The critique of „Resilience“ as a predominately neoliberal concept that individualizes responsibility and depoliticizes the causes of crises of late-modern statehood is certainly en vogue in the more critical branches of the Humanities. However, in spite of a significant proliferation of these critiques the concept continues to spread almost unhalted. To understand this, I want to investigate the shortcomings – and even complacency – of modern critique with what it criticizes. By reading Isabelle Stengers, Tom Boland and Denise Ferreira da Silva, I want to propose a different approach towards resilience that is not only critical, but also affirms it as a critical tool to dismantle our toxic entanglements with the neoliberal state of the “world as we know it”, as Ferreira da Silva puts it. By learning from some fringe discourses within economic theory, I want to propose a methodology of examining the resilience of political problems with the aim of slowly decomposing them. By proposing an angle of a critical examination of the “resilience of Modernity” in order to overcome this world, I want to illustrate how resilience can be translated affirmatively as a critical tool to the Humanities.
The political landscape of the early 21st century can be tentatively described by two characteristics. The first one is an alarming rise of precarity all over the world, while the second one is an increasing awareness of the structural injustices deeply ingrained in our historically grown, modern societies. While the zones of comfort, refuge and replenishment get scarcer and narrower, the politicization of the inherent sexisms, racisms and ecological injustices of a globalized capitalism that dictates the livelihoods of almost every being on the planet becomes more and more “mainstream”, as can be exemplified by the #metoo, Black Lives Matter and Fridays for Future movements, that are only the most well-known examples of many similar activist and political movements.
In this paper, I seek to build a bridge between these two trends and their respective politicization via a critical re-affirmation of the concept of “Resilience”, a concept which has witnessed a significant hype in the last two decades. Originating from psychology and material studies, it is now widely applied in fields as diverse as economics, finances, management, personal training, city planning, health care and environmentalism – and seems to have become one of the “key concepts” of late neoliberal political agendas (Graefe 2019; Chandler and Reid 2016; Halpern 2017; Joseph 2013; Mavelli 2019). However, within the so called “Humanities” it has not been widely applied as a concept, but rather criticized and dismissed as an almost essentially neoliberal tool of contemporary precarization. In a time when neoliberal policies render the livelihoods of more and more earthly critters precarious, the ubiquitous embrace of “resilience” is identified by many working within the Humanities as one main obstacle in building more radical alliances of solidarity and a Utopian framework required to actively fight for a different system of value production and – eventually – alternative forms of inhabiting the planet.
However, while these critiques of Resilience (that I will quickly summarize in the second segment) abound, the concept of Resilience seems to be spreading unhalted into more and more domains of everyday life and governmental policy. In the third segment, I want to investigate how this ineffectiveness of critique might also be due to the mostly little reflected complacency of critical thinking with the majoritarian state of things. In re-reading what is sometimes called “post-critical” positions such as those of Isabelle Stengers, Tom Boland and Denise Ferreira da Silva, I want to carefully develop a more differentiated analysis of “Resilience”. Instead of “merely” criticizing and sometimes even rejecting it, as seems to be the common attitude in the more critical branches of the Humanities, I want to – in the fourth segment – argue for an expanded field of application of the concept of resilience. In its common use, Resilience is only applied to things we want to cherish, sustain and protect. For example: personal health, eco-systems, social security nets, psychological stability, democracy, etc.
This makes Resilience quite immune to critique, for who would want – whatever their entanglement with neoliberal capitalism is – any of those things to be less resilient? In the fifth segment, I want to show how resilience is a category that can be equally applied to many of the things deemed as problematic: be it (neo)liberal capitalism, structural injustices as sexism and racism, the legitimation of the border-regime and the surveillance state, our dependency on fossil fuels, the car industry or our ever-growing tendency of producing more carbon emissions: all these factors seem to be equally very resilient to change. We might want to fight them, get rid of them, but they re-appear in ever-new and yet all-the-same mutations that produce a feeling of being gridlocked into a system that is rushing into self-destruction. In the sixth and closing segment, I will argue for the use of Resilience as an effective critical and analytical tool within the broad field of the Humanities for the political task of decomposing of, what Denise Ferreira da Silva (2019) calls, “the world as we know it”.
2— “GET FIT OR DROP...
