Thursday, 23 January 2014

'Community Resilience' & its redemption?

Is 'community resilience' redeemable? Is it a concept even worth trying to redeem? Is it possible to highlight and strengthen a local community's social - and other forms of - capital, while at the same time building, and not disabling, its collective capacity for political - even utopian - imagination and active resistance to the structures of the status quo? These are the questions with which I ended my previous blog post.

Resilience and human geography

Today I've had the chance to read another, very helpful, critically reflective piece, 'From resilience to resourcefulness: a critique of resilience policy and activism' [Danny MacKinnon & Kate Driscoll Derickson, Progress in Human Geography (2012) 37(2) 253-270]. In their critique, the authors make three key points:

1. The concept of resilience, precisely because it is 'derived from ecology and systems theory, is conservative when applied to the social sphere ... privileg[ing] established social structures, which are often shaped by unequal power relations and injustice... [and] also clos[ing] off wider questions of progressive social change which require interference with, and transformation of, established "systems".'

2. Resilience tends to be defined 'externally' and 'top-down', 'by state agencies and expert knowledge in spheres such as security, emergency planning, economic development and urban design', and thus 'invariably place the onus on individuals, communities and places to become more resilient and adaptable to a range of external threats ... serving to reproduce the wider social and spatial relations that generate turbulence and inequality.' (This is Evans & Reid's key point in the paper I explored previously).

3. '[T]he concern with resilience of places is misconceived in terms of spatial scale... rely[ing] on an underlying local-global divide, treating scales such as the 'regional', 'urban' or 'local' as self-contained systems, thus 'foster[ing] an internalist conception which locates the sources of resilience as lying within the particular scale in question', while obscuring the reality that 'the processes which shape resilience operate primarily at the scale of capitalist social relations' (i.e. national and trans-national). (pp. 254-5)

Although MacKinnon and Derickson acknowledge that, 'among oppositional groups and campaigns', 'resilience' langauge 'is meant to prefigure alternative social relations in which social and environmental well-being is the system which is to be privileged (i.e. the resilient system) with capitalism seen as one of a number of disruptive and destructive forces', they conclude that the term has been so co-opted to be irredeemable, and go on to propose an alternative concept that, they suggest, better addresses the 'uneven access to material resources and the levers of social change' - or, in Spivak's words, better 'cultivate[s] the will to social justice' among everyday people' (p. 255, 263).

'Resourcefulness' as an alternative

What MacKinnon and Derickson propose instead, then, is the language of 'resourcefulness'. Firstly, they suggest, 'resourcefulness' is meant to focus the spotlight on how 'resources' (and power) are distributed, and to 'problematize' and contest the inequalities that emerge:
'The normative vision that underpins resourcefulness is one in which communities have the capacity to engage in genuinely deliberative democratic dialogue to develop contestable alternative agendas and work in ways that meaningfully challenge existing power relations.' (p. 263)
Secondly, they suggest, 'resourcefulness emphasizes forms of learning and mobilization based upon local priorities and needs as identified and developed by community activists and residents'. In contrast to the 'top-down' definitions of resilience, 'resourcefulness' is intended to promote a kind of 'local autonomy' understood as 'the ever-contested and never complete ability of those within the locality to control the institutions and relationships that define and produce the locality'.

Thirdly, addressing the issue of a false 'localism' which fails to recognise the interactions and power-relations between different spatial scales, the authors argue that 'resourcefulness' is 'not only spatially grounded in identifiable local spaces', 'focusing attention on the need to build capacities at community level,' but also 'outward-looking', 'open and relational in terms of both recognizing the wider politics of justice that often underpin local activism and emphasizing the need for alliances between community groups and broader social movements'.

Finally, 'resourcefulness' is offered 'as a process, rather than a clearly identifiable condition, amenable to empirical measurement or quantification. As a relational concept, resourcefulness cannot be understood as something communities possess to varying degrees. It is the act of fostering resourcefulness, not measuring it or achieving it, that should motivate policy and activism.' As a tentative framework undergirding the term, they propose four key dimensions: (1) an attention to the 'Resources' available (including e.g. spare time, social capital, organizing capacity, etc.) and their distribution; (2) 'Skill sets and technical knowledge' (e.g. in governmental procedures, finance and IT); (3) 'Indigenous and "folk" knowledge' (including cultural 'stories of origin', sense-making stories and shared visions); and (4) a cultural and political 'Recognition' which 'promotes a sense of confidence, self-worth and self- and community-affirmation that can be drawn upon to fuel the mobilization of existing resources and argue for and pursue new resources.' (p. 264-5)

