A Few More Notes on Resilience

Last night in my graduate feminist theory seminar we talked about resilience discourse. I’ve written about resilience before on this blog, and the concept is a key theme in my forthcoming book with Zer0 Books. Here I want to focus on the question of critical alternatives to resilience: if resilience is and has long been a way that marginalized and oppressed people respond to, survive, and thrive in the midst of oppression, now that resilience has been co-opted so that it’s a normalizing rather than a revolutionary/critical/counter-hegemonic practice, how does one respond to, survive, and thrive without being or practicing “resilience”?

In class we talked about the specificity of resilience as a concept (we’re philosophers, we like to narrowly define our terms!). Resilience isn’t just “recovery” or “bouncing back” in general. It’s a technical term for a specific discourse or ideology. Here are some of its features:

  1. “Resilience” means recovery that is profitable for hegemonic institutions, like capitalism and white supremacy. Individuals and groups can recover, survive, cope, and flourish in ways that don’t (adequately) support hegemony–but those don’t count as “resilience.” Resilience is a specific form of subjectification that normalizes individuals and groups so that they efficiently perform the cultural, affective, and social labor required to maintain and reproduce a specific configuration of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. More simply, resilience is the practice that makes you a cog in the machine of social reproduction.
  2. It is totally possible to deal with damage and trauma in other ways. People do that all the time. But these ways don’t count as “resilience” because they’re not generating surplus value for the means of social reproduction. That is to say, these alternative methods of “dealing” don’t perform the cultural, ideological, and material/economic labor that produces the surplus value hegemony needs for its continued growth and health.
    1. For example: In a nominally post-feminist society, patriarchy demands that women demonstrate their agency, their strength, their overcoming of traditional patriarchy. We demand women “love” their bodies rather than hate it; women who have different relations and attitudes toward their bodies (e.g., Muslim women who veil or otherwise practice modesty) are both unintelligible as (real) women, and widely viewed as pathological. In overtly and vocally “loving” their bodies, women demonstrate that “negative female body image” is no longer a problem our society has to solve; they’ve solved it for us. Individuals are responsible for overcoming institutional problems.
  3. Resilience is labor–it is part of the means of capitalist and white supremacist/patriarchal production. Resilience is a form of creative destruction; that is to say, it is a variation of broader neoliberal strategies and ideologies. It proceeds as follows: (1) incite, manufacture, identify damage and trauma as such; (2) visibly and spectacularly overcome this damage by laboring on yourself so that (3) others’ perceptions of your overcoming generates a “moral” profit–your labor generates virtue (in the strict philosophical sense), and that virtue is your payoff. A resilient system or person is “virtuous”.
  4. But what does that mean, that a resilient system or person is virtuous? It means that they maintain a consistent overall state of virtue–by practicing resilience as a habit, they maintain a virtuous character. This shows us that resilience is a method for maintaining overall balance over, above, and amid micro-level variability. No matter what shit happens, we can make diamonds out of those turds and maintain if not grow our overall profits/wealth/health.
  5. Resilience is a practice that maintains overall stability. It is, as Jason Rines pointed out in class, a method for preserving a status quo. Resilience is in this way quite different from something like a dynamic system, in which all elements change and adapt. In dynamic systems, the macro- and micro- levels both change in mutually-responsive interactions. In resilience discourse, the micro-level phenomena change for the purpose of stabilizing an unchanging macro-level. (I’ve used the metaphor of an audio equalizer to describe this process.)
  6. Humans are pretty good at adapting (i.e., in participating in dynamic systems). Well, “life” in general is pretty good at adapting. (This is another point Jason made). So perhaps we don’t need to find alternatives to resilience so much as keep doing what we’ve always been doing: adapting. At some point, if we refuse to do the social, ideological, and economic labor to which resilience interpellates us, the overall balance of profits and losses (i.e., profits to hegemony, losses to the most precarious) will be upset, maybe?
    1. This might look something like: take care of yourself, but not for the purposes of being a “good,” “virtuous,” or “healthy” person. It might mean being boring, average, and mediocre.