From Panarchy to Anarchy: The Relational Resilience of (More-Than-Human) Subjects in Processes of Subjectivation

Dr. Stefan Schreiber, Roman-Germanic Central Museum Mainz, Germany

You can find and download a PDF version of this Essay at the long-term archive Zenodo under the following DOI:



People can react resiliently to stress, endure it and emerge stronger from it. Why is this so? Usually, the reasons are sought in genetic dispositions, mental health or social contexts. So, is resilience based on the individual or on his or her environment?

In this conceptual text, which is the transcribed and revised form of short talk given during the TRAVAS workshop, I would like to outline a few thoughts that do not yet represent a completed concept or a finished research approach. They are fragments of an approach towards an understanding of relational resilience. This will serve to explore questions of psycho-social resilience and resilience factors archaeologically, without falling back into essentialist notions of the human psyche, physis or social context. The understanding of relational resilience is embedded in reflections on practices of subjectivation. They are intended to help me, and of course others, to understand how we can grasp the resilience of subjects without reducing it to the mind or the individual, as a member of society or as a human being. So, I am interested in the resilience of (more-than-human) subjects without presupposing reductionisms, such as methodological individualism or humanism, from the outset. 

From Bouncing Back to Panarchy: The Arena of Resilience Research

An initial observation shows that resilience is currently being talked about almost everywhere: resilience of people to everyday stress, resilience of ecosystems to human intervention, resilience of societies to crises. The approach is always the same. Something – an entity of whatever kind – has resilience, is resilient or behaves resiliently. But what exactly is this “something”? I dare to say that this question cannot be answered exactly and therefore the question of resilience is not really posed correctly. Because actually, according to my thesis, resilience is not a property, behaviour, capacity or (cap)ability of an entity, but a relational quality between entities.

But first, let’s look at resilience itself. The concept of resilience has undergone extensive changes and further developments over the last decades (cf. Martin-Breen & Anderies 2011). The starting point was so-called engineering resilience in engineering and material sciences as well as psychology. Resilience here is the (cap)ability or capacity of an entity to recover more quickly after stress, to withstand greater stress, or to be less disturbed by a given amount of stress. The resilient outcome is a return to the initial state; entity A is identical to identity A after a disturbance.

However, if one does not consider the entities under study as fixed, rigid entities, then they change over time and are also not homogeneous. With this broadening of the understanding of entities, engineering resilience became systems resilience. The entities are thus understood as systems that change their states depending on their interacting subsystems. However, their function and stability as well as the composition of their subsystems remain fundamentally unchanged, as otherwise it would be a new system. Systems resilience thus means the (cap)ability or capacity of a system to maintain its functions and structure in the process of disruption. Thus, engineering and systems resilience are both reactive; first a disturbance occurs, then the system (does not) react resiliently.

This view is suitable for most simple biological and, to some extent, social entities. However, it is not sufficient to understand the mutual interaction of several systems or the change in system structure. Therefore, starting from ecology, a further development towards the resilience of Complex Adaptive Systems was undertaken. The resilience of Complex Adaptive Systems differs from systems resilience in its adaptability. Adaptability means the active redesign and reorganisation of the system structure in order to be able to maintain the system function, e.g. when a subsystem is removed. This reorganisation is often unpredictable, but seems to go through different phases (cf. Adger 2000, Folke et al. 2010). 

The resilience of Complex Adaptive Systems is mainly used for the analysis of socio-ecological systems. Following the ecologists Lance H. Gunderson and Crawford S. Holling (Holling 1973; Gunderson and Holling 2002), this is done by describing the system’s behaviour by modelling it as adaptive cycles. With the help of the Adaptive Cycles Model (Fig. 1), the changes in the system’s state are ordered into four phases that proceed in a fixed sequence. However, since such systems are not in constant repetition, an impulse – a so-called attractor – is needed from outside to influence the systems in their development. These attractors are the system changes of other systems. As a result, the system changes do not occur simultaneously or at the same speed, but asynchronies are formed that develop into superordinate patterns similar to interference.

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Fig. 1: Adaptive Cycles Model; adapted from Holling and Gunderson (2002) by R. Schreg.

