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Dynamic Stabilization and the Resonance Conception of the Good Life — Presented to the Yale Center for Faith & Culture / "Joy, Security, and Fear“ / November 8-9, 2017

I Introduction

One very curious but consistent fact about late modern life is that almost irrespective of their values, status and moral commitments, subjects feel notoriously short on time and tirelessly pressed to hurry (Gershuny 2003, Robinson/Godbey 2008, Rosa 2013, Wajcman 2014). Individuals from Rio to New York, from Los Angeles to Moscow and Tokio feel caught in a rat-race of daily routines. They are possessed by the fear of losing out, of being left behind, of not being able to catch up with all the requirements they feel obliged to meet. No matter how fast they run, they close their day as subjects of guilt: they almost never succeed in working off their to do lists. Thus, even and especially if they have enough money and wealth, they are indebted temporally. This is what perhaps characterizes the everyday predicament of the overwhelming majority of subjects in Western capitalist societies most aptly: Amidst monetary and technological affluence, they are close to temporal insolvency. We need more time to do our work properly, we need more time to improve our skills and knowledge, to renew our hard- and software, we need more time to care for our kids and elderly parents, more time for our friends and relatives, for our house or flat and for our body, and finally, we need more time to come to terms with ourselves, our minds or souls or psyche. The problem, in fact, is that in all of these respects (and probably many more), there are legitimate expectations directed towards us by ourselves or by others – expectations turning into obligations which we feel we really should meet, and the neglect of which will be held against us in one context or another (Rosa 2017). Of course, I should have done it long ago, but I just did not find the time yet, has become something like the default-perspective with which we move from context to context. Thus, just as a person who is indebted financially permanently seeks to gain, save or earn a little money and time to pay back his or her debts here and there, the modern subject who is temporally indebted constantly seeks to gain or save a little time or find some postponement to meet his or her obligations. Yet, as with the monetary debts, once we are too deeply indebted, there is no way out of the trap. Now surely, the temporal predicament is of utmost significance for all our attempts to live a good life, for how we (want to) live our lives is equivalent to how we (want to) spend our time. Hence, the vexing question is this: How did we get here? How is this logic of escalatory acceleration tied up with our conceptions of the good life and with our attempt to gain social security in a shifting world? And, first and foremost: How can we find a way out?

In this essay, I want to present, first, an analysis of modern society that explains the structural features which lead into an escalatory cycle of incessant growth, acceleration and innovation. In the second step, I will identify two corresponding cultural ‚imperatives for growth‘ that provide the hamster-wheel of modern social life with motivational energy, or, put differently, that translate the structural requirement of growth, acceleration and innovation into a strategic necessity in our search for the good life and for sociocultural security. I will also point out why and how this creates two complementary forms of fear: First, a stated already, the fear of being left behind, but second, the fear of alienation: of living in a mute, silent, non-responsive or even repulsive world. This, I will argue, is dominant fear of modernity writ large. In the third and last step of this paper, I want to present an alternative conception of the good life that might provide us with a cultural and motivational lever to counter those imperatives and collectively find a way out of the late-modern predicament.

II Dynamic Stabilization and the escalatory logic of modernity

As I have argued at length elsewhere (Rosa 2015, Rosa 2016, pp. 671-705, Rosa/Dörre/Lessenich 2017), the defining feature of a modern society (or, in fact, a modern institution) can be seen in the fact that it can only stabilize itself dynamically, or more precisely, that it can only reproduce its structure through an increase of some sort – quite regularly, through (economic) growth, (technological) acceleration, and/or higher rates of (cultural) innovation. Hence, I suggest the following definition: A society is modern when it operates in a mode of dynamic stabilization, i.e., when it systematically requires growth, innovation and acceleration for its structural reproduction and in order to maintain its socio-economic and institutional status quo.

At first glance, this definition appears to contain a contradiction: how can we talk of maintaining the status quo through innovation, acceleration, growth, i.e., through change? What changes – and what stays the same? What is dynamic – and what is stable? I have already dealt with this problem at great length in my book on social acceleration (Rosa 2013). With structural reproduction and reification of the status quo I mean, firstly, the stabilization of the basic institutional fabric of society, in particular the competitive market system, science, the educational and welfare institutions, the health system as well as the political and legal framework. Secondly, I refer to the basic structures of socio-economic stratification: the reproduction of class hierarchy and of what Bourdieu (1984) termed “class fractions”. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the status quo is defined by the operational logics of accumulation and distribution: the logic of capital accumulation and the very processes of growth, acceleration, activation and innovation themselves. Of course, many political, economic, or educational institutions change their shape, form or composition over time. But what does not change are the systemic imperatives and requirements for augmentation, increase and escalation. This answer, however, raises another serious question: Is modern society, then, equivalent to capitalist society? Do I simply mean “capitalism” when I refer to the basic structure of modern society?

