Rosa’s “Uncontrollability of the World” is an accessible read, regardless of philosophical background and training. The minimal use of jargon and social analysis remain engaging through the text, while providing a fresh outlook towards what it means to be an individual in the 21st century, surrounded by constant notions of “progress”, which we do not sufficiently examine towards our well-being. As consumers of goods, we often engage with financially unreliable planning and aspirations. Simultaneously, even the notion and strategy of being a good parent is undergoing significant transitions (64-65). The growing concern of parents has changed from trying to offer children what is best, to at least ensuring that they are not falling behind in terms of financial security and professional success.
The initial German for “uncotrollability” is translated from “unverfügbar”. Rosa clearly acknowledges the peculiarities and minimal use in the German language of such concept. He begins the book with a nomological investigation about “unverfügbar”. Although the translation of “unpredictability” has also been considered, Rosa eventually defers to “uncontrollability”, for thematic reasons:
This is exactly what this book is about: modernity’s incessant desire to make the world engineerable, predictable, available, accessible, disposable (i.e. verfügbar) in all its aspects (viii).
Additionally, Rosa is also examining the extent to which we enjoy unpredictability and uncontrollability as well. If we look at sports or board games, it seems that part of the reason why we continuously practice and engage in these activities, is because we do not know who the winner is eventually going to be (3). The randomness involved in all combinatorial possibilities, strategies and moves by a team or individuals within a game, are unpredictable: and that is what instigates our curiosity and desire for continuous re-construction of such playful events.
Although the book is strictly discussing our modern age, these notions of predictability, engineering and disposability have been within the minds of Western Europeans since the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, respectively. The constant desire to manipulate nature, events and our social ecosystem has resulted in a change of how our families, work space and countries interact. Rosa does not specifically address the aforementioned events and their relationship to modernity. However, he does mention that our resultant modern ecosystem has been emerging for the past three centuries, due to our human nature’s disposition to expand relentlessly (8). Rosa’s transition into his central arguments is the position of a realist in political science: regardless of boundaries, walls and other political aspirations, the international world remains anarchic, uncontrollable and unpredictable (20).
Prior to explaining the five main theses of the book, there is a secondary, auxillary concept evoked almost as often as uncontrollability itself. The notoin of resonance plays a significant role in showing the instrumental limits of control, as well as how we socially cope with the uncontrollable aspects of our experiences in the world. “Resonance” itself does uptake multiple meanings, and in some points it could be as easily substituted with the use of “uncontrollability”. However, it seems that the primary role of “resonance” is to evidentiate what makes our experiences “uncontrollable”, and which features of these can become, eventually, within our reach and hence “semi-controllable” (44). Resonance is not as elusive as uncontrollability (4), so it rather behaves as some sort of intersubjective dynamic that enhances our experience of the world.
Gradually, the concept of resonance also uptakes an existentialist baggage. By evoking Merleau-Ponty (31), we as subjects mainly respond and react to experiences, others and events. Rosa further extends this responsiveness as an outcome of resonance. Resonance is a necessary precondition of experience, for an individual to have the reactionary capacity Merleau-Ponty is describing. Consequently, Rosa frames the notion of resonance as a “mode of relation”, which displays the following four features (32-36):
- Being Affected: Primarily explained as some inward, aesthetic experience- a song can have such capacity.
- Self-Efficacy: An emotoinal and outward movement or reaction. The exchanges of gaze, or a warm dialogue would satisfy such denotation.
- Adaptive Transformation: There are numerous examples illustrated under this particular denotation. In summary, it can have something to do either with the gap between expectations and satisfying one’s desires, or the typical imprint we think of when we are changed or influenced by someone.
- Uncontrollability: Rosa uptakes the rather conventional use of uncontrollability in this case. It is the dynamic itself of experiencing a change from knowing someone or a particular event. The uncontrollable aspect of it is not only epistemic, in the sense of often not knowing what the experiential outcome is of the transition, but also the difficulties and novelties of adjusting to the particular change.
There are segments, as exemplified by the fourth denotation, where it can be unclear whether or not Rosa evokes uncontrollability as a denotation of resonance or not. It seems that in most uses, “uncontrollability” is unexplainable without some entailment relationship to “resonance”. Both of these concepts, however interchangeable they might be through Rosa’s book, definitely attempt to guide us through the same social phenomena. The more we try to engage in meaningful discussions about predictions, control and the satisfaction of our desires (however these dispositions themselves might in turn be controlled by the invisible hand of the market), our experiences as consumers and beings in the world are not fully satisfied- simply said, unhappy. To further elucidate the relationship between “uncontrollability”, “resonance” and our human experience, Rosa advances five primary arguments through the book:
§1 The inherent uncontrollability of resonance and the fundamental controllability of things do not constitute a contradiction per se (41).
