Commissioned as part of Let's Get Together and Call Ourselves an Institute

Reslience, or…

Marina Vishmidt

Resilience, or . . . Sustainability

A sustainable ecology of managerial jargon needs new inputs every so often in order to continue to flourish. ‘Resilience’ has lately been called to this bench, bearing, as it does, in its semantic field the timely acknowledgement that a sustainable entity must be not only be strong and subtle, but also be capable of handling shocks, traumas and scandals and, most importantly, bouncing back from them as good as if they never happened. If they had to happen, then chalk it up to experience. It must be able to bounce back and keep going without betraying the promises of improvement which keep a presence, however nebulous, in each and all applications of managerial jargon.

What is a sustainable thing, and further, a resilient thing? It is a thing in which everyone agrees themselves to be invested, a thing whose survival is an unequivocal good for everyone involved since it entails their own survival. This fully organicist conception is managerial to the core since its telos is the identification with company goals. When we speak of a resilient planet or a resilient community, we are engaging in a team-building exercise. But of course, it wouldn’t be sustainable for all to have prizes. A resilient entity knows how to bear under deprivation and disappointment, knowing that someday that that funding, that species, that clean water will come back, somehow.

Resilience describes the logic of capital as the meaning of life. For resilience, there is nothing that cannot be absorbed and valorised. Every assault can be turned into an asset. Though for humans the outcome of a nonstop cultivation of resilience can be melancholy (Robin James). Out of interest, why do we start seeing the widely embraced term ‘sustainability’ replaced with ‘resilience’ in policy documents these days? Could it be that, in a development from Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s writing on the spirit of policy some years ago, policy is no longer trying to fix you or improve you, but to commend you for surviving when the conditions to enable you to do that have been removed and are not coming back? Out of interest, ‘resilience’ appears twice in the press release for Creative Scotland’s latest announcement of decisions re-structuring their portfolio of RFOs (Regularly Funded Organisations). In the first context, fostering resilience is the task of the organisations that CS has decided to support; here it’s about passing down the resilience buck while affirming the resilience imperative. The second occurrence of resilience comes in a bullet point which recapitulates the first – ‘development organisations’, or parents, will be funded so they are in a position to strengthen the resilience of their suddenly penniless and excitingly entrepreneurial children.

Resilience wins over sustainability because it is more convincingly ecological in its flavour or ‘mindfeel’. We think of the human body recovering from cancer or the river recovering from pollution, not of a company gutted by venture capital or a public service gutted by cuts and consultants. The important thing to remember is that resilience sounds like a rebranding of sustainability but they are actually quite distinct; in all its vagueness, ‘sustainability’ seems to evoke some kind of practical approach to persistence in time which is more about calibrating resources than heedlessly squandering them. Resilience, on the other hand, could just be knowing how to persist through and despite squandering, like a drug addict with a lot of family money and the wits to always gain access to more. Resilience doesn’t want to talk about the underlying. Resilience is a term for approbation for anything that refuses to die no matter how much you try to kill it. (see also: Aggressive Support.)

Resilience, or . . . Regeneration

When charting the trajectory of how social and biophysical ideals are recast along lines exemplified by the life cycle of Japanese knotweed, the inquiry would really need to drill beneath the relatively recent lexical stratum of sustainability till it hits the flinty face of turn-of-the-21st century byword for all manner of hopeful social devastation in the UK: ‘regeneration’. An early foray into the pre-empting of social critique through recourse to the vocabulary of landscape gardening, this quintessentially New Labour term for mass displacement of poor and non-white people from urban areas whose land values were judged to be under-performing was a ‘new enclosure’ in ways that were obvious then and are yet more irrefragably obvious after 8 years of state-mandated social sadism. But stop to recall the fine subtitle from one of Adam Curtis’s series, ‘the use and abuse of vegetational concepts’. Just like its current synonym resilience, regeneration fit into this genealogy of distilling hateful social ideas into the lovely idiom of natural systems, equilibrium and growing things. It is to be regretted, of course, that you can’t expunge fascism by planting a herbaceous border, and ecological notions applied to social relations have only ever been a few weeds away from social Darwinism. Gardens are an emotive subject, however. Just think of biodynamic farming, for which an emotional commitment to living plants over dead ones is axiomatic. Who can be against regeneration? It is here that we need to draw attention to not  something as flagrant as ‘violent language’ but the violence of language where no affect and no referent can be discerned. Managerial jargon loves the vegetational idiom for this reason, as it projects a world of eager ecosystemic servants. But managerial jargon kills, not in sweet and fumbling ways like the law, which regularly yields nice news reports like the man who can’t get a driving license because he has been declared legally dead. This is a bureaucratic problem, and can be remedied by the usual means. It is sweet when the conflict between the forces of life and death can be adjudicated. But when the language of management hits an ecological stride, you know that a cull is either about to start or the bodies are buried somewhere under the air freshener.

