Limited only through whatever is impossible
Limited only through whatever is impossible or contradictory, contingency thrives opportunistically. Whatever is possible has been claimed by the term, and that includes a very broad swath of happening.
As a matter of fact, however, not everything that possibly can happen does happen. In empirical extent, some conditions do issue in occurrences more likely to happen than not: some unforeseen perhaps, yet inherent in possibility.
But not without the testing of limits: the happenstance is circumscribed in encountering conditions of extremity; and so we note catastrophe, as from the fracturing, then splintering, of the entire metallic sheath of the Titanic once struck in the icy waters of the Atlantic. Another instance, more recently is in the disintegrating spaceship, when the Challenger broke up owing to the fracturing of a plastic O-Ring at upper atmospheric temperatures in conditions impinging on engineered materials during lift-off.
Remarkably, the term contingency applies both to whatever is logically not impossible and yet also occurrences specifically situated in empirical and historical eventfulness. Putting it another way, lots of things are happening all the time, but only when the accidental occurrence is noted, and seized upon to change the state of affairs that immediately affect us, do we pay attention, and call it the reality of contingency.
To discover that empirical findings may be accidental can be unnerving. It suggests that reality could be founded on nothing much more than possibility made actual—at least this is what astounded Charles Darwin when he encountered seashells at mountainous altitudes and realized that what is high and dry was once low and submerged. That a contingent circumstance could, in its tectonic upheaval, be subject to historical time and not entail grand order, rattled his sense of things and suggested implications for a radical relativism.
From a rock’s point of view events are just what befalls. But how actuality emerges from and in contrast with reality troubles thought. It suggests that eventfulness could have occurred some other way, not because of necessity but because accidental timeliness made it possible.
More positively: discoveries in full force issue from inadvertent behavior. The celebrated instance of this in art is Kandinsky not recognizing his own sideways painting when he returned to his studio in the evening, seeing only its glowing color. What he understood from this would be beyond most people’s understanding then—and now: the principle of form. He realized the difference between painting and pictures and went with the former in his pursuit of abstraction. Along with Cubism and Suprematism, this Non-objectivism created intellectual and cultural inevitability, a praxis realizing the implications of an innovation.
Another sense of contingency samples actuality, and so allows for statistically exceptional instances and the remainders unaccounted for through ideological forms and narratives. Sampling swaths of sound he found in various environments would become Cage’s specialty. Although re-presenting the epiphenomena as epiphanic does issue in a viewpoint other than indifference from which some matters are deemed more interesting than others—check out his recited vignettes accompanying Merce Cunningham’s How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run. Cage savored the audition of sound as such.
Improvisatory situations more often do take account of their circumstances. Contingency here would mean treating the unpredictable occurrence as positive information—not noise—to aid in creative possibilities. Although brought into antagonistic relationship in the 1950s and 1960s in the arts, improvisation in sharp contrast with predetermined series can still be productive in juxtaposition. These two orders invite a possible coexistence of propositions not necessarily contradictory as articulating difference in kind, to the enhanced understanding of both.
MARJORIE WELISH’S recent art exhibitions have occurred at Art-3, Brooklyn, Emanuel von Baeyer Cabinet, London, and La Terrasse, Nanterre. A presentation on her Fulbright occurred at Edinburgh College of Art.