Dubuque, IA. Some people who have heard me speak glowingly of “limits” might get confused when they hear me complain mightily about “rules.” If I like “limits” so much, why do I talk trash about bureaucrats and administrators and other professional limit-mongers? What’s the difference between what I want and what they’re selling?
You can find many good responses to this question in the FPR archives. As Jeff Polet notes, “it is useful . . . to defend a ‘Porcher idea of limits,’ since the word does, after all, appear in our three-word tagline.” Jeremy Beer defends it when he locates the real contradiction in the enemy’s camp: “while technocrats might say that there are and ought to be no natural limits on human behavior, and that by overcoming nature’s tyranny their rule therefore expands the scope of human freedom, the technocratic regime is in practice shot through with injunctions, taboos, and prohibitions that hem in human liberty ever more tightly.”
This suggests that our idea of limits can be put pretty clearly. If you think of a “limit” as “something that controls people,” then yes, it’s hard to see the difference between what we like and what we don’t. But of course that’s not what we have in mind. By “limits” we mean, very explicitly, limits to control. We have in mind the limits to our ability to control our circumstances by making rules and procedures, systems and machines.
The crucial difference between limits and controls is the subject of Hartmut Rosa’s The Uncontrollability of the World. This is a short and very readable book (I am thinking of reading it with some undergraduates this summer) that summarizes his larger body of work, which he develops mainly in Resonance: A Sociology of our Relationship to the World and Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. As these titles suggest, Rosa’s broader theme is that strange and familiar thing called “modernity.”
For Rosa, as for many others, the modern project at its core is the transgression of limits in pursuit of control. Most modernity critics argue that what is lost in this pursuit is the wide range of essential goods that can only be enjoyed when limits are respected. Rosa does too, and his own catalog of loss stands out for its concreteness. Despite being a sociologist, he prefers the poet’s telling detail to sociology’s mute statistics. But he adds a crucial note to this common refrain.
When I want an image of modern “transgression,” I usually turn to Dosteovesky’s Crime and Punishment. The titular word “crime” in Russian is prestuplenie (Преступлéние), which means “stepping over.” Raskolnikov “oversteps.” That he does so in his mind first, before actually committing the crime, is crucial. Raskolnikov is exquisitely aware of the limit he will break. His real crime is to act inwardly against this awareness, to use his powerful intellect against his simple knowledge that murder is wrong no matter how “useful.” And it is because he retains this knowledge in spite of his intellect that he cannot afterward dismiss his feeling of guilt as a mere “social construct.” He remains aware of the limit he has crossed. More than this: the crossing has sharpened his awareness. Now he must repent, or die a spiritual death far worse than any punishment prescribed by human law.
Rosa helps me see that this image is powerful but insufficient. After all, most of us are not Raskolnikov. The limits we transgress are rarely so obvious as “thou shalt not kill.” Crime and Punishment dramatizes the act of “stepping over,” and by throwing that act into stark relief, Dostoevesky shows us its psychological structure in forensic detail. But the Average Modern Joe is not contemplating murder (although there are times when even murder is banal, and the Average Joe is Eichmann). If modernity entails a habitual transgression of limits, the modern experience for most people is not the confrontation with one monumental temptation but with a thousand daily choices. And it is there, in the humdrum course of “modern life,” that we face the real problem of our time.
The real problem is not the Luciferian urge to step over those limits we can hardly help seeing. Such limits may be forbidding enough (for now) to tempt the great souls, but great souls are always few. Many modernity critics err in this direction, supposing our besetting sin is titanic pride. If the sinner is “civilization,” then that makes sense. But if we are thinking more concretely, we have to see that most people are not titans, moving fast and breaking things. “Our” besetting sin, the sin that bedevils not civilization but you and me and everyone we know, is more nearly the opposite of such pride: moral sloth, acedia, vacillation, the lukewarmness of a Laodecian. As Matthew Crawford often argues, the real problem is not too much thymos, but too little.
But even this analysis is still not quite right. It needs a further thought. After all, weakness of will is not peculiar to modernity. What is peculiar—and now we come back to Rosa—is not so much the indifference to known limits as it is the ignorance of them. If we are weak-willed, it is because this ignorance exhausts us. I think it is simply harder for us moderns to see the limits we transgress, not in great crimes but in the little decisions that add up to our lives. It is harder for us than it was for our ancestors. We grow weary of doing good, of living daily life well, because we do not know what it is.
