Discursive Resilience





Discursive resilience, resilience, rhetoric.

How to Cite

Munro, A. (2013). Discursive Resilience. M/C Journal, 16(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.710
Vol. 16 No. 5 (2013): resilient
Published 2013-08-28

By most accounts, “resilience” is a pretty resilient concept. Or policy instrument. Or heuristic tool. It’s this last that really concerns us here: resilience not as a politics, but rather as a descriptive device for attempts in the humanities—particularly in rhetoric and cultural studies—to adequately describe a discursive event. Or rather, to adequately describe a class of discursive events: those that involve rhetorical resistance by victimised subjects. I’ve argued elsewhere (Munro, Descriptive; Reading) that Peircean semiosis, inflected by a rhetorical postulate of genre, equips us well to closely describe a discursive event. Here, I want briefly to suggest that resilience—“discursive” resilience, to coin a term—might usefully supplement these hypotheses, at least from time to time.

To support this suggestion, I’ll signal some uses of resilience before turning briefly to a case study: a sensational Argentine homicide case, which occurred in October 2002, and came to be known as the caso Belsunce. At the time, Argentina was wracked by economic crises and political instability. The imposition of severe restrictions on cash withdrawals from bank deposits had provoked major civil unrest. Between 21 December 2001 and 2 January 2002, Argentines witnessed a succession of five presidents. “Resilient” is a term that readily comes to mind to describe many of those who endured this catastrophic period. To describe the caso Belsunce, however—to describe its constitution and import as a discursive event—we might appeal to some more disciplinary-specific understandings of resilience.

Glossing Peircean semiosis as a teleological process, Short notes that “one and the same thing […] may be many different signs at once” (106). Any given sign, in other words, admits of multiple interpretants or uptakes. And so it is with resilience, which is both a keyword in academic disciplines ranging from psychology to ecology and political science, and a buzzword in several corporate domains and spheres of governmental activity. It’s particularly prevalent in the discourses of highly networked post-9/11 Anglophone societies. So what, pray tell, is resilience?

To the American Psychological Association, resilience comprises “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity.” To the Resilience Solutions Group at Arizona State University, resilience is “the capacity to recover fully from acute stressors, to carry on in the face of chronic difficulties: to regain one’s balance after losing it.” To the Stockholm Resilience Centre, resilience amounts to the “capacity of a system to continually change and adapt yet remain within critical thresholds,” while to the Resilience Alliance, resilience is similarly “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure” (Walker and Salt xiii). The adjective “resilient” is thus predicated of those entities, individuals or collectivities, which exhibit “resilience”. A “resilient Australia,” for example, is one “where all Australians are better able to adapt to change, where we have reduced exposure to risks, and where we are all better able to bounce back from disaster” (Australian Government).

It’s tempting here to synthesise these statements with a sense of “ordinary language” usage to derive a definitional distillate: “resilience” is a capacity attributed to an entity which recovers intact from major injury. This capacity is evidenced in a reaction or uptake: a “resilient” entity is one which suffers some insult or disturbance, but whose integrity is held to have been maintained, or even enhanced, by its resistive or adaptive response. A conjecturally “resilient” entity is thus one which would presumably evince resilience if faced with an unrealised aversive event.

However, such abstractions ignore how definitional claims do rhetorical work. On any given occasion, how “resilience” and its cognates are construed and what they connote are a function, at least in part, of the purposes of rhetorical agents and the protocols and objects of the disciplines or genres in which these agents put these terms to work. In disciplines operating within the same form of life or sphere of activity—disciplines sharing general conventions and broad objects of inquiry, such as the capacious ecological sciences or the contiguous fields of study within the ambit of applied psychology—resilience acts, at least at times, as a something of a “boundary object” (Star and Griesemer). Correlatively, across more diverse and distant fields of inquiry, resilience can work in more seemingly exclusive or contradictory ways (see Handmer and Dovers).

