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English Review - The Uncontrollability of the World

The good life is uncontrollable

Try to remember the last time you were positively touched by something. What made this moment special? Was it something that you expected to happen? Was it something you were consciously trying to achieve? Probably not. Guest speaker Hartmut Rosa, professor of Sociology at the Friedrich-Schiller-University in Jena, Germany, and director of the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies in Erfuhrt, argued in his lecture that trying to control the world actually leads to the opposite, namely uncontrollable situations that make us feel powerless and aggressive. He suggested that we are most happy when we respond to the world in an open manner, without feeling the need to control it entirely.

Modern times

Rosa started the lecture by explaining how he as a sociologist perceives the time we live in. He stressed that in this modern age, our society necessary needs growth in order to maintain our welfare, for example economic growth. We achieve this growth through what is called ‘acceleration’, this means that the society needs to be the first and the fastest at everything. But we also need to invent how to be the fastest, in other words, we also need innovation. So, Rosa argued, a society “needs to grow, accelerate and innovate just to stay where it is.” This makes the times we live in “deeply problematic,” said Rosa. Problematic because we already have enough houses, food, clothes and drugs. So, we are not growing to move forward, but we are growing just to stay where we are. We need to grow in order to maintain the status quo. Rosa continued that this influences what we perceive as a good life. A good life is a life in which everything is attainable, which means that we can buy everything, fly everywhere and live anywhere. “We want to bring the world within reach,” Rosa stated. In other words, we want to control the world, and everything in it.

The paradox of uncontrollability

Rosa continued the lecture by stating that our need to control the world leads to a paradox. When it seems that we are gaining more control over the world, we are in fact gaining less control. For example, it seems we are now able to control nature more than ever, but this has confronted us with the climate crisis, which in fact makes us powerless in the face of nature. Rosa argued that our need to control “creates monsters of uncontrollability,” like the climate crisis or COVID-19. And according to Rosa, it is the powerlessness against these monsters that creates an aggressive attitude towards the world.

The dance of life

Rosa ended the lecture by giving an alternative to our need to control and its accompanying aggressive attitude. He said that we need to find a mode between an active and a passive attitude towards our environment, which he called ‘resonance’. Rosa illustrated the concept of resonance by giving the example of a dancing couple. When a couple is dancing, it is often the case that one person leads the dance and the other follows. However, in the height of the dance, dancers occasionally have the experience of not being able to tell who is leading and who is following. “It is in between,” Rosa stressed, and quoted W.B. Yeats: “The dance is dancing the dancers.” Rosa also gave similar  examples of listening to beautiful music, and playing soccer. He concluded that it is these moments of “openness towards the world,” or of in between controllability and uncontrollability, that we are most happy.

Discussion – A world of resonance

After the lecture, Rosa discussed his topic of uncontrollability with moderator Liesbeth Jansen and Christoph Hübenthal, professor in Theology at Radboud University. One of the main topics of the discussion was whether we can understand ‘resonance’ in a theologian sense, that is in the sense of something happening in between man and God. Hübenthal noted that this is a central theme in Christianity and Judaism. Rosa agreed that the relationship between man and God is a good example of resonance. When worshippers pray, for example, they are both turning inward and turning outward. By turning inward, Rosa said, the prayer feels connected to “the ultimate encompassing reality”, that is, God. But this feeling of praying is the same resonance as some people get when they face the ocean, or others when they engage with beautiful art. Rosa emphasized that we can resonate with everything in our world.

Another topic of discussion was whether we can still understand uncontrollability as something positive, when we see that uncontrollability is also central to very negative events, like the war in Ukraine or COVID-19. Rosa responded to this by saying that the war in Ukraine can be understood as one of the monsters of uncontrollability that he spoke about in his presentation. He emphasized that uncontrollability is not good per se, but that a good life requires something in between controllability and uncontrollability, that is, resonance.

Questions from the audience – Openness to be transformed

When the discussion ended, there was time for questions from the audience. One person asked whether our need for control leads us to have conservative lives in which we are scared of many things. Rosa and Hübenthal both reasoned that this is not the case, because resonance requires an openness towards the world, or the other. This “openness to be transformed,” as Hübenthal called it, is by definition not a conservative attitude. Another person asked whether our shortage of resonance has to do with a decrease of religion in Western society. Rosa agreed that this is so, but noted that the shortage of resonance has to do with a crisis that is more fundamental than a decrease of religion. He stressed that religious experience can also be a call of nature, and it is this sense of listening to the world that is missing. Rosa concluded that the fundamental crisis is “a crisis of resonance with the world.”

Lisa Kampen, Radboud University