Don’t Call Me Resilient

Sylvette Babin
Our ability to adapt to a shock, trauma, or crisis is phenomenal. This resilience, not just of humans but of all animal and plant life, is so powerful that the word itself has a positive connotation, suggesting a remarkable aptitude for overcoming adversity and even emerging stronger. Nevertheless, forthright statements such as Stop calling me resilient and I’m tired of having to be resilient are surfacing on a recurring basis throughout communities, in reaction to the “toxic positivity” of an excessively evoked resilience.

In recent years, the concept of resilience has become as widespread in the fields of psychology and environmental science as in that of financial management (where it has even gained the status of a buzzword). Every time there is an economic, social, or environmental crisis, it is invoked as the answer to unresolved issues or problems whose solutions are no longer even sought out. The essayist Naomi Klein writes about the “shock doctrine,” which she defines as a “brutal tactic of systematically using the public’s disorientation following a collective shock.”1 1 - Naomi Klein, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 13. Not surprisingly, capitalism fully benefits from both these crises and the resilience they produce, because they lead to the implementation of even more extreme capitalist policies.

In preparing this issue, we reflected on how we might respond to the constant onslaught of a new reactionary right. Based on the critical role that we believe art can play, we examined how we might go beyond painting a grim picture of the state of the world in order to fight against the current climate of pessimism. We also wanted to look at the potential of art to be a guardian of resilience, both for artists and for the people experiencing their works, and thereby examine its healing power. In response to the notion that humans are endowed with “natural and spontaneous resilience” the neuropsychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik cautions against what he calls “resigned optimism.” He notes that the “lessening of suffering is not the result of a natural virtue; it comes about by rebuilding solidarity and working out meaning by trying to explain it. Those who take a long time to recover from trauma or who never recover are those who have been abandoned by the group.”2 2 - Boris Cyrulnik, Autobiographie d’un épouvantail (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2008), 42 (our translation). In other words, to have resilience, first we must have solidarity. Faced with the human misery caused by many crises, are we found lacking in compassion? For example, what does the recent closure of Roxham Road at the Canadian-U.S. border tell us about our governments’ willingness to find solutions other than abandoning migrants to their fate?

Rather than praising individual resilience, in which humans are both the victims of trauma and responsible for its healing, the essays in this issue call for resistance. As Kristen Lewis writes in the opening essay, “Refusal breaks down the token placations associated with resilience thinking, which projects a future only according to the power structures of the present.” She makes a distinction between the presumed inactivity of refusal and the power underlying the rejection of an unjust situation. Nathalie Batraville and Ariane De Blois address this power through the concept of disruptive agency, understood here as a practice of empowering victims of systemic oppression. In their view, agency, or the power to act, is motivated both by love and by rage, which are seen as closely connected actions (rather than emotions).

As recurrent ecological disasters have also produced their share of trauma, the challenges of the climate crisis are also broadly tackled in this issue. In addition, the fear of nuclear disaster, revived by the war between Russia and Ukraine, no doubt amplifies our state of anxiety. Although art may play an important role in our ability to transcend fear, Cody Caetano emphasizes that simply reproducing what frightens us does not provide us with a “codex” of resilience. He suggests that we draw inspiration from the Anishinaabe concept of the world, in which “humanity takes its place along an ongoing, lifelong movement,” an approach that puts our presence in the universe into perspective. Other artists have chosen to equip themselves with conceptual and legal tools in order to fight climate crime. In this context, Marie J. Jean points out that “while neoliberal ideology has hijacked the concept of resilience by using a rhetoric apparently marked with good intentions, the imaginary appears to be a more successful tool for bringing about a radical transformation of the behaviours and actions that have caused the climate crisis.” Perhaps it is through actions that are concrete, yet not without poetry, that art can contribute to real social change and take part in ecological resilience. Nature’s potential for resilience (and resistance) is a particularly inspiring model for artists. The analogy between marginalized people and weeds — a debatable term, as Giovanni Aloi reminds us — is expressed here through the refusal to conform (to a territory or policy) and the power to resist normativity.

Lastly, in addition to its critical approach, this issue also considers social and cultural healing, love, and kindness. It seems that by agreeing to work toward social solidarity and climate justice, we are in the process of returning to resilience its connotation of hope.

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

Sylvette Babin
Sylvette Babin
Sylvette Babin
This article also appears in the issue 108 - Resilience

Suggested Reading