Reviewed by: Rein Raud
This slim volume provides the Anglophone reader with a perfect introduction to Hartmut Rosa’s thought. Written in a lucid and engaging style, it summarizes much of what Rosa has been arguing at more length in his previous work, notably Social Acceleration (2013) and Resonance (2019), but also for those already familiar with it, he also adds a few new nuances.
Rosa’s point of departure is a precise and merciless diagnosis of the current state of affairs, or late modernity, which, according to him, compounds four strivings or attitudes (15-17): first, to make everything knowable and to map it, second, to make it reachable or accessible, third, to make it manageable, and finally, to put it to good use. These four strivings correspond to science, technology, economy and politics respectively: science provides the knowledge, technology the access, economy tackles the causal handles of the process and politics subjugates the entire domain to administrative procedures that are supposed to ensure that all that happens serves some articulated goals. This, Rosa says, has defined our relationship with the world as an ongoing mutual aggression, with all our daily actions atomized into goal-oriented miniprojects oriented towards certain goals and reduced to checkboxes on an ever-growing to-do list (6-7). Importantly, the endpoint of such activities is not a definable state of satisfaction, but merely “dynamic stability” (9), in which constant growth, acceleration and innovation are needed merely to maintain the status quo, and “what generates this will to escalation is not the promise of improvement in our quality of life, but the unbridled threat that we will lose what we have already attained” (ibid.). As a result, we perceive ourselves as embedded in a hostile reality, a world that threatens us and needs to be contained, countered, subdued, controlled, or else it will do this to us. But we will not prevail. In chapter 3 of the book, Rosa traces a common thread through the works of Marx, Weber, Simmel and Durkheim and onwards to Arendt, Camus and Beckett, deploring the effects of the loss of a meaningful relation with the world on the mind and a person as a whole. (One could easily add more names, beginning with Heidegger, on this list.)
One of the main contributions of Rosa’s work to contemporary debate is an original elaboration of how such a meaningful relation to the world could be described — his theory of “resonance”. “The basic mode of vibrant human existence consists not in exerting control over things but in resonating with them, making them respond to us—thus experiencing self-efficacy—and responding to them in turn,” he says (31, italics in the original). Resonance, as he defines it, has four basic characteristics (32-38): it results from something described as a “call” or “appeal”, a feeling of being affected by a thing or an aspect of the world; this needs to be followed by a response, a movement within us; we need to feel transformed by the encounter, this movement; we need to accept that this resonance is not something we can control, plan, or produce, or even predict what kind of transformation it will bring about in us. Therefore, for example, planning a “perfect evening” or 100% quality time will not necessarily result in the desired outcome, combined, as it often is, with stress about whether everything is going according to the plan — and even if nothing unpredictable has intervened, there is much less joy in the flawless execution of a plan than there might be in the jazz of circumstances and unexpected, yet pleasurable turns and twists along the way.
Next, Rosa proceeds to investigate the balance between our striving to control and our ability to resonate with the world, because, as he admits, “we are able to resonate with other people or things only when they are in a way “semicontrollable,” when they move between complete controllability and total uncontrollability” (40) — in other words, what is deplored is not any need to feel confident about things, but an excessive desire to control things in which things themselves are forgotten, their meaningfulness erased. What is therefore needed is a balance between control and uncontrollability. He presents five theses on the topic (41-59), evoking “a relation of dynamic openness” (52) as the precondition of “semicontrollability”, or reaching out to things without trying to subjugate them or incorporate them completely in one’s own schemes: the basic mistake of modernity, he says, is the confusion of reachability and controllability resulting in an effort to always convert the former into the latter (57).
The next two chapters test the theory by mapping it onto practical realities: chapter 6 is dedicated to what Rosa calls the six stages of life (birth, education, career-planning, adulthood, aging and death), chapter 7 to institutional realities such as the optimization drive, bureaucracy, quantified accountability, legalistic procedures and so on, showing in all cases how the striving for excessive control may result in overregulation and the complete opposite of the goals initially proclaimed by the ideologues of control (common happiness, justice, responsibility and so on). The last two chapters are essays on the topics of how resonance relates to desire and on how excessive control produces more, not less uncontrollability into the lifeworlds of people in the late modern world.
All in all, this compact book provides a sound, insightful and sharp socio-philosophical theory that connects very well with the daily experience of the prospective readers of the book, and provides a succinct introduction to Rosa’s theory of resonance for those intimidated by the 576 pages of his principal book on the subject. It can therefore be wholeheartedly recommended for any reader interested in phenomenological social theory.
