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David Chandler “Resilience and the Autotelic Subject”

Chandler, David 2013. Resilience and the Autotelic Subject: Toward a Critique of the Societalization of Security. International Political Sociology 7: 210-226.

Fillipa Lentzos and Nikolas Rose, for example, in their critique of understandings that security discourses seem to be leading to the securitization of life, observe that we are witnessing “perhaps the opposite of a ‘Big Brother State’” (Lentzos and Rose 2009:243). Discourses of resilience do not centrally focus upon material attributes (military equipment, technology, welfare provisions, etc.) that can be provided by governments as a way of protecting populations or responding after an event. Resilience concerns attributes of the population, both as individuals and communities, which cannot be directly provided by state authorities. For this reason, discourses of resilience do not fit well with traditional liberal framings of security practices as state-centric, national or territorial forms of mobilization, protection, or regulation. (211)

It appears that resilience practices are transforming security discourses from concerns with external threats to fears over the domestic or internal coping and adaptive capacities of individuals and their communities. (212)

Once the human subject is understood as lacking in the capacity to make “free choices,” the private sphere of freedom and autonomy becomes problematized and “life”—that is, the formally private sphere beyond and separate from the public sphere of government—becomes the subject of governance.4 This focus on the inner world of both the state (the milieu of societal life) and the individual (their decision-making capability) operates to efface the traditional subject categories upon which liberal discourses of security, sovereignty, rights, and law were based. Discourses of societal resilience thereby societalize security in their reduction of the formally separate liberal sphere of securing rights and interests into the “everyday practices” of the social sphere, now understood as the source or cause of the problems to be dealt with (see Chandler 2010, 2012b). (214)

The problematic of “bounded rationality” suggests that societal resilience needs to inculcate generic capabilities to equip people with the capacity to make decisions in situations where they have limited knowledge or experience. The inculcation of resilience, in fact, depends on the dematerializing or abstraction from specific risks or insecurities, to become a mode of life, a way of social being: “Risk communication cannot be detached from our everyday lives. It has to be hotwired into our decision-making processes and behaviours” (Edwards 2009:43). In making resilience a matter of the “everyday,” the exceptional event becomes subsumed into the life process itself—choices of university, life partner, insurance policy, child rearing, etc.—subsuming responses to external risk, such as terrorist attack or environmental disaster, under the generic policy concerns of societal governance. (215)

In terms of genealogical framings, it is important to emphasize that what is key in the work of new institutional economics, and developed in the ideas of Hayek, is a conceptual framework of critique and inversion of classical liberal assumptions. This critique was based upon the dethroning or decentering of the human subject as a rational agent, capable of securing itself through knowing and shaping its external world. Even though Hayek does not explicitly frame his understanding in terms of resilience, the individual, subject-centered problematic of learning and adaption, and the influential role of the societal milieu—central to today’s societal discourses of resilience—is fully present. (216)

Giddens states that in the preliberal age, or pre-Enlightenment era, the main conceptual framework for dealing with, or rationalizing, unexpected events or contingencies was through the understanding of fate or nature or God— catastrophic events could not be prevented, merely accepted. In the liberal era, the dominant framework of understanding was that of “risk” or “accident,” a framework which highlighted the borders of control and could be calculated, minimized, or insured against—the point being that “accidents” or “risks” were conceptualized as external factors, outside control.7 Giddens argues that today there is no outside to the human world and therefore no external risk. Once the problem is understood in terms of manufactured risk—setbacks and damage as a consequence of the decisions we take ourselves—work on the self is the only area through which these problems can be addressed. (218-219)

Giddens’ work is very important for understanding and drawing out the consequences of a societalized conception of security within discourses of resilience, and its relationship to our understanding of the human subject. The key point Giddens makes is that societal security has to be addressed at the level of the inner life or the inner capacities of the individual, rather than the material level. This transformation occurs through welcoming insecurity and establishing a proactive relationship to potentially destabilizing security risks: “Schemes of positive welfare, orientated to manufactured rather than external risk, would be directed to fostering the autotelic self. The autotelic self is one with an inner confidence which comes from self-respect, and one where a sense of ontological security, originating in basic trust, allows for a positive appreciation of social difference. It refers to a person able to translate potential threats into rewarding challenges, someone who is able to turn entropy into a consistent flow of experience. The autotelic self does not seek to neutralize risk or to suppose that “someone else will take care of the problem”; risk is confronted as the active challenge which generates self-actualization.” (1994:192, emphasis added) (220)

The autotelic self is understood as an individual capable of self-governing in a world of contingency and radical
uncertainty. The autotelic self turns insecurity into self-actualization, into growth. The subject being interpellated—the “autotelic self”—is very different from the universalized subject of liberal modernity. Whereas the modern liberal subject was assumed to have the will and capacity to collectively act on and to transform, to secure and to know its external world, the transformative activity of the autotelic self is restricted to the internal and cognitive realm. (220)

The reduction of politics to the administration of life was a central concern for Arendt, who argued that “through society it is the life process itself which in one form or another has been channeled into the public realm” (1998:45). The problematic of the societal influencing of behavioral choices she believed “reduce[d] man as a whole, in all his activities, to the level of a conditioned and behaving animal” (1998:45). Rather than understanding and resolving problems through action in the external world, this framing “concerns only a possible change in the psychology of human beings—their so-called behaviour patterns—not a change of the world they move in” (1998:49). For Arendt, this was a “psychological interpretation, for which the absence or presence of a public realm is as irrelevant as any tangible, worldly reality” (1998:49). (220)

The reduction in social, economic, political, and ecological questions to ones of individual choice-making capacities and environmental choice-shaping interventions is so pervasive, we often do not give the broader discourses of societal resilience a second thought. In essence, discourses of societal resilience seek to extend the responsibility of individuals to the world itself, insofar as it becomes reduced to the product of individual behavioral choice. Here, the subject, considered individually and communally, is held to be autotelic—to cognitively construct its own life or world. (222-223)