The Crisis of Dynamic Stabilization and the Sociology of Resonance
An Interview with Hartmut Rosa
Eli Zaretsky: This is Eli Zaretsky, a fellow at the Post-Wachstums-Kolleg (Center for Advanced Study) in Jena, Germany, and I’m here with Hartmut Rosa, who is a former professor of Sociology at The New School and currently Professor of Sociology at the Max Weber Kolleg in Erfurt and here at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena as well. And the reason for the interview is that Hartmut has just published a major book that is getting a lot of attention throughout Europe called “Resonance,” and the book is going to be coming out in the United States with Polity Press. Let us start off with asking you just to say a few words about yourself and when you were at The New School and the background of this book in terms of having just a few years ago published another major book, which is “Social Acceleration,” which I think a lot of our students know. So, say a few words just about yourself.
Hartmut Rosa: Yeah, I actually started my academic career by working on Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher and I did that with Axel Honnett, who at that time was at the Free University in Berlin. And this is how I got socialized into the critical theory tradition. And after that I have become more of a sociologist, and I was interested of course in critical social theory. So after my book on Taylor, I started to analyze the temporal structures of modernity, because I realized that you really cannot understand modern society and also the throbbing heart of capitalism if you don’t understand that it permanently speeds up social life. Not just in respect to technologies of transport, communication and production, but also with respect to changes in the rates of social change itself. That is to say, the world around us does not stay the same, it changes in ever shorter intervals. And this, in turn, leads people to try to increase their pace of life. So my definition of modernity now is that a modern capitalist society can only stabilize itself dynamically. It systematically requires growth, acceleration and increase of innovation, just in order to reproduce its structural status quo. In fact, I wrote a lot on that. Basically, I developed these ideas at The New School. I had a Humboldt Fellowship, with which I went straight to The New School because I thought, “well, that’s the best place to go, for on the one hand, New York is considered to be the fastest city in the world. So I come from the Black Forest in rural Germany where life is slow, and I wanted to see the fast life. But I also wanted to be at The New School, which is the heart of critical theory, well maybe it’s the heart right away, but it certainly is in Northern America. And therefore, I spent a whole year at The New School. I also taught some courses at both the political science and sociology departments, and I wrote the “Acceleration” book there. I then got affiliated with the Graduate Faculty, which I still am, and came back in the spring terms of 2004 and 2006 to teach again, which I enjoyed very much. The New School has always been a very inspiring place for me. But after that, after the “Acceleration” book, I was a bit frustrated that people, and the media in particular, always thought I was advocating slowness. So in Germany, in Europe, I was called the “Guru of Deceleration,” and I always felt that that’s not what I wanted to say and that’s certainly not the right way to move forward. So, I was looking for a different way of describing the problem with speed and then of coming up with a possible answer. And my answer in very short is that speed is not a problem per se. It’s only a problem when it leads to different forms of alienation. That’s why I published a small book, or rather an essay, titled “Acceleration and Alienation.” And then I started to ask myself, “what is the opposite of alienation? What is a non-alienated way of relating to people, to your work, of course, but also to nature or to yourself? What is alienation’s other?” And that’s how I arrived at the concept of “Resonance.”
EZ: I see. Before we go to “Resonance,” let me ask you this. There’s been a lot of work recently, in terms of trying to understand capitalism or modernity in terms of space, such as David Harvey and Saskia Sassen, so is your concept of temporality, your emphasis on temporality related to that? Has anyone put that together?
HR: Well, I think we really need an integrated conception of time-space-regimes. In social life, the two always go together. They are intrinsically intertwined in the ways we deal with, we experience and treat, even commodify space and time. And of course, people like David Harvey, who came up with the notion of time-space-compression, is very close to my own understanding of acceleration. But Harvey is a geographer. So given this profession he almost by necessity has to insist on the priority of space. And what I wanted to do was to perform a temporal return, because in my understanding, changes in temporality are sociologically speaking more salient. To put it very short, I believe that our perception of space is a bit more anthropologically grounded, there is less variability. This is because for us humans, there is always an above and a below because of gravity. And there’s a in front of me and a behind me because of the way our perceptual apparatus, our bodies are structured. We don’t have a temporal sense in the same way, right? Therefore, to learn concepts of time is a bit more difficult, you see this with kids. It takes them longer to acquire temporal conceptions, and we mainly use spatial metaphors to describe temporality. For example, it was long before now, things like that. And that’s why I think that changes in the time-space-regime actually come through temporal processes. We change the temporality, we speed up transport for example, and therefore, we have a different experience of space and also a different way of commodifying or dealing with space. So, I believe the dynamics mainly come through temporality, but it always affects space too.