I say “ignorance,” but I must be clear: it is not textbook knowledge that we lack and that our ancestors had. What we have lost is not a knowledge of “the rules,” but rather a moral skill. “Seeing the limits,” and specifically the little limits that matter most, is a matter of know-how. Rosa’s key contribution is not his critique of modernity, it’s his conception of this atrophied know-how, this capability that enables us to experience what he calls “resonance.” The primary good that we lose to our civilization’s pursuit of control is our ability to “resonate” with what is uncontrollable: to live and work within the limits that surround us. Lacking this ability, we then lose the goods that only resonance can discover, the simple goods that cannot be produced and can only be destroyed by rules and procedures, systems and machines.
Rosa’s argument is straightforward. “The driving cultural force of that form of life we call ‘modern’ is the idea, the hope and desire, that we can make the world controllable. Yet it is only in encountering the uncontrollable that we really experience the world.” (p. 2) The capacity to encounter the uncontrollable is “the ‘essence’ not only of human existence, but of all possible manners of relating to the world . . . 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 return.” (p. 31) When we trade the ability to resonate with the uncontrollable world for the promise of controlling it, we lose that sense of self-efficacy, and the world becomes for us a “point of aggression”—an enemy that must be subdued. Being treated as an enemy, the world falls “mute.” It no longer responds to us.
That sounds abstract, but “resonance” connects to our most common and concrete experiences. If you have trouble sleeping, you know what Rosa is talking about. If I try to control the process of falling asleep, I will never fall asleep. We cannot make ourselves sleep; we can only let ourselves fall asleep (which is why the word “fall” is apt). We cannot force it; we can only “resonate” with it. For some people, sleep is an enemy—a “point of aggression.” But if you treat sleep as an enemy, you have already lost the war. Control is a Chinese finger trap: the harder you try, the more you fail.
Rosa identifies four dimensions of this modern project of control. The effort to control the world means making it visible (microscopes, telescopes; datasets); making it physically reachable or accessible (transportation and communication technologies); making it manageable (by producing knowledge: think of the role of literal cartography in colonization, and of the cartography of the body in medicine, and more generally of the knowledge of causality that science produces); and making it useful (not only bringing the world under our control, but to transform it into an instrument or object of our own desires; think of Heidegger’s “standing reserve”). All the institutions of modern society are devoted to one or more of these parts of the project.
The “paradoxical flipside” of the project of control is “the monstrous return of the uncontrollable.” “Uncontrollability has returned, but in a new and frightening form, almost as a self-made monster.” Once again Rosa has in mind our common experiences. There is an enormous “gap between theoretical control and actual control,” between the convenience we are promised and the frustration we endure. The accelerating pace of technological and social complexity renders us incompetent, and the flood of information produces a paralysis that previous generations would not have understood. Here Rosa sounds like Ivan Illich or Christopher Lasch:
Everyday activities such as cooking and eating—not to mention having and raising children, or even sleeping, walking, heating and ventilating our living spaces, loving and caressing, and so on—which we had a firm handle on for centuries and which were a constant source of self-efficacy in our relationship to the world, have suddenly become occasions for feeling uncertain, insecure, and powerless. . . . . not even the experts who appear to be the guardians of ‘theoretical’ control are capable of creating even the impression of control through calculation.
The crucial point is that this modern form of uncontrollability is different from the “uncontrollability” we have always experienced in our encounters with the natural world and with other people (and with God). It is “categorically different from and worse than the original, because we are incapable of experiencing self-efficacy or establishing a responsive relationship of adaptive transformation when confronted with it.” The uncontrollability of the world is a gift. The uncontrollability of the modern world is the curse we bear for rejecting that gift.
What does it mean to accept the gift? Like the project of control, the posture conducive to“resonance” has four dimensions. First, to resonate with something or someone is to be affected by it, to be moved inwardly. Rosa even uses the language of “calling.” We are moved by what we recognize as the intrinsic value of the thing or person; to instrumentalize, to treat things as means rather than ends, is to cut ourselves off. Second, to resonate is to follow the call with a “response.” The ability to respond gives us the crucial sense of self-efficacy: “resonance in the full sense occurs only when we, too, are capable of reaching out to the other side.” Resonance is what makes conversation happen, for example. Third, resonance produces adaptive transformation. To resonate, to be called and to respond, is to be changed: “when we resonate with the world, we are no longer the same afterward.” Nor is the thing or person that called us: they too are changed, by our response to them. At least for us, they are not what they were before. What we call “depression” is just the inability to resonate in this sense. It is “a state in which all our axes of resonance have fallen mute . . . nothing touches or moves us anymore. At the same time, we also feel that we ourselves cannot reach anyone.”
Fourth, and most fundamentally, resonance itself is uncontrollable. “It cannot be manufactured or engineered.” We cannot make it happen. For the same reason, we cannot prevent it. Nor can we control its effects. “Whenever it occurs, we are transformed; but it is impossible for us to predict how exactly we will be changed.” We know that there are certain conditions that seem to facilitate resonance, and we can do our best to produce these conditions, but there are no guarantees. Rosa here offers a wonderful example. “We experience this on Christmas Eve . . . when we try to shake off the pre-holiday stress, to flip the switch, to be entirely there for our loved ones, to let ourselves be moved by the biblical story . . . in short, when we try to listen and respond. The risk of alienation is never so great as on this night.”
