Tim Morton has a series of recent posts on the subject of emergence. Here's a link to the first, but there are at least a half-dozen new ones at this point. As someone interested in rhetoric, and particularly composition, a theory of emergence is of great interest. In The Two Virtuals, I explored concepts that included evolutionary-pscyhological theories on the emergence of symbolic behavior (and human consciousness as we experience it), various cybernetic theories on the emergence of intelligence/cognition, and pseudo-mathematical concepts of virtual-topological configuration spaces coming out of Deleuze and DeLanda (I say pseudo as the math here blends with the philosophical in a way that is not solely math). So I am reading Tim's posts with interest.
Tim draws upon several examples that also come up in DeLanda's Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. Specifically here I will mention two: soap bubbles and boiling water. In fact, I've used the boiling water example here recently as well. The soap bubble though is an interesting analog to thought. Here is what DeLanda says about soap bubbles:
There are a large number of different physical structures which form spontaneously as their components try to meet certain energetic requirements. These components may be constrained, for example, to seek a point of minimal free energy, like a soap bubble, which acquires its spherical form by minimizing surface tension, or a common salt crystal, which adopts the form of a cube by minimizing bonding energy. We can imagine the state space of the process which leads to these forms as structured by a single point attractor (representing a point of minimal energy). One way of describing the situation would be to say that a topological form (a singular point in a manifold) guides a process which results in many different physical forms, including spheres and cubes, each one with different geometric properties. This is what Deleuze means when he says that singularities are like ‘implicit forms that are topological rather than geometric’. This may be contrasted to the essentialist approach in which the explanation for the spherical form of soap bubbles, for instance, would be framed in terms of the essence of sphericity, that is, of geometrically characterized essences acting as ideal forms. (15-16)
There is a similar language, by the way, in Levi's forthcoming book, where he takes up topology in a similar vein. So, as Tim discusses, the soap bubble forms through local relations and tensions. "Emergence is relational," as he says. DeLanda, via Deleuze, offers the singularity as way of explaining why soap bubbles are always bubbles, not cubes for example, without resorting to some essentialist essence. Instead, we can speak of a topological form that minimizes free energy without determining the particular shape of the object. Hence we get salt crystals or snowflakes or soap bubbles. Every flake is different, as we all know, but they all emerge through the same topological, quasi-causal singularity.
Thought bubbles, as the arugment would go, adhere to a similar principle. Perhaps we are speaking of a different singularity now. Nevertheless, a thought bubble emerges via relation and according to a quasi-causal topological singularity. To continue with Delanda, "The quasi-cause is, indeed, this operator and it is defined not by its giving rise to multiplicities but by its capacity to affect them. ‘The quasi-cause does not create, it operates’, as Deleuze says."
Now, let's take this matter a little farther, Morton pursues this line of thinking in his invetigation of holism. That is, while we make look at the soap bubble as a continuous whole, it really isn't. Instead it is a series of local tensions and relations. The whole, as Morton puts it, exists only as a sensual object. We perceive wholes where there are really holes. This needs to be put in the context of thought bubbles as well. We perceive our thoughts (and affects/feelings) as complete, but they are also holey.
My inclination is to put this in the context of sampling rates. Again, this is something I discuss in The Two Virtuals. Following on Kittler, among others, we can see how the movement into typewriters, cameras, gramophones and such moves us from a subjective state of continuity (the continuous line of handwriting, as Kittler would put it), to a more staccato world of type, frame rates, etc. The digital world gives us a higher sample rate, but a sample rate nonetheless. A sensorium also has a sample rate: our eyes register a certain spectrum of light, our taste buds recognize sweetness or bitters as so many parts per million, our skin responds to heat or cold at particular levels, etc. Our brain cycles. The end result is that we experience continuity where none exists, as such.
Of course in thinking about Deleuze, one might wonder about this claim in relation to the concept variably terms the plane of consistency or immanence. However, it is important to note that Deleuze's plane of consistency is NOT a plane of "continuity." To return, one last time, to Delanda:
the fact that each multiplicity defines a space of its own, that is, the absence of a space of N+1 dimensions where they would be embedded, is key to the task of conceiving a virtual space which does not unify multiplicities, that is, a space composed by the coexisting multiplicities themselves in their heterogeneity. Similarly, the quasi-causal operator is often referred to as a ‘line’ but not because it would be a one-dimensional entity. Rather, the quasi-cause would operate at N-1 dimensions, unlike a transcendent source of unity which must operate from a supplementary (e.g. N+1) dimension. (112-13)
As I read this, the plane of consistency then is a heterogeneous space that emerges through the relation of multiplicities or assemblages. The plane is not added to the objects. If we, in fact, perceive some added plane, some continuity, then what have encountered/produced is just another object (sensual or otherwise) that enters into relations among other objects in a flat ontology. What it cannot be is either some essentialist, pre-individual space or some over-mining, meta-concept.