Julian Reid on the Rise of Resilience

Today, everything must become resilient: governments, people, cities and countries in the developing world. And whatever is “resilient” is in consequence of this very quality, something good or better than before. In the hardest oftimes, the science of resilience can ideally teach human beings how to evolve through trauma and experience post traumatic growth. Resilience has become a ubiquitous property universally applicable to all forms of policies. This development is what Reid critically argues for and what we must not take for granted. The world and lives can — and must — be something very different from the proposed “necessities” of resilience.

Julian Reid critically examines the impact of resilience on our lives and its relation to the world. Reid is a critically acclaimed professor of international relations at Lapland University, co-editor of the journal Resilience: Policies, Practices and Discourses, and has written several books on the concepts of development, war, resilience and neoliberalism. The all-encompassing discourse of resilience “assumes that all human beings can do is to compete to survive,” as Reid puts it, thereby fundamentally degrading the capacities and potentials of the human being. As an antidote to resilience, we must politicize discourses of resilience, adaptation and vulnerabilities, and activate our poetic imagination in order to reclaim a fundamental secure being and living. [This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Kristian Haug: What is resilience? And how is it different from the concept of security?

Julian Reid: Generally when we talk security, we think on a condition where one can conceive of being free from threats and dangers. You are secure in so far as you transcend, whatever it is you see as being threatening or dangerous to yourself. The concept of resilience is something very different from this concept of security. Thepractitioners of resilience were talking about resilience in terms of the practice of exposing oneself to dangers and threats. The idea is that life itself can only be developed, can only grow — and be considered sustainable — in so far as it is exposed.

It also seems to me to be a deeply malign kind of shift in the nature of political discourse. What purpose do development and politics serve if we cannot imagine being able to achieve developing in a way that would allow us to become secure from whatever are threatening our lives?

The idea is that life itself can only be developed, can only grow — and be considered sustainable — in so far as it is exposed.

Yet the discourse of resilience presupposes something completely different. It presupposes a life of continuous exposure to threats and dangers. That one cannot live other than in — and must confront — a world in which threats and dangers are endemic and also perceived as affirmative. Thus the discourse of resilience presupposes thecompletely different theory of the human subject and a different politics.

What does this ethics of resilience demand of us? In which ways are we, so to speak, being raised to become resilient?

It demands a sea change in the nature of human subjectivity. It requires us to change the way in which we think about our world and ourselves. That we reconceive mentally and in an embodied way the world as — not just a contingently — but a necessarily dangerously place.

The world must be dangerous in order for us to flourish and to develop our lives.

As human beings, we learned throughout modernity that if the world — if indeed a dangerous place — nevertheless, it could become a safer place. We were taught that we had the agency to make it better and make ourselves secure. That is a basic principle of modern human subjectivity. What resilience demands of us is that we negate that very way ofthinking of the nature our world and ourselves. The world must be dangerous in order for us to flourish and to develop our lives.

Another aspect is how resilience changes the way we think about politics. Politics, traditionally, is a practice by which human beings improve their life. You seek ways to govern yourself and others such that life can get better, get safer and more progressive. All of the basic institutions of the modern state are based upon that principle. That is how we have the state. The state promises that, “without us, the world be more dangerous,” and that is why we need thestate, the government, the police, armies, law, prisons, etc.

We no longer understand politics as a practice for making the world safer, but as a practice, which is merely geared for survival.

Today the whole game of politics has undergone a paradigm shift. We no longer understand politics as a practice for making the world safer, but as a practice, which is merely geared for survival. It is about being able to sustain the way in which we live for as long as possible, in the context of the supposed reality, that the world has actually entered a period of catastrophic decay. The assumption is that the world itself is falling apart, that we have entered an age ofecological catastrophe — which no human being possibly can fight against, contain or do anything to change — this isthe fundamental truth that underpins the discourse of resilience, and the new forms of politics which it is engendering. Thus the resilience imperative becomes “do not even think about changing the world, because the world is already decaying and the attempt to change the problem will only make it worse.” This is the underpinning truth claim.