In this passage we can notice additional clarification between the two main concepts of the book. We have a human disposition to react towards what we are affected by, a sensorial experience which is mediated by resonance. Rosa argues that both other subjects, as well as objects (in themselves) have such embedded property of “somehow” projecting “resonance” towards us. Although it is not quite clear how or why other features of the world beyond us have this “resonance” to them, the conclusive remarks of the unit is that there is some sort of relationship towards an “inherent uncontrollability” both in ourselves, as well as in the external world. This thesis becomes slightly difficult to really grasp, especially since the verbatim of the first assertion is that there is no contradiction between the uncontrollability of resonance and the controllability of things. We may uncontrollably become attracted to a wonderful piece of music, wich we eventually resonate to. Afterwards, we can play the song whenever we desire, which does seem to be in our control. Hopefully this elucidates what Rosa was trying to convey with the first thesis.
§2 Things we can completely control in all four dimensions lose their resonant quality. Resonance thus implies semicontrollability (44).
Once we obtain some sense of controllability over what we resonate with, it becomes “semicontrollable”. This is quite a fascinating approach for balancing between the things that are and are not within our control. Therefore, the external world with subjects, objects and events, do possess this feature of resonating with us. Once we correctly internalize this experience and resonate with it, both the external manifestations, as well as resonance itself, becomes semicontrollable. According to Rosa, there are conditions for response from our own subjective side via the sensorial mediation of resonance, and once we have gained some mastery over these phenomena, resonance transforms its features from uncontrollable to semicontrollable. This outcome would also suggest that there is some feature of the external world and others, which will remain uncontrollable, despite any potential conditions of transforming resonance into something semicontrollable.
§3 Resonance demands a form of uncontrollability that “speaks,” that is more than just contingency (48).
Now Rosa is guiding us through the aspects of resonance which remain uncontrollable, despite any transformative conditions. Rosa himself admits this is the most difficult one to demonstrate. He further elaborates on some feeling that we establish towards a song or natural sight (49). The terms chose to describe such relationship, however unexplainable, include “harmony and beauty”. By deferring to Erich Fromm, during the contact phase with natural beauty, for example, the modes of existence shift from “being” to “having” (51).
§4 An attitude aimed at taking hold of a segment of world, mastering it, and making it controllable is incompatible with an orientation toward resonance. Such an attitude destroys any experience of resonance by paralyzing its intrinsic dynamism (52).
Although §2 was emphasizing that eventually, we can obtain some mastery over resonance which leads to a semicontrollable relationship to the external world, §4 has a normative reading to it. Firstly, Rosa introduces a mechanism through which this intrinsic dynamism happens: subjective dimension, object dimension and process dimension (53). This was surely an interest addition to his work, and it would have been helpful to understand what he had in mind with the dynamics of resonance, controllability and uncontrollability via this particular explanation. Rosa does guide us through some fundamentals. The subject dimension is our willingness (and perhaps, openness) to be touched or changed in unpredictable ways. This argument could have been further explored to understand what Rosa thought about the limits of our self-control and autonomy, in relationship to the extent to which we ourselves can transform the external uncontrollable circumstances into semicontrollable ones. At the same time, §4 suggests that once we do obtain that state of semicontrollability, resonance changes its functional applications and interaction with us, thus overall, the entire dynamic of mind and world experiences something else.
Additionally, resonance here is argued as “vulnerability and a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable” (53). We must exercise our autonomy in such a way that we allow ourselves to be opened to vulnerabilities and unpredictable, uncontrollable changes from the external world. The object process seems quite difficult to understand, though hopefully the readers see it as an invitation to further explore Rosa’s work for themselves:
On the object side, uncontrollability means that what we encounter must resist us in at least one of the four dimensions of calculation and control. There must be at least one “obstinate remainder” that has something to say to us, that is meaningful to us in the sense of a strong evaluation (53).
What makes resonance dynamic, is that we cannot control it either with our beliefs or desires. Wanting to be happy on Christmas, or excited for a first date, are not attitudes within our reach or control (56). Now we turn to the fifth thesis:
§5 Resonance requires a world that can be reached, not one that can be limitlessly controlled. The confusion between reachability and controllability lies at the root of the muting of the world in modernity (58).
For the rest of the book, this fifth thesis becomes the most significant one. Rosa argues that Hermann Dueser initially coined the term “Unverfügbarkeit” (uncontrollability), by looking at Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy, while attempting to show an opposition to humanity’s complete technological takeover (58). The book continues to be filled with numerous sociological examples about the implications for resonance theory in our daily activities, work, family lives, and religion. The readers should also be wary that in the religious context, Rosa uses “uncontrollability” and “inaccessibility” interchangeably. Whereas inaccessibility can denote the same kind of “unreachability” or “unavailability” that “uncontrollability” does, “unreachability” could also denote that it is not resonant at all, since it is completly beyond our reach or comprehension. Two other significant examples are about modern medical and political practices. Our methodology to any disease is to control it, subdue it and overcome it as quickly as possible (76). In the political ecosystem, however, voters become quite surprised when policies do not go their way. We expect our institutions to control and correctly predict the outcome of political events, in such a way that there are not any unwanted surprises and everyone achieves their respective agenda (91).
The rest of the book is filled with daily, relatable examples of how these dynamics of resonance and uncontrollability affect aspects of our lives. I would highly suggest this book to anyone that wants to further understand some difficult predicaments about modernity, whether at the individual or collective level. The smoothness and approachable language of the text is quite clear and engaging.
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.