Resilience: Bonnie Honig

Thinking of resilience as not just a virtue or character trait — but also as a property of things — is important because it stops theorists of resilience from adding to the already abundant pressures on individual subjects to just be everything we need them to be, all on their own. Indeed, one of my aims here has been to make clear how resilience is situated as a trait or virtue in a world of resilient things. This is one of the key reasons to turn to both Winnicott and Arendt: because both establish a connection between the subject’s resilience and the resilience of things. As the OED reminds us, the term “resilience” is originally a term for a trait of things, not persons. The term resilience shifts in language from an attribute of things to an attribute of persons in a way that parallels the psychic, metonymic transference that, in Winnicott’s work, and in Arendt’s, enables the magical passage of resilience from things to persons.

Perhaps, this dependence of individual and collective resilience on resilient things is one more reason we hear so much about resilience these days. Because the fragility of things, to borrow the title of William Connolly’s recent, important book, forces us to look inward for the resilience we do not experience elsewhere, where all that is solid melts into air, or worse. But these two, subjects and objects, presuppose and require each other. We must experience the resilience of the world in the face of our emotional reality testing, in order to ourselves acquire that trait of resilience. In world destruction, our omnipotent rage, or plunder, or exploitation, exceeds the capacity of the world to bounce back. It therefore provides us with a different sort of reality testing, in which we get the reality (of the catastrophe) and no testing. Resilience cannot be an individual virtue without also being a worldly trait.

If the increased precarity of once-resilient things has produced a doubled emphasis on resilience as a personal trait, it is a demand that we reproduce the trait in the absence of the things that were once its necessary and enabling conditions. This demand can be seen as a problematic sloughing-off of systemic responsibilities that intensifies disciplinary pressures on already ethically overburdened subjects. And/or it can be seen as a weak messianic invitation to bounce forward into a future that is less destructive and more supportive of the resilience postulated, but not always also nourished by democratic politics and contemporary forms of life. When we experience “being strained to the extreme limit,” we also need to conjure the image of “the work given back by the spring.” From Hannah Arendt we know that such conjuring is collective work. From Winnicott we know that it presupposes and requires the holding environments we seek to build together. Fortunately, circularity and paradox are welcomed and not avoided by these two thinkers of resilience.

There are risks to taking on the term “resilience.” Resilience could just absorb us into the very thing we, as democratic theorists, seek to resist and alter. But if we cede resilience to the other side, as it were, we are left with precarity. We could resort to other terms like courage, anger, principle, character. But these do not pitch us on the line between persons and things in the way that resilience does when theorized through the work of Winnicott and Arendt. Thus, resilience has something unique to offer, as I have tried to show here. And there is reason, in any case, to occupy resilience, to take it from the neoliberals, and to show its dependence on the material, collective conditions that neoliberalism works to undo. To talk about resilience is to talk about holding environments and to talk about holding environments in a democratic context is to talk, on a political register, about things, and especially about public things, the kinds of things that transition us not just into psychic maturity (Winnicott’s teddy bears and Arendt’s shoes) but into democratic collectivities. In his day, public things were what Winnicott would later in his career talk about under the name of culture, what Arendt talked about as art: poetry, stories, statuary and more. In our day, to talk about the work of public things is to talk about things like national public parks and prisons, sewage systems and transportation infrastructures, communications airwaves and climate health. These are the public things of our day. Increasingly, they lack resilience and they test ours.


Bonnie Honig is Nancy Duke Lewis Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Political Science at Brown University, and Affiliated Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation, Chicago.


Published on February 14, 2013

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