Resilience can be defined as “the ability of a system to absorb disturbances before unpredictably changing its structure from one equilibrium state to another, less desirable one.” (Hornborg 2011, 22) As such, it has to be pointed out that by its very nature it tends to rather be a conservative concept in the most direct and not yet politically connoted sense of the word conservation: it seeks to preserve a state of a thing or things rather than focusing on its transformation into another state. This is not, even for the most ardent progressive, inherently wrong as many things, starting from our own healthy corporeal and psychological configurations and the peaceful civility of social relations, to the stability of our environments and social institutions, need to be preserved, even if the aim is to transform other things. However, in the wonderfully simple terms of Dimitry Paranyushkin: “Why should resilience always be good? Sometimes it is better to fall apart, break down and configure yourself anew.”1 A too one-sided focus on resilience can lead to a state of being deadlocked into configurations / institutions / orders that might actually need to break down in order to allow for healthy renewal and revived flourishing under different conditions.
Under neoliberalism, however, “Resilience” is not merely used as a concept of conservation, but also one of transformation or adaptation. Under what is perceived as continually changing conditions, Resilience is used as a key to “maintain” things by transforming them in a way that they will not collapse. As Stefanie Graefe has pointed out lucidly in her 2019 book Resilienz im Kriesenkapitalismus [“Resilience in crisis capitalism”], the rise of “resilience” as a predominant concept of transformative “governmentality” (in Foucault’s sense) is deeply linked to the emergence of neoliberalism and its entanglement to a regime that sets multiple crises as the norm of late-modern statehood. Be it the well-fare state, the financial, educational or health-care systems, the medias or democracy – everything is considered to be (and also put, by more and more budget cuts, privatizations, etc.) under considerable stress resulting into a state of permanent crisis. Thus, resilience is akin to prevention but, as Graefe puts it, “unlike prevention, resilience only takes effect after the event.” (1612) In a world considered to only get worse, the concept of “Resilience” is predominantly used to confront this worsening development not by changing the origins of this downward-tendency, but by adapting to it in becoming more resilient. It therefore takes this condition of decadence for granted and individualizes responsibility. Under neoliberal conditions, it is the individual’s task to adapt to the worsening state of things by working themselves on becoming more resilient. The responsibility of corporations, states or other social institutions to protect individuals from crisis (or putting them there in the first place) is thereby kept in the background, giving way for neoliberal agendas that further weaken social ties and policies.
In his analysis of the “resilient subject”, Jan Slaby notes that “regardless of the rhetoric of empowerment and self-initiative” the neoliberal focus on resilience “amounts to a curtailment and depotentiation of the capable subject - to a halving of the capacity to act”, leading to a “profound depoliticization” (Slaby 2016, 2873). Inherent to this governmentality of Resilience is an image of the future as being worse as the present state of things. “Resilience [speaks] the language of insecurity as the natural order of things” (Evans & Reid 2014, xii) and therefore cannot be separated from “an imperative of habituation to a life that is constantly under danger.” (Slaby 2016, 2904)
In this predominant frame of mind in which precarity is naturalized as the universal state of things, any collective formation of a Utopian horizon that does actually envision building a better, less precarious environment appears hopelessly naive. Confronted with this pessimistic realism there is nothing else to do but adapt to the normalized catastrophe of the now. As such, the resilient subject is “not a political subject that can conceive of changing the world, its structure and conditions of possibility, with a view to securing itself from the world; but a subject which accepts the disastrousness of the world it lives in as a condition for partaking of that world” (Evans & Reid 2014, 79)
On a macro-political level, this essential “disastrousness of the world” makes room for a managerial thinking that seeks to capitalize from the very catastrophes capitalism produced in the first place. As Benedikte Zitoumi (2020) showed in her exemplary study of the port of Antwerp (the third largest industrial port of Europe), the plans to make the coast-line more resilient by transforming it into an environmental protection area are being supported by the port management and its stakeholders because they know that shipping wouldn’t much longer be feasible without this intervention. As Halpren (2017) notes, this application of the concept of Resilience is a key expression of a new form of disaster capitalism adapting itself to climate catastrophe by seeking to maintain the extractivist capitalist status-quo by all means and even capitalizing from the catastrophes it brought forth.
Today, I would argue, the critique of Resilience as a neoliberal key concept is well established within the Humanities and other discursive fields, and they range from fields as diverse as state security (Evans and Reid 2014), policy making (Joseph 2013; Mckeown, Hai Bui, and Glenn 2021), personal development (Chandler and Reid 2016), education, social work and health care (Graefe 2019) to urbanism (Filion 2013) and many more fields. In the following segment, I want to think about the discursive place of such a position of critique of resilience, its limits and how a different position and application of resilience is needed to effectively counter the problems we have just seen.