The answer is: capitalism is a central motor, but dynamic stabilization extends well beyond the economic sphere. When we look at it historically, it turns out that the shift from an adaptive to a dynamic mode of stabilization can be observed as a systematic transformation in all cardinal spheres of social life that occurs, despite some historic predecessors, mainly from the 18th century onwards. Most obviously, of course, it can be found in the realm of the economy. The accounts of both, Max Weber and Karl Marx, vividly focus on this transformation. In a capitalist economy, virtually all economic activity depends on the expectation and promise of an increase in the sense of profit of one sort or another. Money – Commodity – Money’ (m-c-m’), is the short formula for this, where the prime signifies the increased return. It is realized through innovation (of product or process) and through acceleration, mostly in the form of increased productivity: The latter can be defined as an increase in output (or value production) per unit of time, i.e., as acceleration. I do not want to go into the details of economic theory here, which can show that the need for innovation, acceleration and growth really is intrinsic to the logic of capitalist production, to the logic of competition and even to the logic of the monetary and the credit systems. The net result of it is that without permanent growth, acceleration and innovation, at least under late-modern conditions of globalized economic and financial markets, capitalist economies cannot maintain their institutional structures: Jobs are lost, companies close down, tax revenues decrease, while state-expenditure (for welfare and infrastructural programs) increases, which in turn tends to cause a severe budget-deficit at first and then a delegitimation of the political system. All of this can be seen from the present crisis in Southern Europe, particularly in Greece. Thus, not just the economic system in a narrow sense depends on the logic of escalation, which is the consequence of the mode of dynamic stabilization, but also the welfare-state and the system of democratic politics. As Niklas Luhmann has shown more than 30 years ago, the latter is based on the logic of dynamic stabilization, too: Not only has the rather static monarchical order – where monarchs rule for a lifetime and then are simply replaced by a dynastic succession that preserves order in an identical fashion – given way to a democratic system that requires dynamic stabilization through repeated voting every four or five years, but, much more dramatically: Elections can only be won on the basis of political programs that promise an increase – an increase in income, or in jobs, or in universities, high school diplomas, hospital beds etc. (Luhmann 1990).

Even if within one national economy degrowth in the sense of a recession might persist for a few years or even decades, it could not persist for long on a world-wide scale. And even if the gross domestic product in a country does not increase for a couple of years, pressures for acceleration and innovation remain unaffected, and as a rule, non-growth or de-growth is coupled with elements of cannibalization that increase social inequality and destabilize or destroy the institutional status quo and social integration. Hence, the observable forms of longterm degrowth support rather than contradict the definition that a modern society can only maintain a stable structure through steady escalation.

Yet, quite independent of the escalatory logic of capitalist reproduction, the modern conception of science and knowledge displays a quite similar shift from an adaptive to a dynamic mode of stabilization which transforms its institutional order: In non-modern social formations, knowledge most often is considered and treated as a social possession, or as a treasure, that carefully needs to be preserved and handed down from one generation to the next. This knowledge in many cultures is traced back to some ancient or sacred source, for example to ‘holy scriptures’, or ‘the wisdom of the ancient’, and there almost always is an attempt to preserve this knowledge in a ‘pure’ form. It is knowledge about how things are done – how one builds a home, or produces clothing and food, for example, when to sow or to reap or how and when to hunt game, and, not least, how to perform the sacred rituals. Knowledge is transferred from one generation to the next either simply as learning by doing and performing, or in some form of schola. By contrast, modern societies shift from Wissen (knowledge) in this sense to Wissenschaft (science). As the second part in the German word indicates quite nicely, the central form and art of knowledge in modernity is not about preservation and schooling, it is no longer about treasuring, but about systematically pushing the borders, increasing the volume of the known, transgressing into the yet unknown. Science is about looking further into the universe than ever before, piercing deeper into the micro-structures and particles of matter, closer into the workings of life etc. The sacred spaces of knowledge have moved from the schola to the laboratory: Science is reproduced dynamically, through growth, increase and transgression. Just as the propelling dynamics of m-c-m’ lies at the heart of modern economy, a similar process of knowledge-research-increased knowledge (k-r-k’) provides the basis for modern science.

In Science as a Vocation, Max Weber (1946, p. 138) has formulated this point quite forcefully: “In science, each of us knows that what he has accomplished will be antiquated in ten, twenty, fifty years. That is the fate to which science is subjected; it is the very meaning of scientific work, to which it is devoted […] Every scientific 'fulfilment' raises new 'questions'; it asks to be 'surpassed' and outdated. Whoever wishes to serve science has to resign himself to this fact. Scientific works […] will be surpassed scientifically - let that be repeated - for it is our common fate and, more, our common goal. We cannot work without hoping that others will advance further than we have. In principle, this progress goes on ad infinitum.“

Finally, in the arts, the modus operandi resembles this very logic of increase and transgression, too: After millennia of a predominantly mimetic art, for which the goal of artistic creation is the emulation either of nature or of some traditional style or ancient mastery, there is a shift in literature and poetry as well as in painting, dancing and music that puts the onus on innovation and originality: As in science – and quite contrary to what Weber thought – going beyond what others have done before becomes the central challenge in the arts as well (cf. Groys 2014).

In this way, the logic of dynamic stabilization has become the hallmark of modern society in toto. The circle of acceleration between technological acceleration, the acceleration of social change and the corresponding acceleration of the pace of life that results from dynamic stabilization has become a self-propelling mechanism in modernity (Rosa 2013, pp. 151-159). It maintains the socioeconomic status quo as well as the institutional structure of the market system, of the welfare-state as well as of science, art and education, via a constant escalation of its productive power and substantive output. Needless to say, the stability achieved thereby is robust enough to keep the machines going for more than 250 years now, but nevertheless increasingly fragile, too: it can be undermined anytime either because of its externalities, e.g. in ecological costs, because of a failure of social integration despite growth and acceleration (as e.g. in phenomena of ‘jobless growth’ and increased social precarization; cf. Dörre 2015), or because of problems created by desynchronization (Rosa 2015). At this point, perhaps, it is sufficient to see that dynamic stabilization resembles a ride on a bicycle: The faster the bike wheels, the more robust it is in its course (a slow bike can be brought to tumble at the slightest push from the side, not so a fast one) – but the higher the risk of severe accidents, too.