Rhetorical aims and disciplinary objects similarly determine the originary tales we are inclined to tell. In the social sciences, the advent of resilience is often attributed to applied psychology, indebted, in turn, to epidemiology (see Seery, Holman and Cohen Silver). In environmental science, by contrast, resilience is typically taken to be a theory born in ecology (indebted to engineering and to the physical sciences, in particular to complex systems theory [see Janssen, Schoon, Ke and Börner]). Having no foundational claim to stake and, moreover, having different purposes and taking different objects, some more recent uptakes of resilience, in, for instance, securitisation studies, allow for its multidisciplinary roots (see Bourbeau; Kaufmann).

But if resilience is many things to many people, a couple of commonalities in its range of translations should be drawn out. First, irrespective of its discipline or sphere of activity, talk of resilience typically entails construing an object of inquiry qua system, be that system an individual, a community of circumstance, a state, a socio-ecological unit or some differently delimited entity. This bounded system suffers some insult with no resulting loss of structural, relational, functional or other integrity. Second, resilience is usually marshalled to promote a politics. Resilience talk often consorts with discourses of meliorative action and of readily quantifiable practical effects.

When the environmental sciences take the “Earth system” and the dynamics of global change as their objects of inquiry, a postulate of resilience is key to the elaboration and implementation of natural resource management policy. Proponents of socio-ecological resilience see the resilience hypothesis as enabling a demonstrably more enlightened stewardship of the biosphere (see Folke et al.; Holling; Walker and Salt). When applied psychology takes the anomalous situation of disadvantaged, at-risk individuals triumphing over trauma as its declared object of inquiry, a postulate of resilience is key to the positing and identification of personal and environmental resources or protective factors which would enable the overcoming of adversity. Proponents of psychosocial resilience see this concept as enabling the elaboration and implementation of interventions to foster individual and collective wellbeing (see Goldstein and Brooks; Ungar). Similarly, when policy think-tanks and government departments and agencies take the apprehension of particular threats to the social fabric as their object of inquiry, a postulate of resilience—or of a lack thereof—is critical to the elaboration and implementation of urban infrastructure, emergency planning and disaster management policies (see Drury et al.; Handmer and Dovers).

However, despite its often positive connotations, resilience is well understood as a “normatively open” (Bourbeau 11) concept. This openness is apparent in some theories and practices of resilience. In limnological modelling, for example, eutrophication can result in a lake’s being in an undesirable, albeit resilient, turbid-water state (see Carpenter et al.; Walker and Meyers). But perhaps the negative connotations or indeed perverse effects of resilience are most apparent in some of its political uptakes.

Certainly, governmental operationalisations of resilience are coming under increased scrutiny. Chief among the criticisms levelled at the “muddled politics” (Grove 147) of and around resilience is that its mobilisation works to constitute a particular neoliberal subjectivity (see Joseph; Neocleous). By enabling a conservative focus on individual responsibility, preparedness and adaptability, the topos of resilience contributes critically to the development of neoliberal governmentality (Joseph). In a practical sense, this deployment of resilience silences resistance: “building resilient subjects,” observe Evans and Reid (85), “involves the deliberate disabling of political habits. […] Resilient subjects are subjects that have accepted the imperative not to resist or secure themselves from the difficulties they are faced with but instead adapt to their enabling conditions.” It’s this prospect of practical acquiescence that sees resistance at times opposed to resilience (Neocleous). “Good intentions not withstanding,” notes Grove (146), “the effect of resilience initiatives is often to defend and strengthen the political economic status quo.”

There’s much to commend in these analyses of how neoliberal uses of resilience constitute citizens as highly accommodating of capital and the state. But such critiques pertain to the governmental mobilisation of resilience in the contemporary “advanced liberal” settings of “various Anglo-Saxon countries” (Joseph 47). There are, of course, other instances—other events in other times and places—in which resilience indisputably sorts with resistance. Such an event is the caso Belsunce, in which a rhetorically resilient journalistic community pushed back, resisting some of the excesses of a corrupt neoliberal Argentine regime. I’ll turn briefly to this infamous case to suggest that a notion of “discursive resilience” might afford us some purchase when it comes to describing discursive events.