3—BEING COMPLACENT IN
WHAT WE CRITICIZE—THE
LIMITS OF A CRITIQUE OF
As we have seen, the concept of resilience in its contemporary, predominantly neoliberal usage is essentially build on an image of the future as worse as the present. The future world is seen in all its disastrousness and thus we – as individuals – need to adjust to this looming and growing precarity by becoming more resilient. However, in such a neoliberal approach to Resilience, the subject positions and institutional frame works that created such precarity in the first place are left out of the discussion.
As I have discussed in the last section, many critical voices within the Humanities have addressed various critiques of the implicit implications of such an imperative to become the “resilient subject”, as Jan Slaby has put it. However, it has to be humbly stated that this proliferation of critiques of resilience hasn’t actually borne any fruit in successfully fighting any more propagation of this kind of resilience in state policies. Much rather, it has become an accessory of the privileged few to know about this problem, while being deeply entangled with the institutions that brought it forth. This is what Peter Sloterdijk (Sloterdijk 2012 , 3) calls “enlightened false consciousness”, in which a deeply cynical consciousness can only regard as real as what is criticized and thereby confirms the reality of the object of critique by exactly criticizing it. Critique, in these contexts, is used as an adornment to appear plural and open-minded without any willingness to reflect or incorporate the content of the respective critiques. It is yet another means to keep business as usual going.
In this section, I want to address this problematic complacency of critique with what it criticizes by somewhat eclectically bringing together three different voices of a problematization of critique. This should help us to understand why a rising critical awareness of the precarity of things might not suffice to overcome it. This will help us to, in the next section, develop a more nuanced and somewhat affirmative stance towards the concept of Resilience” that – as I will propose – could become the pillar stone for a toolset to differently engage with this hugely problematic world by means of an effective re-appropriation of the term.
The eco-feminist philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers is – within her circle – well known for having developed a position that is not opposed, but somewhat distant to critique. In a pragmatic vein, she is opposed to the application of critique as a virtue in itself and tries to much rather examine what critique does – both to those uttering the critique, as well as to those being criticized. As such, she is opposed to “the identification of critique as a remedy” because as such it is transformed into “an end in itself that would singularize we inheritors of the Enlightenment, amongst all other peoples.” (Stengers 2015, 109) Stengers hints at the imperial and patriarchal notions of this approach to critique in further developing: “It is this transformation that generated the great epic genre in which Man becomes adult, takes his own destiny in hand and shakes off the yoke of illusory transcendences. The adventure of the Enlightenment then became a mission: at one and the same time a merciless combating of the monsters that incite us to regression, and a mandate to have to bring light to anywhere obscurity is said to reign.” (Ibid.)
We will return to explore this entanglement of critique with colonial and patriarchal practices a few pages further down when we discuss Denise Ferreira da Silva’s approach to critique. First, I want to offer a few lines on the affective quality and effects of critique. As Isabelle Stengers already hinted at in the last cited paragraph, this critical dynamic of setting oneself apart of the criticized leads to a lust of bringing forth opposition. In her words: “it is easy to ‘speak the truth’ against established sentiments, and then to be proud of the effects of hatred, resentment, and panicked rigidity one has aroused” (Stengers 2000, 14). Modern critics who regard critique as a remedy “celebrate”, according to Stengers, “as the progress of reason, the destruction of what people are attached to, without accepting that what they are attached to might be what causes people to think.” (Stengers 2015, 113)
Such a focus on people’s affective attachment does not lead her to refuse the practice of critique in general, but much rather to criticize while “respecting established sentiments” (Stengers 2000, 14). She seeks “not to collide with established sentiments, so as to try to open them to what their established identity led them to refuse, combat, misunderstand.” (Ibid.) Such an affective and ecological focus on the “established” attachment to the object of critique does help us to understand the ineffectiveness of many critiques in bringing forth change: by regarding them as a remedy or and end in itself, critics become negatively dependent on the rejection they create. To put this into our example: it might be that the predominant concept of resilience is based on an assumption of the essential disastrousness of the (future) world that tends to individualize people’s responsibility in coping with it. However, why should we assume that this mere observation should want to make people drop the concept of resilience? People are attached to this world and in times of climate catastrophe the plausibility of the outlook of the world becoming rather worse than better in future times is difficult to argue with. People can cling to this world and obey all the current neoliberal imperatives to become more resilient, while at the same time – rationally – understanding how this is employed as a tool that further aggravates the problem. In lack of a different outlook on the world and it’s future, critique risks to only solidify this trench between theory and practice. It might succeed in arousing a few established sentiments of some of the more privileged who are capable (and interested) in reading such critical papers, but it might also offend other established sentiments and make them turn away from any hope in transformative politics.
