Three models of “resistance” — Introduction


Image: Elena Feliciano, Resistance

A glance at the way “resistance” has been theorized over time — in both political and extra-political contexts — might help illuminate the Left’s changing sense of its own subjective agency during the last sesquicentenary. Three models may serve as an index to its shifting historical aspirations, and capture its oscillating feelings of hopefulness and helplessness at the prospect of their attainment. Before embarking upon this exposition, however, a few facts regarding its political usages should be particularly borne in mind:

First, as Stephen Duncombe pointed out a few years ago, the concept of “resistance” is in a way inherently conservative.[1] It indicates the ability of something to maintain itself — i.e., to conserve or preserve its present state of existence — against outside influences that would otherwise change it. Resistance signifies not only defiance but also intransigence. As the editors of Upping the Anti put it a couple years back, “resistance” automatically assumes a “defensive posture.”[2] It thus appears to be politically ambivalent: it depends on what is being conserved and what is being resisted.

Secondly, “resistance” as a property can belong to any number of things, whether conscious or unconscious. The world, or nature, can “resist” our conscious attempts to transform it. Likewise society, or second nature, can prove similarly recalcitrant. Either way, this “resistance” tends to be unconscious (always in the case of the first, and usually in the case of the second). With nature, the conditions that obtain at any given moment appear objective and material. With society, by contrast, the conditions that obtain at this or that historical juncture appear quasi-objective and ideological.[3] The situation can be reversed, however. Insofar as society and the world operate unconsciously to transform the general conditions of existence, groups and individuals can consciously choose to resist these processes. Continue reading

Wilhelm Dilthey

Three models of “resistance”

Image: Photograph of Wilhelm Dilthey

1. The “resistance” of the world to humanity’s conscious attempts to transform it

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In 1890, the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey authored a remarkable essay on “The Origin of Our Belief in the Reality of the External World and Its Justification.”  Against some of the prevailing interpretations of his day, Dilthey argued that the reality of the external world was neither an immediately given fact of consciousness nor the product of unconscious inferences linking cause to effect.  On the contrary, he asserted that the reality of the world outside of the self comes to be known to individual subjects only by encountering resistance [Widerstand] to the will.  Recognition of the external world’s reality thus arises from “[the] consciousness of voluntary motion [entering] into a relation with the experience of resistance [Widerstandserfahrung]; in this way a…distinction develops between the life of the self and something other that is independent of it.”[10]

Resistance in this model stands as the original ground on which all subsequent differentiation takes place.  Here the “I” is first separated off from a “not-I” that opposes it.  But unlike the Fichtean philosophy from which these terms are derived,[11] “I” and “not-I” for Dilthey are not distinguished (at least initially) by an act of cognition.  This cleavage is first realized, rather, through an act of volition.  In other words, the intuition of a world that exists apart from the ego does not come about through the self-positing activity of the subject in making itself an object of contemplation or thought,[12] as in Fichte.  It manifests itself through an act of the will, in the subject’s efforts to subjugate the whole of reality unto itself — thereby satisfying its every appetite.  The “pushback” it experiences in trying to enforce its will then prompts an awareness that something exists outside the self.  Thus does consciousness enter into existence, circumscribed within a world that is not of its making.  It learns the limits to its own subjective agency by encountering resistance to its sovereign will.

For Dilthey, then, this experience not only formed the basis for understanding the world as an independent and objective entity — i.e., as something separate from the self.  It was also to an equal extent the source of the ego’s self-understanding as an autonomous and subjective entity.  Dilthey went on to explain that “the difference between a ‘self’ and an ‘other’ is first experienced in impulse and resistance…,the first germ of the ego and the world and of the distinction between them.”[13]  This initial moment of separation is then necessary to lend legitimacy and significance to the network of distinctions educed from it.  “The entire meaning of the words ‘self’ and ‘other,’ ‘ego’ and ‘world,’” explained Dilthey, “and the differentiation of the self from the external world is contained in the experiences of our will and of the feelings connected with it…The core of this distinction is…the relationship of impulse and restraint of intention, of will and resistance.”[14] Continue reading