Of course, no social formation ever could stabilize and reproduce itself in a merely static way. All societies occasionally need change and development. However, in non-modern social formations, the mode of stabilization is adaptive: Growth, acceleration or innovations can and do occur, but they are either accidental or adaptive, i.e., they are reactions to changes in the environment (e.g., climate changes or natural disasters such as droughts, fires, earthquakes, or the appearance of new diseases or new enemies, etc.). Dynamic stabilization as I use it here, by contrast, is defined by the systematic requirement for increase, augmentation, and acceleration as an internal, endogenous requirement.

III Systemic requirements and ethical imperatives: Security, fear & The Triple A Approach to the Good Life

If we accept that the escalatory logics implied in dynamic stabilization is a systemic requirement and structural necessity of modern society, the core question that arises is how the resulting growth- and speed-imperatives are connected to, or translated into modern subjects’ conceptions of the good life, into their dominant hopes and fears. For obviously, it would be highly implausible to suppose that individuals are merely the victims, or the passive receivers, of those requirements.

Surely, in the end, it is us humans who have to achieve growth, acceleration and innovation through incessant (self-) optimization, and we play this escalatory game through the endless accumulation of economic, cultural, social and bodily capital. But in order to fully grasp the corresponding processes of translating the structural requirements into personal aspirations, we need to understand some peculiar features of the cultural predicament of modernity first.

The most important of these is ethical pluralism and what Alasdair MacIntyre once called the privatization of the good (MacIntyre 1990). For in parallel with the structural and institutional shift towards dynamic stabilization, modern societies came to accept that they could not reach a binding consensus on the definition of the good life; that there is no way to rationally arbitrate between competing ‘comprehensive conceptions of the good’, as John Rawls termed it (Rawls 1971). Thus, ethical pluralism has become the basic cultural condition of modernity: Whether one should abide by a religious belief, and if so, by which one, whether one should strive to develop political, artistic or intellectual capacities, whether one should marry and have kids or not, and all the other small and big questions about what kind of life one should lead, about leading a life as such – e.g. whether music should be important, whether literature should be a part of life, whether the town or the country is preferable, whether the local soccer team was important or not – were turned into strictly private questions. You’ll have to find out for yourself! is the standard answer to all of them, and it is not just the pro-forma line taken in families and class-rooms and even in the local pubs in order to ensure civility. In fact, that the question of the good should be an intimate, strictly private and individual matter is itself one of the founding and grounding ethical convictions of modernity. If a kid asks what to do with his or her life – questions such as: Should I play soccer, or the flute? Should I be interested in politics? Should I believe in God? Whom should I marry? Where should I live? – teachers, friends and family will be sure to offer their advice, but they will almost inevitably rush to add: Just find out for yourself, listen to your heart, come to know your talents and your yearnings. Thus, the good life has become the most intimately private matter of all things. It has become even more delicate by the fact that, by consequence of dynamic stabilization, the background conditions of the life to be led are changing quickly: You can never know what you will want, and what you will need, in the future. The world will change, and your own outlook on life will change, too. Hence, the answer to ‘what kind of life should I strive for?’ has become very elusive, shrouded in uncertainty.

However, it is not that no ethical advice can be given at all. Quite to the contrary: Modern society might not have an answer to what the good life is or what it consists in, but it has a very clear- cut answer to what the preconditions for living a good life are, and to what to do for meeting them: Secure the resources you might need for living your dream (whatever that might be)! has become the overruling rational imperative of modernity.

Harvard Philosopher John Rawls in his most remarkable Theory of Justice has outlined this predicament perhaps in the most straightforward way. There will be no agreement on the comprehensive doctrines of the good, he says, but there are a number of ‘primary goods’ of which to have more clearly is better than to have less, irrespective of what your conception of the good is. Such goods are, first and foremost, our freedoms and rights, but also our economic means, our cultural capacities and knowledge, our social networks, our social status and the recognition we earn, but also our health etc. (cf. Rawls 1971). No matter what the future might bring, it will help if you have money, rights, friends, health, knowledge.

By consequence, the ethical imperative that guides modern subjects is not a particular or substantive definition of the good life, but the aspiration to acquire the resources necessary or helpful for leading one. Acquiring resources thus is the dominant strategy to gain security, for it is fueled by the idea that once we will have accumulated sufficient resources, no contingency or accident will be able to harm us. In a way, we moderns resemble a painter who is forever concerned about improving his materials – the colours and brushes, the air condition and lighting, the canvas and easel etc. – but never really starts to paint.

Thus, when we consult the books in the self-help section of bookstores for happiness and the good life, we find that the increase in those ‘primary goods’ or resources more often than not is equated with an increase in the quality of life as such: The secrets to a good and happy life, we are assured, can be unraveled if we find out how to get rich, how to be more healthy, or attractive, or have more friends, or how to acquire better skills, memory and knowledge etc. In short, the aspirations and dreams, the strivings and yearnings, the fears and anxieties that have come to guide our actions and decisions are firmly fixed on our equipment with resources. Our libido is tied to the acquisition of economic and cultural, social and symbolic, and, increasingly, bodily capital (cf. Bourdieu 1984).