If we want to dig deeper in our analysis of critique’s complacency with its objects of critique, we need to contextualize critique as a historically contingent practice that is – on a very deep level – complacent to a very specifically modern regime of governing and ordering the world. We will do this with the help of Tom Boland and Denise Ferreira da Silva.
The comparatively little-known sociologist Tom Boland has developed a position of what he calls a “genealogy of critique” that is helpful for this undertaking. In his detailed 2018 study The Spectacle of Critique, he moves beyond somewhat spectacular annunciations of a “self-abdication of critique“, as has been put forward by Peter Sloterdijk (2012, XXXii), and genealogically examines why and how critique has become the predominant form of (what is considered) reasonable thought in occidental modernity. Although critical thought has existed in almost every culture and before European modernity, it is in this time that it has developed its almost universal claim to reasonability, culminating in Kant’s dictum that “[o]ur age is properly the age of critique, and to critique everything must submit.” (Kant 1999 , A Xi). From Descartes on, a mode of thought became hegemonial that is intrinsically motivated by (critically) setting oneself apart from a world that is first perceived through and scrutinized by a critical lens. Critique, Tom Boland states, “is one of the constitutive forces of modern society, and forms an integral part of modern culture, and the exercise of critique even constitutes the modern self.” (Boland 2013, 9) Whereas, in classical anthropological understanding, societies can be regarded as bound together by certain – mostly or partly unconscious – collective beliefs, an anthropology of the moderns in Tom Boland’s sense finds that their societies are – to a certain degree – bound together by a shared common ground of a belief in criticality: meaning – however paradoxically that may sound – that modern societies are characterized by the individuals’ possibility to set themselves apart from the mess they perceive critically. “Critique is generally rare or greatly circumscribed, except in modern times. Critique is a social phenomenon, even though it is manifestly anti-social in that it disrupts and exposes existing truth-claims which hold societies together.” (Ibid. 5-6)
With this important insight that critique is not a neutral, transhistorical practice, but is itself “a historically contingent practice” (Boland 2014, 109) that is – in it’s becoming a predominant mode of thought – intricately enmeshed with the European tradition of modern and enlightenment thought, we can move on to Denise Ferreira da Silva’s rejection of the notion of critique as part of a post-colonial rejection of the same modernity.
As Ferreira da Silva notes, this aspiration of critique that became predominant “since Descartes, but definitely from Kant on” (Ferreira da Silva 2019) is based on the essentially racist and exclusivist assumptions of there being a universally attainable subjectivity that is the same to all. The imperative of critique is to criticize injustices in order to level them out and enable everybody to attain the same level of privilege and security. However, the very notion of such a flat universality is an unacknowledged patriarchal and Eurocentric norm that is based on the subjugation of others. As Ferreira da Silva puts it, the “principles of universal equality and universal freedom are not the ultimate grounds of modern existence, but […] their circulation is contingent upon the deployment of racial difference in order to delineate the proper ethical domain of application of the universal principles under which colonial juridical forms of total violence prevail.” (Ibid.) The very ontological basis of critical thought does thus rely on what can be perceived as a contradiction in terms: it claims and builds on a universality whose own working relies on the hitherto subjugation of what da Silva calls “no-bodies” or “affectable others”. Only because others are seen to fall outside of the scope of this universality can the critical claim of universaility in its modern form prevail. This results in an ontological complacency of critique with what it criticizes: “[D]ue to its Kantian origins, critique cannot but restate (usually by the back door of redress) the premises of modern thought. How? Because the juridical and ethical figuring of the subject (respectively authority and liberty), both in thought and institutions (procedures, premises, and mechanisms), undermine the very critical and emancipatory project they are requested to ground.” (Ferreira da Silva 2018, 25)
Having re-read these three problematizations of critique as a remedy for our contemporary, political problems, we can thus summarize that a rise of critical awareness of the underlying structures that cause the precarity of the world does not necessary lead to a state of solution in which these problems are resolved. Much rather, the practice of critique is intricately entangled with an ontology that formed the conditions for colonial and sexist precarity to emerge. A merely critical focus on the negative aspects of resilience might help in sharpening the awareness of these problems for a few select readers, but it also risks to structurally become complacent with the general state of things. It does not provide effective tools of how to go about with our entanglement to the problems being criticized in an emancipatory way and thus rather tends to aggravate the problems addressed by polarizing and producing antagonism. To bring this back to the opening lines of this paper: although we see a growing politicization of the inherent sexisms, racisms and ecological injustices of a globalized capitalism, this must not necessarily lead to an effective politics that could lessen these problems, if we merely stick to the means of critique. As we have just learned, a critique of resilience can – paradoxically as it may sound – help to augment the resilience of the same concept. In the following segment, I will examine a different approach to the concept of resilience that can be found in some niches of economic thought and will try to suggest how a translation of this approach to the Humanities might prove to be a more productive way to engage with this hugely problematic worldly mess.