Gunderson and Holling (2002) have designed a hierarchy of interdependent, linked or interwoven systems for these interferences of system changes. Since they mainly studied natural systems, they called it panarchy (from Pan, the Greek god of nature and archia, meaning hierarchy/order, see Fig. 2). They did not want to outline a divine regularity with this term, but a natural one. Their model is hierarchical in the sense that adaptive cycles are rarely based on juxtapositions, but rather on ranges, scales and sizes from the small to the large. Thus, the system behaviour of microbes can influence that of human individuals, who then influence that of groups or communities who, in turn, influence that of societies and states. This means that systems can be scaled up and down at will, as they are self-similar. 

Resilience, as the behaviour of linked systems, remains “the capacity of a social-ecological system to absorb or withstand perturbations and other stressors such that the system remains within the same regime, essentially maintaining its structure and functions” (Research Alliance 2012). Panarchy means the relative hierarchy of linked entities. The dynamics of complex adaptive systems arise in the asychronity of the four phases of the individual systems in the interference with other Complex Adaptive Systems.

Fig. 2: Panarchy of linked adaptive cycles; adapted from Holling et al. 2002 by E.Wikander/Azote (

A Small Framework for a Relational Concept of Resilience

So far, the discussion on resilience is certainly familiar. However, for an investigation of resilience on a psycho-social level, I would like to abandon the model of the panarchy of systems and replace it with an idea of the “anarchy of entanglements”. It seems important to me to look not only at the resilience of linked systems, but also at the resilience of the relations between these systems. In this way, I would like to counteract an essentialist notion in which organisms or eco-social systems “possess” resilience. Resilience should not be understood as an essential (cap)ability, capacity, or behaviour of these systems. 

Science theorist, Karen Barad, argues that the notion of interacting entities should actually  not be considered on the basis of the entities themselves, but on the relations between them. There are no interacting entities, but entities emerge and enact only from prior interactions, which she calls intra-actions (Barad 2003). 

But what does this mean for resilience? I argue that resilience is (also) a quality of all the relations – or relational quality – between linked and intra-acting entities. To understand this, I propose to break down the behaviour of panarchic or hierarchical system relations with the following points: 

1) Entities are not quasi-closed units, but structured and structuring assemblages. Assemblage means, in the understanding of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, „a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns – different natures. Thus, the assemblage’s only unity is that of co-functioning: it is a symbiosis, a ‘sympathy’. It is never filiations which are important, but alliances, alloys; these are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind” (Deleuze/Parnet 2007: 69; cf. Nail 2017). A characterisation using systems theory terms, especially those of adaptive cycles, would be too mechanistic.

2) These assemblages are entangled with other assemblages in a non-hierarchical but heterarchical way. Their entanglements have the character of intra-actions; that is, intra-actions enact assemblages. The entangled relations are not directional or functionalist, but unpredictable and proliferating, or rhizomatic, as Deleuze and Guattari (1987) call it. Or to remain analogous to the concept of panarchy: they form an anarchy of entanglements.

3) Thus, it is not bio-mental assemblages/systems (such as the human body) or socio-ecological assemblages/systems (such as society) that are to be examined, but the interconnections between them. For this, I propose theories of subjectivation (cf. Reckwitz 2010; Buhr 2019). Subjectivation is understood here as a kind of entangled, intra-active process between these assemblages. Or to put it in Guattari’s words: Subjectivation is „the ensemble of conditions which render possible the emergence of individual and/or collective instances as self-referential existential Territories, adjacent, or in a delimiting relation, to an alterity that is itself subjective“ (Guattari 1995: 9).

4) To this end, it should be recognised that the subjectivised subjects are always both bio-mental and socio-cultural actors, i.e. their position cannot be determined within assemblages/systems. They are heterogeneous nodes (or maybe better rhizomes) between the assemblages/systems. Assemblages/systems pass through them, but they are not part of them.

5) Resilience is therefore not to be understood as a specific behaviour, (cap)ability or capacity of a system, but rather as an effect of relational subject strategies that maintains agency during or after crises.

Subjects as Nomadic Subjectivations

What do I mean by this? Subjects are not systemic units or units in systems, but emergent relations between assemblages (Fig. 3). They are specifically formed historically in the process of biological, ecological, cultural and social production and are constantly changing. Subjects are “nomadic” crossing nodes of subjectivation strategies (Braidotti 2011). They are enacted both mentally-biologically-individually and socially-ecologically-collectively (to name two of the possible assemblages/systems here. Others would be, e.g. physical assemblages of material contexts and energies), thus connecting different assemblages/systems. Such subjectivation strategies have a resilient outcome in that they make the state of subjects or subject forms adaptable in crises and keep them in balance. Crises can be subject-endangering changes such as social hierarchisation, identity politics, differentiation and disciplining; as well as biological determinacy, “natural” basic needs, bodily constraints, etc. 