EZ: How interesting! That’s very interesting. So, are you keen on the concept of resonance because you were trying to figure out what was wrong with the current temporal regime, or spatio-temporal regime, under which we live? So why not just use the concept of alienation? Why do we need a concept of resonance? What do you mean by resonance that’s different from alienation?
HR: Well, I actually use the two concepts as opposites. My critique of capitalist production, capitalist modernity is still a critique of alienation. I mean the thing is, I really had two kinds of motivation to come up with this concept: Number one, I wanted to revive critiques of alienation. I think there has been a strong focus in social theory and social philosophy and also in political philosophy on the question of justice and equality and distribution in the last three decades, and I think that’s very important. But it is not all there is to be criticized. I think there are two problems with capitalism, and if you like, you can take both from Marx, really. One is the distributional problem, exploitation and expropriation and all that goes with it, right? It creates vast injustice and poverty and desperation. The other is that it also creates alienation, which is something very different, at least perceptually, right? Because, when you think about problems of speed, as I did, then it’s not necessarily bound up with injustice. So we could have an equal distribution and no exploitation and still feel alienated from the world. Therefore, I really wanted to revive the concept of “alienation,” but the problem was, I found that alienation had been lost as a concept in most critical theory because we didn’t know what the opposite of alienation was, right? What could it mean to live a non-alienated life? In the beginning, the idea was that it’s the real nature of man or the true nature of humans, but that’s not a concept social philosophers would want to work on now, for we don’t really know what that nature is. It’s very malleable and changeable. And then, there were notions of authenticity, that non-alienated life is an authentic life. But I found this philosophically just as untenable. It’s too close to identity thinking, it depends on identification and it ties communities and individuals to certain forms of life. According to the authenticity conception, if experiences are not true to that given, predetermined form, then you are alienated, and I don’t think that’s true or adequate. Even autonomy doesn’t really work as alienation’s other, for sometimes, we are completely autonomous, but totally alienated, too, and sometimes, we lose control, we are overwhelmed and are not alienated at all. So I was looking for a way to save the concept of alienation by defining alienation’s true other, so to speak. That’s how I arrived at this notion of resonance. You’re non-alienated from your work, for example, or from the people you interact with, when you manage to have a responsive, transformative, non- instrumental relationship to them, a resonant relationship. The difference is you don’t try to manipulate the other side, which could be a person or an idea or a piece of music or nature, or to control it instrumentally or make it disposable and available. Instead, you try to listen and to answer. And whenever you are in that state of experience, when you listen to some music for example — or when you talk with people or when you do your work right, i.e. when you’re in resonance, when you feel that the thing you interact with is important, then it speaks to you, it touches and affects you. So this is the one side of a resonant relationship: You are touched, affected. But on the other side, you also have the capacity to experience self-efficacy. You reach out to the other side too! That’s a relationship which is not instrumental and which is not about control, it’s a form of resonance. It’s a dialogical relationship, which we can never bring about merely instrumentally.