To be clear: we’re considering resilience here not as an anticipatory politics, but rather as an analytic device to supplement the descriptive tools of Peircean semiosis and a rhetorical postulate of genre. As such, it’s more an instrument than an answer: a program, perhaps, for ongoing work. Although drawing on different disciplinary construals of the term, this use of resilience would be particularly indebted to the resilience thinking developed in ecology (see Carpenter el al.; Folke et al.; Holling; Walker et al.; Walker and Salt). Things would, of course, be lost in translation (see Adger; Gallopín): in taking a discursive event, rather than the dynamics of a socio-ecological system, as our object of inquiry, we’d retain some topological analogies while dispensing with, for example, Holling’s four-phase adaptive cycle (see Carpenter et al.; Folke; Gunderson; Gunderson and Holling; Walker et al.). For our purposes, it’s unlikely that descriptions of ecosystem succession need to be carried across.

However, the general postulates of ecological resilience thinking—that a system is a complex series of dynamic relations and functions located at any given time within a basin of attraction (or stability domain or system regime) delimited by thresholds; that it is subject to multiple attractors and follows trajectories describable over varying scales of time and space; that these trajectories are inflected by exogenous and endogenous perturbations to which the system is subject; that the system either proves itself resilient to these perturbations in its adaptive or resistive response, or transforms, flipping from one domain (or basin) to another may well prove useful to some descriptive projects in the humanities.

Resilience is fundamentally a question of uptake or response. Hence, when examining resilience in socio-ecological systems, Gallopín notes that it’s useful to consider “not only the resilience of the system (maintenance within a basin) but also coping with impacts produced and taking advantage of opportunities” (300). Argentine society in the early-to-mid 2000s was one such socio-political system, and the caso Belsunce was both one such impact and one such opportunity.

Well-connected in the world of finance, 57-year-old former stockbroker Carlos Alberto Carrascosa lived with his 50-year-old sociologist turned charity worker wife, María Marta García Belsunce, close to their relatives in the exclusive gated community of Carmel Country Club, Pilar, Provincia de Buenos Aires, Argentina. At 7:07 pm on Sunday 27 October 2002, Carrascosa called ambulance emergencies, claiming that his wife had slipped and knocked her head while drawing a bath alone that rainy Sunday afternoon.

At the time of his call, it transpired, Carrascosa was at home in the presence of intimates. Blood was pooled on the bathroom floor and smeared and spattered on its walls and adjoining areas. María Marta lay lifeless, brain matter oozing from several holes in her left parietal and temporal lobes. This was the moment when Carrascosa, calm and coherent, called emergency services, but didn’t advert the police. Someone, he told the operator, had slipped in the bath and bumped her head. Carrascosa described María Marta as breathing, with a faint pulse, but somehow failed to mention the holes in her head. “A knock with a tap,” a police source told journalist Horacio Cecchi, “really doesn’t compare with the five shots to the head, the spillage of brain matter and the loss of about half a litre of blood suffered by the victim” (Cecchi and Kollmann).

Rather than a bathroom tap, María Marta’s head had met with five bullets discharged from a .32-calibre revolver. In effect, reported Cecchi, María Marta had died twice. “While perhaps a common conceit in fiction,” notes Cecchi, “in reality, dying twice is, by definition, impossible. María Marta’s two obscure endings seem to unsettle this certainty.” Her cadaver was eventually subjected to an autopsy, and what had been a tale of clumsiness and happenstance was rewritten, reinscribed under the Argentine Penal Code.

The autopsy was conducted 36 days after the burial of María Marta; nine days later, she was mentioned for the second time in the mainstream Argentine press. Her reappearance, however, was marked by a shift in rubrics: from a short death notice in La Nación, María Marta was translated to the crime section of Argentina’s dailies. Until his wife’s mediatic reapparition, Carroscosa and other relatives had persisted with their “accident” hypothesis. Indeed, they’d taken a range of measures to preclude the sorts of uptakes that might ordinarily be expected to flow, under functioning liberal democratic regimes, from the discovery of a corpse with five projectiles lodged in its head.

