March 20, 2013, by David Eckersley
The SRU seeks critique.
Posted below is the first draft of a piece of collective writing coming from the Sitting Room University (a project co-coordinated by a current and ex MA Critical Theory student amongst others) and destined for a publication accompanying a show we are contributing to called Landmark Seizure, taking place in the Aid+Abet contemporary art space in Cambridge. In it, we are tentatively sketching out a new line of enquiry and a new trajectory for our practice; we would greatly appreciate any feedback and critique. These are the first steps on what is tricky terrain so feel free to get stuck into it! We look forward to your comments.
Departing From Practices of Resistance, Towards an Ecology of Resilience?
THIS TEXT AIMS TO EXPLORE the following questions: what is an ‘ecology of resilience’? Why are we using it as a point of departure? And how does this concept relate to The Sitting Room University’s contribution to Landmark Seizures? To explore these questions we must first place this text in its contextual trajectory. The questions outlined here reflect numerous conversations between members of The Sitting Room University concerning the relationship between art, politics and activism, and the problematic dynamic of institutional recupertation and self-marginalisation. Contained within this exercise is a desire to work through, from humble beginnings, the tensions apparent in thinking politics and social change and doing politics in a practical, pre-figurative and interventionist sense. There have been disagreements and discomforts within the SRU regarding the rejection of and adoption of terminologies, as well as disagreements concerning (non)interaction with the state and its institutions. We realise that certain aspects of this exploratory operation signal problematic tensions, but we see this as a positive proposition – a kind of agonistic crowbar employed to prize open a space for discussion between the many different and often conflicting positions on radical practice and social change. We are not attempting to layout a programmatic politics, we do not pretend towards grand revolutionary ideals, we are aware of our individual and collective position and seek to explore practical possibilities within our enabling constraints. As with all of our beginnings, these propositions form the starting point for a critical and self-reflexive enquiry into the nature of what we are proposing. The SRU would like to explore the notion of an ‘ecology of resilience’ as the promotion of a consciousness that ‘we’ are inescapably part of a political, economic and cultural ecology; one which must be negotiated with critical reflection and productive cunning and invest in new ways of saying, making and doing.
To begin to answer the questions posed above, we must sketch out what we mean by ‘departing from practices of resistance’, ‘ecology’ and ‘resilience’. As each of these terms maintains a plethora of connotations clarification is necessary. Firstly, what do we mean by ‘departing from practices of resistance’? It is in thinking through and discussing artist/activist projects that have in the past taken an oppositional stance towards mainstream cultural institutions, resulting in a process of self-marginalisation, that the SRU began to question the efficacy of a purely oppositional stance. Before we proceed, it is important to note that we are not dismissing resistance as a concept and practice, for where there is power there will always be resistance. We accept that there are many of instances and contexts in which resistance is the only weapon against capitalist logic and the SRU places heavy emphasis upon resisting capitalist realism through the collective imagining and pre-figuring of alternative, egalitarian political and cultural spaces. What we are highlighting is that resistance has become a ubiquitous concept so embedded in the discourse of the ‘radical left’ that it is often used in a non-reflexive manner, often caught up in the problematic notion of an authentic-outside-of-capitalism: something the SRU would like to call into question. Furthermore, the notion of resistance often equates to a purely oppositional practice, eschewing all contact and negotiation with public (state) institutions. The SRU would like to interrogate this strategy and ask if this is the most effective mode of operation; particularly in the context of contemporary cultural institutions, one of the last remaining public spaces where (although somewhat compromised) progressive and critical dialogue and practice can take place – are we right to dismiss these spaces, or should we view them as cracks in the veneer of capitalism in which to sow the seeds of change? It should be emphasised here that we mean to investigate whether it is possible to maintain and promote an intellectual resistance alongside a more ‘negotiable’ practice.
Secondly, ‘ecology’: we wish to suggest an organic self-multiplying system of interconnections. This system emerges in a rhizomatic fashion and establishes bonds and affinities between seemingly unrelated practices, practitioners, disciplines and groups. This emergent formation cannot be reduced to an obvious set of beliefs, but indicates a shared attitude amongst those contributing to an open and porous system. The term ecology also presents an unknown proposition to the SRU and serves as a statement of intent, representing a desire to learn and establish if politico-cultural practices can reflect ecological systems.