This strategy, which seems thoroughly irrational at first glance, is made rational by the fact that the social allocation of resources is regulated through competition, while the allocation-game itself is increasingly dynamized, too.

Hence, the logic of competition installs the fear of losing out: As with Weber’s capitalist entrepreneur (Weber 2001, p. 30), modern subjects find themselves unavoidably to be ‘on their way down’, like standing on a downward escalator or on a slipping slope, if they do not run uphill to improve their standings and keep track with the changes around them (cf. Rosa 2016). Thus, we never simply ‘have’ the resources we need: If we do not increase, optimize and improve them, they are about to corrode, decay and dwindle. So what is driving modern subjects to stay in the race, to a large extent, is their fear of virtual social death: Sure, in most of the so-called developed countries, even if you lose too much ground, you will not starve, because the welfare systems provide you with the material necessities, but you will be excluded from the allocation-game, which is tied to employment. Without it, you cannot gain culturally legitimate resources, status, recognition or positions. You are given alms, but you do not have a legitimate, self-affirming place in the world that allows for a sense of self-efficacy.

As a result, the logic of incessant increase, the desire to grow, run and enhance is firmly anchored in the habitual structure of modern subjectivity. In fact, it is doubly entrenched in the modern character: As the desire to improve our resource base (and thus gain security from the contingencies and insecurities of modern life) and as the fear of losing out, i.e. of losing the preconditions for a good life through erosion of this very base. Yet, the irresistible desire in this arrangement, the attractive cultural force of the escalatory logic, cannot fully be grasped by pointing to the resource aspect alone. (Economic) Growth, (technological) acceleration and (sociocultural) innovation for modern subjects undeniably carry a genuine promise, they are tied to our conceptions of freedom and happiness.

Why is ‘having more and moving faster’ attractive for most modern subjects? It is, I want to argue, because the escalatory logic of dynamic stabilization is tied to the promise of increasing our individual and collective scope and reach. This triggers what I want to call the ‘Triple A Approach’ to the good life: The modern way of acting and being-in-the world is geared towards making more and more of its qualities and quantities available, accessible and attainable. This is what science does, and what science promises: Peering farther into the universe through our telescopes, looking deeper into the micro-structure of matter and life through our microscopes etc. Making the world knowable, calculable, disposable. It is what economic wealth is about: The richer we are (individually and/or collectively), the more the world is made available, attainable and accessible to us. We can build and buy castles and cathedrals, rockets and spaceships and yachts and hotels etc. In fact, making the world available, accessible and attainable explains the lure of technology writ large: For a young kid, the first bike brings his or her friends on the other side of the village within the horizon of availability, the first moped enlarges this circle to the neighboring village, while the car expands the horizon of the world which is accessible on a regular basis to the larger cities around, and the airplane, finally, brings New York, Rio, Tokyo within reach. Similarly, the telephone and the radio make faraway places accessible acoustically, while the TV makes them visually available. The smartphone, finally, brings all of our friends, and all the digitalized knowledge and images of the earth, straight into our pockets.

The power of the Triple A Approach to the good life can be felt also in the attractivity of cities for modern subjects: Almost universally across the modern world, the majority of people, and certainly of young people, want to live in large cities rather than in small villages. Ask them why: Because in the city, you have the mall, the cinema, the theater, the zoo, the museum, the big stadiums, all within your everyday reach, within the horizon of availability. And it explains, in part, why knowledge and education are attractive even beyond their use as a resource base: Learn English, or Chinese, and you discover a whole new world of literature and art, culture and shopping, the whole universe of that language becomes available for you, for example. In this way, the world is turned into a disposable place, so to speak, with money, education and technology supplying the charms for incessantly increasing our reach and scope.

Hence, culturally as well as structurally, modern society entrenches and even enforces a very particular stance and attitude towards the world, a stance that is defined by the logic of increase, control and augmentation.

IV Modernity’s Deepest Fear: Alienation and Pollution – Or: What is wrong with the Triple A Approach?

So far, I have tried to sketch out that we are driven by the desire to expand our horizon of the available, attainable and accessible. Our conception of the good life is rooted in the idea that we can ‘gain’ the world, that we can unlock it, make it ‘legible’ (Blumenberg 1979) and get its treasures and secrets speak to us. Yet, most unfortunately, when we look at our current sociocultural predicament, this strategy seems to have failed thoroughly, and in a twofold way. First, of course, there is a widespread and growing sense across the world that we do not so much gain and dispose of the world than destroy and endanger it. This sense is most vivid in environmental concerns that in the mode of dynamic stabilization, through incessant growth and acceleration, we damage and destroy, impoverish and reduce, pollute and poison our natural surroundings. In our late modern world, ‘nature’ has, quite paradoxically, become synonymous with the unattainable, non-available ‘other’ on the one hand and with something we are guilty of destroying on the other. This, in turn, leads to the backlash of an unleashed nature striking out in tsunamis and typhoons, avalanches and droughts, viruses and bacteria resistant to antibiotics. The natural world, instead of being made available, attainable and accessible, in many respects appears to become endangered and dangerous instead. This relationship with what modern subjects still perceive to be their living and breathing, responsive natural surrounding certainly does not correspond to the way of being-in-the-world that the strategy of increasing our reach and scope was aiming at.

