The control of society and the unruly

LATE MODERNITY: People today are gaining more and more control over their surroundings – but are losing touch with the world. Where is the limit for measurements, quality assurances, quantifications and bureaucratic routines?

The Uncontrollability of the World
Author: Hartmut Rosa
Publisher: Polity Books, UK

Hartmut Rosa has distinguished himself as a classic critic of modernity, but with new approaches. His first major work, which came out in English under the title Acceleration, was followed up last year by another major project, Resonance, which forms the basis of the new – and far shorter – book The Uncontrollability of the World.

In the introduction to the English edition, Rosa notes how the main concept from the German original, «Unverfügbarkeit», is almost untranslatable. In Norwegian, we might want to talk about unruliness (or «inflexibility»), or something that is not at our disposal. The unruly thing is, for Rosa, in the experience that resists our impulse to control, our desire to master and predict the world and thus make it our own. If this human impulse is nothing new, Rosa rightly emphasises it is in modern times that we have really become control-free on a large scale: The military mapping of modern times and the colonisation of the world came together with the subjugation of nature through science. This ideology, embedded in ever new systems of administration and technical tools, becomes an aggressive attempt to subdue not only the wild and foreign, but also the random and incomprehensible, our own lives and the world around us.

what disappears is the acceptance of, and the ability to, enjoy and live with the uncontrollable.

What disappears is the acceptance of, and the ability to, enjoy and live with the uncontrollable, Rosa believes. At first instance, the book appears as poetic wisdom literature more than as a sociological theory. The problem he addresses may be eternal and unclear, but Rosa shows that we late modern humans have a strangely troubled relationship with the uncontrollable in life.

The Uncontrollability of the World

Optimisation and life’s to do lists

In our time, we try not only to plan conception and childbirth, but also children’s genetics, health, and early childhood, with a mixture of contraception, genetic manipulation, medical interventions, alarms and monitoring equipment. If something goes wrong, it is our own fault, the responsibility is total because there is always more you could and should have done to ensure the outcome – that is, the child’s life and health.

Later in life, the child feels an enormous responsibility to do something of themselves, but after primary school, possibly also high school, you go from having everything planned around you to have to choose from an insane number of possibilities as it is impossible to control – and the result is panic.

we also try to plan the children’s genetics, health, and early upbringing, with a mix of prevention, genetic manipulation, health and early upbringing, contraception, genetic engineering, alarms, and surveillance equipment.

Letting life go its own way becomes an obvious alternative, but the fear of messing up becomes imminent: the choice of career is difficult enough, while the notoriously risky choice of life partner is tried to be secured through various measures and reservations. Where you do not have full control, you go for optimisation: maximising the flap with a partner on dating apps. Optimisation of one’s own body, health and performance has become normal in the style of the trend «the quantified self» – body hacking, analysis tools, efficiency matrices. Life becomes more and more like an eternal maneuver, a checklist, or a to-do list, while the spontaneous interpersonal contact disappears.

Communicative occupational groups such as health workers and teachers experience that human contact and fruitful exchanges are overshadowed by measurements, quality assurances, quantifications, and bureaucratic routines. Old age is branded as a disease, and death becomes a last intolerable provocation against the modern project – which frustratingly can only be overcome by suicide or transhumanist measures of eternal life.

Something is going to call on us

Rosa’s point is not that we should go to the opposite extreme and let things go, or abdicate responsibility. The idea is that gaining access to the world must not be confused with having it under our control.

Tourism becomes an example: To get away from our eternal to-do lists, we travel elsewhere and declare a state of emergency, to experience things and let life go on. But even the experience becomes a commodity and something that must be mastered and documented. The real meeting is absent.

Despite all our efforts to control the world, we secretly hope that something will call to us, Rosa points out – something unexpected or something new that is hidden in the known. Something that wants something with us, an unexpected encounter that changes us. He points out that this is the story that is told in all the interviews with famous people: What we want to hear about are the sudden conversions, the revelations, a person or a place or a book that made everything look different, a sudden inspiration, a call.

The religious overtones in such descriptions point in the right direction for Rosa: The very term «Unverfügbarkeit» was used by the radical theologian Bultmann, who was inspired by the existential philosopher Kierkegaard. Religion, with its pre-modern roots, carries within it a deeper impulse, a longing to be heard and invoked.

Magic and science

Modern science is, as many anthropologists have pointed out, closer to magic than religion, since it aims to control the world and gain power over its surroundings. The desire for such power is a dangerous and perhaps impossible desire. We can not covet a robot or love a robot cat, Rosa points out. The other party must have self-will or resist to be interesting, to call our attention and desire.

When more and more can be ordered, controlled and produced with the push of a button, the world becomes increasingly silent: It lies at our feet, but no longer speaks to us, warns Rosa. In the age of access, human passion and longing are also in retreat, as Pettmann discusses in his book Peak Libido. What they have in common is a desire to understand what it takes to have a real contact with the world and other people in the time of calculation. The uncontrollable emerges in their negative form as environmental problems and political chaos, perhaps precisely because we have lost the ability to listen and touch.

Anders Dunker
Anders Dunker
Dunker is a Norwegian philosopher, and regular contributor. He lives in Los Angeles.

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