How not to talk about resilience?

Radical Philosophy has recently been the venue for a short exchange of views on the topic of resilience. Let’s see what was said.

Mark Neocleous led off with a piece on “resisting resilience.” In his view, “resilience is by definition against resistance. Resilience wants acquiescence.” He is, therefore, against resilience. In response, David Chandler, who is editor of a new journal called Resilience argues that critique is not best served by equating resilience to neoliberalism. And in response to that, Neocleous says that Chandler didn’t engage with his critique and only wants to defend his new journal and that resilience blunts socialist and feminist thought (p. 59).

Not much of this helps us get anywhere. If the agenda is to make something useful from resilience (eg., by critiquing its support for the production of neoliberalism) then we need to use the concept to get at the primary question of ensuring human well-being. What if resilience, or our ability to withstand shocks and stresses in the long-run, could be used to say that shocks and stresses from financial crises of capital accumulation need to be eliminated? Or that sustainable human well-being requires a military a third of its current size?

In other words why don’t we start with human well-being (democratic, just, equal society, etc.) and identify in a consensual manner how to sustain that, with built-in resistance to attempts to take it away (ie., resilience)?

12 responses to “How not to talk about resilience?

  1. I was going to post something about this, too, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what unsettled me about the debate. I think you nail it. There’s also the problem of a priori assuming we all know what “resilience” is all about, as a discourse, and that it is *clearly* reactionary. Case closed. In many cases, this could very well be true. But I can also imagine a situation in which the prevalence of this discourse might also open up new political possibilities and spaces (literally/figuratively). Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it’s just code for social/state abandonment, letting die, etc. In short, seems like something worthy of more research and debate. I’m ambivalent on the issue of whether there needs to be a journal on it.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Teo. I think you’re right that it might open up new political possibilities. That’s exactly what I was trying to get at, and the source of my dissatisfaction with Neocleous in particular, since he seems to close that off.

  3. I think an important thing to keep in mind is the roots of resilience theory in ecology and as a descriptor for a complex system. Perhaps the value of the source has been diminished by a shadow of its meaning in a social theory discourse. If so, the debate in social theory needs to circle back to a re-examination of what is (or could be) meant by the term. In anthropology, system (cultural) responses to change tend to interpreted two ways: either system collapse or assimilation. Resilience of a cultural system signals internal strength and cohesion. We have a tremendous number of examples of positive resilience within our own culture. For instance, oppressed or discriminated groups that have gained civil rights have withstood external pressure, kept internal cultural coherency, and managed to remain intact throughout the process of rising above negative social conditions–e.g., 19th Irish, American blacks. Perhaps within the confines of social theory, resilience needs to be understood as an internal mechanism for maintaining group cohesion–from an anthropological perspective, internal coherency is the starting point for a group to overcome external shocks and stresses.

  4. Peter Gratton

    Reblogged this on PHILOSOPHY IN A TIME OF ERROR and commented:
    a good start here…

  5. The journal Limn on its issue on Systemic Risk had a couple articles on resilience. On the “prehistory” and the other one was by a Los Alamos Lab sociologist in relation to “homeland security”

  6. Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    A good discussion beginning at Jeremy Crampton’s Open Geography blog on resilience – sparked by papers in Radical Philosophy.

  7. Have to agree with both you and the commenters here. I’ve noticed there seems to be an extremely underwhelming amount of critical attention given to what ‘resilience’ is supposed to mean and where it’s come from. Though I, like many others I think, naturally balk when I see its deployment in social science contexts, even more so when in the hands of politicians, dismissing it as reactionary. On closer inspection it often is of course.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen it used, for instance, in gentrification studies, where examples of ‘community resilience’ are given, which allow residents to stay put and continue their resistance against gentrification and displacement.

    Best thing I’ve come across by far addressing the issue directly is this series of pieces in the (open access) ‘Interface’ section of Planning Theory & Practice:

  8. One of my concerns about ‘resilience’ is also the continued devolution of responsibility to the individual, reminiscent of the ‘third way’ neoliberal politics of welfare reform in the 1990s. If we think about this as an issue of scale, the ‘resilience’ trope becomes another way to mask large-scale problems (climate change, male violence, widening gap between rich & poor) and protect the political/economic interests that benefit from these problems by laying responsibility at the feet of those who are most severely impacted.

  9. I haven’t yet read the two articles linked in this post.

    I’d like to constructively disagree with Meghan Cope and Mark Neocleous.

    Of course I abhor the idea that “resilience” should used to excuse the devolution of responsibility/blame to the individual for problems that are not of their making. We must also remember that resilience is not a property of “individuals” but of systems. Yet the very portrayal of the oppressed individual as weak, vulnerable and as a victim is part of the problem. The discourse on resilience challenges this portrayal. When the resilience of families, communities and institutions is recognised and celebrated, the potential for their emancipation is increased.

    I am also sceptical that the Right should be seen as conservative rather than revolutionary, and the Left should be equating resilience with acquiescence. What we see in contemporary rightwing politics is not so much neo-conservatism but rather a zealous, revolutionary destruction or privatisation of the common wealth in favour of the market and the elite. As a Green more than a Red (!) I actually think the future for resistance to neoliberalism (and to respond to climate change etc) depends on forms of resilience that rebuild and conserve the common wealth, such as through ecologically sustainable community life and food production, sidestepping the very lifeblood of capitalism: that is, our dependence on it.

  10. I agree with the comments here: resilience is mainly discourse, a “governmentality” tool for power. In creating a realm of expectations desirable by all, resilience allows for an imposition of choices and behaviors (and a responsibility model based on individual failures). In promoting a “bouncing back”, leaders favor a social and political status quo; in presenting the crisis as an “opportunity to improve things”, they make use of a powerful legitimating instrument for their choices and actions. However, resilience might be used to think and back other political choices than its recent corporate and neo-liberal uses. But then it is necessary that we rid ourselves of the preconceptions that we have about resilience that make it a desirable absolute horizon, to the extend of suppressing any debate. See

  11. Pingback: Security and resilience | Open Geography

  12. Pingback: What is resilience? | Open Geography

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