What is the modern experience of Christmas if not precisely this: a heightened awareness of alienation? We start with a timid little hope, a glimmer of something not commodified and not bureaucratized, some remainder of something lost, the embers of an old fire. But we have been cold for too long, and we’re too hungry for warmth. We blow too hard, we buy too much, and the embers die from our efforts to revive them. We don’t know how to do anything but smother. There is indeed a “war on Christmas,” but it’s much worse than the stuff Bill O’Reilly used to yell about. And it’s only a seasonal battle in a year-round war on all Christmas-like things. Modernity is like Narnia under the White Witch: “Always winter, never Christmas.” We ourselves are the witch’s footsoldiers: conscripts mostly, breaking every limit in pursuit of freedom, striving to reproduce the conditions by which we once got a taste of Turkish Delight..
The modern project is both intellectual and practical. It has an intellectual history as well as an actual history: it has not only dreamed but built a world. And from the beginning it has been accompanied by critics. “Modernity critique” is as old as modernity. But the counter-modern project has been almost entirely intellectual: the critics have shown that the modern dream is a nightmare, and that the built world is an Iron Cage, but they haven’t built many good alternatives (and where they tried to build, it has often gone bad). Unlike Lewis’ witches, most critics of modernity are terribly impractical. This usually saves them from becoming witches. But can it save Narnia? The obvious critique of “modernity critique” is that it’s all talk, no action. The talk is very absorbing; it has a lot of different threads, drawn from left and right, from Critical Theorists like Rosa to Christians like Illich. Rosa does a fine job of gathering this sprawling conversation into one short book, and his concept of “resonance” condenses the sense of what is lost under a clear and simple idea. But at the end of every such book, I am increasingly inclined to insist on the Leninist question that all critics dread (myself included): what is to be done?
Rosa does not speak much about politics in the everyday sense, but he does talk about a competition between what he calls “ideologies of resonance” and “ideologies of control.” He suggests that this conflict is increasingly definitive, and that the real divide is not the one between “left” and “right,” but rather the divide between those on both left and right who seek some way to escape or resist or opt out of the control project, and those on both left and right who believe in that project.
This will probably sound good to people who gather from various perspectives around a “porcher idea of limits.” But it is interesting to note that Rosa’s very well-chosen example of this ideological conflict is the fight over vaccines. “The fierce battle that has been waged in recent decades over the issue of whether or not to vaccinate children against pediatric diseases seems to me to define the cultural frontline between an ‘ideology of control’ and an ‘ideology of resonance with nature.’” Rosa rightly rejects the too-obvious conclusion that his argument supports the ‘anti-vax’ position. It is not so simple. “The tremendous successes modernity has had in making natural processes controllable” have “secured spaces of resonance for many people in many contexts,” and “uncontrollability as such—dying of appendicitis in the absence of medical assistance, for instance—certainly does not deepen one’s resonant relationships.” But he insists that this is not an “ethical plea” for one side over the other: his aim is only to “identify the social manifestations of the basic conflict between our desire for control and our longing for resonance.”
It is even more interesting to note that Rosa, who never once mentions COVID-19 in this book (published in English in October 2020), took the view that lockdown policies were not an extreme manifestation of the project of control, but rather an interruption of that project, and more precisely a welcome proof that it is possible to exercise political power to interrupt that project and secure more space for “resonance.” Learning this after reading the book, I felt every bit as confused about his distinction between control and resonance—a distinction that had seemed so clarifying—as those people who feel confused when I complain about rules while praising limits.
There are many ways to explain the fact that a writer can apply his own concepts in diametric opposition to a reader’s conclusions. Readers can read into things, and writers can fail to take their own medicine. Instead of trying to figure out who’s right, I think it is more useful to draw from this curious misalignment the suggestion that the “the basic conflict between our desire for control and our longing for resonance” manifests itself not as a conflict between partisans who know what side they are on, but as a conflict between understandings of which side is which. Maybe the lesson is that modern life is not a contest between those who criticize modernity and “long for resonance” and those who embrace modernity’s “desire for control,” but rather a confusion about what the “longing for resonance” actually looks like in the real world of everyday modern life. Maybe it is hard to tell the difference, not in theory but in practice, between resonating and strategizing. And surely this confusion will shape our politics.