Are we beyond a certain point in our civilization, where we think that we cannot change the world to thebetter, according to the discourse of resilience?

Absolutely. At the same time though, at the root of this discourse, there is something more, which is liberalism. Liberalism is a diverse and rich tradition of political thinking. If we go back to the liberal tradition, we find something like a theory of the resilient subject. Originating back in the 18th century, there is in this tradition, a kindof underpinning nihilism, which assumes that all human beings can do is to survive. What is different today is theway resilience has become so powerfully discursive and self-evident. It is not even something which one has to critique. It is so prevalent and obvious that you don’t have to read Adam Smith or liberal philosophy in order to see this theory of subjectivity on display. You find it simply by opening a newspaper or just listening to the radio. Everything is resilience nowadays.

How are we to understand the relation between the resilient subject and neoliberalism?

We won’t understand what neoliberalism is without grasping what liberalism is.

It is certainly neoliberal in terms of its presuppositions and demands. It demands the free market, global trade, less (party) politics, freedom from the state, entrepreneurship and so on — many of the things we associate with theneoliberalism of the post-Thatcher years. In terms of what the discourse of resilience says about the nature of thehuman subject, not that much has actually changed from the liberalism of the classical period to the neoliberalism ofthe present. This is something Michel Foucault showed very well in The Birth of Biopolitics. If we read the last couple of those lectures, this is effectively what he is saying: That we won’t understand what neoliberalism is without grasping what liberalism is. And grasping what liberalism is fundamentally means to look at it as a theory ofsubjectivity.

In order to illustrate the impact of the resilience discourse in everyday life, let us imagine someone with severe stress. Is it not better that he or she grows stronger in the end and learns something from this “experience” and becomes resilient?

What is malign about this discourse of resilience and its learning practices, truisms and the therapy that goes with is the assumption that whatever happens, you yourself are responsible.

Of course. I, as an academic, also have to live in this world, where a lot bad things happen to my friends or me. Then you have to deal with it, help them to cope, survive and move on in life. The advice often has to be “Okay, this has happened, how can we learn from it or take from it such that we are able to continue and makes sense of it in a way that allows you to go on.” In a sense, it is good to learn from experience.

My point is rather that what is malign about this discourse of resilience and its learning practices, truisms and thetherapy that goes with is the assumption that whatever happens, you yourself are responsible. It is about examining yourself, asking what errors and mistakes you have made, what stupidity you engaged in, what recklessness you committed that led to your suffering. It is that aspect of the discourse that is particularly troubling — this blaming ofhuman beings for what is happening to them. Effectively, this is what the neoliberal state says to individuals, “Don’t look to us, it is not our fault that this has happened to you. You have to take responsibility for yourself and all we can do is to help you learn from your own mistakes, such that when the next disaster happens it is a different disaster from the last one.”

How do we experience the impact of resilience in everyday life and not merely on a theoretical level? And who is demanding resilience of us?

We experience it every time something unfortunate occurs. There is this assumption increasingly embedded within us that we have to accept it. That it is not somebody else’s fault, it is our fault. Should we try to blame somebody else or should we experience the kind human emotion, which come with the feeling that someone has done something (bad) to you, then you somehow feel yourself put into a position where what you feel is illegitimate. The most fundamental political emotion, I think, is anger. When someone fucks you over, you feel angry, you want revenge and war. I think we live in a world where that emotion is increasingly pathologized. It is seen as not only something unhealthy, but dangerous, wrong and debased.

Resilience, on the other hand, is a complicated regime of power. There is no question that government is deeply involved. But my argument is not that government dreamt this plan up. It is not that the neoliberal state decided at some point in time that this [resilience discourse] would be a great way of depoliticizing society and governing people in ways that are equipped to our needs. It is not simply government-driven; it is a discourse, so it has diverse roots.

How do politicians or citizens resist this development?