—EXPANDING THE FIELD OF
Critique is, almost by definition, focused on the negative aspects of its object. Thus, academic critiques of the concept of Resilience are focused on its hugely problematic entanglement with neoliberal policies that aggravate precarization. However, if you would ask around, – even among the authors of such papers –, it will prove hard to find anybody who wouldn’t want to be resilient themselves. Although we can establish various negative effects of the majoritarian application of the concept of resilience in contemporary politics, it is a concept that is virtually impossible to negate in its totally. In this remarkable ubiquity of the concept lies its strength: albeit the various problems we can perceive critically, it is nothing that can be fully rejected.
So, if a mere critique of resilience cannot do the trick of overcoming the substantial problems critique can reveal to us, perhaps an analysis of the application and appearance of the term can be helpful. As I have already mentioned in the introduction, it is remarkable that almost everything that is publicly desired to be resilient are things that are usually connoted as positive and cherishable: it is – for example – in policies that try to improve personal health, the stability of eco-systems, health-care systems, social security nets or political systems such as democracy or local communities that the call to become more resilient is mostly heard. However, why should only these – widely regarded as – positive things be resilient? Can’t it be that many of the things that make life harder for the average being on this planet, including capitalism, eco-catastrophic behavior, sexism, racism or imperialism are equally resilient?
I first came upon this perspective on resilience in Fred Block’s introduction to Karl Polanyi’s epoch-making analysis of liberal market economics The Great Transformation. In it, Block describes the ideology of market liberalism to be of “extraordinary intellectual resilience” (Block 2001, xxvii) – and this besides all the abundant criticism and obvious failures in real application it has met since its very beginning. Similarly, there are some recent works on (market liberalism’s newest metamorphosis) neoliberalism that declare it to be a very resilient concept. In their volume Resilient liberalism in Europe’s political economy, editors Vivien Schmidt and Mark Thatcher ask: “Why have neo-liberal economic ideas been so resilient since the 1980s, despite major intellectual challenges, crippling financial and political crises, and failure to deliver on their promises? Why do they repeatedly return, not only to survive but to thrive?” (Schmidt and Thatcher 2013). The answers to these questions are manifold and range from being well-connected within the elites, to good lobby work and the helpful contrast between theory and practice. However, within this paper, I am not so much interested in these economic analyses, but much rather in how the concept of resilience is used within this volume, because, almost without any methodological reflection or theoretical contextualization, the concept of resilience is – quite surprisingly – applied in a way that is quite contrary to its mainstream use. The authors of the volume discuss the resilience of neoliberalism not from an angle that seeks to strengthen this resilience. Much rather, with scientific distance, they seek to understand why it is still there and so strong in spite of all the obvious failures, injustices and precarities in caused in the last decades. It is this understanding of (neoliberal) capitalism as being resilient in itself that I find most interesting and I want to make usable for a critical as well as affirmative approach within the Humanities.