But what I want to do with this really is pick up the impetus of the earlier forms of critical theory, because in my view, critical theory really has this strong tradition of understanding capitalist modernity as a wrong mode of existence. It was the shared understanding of the older protagonists that there is something wrong with our mode of being, or our mode of being in the world. And of course, this wrongness is related to capitalism. It has often been addressed by terms of alienation, or instrumental reason, or reification. And even beyond critical theory, social theorists developed a sense of some underlying wrongness in our way of being. We see it, for example, when Max Weber talks of disenchantment and the ‘iron cage’ of modernity, or when Albert Camus says that the birth of the absurd derives from the experience that the world is shrouded in a hostile silence, it is not answering. So I think in critical theory as well as in other critical approaches, there is a strong perception and a strong tradition of interpreting modernity as problematic precisely in its effect of silencing the world. But the problem is that critical theory is not very good at showing us what a different way or mode of being in the world could look like. Adorno, for example, outrightly refuses even the attempt to think of an alternative. But even in Adorno’s writings, there is an implicit sense of such a different mode of relating to the world. We sense it, for example, in his ideas of a mimetic relationships or of aesthetic experience. Similarly, when we read Walter Benjamin, we find the strange concept of an aura or of an auratic way of relating to the world. It’s a very fuzzy concept, it is very contradictory in itself. Marcuse, by contrast, is a bit clearer here when in Eros and Civilization he talks about orpheus and dreams of an erotic way of being in the world, as opposed to the promethean stance which is dominant in modern, capitalist societies. So, what I want to do with the book on resonance, or with the concept of resonance, is spelling out, or thinking through, the possible form of an auratic, mimetic, erotic way of being in the world, which is opposed to the mute and silent mode aiming at control and domination which is the capitalist mode.
EZ: Okay, so that’s very interesting. Let me sort of summarize two things that you said. So, one is that critical theory has stressed the critique of modernity in terms of justice and critical theory say since the 1960s and 1970s has stressed the idea of justice. And of course, if you go back, for example, to Marcuse and sort of the turning point in the history of critical theory, you see the divergence between Habermas, who is stressing it seems to me more the concept of justice, and aligning critical theory more with liberalism and democratic theory. And Marcuse, who is still trying to give us a concept of the good life, and so you would situate yourself with that turning point as someone who is going back in the history of critical theory and trying to redeem the idea of alienation themes and of reification and so forth.
HR: Yes, this is exactly right. That is exactly what I want to do, but not because I disregard problems of justice.
EZ: Right, well say a little bit about the relationship between resonance or alienation and justice.
HR: Sometimes, people take me to say that injustice is not so bad a problem. That’s not what I mean. But I really believe the problem is deeper than just distributional justice. It’s not only about distribution and who gets what, and not even about who has the power over production. I would actually side with Marcuse, and in a way also with Adorno, of course, who say that the problem is in our very mode of being, in the mode of our relating to the world. That is why the subtitle of my book in German is “Eine Soziologie der Weltbeziehung”, i.e. a sociological analysis of the way subjects relate to the world (and vice versa). It’s very hard to translate into English. What I think is that we have two intertwined problems. The capitalist system, in short, is unjust on the one hand, and it leads to alienation on the other. Now, the interesting question is which problem we have to address and redress first. I think a lot of critical theorists of the current generation, but also of course most Neo-Marxists, or most people on the left more generally speaking, think okay, let’s first do something about exploitation and injustice, and then we can go about the remaining problems of alienation. But I believe that we actually see through history that this does not work; and I sense it doesn’t work because the problem lies deeper. I believe it’s the other way round. If we overcome the deeply alienating, the reifying, mute and silent mode of relating to the world, which inevitably leads to existential alienation, then I’m really quite optimistic that we will immediately see and realize how incredibly stupid our mode of distributing things is, and then we will find ways to overcome injustice and stupidity. It’s very interesting: when you read the early Marx in the Paris manuscripts, you really find that he’s quite ambivalent there. In the first parts of those writings, he actually does not say that alienation is the result of private property over the means of production, but rather that it is the other way around. It is because we have adopted an alienated way of being and working that we have allowed or created the capitalist system. So, I think, the problem of alienation in the mode of existence, the mode or form of our orientation towards the world, that’s the core problem. And if you overcome that, then you can also solve the problem of justice.
EZ: That’s extremely interesting to think of the problem of justice as a problem of a way of life, rather than a question of metric, a way of measuring distributive outcomes and so forth. But let me go back and press you a little bit in terms of trying to understand the concept of resonance. For you, this is a very profound statement of the relationship between the subject and the world. You’re taking on what is really basically the question of human thought, human philosophy, which is the subject-world-relationship. That is Platos’ question really, and a question that everyone has asked since then. And you’re trying to situate the concept of resonance in that context. And let me ask you, resonance means being resonant? It’s really a word about sound. Resonance is a word about sound. We say, “the organ pipe.” You play the organ.
