent to it.
Let us begin with two parallel notions of emergency: the first, public and broad, relates to western culture’s increasing awareness and even initiation of the emergency of environmental, political, and humanitarian disaster, while the second, private and specific, derives from the individual body’s response to extreme internal and external conditions, such as those during pregnancy and delivery.
I want to talk about the idea of emergency, not merely as disaster, but also as an occasion for emergence, as is the case in childbirth. Emergence, as defined by the OED, is “the process of coming forth, issuing from concealment, obscurity, or confinement.” In this case, exposing oneself to danger, putting oneself at risk, what we call endangerment, is a vital part of the emergent process. Emergence is also a term shared by science, philosophy, art, and systems theory to generally describe the phenomenon in which “the whole is greater than its parts.” Another way to put this is that “emergent properties arise as the consequence of relationships between entities,” according to scientists Ursula Goodenough and Terrence Deacon in “The Sacred Emergence of Nature,” and that the sum isn’t just greater than its parts, it’s different from its parts; it’s something else entirely (855).
The private notion of emergency is not relegated to the event so much as it is the psychological recognition of crisis, the feeling of indeterminacy that takes over when a new reality usurps the old—the presence of another being in the body, the seeming inflammation of time as one life overlays another. Even in the event of delivery, the emergency burgeons from the mother’s body and its response to otherness—its own as well as that of the fetus—and the fissure that occurs when the body of the baby separates from the body of the mother. And while pregnancy is an event (advent) of extreme, irrecoverable changes in the bodies of mother and child, the emotional feelings that accompany these changes are at once ordinary and novel. There is a feeling of universality that, in its expansiveness, creates a pressure whose catharsis could only occur through an impossible articulation.
I am interested in quality over quantity—the feelings that surround an emergency or disaster rather than the emergency itself, even as one is compelled to index catastrophes to both justify the sense that this is a unique moment in history and to stabilize the contingency of it. Such an index attempts to create a shared representation of truth and the preclusion of (more) disaster. But the index as a mode of interpretation is useless in the face of a catastrophe that occurs outside of representation and, therefore, intelligibility. After all, ours is a culture in which reality is obfuscated and disorientation capitalized to manipulate emergent events or the event-as-emergency for economic and political gain—what Naomi Klein calls the “shock doctrine.” Which is to say that in the event of disaster, it is the aftermath that matters, evidenced by the identification, and exploitation, of feelings, shock, and disorientation by “disaster capitalists.”
And while the disastrous event is increasingly marked by its exploitation, it is also marked by a kind of divine omnipresence. It is as if we are born into disaster so that to speak of a specific disaster is less relevant than speaking of disaster’s ongoingness. Because the emergency takes the form of the event and also is always already present, the feeling that there is an emergency is perhaps more relevant than the concrete identification of one. If so, this feeling is not intellectual but rather produced by the intelligences of the whole being—body, mind, and soul. There’s much to be said about this kind of intelligence, automatic and intuitive; for the purposes of this essay, I understand it as an intelligence that is particular to the mother and measured in the literal beating of the heart.
Two personal instances of emergence that began in my body and then resonated outward in feeling: an episode of prenatal anxiety, in which I perceived I was in a state of emergency, and the delivery of the baby, in which I consented to the contractions of the body. In the former, emergency feels like threat and horror, rejection and rupture. The fear is ultimately that I am isolated from others, unable to connect, love, or share their experience, which, in turn, isolates. In the latter, emergency is the consent of the whole being to the contractions of the body during labor. Paradoxically, rupture is also at work in this consent, but in this case, the self, that is, the mother, experiences an ongoing separation, a dispersion and uplifting of meaning through the new existence, the new self, of the child.
