When the world becomes a prey

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Make the world unavailable

by Harmut Rosa

Translated from the German by Olivier Mannoni. The Discovery, 144 p., 17 €

In 2019, the German sociologist Harmut Rosa continued his exploration of modernity by developing the concept of resonance (1). He defined it as “A non-aggressive way of being in the world”, “a mode of relationship where a bond (and an exchange) can unfold between me and something that is” external “to me: my body, nature, others” . In this new, more collected work, the sociologist is interested in the way in which modernity has taken a completely different path, which makes us individually and collectively unhappy: that of making the world available.

Modernity has the desire to make the world available. In this instrumental relationship to the world and to existence, “Everything that appears must be known, dominated, conquered, made usable”, writes Harmut Rosa. If this trend has been at work since the XVIIIe century, this movement became radicalized at the start of the XXI centurye century under the effects of the extension and optimization of financial capitalism, of an unbridled competition and of the possibilities opened up by digitization.

The predation report

The interest of Harmut Rosa’s work is in its description of this predation report. Why, how and with what effects does modernity claim to take over the world? For him, two explanations are to be preferred. First, the fact that the fundamental structure of our society can only be maintained by a constant increase, through “(Economic) growth, (technical) acceleration and (cultural) innovation”. “It’s not the thirst for more, but the fear of having less and less that keeps up the growth game, exposes Harmut Rosa in an original way. It is never enough, not because we are insatiable, but because we continually climb a descending escalator: each time we pause or stop, we lose ground compared to a highly dynamic with which we are systematically in competition. “

This – negative – explanation for the increase in our grip on the world would be coupled with a positive side, brighter at first, that of “The promise of an extension of our access to the world”. “An extremely powerful idea has infiltrated into the finest pores of our psychic and emotional life: the idea that the key to a good life, a better life lies in extending our access to world. Our lives will be better if we can access more people, this is the mantra unexpressed but tirelessly reiterated and reified in action. Act at all times so that you enlarge the whole formed by what you have access to. “

This movement of influence is turning against us, however. The world no longer resonates, becomes silent and strikes us silent. For life to resonate, you would have to accept its “Unavailability”, a concept which the sociologist recognizes the theological origin, but which he handles in a profane manner. “Our desire is unavailable and we have the desire to unavailable”, he sums up, while capitalist commodification treacherously transposes “Our existential need for resonance, in other words our desire for relation, in a desire for object”.

We can judge Harmut Rosa’s work severe with modernity, unilateral in his criticism. No doubt he largely excludes from his field the positive effects of emancipation and democracy. Nevertheless, the sociologist, without giving in to any premodern nostalgia, puts words on an intimate and collective feeling of alienation. If his description of the present moment is bleak, his concern is indeed to allow modernity to take another path.

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