In conversation with Hartmut Rosa
Danger at close range
During recent years, many people have experienced how their ties to the world have slackened. They no longer pursue their hobbies with the same intensity, they meet up less often with friends. Filling this vacuum is a growing sense of numbness and alienation, which supports one of Hartmut Rosa’s theories. For a successful life, it is indispensable, the sociologist believes, that we are open to our environment and interact with it – without, however, wanting to control it. In short: that we establish a resonance with it. But what if our willingness to do so has gone rusty? Frank Haas spoke with Hartmut Rosa about deceleration, social interaction and the consequences of social distancing.
Mr. Rosa, the human race can now look back on two years in which we have had to greatly increase the distance between ourselves and others, and that has become the norm. What effect has social distancing had on us?
“Social distancing” is actually the wrong expression. The point was not to separate people socially, but rather spatially. In the meantime, however, it has literally become that: a social distance to one another, particularly in physical encounters. That is, the other person is perceived as a potential threat. You have a genuine physical sense of danger when you are close to other people. Interestingly enough, our perception of space has changed as well. A new phenomenon arose during the lockdown phases: the feeling that the world exists around us in concentric circles. That used to be the norm. Our home was the center, it was our world, and then came the yard, and the street, and the local stores—it was all very confined, very familiar. Beyond that were the city limits or, depending on where you lived, the woods, the mountains...all those were still accessible. Further beyond, things blurred: London and New York were completely inaccessible – in other words, uncontrollable. In the past it wasn’t normal to think: next weekend I’ll be in Vienna, afterwards I have that meeting in Innsbruck: the world is like an atlas lying open in front of me, I am moving through its pages. That changed again during the pandemic.
Although we are now in a phase in which hopes are budding that we will return to normal, in the meantime I personally feel like the world is an inhibiting place. I’m finally being invited out again, but I’m thinking that I don’t really feel like going anywhere. Do you understand what I mean?
Not only do I understand that, I can explain it as well. Your sense of the world being inhibiting follows from the kind of distance that has arisen between me and the world. As early as May 2020, I had the impression that this feeling was settling on society like mildew. Many people were saying that they didn’t necessarily want to accept invitations anymore, or that they were thinking, “I guess I could call a friend and talk to him or her about this, but somehow I don’t really feel like it.” Where does that come from? It struck me that you first need energy to jumpstart that move and interact with the world. By the way, that applies to all types of interaction, including going outdoors when the sun is shining. Here too, the second thought is, “I really don’t feel like it, though. I’m too tired or too exhausted, I’ll just stay here on the couch.” But energy is generated by activity, it doesn’t just dwell inside you. And that applies all the more to social interaction. The less social interaction people engage in, the less they seem to need it. We know this from research into loneliness. If people are alone long enough, at some point they no longer sense a need to talk to other people. The others then turn into exactly what we discussed earlier on, namely into potential risks, into a drain on their resources. Not until they overcome their lethargy and go out to play volleyball again or sing in the choir, or whatever it is they used to do, will they realize what they have been missing all this time and how much they need these encounters as an elixir of life. What holds us together as a reciprocal source of energy and creativity has succumbed to the pandemic. And I believe we can only overcome that by resuming these activities and going out, even if we don’t feel like it. It’s that old enemy: one’s weaker self.
During the pandemic your opinions were increasingly sought, because apparently your philosophy hits a nerve. What is your view on this?
Yes, that is the case to some extent, but in no way was I anticipating what happened. Covid has two sides: one is the virus and what it does to our bodies. The other is how we react to it as a society and which political responses and measures we experience in the process. In the context of these two sides, the Corona period has highlighted all three of my research focuses: acceleration, resonance and availability. At the start, acceleration was my main issue and that is also interesting for a logistics company. Since Gebrüder Weiss was founded in 1474, kinetic unrest –by which I mean the material, physical movement in the world – has been increasing nonstop. That was the case even during recessions, and especially during wars, when so much is set in motion. I’m not, however, talking about top speeds, but rather about how much matter, i.e. how many people, how much merchandise, how many raw materials are currently moving around the world at any given time. And then you realize that this volume, along with the average speed, has actually constantly been increasing. This phenomenon of setting the world in motion has clearly been accelerated by aircraft, and meanwhile Elon Musk is somehow sending 30,000 satellites into outer space, just imagine! The Corona crisis applied a massive brake to this movement for the first time, perhaps even reversing it. Up to 95% of flights were grounded, urban traffic was down by some 80%, highway traffic by 50%, that’s just crazy! Halting the world like that to slow down the virus! That was a radical deceleration that could even be measured seismologically. Perhaps this doesn’t apply if you’re working in the health sector, or if you produce digital software or hardware, but on the whole, for many, many people, the tempo of life suddenly slowed and datebooks were emptied instead of being filled.