HR Yes, I do. I love the organ. And I love Heavy Metal, by the way.
EZ Maybe it has influenced you. So, the pipe resonates. Of course, this goes back to Pythagoras. The whole Pythagorean, the whole belief that the world is mathematical and so forth, you know, has a resonance with your concept of resonance, but you mention Camus and absurdity. And this is really a way of understanding the world that goes back to the scientific revolution and is very well expressed by Pascal and is really the existentialist tradition. And it would seem to me the essence of that tradition is precisely that there is no resonance. We cry out to the universe and it does not answer. It is empty matter. It has no purpose. This is something that Pascal says, “Therefore, we need Christianity.” What would you say? Why do you have a picture of the human relationship with the world that is stressing resonance, rather than silence, meaninglessness, and absurdity, which is more the existentialist picture?
HR: I think you are totally right there. I was really struck, and that was a kind of starting point for my whole undertaking, by this existentialist position which says yes, as human beings, we inevitably cry out to the world, but we all get nothing but silence instead of an answer. And then I really thought, well the interesting thing is that you find exactly both. You find a long, particularly modern tradition of envisioning the silent universe, but of course, you also find many, many ideas of the singing, resonating universe, if you so like. It’s not just from Pythagoras to Pascal or so, it goes right through to contemporary string theory, for example, and you find it everywhere in the romantic tradition. Romantic ideas as well as practices are all centered around some forms of being in resonance with the world: with nature, with art, with our friends and lovers, etc. This is also why in the romantic tradition, children are almost sacralised: Children always develop resonant relationships with the world around them. Probably the most powerful and influential poem of the romantic tradition is this small verse by Eichendorff, Magic Wand, which goes like this: “Sleeps a song in things abounding// that keep dreaming to be heard// Earth’es tunes will start resounding// if you find the magic word.” This brings the romantic idea right to the core. The idea is there is a song hidden in everything, and everything seems to be dead and dreaming, but once you hit the right chord or the right word, he says, the world starts to sing really. By the way, in poetry, for example in Rilke and with many others, you always find the notion that even things, objects can sing and speak. And when you turn to the phenomenological tradition, to Merleau-Ponty, for example, you find him saying, “Things are observing us and they answer us.” And Walter Benjamin has very interesting reflections on how we relate to things, too. With him you realize that apart from our cognitive stance to the world, where we tend to say well there’s only dead matter out there, we all know and practice quite different forms of experiencing things as relating to us, speaking to us or answering us. This is why we say in everyday language, something speaks to us or resonates with us. And this something can be a picture, a landscape, a piece of cloth, a tree or a landscape. You see?
And then of course, there is Martin Buber. He says: well, at the basis of our existence there is not the silent universe, but a responsive reality, a relationship of a dialogical nature, the “I” and the “you.” William James puts this same idea quite beautifully in his theory about the birth of religion, where he says, “Whether we are dispositionally religious or not is not a matter of cognition in the first place. It depends on our relationship towards the universe. The idea that it answers, that there is true, inner connection, brings about religion.” Bruno Latour, in his recent book on modes of existence, articulates a very similar conception of religion, by the way. He says religion has nothing to do with believing in something, with a cognitive belief-structure. Being religious means being in a mode of existence in which you feel essentially connected to something out there that has the power to transform you.
