Published September 7, 2021
The Uncontrollability of the World
by Hartmut Rosa
Translated by James Wagner
Polity, 140 pages, $22.95
Critical theorists offer an interesting angle from which to view the decline of Western culture: They have both contributed to it through their theoretical undermining of the stable categories that made Western culture possible; and they themselves have declined rather obviously in intellectual quality over the years. The first generation, the likes of Adorno, Benjamin, Horkheimer and company, were serious, well-read intellectuals who knew well the traditions—Kantian, Romantic, Hegelian, Marxist—that they were either rejecting or modifying. Today’s critical arrivistes are, as the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton has lamented over the years, more likely to be steeped in pop-culture trivia and cliché and the therapeutic preoccupations of our modern world than the philosophical and literary traditions and the substantial cultural and political crises that gave birth to the Frankfurt School. Indeed, until this summer, I would have been hard-pressed to name a contemporary critical theorist of any kind worth reading for any reason other than for refutation or as a cautionary example of how not to write prose.
That was until a friend directed me to the work of Hartmut Rosa. Rosa is a critical theorist who has elaborated a number of concepts of exceptional usefulness in thinking about the contemporary state—perhaps I should say our contemporary experience—of Western culture. One such concept is “social acceleration,” Rosa’s explanation for the strangely vertiginous feeling many of us have when faced with what seems the perpetual flux and instability of our world. Rosa’s argument is that technological innovations transform societies in both public and private spheres. The printing press, for example, changed commerce, politics, and religion, and in so doing changed the way people acted both in public life and within the family. But it takes a society time to assimilate technological changes: The printing press helped precipitate the Reformation, and it then took Europe 150 years of bloody wars until some level of stability was restored. Today, we have a problem: Technological changes are happening so fast that societies are incapable of adapting to one change before another comes along. Hence we experience the world as accelerating in ways that we cannot comprehend.
The second concept is “resonance.” Resonance is, in theory at least, a way of relating to the world that solves the problems caused by social acceleration. For Rosa, modernity is driven by the desire for complete control of the world. That is both a practical impossibility (as COVID has emphatically shown) and actually undesirable anyway, because it would frustrate those things that enrich life. For example, we might point to the empty lives of the affluent who can buy anything they want and for whom nothing therefore has any real value because nothing really costs anything. Or the notion of love—which only means something if there is a possibility that it might not be reciprocated. Resonance with the world means that we are open to being transformed by the world, and transformed in ways that we cannot predict.
In short, Rosa argues that for our relationship to the world to be rich and satisfying, it has to involve both a degree of controllability and a degree of uncontrollability. Like a modern-day Schiller, he sees the interplay of reason and a certain romantic sensibility as the key to what makes us truly human. The world should not determine our lives in an absolute sense, for that would deny our existence as free, intentional beings; but the world is also not something to be reshaped into anything we wish, for that leads only to an impoverished relationship with it—and, since such control is ultimately impossible, to frustration and anxiety.
Rosa’s major works are long and complex, but he has written a shorter book, The Uncontrollability of the World, which distills his core arguments into a more concise, though still somewhat dense, form. Here he makes a compelling argument: The technological revolutions that drive “social acceleration” are the result of modernity’s quest to achieve total control over the world. Seeing the world as something to be conquered, we encounter it as offering points not of resonance but of threat and aggression—and in the end, our efforts are doomed to failure in any case. That leads to various phenomena: for example, to impotent gestures of political violence, as a way of thinking that assumes control collides with things beyond its control. A globalized economy, a pandemic, an election that is won by those we abhor: all are recent examples that fuel a sense of powerlessness and of the inadequacy of established institutions to deliver the results we desire. And that provokes us to lash out against those institutions in an attempt to regain control.
Rosa’s thesis seems eminently plausible, in light of recent events such as Antifa riots, the escalation of the post-George Floyd protests, and the January 6 storming of the Capitol. To which we might add the phenomenon of COVID-19. When a disease emerged over which we had no immediate control, societies around the world—faced with the alarming fact of the world’s uncontrollability—responded with panicked belligerence. Abandoning any attempt at a broad moral discussion of how to respond to the pandemic in terms of a hierarchy of human goods, societies instead reacted with blanket lockdowns aimed simply at crushing this one disease.
This is not to say that these may not have been appropriate responses; but the fact that they were virtually the only responses, and that any dissent was treated as irrational or an act of aggression against society, again seems to confirm Rosa’s basic thesis. So does the martial language of warfare applied to both lockdowns and vaccines. Rosa’s book was written well before the pandemic, but its truth has become clear over the last eighteen months.
When I open my humanities course each semester, I pose a question to the students: Why, when the West enjoys more material prosperity than many previous generations could ever have dreamed of, do levels of anxiety and anger seem so incredibly high? There is no single, simple answer to that question. But if you read Rosa, you will have some significant conceptual tools with which to address it.
Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.