Departing from this perspective of (neo)liberal capitalism being itself resilient, we can shed a new light on the (still) predominant imperative of becoming resilient. It might be that the call to become more resilient that so many social, health care and other former state-run agencies are facing might be a coded version of the imperative to become more and more capitalist. Perhaps resilience is an aspect of being that – although it surely is a trait of almost every life-form on Earth – becomes the main focus of attention within societies that are more and more completely ordered and governed by capitalist modes of value production and their destructive and disruptive side-effects. As such, it makes sense that entities need to focus on becoming more resilient within capitalist societies. However, if we identify capitalism and European modernity (as da Silva and Stengers do) as the main factors behind the growing precarisation of livelihoods, the approach to resilience must be a completely different one. As we have seen in the third segment, critique can help us to understand the negative aspects of the governmentality behind resilience, however, it equally is construed by a form of negative dependence to the object of its critique and can therefore almost serve to add another layer of augmenting the resilience of what is criticized. Regarded from this perspective, we can use “post-critical” positions such as those of Stengers and da Silva to develop an understanding the inner workings of resilience that – as we have seen – do include its critique. A neoliberal mindset can live well with critique and use it to feel enlightened while still continuing in the same way that is actually criticized. In order to bind together an awareness of the inherent sexisms, racisms and eco-catastrophic behavioural patterns of the contemporary world while actively working on a different, less precarious environment, I want to propose to use resilience as a critical concept in itself that is oriented towards decomposing this world and its very messy entanglements.
WORLD WITH RESILIENCE
In most discourses it goes without saying that resilience is a positive virtue and that wherever there is talk of resilience, we need to focus on strengthening the resilience of the object in discussion. This is what I find so fascinating about these scarce approaches to neoliberalism itself being resilient as quoted above: they do not regard resilience as a positive virtue, but much rather matter-of-factly analyze the causes of an entity being resilient. As such, an analysis in this vein can help to both strengthen as well as – hypothetically – weaken the resilience of the concept in question. It is for this reason that I think this approach can be used in a much more productive way than a “mere” critique of resilience. Whereas the critical approach tends to remain negatively dependent and thus complacent with its object, the rather neutral and analytical approach to resilience can prove to be a politically more enabling position by providing us with the tools to first understand and then slowly decompose what we critically acknowledge to be damaging aspects of living. To return to Denise Ferreira da Silva’s philosophy, her post-critical approach is aimed towards “ending the world as we know it”. To let her say it in a long quote herself:
“I am very worried that we may not be able to stop the end of this world in which we exist; I am worried about the demolition of democratic structures that, though limited and perverse, provided at least an anchor to claims for social and global justice (from indigenous, migrant, LGBTI*, non-white populations everywhere) and could (at times) limit total violence; I am worried that insects and other species are becoming extinct, that rivers are drying up, that oceans are being suffocated by plastic, that fracking is destroying and threatening to contaminate large areas of underground water. This is a long list. However, I am invested – because I don’t see how we will be able to exist otherwise – in the end of the world as we know it.“ (Ferreira da Silva 2019 – italicization by herself)
Although she is indeed very worried about the many things which render our livelihoods precarious, she does not seek to save this world by rendering it more resilient in spite of all its dangers. To her, ending “is the only reasonable thing one can ask of this racial capitalist world.” (Ibid.)
It helps, at this point, to reflect on the relation between Ferreira da Silva’s desire to end “the world as we know it” with what I call her “post-critical” attitude. I would argue that they are strongly connected and that one results from the other. This is because – however critical or hateful one feels towards this world – one will not be able to completely detach and declare oneself independent and untouched from it. What one calls “the world” is something one is irreducibly entangled with. For this reason, a modern critique that builds on – as Tom Boland worked it out – setting oneself apart from the object criticized cannot work when one comes to such huge concepts as the world. Much rather, an approach of investigating carefully the resilience of “the world as we know it” and our entanglement with it with the aim of slowly decomposing this very resilient attachment can be of more help.
As I have tried to show in previous work (Jörg 2022), “the world” as a uniform concept is in itself not a neutral, innocent entity, but is deeply entangled with the Kantian Enlightenment project. Kant defines the world as [from Jörg 2022]: “absolute totality of the sum total of existing things" (Kant 1999 , A 419 / B 447) and implies that this world can be perceived and shared in an equal manner by all “men”. Not only does he exclude the possibility of other, non-human forms of perceiving and interacting with the planet as worldly enough as that of “men”, but he also carries forth implicitly and explicitly the racist and sexist exclusions of differently gendered and racialized humans as not being full “men”. “The world” is thus not the neutral ground we all equally share – as would still be the aim of critique it is Enlightenment tradition – but be in itself a tool of excluding and precarising others that is specific to European modernity.
