The Butler Scholarly Journal

Blog: What is Emergence?

By Sarah Townley

In January 2015, Josephine Butler College formed the first pilot BIASFREE Student Scholars group to discuss the Institute for Advanced Study’s (IAS) annual theme of Emergence. The group meets on an informal and regular basis to develop ideas in a supportive and welcoming setting. We remain open to new members, so please do get in touch if this is of interest to you.

The group will be using this blog to report back on lectures and discuss their own scholarly interests in relation to the theme.

According to the IAS website, this year’s theme of emergence ‘opens up ways to explore how and why emergence occurs, seeking to understand causality, emergent events and their effects by bringing together diverse perspectives from the social and physical sciences, the arts, and the humanities.’

This sounds interesting but what is emergence?

Exploring the theme of emergence from multidisciplinary perspectives is one of the Institute’s aims and my answer to the question ‘what is emergence?’ is not entirely free of scholarly bias: my response is shaped by my background as a literary historian.

Rather predictably for an English graduate, I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary to furnish my understanding of what the term emergence means and I was presented with five different definitions:

1. The rising (of a submerged body) out of the water.
2. The process of coming forth, issuing from concealment, obscurity, or confinement. lit. and fig. Also said of the result of an evolutionary process.
3. a. An unforeseen occurrence; a state of things unexpectedly arising, and demanding immediate attention.
b. Pressing need, urgent want: ‘a sense not proper’ (Johnson).
4. Bot. A term applied by Sachs to those outgrowths on leaves or stems which arise from the sub-epidermic tissue and not merely from the epidermis.

The second definition is relevant to my academic background. Literary historians tend to regard new and emergent literary movements as ‘the result of an evolutionary process’ that do not simply appear overnight. Literary historians are also engaged in a process of revising our understanding of the past by bringing to light, or ‘issuing from concealment, obscurity, or confinement,’ elements of the literary past that have been neglected and forgotten. In this blog post, I will briefly describe two ways that the theme of emergence is relevant to literary historians.

The Emergence of Literary Periods

Writing about the arrival of Modernism, both its visual art and its writing, Virginia Woolf claimed that: ‘On or around December 1910, human character changed […] and when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics and literature.’ This quotation is often used as a bold declaration that modernity’s arrival marked an abrupt departure from the religion, conduct, politics and literature of the long 19th-century. However, in the same essay, Woolf qualifies her statement with:

I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered or a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that, but a change there was, nevertheless (Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, 1924).

This qualification accounts for the gradual emergence of new, bold and experimental forms of artistic expression. There are numerous studies that trace the origins of Modernist literary culture back to the long 19th-century, and in particular the aesthetic, ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ movement of the 1880s and 1890s.

The Emergence of Forgotten Women Writers

As well as studying the genealogy of literary movements, literary historians also seek to extend and re-evaluate our understanding of the canon. Like archaeologists on a dig, feminist scholars since the 1980s have unearthed works by women writers from the dusty archives of the late 19th-century. This academic practice is preoccupied with ‘issuing [neglected women writers] from concealment, obscurity or confinement’ to demonstrate that women writers contributed to literary culture alongside their male counterparts. By reintroducing works by forgotten women writers back into the literary historical frame, we now have a more capacious and broader canon of literary works that represent this period. Today, alongside late 19th-century writers like Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker, we are presented with lesser known writers such as Sarah Grand and Lucas Malet.

What does Emergence mean to you?

Here I have very briefly focused on what emergence means to literary historians. The IAS research fellows are currently sharing the distinct strengths of different approaches by addressing major contemporary intellectual and policy interest concerning emergence across a series of lectures.

Dr Kalyan Perumalla is Josephine Butler College’s IAS Fellow and we are looking forward to his lecture on 4th March which is entitled ‘Desktops to Supercomputers: the wide computational spectrum in simulating emergence.’ He will talk about how computer simulation is an invaluable tool in studying emergence. We are looking forward to thinking about emergence from a completely new angle.


What does Emergence mean to you? Which definition of the term is most relevant to you and why? Please use the comments section below to let us know. We also invite new blog posts in response to this question.

Dr Sarah Townley is Student Support Officer (Postgraduate and Pre-sessional) at Josephine Butler College. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Nottingham and has articles published on the recent recuperation of the writer, Violet Paget (‘Vernon Lee’, 1856-1935). She co-ordinates the College’s Student Experience Programme and other scholarly activities in the College.