And finally, we must clarify what ‘resilience’ equates to in this context. Unlike ecology, which harbours predominantly neutral connotations, the notion of resilience engenders problematic associations. When we learn that the term has been co-opted by neoliberal discourse and is now firmly entrenched as a political agenda, we can easily see why any theory of practice that supposes a radical critical framework and promotes resistance to capitalist logic, must carefully navigate the problems involved in dealing with this concept. Writing recently for Radical Philosophy, Mark Neocleous states that “resilience is by definition against resistance. Resilience wants acquiescence, not resistance. Not a passive acquiescence, for sure, in fact quite the opposite. But it does demand that we use our actions to accommodate ourselves to capital and the state, and the secure future of both, rather than to resist them.” Neocleous points out the different ways that resilience has become an active agenda in state discourse: from the US military fitness programme, originally centered on the notion of “Strong Minds, Strong Bodies” and now repackaged as “Building Resilience, Enhancing Performance”, and the suturing of national security considerations to a discourse of resilience (to the extent that there is presently resilience training for sniffer dogs!), with an underlying rhetoric of preparedness, in which the state “assumes that one of its key tasks is to imagine the worst-case scenario, the coming catastrophe, the crisis-to-come…” in turn making resilience “an apprehension of the future, but a future imagined as disaster” – resilience, therefore becoming “nothing less than the attempted colonization of the political imagination by the state”. Through documents generated by the UN, IMF and The World Bank, emphasising resilience as the method for “growing the wealth of the poor” with “sustained adjustment” marshalled as the model for achieving this culture of resilience. To the association of the concept of resilience with state “happiness agendas” mirrored by the multitudinous self-help manuals designed to promote a citizenship of balanced wellbeing in the face of the perpetual crisis of capital, something also reflected in the discourse of psychological associations, through which the key to mental wellbeing is the adoption of an attitude of resilience in the face of trauma. In short, the concept of resilience in its neoliberal guise “connects the emotional management of personal problems with the wider security agenda and the logic of accumulation during a period of crisis”. What we have then with the ‘resilience agenda’ is a peculiar situation in which the state and its institutions promote and institutionalise a culture of coping mechanisms for problems structurally inherent in capitalism that they themselves perpetuate. As Neocleous puts it: “Neoliberal citizenship is nothing if not a training in resilience as the new technology of the self: a training to withstand whatever crisis capital undergoes and whatever political measures the state carries out to save it”. So where does this leave us?
If Neocleous posits a (somewhat crude) dichotomy between resistance and resilience, the SRU would like to promote a dialectical approach to the problem. Doubtless, Neocleous’ analysis deserves close attention, and the conclusions he draws are crucial to a clearer understanding of the ideological quagmire upon which we stand, but is he right to place resistance in complete opposition to resilience? Whilst it is clear that the “colonization of the political imagination” must be resisted at all costs, when applying new political imaginations to practical projects, it is common to face difficulties, failures and undesirable outcomes; we need only think of activist interventions, occupations, actions etc. and resulting ‘burnout’. A member of the SRU was recently told by a friend how activists, presenting their experiences of the Dale Farm eviction appeared to be suffering from post-traumatic stress following the brutal suppression of the resistance; in cases such as this, is resilience not a key factor in the continuation of struggle? Admittedly, this is an extreme example, but on a more ‘everyday’ plane, practices that attempt to resist capitalist logic and transform socio-economic relations frequently encounter ideological, political or socio-economic barriers that can prove thoroughly demoralising; without an element of resilience, or some sort of coping strategy, how does one navigate this tricky terrain? It is through thinking mental health issues that this point becomes clearer: anyone who has suffered, or knows somebody who has suffered, serious problems with mental health – for example, psychosis, schizophrenia, suicidal tendencies, manic depression – will know that resistance to these psychic afflictions is often untenable, one may certainly resist the institutional treatments of the day, but resistance to the onset of serious mental illness is often impossible: coping strategies are needed, resilience is required.
The dichotomy presented in Neocleous’ analysis might work in a theoretical space of pure politics, where resistance equates to some sort of outside-of-capitalism, but is this outside a genuine possibility beyond the realm of thought? The SRU would like to suggest that on the practical plane this authentic withdrawal or outside, this space of pure politics, cannot exist; therefore, consideration must be given to the dialectical coupling of an intellectual resistance and a pragmatic resilience.