There is much to be said for MacKinnon and Derickson's critique, but I must admit I'm not entirely persuaded by their alternative. 'Resourcefulness' is a good, evocative word, but while it deliberately foregrounds the question of the distribution of resources, I can't help thinking they're trying to have their cake and eat it. Can 'resourcefulness' really, at the same time, highlight inequalities (in 'resources') and yet resist measurement or quantification? Is 'resourcefulness' inherently and insistently a 'process', or is it just as vulnerable as resilience to becoming crystallised as a 'condition'? Neoliberalism's proven ability to co-opt the concept of 'resilience', even when the concept has been employed at a 'grassroots' level, suggests that 'resourcefulness' might not be immune to a similar kind of appropriation - I can imagine David Cameron quite easily conjuring up images of a wartime popular 'resourcefulness' in the midst of the London blitz - thereby 'disabling' the necessary 'politics of resistance' in exactly the same way that Evans & Reid so powerfully highlighted in 'resilience rhetoric'.

Resourcefulness in the wilderness: four 'arts' of survival and resistance

As a practical theologian, working with critiques of resilience like Evans & Reid's and MacKinnon & Derickson's, I find myself driven back towards theology for alternative metaphors and practices. Christian faith began in the context of an all-powerful Empire and huge inequalities, and while it has by no means been immune to being co-opted and domesticated by the 'powers that be', it has shown a remarkable capacity to reinvent itself, from the edges of the dominant regime, as challenge and alternative. (We might even call it 'resilient', if that wasn't the term we were currently trying to disentangle!)

In her remarkable book Sisters in the Wilderness, Delores Williams explores at length the 'survival strategies' deployed by African-American women, from slavery to the present day. While acknowledging that even these strategies can themselves be ‘exploited’ within the African-American community and in the churches, Williams concludes her study by outlining four such strategies, or ‘arts’, which have managed to ‘keep the community alive and hopeful’:

  • An ‘art of cunning’, combining knowledge and imagination with ‘manual skill and dexterity’, ‘a wholesome shrewdness’ that ensured individual survival and ‘economic well-being’;
  • An ‘art of encounter’, combining the twin ‘movements’ of ‘resistance’ to, and ‘endurance’ of, oppression – and knowing when to deploy one, and when the other;
  • An ‘art of care’ - a ‘commitment, devotion and love’ not just for their own children and ‘the lovers in their lives’, but also ‘for their extended families, for their communities and for their churches’;
  • and an ‘art of connecting’ - with the right people, and ‘the relevant social, political and religious structures’, that could improve the well-being of African-American women, men and children, educationally, politically and spiritually. (Sisters in the Wilderness, pp.236-8)

There are resonances here, for me, with MacKinnon & Derickson's conception of 'resourcefulness', but while that concept is targeted - with considerable effectiveness - towards questioning the distribution of resources, Williams' interconnected 'arts' do much better, I would suggest, at being explicitly relational, dynamic and contextual. They name the tension between 'endurance' and 'resistance', and they quite deliberately 'connect' into the larger structures of power.

'Distancing' and 'being liked'

Evans & Reid, discussing the cultural and political representations of American life post-9/11, point to another alternative to the governing discourses of vulnerability and resilience, encapuslated in Thomas Hoepker's photograph 'of people in Brooklyn relaxing and enjoying life against the backdrop of the attacks' on the twin towers.

The image, they suggest:
'unsettl[es] the dominant aesthetic dialectic of initial vulnerability and subsequent resilience. Instead, it depicts a perfectly normal state of affairs that was permitted by a certain distancing from the action. Indeed, as it emphasises, proximity alone offers no such guarantees for the constitution of a shared sense of experience. Many were far more deeply traumatised by viewing the unfolding of events thousands of miles away on televised screens than the subjects in Hoepker's frame.' (Evans & Reid, p.88)
Reading this, I hear more than incidental echoes of a reflective piece by Girardian theologian James Alison in the wake of 9/11, 'Contemplation in a world of violence' (Chapter 1 of Alison's brilliant On Being Liked).

Alison describes the way what was an essentially meaningless act -  'some brothers of ours committed simple acts of suicide with significant collateral murder, meaning nothing at all' - became a spectacle endowed with huge symbolic power, because of where it was (the World Trade Centre in New York), and because it was already under the spotlight of 'rolling cameras and a hugely powerful media network'. 'There took hold of an enormous number of us a feeling of being pulled in, being somehow involved, as though it was part of our lives.' Alison names the outbreak of unanimity in grief, and a fear 'not unrelated to excitement', and a sense in which '[w]e were tempted to be secretly glad of a chance for a huge outbreak of meaning to transform our humdrum lives, to feel we belonged to something bigger, more important, with hints of nobility and solidarity.' (pp.5-6)