But I think it’s not just and not necessarily religion which articulates and enables this mode of existence. The specifically modern conception of nature, for example, does the same. Modern subjects tend to experience and conceptualize nature as a sphere of resonance. They feel connected to a vibrant, responding reality when they say oh, I have to go to the ocean again in order to feel myself alive, to breath life. Why do we go to the ocean? You can actually see the answer to this question from your whole body, from your physical stance toward the world. At the shore line, when the waves roll in, we feel connected to an utter, essential reality, and we open up to it, we breath differently, not like in the office; our whole physical apparatus changes. The idea that we hear the voice of nature talking to us is very deep rooted in our habitus and even hexis, its not matter of cognitive belief. This is why a lot of materialist, atheist academics tend to follow ideas like this, that the need to walk in the mountains, or in the forest – Germans tend to take to the forest -, or even the desert, in order to hear or feel themselves again. Here you can see why I tend to talk about axes: Like the praying person, who seeks to establish an axis that connects his inner depths with the ultimate outer reality, the person in the desert or at the ocean tries to search his or her soul through connection with the silence of the sands or the waves. But the voice of nature, which you are looking for in the deserts or in the mountains or at the ocean, clearly is an equivalent for an answering relationship.
Apart from Religion and nature, of course, art for us moderns has become a central sphere of existential resonance, too. Why do we go to the opera, or to the Heavy Metal concert, or to the museum? Because we want to be in touch. It’s like being reconnected through our naval cord with life. So I think, even in modernity, we have a strong sense of, and a strong yearning for, resonating forms of connection with life, or with the world, the universe or some ultimate reality, however we might conceive of it.
EZ: We definitely have strong experiences, but let me press you on this when you talk about human relations here. Nature, I had to think of Woody Allen’s remark where he says, “I’m at two with nature,” which perhaps counters your ideas.
HR: I actually think it’s impossible for human beings not to develop certain axes of resonance, and to think that nature is such an axis of resonance can only be a modern idea, when the subject is already closed from and against nature in a certain sense, so that nature can become an entity in the singular which is perceived as an other; an other which certainly is not always in harmony with us. We have to be at two with nature in order to allow for the possibility of resonance. But this implies that very often, nature proves not to be resonant, but indifferent or repulsive. You have to conceive yourself as being at two with nature to be in resonance with it, and this is a modern idea which we probably never find with Indigenous people, right? Because they have a very different relationship with their natural surroundings. Nature has to perceived as something different for the idea of an independent voice of nature to arise. All I am saying is that even for modern subjects, it’s inconceivable not to live in forms of resonance. This is probably due to the fact that as human subjects, we are first and foremost resonant beings. When you look at how kids develop a sense of self, for example, you realize that it’s through reiterated, multiple resonance with their parents, or significant others, of course.
EZ: Let me continue to press you, play devil’s advocate so to speak, with this idea of resonance. I was just reading Louis Menand’s book, “The Metaphysical Club.” He tells a kind of history of the pragmatists. He tells the following story: John Dewey, who after all, is the father of the idea of participation in political theory, has a lot to do with resonance. John Dewey goes to Chicago in the midst of the Poland strike and Jane Adams, the social worker, founder of social worker and so forth, Jane Adams says to Dewey, “There’s no such thing as a conflict. All conflict, everything is resonant. Everything is harmonious. Everything ultimately. So if you think there is a conflict, she is talking about the conflict between capital and labor, which is tearing American society apart at that particular time. And Dewey says, “Oh no, there’s conflict.” Who was right back then? I agree with you, everything resonates with everything else. What about the idea that too much emphasis on resonance denies fundamental conflicts that are in society, maybe capital vs. labor is that kind of conflict, maybe there are other conflicts of that sort, then we need more emphasis on conflict and less on resonance.
HR: Well, I think this probably depends on a misconception of what I mean by resonance. This misunderstanding is actually a great danger for my whole approach. I do not understand resonance as harmony or consonance. It’s just as much about dissonance. Resonance is a way of relating to some other, who or which is important for us, but does not speak in the same tone, voice or frequency. Resonance means you hear and react to something out there that is important to you. It’s not harmony. If you are in complete harmony, you are not in resonance. I try to define resonance very sharply, because actually the concept is quite attractive as a metaphor. The question is, can it be more than a metaphor? I define it as a very specific form of relationship, and the relationship is between two entities, of which one at least, for social purposes, is a subject. Being in resonance means that they discern each other’s voices, they discern difference. Basically, it means you experience something other than you that speaks to you, that touches you, that affects you. And then you react, you answer. You feel that you are capable of reaching out and affecting, touching the other, too. So resonance is based on affection on the one hand and on self-efficacy on the other. It is passive ad active at the same time. And thereby, you experience a transformation, not just of yourself, but also of the other side. Therefore, conflict, objection, disagreement or difference is a necessary element of all forms of resonance, because if there is just consonance, then you neither recognize a voice out there, other than yourself, nor can you discern and develop your own voice. There is no dialogue. You only hear the same amplified, and that’s just like an echo. So resonance is the in-between of consonance and dissonance, it allows for conflict, it even requires it, but it also requires the possibility of transformative rapprochement, of appropriation. You need both, a dynamics of conflict and convergence, because if there’s only dissonance, only disagreement, then your relationship to the world is kind of mute and dead, then it’s hard or impossible to transform yourself and the world, and we actually are at an impasse in our society. With this conception, I believe, we finally can see a way to move beyond the sterile opposition between difference-theory and identity-thinking.
