'Resilience', I discovered when writing the application for this project, is one of those austerity/scarcity buzzwords used by policy makers to help shape visions for the future. The idea is that cities, communities and individuals must learn resilience so they can absorb the 'shocks' of a malfunctioning economic system and, increasingly, the results of climate change. If we can become resilient, the logic follows, catastrophes can be subsumed by the resilient social-economical body and business as usual can keep on rolling.
I worry about using resilience to think about the activities explored in "Emergenc(i)es"1, especially in terms of the social practice of improvisation. This is partly because in practice I believe improvisation can help communities become more resilient - in the non-capitalist sense. One of the ways it can do this is by strengthening social bonds through the invention of novel forms of communication. Noise, gesture, gibberish and the relational/vibrational qualities of sound can become especially meaningful in improvised encounters. Conflict may be transmuted in a flurry of rhythms that combine, separate and co-exist; energy can be generated and dispensed - those who make the sounds share in the creative, communicative encounter. Of course such outcomes are not guaranteed, and perhaps need to be lovingly facilitated; someone must signal that it is safe and possible to communicate or even 'to be' this way, to depart from the 'normal way' we communicate. Those who enter into such improvisational acts are, I believe, bound together; they exit altered, yet integrated.
What if such a resource, which does 'work', is used to help people become resilient in the way disaster capitalism requires? A key skill improvisers can acquire is to be comfortable 'in the moment': the ability to respond to a sound, gesture or rhythm change immediately. Such responsive qualities are undoubtedly important for surviving in any neoliberal workplace and environment. How often do you read on job applications the questions: how well can you quickly and effectively adapt to change? The social practice of improvisation is, however, not solely about learning how to be responsive; it is also about listening and responding with another, and to whatever emerges through the encounter. The practice is the end in itself; it has no input/output logic. It arrives, circulates and disappears. It leaves a memory and creates a structure of relational feeling. That structure is often weird and indeterminate, sometimes beautiful but often ugly. The improvised activity appeals to the memory of freedom, understood here as the capacity to aimlessly wander, interact and exit where one chooses, or feels compelled to.
Is this social conception of freedom disappearing in the networked control of the digital world? Perhaps it only existed for a privileged few anyway, or never really existed for anyone. Maybe freedom is just imaginary, something that can only appear as an accidental fissure piercing the monolithic march of history, which always seems wedded to the victory of the powerful. Even if freedom doesn't exist, or only exists as a memory, hope or suggestion, it does not mean we should not fight to protect it. And the freedom that can be glimpsed through improvised practice - a freedom that always emerges with others - is unquantifiable, in any unitary sense.
Within this historical context, which is characterised by the deep infiltration of digital technologies in our everyday lives that meticulously control, track and anticipate individual and collective behaviour, there is a real need to preserve alternative social mechanisms that can nurture the accidental and emergent within our relationships. The social practice of improvisation creates one such unprogrammable context where 'all the threatened and delicious things [can practice] joining one other (without conjoining it, that is, without merging) in the expanse of Relation'2.
Author's website: http://deborahwithers.net/
2: Édouard Glissant, 2005, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 62.