OCTOBER 24, 2021
LAST SPRING, SOME PUBLISHING HOUSES began asking authors of soon-to-be-published books to add prefaces, scattered tidbits, or even entire chapters relating their work to COVID-19 and/or racial issues. For most, including myself, this was a big stretch, but we tried. Hartmut Rosa either was never asked or did not agree. There is not a single reference to “virus,” “pandemic,” “race,” or any other “2020-was-the-worst-year-ever” topic in his new book. When it comes to analyzing the concrete effects of capitalism, modernity, and social acceleration, Rosa’s work in general is extremely insightful, so it would be inaccurate to say that his latest book is “timelier than ever.” We might, however, say that our experiences over the two years or so put us in a better position to appreciate what Rosa has to offer. Perhaps we now have a more palatable feeling of acceleration, uncontrollability, and the need for resonance.
Rosa’s topic is Unverfügbarkeit, normally translated as “unpredictability.” After abandoning that term and trying a few others, including “non-availability” and “non-engineerability,” Rosa and his excellent translator James Wagner settled on “uncontrollability.” The book is then about “modernity’s incessant desire to make the world engineerable, predictable, available, accessible, disposable (i.e. verfügbar) in all its aspects.” Uncontrollability, coupled with “dynamic stabilization” — that is, the notion that social systems today can only remain stable through constant growth — characterizes what Rosa means by “modernity.”
Growth means continual expansion of humanity’s reach. We want more of everything, and we want to control it all. Rosa delineates four dimensions of control: rendering things visible, reachable, manageable, and useful. From nature and time to our own sleep habits and step counts, we must know, master, conquer, or make useful whatever we can. The world, and even our own bodies, then, become points of aggression — their Unverfügbarkeit aggravates us. The result is, curiously enough, a “paradoxical flipside” where the world mysteriously withdraws.
Rosa begins the book with a short discussion of snow: “Do you still remember the first snowfall on a late autumn or winter day, when you were a child? […] An unexpected gift.” If we reflect honestly on Rosa’s description, we find that life includes less and less “unexpected gifts,” and that the world is steadily withdrawing. We are increasingly alienated. “Alienation denotes a relation of relationlessness in which subject and world find themselves inwardly unconnected from, indifferent toward, and even hostile to each other.” Although not completely scientifically evidenced (or “controlled”), Rosa’s hypothesis seems more than worth serious consideration: “[T]he fundamental fear of modernity is fear of the world’s falling mute, of which burnout and depression are only a timely (and perhaps heightened) expression.” The way out, and the subject of Rosa’s last book, is resonance.
According to Rosa, resonance involves four characteristics. 1) Something outside of us touches or calls us in some way. This can happen when we look at a painting, or a landscape, or anytime we feel moved. 2) We must then respond by reaching out, by actively engaging with the other. 3) Transformation then occurs. Both ourselves and the other we are responding to are no longer the same. 4) Rosa stresses the need to recognize the “uncontrollability” of what goes on. It “can be neither forced nor prevented with absolute certainty.” It is open-ended, and, despite commodity capitalism, resonance “cannot be accumulated, saved, or instrumentally enhanced.”
Diving into the relationship between resonance and uncontrollability, Rosa presents “five theses on the controllability of things and the uncontrollability of experience.” First, there is no contradiction between the controllability of things and uncontrollability of resonance. Second, things we can completely control “lose their resonant quality.” They must be “semi-controllable.” The third thesis is about the uncontrollability of a thing “speaking” having its own “independent (counter)force.” In other words, it is “more than just contingency.” The fourth is that an “attitude aimed at taking hold of a segment of [the] world, mastering it, and making it controllable is incompatible with an orientation toward resonance.” However, reachability “is not a matter of pure contingency. We can of course try to create the dispositional and situational conditions necessary for us to be capable of being moved.” One major problem with modernity is that it mistakes reachability for controllability. The fifth thesis addresses this issue: “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.”
The world becomes silent, and we are alienated because of the “modern rejection of the idea that there is anything beyond the control of the subject.” As we seek to control more and more things, they increasingly become points of aggression, and our mastery must be broader. In all life’s major stages, from birth and child-rearing, relationships and careers, to sickness, aging, and even death, there is an “irresolvable tension between our efforts and desire to make things and events predictable, manageable, and controllable and our intuition or longing to simply let ‘life’ happen, to listen to it and then respond to it spontaneously and creatively.”