Societies have been regenerated, which is to say, replenished root and branch, by the looting of other societies ever since colonialism effectuated the world market, a role from which it has yet to retire. Societies undergoing primitive accumulation on both ends of this relation have likewise proven themselves to be resilient when not everybody died.

Resilience, or . . . Well-Being

A lot of discussion on the concept of resilience seems to be preoccupied in the first place with describing the key features of ‘psychological resilience’ and what kinds of phenomena may test it, i.e. measure it or menace it. As the history of the molar registration of psychological distress in the 20th century as a factor in marketing and governance might go to show, with its emblematic instances of psychoanalysis, ego psychology and cognitive behavioural therapy, the location and inflation of the psychic has long since proven its worth as a key tool of management. During the recent university pensions strikes (ongoing at time of writing) this emerged in a number of ways: heads of department offer anguished accounts of their emotional labour in the face of student suffering while feckless lecturers strike all around them; university management scolds student activists taking noisy disruptive action about how they may be ignoring their duty of care to fellow students and potential students whose Open Day experience might suddenly spiral into flashbacks to time spent in war zones. The militant practice of ‘safe spaces’ is weaponised and miniaturised to produce cubicles of submission, even as salaried bigots in the employ of these same universities use that apparatus to run eugenics conferences and host high-profile fascists in the interests of building students’ ‘resilience’ to ‘opposing views’.  Resilience pops up everywhere as to an amorphous ‘well-being’, responsibility for which is strictly individual and never structural – if cuts in funding and provision leave people desperate, that just means the people around them need to be careful about jarring their fragile resilience, rather than organizing with them to win some kind of set of liveable conditions. At the level of everyday social relations, there is virtually no more insidious implementation of the idiom of resilience than the ‘weaponization’ of discourses of care by management. Psychological or emotional resilience, as with economic and ecological resilience, translates as accepting, absorbing and metabolizing whatever it is simply because it is and there is nothing you can do about it. Evidence of failure to be psychically resilient, such as personal or collective antagonism, is to be monitored and repressed, but first it must be de-legitimated by the rote displacement of violence as a feature of structures to a failing of individuals. While this is an established technique, the collapse in any ideological horizons besides the one of survival in the current historical moment means that management can do no better than adopt ‘care’ as the fulcrum of legitimacy. And, given its centrality to the narratives of transformative politics in the current era, younger activists, like the aforesaid students, may have trouble distinguishing the discourse of managerial of care from their own sensitivities and go on to internalize it, having no ideological or practical immunity in place yet to defend from these ‘toxic’ (another great piece of well-being jargon) delivery systems. Resilient well-being may seem to be progressive, opposed to burnout and self-exploitation as the main dispositions of activist milieus.  It is benign, it is commonsensical, governance is always going to appropriate radical ideas, etc. However, as with resilience more generally, any category that seems unimpeachable in principle was never really your friend.

Resilience, or . . . Autonomy

Which brings us to the persistently appealing notion of building resilience in and of self-governing communities at some distance to the state. The internal structures that allow self-determination to be materially possible. Again, who can argue with the necessity of this kind of praxis, as a baseline of any critical or constitutive political project? Of all the notions that cluster around the positivity of resilience, this one might be the hardest to shake, given it represents a self-conscious radicalization of sustainability until it turns into a way of talking about the viability of counterpower and self-governance: auto + nomos (subject to one’s own law). And yet there’s more to it than that, especially if we understand words to have histories and networks of significance that in turn augment or etiolate their utility in different contexts. Words that are smuggled in from ecological vocabularies and are themselves used to smuggle these wherever they may be going are especially prone to overdeterminations of this type. And a focus on resilience may prioritise institutional survival over the politics of its agendas and conditions every time, as it does for individuals and ecosystems. Resilience echoes through the winsome coinage in Negri and Hardt’s new book, the ‘entrepreneurial multitude’. Find ingenious ways to keep going – yes, when resilience becomes your whole objective, and why does it, well, because resilience is demanded of any entity that finds themselves sin a hostile environment. It may be practiced, or it may be enjoined as a goal, without for that acquiring its own raison d’etre.  Optimisjng resilience individually does nothing to change this environment and just raises the odds against everyone else. In the name of god, stop it. If any politics with traction and mobilizing capacity are not available, at least effectuate this disenchantment with resilience through pity politics, i.e. ‘not everyone can afford to be resilient’. And this, for once, is true. Frangibility, not resilience, then? Resilience is what happens when illness is used a technology of control, which has everything to do with immobilizing those who would use illness as a weapon.