In a quite stunning reading of the Gospel of Mark's so-called 'apocalypse' (Mark 13), Alison argues that Jesus is seeking to wean his hearers away from the seduction of, and addiction to, 'the apparently sacred world of apocalyptic meaning', the world of 'wars and rumours of wars', where 'order [is] based on sacrifice'. He instructs them, says Alison, 'not to allow themselves to be pulled by their desire' or their fear, into that 'world which others will want to create'. He warns too of the inevitable violence from that 'order' against those who 'break the unanimity which is demanded' by it. (p.10)

Jesus talks of, and lives out, 'a quite different power coming, scarcely noticeably, in the midst of all those things', 'a creative acting out and living so-as-to-lose to the sacrificial game in order to undo it' - a power which reveals us human beings 'categorised' as nothing else other than 'created', which means, in Alison's terms, 'liked spaciously, delighted in, wanted to give extension, fulfillment, fruition to, to share in just being'. 'In the midst of the false manufacturing of meaning and frightening power displayed by the satanic [Alison uses the term quite technically for the kind of 'fascination' or 'addiction' he describes above], we are being taught that our being liked and held in being is at the hands of something infinitely more powerful, infinitely restful, and we can live without fear.' (pp.13-16)

'Personally,' Alison concludes, 'the strongest feeling I have had over the last few months is the quite unexpected discovery that I am no longer frightened of Muslims, and that I like them, and that this is only the beginning of discovering what it will mean to rejoice in them and see them as part of an "us". Is this not the deepest act of treachery against the satanic order which was turned on in a part of all our minds and hearts by the events of 11 September 2001? And where on earth will it end?' (p.16)

Why have I spent considerable space here dwelling on this 'reading together' of the events of 9/11 and one of the weirder chapters of Mark's gospel? What Alison does, in a significantly deeper - and obviously more explicitly 'traditioned' - way than Evans & Reid's interpretation of Hoepker's photo, is point a way out of the captivity to the all-consuming 'unavoidable vulnerability - necessary resilience' narrative of Ulrich Beck's 'risk society'. Neither Alison nor Hoepker deny the tragic realities of death and violence where they happen, nor do they seek to freeze our instincts to compassion for those who are suffering, but they do seek to remove us from the kinds of manufactured fascination that insist 'There Is No Alternative', and demand only resilience, and not resistance, from those who the system ensures remain the most vulnerable.

What emerges, between Hoepker and Alison, is a kind of 'distancing' that functions as almost as an ironic opposite to the rich and powerful's 'gated communities' - a joie de vivre, not without compassion, but which rejects the fear-inducing 'securitisation' stories which seek to divide people from one another. It embodies the particular kind of 'indifference' that, in Pete Rollins' terms (which I've explored previously), rejects the 'token gestures' and the 'perverse protests' (which can enable us to feel like rebels for a while, but often turn out to be simply 'release valves in the system, opportunities for people to resist in a way that [is] ultimately authorized by those in control') in favour of 'insurrection', simply 'living a different life', building something new in the shell of the old, 'changing the system by ignoring it'.

Can 'resilience' be redeemed?

The critiques of 'resilience' language from Evans & Reid and MacKinnon & Derickson hit their nails squarely on the heads. But as with any word, it is the context and associations within which the word finds itself that create the parameters of its meaning. 'Good' words will always be co-opted and distorted - and that should not simply drive us to find a different word (as exactly the same dangers will still apply), but to work on the connections and webs of meaning which surround the words we use.

The core of Evans & Reid's argument was that the way resilience rhetoric has been deployed, functions to disable resistance among the most 'vulnerable' at the same time as it effectively removes the social bonds between the endlessly vulnerable and 'those who have the ability to secure themselves'. This 'containment' of the 'vulnerable', and indeed of the 'powerful' too, in their own forms of high-security prison, and their physical, relational and psychological segregation from each other, are echoed in MacKinnon & Derickson's critique discussed above - that the spatial scales of 'the local' and 'the city' are isolated from wider spatial relations which produce and reproduce unequal distributions of power and resources.

While the engaged 'arts' of 'resourcefulness' proposed by MacKinnon & Derickson, and fleshed out by Delores Williams, ironically it might be in the kind of 'imaginative distancing' which emerges from Hoepker's photo and Alison's exegesis, I suggest, that 'resilience' language could be 'redeemed'. It is a very specific kind of distancing, as we have seen: from the 'sacred centres' of power which generate the discourse of the unavoidable necessity of both 'vulnerability' and 'resilience', and perpetuate and deepen inequalities and segregations.

