Beyond resistance and resilience

Minutes after burning the manuscript of his drama so that he and his freezing bohemian friends can keep warm, poet Rodolfo meets Mimi, a sick embroiderer of flowers, and introduces himself: “What do I do? I write. And how do I live? I live.”

In her provocative book Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism (Zero Books, 2015), philosopher of music Robin James argues forcefully that, instead of working as oppositional endurance and defiance, resilience serves neoliberal biopolitics (181): “Resilience is one technique for producing the ‘life’ or the ‘bio’ in biopolitics. It takes potentially deadly or debilitating damage and recycles it into new, stronger, better life, both for the resilient individual, and, more importantly, for the groups and societies to which that individual belongs. Resilience is a positive feedback loop” which has been “co-opted so that it’s a normalizing rather than a critical, counter-hegemonic practice” (167). It is a discourse that recycles “damage into more resources” (7), “noise into signal” (165). It does not renew, it re-authorizes in the name of sustenance.

Here there is a lesson to learn from the remains of resistance: “As many theorists have noted, traditional concepts and practices of ‘resistance’ have been so successfully co-opted by neoliberal hegemonies that they no longer have any counter-hegemonic punch. If you can’t ‘resist’ neoliberalism, what do you do? How can you critique or subvert the power over life?” (23) Since we are all resilient now, subversion may come only from the inside: “For those of us tasked with the labor of resilience, the question is this: how do we turn resilience against itself?” (181)

To pursue this, James mobilizes the distinction between mourning and melancholy: “Resilience is the contemporary update of mourning. … In this context, melancholia is not the failure to resolve a lack but a misfired resilience, the failure to bounce back enough and/or in the right direction” (19). In contrast to the success of resistance, which is so often appropriated, the failure to regain biopolitical strength is useless to co-opt since it’s good for nothing. “Melancholy isn’t opposed to or outside resilience. … [It] is not the rejection or refusal of resilience… Melancholic behaviors are ones that are judged to be insufficiently resilient” (20). They ignore health guidelines and warnings. Instead of overcoming damage, they wallow in it. “Instead of intensifying and investing in life, melancholics go into the death” (18). “If hegemony compels us to live, what sorts of counter-hegemonic potential is there in going into the death?” (25) Melancholy is “a method of going into the death” (20) of the medicalized biopolitical population (21) by underperforming in the economy of normality.

“So instead of producing dysfunction, as accelerationism does, melancholy produces suboptimal functionality, functionality that just doesn’t feel like it’s profitable enough” (20). “Melancholic subversion” deconstructs resilience by making “bad investments” (21) in unprofitable enterprises.

While searching in the dark with Mimi for the key to her room, Rodolfo finds her “cold little hand.” Ignoring every sense of resilience, he spends four melancholic acts trying to warm it up and “going into the death.”

November 19, 2017

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