The system's connectedness increases, eventually becoming over-connected and increasingly rigid in its control. It becomes an accident waiting to happen.
Just a few decades ago, the world was still unaware of the planetary disasters brewing in the shadows of modern civilization. European philosophy and modern science ushered in an epoch of a physicalist and rational genius, which intellectually and technologically embedded the Earth’s ecosystems, cultures, and minds into a singular grand reality we call the World. The enthusiastic choir for civilizational progress deafened fringe critical voices on what the scientific-technological revolution might engender down the lines of history. In 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. It was the first environmental science book with an impact, decrying the use of pesticides; the nascent beginning of a cultural shift towards ecological consciousness. Yet, the following decades' crises were still primarily concerned with material culture, the economy, and politics — not with “Nature.” Still foreign to the human mind was a comprehension of the all-encompassing crisis that Carson began to illustrate. A crisis that in radical ways assaults the very spirit of modernity and radically questions “humanity’s” emancipation from Nature. Sixty years later, everything has changed. The simultaneous ravaging of a changing climate and a pandemic stretches the civilizational confidence in “progress” and begins to reveal the insidious philosophical and socio-cultural paradoxes underlying this modern worldly problematic.
Throughout these last decades, one term has gradually followed late modernity’s clash between humankind and the planet: “resilience” — this omnipresent, abstract, and yes, almost metaphysical, faculty of system complexity. Nature, culture, humans, individuals, collectives, and animals: today, in one way or another, we consider all systems under the made-omnipotent term. However, the confusion surrounding resilience as an abstraction of an abstraction of an abstraction renders its potential corollaries an exercise in futility. Let us ask then: What actually is resilience? Can anyone truly pinpoint the nature of resilience with full confidence in anyone or anything?
Resilience as Creative Destruction
Presently, many understand resilience to be synonymous with another abstract term that follows a reality drenched in catastrophes: “stability.” Today, we are asked — almost culturally forced — to be stable, strong, flexible, empowered, and to overcome; to get on with our lives as if nothing adversarially ever happened in the first place. But resilience is really an acutely misconceived term that became — and continues to become — incorrectly applied to entire domains of modern life. Hailing from a distinctly creative and critical analysis of ecological systems’ existence, resilience became contextually transformed throughout the last thirty years, re-applied, and re-abstracted dozens of times. Thus, today the term pops up in the most divergent of corners: in national security strategies, bio-medical and psychiatric research papers, the names of disaster relief agencies, on the covers of popular self-help literature, as a tool for pedagogical training, and as an embodiment of an invented integral part of human psychology — as a so-called “mental-health-muscle” that millions attempt to train through the various popular practices of self-construction and -preservation which social media influencers, behavioral psychotherapists, pop-stars and politicians call on us to rehearse.
But there is, in fact, an intellectual misconception on what the concept of resilience was originally meant to portray and, therefore, also make possible. In 1973, Canadian ecologist Crawford Stanley “Buzz” Holling thoughtfully re-invented its age-old “simple” linguistic meaning into a theoretical concept. By becoming-witness to the aggressive practices of natural resource extraction, Holling turned frustrated with the industrial imagination and extractivist reasoning and set out to transform our 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, secular, but still-ignorant humanity believing that nature will simply reproduce what has been extracted from it. What became known as a “maximum sustained yield” — a system’s thought-to-be certain sustainability by always returning to its previous state of equilibrium and, therefore, inherent renewability — was understood to not only be temporally false but a fatal misappropriation of a concept confirmable in classical physics incorrectly applied to a living, breathing system of an ecological home.
Holling understood the necessity of reforming our physics-oriented, materialist understanding of nature to save it from large-scale destruction. His doctrine was one of quality over quantity. In this qualitative view, the “unexpected” is favored; moments of intense disequilibrium are recognized and practically focused on. Thus, a constancy of stability is rendered less important. The persistence of relationships active in a system was now being paid attention to. Ultimately, Holling unveiled a central destructive paradox: our focus on stability was to become antagonistic to the creation and actual attainment of stability since that very focus increased the chances of extinction as a whole. Now, with his reconfiguration of ecosystemic existence — away from stability and into uncertainty — destruction, renewal, and reorganization took center-stage. And here, Holling’s “ecological resilience” played the vital role. He realized that an ecosystemic breakdown occurs whenever an external factor enters a coherent and stable system.
A forest’s external factor is the fire, started by, for instance, an extreme weather event whose origins lie outside the forest, or a trekker's human-made cigarette. The forest burns down; it breaks down: this is an existential breakdown. An onlooker watches the burned-down forest and perceives only death and destruction. But the forest has not died in actuality; it is becoming resilient through resiliency’s activation. In fact, the fire-catastrophe ruptured its previously vital connections: the intricate assemblage of trees, leaves, ground, earth, fungi, animals, oxygen, and insects dissolves and is opened up to novel creation. The catastrophe, thus, enables the forest’s rebirth by disabling its rigidity of life and entrusting new experimentation and innovation by trusting the existential process — 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, stable system. Resilience does not equal stability, nor does it become active in an undisturbed system situated in a pre-catastrophic condition. Resilience becomes activated in a post-catastrophic operation of inhabiting a crisis that has unfolded. When a system — and now we can broaden the concept to include systems of economies, states, collective or individual psychologies — becomes over-rigid in its pre-existent connections, it is, according to Holling, an “accident waiting to happen.” A single external factor can affect this inflexible, over-rigid, uber-stable system in destructive ways so that it fully breaks down. This breakdown, however, liberates the system’s entire innate virtual potential. And now, in its post-catastrophic process of Being, 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 often the case with attempts at explaining resilience, it can never merely mean adapting to one’s changing environment without radically changing oneself. Resilience is the process of “becoming-different” by favoring difference, not of staying-the-same-but-now-stronger. And here, we can sense the valuable situated moment for innovation: a system’s post-catastrophic location in the vast possibilities of difference, creation, and novelty.
Innovation and Reorganization in Times of Crisis
We might learn from Holling how to understand, perceive, and interact with today’s 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 transformation brought about by it. The earlier belief in a merely transient halt to "normal" life now makes way to the realization of its affective permanence. These changes call for creativity and experimentation. Metaphorically speaking, individuals and companies are thus forced to begin an operation of experimentation in order 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.
For instance, our client, the fem_arc STUDIO, a design studio of feminist intersectional architects, reconfigured their identity as an on-site activity planned workshop rapidly. Clam Order has entirely rethought the website’s original design and site-architecture plans and created a digital studio that supplied the diverse participants’ with a new home for their spatial practices and debates. Thus, in light of the pandemic, 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 practitioners' activated resilience made possible the all-encompassing creative experimentation necessary to find ways to exist within 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 Middle Eastern and North African focus could, in fact, physically occur in October 2020. Clam Order designed and realized the website and implemented various last-minute activatable alternatives in the background to react to a rapidly changing socio-political and legal reality quickly. The festival was a success, and the experimental process of building the website enacted the resilience of a made-unstable mental and physical reality.
We must recognize that in order to become and be 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. Neither is it a deflection from the essential work-to-be-done of critically examining those anthropogenic and artificially induced planetary catastrophes in Nature and Culture, in an inequitable world-civilization that segregates its made-catastrophic subjects from the privileged non-catastrophic. Quite the opposite; in a world permeated by what seems like constant disasters, “we” moderns must face and pay full attention to a new transforming planetary condition in order to truly learn from what Nature has always taught us: change is inevitable, experimentation and creation essential, and post-catastrophic resilience existential.