I enter my thoughts about emergency at my own risk; I consent to the disaster of my own thinking. This consent is difficult to parse from those other moments when my anxiety produces the impression that I am in an emergency when I am in fact not in an emergency, as was the case with the pre-natal anxiety. It’s important not to equivocate about reality and non-reality, and there’s nothing propitious or interesting about feeling oneself in a constant state of danger. It’s debilitating and destructive, a tautology in which the feelings of endangerment anachronistically produce the disaster. Yet, the feeling does not have to remain at the level of panic or fear, nor even of loss or depression. But even more importantly, I want to propose that it is possible to both feel one’s own emotions, regardless of their “legitimacy,” to have one’s own personal experiences of pain and loss, and to sense that these private events—even as they might be entirely located in the body and mind—relate in some way to the larger emergency of being in the world with others.
From this place, in which both public and private emergency results in a feeling of division and separation, even when separation is the process by which the self dissolves in order to come into wholeness, I wonder:
Is it possible to maintain the “complex feeling” of the emergency, to borrow philosopher Jean-François Lyotard’s language, to allow the sensation of emergency to keep our response to crisis supple and quick no matter how uncomfortable, so that out of the emergency there could be an emergence—a coming forth, a revelation that proceeds swiftly, urgently? And, if emergence depends on the relationships between entities, then how can we allow emergency, which not only feels but often is debilitating, to produce something else entirely, something new and constructive, from the interconnectivity of the individual with other individuals?
Goodenough and Deacon usefully advocate for an “emergentist perspective” on nature, in which “emergence can be thought of as nature’s mode of creativity” (865) and the human as not “above” nature but “remarkably ‘something else’” (867). Thinking of the human being as a consequence of nature’s creativity occasions spiritual responses of enchantment, transcendence and reverence, and gratitude, as well as moral responses that include moral behavior toward other humans and ecosystems, or ecomorality (870).
In the sixth month of my pregnancy, I began to feel dread that at once seemed to descend on me and rise from within, which is to say I was immersed in it. In retrospect, I can identify a series of events that stressed me (buying a house, conflicts at work, students encountering their own crises). I assume that at the end of the second trimester, there was also a change in hormones that influenced the thoughts that, until this point, had been remarkably light given my initial concerns around the pregnancy. I have always struggled with anxiety and can identify periods in my life that resembled this one. But regardless, the fear, which I tethered to observable changes in my body, overtook me, not suddenly but with a feeling of suddenness, and while my medical care had been thorough and trustworthy, I encountered an emotional change that was seemingly untraced to a cause.
It is difficult to transform an emotion into a meaningful experience if it cannot be traced to a cause, if it does not have a sign that can contain it. In this way, the emergency of which I speak was a terrifying dispersal of meaning that I attempted to stabilize by compulsive examination of my body, of the spaces I occupied, of authoritative texts about pregnancy. My obsession with knowing and certainty were an attempt to make the emergency I felt in my body but could not locate an object to be handled and expunged, and in that transformation, I reasoned I could care about it less.
There is actually something very therapeutic about the transformation of the feeling into the object. This occurs in meditation when, for instance, a thought is observed or when one can imagine it as a thing, when one allows it to drift by without grasping at it. Sometimes I imagine being immersed in deep water and watching objects float above me. I recognize the objects but do not grasp at them. It’s like a flood has taken place, I have drowned but remain sentient, and I watch the banal objects of my life drift by without trying to save them or to use them as life rafts. In the disaster, there is a kind of calm acceptance of reality and letting go. To already have been submerged, to already have met my fate.
This meditative practice hastens the inevitable reification of thought for the purpose of calming the body or the soul, for the purpose of clarity. Thought has a tendency to eventually petrify; the meditation makes it happen more quickly, more deliberately and within a set of artificial constraints, such as the image that I produce. Yet reified thought has the tendency, as Emerson writes in the essay “Circles,” “to solidify and hem in the life,” as in, “for instance, an empire, rules of an art, a local usage, a religious rite” (207). In this case, the feeling of the emergency dissipates and so too do the emergent possibilities for transformation. Heavy as stone, the emergency settles into silt and sand bars.
