What is resilience?

Interesting alternatives if not contradictions in understanding “resilience” in recent publications.

Stephanie Wakefield & Bruce Braun understand resilience as a Foucauldian dispositif (apparatus):

we understand resilience as a mode of governing the ‘ecological’ city.

In Resilient Life, a new book by Brad Evans and Julian Reid, they also think of it as a mode of governing:

‘resilience’ … is becoming a key term of art for governing planetary life in the 21st Century…

But the book is then blurbed as follows:

Resilience, they argue, is a neo-liberal deceit that works by disempowering endangered populations of autonomous agency.

My interest here is not so much whether this is an accurate summation of their book (which is not yet out) but that the discourse of resilience is framed as disempowering (the word used is “nihilistic”).

I wrote about this last year here, in the context of Neocleous’ piece in Radical Philosophy who argued that we need to “resist resilience”:

In [Neocleous’] view, “resilience is by definition against resistance. Resilience wants acquiescence.”

It is therefore politically disempowering (nihilistic?) and should in turn be resisted. (This task is made more urgent for Neocleous by his claim that resilience is gaining traction as a replacement for “sustainability”.)

Identifying resilience with dispositif still leaves open the question of how to interpret it and how to position critique with regard to its effects. Neocleous equates resilience with “acquiescence,” the Evans and Reid book is promoted with the term “nihilistic.”

But as Kara Hoover reminds us:

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….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.

Is it too simple then to say Neocleous = “acquiescence”, Evans/Reid blurb = “nihilism,” both = disempowerment; ecology and anthropology = “coherence,” both = rallying point for political activism? If this is correct, then Neocleous and Evans & Reid are disempowering themselves.

For Wakefield and Braun the object is not to turn away from or reject resilience:

the goal in these papers is also to begin to imagine how such a dispositif might be inhabited, occupied, appropriated, or experimented with as part of a new politics of and for the Anthropocene.


There is no secret to be revealed, no foundation or ground that can be uncovered and returned to. Instead, we argue that the task of thought is to locate ourselves within this world, mapping it so as to get to know it, to construct other lines that, in their
elaboration and connections, take the map with them. Like hackers, we must get to know the
network from within and try to locate its exploits.

This gap or contradiction, if I’ve identified it reasonably, might remind us of a similar issue regarding Foucault’s notions of power. That is, that when Foucault says that there is no outside of power, for many writers this became a reason to interpret power as a negative. But Foucault is clear that power is productive; it produces subjects. So how should we problematize (to use a word Foucault placed into circulation with some hesitation) resilience, specifically resilience as dispositif?

Here’s Wakefield and Braun on this question:

We argue that a critical mistake is made whenever we imagine a dispositif as a coherent and unified totality. Or, when we evaluate a dispositif in moral terms as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Fair warning then, and doubly so.

10 responses to “What is resilience?

  1. Reblogged this on My Desiring-Machines and commented:
    bookmark. i’m currently looking for ways to think about the state-environment relationship, especially w/r/t washington state’s requirement for comprehensive planning. and although i find foucualt very useful, i’ve also been reading poulantzas in an effort to think about a “minor marxist” (deleuzoguattarian) version of state theory and urbanization.

  2. Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    Jeremy Crampton reflects on contemporary debates around resilience.

  3. Pingback: What is resilience? | PHILOSOPHY IN A TIME OF ERROR

  4. Interesting reflections, thanks. Well, Tom Slater’s recent contribution to Open Democracy may help complementing the debate,

  5. Reblogged this on rhulgeopolitics and commented:
    This is very useful. For other kinds of commentaries on different kinds of resilience politics see Kevin Grove’s excellent video summary at the Antipode site: http://antipodefoundation.org/2014/01/20/video-abstract-adaptation-machines/

  6. Unfortunately, the argument is deeply colored by the definitions of resilience, which vary from field to field. In psychology, resilience is a sign of strength. In my work with resilience, I start with the inevitability of change. When change is abrupt or intense enough, this leads to crisis. Remembering that the Chinese ideogram for crisis is a combination of those for danger and opportunity, I define resilience as using one’s strength to seize the opportunities in change. This is certainly consistent with many of the other concepts and definitions that have been put forward, but emphasizes what to me is so important – resilience and resilience thinking should be empowering. In this sens, resilient thinking forces us to look at where today’s box might be going to be tomorrow and to decide how best – for us – to move in light of that motion.

    It is true that several variants of “Resilience” are inherently based on despair (the Transition Movement being a prime example). But there is no reason they have to be. The Asset-Based Community Development approach, for example, championed by John McKnight is definitely grounded in strength and empowerment. And no matter what your definition, human, community and societal resilience are manifestations of strength and most definitely not simply a passive acceptance of fate.

  7. Pingback: Resilience NEWS | resilience reporter

  8. I found your easter egg while reading your book. I’m doing a c-thesis on a critical approach to virtual spaces. Haven’t yet defined my question so I’m absorbing everything from cartography to space-theory within virtual and hybrid environments. It’s a really cool book and has given me an overview on the bascics of contemporary mapping. Cheers Jeremy!

    • Benjamin, Congrats! I think you’re only about the third or fourth person to discover & write in! Thanks for the nice comments.

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