Resilience: Bonnie Honig

Artist / Title
Nicolas Samori / Lienzo (2014)

Resilience : Bonnie Honig

Resilience is defined in the OED as the “action or an act of rebounding or springing back; rebound, recoil” or as “Elasticity; the power of resuming an original shape or position after compression, bending, etc.” or as “the work given back by the spring after being strained to the extreme limit within which it can be strained again and again.” The concept “resilience” retains all of these meanings today but is associated most closely with survival in contexts of extremity. Resilience is that trait by way of which persons or systems manage to survive a test or even catastrophe, unbroken. Thus capitalism is often said to be resilient, since it absorbs and rebounds back from periodic shocks. (Its presumed resilience is why we call these events “shocks”.) Precarious communities are told to be resilient by the market agents that move through them and sometimes leave little behind. Fragile ecosystems are said to be resilient by those who pollute them and want to go on doing so with impunity.

In the last few years, mention of resilience is everywhere. For example, in the November 2013 announcement for Andrew Solomon’s Tanner lectures on Human Values: “The most basic mechanism of resilience is the ability to construct meaning out of adversity.” It is like the old Arendtian saw, borrowed from Isak Dinesen, that all sorrows can be borne if we put them into stories. There is truth to it. But it is almost a tautology, too. In effect, resilience is said to be resilience: the capacity to make meaning in the face of adversity = the capacity to make meaning in the face of adversity. We can call that (as the talk’s announcement does) the “mechanism” of resilience, to avoid the appearance of tautology, but it may be just the appearance we are avoiding.1

There is even a new journal of Resilience studies, called (what else?) Resilience. The journal had to prove its capacity to live up to its title early on when it was criticized preemptively, charged in the pages of Radical Philosophy with being a “corporate-cum-academic-dream.”2 The new journal’s editor responded to the charge, citing the work of Amartya Sen: “the real problem of resilience is posed by its promise of transformative solutions, posed in terms of capability- or capacity-building individuals and communities.”3 This response may seem to be part of a turn in “resilience discourse” beyond survival and toward governance (or, perhaps in an age of biopolitics, survival easily becomes governance).4 According to Jeremy Walker and Melinda Cooper’s genealogy of the term, the concept first emerged in “systems ecology” in the 1970s but is fast becoming a “pervasive idiom of global governance.” From the study of ecosystems, where resilience was defined as “a measure of the ability of [ecosystems] to absorb changes . . . and still persist,’” resilience has since become a “methodology of power,” they argue.5 Increasingly prevalent in the social sciences, resilience also plays a key role in “agencies charged with coordinating security responses to climate change, critical infrastructure protection, natural disasters, pandemics and terrorism.”6 Walker and Cooper explain the success of resilience in other domains (the remarkable resilience of resilience) by noting its “ideological fit with a neoliberal philosophy of complex adaptive systems,” specifically, with the later work of Friedrich Hayek.7

The association of resilience with neoliberalism is analyzed by Robin James in Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism (2014).8 For James, there is no redeeming the term, for resilience discourse has a certain logic. The logic is familiar (from analyses like that of Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine) and it is made newly powerful by James’ analysis of its operations in the context of pop culture.9 Says James: “first, damage is incited and made manifest; second, that damage is spectacularly overcome, and that overcoming is broadcast and/or shared so that, third, the person who has overcome is rewarded with increased human capital, status [etc] . . .because: finally, and most importantly, this individual’s own resilience boosts society’s resilience.” That is, for James, the individual’s work “generates surplus value for hegemonic institutions.” This is the real work of resilience.

But James leaves the door open to possibilities beyond this logic. When she says she has been talking about resilience in a “narrow sense,” she suggests there may be other senses. She does not think these other senses can interrupt the dominant and dominating discourse of resilience. She assumes these other senses have something to do with “forms of recovery or therapy.”10 Might there be more senses, still? The question posed here is whether there are yet further ways of conceptualizing resilience that may be useful for a politics that is neither neoliberal nor therapeutic. Some on the left seem to think so, though their way of thinking about resilience differs a bit from that proposed here.

1. Jonathan Lear comes close to putting himself in the same fix, in Radical Hope (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), when he asks how it is that some people go on in the face of catastrophe. The answer is: this ungrounded hope that he calls radical. But that is the question, too: why do some people experience radical hope while others experience despair?

2. Mark Neocleous, “Resisting Resilience,” cited in David Chandler and Mark Neocleous, “Exchange: Pre-emptive Strike: A Response to ‘Resisting Resilience’,” Radical Philosophy (May/June 2013).

3. “Exchange,” Radical Philosophy, 59.

4. This paragraph is indebted to research assistance by Anna Terwiel.

5. Jeremy Walker and Melinda Cooper, “Genealogies of Resilience: From Systems Ecology to the Political Economy of Crisis Adaptation,” Security Dialogue 42: 2 (2011), 143. MacKinnon and Derickson specify, in “From Resilience to Resourcefulness,” that there are two types of resilience in the ecological literature: “The first is ‘engineering resilience’, which is concerned with the stability of a system near to an equilibrium or steady state, where resilience is defined in terms of elasticity which emphasizes resistance to disruption and speed of return to the pre-existing equilibrium. Second, ‘ecological resilience’ refers to external disturbances and shocks that result in a system becoming transformed through the emergence of new structures and behaviours.” MacKinnon and Derickson, “From Resilience to Resourcefulness: A Critique of Resilience Policy and Activism,” Progress in Human Geography, 37:2 (2013).

6. Walker and Cooper, “Genealogies of Resilience,” 144. Many authors note this disciplinary travel and proliferation of resilience. For a table outlining various disciplinary definitions of resilience from the 1970s to the 2000s, see MacKinnon and Derickson,”From Resilience to Resourcefulness,” 256.

7. Walker and Cooper, “Genealogies of Resilience,” 143-45. Though Hayek can point us in various directions. See for example William Connolly, The Fragility of Things (Durham : Duke University Press, 2013).

8. Robin James, Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism (Alresford: Zero Books, 2014).

9. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007). Klein’s book is cited in James, Resilience and Melancholy, 101-2 and 202 n.103

10. Robin James, Resilience and Melancholy, 7 (emphasis added).

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