Resilience: Bonnie Honig

Such circularity – or something like it – features in Winnicott’s account as well. For Winnicott, though, the capacity of objects to constitute a stable world derives not solely from their thingness nor only from their inherent properties, nor even from our fabrication of them, as Arendt’s phenomenology suggests. The stability of transitional objects derives from their enchanted condensation of, and entry into, complicated sets of affective relations underwritten by affective, relational environments and, ultimately also by fantasy.29 Like so much else in Winnicott, this too, as Barbara Johnson rightly notes, situates us in some connection with an in-between and a paradox, the relationship between person and thing, and the undecidability (or circularity) of the thing as found and/or invented. “The baby creates the object, but the object was there waiting to be created and to become a cathected object,” Winnicott says.30 And he warns against intellectualizing or resolving the paradox: “it is possible to resolve the paradox, but the price of this is the loss of the value of the paradox itself.”31 The paradox depends for its life on parental reticence: “it is a matter of agreement between us and the baby that we will never ask the question: ‘Did you conceive of this or was it presented to you from without?’.”32 A certain phenomenological agnosticism is a postulate of Winnicott’s object-relations theory. It is better not to know and better not to need to know.

Fantasy, affect, enchantment, are less of a theme in Arendt than in Winnicott (which will surprise no one who knows her work), but they do come up at one point in The Human Condition, precisely in relation to things and the vulnerability of some people in some political circumstances to fetishize them:

Since the decay of their once great and glorious public realm, the French have become masters in the art of being happy among ‘small things’, within the space of their own four walls, between chest and bed, table and chair, dog and cat and flowerpot, extending to these things a care and tenderness which, in a world where rapid industrialization constantly kills off the things of yesterday to produce today’s objects, may even appear to be the world’s last purely humane corner. This enlargement of the private, the enchantment, as it were, of a whole people, does not make it public . . . for while the public realm may be great, it cannot be charming precisely because it is unable to harbor the irrelevant.33

The issue here is not just the outsized affection — “care and tenderness” — lavished on things, but also an investment in things whose diminutive size represents, for Arendt, the incapacity of those tiny things to repay affective investments that are more symptom than charm. The objects here are not up to the task of contributing – in to the subject with their own powers. They cannot repay the phantasmatic investment in them. As this one remark suggests, Arendt does see that fantasy has a role to play in making something of objects, but she insists also that our choice of what objects we make something of says something about us.34 Winnicott is less quick to go this route of judging the chosen/found object as symptom, but then his project is psychological, not political.

Without exactly posing the parental question prohibited by Winnicott (did you invent it, or was it given to you?), Arendt with her phenomenology orients us toward the fundamentally factical thingness of things, whether made or found. But this factical thingness, she worried in the 20th century, is under threat. We might say that her concern is that, increasingly, thingness needs to be made and defended and is less likely to be found, less easily assumed as a phenomenological condition. Tocqueville, whom Arendt admired, had remarked how quickly stable objects become fragile ruins in the New World of the 1830s. He seemed to blame it on democracy (as a social and not just a political regime), identifying democracy with a rapidity that is voracious: “What! Ruins so soon!” he exclaimed remarking the awful if also inspiring unrootedness of American life, where people plant trees but do not stay long enough to enjoy their fruit.35 Arendt, however, saw this restlessness or infidelity as a trait not of democracy but rather of capitalism, the economy of shiny and ruined things, and its culture of perpetual consumption. In Arendt’s words, “[i]n a world where rapid industrialization constantly kills off the things of yesterday to produce today’s objects,”36 it is hard for objects to fulfill their world-constituting role.37 She had read Marx in preparation for writing The Human Condition. And she was alert to the ways in which, under capitalism, things may betray rather than sustain the human need for object permanence.

In conclusion, a 2013 post on The Disorder of Things asks: “what if precarity was the wrong rallying point to focus on? What if instead of describing a shared experience, all that the concept did was point to the absence of a common ground? Is there any way we could turn precarity around from a desire?” And then: “could we perhaps push the contradictions of the present into a future where flexibility and contingency are an expression of security rather than a form of punishment?”38 My suggestion here has been that the term for such flexibility and contingency is “resilience” and that, although this term has been used of late to discipline some individuals and communities into conformity with the demands of neoliberalism’s current re-distribution of powers, that same trait, “resilience,” may point in a different direction.

Resilience, as I have explored it here, provides both the means and the grounds by way of which to resist its invocation as an individual trait or virtue and to call instead for a commitment to nurture and maintain a resilient world of resilient things, located in the in-between and on the paradox identified by Arendt and Winnicott. These may be stable, not permanent things — that is to say, they may be part of an ecologically sensitive world of things – but they may still teach permanence. In any case, the hope is to inspire a new appreciation of the capacity, understood so well by Winnicott and Arendt from their very different perspectives, of persons and things to postulate and support each other in a bid for the sort of permanence that generates the nonconformities, authenticities, and autonomies to which Arendt and Winnicott were both devoted.

29. “In health,” however, the infant establishes an independent relationship with the transitional object and an in between space. Winnicott, that is to say, is not interested primarily in subjects (as in Freud) or in objects (as in Arendt), but in the spaces between them and the relations between them. To be fair, this interest in relations is, in a different way, also true of Arendt, who coins the term, the “in-between” and who is critical of what happens when the wrong sort of object relations (idolatrous) become habitual. Says Phillips: “Winnicott was consistently preoccupied . . . with the transitional rather than the conclusive in human experience” (Adam Philips, Winnicott (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 143).

30. D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, 89 quoted in Barbara Johnson, Persons and Things, 97.

31. D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, xi-xii quoted in Barbara Johnson, Persons and Things, 96.

32. D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, quoted in Barbara Johnson, Persons and Things, 97.

33. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 52. In Moby-Dick, Starbuck prefers the small objects, of trade and commerce, to the large glorious but also death-driven chase of the whale. Glory has its costs. In Radical Hope, Jonathan Lear analogizes the exhaustion of the native Crow way of life to what happens to game pieces when the game of chess stops being known and played. The pieces go on the shelf, perhaps as art. They may be bric a brac or fetish. But they are no longer what they were (48).

34. A lot of what I take to be Arendt’s work on resilience comes in her earlier work, especially in her essay “The Jew as Pariah,” which I discuss elsewhere and in which the role of bad fantasy in generating inauthenticity is pivotal. see The Jew as Pariah (New York: Random House, 1978).

35. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume I: Part 2, Chapter 9, 284.

36. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 52.

37. I see in the passage here quoted both derision for the retreat of Parisians into the charming word of tiny things and also some thoroughly ironic appreciation of the resilience of the human desire to invest in objects, even as they get smaller and smaller, and take the place of a lost public. Compare Arendt here with Deleuze, who comments in his reading of Suzanne and the Pacific in “Desert Islands” that she is “typically Parisian” when her first response to shipwreck is to unload things from the boat onto the island. Robinson Crusoe is wanting for similar reasons, Deleuze charges, as he turns in the essay to posit in the place of these 2 literary efforts a mythic alternative, not named, but clearly referenced: Noah’s ark – which carried not things but a future, via reproduction — a boatful of pairs for mating, and his own family. The Ark also ultimately landed, though it was not shipwrecked, and was poised to being anew. The island they land on is a mountaintop rendered island-like by providential flood, and is like neither of the two types — oceanic and continental – discussed by Deleuze in this essay. It is a third thing. See Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands: and Other Texts (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004).

38. Noting “as if alienation were a problem of psychology, not social organization.”

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