One place to get some footing is to think harder about these “conditions for resonance.” This is where the rubber hits the road. Rosa used his own theory to interpret the response to the pandemic as an opportunity to clear away some of the obstacles to resonance. By pausing the rat race, lockdown had the potential to create, or at least to show us how to create, the conditions in which it might be easier to learn how to “decelerate.” With time and space, might start to redevelop some of that lost capacity. Gorgio Agamben (in)famously moved in the opposite direction, and saw lockdown as the blindingly obvious confirmation of his own theory of “bare life.” For him, the response to the pandemic only accelerated the ongoing project of control. It was an unprecedented but long-gestating assault on the conditions of resonance, an epic transgression of the few limits that still impede the modern project of total control.
My own view is that Agamben was right. But I think it is less useful to defend that view than to emphasize the ambiguity implied by Rosa’s observation that “resonance” both depends on certain circumstances, which our actions can and certainly do shape, and that resonance nevertheless cannot be guaranteed by manipulating those circumstances. The Christmas spirit cannot be conjured up on command, or with a method; but you will not have any Christmas at all if you don’t decorate the tree, bake the cookies, sing the songs, attend the services, read the stories. If we are looking for a how-to guide for the holidays, we will find many, and we will have a bad holiday. We don’t need the how-to; we need the know-how. But the know-how isn’t just a posture of the mind; it is an ability to attend to our material circumstances, an interest we take in arranging those circumstances. It is not enough to criticize the commercialization of Christmas. What is to be done? How to keep Christmas?
Stuck in a world devoted to controlling all the variables (as if we live inside a lab), and longing for resonance, modern people have often been tempted to think that living more “resonantly” means taking no thought for our conditions at all, and living as if our circumstances need not affect us—as if we are disembodied spirits who only need to “free our minds” from the social engineers. But this is only a more insidious fantasy of control. There is more than a hint of Raskolnikov in that fever dream of overcoming. I often think: what if Raskolnikov had had a decent breakfast? Gone out for some drinks with Razumikhin? Would he have committed the crime if his apartment hadn’t been so stuffy? What if he had just . . . opened the window?
One of the reasons I am intrigued by what seems to be the emerging “re-enchantment project” is that the project seems to be grappling with precisely this difficulty—how to find or create the conditions for resonance without recapitulating the modern project of control—and that it is doing so by explicitly rejecting the gnostic temptation to deny the moral significance of the material world, at a time when this temptation has afflicted not only a few Raskolnikovs but an entire generation of average Joes and Janes, many of whom are now convinced that Joe can become Jane, because even biological sex is just an inconvenient fiction. I find in the work of Paul Kingsnorth, for example (who will headline FPR’s next conference, assuming the US government drops its vaccine requirement for entry) signs of an “ideology of resonance” that can contest this new version of the “ideology of control.” For what we face now is certainly not an overemphasis on material circumstances, as a superficial critique of modernity might suggest. The real problem, as Kingsnorth sees clearly, is the opposite: a relentless dematerialization of reality, an effort to control the world by reconstructing it entirely inside our heads. If I read them right, the hope of people like Kingsnorth (one might also mention Jonathan Pageau’s podcast, or Rod Dreher’s upcoming book on the subject) is for a re-enchantment that is not a larp, not a fantasia, not an indulgence in pretty superstitions, but a determined effort to experience reality outside our heads—to recover that strangely fragile know-how. If it seems paradoxical that making contact with lost reality should depend on “re-enchantment,” that only shows the power of the great spell of forgetting under which the modern project unfolds.
As for the politics of re-enchantment, I am inclined to say that the recovery of our ability to “see the limits” will not come from the pursuit of political power. Even if we are sincerely pursuing such power not to exercise control but only to “create the conditions” for resonance, I am not sure the conditions that matter most are political. At least, that is not the place to start, if we are the average modern Joe or Jane, more politically powerless than ever. The place for us to start is with everyday life, with the circumstances we can arrange for ourselves and our neighbors, in our homes and our towns. Think back to that list of simple activities we no longer know how to do well: cooking, eating, sleeping, walking, taking care of our homes, taking care of our children. That list is where the sacraments are; that is where we should practice looking for the limits that can set us free from the programs that control our lives. That is what needs to be re-enchanted first—not “the world” but the mundane day-to-day. That is where we learn to keep Christmas. Otherwise, I worry that the project of re-enchantment, with its exciting talk of epochal demons and actual fairies, may suffer the usual fate of becoming too hip, too sexy, too freighted with the cool of the rebel—too modern.
On the other hand, even Rosa the respectable sociologist entertains the possibility that if we relearned how to listen, the mountains might speak. Perhaps they too have their spirits, mute but waiting. Of course “this hypothesis is the most difficult, the murkiest, and most controversial, the least demonstrable of all.” Yes; all the best hypotheses are.
Image Credit: Claude Monet, “Landscape in Eragny,”1897 via Flickr.