We have to politicize it. We have to question it and not simply accept it. At the moment, it seems to something fundamentally good, like something we ought not to question. It seems to be simply an affirmative attribute of human beings, something that we should all strive to be. You never hear any being or entity — an individual, a football team, an animal — being described as “resilient” in negative terms. No one would ever say, “Look at him! Look at her! They are resilient,” as if that were a negative observation. We have to question what is meant and what is at stake. Which are the demands that are made upon people to become resilient? What it actually means and how it affects us. And most importantly, what do we have to give up in order to become resilient?

Which is why we give up the idea of the possibility of security. We give up on the idea that can we actually can achieve a higher condition. We make ourselves subservient to a notion of the world — understood as a set ofcatastrophic processes — where disasters will always happen to us, which we cannot avoid and which we have to expose ourselves to, from cradle to the grave.

In your book, Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously, you ask, “So how may we think the atmospheric-aesthetic-affective register differently? (p. 136).” Hereby understood that we should replace the resilient withthe poetic subject. Can you elaborate on the becoming of the poetic subject?

We need a politics that will entail a different aesthetics and way of poeticizing and beautifying the world in which we live, such that we are able to see the world as a home.

I think the aesthetics of the resilient subject is one which entails — literally paints the world — as a disastrous place. Where bad things are always in process. They are not only going to happen to you, but they are always in process. One has to see oneself as insecure in the relationship with the world, which is insecure. In aesthetic terms, this means losing any sense of the poetry of existence. We struggle nowadays to see the beauty of the world in which we live. We are increasingly geared towards looking at the world as a hostile place to human existence. This is the way we are taught to see the world: as a place that has become hostile to us, which no longer tolerates human existence and in which humans themselves are gradually becoming extinct and struggling to survive in a world that is no longer our home. Literally, in atmospheric terms, the very air we breathe seems to become more and more toxic. The very climate seems to be poisonous to human life. I think we need a politics that will entail a different aesthetics and wayof poeticizing and beautifying the world in which we live, such that we are able to see the world as a home.

You propose a radical change in the mode of human subjectivity. That is, in short, understood as the antidoteof the resilience paradigm?

Yes. One of my favorite aesthetic sources is the work of the great Danish film director Lars von Trier. His movieMelancholia depicts brilliantly the conflict between two very different types of human subjectivity. On the one hand,the affirmative subjectivity of Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst), who is the main character of the movie and sees thecoming of the end of the world and addresses that in way that allows her to live a beautiful life on her last days. There is a wonderful contrast in the film between the affirmative and poetic subjectivity of Justine, and then the hysterical and neurotic subjectivity of her sister, Claire, played brilliantly by Charlotte Gainsbourg.

It seems that a lot of people would disagree with your interpretation. You could, for instance, say that Justine is depressed. She is supposed to be enjoying her wedding and the company of her husband, family and friends. How can she be the role model of the poetic subject?

It is interesting, because that is so very true. When you read the reviews of Melancholia, or even the scholarship on it, you continually encounter this description of Justine as depressed and as a melancholic individual. But actually, if you watch the film, the discourse around Justine is one of depression. Her sister, family, friends and colleagues continually describe her as depressed. She is someone who is diagnosed as depressed, but if you look at her actions and her way of being, I think she is actually very well. She is the healthiest person in the film. For me, that is one ofthe brilliant things about the movie. The care and genius with which von Trier depicts the actuality of Justine’s subjectivity in contrast with — and in antagonism with — the discourse which surrounds her. Which is precisely one ofdepression. She is diagnosed as depressed by people who really are fundamental hysterical and neurotic, and most importantly, her sister.

Which other characteristics does the poetic have?

Most fundamentally, it is secure. It is secure in the sense that it does not fear itself. The resilient subject really fears itself. It sees itself as a thing which makes mistakes, which only ever can make errors, and therefore is prone to damage, danger, injury and vulnerability. What we talk about in the book as the poetic subject, is a subject that does not fear what it can do or where it actions a going to lead. It is not afraid of living. It is not afraid of its own life. So it is secure.