Scholars in the tradition of Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour, and many others have long acknowledged that the epistemo-ontological regime called (European) “Modernity” is a massive problem underscoring the sexist, racist and ecologically catastrophic phenomena of the so-called Anthropocene. Bruno Latour famously went as far as to declare that “we have never been modern” (Latour 2002 ), by which he meant that the ideas we have of the modernity of our (scientific) practices have never really fit reality. To put it simply: “the world as we know it” has never really corresponded to the reality we are used to calling “the world” – and the Anthropocene can be regarded as an era where this rift is becoming more and more apparent in the form of climate catastrophes (Serres 2014  ; Latour 2002 ). However, while the more critical, early phase of Latour’s work has been devoted to demonstrating how our concept of modernity is wrongly construed and full of false assumptions, his later work (Latour 2017b; 2017a) is more and more devoted to the question why we seem to be incapable of acting in the face of an unprecedented climate catastrophe. Or, in other words, why we still stick to modern ideas and concepts of world making and relating although we become more and more aware that they are hugely problematic and even ecologically catastrophic.
For this project, I propose that the use of resilience as a critical tool to decompose “the world as we know it” can become a very useful tool for getting to grips with our time of catastrophic rises of precarity. In order to work productively on getting out of such ontological super-concepts as “Modernity” or “the world”, a mere critical denunciation of Modernity, as we have seen it since Post-Modernism in the latest, is not enough. We are too deeply entangled in its manifold registers to overcome it and emancipate ourselves from it overnight. For this much more patient, slower approach of decomposing our entanglement to Modernity, a conceptualization of the “Resilience of Modernity” - as I have proposed elsewhere (Jörg 2020) – becomes a helpful tool to develop. It is with this backdrop that resilience needs to be used as a tool to decompose this “world as we know it” in order to enable other, more flourishing and colourful life-forms to emerge.
As we have seen in the third segment, da Silva’s approach leads her beyond critique that she identifies as a position that easily leads to complacency with this world, however critical one is towards it. To restate the formulation of Sloterdijk, the critical “enlightened false consciousness” can become the very entry ticket of partaking in this terribly unjust and destructive world. We could try to summarize that critique is able and necessary to identify all the toxic, horrible problems of this world, however, in doing so, it tends to require to put itself – as Tom Boland puts it – as apart from the world it criticizes (2014). As such, it fails to account for its own messy entanglements with it. I believe that post-critical positions such as those of da Silva or Stengers can be used to develop an approach to the careful decomposition of what we are entangled with.
From these positions, we can develop something that could be called an “abolitionist” or “decompositional” (Guenther 2022) approach to the world as full of trouble and problems we seek to put beyond us. Such an approach first and foremost entails a fundamentally different approach towards the temporality of change. Whereas (the inclination of) critique (to set itself apart) tends to think in rifts and quick revolutions, the angle of ending this world can only work with slowness and care – because it is hard to deny that we are – however badly it is construed – essentially and vitally entangled and connected with this world we seek to end. This is where Stengers’ respect for “established sentiments” comes into play, because ours’ and others’ attachments and entanglements to this world need to be taken into careful consideration, even and especially if one seeks to undo them. One needs to carefully examine how we are affectively, economically, culturally, socially etc. connected to things and how these connections could slowly be replaced by others. For this purpose, resilience can be used itself as a critical tool to understand our entanglements with the aim of slowly and carefully decomposing the “world as we know it” to make room for other ways of connecting, knowing, inhabiting, reasoning, loving, living, flourishing and dying well with the planet.
Whereas critique can be said to try to maintain this world by improving it according to its critiques, “post-critical” positions such as those of da Silva and Stengers regard this world as hopelessly entangled with its critical elements as well as its critique. For them, the focus lies on an affirmative building of another form of inhabiting the planet, as opposed to repairing the one they – as well – see critically and problematically complacent with the injustices they want to fight. However, this position does not need to be contrasted too strongly to a critical approach, because of course both da Silva and Stengers employ critical thinking within their works – how could they not do without this essential part of any thinking. The key difference is that they do not regard critique as “a remedy in itself” but much rather a first step of analysis that can be – in the form of resilience as a critical tool – used for decomposition to make room for another world – or many worlds.
What does this mean? After having spelled out the more theoretical, philosophical consequences of this different approach towards resilience, I want to end this paper with making it more palpable by “landing it” in our contemporary political situation. I will start doing so by reference to one very concrete example: the car. In the last few years, the car has more and more become understood as one of the main problems in our ecologically catastrophic life-styles and almost everybody driving a car – at least in Europe – would agree to be aware of these problems. However, if you would confront them with that critique, they would mostly argue that they require their car in order for their family life, work relations, concept of leisure time etc. to function. If there was an attractive alternative, they would be the first to alter their behavioral and consumer patterns, but with things as they are (“the world as we know it”), they will have to continue driving their car.