When you look at the state of our current political culture, you really see that we’ve reached a point where we have lost our capacity to listen to the other. We only hear something we find repulsive, abominable. On the one hand, you have the rightwing populists, or Trumpists, for example, who are very cynically aggressive about those liberals which they despise, and on the left, you have people very furious at the fascists and racists they perceive out there. So both sides ultimately lack the capacity to genuinely listen and to answer in a transformative way; and I think a political and economic transformation towards the better, democratic change will only be possible when we retrieve a mode of listening and answering and thereby transforming collectively into something better. Such a transformation has always been the hope of progressive communitarian or republican political thinking. So, in sum, I think it is a great misunderstanding to think that resonance cannot contain, accept or deal with conflict. To say it one more time: Difference and dissonance are necessary elements of resonance. I was very happy when I arrived at this conception, because it allowed me to move beyond identity and authenticity as ultimate normative yardsticks. In my earlier writings, when I wrote on Charles Taylor, I thought having a stable identity is important, and authenticity is a kind of cultural yardstick for a good life. But these conceptions tie individuals as well as collectivities to pregiven forms. Resonance is something which you maintain and develop through permanent change.
EZ: That’s very interesting. I want to continue on the question how the concept relates to Donald Trump and to the present moment, but before we get there, I want to clarify something. In music, take a classical piece of music, it’s in a key. And then, it leaves the key. And that creates the interests of the music, and then it returns to the key. And that creates the pleasure. To me, this classic expression of resonance is like of an infant by the mother in psychological terms. But then when you come to modern music, it doesn’t return to the key. It leaves it. So are these both forms of resonance? Or is it the first resonance and not the second?
HR: That’s not easy to answer because I think you cannot actually define objectively one thing as resonant and the other as non-resonant, for whether there is resonance or not can never be decided before the encounter. This is why I make a great deal about the elusiveness, non-disposability (Unverfuegbarkeit in German) of resonance. There is no way to guarantee that something will create resonance, but equally, no way to guarantee that there will be no resonance. It does not just depend on what the music is or does, but also on who listens to it with what kind of sensibilities.
EZ: It’s a critical concept I see.
HR: Yeah, because one subject can experience this as an experience of resonance and the other maybe not, and it all depends on the quality of the encounter. So, there is always this element of non-predictability involved with resonance.But what you hinted at about the kid being heard by the mother, or some other caring person, I find very important because I think resonance is a primordial mode of relating to the world. Sloterdijk might be quite right when he supposes that even the embryo is surrounded by a kind of soft tissue that is very much in resonance with him or her. So the two heartbeats are somehow synchronized, there is the addressing voice of the mother, there is responsive bodily movement, and there is a resonant, streaming connection through the blood circulation, right? But when we are born, we are thrown into a non-resonating, harsh environment, we lose the original sphere of resonance. And then, we gradually discover and develop the voice and touch and a bit later on the gaze, the eyes as instruments to re-establish resonant connections with others. In this process, we learn that we can get back into a state of resonance with the world.
