Resilience: Bonnie Honig

March of Resilience

Among the early signs of interest in the power of resilience for left politics is Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, which admires the power of resilience as a builder of utopias. For Solnit, we might say, resilience is not just the power to bounce back (“resuming an original shape,” as the OED puts it) but to bounce forward. What she outlines is not the generation of surplus value for hegemonic institutions, but rather the exemplification of the possibility that the socio-political order can yet be bent into new shapes. Solnit recounts the stories of people who rose to the occasion of crisis in ways that offer a glimpse of utopian living. Her account could not be more different from James’, but then Solnit is popularizing a forgotten culture, not focused on pop culture. And the resilient people on whom Solnit focuses are not investing in their own human capital in the context of neoliberal creative destruction; they are building community in crisis. This is “where the moment is so pressing that old complaints and worries fall away, where people feel important, purposeful, at the center of the world. It is by its very nature unsustainable and evanescent, but like a lightning flash it illuminates ordinary life, and like lightning it sometimes shatters the old forms.” Where “the rhetoric of private well-being trumps public good . . . [and] home improvement has trumped the idealistic notion of a better world,” there remains a “yearning” for something more, and better, Solnit argues. That yearning finds traction in a crisis when “the old order no longer exists and people improvise rescues, shelters, and communities.” What follows then is a struggle. Will we bounce back from disaster? Or forward? Will “the old order with all its shortcomings be reimposed or [will] a new one, perhaps more oppressive or perhaps more just and free, like the disaster utopia,” take its place?11 Solnit’s first example is that of Anna Amelia Holshouser who built a tent and then a kitchen for those left homeless by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Her kitchen, which eventually became known as the Mizpah Café, was just “one of many spontaneously launched community centers and relief projects,” a site of refuge, relief, and joy. And so, Solnit concludes, Holshouser’s “resilient resourcefulness represents the ordinary response in many disasters [in which] strangers become friends and collaborators, goods are shared freely, [and] people improvise new roles for themselves.” They are free to do so.12

Solnit’s use of the term resilience invokes but does not theorize the concept. It is a character trait — a valuable one — that is summoned by disaster. Her aim is to prod the imaginations of those who may experience such disasters in the future. Will they rebuild the old world when they “wake up in a society suddenly transformed”? Or will they find themselves doing something utterly different? Sometimes those “who don’t hold radical ideas, don’t believe in revolution, don’t consciously desire profound social change find themselves in a transformed world leading a life they could not have imagined and [they] rejoice in it.”13 In the wake of disaster, they experience the joy that Hannah Arendt connected to the experience of new beginning. For Solnit, however, that new beginning may well be the gift not of Arendtian political action but of disaster utopias, which offer their own kind of “creative destruction” (to borrow David Harvey’s term for neoliberalism). This is why the Mizpah Café is “at once nothing special and a miracle.”14 It is a “miracle” (a term Arendt herself applied to action) because it is the contingent product of one woman’s unfettered imagination, will, and resilience; it is “nothing special” because there are a lot of people like Holshouser and many could do – and did do — what she did.

Resilience’s potential as a concept for both left and right politics was examined at a recent workshop, Solidarity & Resilience, at King’s College, London. Resilience was criticized for being a concept specifically relevant to catastrophe, but it was also endorsed, in particular by agonists, who found that the concept gives people hope. A report on the workshop suggests that perhaps both solidarity and resilience are necessary now, even if they pull in somewhat opposed directions.15 I consider this essay a contribution to that debate. What follows is an argument in favor of resilience as a democratic civic virtue, along with an exploration of some of the conditions of democratic resilience, the sort that allows its bearers not just to bounce back but to bounce forward, not just to absorb the shock of losses or survive ruination but also to go on to improve existing worlds and inaugurate new ones. After “being strained to the extreme limit,” there is “work given back to the spring” the OED records. The aim here is to situate the “work” that is “given back” in a new political theoretical context and in so doing to underline the importance of resilient things in the development of resilient persons. In a democratic setting, the things that underwrite resilience with their own resilience will need to include, in particular, public things.16

