Opening Speech Schlosstheater: Andreas Reckwitz

Professor of Social Theory and Cultural Sociology
Humboldt University in Berlin

When trying to draw conclusions from the Covid 19- crisis for the future, resilience has appeared as a key term of public debate. It could indeed become a crucial concept for the post-Covid 19 era, or even for 21st century politics as a whole. For, it appears to literally impose itself on us, if we try to derive a reasonable lesson from the handling of the pandemic: Societies must become more resilient. Individuals should work on their mind and psychic structure to gain resilience, and the state should provide a framework for society to do so. Resilience is generally about the ability to be prepared for undesirable, even shocking events. The idea is that these events are stressful and charging, but the aim must be not to break down under their load. However, it is not only the Covid 19 crisis that is making resilience more and more a political goal. What seems necessary is a flexibility of behaviour in order to survive without existential damage. The motto of resilience seems to be, talking with the German philosopher Nietzsche: What doesn’t kill the individual, makes it only stronger!

Now in the past decade, the pandemic has not been the only test to social adaptability. Rather, Western societies have repeatedly been confronted with crises that have put their resilience to the test: the financial crisis, the migration crisis, repeated terrorist attacks and, as a permanent stressor, the climate crisis. However, when it comes to resilience, not sociologists or politiciansm but psychologists have led the way: Since the 2000s, therapy and counselling have discovered resilience as a key concept for long-term crisis prevention in the face of burnout syndromes. So resilience is a hot, but also contested topic, a central term concerning new forms of steering, governance and self-government. It is therefore worth taking a closer look. What is important from my point of view, is that the term refers to an elementary change in perspective. In some respects, the idea of resilience even shakes up the modern understanding of progress: it replaces a policy of positivity with a policy of negativity. So, an offensive strategy of increasing possibilities here is supplanted by a sceptical strategy of risk absorption. Now, there is no doubt that in some respects this seems promising. At the same time, however, the ambition to pursue resilience contains some problematic presuppositions of which we should be aware. My talk is above all on these problematic side-effects of resilience as a goal for individuals and for society.

Let’s begin with the history of the concept. The term resilience originally comes from physics, or more precisely, from materials science. It refers to the property of a body to return to its initial state undamaged after a deformation. In a sense, the external disturbance bounces off the body: You punch the ball, it gives way – but in the end it has not lost any of its spherical shape. Psychology has adopted this idea since the 1950s. Initially, it was developed in the psychology of children and youth and was about explaining why in their early development some young persons cope better with psychological trauma than others. This was a question of a psychology of personalities. However, resilience has quickly turned from a notion of psychological diagnosis into one of therapy. In order to prevent exhaustion disorders, for example, it is now taken to be an important goal to systematically train oneself in resilience. The regulation of one’s own negative emotions seems as a first basic requirement for a resilient life, as second condition is self-efficacy, i.e. everyday training in overcoming one’s own sense of powerlessness.

Now, psychology itself is a social phenomenon: the way it thinks about individuals reveals something crucial about the values and problems of society as a whole. From this point of view, the career of resilience in the last decade is remarkable. For, initially, from the 1960s onwards the so-called “positive psychology” was the guiding force in therapy, that is a school of thought centred on visions of self-development and self-growth: a psychology whose ideal is an individual who leaves constraints behind, tries things out with relish and realises his or her desires. Positive psychology is centered on the expansion of individual possibilities for a satisfactory life. In contrast, the starting point of resilience psychology is much more sceptical. Now it says: one must inevitably reckon with negative events in one’s life, with shocks and catastrophes that threaten to throw the individual off balance. Resilience training is ultimately about strategies that disturbances don’t turn into traum, it is about a survival training for the individual.

Policymakers have not yet paid such close attention to resilience issues as psychologists have, but they are rapidly catching up. What would a politics of resilience look like that is to say politics the aim of which is to strengthen the resilience of society? Crucially, such a politics implies afundamentally different perspective on society than do classical forms of governance. Here, too, the goals are reversed: from striving for the new and positive to avoiding or enduring the negative. From the point of view of resilience, society appears less as a space for departure into a progressive future than as being in a state of elementary vulnerability. The task now is to prevent the worst. It should be emphasized: A state that is primarily oriented towards resilience would differ fundamentally from those models of governance that have dominated Western countries since 1945. Historically, there have been two main types of government here: the welfare state of the 1950s to 1970s and the competitive state since the 1980s. The welfare state model sets itself the goal to build social security, avoid economic imbalances and create equal living conditions for all. The competitive state model aimed to increase competitiveness in a globalized world and personal responsibility in society. In part, it joined up with a progressive liberalism which advocates personal rights and a reduction in discrimination. Both models of of the state are different, but they share the perspective of classical modernity, and its guiding principle is progress. This idea of politics takes as point of departure a certain pattern of temporality, namely the expectations of a better future. The future appears here as a space for the development of positive opportunities. It is open, and it must be conquered for social improvements in the direction of freedom, equality, innovation, emancipation etc.. This was the credo of the Enlightenment, and it has been deeply anchored in the self-understanding of modern politics.