Of course, we can try to couch this in terms of recognition. Axel Honneth was the supervisor of my doctoral thesis, and I admire his theory of recognition very much, but I think it is not just about recognition, there is something more involved here. We need resonance with people, but we also seek and find resonance with our work for example, or with nature, or with art. When you’re a philosopher, its the texts you can get in resonance with; when you are a baker, it is the dough, or the plants when you’re a gardener, or the haircut when you’re a barber. The haircut, the plants, the dough and the text: When you work on them, you feel resistance, difference — the text always says something different from what you thought it should say, but you also experience self-efficacy: What you do has a transformative effect on the material. But working on the material also transforms you. When you are done with a difficult text, you think about the thing you are writing on differently from before. Hence, all the moments and elements of resonance are present.
EZ: Just a few more questions. What about a work like, Kafka, “The Trial”? A guy is accused and he goes out into the world and there is no resonance. No one answers him. He is never confident. And in the end, in Kafka’s terms, he’s taken out in the field and shot like a dog. It seems to me, in light of your work, you can say this is a picture of man who is crying out for resonance and it is being denied to him. But I’m not sure this is actually what Kafka had in mind. How would you relate your concept of resonance to this, as something like perhaps a classically Jewish picture of a world without salvation?
HR: I do agree that there is a problem in my resonance concept in that it somehow contains an element of salvation really, right? It’s actually true. But resonance does not mean that you reach salvation. I actually try to point that out in the book: Resonance is just a momentary glimpse of the possibility of redemption in an unredeemed world, so to speak. This is what we sometimes have in our experiences of art, in our experiences with nature, or in political action. In religion, if you’re religious. It’s not that the resonance theory is religious or metaphysical. But resonance theory can explain why religion can become such a strong force in human life. Yet, those glimpses of redemption are made most often, in modern life at least, in relationships of love. So, in sum, there are always moments, there are elements that signal resonance is a possibility even if it is only momentarily. But with Kafka, well, I find it quite interesting, because I never really got into it. I must say, I almost developed a dislike for Kafka even though I see that it’s very attractive and forceful writing. I actually do read “The Trial” or “The Castle” as sketches of a world that utterly is without resonance. A lot of modern literature is like that. In the book, I interpret it as the strong literary expression of the ultimate fear of modernity: That the world will fall utterly silent, that we live in a mute and dead universe. Take Samuel Beckett, for example.
Beckett and Kafka narrate a subject-world-relationship in which all axes of resonance are silent and dead. I actually distinguish between three different axes or dimensions of resonance. One is horizontal or social resonance, i.e., resonance between human beings. We find in relationships of love, in friendship, but also in our understanding of true democracy. Democracy only works, I claim, when it functions as a sphere of resonance. The second dimension of resonance I call material, or diagonal. This dimensions contains resonant forms of relationship to the world of objects and artifacts, as we discussed already. And finally, there is what I call the vertical dimension of resonance, which is about our relationship to life, or the world, or the universe, as a totality. Existential resonance, so to speak. As I said, this is what William James or Martin Buber talk about, but I like to use a concept of Karl Jaspers: Das Umgreifende. He says, we always need to have a sense of how we relate to the world as a whole, as a totality. This latter is what he means with ‘Das Umgreifende’. Now, cognitively and rationally speaking, for us moderns, the silence of the universe is inescapable, it appears to be dead, irresponsive matter. But then again we have people like Bruno Latour or Philippe Descola who say that this actually a very strange and historically unique way of looking at the world around us. It might be part of the problem of our current cultural predicament, and not just the simple truth. But as I said, through our enacted conception and perception of nature, through our conception of history, through our conception of art, we potentially redevelop axes of resonance with the world as a totality, even against our cognitive rational convictions. Therefore, I came to the conclusion that modernity is not only the experience of Kafka and Beckett, the experience of a lack and loss of resonance in all three dimensions. Modernity developed very strong sensibilities for resonances along all three of the dimensions. These sensibilities are what makes Beckett’s and Kafka’s worlds so scary for us — and their writings great literature.
EZ: Before we finish this interview, I want to point out that your concept of resonance actually does resonate with the contemporary, scientific view of the world, because for contemporary science, there is no matter, qua-matter and there’s no empty space. Everything is energy. Everything is relationships and this is sort of where contemporary physics is bringing the quantum view of the subatomic into cosmology, and this is ways in which people started trying to read Newton, way back in the 17th Century. So there is a lot of resonance between your thinking and contemporary cosmology, basically signs and cosmology, which is something I wanted to mention for the audience, but then my last question is basically where are you going now? What are you going to do now? What is your next project? What are your thoughts about your future work?