Yet, when we look at the cultural history of modernity, there is a second, even more disturbing sense in which this very strategy turns out to be paradoxical. For ever since the 18th century, when the shift to the mode of dynamic stabilization occurred, modernity has been haunted by the fear, and by the manifest experience, that the world seems to recede in parallel with the increase of our hold over it. In a phenomenological perspective, we appear to lose the world as we make it available. In cultural self-observations of modernity as well as in social theory and philosophy, this process has been observed from many different angles: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, experienced it when he disputed the gains allegedly made through progress and interpreted them as a genuine loss in the quality of our being-in-the-world, testified in the shift from amour-de-soi to amour propre (Rousseau 2012); Karl Marx identified it as a fivefold process of alienation from work, from the products of work, from nature, from our fellow human beings and in the end from ourselves and took it as the starting point for his philosophy (Marx/Engels 1988), which later on inspired the diagnoses of alienation and the corresponding forms of reification by Adorno, Fromm, or Marcuse, as well as by Georg Lukacs and, more recently, by Axel Honneth (2012) and Rahel Jaeggi (2014). In all of these conceptions, there looms the shadow of a world turned shallow and silent, mute and deaf through our very attempt to control and commodify it. Alienation has come to serve as the keyword for a world which has become cold and grey, harsh and non-responding, experienced by a subject that inwardly feels deaf, mute, cold, and empty, too. We find this sense of a serious loss of the world, of its slipping away from us, in other traditions of social philosophy, too: In Durkheim’s conception of anomia (and his notions of anomic and egoistic forms of suicide; Durkheim 1997), in Georg Simmel’s identification of a blasé attitude towards the things and events that surround us and a ‘latent’ aversion against our fellow human beings, which he deemed characteristic of the modern habitus (Simmel 1997), in Max Weber’s notion of ‘disenchantment’ as the flipside of the longstanding process of ‘rationalization’ (which he defines as the process which makes the world calculable and controllable), or in Albert Camus’ definition of the ‘absurd’, which is born, he says, from the sense that we cannot but shout and yell at a world which never answers because it is, in its innermost core, cold and indifferent or even hostile to us (Camus 1991). Finally, for Hannah Arendt (1958), human subjects lose the world if they lose their capacity for joint, creative political action – irrespective of how successful they might be economically and technologically. Thus, alienation in this sense of facing a cold and silent universe turns out to be modernity’s deepest, and constitutive, fear.

This failure of the triple A strategy towards the good life is felt most vividly in the psychological state of ‘burnout’, which has become the iconic fear and disease of late-modernity (cf. Ehrenberg 2010): People who suffer a thorough burnout – however problematic its exact medical definition may be – experience exactly that: A world which has turned hard and cold, grey or black, dead and deaf for them, while they inwardly feel empty and drained, too. Burnout thus is the most radical form of alienation in the sense of a complete loss or lack of a responsive, ‘warm’ connection with life and with the world. If my diagnosis of the receding of the world as the flipside of our making it available, accessible and attainable is correct, it is small wonder that ‘burnout’ has become the dominant cultural fear precisely in those social contexts where the Triple A Strategy has been most successful and where there is an abundance of resources.

So the question arises: What has gone wrong? Why did modernity betray our hopes and fail to deliver its promise? In order to answer this, we have to go back one more time and ask: why was bringing the world within reach and scope so attractive for us moderns in the first place? What was the promise by which we were led in this strategy? To put it straightforwardly: I believe that at the heart of it, we are driven by the idea that through increasing scope and reach we can improve the quality of our relating to the world. The desire to increase our physical, material and social range is driven by the hope that we can find the right place for us, that we meet the people we really want to live with, the job that actually satisfies us, the religion or worldview which is truly ours, the books that actually talk to us and the music that speaks to us, etc. Thus, in the end, we hope, we will arrive at a form of life that turns the world into a living, breathing, speaking, responsive, ‘enchanted’ world. Alas, as I have tried to point out, instead of arriving there, we end up turning the business of increasing our scope and horizon of the available, attainable and accessible and collecting resources into an end in itself, into an endless, escalatory cycle which permanently erodes its own basis and thus leads nowhere. Let me try one small, idiosyncratic example: Think of the way we relate to books and to music.

For many modern subjects, literature and music have become central ‘axes’ or elements of a good life, crucial albeit somewhat luxurious indicators for the quality of life; a sphere in which they seek and find moments of happiness. For decades, it has become a cultural routine for many people (certainly not just academics and intellectuals) to gradually build up collections of records, or CDs, and a private library. As time has become an increasingly scarce commodity, while music and books have become more and more easily attainable and affordable, very often the books and CDs or records thus collected are never really or fully read or heard: They are stored away in shelves and cases for possible future use. They are acquired as mere potential, but they are not, or not fully, appropriated in the true sense of ‘consumption’. For to consume a book or a record does not mean to buy them but to read or to listen to them. When we read a book or listen to a piece of music in the full sense of it, we have a chance of being drawn in, being touched and affected by it, and to some extent even of being transformed by it: Very often, people refer to their most intense and rewarding experiences of reading or listening by claiming that the book or music in question actually ‘changed their life’. Now, obviously, increasing the reach and scope of permanently available and accessible books and music through acquisition does not necessarily or directly translate into an increase in the quality and/or quantity of intense cultural experiences of this latter sort. In fact, there might even be a negative correlation that parallels the macro-story I just told in the section before: As we find less and less time to delve into a book or a piece of music, we seem to develop an increasing appetite to acquire more of them. This appears to be an almost ‘natural’ side-effect of dynamic stabilization: Literature and music as commodities become progressively cheaper, while the time taken to read a book or actually listen to an opera gets comparatively more ‘expensive’ . Thus, instead of listening to the 170 CDs comprised in The Complete Mozart (or the complete Pink Floyd recordings) we can easily acquire through the internet, which takes ages to do, acquiring the complete Beethoven (or Stones) collection as well for just 49,-- Pounds, Dollars or Euros becomes an increasingly attractive alternative. Yet, the likelihood that none of those 170 CDs actually speaks to us increases as well.