However, if resilience is now emerging as a new guiding principle for politics, this means a reversal of perspective: the future now appears as a space of risks to which society is exposed. Positive expectations and a belief in feasibility are replaced by a normalisation of negative expectations for the future. Society now appears as a system that is repeatedly exposed to violent disturbances. These threaten the social equilibrium. The basic assumption of the politics of resilience was developed by Ulrich Beck as early as in his 1986 book “Risk Society”: Society would endanger itself in unpredictable ways – be it through ecological catastrophes such as climate change, through diseases that spread epidemically at breakneck speed with globalization, or through financial crises or terrorist attacks.

A politics of resilience is thus a politics of the negative with a long-term perspective. It learns from ever new crises and catastrophes by trying to “prepare society for the worst”. Resilience thus forms the centre of a whole conceptual field of sceptical politics, in which prevention and security play a central role. The future now appears fundamentally uncertain, while resilience measures are supposed to increase the degree of security. In this context, resilience and prevention often go hand in hand: while resilience creates precautions so that negative events that do occur are “absorbed”, prevention attempts to create precautions so that these events occur as rarely as possible.

What are possible actions an procedures of a politics of resilience? It is difficult to give a general answer to this question, as different concrete policies are involved depending on the problem area in question. Just to give some examples: A well-organised public health system is certainly a key resilience measure, not only to contain future pandemics. A reliable digital infrastructure facilitates societal coordination under time pressure in the event of a disaster. In the face of climate change, a country like the Netherlands can gain resilience by relocating populations from areas that are below sea level. Functioning and competent security bodies are certainly essential in the event of a possible terrorist attack.

However, the problem with social risks is that it is impossible to foresee in which field they will next turn into a concrete threat. We are now reasonably sensitised to climate change and pandemics, but could the next thing that happens be a digital super-crash of the kind we have only seen in science fiction films? And are we prepared for it? Generally one must stress: the realm of risk holds a lot of “unknown unknowns”. For resilience policy, something akin to a broad-spectrum antibiotic in medicine would be desirable: measures that are potentially effective against a wide range of threats. By the way, this is also the secret of psychological resilience training: for, the individual does not know where the next impact will come from in his or her life – work, partnership, family, illness -, but practicing certain psychological cross-section competences – such as emotional regulations – ideally arms the individual for the most diverse eventualities.

What would be the counterpart to this on a social level? What would be a broadband antibiotic for e politics of resilience? Two cross-section characteristics appear central here: social trust and the ability to cooperate. Societies emerge better from crises when there is broad public trust in the reliability and fairness of institutions, and when people are able to cooperate politically across camp boundaries. Trust and the ability to cooperate would be fundamental features of a resilient society, but what is difficult about them is that they elude short-term political intervention. They can only grow over a prolonged period of time. The politics of resilience therefore rests in decisive ways on pre-political pillars.

There is no doubt that a paradigm shift towards a politics of resilience in the 21st century in some respect would be a smart or even wise move. Instead of always rushing after the latest catastrophes in the short term, one has to acknowledge the ubiquity of risks from which to develop appropriate long-term strategies. This is definitely a painful learning process, but perhaps also a sign of a society’s maturity. Instead of following empty visions of the future, it is necessary to reckon with the losses. Nevertheless, the problems of such sceptical politics should not be overlooked. Four such problems impose themselves, and I would like to look at them a bit more in detail:

First: Resilience building blends into the seemingly inevitable. The crises and catastrophes will happen anyway, we have to prepare for them. Resilience therefore reckons with unavailabilities or uncontrollabilties, with Unverfügbarkeit to use a German term which can hardly be translated. On the one hand, this is a sensible revision of classic modern thinking about feasibility. It is true that individuals and societies must learn that they are unable to control their future completely, and many processes happen which are not planned and to which one can only react. On the other hand, such a defensive strategy can turn into defeatism. Is it really necessary to adapt to every external disturbance, or is it not possible to redesign conditions in such a way that the disturbance does not occur in the first place? Of course, society should build resilience to terrorist attacks, for instance, but this should not inhibit the attempt to dry up the terrorist milieus themselves. Of course, it is wise to take precautions against the consequences of climate change such as heat waves or extreme weather, for example, but this certainly does not make politics which tackles climate change at its roots superfluous. Thus, in resilience there is a tendency to depower strategies of change by focussing rather on mere strategies of adaption.