There are nonetheless a few questions that can be asked of Rosa’s theory. First, what is the actual target of Rosa’s critique? In the book he has used the words “modernity” and “capitalism” almost as if they were synonymous. Rosa makes the equation explicitly on page 10 and repeats it throughout the book, in particular, through highlighting the strategy of commodity capitalism to translate the thirst for resonance into the desire for the acquisition of objects (38, 78, 107). But such usage limits the range of validity for his observations quite remarkably (as well as unnecessarily), making it a bit of a first-world problem. Nonetheless, history also knows other forms of modernity than that of the liberal capitalist West. For example, the Bolshevik project in Russia and the Maoist project in China both manifest clear characteristics of the accelerationist time regime that Rosa has outlined in Social Acceleration: the cult of over-completing “the plan” in Soviet Russia on the one hand and Mao’s Great Leap Forward on the other are both efforts at imposing a voluntaristically constructed time regime on the fabric of society, and the tendency of both these regimes to control the minds of its subjectively atomized citizens and to outroot all kind of resonance with their inherited past have been, if anything, much more vicious and damaging to these societies than the anonymizing effects of commercializiation and the replacement of organically grown personal identities with factory-made lifestyles that capitalist market economy has been so successful at. It would thus help to clarify the issue by specifying which, if any, of the alienating processes are specifically caused by capitalism, which have possibly only been enhanced by it and which are generally characteristic of the modern time-regime and its intrinsic drive for acceleration.
Another question that remained with me throughout this book is that of the status of “resonance” — is this a characteristic of the way in which I would be experiencing my life-world if there would be nothing interfering with my relation with it, or is it a quality that my relation with it acquires in special cases, depending on both my own state of mind and the nature of the things I am interacting with? Is it something learned or something lost in life? There are passages in the book that suggest both. On page 31, he writes that the capacity for resonance is “in a way, the “essence” not only of human existence, but of all possible manners of relating to the world; it is the necessary precondition of our ability to place the world at a distance and bring it under our control”, which seems to indicate that resonating with the world is the primary core of any experience, and later in the book Rosa talks about losing capability for resonance as a pathological condition; on the other hand, he also talks about the axes of resonance (44ff.) implying that certain things, but not others, are able to evoke resonance in a particular person, and that certain circumstances may be necessary for resonance to occur (53). This may empirically be so (a heartless administrator may occasionally have a meaningful relationship with, and only with, their cactus), but, taken more generally, intoduces a (to my mind unnecessary) bifurcation into the theory, dividing the things of the world into the potentially resonant and the rest. Arguably the theory would gain in explanatory power, were it to credit the entire world with the potentiality to resonate ceaselessly, for example, in the mind of a child, and to look at how this capacity is diminished and potentially lost as a result of certain misconceived socio-cultural practices of modernity.
This leads us to the next question: Rosa seems to programmatically oppose anything synthetic and technological to the natural and organic aspects of our environment, so that seemingly only the latter are those we can successfully resonate with, while the former are the source of losing touch with the rhythms of reality and the resulting alienation. This is an important issue in need of more argument. For example, studies in social psychology have indeed indicated a correlation between too much screen time and mental and physical health problems, especially for younger people, but the question remains whether this is a unidirectional issue — it has also been suggested that only excessive screen time has negative effects, while a certain (controlled!) amount of it is actually beneficial, and that children are more likely to engage with gadgets are those already in risk groups according to other indicators. It is also often the case that bonding with others is technologically mediated, for example, in watching a film together.
Thus, though intuitively plausible and supported by the Heideggerian view of technology as the soulless enforcer of inauthentic relations with the environment, the opposition of the technological to the organic is not necessarily warranted and also not a cultural universal: for example, in Shintō, the Japanese traditional worldview, no such qualitative difference is made between natural and technological aspects of the environment and they can both be perceived as sacred. The problem lies with the perceiver: after all, it is quite possible to develop an alienated, utilitarian and profit-driven gaze of the organic environment as well. Therefore, the question that possibly needs to be asked is whether resonance is not, after all, a human capacity or talent that needs to be fostered and cherished, and while some clearly beautiful and awe-inspiring aspects of the world may have more potential for eliciting it from any given individual than others, we cannot generalize about these aspects and correlate them with the physical provenance of particular things — at least not without further argument.
All that said, “The Uncontrollability of the World” is a remarkable book, packing a lot of insightful theory as well as analyses of its practical validity into a slim volume that, I hope, will find its way to the reading lists of many courses on social philosophy as well as the tables of fellow academics throughout the world.