Subsequently recited as part of Carrascosa’s indictment, these measures were extensively reiterated in media coverage of the case. One of the more notorious actions involved the disposal of the sixth bullet, which was found lying under María Marta. In the course of moving the body of his half-sister, John Hurtig retrieved a small metallic object. This discovery was discussed by a number of family members, including Carrascosa, who had received ballistics training during his four years of naval instruction at the Escuela Nacional de Náutica de la Armada. They determined that the object was a lug or connector rod (“pituto”) used in library shelving: nothing, in any case, to indicate a homicide. With this determination made, the “pituto” was duly wrapped in lavatory paper and flushed down the toilet.

This episode occasioned a range of outraged articles in Argentine dailies examining the topoi of privilege, power, corruption and impunity. “Distinguished persons,” notes Viau pointedly, “are so disposed […] that in the midst of all that chaos, they can locate a small, hard, steely object, wrap it in lavatory paper and flush it down the toilet, for that must be how they usually dispose of […] all that rubbish that no longer fits under the carpet.” Most often, though, critical comment was conducted by translating the reporting of the case to the genres of crime fiction. In an article entitled Someone Call Agatha Christie, Quick!, H.A.T. writes that “[s]omething smells rotten in the Carmel Country; a whole pile of rubbish seems to have been swept under its plush carpets.” An exemplary intervention in this vein was the work of journalist and novelist Vicente Battista, for whom the case (María Marta) “synthesizes the best of both traditions of crime fiction: the murder mystery and the hard-boiled novels.” “The crime,” Battista (¿Hubo Otra Mujer?) has Rodolfo observe in the first of his speculative dialogues on the case, “seems to be lifted from an Agatha Christie novel, but the criminal turns out to be a copy of the savage killers that Jim Thompson usually depicts.” Later, in an interview in which he correctly predicted the verdict, Battista expanded on these remarks:

This familiar plot brings together the English murder mystery and the American hard-boiled novels. The murder mystery because it has all the elements: the crime takes place in a sealed room. In this instance, sealed not only because it occurred in a house, but also in a country, a sealed place of privilege. The victim was a society lady. Burglary is not the motive. In classic murder mystery novels, it was a bit unseemly that one should kill in order to rob. One killed either for a juicy sum of money, or for revenge, or out of passion. In those novels there were neither corrupt judges nor fugitive lawyers. Once Sherlock Holmes […] or Hercule Poirot […] said ‘this is the murderer’, that was that. That’s to say, once fingered in the climactic living room scene, with everyone gathered around the hearth, the perpetrator wouldn’t resist at all. And everyone would be happy because the judges were thought to be upright persons, at least in fiction. […] The violence of the crime of María Marta is part of the hard-boiled novel, and the sealed location in which it takes place, part of the murder mystery (Alarcón).

I’ve argued elsewhere (Munro, Belsunce) that the translation of the case to the genres of crime fiction and their metaanalysis was a means by which a victimised Argentine public, represented by a disempowered and marginalised fourth estate, sought some rhetorical recompense. The postulate of resilience, however, might help further to describe and contextualise this notorious discursive event.

A disaffected Argentine press finds itself in a stability domain with multiple attractors: on the one hand, an acquiescence to ever-increasing politico-juridical corruption, malfeasance and elitist impunity; on the other, an attractor of increasing contestation, democratisation, accountability and transparency. A discursive event like the caso Belsunce further perturbs Argentine society, threatening to displace it from its democratising trajectory. Unable to enforce due process, Argentina’s fourth estate adapts, doing what, in the circumstances, amounts to the next best thing: it denounces the proceedings by translating the case to the genres of crime fiction. In so doing, it engages a venerable reception history in which the co-constitution of true crime fiction and investigative journalism is exemplified by the figure of Rodolfo Walsh, whose denunciatory works mark a “politicisation of crime” (see Amar Sánchez Juegos; El sueño).

Put otherwise, a section of Argentina’s fourth estate bounced back: by making poetics do rhetorical work, it resisted the pull towards what ecology calls an undesirable basin of attraction. Through a show of discursive resilience, these journalists worked to keep Argentine society on a democratising track.


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Author Biography

Andrew Munro

Andrew Munro is a Lecturer in Spanish Studies at Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia. His current research focuses on rhetorical genre theory and Peircean semiotics.