Two early definitions of emergence relate to buoyancy and, more specifically “To come up out of a liquid in which (the subject) has been immersed.” Consequently, one definition of emergency is “the rising of a submerged body above the surface of water.” It makes sense and feels good to detachedly watch the emergency float above me, to accept that I am waterlogged debris, to feel nothing for the objects to which I was once attached and to merely watch them. But it is also worthwhile to engage in the emergency, to rise to the surface with the mercurial world that gathers in the grates and the roots of trees. To allow the loss of self and in this debris, which includes me, to allow something else entirely to emerge.
Perhaps pregnancy could be thought of as an emergence in its resemblance to those “synergistic wholes that are composed of things of ‘unlike kinds,’” as Peter A. Corning argues (24). The single human body is itself an emergent phenomena, Corning explains, with its “10 trillion or so cells…specialized into some 250 different cell types that perform a vast array of important functions in relation to the operation of the whole” (24). My daughter and I were two like humans, as the ultrasounds revealed, with our four-chambered hearts, guts, and limbs, and also unlike parts of a whole in our different uses of our shared organs, one of which we produced solely for the purpose of this doubling, in our consciousnesses, and in our very different trajectories. And despite these vast differences, I found it possible to differentiate prior to delivery only in the rhetorical gesture of apostrophe, in which I fondly called out the other body’s movements, said, “I love these.”
Delivery could not have been more predictable or average. There were no complications, and the day progressed as days always do, until 24 hours later, the baby emerged with wide eyes. And yet my body was the site of an emergency, and if I did not stay ahead of it, the pain overwhelmed me, sending me into three-minute intervals of panic. Halfway into the labor, as the pains ascended and the contractions occurred more frequently, I was sure my body was tearing apart from the descending pressure, and my instinct was to recoil—grit my teeth, hoist my body onto my toes, hold the weight of the pelvis in my shoulders, and push sound through the roof of mouth. The labor, then, was a process of giving over my body, allowing gravity to take the baby while also relinquishing the muscle control that had for so long now kept us upright. I stood flat on my feet, bent my knees, let my shoulders drop, droned sound against my diaphragm.
Emergence seemed to occur distinctly differently at the moment that I perceived as the emergency of labor, when our bodies worked in concert to go our separate ways. The obvious analogy is the breaking of waters or the crowning head; less obvious is the enlistment of will to navigate the birth canal, which the baby experienced as physical boundary and I experienced as sheer pain. And while the baby’s new life might be a dedication to survival, mine is now dedicated to the ongoingness of that emergent moment.
Consenting to the emergency is also consent to the duration of emergency. This leads us back to the public view of emergency—the world into which one gives birth to life is a world in emergency, and the emotional and psychological feeling-through this world is uncertain. Western capitalism is a salve in its promise to anesthetize and outsource this pain, yet it still bears down and threatens to exceed our boundaries. An emergentist perspective of nature cannot solve the problem of pain and emergency, but it can help us to live through it with one another.
I am still not sure what this means. But over the course of several months of sleepless nights, I have been compelled to light a candle so that the flame within me might have a conversant. And what I’ve overheard has something to do with emergence. That is, I need you, although sometimes I don’t want you, and you make me nervous. On my own, I am precise in my history and memories, but what I am is not my purpose or trajectory. I must be willing to be with you and to become something else entirely.
Motherhood is both the metaphor and practice of what this could mean—in the self-sacrifice that produces pleasure, as well as in the negotiation of contingency that an ongoing emergency, both boring and surprising, necessitates. This being together could almost be religious. The miracle is not the other’s coming into being but that I could survive the emergency of it with her. That I could go down deep and rise again.
Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2011.
Corning, Peter A. “The Re-emergence of ‘Emergence”: A Venerable Concept in Search of a Theory.” Complexity 7.6 (2002): 18–30.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Circles.” Emerson’s Essays. Spencer P. 205–18.
Goodenough, Ursula and Terrence W. Deacon. “The Sacred Emergence of Nature.” The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science. Ed. Philip Clayton. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. 853–71.
Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Picador, 2007.
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.
 The emergentist perspective is an understanding of nature that issues from what Goodenough and Deacon describe as a non-theist “religious naturalism” (864).