The system's connectedness increases, eventually becoming over-connected and increasingly rigid in its control. It becomes an accident waiting to happen.C. S. Holling, 1973
Merely a couple of decades ago, we were still unaware of the planetary disasters unfolding in the shadows of modern civilization. In 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. It was the first impactful environmental science book decrying the use of pesticides; the nascent beginning of a cultural shift towards ecological consciousness. Yet, the following crises of the 1970s were still primarily concerned with culture, the economy, and politics. Still far from the human mind was the realization of the all-encompassing crisis that Carson began to illustrate. A crisis that in radical ways assaults the very spirit of modernity and questions our techno-scientific "liberation" from Nature. Forty years later, "everything has changed." The simultaneous ravaging of a changing climate and a pandemic stretches civilizational confidence of "progress" and begins to reveal the insidious philosophical and cultural paradoxes underlying reality’s problematic.
Throughout the last decades, one term has gradually followed late modernity's crash between humanity and the planet: "resilience"—this omnipresent, abstract, and yes, almost metaphysical, character trait of system complexity. Nature, culture, humans, individuals, collectives, and animals: in one way or another, all systems are today considered under the “resilience” spotlight. Let us ask then: What is resilience? Can anyone actually pinpoint the nature of resilience with full confidence in any One or any Thing?
Many understand resilience to be synonymous with another abstract term that follows catastrophic humanity: "stability." Today, we are asked—and almost culturally forced—to be stable, be strong, be empowered, to overcome, and get on with our lives; as if nothing ever happened in the first place. However, resilience is actually an extremely misunderstood term and becomes incorrectly applied to entire domains of life. Hailing from a distinctly creative and critical analysis of ecological systems' existence, resilience became contextually transformed throughout the last 30 years, reapplied, and misunderstood a dozen times. Today we believe resilience to be an integral part of human psychology, a so-called "mental-health-muscle" that millions globally attempt to train by various practices of self-construction and -preservation.
But there is, in fact, a deep conflation of what the concept of resilience was originally meant to portray, and, therefore, also make possible. In 1973, Canadian ecologist Crawford Stanley "Buzz" Holling intellectually "invented" its modern meaning. By becoming-witness to the largely aggressive practices of natural resource extraction, Holling turned frustrated with the industrial imagination and capitalist reasoning, and set out to transform humanity's understanding of Ecology. Until his famous essay 'Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems' (1973), the common human perception of Nature's existence was one of constant equilibrium. One can imagine an enlightened, modernized, secular, and still-ignorant human believing that nature will simply reproduce what has been extracted from it. What was later called a "maximum sustained yield"—a system’s certain sustainability by always returning to a previous state of equilibrium and, therefore, must be a renewable resource—was understood to not only be temporally false but a fatal misappropriation from something that was confirmable in the discipline of classical physics and became incorrectly applied to a living, vital, breathing system of an ecological home.
Thus, Holling understood the necessity of reforming our physics-oriented, and therefore ontological, understanding of nature to save it from large-scale destruction. His doctrine was one of quality and not quantity. In the qualitative view, the "unexpected" takes center-stage; moments of intense disequilibrium are recognized and focused on. Thus, the constancy of stability is less important, but the persistence of relationships active in a system is being paid attention to. Ultimately Holling unveiled a paradox: our focus on stability might be antagonistic to create or actually secure stability since that very focus increased extinction chances. Now, with Holling's reconfiguration of ecosystemic existence, away from stability and into uncertainty; destruction, renewal, and reorganization took center stage. And here, Holling's "ecological resilience" plays a vital role. He realized that an ecosystem's breakdown occurs whenever an external factor enters a coherent and stable system. A forest's external factor is the fire, started by, for instance, a cigarette or an extreme weather event whose origin lies outside the forest. The forest burns down— it breaks down. A viewer looks at the burned-down forest and perceives destruction and death, but the forest has not died in actuality; it becomes resilient. Its fire-catastrophe, in fact, ruptured its previous vital connections: the trees, the leaves, the ground, the earth, the fungi, the animals, the insects, and so on. The catastrophe, thus, enables the forest's rebirth by enabling new experimentation and innovation, the ultimate "creative destruction."
Hence, we must recognize that resilience as it was meant in its original conceptualization is not a trait that can either be trained or artificially augmented in an already fully functioning, interconnected system. Resilience also does not equal stability, nor does it become active in an "undisturbed" system in a pre-catastrophic condition. Resilience is learned in the post-catastrophic operation of inhabiting a crisis that has unfolded. When a system—and now we can broaden the concept to include systems of companies, states, collectives, or individual psychologies—becomes over-rigid in its pre-existent connections, it is an "accident waiting to happen." A single external factor can affect the inflexible, over-rigid, uber-stable system in destructive ways so that it fully breaks down. The breakdown, however, actually liberates all of the system’s innate virtual potential, and now, in its post-breakdown state, the system begins to experiment, renew, and reorganize itself in an operation of becoming.
Thus, when speaking of "adaptation in the face of adversity," as so often the case when one attempts at explaining resilience, it never merely means adapting to one's changing environment without changing oneself. Resilience is the process of "becoming-different," not of staying-the-same-but-now-stronger. And here we find a valuable moment for innovation: a system's post-catastrophic location in the vast possibilities of creation and novelty.
We can learn from this how to understand, perceive, and interact with our contemporary disturbing external entity: the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. While many believe that we are merely adapting to new social, medical, or psychological conditions, we might better think of this as a radical (even if potentially transient) transformation brought about by it. These changes call for creativity and experimentation. Metaphorically speaking, companies are thus forced to begin an operation of experimentation to find new ways of existing with new socio-environmental conditions. The pandemic has presented our clients with unique challenges, which we have inherited as creative problem-solvers. Collectively, we’ve had to face circumstances demanding greater flexibility and experimentation.
Our client, the fem_arc STUDIO, for instance, was forced to rapidly reconfigure their identity as an on-site activity planned workshops in order to continue their existence as a design studio of feminist intersectional architects. We entirely rethought the website’s original plans and design and created a digital studio supplying the diverse participants’ with a new home for their spatial practices and debates. In light of the pandemic, therefore, the studio asked itself: "Can we imagine experimental and provocative spaces that liberate and value diverse bodyminds, rather than merely going back to perpetuating a world designed for normative bodies and relationships?" The convergence of threats and the entry of the unexpected affected both the practical and technological grounding of fem_arc STUDIO. Crucially, it also affected the "soul" of the practice by becoming integrated with the debates and practices of the participants. The practitioner's resilience made possible the all-encompassing creative experimentation necessary to find ways to live well with a newly materializing reality.
Similarly, the Soura Film Festival was in a months-long limbo of how the first Europe-based queer film festival with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa could in fact occur in October 2020. Clam Order designed and realized the website and implemented various alternatives in the background in order to quickly react to the rapidly changing socio-political and legal reality. The festival was a success and the “experimental” process of building the website was the “resilience” of an unstable mental and physical reality. We must recognize that in order to become resilient, we are called on to pass through the catastrophe and inhabit the so-transformed environmental, political, social, and mental conditions fully. To find appropriate and livable ways out of crises, one must also perceive the importance and "value" of crises in the first place. This is not to devalue moments of peace and tranquility, quite the opposite; in a world permeated by what seems like constant disasters, we moderns must face and pay full attention to a newly transformed planetary condition in order to truly learn from what Nature has always taught us: change is inevitable, experimentation and creation essential, and resilience existential.