Now, interestingly, as the reader certainly will have noticed a while ago, we have already taken the next step in the logic of increasing our range and scope of cultural accessibility: Younger people tend to no longer buy books and CDs or DVDs – they buy mere access instead. For just a few bucks a month, they get unlimited access to millions of books, albums and/or movies! This seems like the ultimate realization of modernity’s dream. Yet, more often than not, we find ourselves sitting in face of this limitless horizon of availability and feel attracted to none of the options.  A very similar story can be told about the history of private photography: For decades, many people used to take photographs in order to enable them to relate in an intense and intimate way to past experiences. The images were carefully selected when taken and then individually stored in physical albums. With the advent of fast and cheap digital imaging, pictures have become abundantly available and accessible: We can make, multiply and store hundreds and thousands of them, and we do so with the hope that they will release their true relational potential some time in the future. But in fact, more often than not, their time never comes. Increasing the scope of attainability appears to have significantly reduced the experiential and relational quality. This is precisely where cultural grey out or individual burnout actually loom large.

Thus, to sum up my argument so far, we have good reasons to assume that the good life in its essence is not a matter of scope (in money, wealth, options or capabilities), but a particular way of relating to the world – to places and people, to ideas and bodies, to time and to nature, to self and others. Increasing the scope is only a means and a strategy to enable or facilitate the latter – it becomes detrimental to it if it is structurally turned into an end in itself and thus culturally leads to alienation from the world (and to the destruction of nature on top of it).

V The Resonance Conception of the Good Life

Now, if the two claims just formulated are plausible – i.e., that a) the good life is a matter of the way in which we are relating with and to the world, of our being in the world, and that b) dynamic stabilization and the Triple A Strategy lead to increasing alienation as a failed way of being and relating – then the question that remains to be answered is this: What is the opposite of alienation? What is a ‘good’ or fulfilling way of relating to places, people, time, things, and self? What is alienation’s other? Let me start answering this question by defining alienation in a more precise way. Alienation, I want to claim, is a particular mode of relating to the world of things, of people and of one’s self in which there is no responsivity, i.e. no meaningful inner connection. It is, to use Rahel Jaeggi’s (2014) term, a relationship without (true) relation. As we have seen, in this mode, there certainly are causal and instrumental connections and interactions, but the world (in all its qualities) cannot be appropriated by the subject, it cannot be made to ‘speak’, it appears to be without sound and color. Alienation thus is a relationship which is marked by the absence of a true, vibrant exchange and connection: Between a silent and grey world and a ‘dry’ subject there is no life, both appear to be either ‘frozen’ or genuinely chaotic and mutually aversive. Hence, in the state of alienation, self and world appear to be related in an utterly indifferent or even hostile way.

But the true sense of alienation as I want to use it here only becomes comprehensible when we start to think of its alternative. Alienation’s other is a mode of relating to the world in which the subject feels touched, moved or addressed by the people, places, objects etc. he or she encounters. Phenomenologically speaking, we all know what it means to be touched by someone’s glance or voice, by a piece of music we listen to, by a book we read, a place we visit etc. Thus, the capacity to feel affected by something, and in turn to develop intrinsic interest in the part of the world which affects us, is a core element of any positive way of relating to the world. And as we know from psychologists and psychiatrists, its marked absence is a central element of most forms of depression and burnout (Fuchs 2008, Rosa 2016). Yet, it is not enough to overcome alienation. What is additionally required is the capacity to ‘answer’ the call: In fact, when we feel touched in the way described above, we often tend to give a physical response by developing goose bumps, an increased rate of heartbeat, a changed blood pressure and skin resistance etc. (Massumi 2002). Resonance, as I want to call this dual movement of af»fection (something touches us from the outside) and e»motion (we answer by giving a response and thus by establishing a connection) thus always and inevitably has a bodily basis. But the response we give, of course, has a psychological, social and cognitive side to it, too: It is based on the experience that we can reach out and answer the call, that we can establish connection through our own inner or outer reaction. It is by this reaction that the process of appropriation is brought about. This kind of resonance we experience, for example, in relationships of love or friendship, but also in genuine dialogue, when we play a musical instrument or in sports, but also very often at the workplace. The receptive as well as active connection brings about a process of progressive self- and world transformation.

Thus, resonance is not just built on the experience of being touched or affected, but also on the perception of what we can call self-efficacy.  In the social dimension, self-efficacy is experienced when we realize that we are capable of actually reaching out to and affecting others, that they truly listen and connect to us and answer in turn. But self-efficacy, of course, can also be experienced when we play soccer or the piano, when we write a text we struggle with (and which inevitably speaks its own voice), and even when we stand at the shoreline of the ocean and ‘connect’ with the rolling waves, the water and the wind. Only in such a mode of receptive affection and responsive self-efficacy are self and world related in an appropriative way: The encounter transforms both sides, the subject and the world experienced.  That resonances of this sort are vital elements of any identity-formation, can be read from the fact that claims such as after reading that book, or after hearing that music or meeting that group or climbing that mountain, I was a different person, are standard ingredients of almost all (auto-)biographical accounts given, for example, in interviews. It is important to notice here that the transformative effects of resonance are beyond the control of the subject: When something really touches us, we can never know or predict in advance what we will become as a result of this.

