On Resilience & ‘Self-Care As Warfare’

I really, really loved Sara Ahmed’s “Self-Care as Warfare.” My responses to it are really oriented by my own perspective as a white woman, as someone who is praised, rewarded, and obligated for resiliently surviving amid all the patriarchal damage that our post-feminist society wants to put out of sight and out of mind. I think it’s extremely important that state/corporate white feminism not appropriate this black feminist practice, so I want to highlight the distinctions between guerilla self-care and self-care as surplus-value producing work.

Not all care labor on the self is the same; as Ahmed puts it, “neoliberalism sweeps up too much when all forms of self-care become symptoms of neo-liberalism.” Both the “situation” (in the Beauvoirian sense of concrete location in materialized power relations) of the caring self and the method of care distinguish guerilla self-care (the focus of Ahmed’s post) from the self-work that produces surplus value for MRWaSP capitalism.

I’ve been using the concept of resilience as a way to understand one of these latter methods. (I think self-care is legible as resilience only when subjects occupy specific situations.) What do I mean by ‘resilience’? Well, some women are tasked with the imperative “you must be a survivor.” We’re supposed to Lean In, or show “grit” by learning to code, to rock, to run, or whatever. By overcoming our personal gendered damage, we both (a) show that society has overcome patriarchy, and (b) take out the trash, those individuals/groups who aren’t flexible, adaptable, indeed, resilient enough to keep up with the post-feminist times. Resilience is a means of producing (a) and (b)–it’s a way of organizing society to funnel the profits from this surplus value to privileged people and institutions. This is why resilience is not about personal healing: resilient self-care is just another, upgraded way of instrumentalizing the same people.

Resilience is not actually about your survival; it’s about the survival and health of hegemonic institutions like MRWaSP. It’s a strategy MRWaSP uses to wage its war. Contemporary white supremacist patriarchy “includes” some formerly excluded populations, but they’re included as always in need of remediation, as eternally working on and improving themselves (we’re not “in” yet, just constantly leaning that way). (Just to be clear: individuals can be seen as successfully and finally remediated, but the group as a whole still isn’t completely finished.) This is really convenient for capitalism too, because people’s endless laboring on themselves opens up the personal “disciplines” (what were formerly preconditions for capitalist production, what standardized workers and made them docile cogs in the machine) as sources of surplus value production.

The labor of resilience only seems like self-care because society is structured so that it functions optimally when you (or people like you) succeed. So resilience isn’t about cultivating what you need, it’s about adapting to dominant notions of success. What they say is ‘healthy’ might not actually be healthy, for example. This is self work, but not necessarily self “care.” This sort of work looks and feels like care because its rewards are generally affective, physiological, and personal. It is a kind of “care” labor on the self, but it is not actually “caring” in the sense of 70s feminist care ethics, i.e., of cultivating relationships that support one another. In fact, I think cultivating relationships that support one another–that is, re-organizing society on whatever scale you can to make it more survivable–is one of the best ways to think about refusing the work of resilience. It’s quite similar to what Ahmed describes as “redirecting care away from its proper objects.”

Re-organizing relationships of support and dependence is one thing that happens when workers go on strike. In a well-organized strike, supporters and participants help one another do things that would normally happen as a business transaction, like the provision of food and services. So maybe those of us tasked with the work of resilience should imagine our resistance not as warfare, but as a strike. There’s a difference between surviving a system predicated on your death, and bending the circuits of systems designed to support (a very narrowly drawn model of) your life. In the former case, your survival disrupts systems predicated on your death; in the latter case, refusing to work/generate surplus value diminishes the vitality of the systems that profit from your work.

I think there are some other important differences between resilience and guerilla self-care, differences that make it pretty clear that “an individual woman who is trying to survive an experience of rape by focusing on her own wellbeing and safety” is not “participating in the same politics as a woman who is concerned with getting up ‘the ladder’” (Ahmed). First, resilience is a specific method for producing human capital, that is, for getting a return on the investments you make in your self-improvement. And to get these returns, your recovery must be spectacular–that is, made into a spectacle consumable (and shareable) by others. Resilience discourse makes a spectacle of the performance of survival. Self-care isn’t resilient self-work unless it’s rendered into human capital, i.e., what gets you “up the ladder.” Second, self-care is an ongoing process. Dealing with trauma can be a lifelong project. Resilience, on the other hand, treats therapeutic overcoming as a resolved accomplishment: I was once damaged, but now I am better. Resilience says “Look, I Overcame” (spectacle + past tense).

Ultimately what I’m doing here is drawing a brighter, bolder line between guerilla self-care and the kinds of self-care that are really neoliberal/MRWaSP.