A second problem of a politics of resilience is that, by focusing on possible disasters, it may create security fantasies which can become established within the state and in the minds of the population dreaming of comprehensive immunisation against all negative events. Such an extreme position may arise in particular if resilience and prevention are closely linked and the perception of omnipresent risks leads to an ever-decreasing tolerance for risk. At the level of statehood, there is a fine line between prevention regimes and a high-security policy that permanently restricts civil rights in favour of risk minimisation. This is equally true when dealing with pandemics, climate change or terrorism. To avoid such a fixation, insight into the risk of negative events would have to lead to a more balanced risk awareness: It is necessary to accept that social risks cannot be reduced to zero. In a way, an intelligent politics of risks could even emancipate itself from a strict regime of prevention: Then, it is easier to accept certain risks, as one is prepared also to negative events.

Third: Resilience means that individuals and societies gain in robustness. The ideal is the ball that remains unscathed even after hitting it repeatedly. Of course, at first glance this sounds like an uncontroversial goal: societies that emerge unscathed from the Covid 19-pandemic would be enviable. On closer inspection, however, one will conclude that robustness is not everything. This is the third problem. We know Bert Brecht’s story of Herr Keuner: “A man who had not seen Mr. K. for a long time greeted him with the words, ‘You haven’t changed at all.’ ‘Oh!’ said Mr. K., and turned pale.” This means: Robustness and resilience also mean getting no chance to transform at all. On the contrary, crisis forces transformational possibilities upon individuals and societies. This is not to point to the somewhat shallow advise that ‘crisis is a chance’. Societies would surely prefer to avoid pandemics and their deaths, but if such a crisis occurs there is the chance that it changes structures for the better. If one does not allow them to do so – for instance, as a result of extrem robustness – , the damage may follow ‘posttraumatically’ with a time delay, but all the more violently.

In general, negative events often mean loss and the experiences of loss. The most drastic case is death. A resilient person or society may try to quickly return to business as usual after the losses suffered. However, it may be wiser to integrate the experience of loss into the present and modify one’s behavior accordingly in the future. The Covid 19-crisis, for example, brutally confronts Western, relatively old societies with the fragility of their older populations in particular, or even with the question of which elements of one’s lifestyle are essential and which are dispensable. We do not yet know what consequences Western culture will draw from this, but ideally resilience would be balanced against a sensitiveness that allows individuals and society to self-transform. For, Nietzsche’s ideal of resilience, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger,” also proves to be an ideal of rigidity and entrenchment that lacks the actual strength of individuals and groups to deal sensitively with losses.

The fourth problem that resilience raises concerns the blind spot of a politics of the negative: can a modern society afford to not formulate positive goals and rather concentrate exclusively on dealing with inevitable catastrophes? Can it manage without the visions of progress or at least improvment? This is not merely a theoretical question. The sequence of diverse crises over the past decade has repeatedly put Western politics into a crisis mode that is becoming no longer the exception but the norm: Crises such as the financial or Covid 19- crises tie up considerable amounts of political energy over a period of years, so that other, long-term concerns and long-term aims can be lost from view. This is matched by social alarmism, with the media constantly pouncing on supposedly new or old moments of crisis. Resilience as a goal would fit well into this crisis mode. The problem is, however, that in this way negative expectations are normalized, and attention is focused on dealing with short-term real or potential evils, leading to a sort of social stagnation. Certainly, the classically modern norm of progress and the belief that society can be planned on the drawing board deserve scepticism. But to shift completely from the politics of the positive to the politics of the negative seems like an unnecessary reduction of possibilities.

Here, too, the parallel with psychology can help: That individuals should be made crisis-proof with the help of resilience training is only realistic. But to bury positive psychology’s hopes for self-development and self-growth under the ubiquity of survival training would be to sacrifice any further ambition on the altar of security. This can be applied to societies. We can use the metaphor of a leg to stand on and a leg to play here (Standbein and Spielbein in German): Resilience and prevention policies can target a necessary infrastructure of security and in this respect provide a leg to stand on without which societies risk becoming unbalanced. But this is not an end in itself; it could and should provide room for a free leg to play on: A politics beyond risk minimization, a politics of positive goals of societal improvement, whether in the direction of autonomy, prosperity, social justice, or sustainability. Debating these is the real task of the political in the modern age, and society’s interest in protection and precaution should not render this concern invisible.

Prof. Dr. Andreas Reckwitz is Professor of Social Theory and Cultural Sociology at Humboldt University in Berlin.
Previously, he was a professor at the University of Konstanz and the European University Viadrina and had guest professorships and research stays in Berkeley, London, St. Gallen, Vienna, Heidelberg, Freiburg and Bielefeld, among others. He was awarded the Bavarian Book Prize in 2017 and the Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation in 2019. He is the author of several books on cultural theory and theory of modernity, which have been translated into several languages, including “The hybrid subject” (2006), “The invention of creativity” (2012), “The society of singularities” (2017) and “The end of illusions “(2019; both published by Suhrkamp Verlag).
Andreas Reckwitz was a member of the ‘Education and Discourse’ advisory board of the Goethe Institute and is a regular guest author of the weekly newspaper “Die Zeit”.