The SRU is not suggesting that we submit to ‘neoliberal citizenship’ and adopt an attitude of total acquiescence to capitalism and its agents; instead we are suggesting a rational acceptance that the instability of our current political-economic order will not magically vanish any time soon. Therefore, if we wish to establish practices with emancipatory aims, we must develop viable methods of working within this tainted space and give some weight to negotiating a critical-creative compromise. We are tentatively reclaiming the term resilience, which could be seen as emptied of its radical potential due to irrevocable contamination by neoliberal association, in order to attempt to fill it with an emancipatory and collective creativity: not to “accommodate” ourselves to capitalism and “secure” its future, rather, to develop new strategies for resisting its logic and constructing alternatives.
Having outlined our theoretical trajectory it is now time to engage with how the SRU’s contribution to Landmark Seizures relates to the notion of an ecology of resilience. The project cannot profess to have grandiose origins since the line of enquiry that led us here came from the fact that a member of the SRU needed a new laptop but did not have the funds to replace the old one. This financial conundrum led to serendipitous discoveries that informed the conception of the project. After a brief period of research it became apparent that an ageing machine with functional hardware could be given a new lease of life with Linux operating systems such as Xubuntu and Lubuntu. A computer that might have easily been discarded is now fully functional. This line of enquiry also led to the discovery of the Raspberry Pi: a small single board computer (credit card sized) developed by staff at Cambridge University, which retails in the region of £25. It was originally created as an educational device in order to encourage a new generation of computer programmers. However, it is also a computer in its own right, a capable multimedia hub and word processor with the ability to connect to the Internet. The SRU considers the myriad of possibilities presented by the Raspberry Pi to connect with the theme of ‘ecologies of resilience’. We are currently conditioned to spend comparatively large sums of money on computers that often only have a life span of 4-5 years, wouldn’t it be fantastic if this could be avoided? At a time of potential technological apartheid, the Raspberry Pi stands as an invention that could further democratise the Internet and other computer enabled functions to a greater demographic. Through facilitating a workshop to collectively design and build a media hub for Landmark Seizures, based around the Raspberry Pi and incorporating ‘broken’ computer and electronic hardware, the SRU is attempting to provide direct practical knowledge and skills concerning the circumnavigation of the aforementioned problems alongside a theoretical discussion relating both to the themes outlined above and the theme of the overall project: how might an art of use function?
As we have already stated, these are humble beginnings, but beginnings that the members of the SRU feel are vitally important: a platform from which to ask some important questions concerning politics, activism, cultural production and the accompanying attitudes. The answers? Well, these are down to you: we walk asking.
 For a good example see: Disobediance Makes History, a project by The Lab of ii.
 For a detailed discussion of ‘Capitalist Realism’ see: Fisher, M., 2009. Capitalist Realism. Winchester: O Books.
 A rhizome is a modified subterranean stem of a plant that is usually found underground, often sending out roots and shoots from its nodes. Rhizomes develop from auxiliary buds and grow perpendicular to the force of gravity. The rhizome also retains the ability to allow new shoots to grow upwards. If a rhizome is separated into pieces, each piece may be able to give rise to a new plant. The association between the term in its more traditional biological sense and its contemporary usage as part of social, political and cultural theory is largely down to the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.
 Neocleous, M., 2013. Resisting Resilience. Radical Philosophy, 178 (March/April), pp.2-7.
 Although here we are presenting one analysis of the neoliberal resilience agenda, it should be highlighted that there are numerous other critiques of the resilience agenda, and much readily available supporting evidence. This essay has been employed due to its succinct summation of this ideological shift.
 The dialectic has a long tradition in western philosophy from Plato onwards. We use it here, following Hegel, to point to conceptual development through the resolution of a conflict of forces.
 Dale Farm was a site in Crays Hill, Essex, owned by a large traveller community (at one point it housed over 1000 people). Following a ten year process, the courts deemed that half of the site was illegally occupied and a clearance order was issued. Activists from various countries gathered at the site to assist in resisting the eviction: this resistance was brutally suppressed.
 This is a phrase used by the Zapatistas to outline part of their revolutionary theory and practice.