To sum up, resonance as alienation’s other, then, is defined by four crucial elements: First, by af » fection in the sense of the experience of being truly touched or moved, second by e » motion as the experience of responsive (as opposed to purely instrumental) self-efficacy, third by its transformative quality, and fourth by an intrinsic moment of unseizability, i.e. of non-controllability, non predictability or non-disposability. We can never simply establish resonance instrumentally or bring it about at will; it always remains elusive. Put differently: Whether or not we ‘hear the call’ is beyond our will and control. This, however, means that the modern search for security through establishing control and domination over the world by making it predictable and calculable, as Weber would have it, has been misguided at least to some extent. Dispositional resonance requires the renunciation of the quest for full security and control. It restores a different sense of security, perhaps, through the experiential affirmation of connection, of resonant self-efficacy. This in part is due to the fact that resonance is not an echo: It does not mean to hear oneself amplified or to simply feel re-assured, but it involves encounter with some real ‘other’ that remains beyond our control, that speaks in its own voice or key different from ours and therefore remains ‘alien’ to us. Even more than this, this ‘other’ needs to be experienced as a source of ‘strong evaluation’ in the sense of Charles Taylor: Only when we feel that the other (which can be a person, but also a piece of music, a mountain, or a historical event, for example) has something important to tell or teach, irrespectively of whether we like to hear it or not, can we truly feel ‘grasped’ and touched (Taylor 1989, pp. 3-109). Resonance, therefore, inevitably requires a moment of self-transcendence (Joas 2001). It does not require, however, that we have a clear cognitive concept or previous experience of this other. We can all of a sudden be touched and shaken by something that appears to be alien altogether. Therefore, resonance certainly is not just consonance or harmony; quite to the opposite: it requires difference and sometimes opposition and contradiction in order to enable real encounter. Thus, in a completely harmonious or consonant world, there would be no resonance at all, for we would be incapable of discerning the voice of an ‘other’ – and by consequence, to develop and discern our own voice. Yet, a world in which there is only dissonance and conflict would not allow for experiences of resonance either: Such a world would be experienced as merely repulsive. In short, resonance requires difference that allows for the possibility of appropriation: of a responsive relationship that entails progressive, mutual transformation and adaptation. Resonance, then, is a condition between consonance and irrevocable dissonance. Because of this, I am convinced the concept can provide a key to overcome the traditional stand-off between theories and philosophies based on identity and conceptions centered on difference. Resonance does not require identity, but the transformative appropriation of difference.

In light of this definition of resonance, it becomes clear that resonance cannot be stored or accumulated, or ‘secured’, and there cannot be a struggle for resonance either. Therefore, resonance provides us with a conception of the good life that contradicts the logics of increase and the Triple A Approach. We immediately understand this when we think of what happens when we try to play our favorite piece of music ten times in a row, or every day: We do not increase our experience of resonance, but we lose it. Similarly, the increase in our database of available music to millions of titles ready at hand does not, at least not necessarily, increase the likelihood of musical resonance.

But the unseizability and moment-like character of resonance does not mean that it is completely random and contingent. For while the actual experience can never be completely controlled and predicted (in fact, just as we expect it to happen most strongly, it is very likely that we will be disappointed – Christmas Eve in family life might be a good case in point), there are two elements involved here which depend on social conditions and which therefore turn resonance into a concept that can be used as a tool for social criticism. First, subjects individually and collectively experience resonance typically along particular ‘axes’ of resonance. Thus, for some, music provides such an axis: Whenever they go to the concert hall, or to the opera, or the festival arena, they have a good chance of making that experience. For others, it will be the museum, the library, or the church, the forest or the shoreline. More than that, we also foster social relationships that provide something like a reliable axis of resonance: We can expect moments of resonance when we are with our lovers, with our kids or with our friends – even though we all know that very often, our respective encounters remain indifferent or even repulsive. And just as much, as we know from evidence provided by the sociology of labor (most instructive for this, Sennett 2009), most people, or at least very many people, develop intense relationships of resonance with their work, not just with their colleagues at the workplace, but also with the materials and tasks they are working and struggling with. Thus, the dough ‘responds’ to the baker as does the haircut to the barber, the wood to the carpenter, the plant to the gardener, the truck to the trucker, the body to the doctor or the text to the writer. In each of these cases, we find a true two-way-relationship which involves experiences of self-efficacy, resistance or contradiction and appropriation as well as mutual transformation (Rosa 2016, pp. 393-401).