Both of these (types of) assemblages/systems tend to assimilate subjects, either as perfect citizens, integrated members of society, or as biological beings, creations of nature, “human animals”. Structurally, it does not matter whether the subjects are human or more-than-human, as long as they appear as capable of integration into the respective assemblages/systems. In my understanding, however, subjects are subjects precisely when they manage not to completely bow to functional integration. In other words, they are not particularly resilient when they are perfectly integrated into one of the assemblages/systems, but when they manage to maintain their relational freedom after crisis phases of appropriation (e.g. full integration into a stressful work environment), to emancipate themselves to some extent from control. This freedom, however, is not the freedom of an autonomous, bourgeois subject of humanism. Freedom can rather be described as heteronomy, in that it is not the autonomous sole position, or integration and determinateness by one of the assemblages/systems that is placed in the foreground, but the processes of heterogenesis, incompleteness and unavailability of subjects.

Resilience as Heterologous Emancipation

From the perspective of resilience research, this means that the resilience of societal orders through their disciplinary, integration and health regimes on the one hand, and the resilience of stable bio-mental ecosystems through their pure evolutionary reproduction units on the other, are generated at the expense of the resilience of the subjects. That is, assemblages/systems, such as societies or ecosystems, establish their resilience through incorporation and exclusion, through the establishment of boundary regimes. These boundary regimes are, among other things, precisely those subjectivation strategies. From the point of view of the subjects, however, resilience means the emancipative balancing of the different subjectivation strategies. In contrast to the resilience of Complex Adaptive Systems, this is a relational resilience. It is not one-dimensional, however, but transversal and heterologous, as subjects emancipate themselves against various appropriations or exclusions. The vulnerability of subjects, on the other hand, enables their absorption into one or more assemblages/systems. Thus, stressors of the subjects are at the same time the resilience factors of the assemblages/systems. Conversely, crises of societies or bodily-biological assemblages/systems are certainly opportunities for subjects to assert their emancipation (or, of course, to perish from it).

In this way, the normative expectation that it is a matter of determining when and why social or ecological assemblages/systems are and were resilient can also be reversed. Resilient assemblages/systems that restrict and regulate the development of subjects are not positive per se. On the contrary, it can and should also be asked which subjectivations subjects used or refused to use in order to emancipate themselves in such crises and thus react resiliently. 

Fragments of an Operationalisation 

An operationalisation for archaeological research has yet to be developed. However, in my opinion, various heuristic concepts offer themselves as analytic categories for such an operationalisation: 

1) The concept of “counterpower”, outlined by the anthropologist David Graeber (2004: 24–37), helps to examine which strategies subjects developed to prevent the accumulation of social power. Here, it would be interesting to see whether these strategies can prevent repressive subjectivation processes by the social system.

2) The concept of the “self-sense” (Eigen-Sinn) according to the historian Alf Lüdtke (1993) also seems to be a suitable tool, as it addresses the issue of “being with oneself” (bei sich selbst sein) as an exit strategy in the repressive everyday life of a factory.

3) The interplay of the technologies of the self and the technologies of power, according to Michel Foucault (1988) and the whole field of biopolitics (Lemke 2011; Esposito 2008), also offer a wide-ranging conceptual repertoire for investigating resilience against unilateral appropriations and the maintenance of subjects’ agency.

4) As a final point, I would like to address the broad field of subversions and other types of undermining, refusal, active and passive resistance as well as empowerment. These important resilience strategies of subjects can also be studied 

All these forms have so far been interpreted primarily as liberation from repressive state systems. An extension to emancipation from the bio-mental power of one’s own body or ecosystem is still pending. Here, however, all kinds of cultural and social strategies of meaning, bodily improvement, mechanisation and cyborgisation are conceivable as emancipation from these assemblages/systems. It is therefore necessary to think relationally about the resilience of the heterogenesis of subjectivation and to contrast it with the resilience strategies of the assemblages/systems involved and to map them together. On the one hand, a (too) one-sided view brings with it the appearance of a simple explanation, but unfortunately fails to represent the complexity of relational resiliences. Therefore, I understand this fragment as a cornerstone towards a more comprehensive understanding of the relational resilience of (more-than-human) subjects in processes of subjectivation.


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