The importance of resilience to democracy is assumed (if almost never thematized) in the democratic theory literature, but attention to the importance of things or objects to democratic life is less central. Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter has done a great deal to correct for this neglect but those who thematize resilience do not directly connect the resilience of persons with the resilience of things. Irena Rosenthal, for example, has argued quite recently for the importance of resilience to democratic life and even draws on Winnicott to make the case, but she focuses in different aspects of Winnicott than I do here, in particular on those aspects of his thinking that may be summed up as agonistic. The focus of her useful essay is on play and three capacities necessary for the cultivation of resilience (mourning, dissidence, and innovation), not on the role of resilient objects in generating resilient subjects.17 As she, too, notes, resilience is important for democratic theory because democratic forms of life, at their best, generate clash and constitute some parties as winners or losers, while inviting all of us to try again, even wishing us better luck the next time we try to have things go our way, whether electorally, or by way of social mobilization, cultural intervention, artistic innovation, or popular protest. This is called “power-sharing” or even “taking turns,” by writers such as Lani Guinier and Danielle Allen. Liberal theorists, deliberative democrats, and others explore the rules for such sharing, and the mechanisms whereby best to institutionalize it (divided government, multiparty systems, certain electoral practices, campaign funding rules and so on). But the agonistic political theorists who focus on ethos spend more time talking about the traits that may add up to resilience, than do the more law-, deliberation-, and institution-centered theorists. Agonists and their fellow travelers talk about the arts of the self, the cultivation of magnanimity, or an ethos of generosity (William Connolly, Stephen White). These postulate resilience as a political virtue, even if these terms (resilience and virtue) are not normally in their vocabularies. These theorists of ethics and ethos are in the company of other political theorists who have attended to resilience by other names. When Machiavelli, for example, talks about virtu, he is admiring the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances, and the determination to try again after failure.18

The idea of turning to resilience finds greater and more detailed support from Hannah Arendt and D.W. Winnicott, who never mention the term and who seem at first to have very little in common. Arendt hated psychoanalysis and Winnicott never attended to political theory (although Winnicott does have a short essay on democracy, introduced by Martha Nussbaum). But these two mid-century thinkers share a hard-earned, war-tossed appreciation of resilience and, of particular importance here, of the importance of stable worldly things to the capacity of humans to be resilient. In Winnicott, these things are transitional objects (the blanket, the teddy bear). In Arendt, they are the durable things that homo faber produces by way of work or fabrication. Some are private (tables, chairs, shoes) and some are public (memorials, art, statuary). Both sorts of object lend their permanence to the human world.

11. Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, (New York: Viking, 2009), 16-17.

12. Elsewhere I have written about Elaine Scarry’s effort, in Thinking in an Emergency (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2011), to enlist crisis for democratic purposes (see Bonnie Honig, “Three Models of Emergency Politics,” boundary 2 41:2 (2014), 45-70.) Her approach is different from Solnit’s, eschewing celebration of individual resilient resourcefulness for a focus on advance training, planning, and preparation for emergency out of which, Scarry says, the most useful sorts of support emerge.

13. Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, 21.

14. Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, 22.

15. The Disorder of Things Forum:

16. My focus here is on resilience as a property of persons and things in connection with each other and on the promise and limits of resilience as a concept for political theory. Therefore I do not say anything about public or shared things here. For that aspect of the argument, see my “The Politics of Public Things: Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, and the Democratic Need,” Political Research Quarterly (forthcoming).

17. Irena Rosenthal, “Aggression and Play in the Face of Adversity: A Psychoanalytic Reading of Democratic Resilience” Political Theory, 42:4 (2014), 1-26.

18. Machiavelli, The Prince. Thanks to George Shulman on this point.

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