In Hoepker's photo, we witness an outbreak of what Ivan Illich calls 'conviviality', a distinctly embodied, attentive, face-to-face enjoyment of the company and friendships of other human beings in a way that resists, or better is outside the grip of, the technocratic, instrumentalizing drives of the systems and power structures of the modern world. Conviviality has a scale, a pace, limits that are appropriate to the kind of activity it encompasses - but limits which create thresholds for hospitality. As such it resonates closely with the more positive, grassroots uses of 'resilience' language - but at the same time refuses to be commanded, co-opted or corrupted by governments and the powers of global capital. If for some the word has resonances of exclusive champagne dinner parties, it refuses to be so confined, and is in fact alive and well in low-income neighbourhoods, resisting and ridiculing the stark choice offered within the governing language between 'hard-working' or destitution. It is not a 'means' to any 'end' other than itself, it cannot be the focus of any 'strategy' - and yet, at its carnivalesque best, it is infectious, catching, overflowing the local and disrupting the established systems and regimes of 'order' at national and international scales too. The ripples of the 'Occupy' movement and its 'politics of recognition', for example, have been felt far beyond the steps of St Paul's Cathedral, or the railings of Zuccotti Park.

'Learning how to die'

In Alison's more explicitly theological 'distancing' too, we witness a particular kind of breaking down of 'containment' into what we might call 'overflow': attentiveness not to the spectacle, but to the human faces obscured by it, in the context of the infinitely more powerful and yet infinitely gentle 'liking' of creation by God, enables the discovery, and the 'living-into', of an inclusive 'us' which - as he puts it - is 'treachery' against the established order of 'us and them'. Evans & Reid, following Cornel West, seek to liberate the 'resilient subjects' from their imprisonment by inviting them to 'give up the prospect of self-renewal' and 'learn how to die', 'turning your world upside-down' in the process and 'actually liv[ing] more intensely and critically and abundantly' (Evans & Reid, p.97). It is inescapably theological language, which Alison would ground in the very particular death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth ('a creative acting out and living so-as-to-lose to the sacrificial game in order to undo it'), and to which fellow-theologian David Ford brings a particular clarity:
“the wisest way to cope [with being multiply overwhelmed] is not to try to avoid being overwhelmed, and certainly not to expect to be in control of everything; rather it is to live amidst the overwhelmings in a way that lets one of them be the overwhelming that shapes the others. That is the “home” or “school” in which the practicalities of coping can be learnt.” (David Ford, The Shape of Living, p.xxv)
Perhaps, after all, resilience language does need to be jettisoned. Conviviality, as Illich describes it, turns out to be a very particular form of 'being overwhelmed' - a form which, within Ford's theological ecology, includes 'facing' and 'feasting', singing and dancing, thanking and lamenting, and more. From a very particular kind of vulnerability comes an 'overflow' of both joy and responsibility which cannot be contained by locality, ghettoed or gated communities, or structures which perpetuate inequalities. At the same time both liberating to 'live outside' the system, and liberating to engage with and resist the system as it is, it allows us to recover, among other things, a utopian imagination of the kind that Thomas Moore envisioned: 'a site of human togetherness and shared access to resources' (Evans & Reid, p.97).

We are being invited, I suggest, to engage in the practice what feminist theologian Sarah Coakley describes as a kind of receptiveness or 'contemplation'. When it keeps silence, it is certainly not being silenced: rather, she says, 'it is the voluntary silence of attention, transformation, mysterious interconnection, and (in violent, abusive, or oppressive contexts) rightful and divinely empowered resistance: it is a special "power-in-vulnerability"... Contemplation engenders courage to give voice, but in a changed, prophetic key' (Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality and the self: an essay 'on the Trinity', pp.84-85).

And that voice, as founder of community organising Saul Alinsky knew well, depends on a receptiveness to discovering a utopian imagination, and a freedom to start living it into reality, before our acts of resistance to the injustices of 'the world as it is' can be more than simply 'perverse protest'. We need to deliberately shape our political actions, Alinsky would insist, 'simultaneously to declare the unjust way to be untrue and to present a possible alternative through which all may flourish.' There has to be 'a constructive alternative', argues Luke Bretherton, such that 'the declaration of a "No" to something is always premised on the prior celebration and upholding of a "Yes" to another way, a way in which both oppressor and oppressed are invited to participate' (Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics, p.79). In other words, conviviality and resistance - both rooted in but overflowing the local - go hand in hand.


  1. This is very good, Al - I like the way you highlight the difficulties with resilience but also find value in it. I also like Williams' 'arts' which keep communities alive and hopeful. I don't think I pay half as much attention to cunning (which after all Jesus seems to rate - in its place) as I should...

  2. Hi, I am from Australia.
    Please find an essay (Open Letter) that was written in response to the Kosovo crisis and then reworked in response to Sept 11.
    The various themes of the above essay/letter were extended and published in the form of the book introduced here:
    A related essay on the hell-deep universal fear, sorrow & anger
    This essay on the universal scape goat "game"
    On emotional-sexual Understanding & the Feminine Principle
    The Rebirth of Sacred Art & the renewal of the culture of intimacy via the Pleasure Dome Principle