It is interesting to note that – despite the recent hype of politicization – radical critique of cars and their destructive influence on environments and communities is not a new phenomenon, but accompanies the century-old history of the car from its very beginning. As Brian Ladd convincingly shows in this 2011 book Autophobia – Love and Hate in the Automotive Age, the presence of critiques of car-based culture seem to form an essential part of the car-centered world itself and is no sure sign of its demise. This illustrates lucidly the point I have tried to drive home in the third segment of this paper: the presence of critique does not mean that the thing criticized will soon be a thing of the past, abandoned and vanquished. As much as Modernity is not merely overcome by there being Critique of Modernity, neither will the car – the symbol of the modern lifestyle – be abandoned merely because there is (very sensible and widely agreed to) critique of car-usage. In order to really have a chance to overcome the thing criticized, at least two more elements are necessary: 1) understanding the resilience of the phenomenon by way of ours’ and others’ entanglement with it in this world and 2) carefully working on promoting other forms of worldly belonging to become more attractive and resilient than the critisized one. In our example of the car this would – in a very short summary – mean: not only radically promoting different means of transport such as bikes and trains and radically reshaping our forms of production and labor so that all the transport of commuting, import and export is no longer necessary to happen in the first place. But also reshaping our affective, libidinal and socio-cultural ties with the car, as well as establishing different sensual and spatial regimes and the definitions of comfort and “the good life” they entail. Overcoming the car as well as “Modernity” entails a whole political program of building a very different world on the slowly decomposed ruins of “the world as we know it”.
In the opening lines I have stated that we are seeing a rising of critical awareness. The politicization and critique of racist, sexist and ecologically catastrophic behaviors and structures today abound. More people than ever feel aware that there are massive racist divisions in our societies that are inherited by a century old tradition, that there are huge problems of gender discrimination and inequality and that flying and riding a car are ecologically catastrophic things to do. However, things continue to go on as before: Ukrainian refuges with white skin get a much better treatment at the European borders as those with darker skin tones, who often even get pushed back into the war-stricken land of Ukraine. Trump got elected although (or even because) he famously advised Bill Bush that the way to success with women is to non-consensually “Grab ‘em by the pussy”. And the goals of the COP21 Paris Agreement are – in spite of the more and more dramatic insistence of our political leaders to do everything they can to fight climate change – more and more spectacularly missed. The rising critical awareness of the injustices in the world referred is in itself a good sign, but not yet enough to effectively bring about a movement that is working productively on change.
In order to overcome the tendency of more and more precarization of livelihoods in the world, we need to go beyond a mere critical denunciation of the injustices at place and work on understanding how their resilience works: what internal and external mechanisms create feedback loops that enable racist, sexist or ecologically catastrophic structures “to absorb [these critical] disturbances” to maintain their order of privileges. Returning to the definition of Resilience quoted above (segment 2), for our critical, decompositional purpose we only need to change one adjective: we need to understand the ability of these injustices “to absorb disturbances [such as protests, boycotts, etc.] before unpredictably changing its structure from one equilibrium state to another, MORE desirable one.” By focusing on the resilience of what we seek to decompose, we might hope to develop sciences and approaches (such as the rising field of “transformation studies”) that can – to a certain degree – make it predictable, when, how and for what reasons a system or structure changes. The Humanities can learn a lot from these approaches and translate it to the more deep rooted, ideological phenomena such as “Modernity”, racism, sexism or ecologically catastrophic behavior.
1 In a private conversation held in Berlin in August 2021.
2 My translation of: „Diese Logik der Antizipation teilt Resilienz freilich mit ähnlichen Begriffen wie dem der Prävention. Doch anders als bei der Prävention greift Resilienz erst nach dem Ereignis.”
3 My translation of: „“Erstens läuft Resilienz, ungeachted der Rhetorik des empowerment und der Eigeninitiative, auf eine Beschneidung und Depotenzierung des handlungsfähigen Subjekts hinaus – auf eine Halbierung des Handlungsvermögen, wie ich zuspitzend sagen möchte. Zweitens ergibt sich aus dem ersten Punkt eine tiefgreifende Entpolitisierung des Subjekts.”
4 My translation of „Resilienz ist nicht zu trennen von einem Imperativ einer Gewöhnung an ein Leben in auf Dauer gestellten Gefährdungslagen.“
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