Institutional dimensions of control propel a new social ethic. In moral and political discussions, we seek a “systematic elimination of all forms of arbitrariness and undue advantage.” Similarly, there must be documentation and transparency across the board. We all feel this in the increasing demand for “reports, proposals, and other documents,” alongside the sharp rise in rating and ranking nearly everything. There can simply be “no space in public and political discourse for the idea — the reality — of uncontrollability in social life.” Someone is always responsible. This logic similarly pervades capitalist arenas where companies regularly “imply, promise, and above all sell controllability.” Thinking this way is a symptom of assuming we can know an object entirely and not respecting the gap between the subject and the world, or subject and object.
Paradoxically, while we seek to control, predict, and evaluate everything, we simultaneously do not want to, and doing so often only makes us feel worse. In addition to alienation and loss of wonderment, Rosa looks at desire. Upon close investigation, we find that we do not want everything to be under our control or in our grasp. Anything from the Super Bowl to love can easily lose its desirability when it is completely controlled, when there is no unpredictability, unavailability, and non-engineerability. We watch sports, love people and animals, travel, read, and do all sorts of other things precisely because we do not know what will happen, what the others will do or think, or how we will change.
In this short book, Rosa argues that we lose touch with the world when we seek to increasingly control it. The world becomes something hostile — something fixed, something heretofore untamed, and, most importantly, something we need to dominate. His solution is to no longer see the world as a point of aggression, but rather allow it to be uncontrollable, and further relate to it with a resonance-based attitude. As he proposes, if we approach the world with expectations to transform and be transformed in unexpected ways, to reach and be co-constitutive with natural and social forces, then we might find more meaning in the world and in ourselves.
One example of this is nature outings. We might go for a hike or spend the day by a lake expecting to be transformed in a certain way. Images on social media, advertisements, and even our own past experiences set us up for mechanical plug-and-play expectations. If I just do exactly what that person did, or if I go on this cruise, or return to that beautiful hike, I should have precisely this or that feeling. And when we do not get or feel what we were promised (or promised ourselves), we instead become more mechanical, and our relationship with the world becomes even more aggressive. We did not imitate well enough, or the world did not do what it was supposed to. Approaching the world with the resonance model means being open to changes and mutual influence that we cannot know ahead of time. We should expect only that our feelings and interactions are unexpected or unpredictable. In this way, our relationship to the world, and ourselves, becomes healthier.
There are two aspects of Rosa’s work where further reflection might shed new light. Firstly, Rosa is heavily influenced by Charles Taylor (who was the subject of his doctoral dissertation), and the high degree of autonomy Taylor calls for in his theories of authenticity. We need to make sure we have our “own voice,” based on what Taylor calls “strong evaluations.” Secondly, the systematic breakdown of our problematic relationship to the world and others is so detailed and so comprehensive that one wonders if there is any real room for Unverfügbarkeit. In terms of thinking about both the self and the theory of Unverfügbarkeit, more appreciation of “uncontrollability” could be incorporated. Nevertheless, The Uncontrollability of the World is excellent.
In recent months, Rosa has participated in a number of discussions and interviews about the pandemic. His attitude might be a bit detached and optimistic for many. Sociologists all over the world are marveling at how governments were able to control social systems long assumed to operate with relative independence. For example, Rosa and others, including Bruno Latour, were amazed at how quickly air travel and retail shops could be shut down. It was long assumed that capitalism would not allow such halts to occur for non-capitalist-based reasons. And many intellectuals are hoping we can now seriously rethink our social and political systems as we set our sights on a post-pandemic world. On this point, Rosa is quite outspoken. Yet The Uncontrollability of the World also achieves a much humbler goal. It brings to bear something that we all know, that has always been under the surface, and is now so overwhelmingly apparent — the world is beyond our control.
Paul J. D’Ambrosio is associate professor of Chinese philosophy at East China Normal University in Shanghai, China. He mainly writes on Daoism, medieval Chinese thought, and contemporary profile-based identity formation.