When we scrutinize these axes more closely, we find that we can systematically distinguish three different dimensions of resonance. I want to call them the social, material and existential dimensions of resonance. Social axes are those that connect us with, and relate us to, other human beings. In modern, western-type societies since the romantic period, love, friendship, but also democratic citizenship are conceptualized as ‘resonant’ relationships of this type. Material axes are those we establish with certain objects – natural or artefacts, pieces of art, or amulets or tools and materials we work with or we use for sports. Thus, the skis for the skier or the board for the surfer can very well become ‘responsive’ counterparts. Yet, I believe with philosophers like Karl Jaspers (2001), William James (1982), Martin Buber (1971) or Friedrich Schleiermacher (1988) that human subjects also seek and find ‘axes of resonance’ that connect them with and relate them to life, or existence, or the universe as such. As those authors tried to show quite convincingly, this is what brings about religious experiences, and what makes religion plausible in the first place. To me, the central element of the bible, or the Koran, is the idea that at the root of our existence, at the heart of our being, there is not a silent, indifferent or repulsive universe, dead matter or blind mechanisms, but a process of resonance and response: Someone who hears us and sees us, and who finds ways and means to touch us and to respond, who breathes life into us in the first place. The very practice of prayer for the believer opens up such an ‘axis’ which connects his innermost core with outermost reality. The praying person turns inward and outward at the same time. However, of course, modernity has found other axes of existential resonance that do not depend on religious ideas. Nature, in particular, is experienced as an ultimate, comprehensive as well as responsive reality. To listen to the voice of nature has become a central idea not just in idealistic philosophy, but even more so in many everyday routines and practices. Thus, many people regularly claim that they need to take to the forest, or the mountains, or the oceans or deserts to find and feel themselves. They believe they can only ‘hear themselves’ when listening to the silence (or the music) ‘out there’. Just as in the case of prayer, they experience something like a thread that connects their innermost nature to outer reality. In a strikingly similar way, music itself opens up an analogous axis for the listener: When we close our eyes to experience a piece of music, we turn inward and outward simultaneously. And something very similar happens in the case of other aesthetic experiences in the museum, the cinema or when reading a book, too. Art, therefore, alongside nature has evolved into a central existential axis of resonance for modern subjects. That resonance does not need to be a pleasant, harmonious experience, but can develop essentially disturbing aspects, can be learnt from experiences we might have with history as a powerful reality running through us, which connects us with those who came before and those who will come after us, a reality we cannot control or command but which nevertheless responds to our actions such that we can feel a certain sense of self-efficacy. Thus, it appears to be a not so infrequent experience that young people, when visiting a nazi concentration camp, feel existentially struck and addressed; they feel a ‘call’ to respond to the inhumanity of such a site which actually does change their lives (cf. Rosa 2016, pp. 500-514).

Now, while I take it that such concrete axes of resonance are not anthropologically given but rather culturally and historically constructed, the establishment of some such axes is nevertheless indispensable for a good life, for they provide contexts in which subjects dispositionally open up to experiences of resonance. To shift into a mode of resonance requires that we take the risk to make ourselves vulnerable. It conceptually requires that we let ourselves be touched, and even transformed, in a non-predictable and non-controllable way. Thus, in contexts where we are full of fear, or in stress, or in a fight-mode, or concentrated on bringing about a certain result, we do not seek or allow for resonance; quite to the contrary, doing so would be dangerous and harmful. Given this, it becomes obvious that it would be foolish to require that we should always be in a mode of dispositional resonance. The capacity to leave this mode, to distance oneself from the world, to take a cold, instrumental, analytical stance towards it, very obviously is a cultural achievement that is indispensable not just for keeping up the business of modern science and technology, but to actually provide and safeguard a form of life that allows for human resonance in the three dimensions mentioned.

VI. Towards a Social Critique of the Conditions of Resonance                

With this conception in our toolkit, I believe that we can start to use resonance as a yardstick to do the job of social philosophy in the sense of a critique of the prevailing social conditions. Its starting point is the idea that a good life requires the existence of reliable and viable axes of resonance in all three dimensions. A subject will have a good life, I claim, if he or she finds and preserves social, material and existential axes of resonance which allow for iterative and periodic reassurance of ‘existential resonance’, i.e. of a resonant mode of being. The possibility of such a good life, then, is endangered if the conditions for these axes and for the dispositional mode of resonance on the side of the subjects are structurally or systematically undermined. The institutional mode of dynamic stabilization, so my argument goes, does display the tendency and the potential for such a systematic undermining. For it forces subjects into a mode of ‘dispositional alienation’: They are forced into a reifying, instrumental mode of relating to objects and subjects in order to increase and secure their resources, to speed-up and to optimize their equipment. The pervasive logic of competition, and the corresponding fear of losing out and being left behind in particular undermine the possibility of getting into a mode of resonance: If we have to outpace someone, we cannot resonate with him or her at the same time. We cannot compete and resonate simulateneously.

Furthermore, as we know from research on empathy and from neurological studies (Bauer 2006), time-pressure actually works as a sure preventer of resonance. If we are short on time, we try to be as goal-directed and focused as possible; we cannot afford being touched and transformed. The same is true, of course, if we are driven by fear. Fear forces us to erect barriers and to close down our minds, it shifts us to a mode in which we precisely try not to be touched by ‘the world’. Therefore, the conditions of resonance are such that they require contexts of mutual trust and fearlessness; and these contexts in turn require time and stability as background conditions. Finally, the pervasive bureaucratic attempts to completely control processes and outcomes in order to ensure their efficiency and transparency, which define late-modern workplace conditions, are equally problematic for relationships of resonance, because they are incompatible with the latters’ elusiveness and transformative potential.

I do not have the space to develop a fine-grained analysis of contemporary, late-modern conditions of resonance here (cf. Rosa 2016, Part IV), but I am confident that the reader will find it a plausible claim that the escalatory logics of dynamic stabilization and the corresponding Triple A Approach to the good life are rather detrimental to the establishment and preservation of the three-dimensional axes of resonance, and that a critique of the conditions of resonance, therefore, is a worthwhile undertaking.


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