HR: I totally agree with your observation. I am not so much concerned about what the world really is, because we cannot answer this anyway. If you look to contemporary cutting-edge science, I agree, we find that probably it’s not the dead, silent universe we thought out there, because it is not out there at all, because our minds and the world out there are far more intertwined and mutually dependent than we think. Actually, the universe looks a lot like resonance if you move to quantum physics or something like string theory or so. And furthermore, when you look closer to the mind side of it, like what is discussed in the theory of mirror neurons, there too you find it is very much processes of resonance through which the mind develops a relationship to and a conception of the world.
So, we don’t know what the world really is, but we certainly can scrutinize the ways in which we experience it and relate to it. This is why I take a phenomenological approach. What is our way of experiencing the world and constructing worlds, dealing with worlds? It’s Merleau-Ponty’s question, or Merleau-Ponty’s observation, that the first moment of awareness is the perception something is there, something is present. And the question of resonance theory is: What is the nature of this presence and of our relationship to it, and it is based on the conviction that our conception and perception of this presence is formed and defined through society and social life, it is contingent on society, history and culture. And I believe the way out of our present dilemmas, the possibility of constructing a better world, depends on whether or not we find ways to gain or regain a relationship to the world which in this sense is resonant.
The concept of resonance enables us to focus on both, the subject side as well as the world-side of this relationship. This has tremendous political and social implications which I try to develop in the book, because whether we are in resonance with the world or not is not only and not so much a problem of the individual subject. It depends on what the social world out there is like. And the core of my sociological analysis, which I’ve done in Acceleration Theory mainly, but I redeveloped it in my new book, is that capitalist society, and modernity even beyond capitalism, operates in a mode of dynamic stabilization, as I said, right? It institutionally needs permanent increase, growth, acceleration, innovation and optimization, it is geared towards instrumental efficiency, not to resonance, and this leads us into a mode of silent, instrumental relationship with the world.
And there is a complementary mode of cultural orientation which goes with this structural mode of dynamic stabilization. As subjects, we try to bring the world within our reach or range, within our horizon of control and calculability. I call this the Triple A Approach to the good life. It is not so much a theory about the good life, but it guides our individual and collective practice. Collectively, we try to make more and more parts and segments of the world available, attainable, and accessible through science, through technology, through political regulation, through economic efficiency; and in our individual lives, we strive for the same through money, through education, through increased health and fitness, through social networks and so on. And this orientation towards the world, which consists in the attempt to increase the horizon and scope of the available, the attainable, and the accessible, and which implies and enforces an instrumental, manipulative, mute relationship towards things, earth and people, is a central part of the problem. So the core aspiration of Resonance is in the idea that we need to replace this stance geared at control, command, calculation, with a new way of relating to the world the hallmarks of which are listening and answering instead of controlling and commanding. Interestingly, this alternative, better mode of living and way of being, of which Marcuse and Fromm, Adorno, Horkheimer and Benjamin were dreaming, also seems to imply a shift from a predominantly visual towards a predominantly aural connection to earth and life. We need to re-discover and develop our voices as political instruments, but also institutions which are not based on chains of command and control, or on struggle and competition, but on the capacity to listen and to answer. But the problem which I have only started to tackle in that book is this: What would resonant political and economic institutions look like? How can we institutionalize resonance? This, I think, is the challenge for all of us on the left. This is where I want to go in the future, to come up with the political and institutional answers, and I would very much like to get in dialogue about it with students and staff at the New School!
EZ: Just one last thing. When is the book appearing in English translation, when can we have the book in English?
HR: Well, Polity Press has bought the rights and started the process of translation, but the problem is: it’s 800 pages, right? So it will take them some time to translate it, I guess it will come out in the beginning of 2018.
EZ: Great, okay. Thank you very much. So listen, I think it was a very good interview.