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Developing resonance in times of acceleration

Hartmut RosaLiving in Times of Acceleration
22 February 2017

Many of us have the sensation that life is proceeding at an ever more rapid pace. With deadlines piling up and time constraints getting thinner, we often find ourselves scrambling just to make it through the day. According to sociologist Hartmut Rosa, this is not just a feeling. Our modern society is premised on perpetual and unsustainable acceleration. On a rainy Wednesday evening that marked the fourth anniversary of the Centre for Contemporary European Philosophy (CCEP), Rosa offered his account of and answer to the predicament of acceleration.

The busy lives we lead

As the lights dimmed a title flickered onto the screen. Curious murmurs rose in the audience as the story of “Typewriterhead” unfolded, a short film by Eric Giessmann featuring a distressed character struggling with and eventually coming to terms with a typically busy modern life.

Acknowledging the relevance of this introduction, and gratefully accepting the welcome of CCEP philosopher Jean-Pierre Wils, Rosa stepped onto the stage. Professor of Sociology at the University of Jena, Rosa is world-renowned for his distinctive work on how and why modern society is moving at an ever-increasing pace and, more recently, what we can do about it.

His books Alienation and Acceleration (2010) and Social Acceleration. A New Theory of Modernity (2013) have been widely read, and his latest work, Resonanz. Eine Soziologie der Weltbeziehung (2016) was awarded the prestigious Tractatus prize for highly original and publicly relevant philosophy. Last year saw the publication in Dutch of his work, Leven in tijden van versnelling. Een pleidooi voor resonantie (2016). Rosa made time in his busy schedule to introduce us to his thought.

Dynamic society

Modernity, Rosa claimed, is characterised by acceleration. From simple alterations like changing horses to allow all-night coach runs to the invention of the steam engine and telephone, through to automobiles, computers, and the internet, Rosa explained how the modern age saw the movement of people, goods, money, and information increase exponentially. The modern world is distinctively dynamic.

According to Rosa this ‘dynamisation’ of society, the way the world was increasingly set into motion, is a result of both our social structure and our cultural ideals. Citing Karl Marx’s classic understanding of capitalism and Max Weber’s account of science as the growth of knowledge, Rosa argued that modern society is characterised by a logic of increase, relying on constant material growth, technological acceleration, and intellectual innovation for its very survival. With a social structure premised on ‘dynamic stabilisation,’ we need growth, as we hear from politicians, just in order to stay in the same place.

This structural dynamisation is reinforced culturally by the dominant conception of the good life. Characterised by Rosa as a ‘triple A’ approach to the good life, we typically want more of the world to be available, accessible, and attainable. This desire for a ‘triple A’ world is the central force, Rosa claimed, driving our desire for technology, money, innovation, and so many other things that can bring the world more into our reach and under our control.

Unsustainable growth

Yet with the constant demand to accelerate some aspects of life fall behind the pace. The ecological crisis, failures of democracy, the global financial crisis and the growing rate of burnout and other psychological disorders, Rosa claimed, are all results of a mismatch between the pace of a system (whether an ecosystem, a democratic system, a financial system, or a psychological system) and the demands to accelerate that are placed on them. The logic of acceleration produces a ‘desynchronisation’ of systems that disrupts the dream of dynamic stability and threatens to destroy the fabric of society and the planet itself.

The cultural ‘triple A’ ideal, too, fails to attain its goals. Referring to a wealth of literature from sociology, critical theory, and philosophy, Rosa argued that our attempts to gain access to the world and bring it under our control actually result in us losing the world. A lover of music, Rosa himself found that his increased means to purchase more albums led to him enjoying and appreciating each one less. This lost access to what we were searching for, he claimed, is what lies behind alienation as a modern phenomenon.

Resonant dispositions

Rather than calling for a return to pastoral life or slow food, however, Rosa called for a more measured and appropriate approach to growth and a more ‘resonant’ way of being in the world.

Our societies must change structurally, he argued, to overcome their dependence on perpetual acceleration and adopt a model of ‘adaptive stabilisation.’ We need a society that grows when appropriate and innovates when necessary, but not one that must accelerate simply in order to survive. This insight forms the key focus of the Research Group on Post-Growth society that Rosa heads with two of his colleagues at Jena University.

Likewise, the alienation we experience as a result of our ‘triple A’ ideal can only be remedied by effecting a cultural shift and coming to develop what Rosa terms ‘resonance.’ Linking the concept to German critical theory, Rosa described resonance as the discovery of something that speaks to and touches you, and to which you can reach out and respond. These physical, emotional, ethical, and perhaps spiritual experiences can be found in all aspects of our life where we find and interact with something other than us, from listening to a beautiful piece of music to engaging in a challenging and absorbing task at work.

Unlike the ‘triple A’ ideal, in which we aim to access, consume, and control more of the world, with a resonant disposition we attempt to communicate with what we find, and we ourselves transform in the process. Rosa sees in these unpredictable, elusive, and uncollectable experiences of resonance the key for revising our futile and destructive reliance on acceleration and overcoming our modern alienation.

Finally, Rosa was joined by philosopher of technology Pieter Lemmens and philosopher Lisa Doeland. Together, they explored the challenges we might face both within us and without in enacting these sociopolitical and cultural changes. Rosa closed with the reminder that it is these challenges we must face to move beyond compulsory acceleration towards a more appropriate way of being and interacting with the world and each other, both as individuals and as a society.

Report by Rose Trappes