Harmut Rosa is a professor of General and Theoretical Sociology at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena; since 2002 he has been associated with the New School University in New York City as a visiting professor. In connection with his work Sociology of the Good Life, Rosa formulated the sociological concept of resonance in which body and soul – i.e. humans and their environment – can enter into a balanced relationship of mutual motivation which generates resonance. (Image: Jürgen Scheere)
Normally, in the past, every single blank in our calendars would be filled in—with a personal outing, a doctor’s appointment, a meeting with the accountant, whatever. And all of a sudden, the business conference is cancelled, the school party postponed, the wedding and the celebration as well; theater tickets are refunded. People experienced a high degree of deceleration, and then came the idea that we would experience new resonances when we finally found the time. Perhaps some people thought they would finally listen to Wagner, or play piano to engage in a resonating experience with their instrument. Or they would start cooking instead of living off frozen pizza – cooking is an elementary world relationship. Or finally do some gardening. In other words, people now had the opportunity to do all those things, and many realized that it wasn’t that easy after all. You can’t simply switch on a resonance axis. In that sense, the Corona time was also a phase of disillusionment.
The third focus is uncontrollability. Much of the world has become uncontrollable and the core thesis of my book is that it is exactly our attempt to make the world controllable in every way that produces massive uncontrollability. The financial markets, for instance, have become uncontrollable, because no one really understands how they work anymore. That is a highly explosive development, in many senses. Even a world made digitally accessible can be uncontrollable if the internet crashes or a battery dies. The Covid crisis has also served to make the world radically uncontrollable, so it is in fact true that all three of my focuses have been given a massive boost by this crisis.
They didn’t just get a boost, they were borne out. And the wishes and hopes we had at the beginning of the pandemic have mostly gone unfulfilled, because we lacked the energy to pursue them.
Yes, Covid really stopped the resonance wires in some ways. That is why my next book will be about energy, because we sociologists have no concept of it, which is very strange. We always think of energy as something physical, and we have good concepts for that in physics and chemistry, i.e. in the natural sciences. At the outside, we still think of energy as physical, we talk about propulsion energy, motivation energy. But it’s not at all clear what that actually is. And in my view, energy cannot simply be understood as an individual possession. Instead, it is something between me and the world. I would, however, note one reservation: a great many people have reported – and this has been my experience as well – that there is a highly dependable resonance axis that experienced a genuine boom during the crisis: nature. When the world turns dangerous and social relationships are no longer a true option, going outdoors, embracing nature is a resonant event in which we feel alive and can regain energy.
And now the world is careening from one crisis to the next, if you look at global politics. Do you see a connection here? At the beginning you described a phenomenon in which we suddenly perceive others as a threat.
I think you need to be careful about drawing causal conclusions. But if you ask me in my role as sociologist, I would basically say that Covid has had two consequences. For one, the pandemic has rendered our world relationship precarious. In other words, we no longer have blind faith in the world and life. As I said, the other person turns into a threat as soon as he or she gets too close. At the end of the day, the Corona crisis has taught us that you cannot trust your neighbor. Even a friend could kill you if he passes on the virus and you are respectively predisposed. In fact, you can’t even trust yourself and your own senses anymore: you can’t see the virus, you can’t hear it, you can’t smell it –– and still you can already be a carrier and infect others. This feeling is generalized in politics: many people have the feeling they can’t trust politicians. I believe that creates a basic world relationship marked by fear and distrust. The flip side is that people get angry if they can’t establish resonant connections to the world: either the world needs to be made resonant, or disappear. In my opinion, the combination of fear and anger is indicative of political conflicts and fuels them. People mistrust one another, they have the feeling that other people pose a threat and are enemies that need to be silenced. That said, this process existed prior to the pandemic as well. Just look at our political culture, it’s evident everywhere. Take Brexit: you have the Leavers and the Remainers hurling mutual accusations. Take the U.S., where Trump followers and Democrats do not simply uphold different opinions—they despise each other with a passion. In Europe, we perhaps have a parallel in the pro-vaxxers and anti-vaxxers. When people have the feeling that the world is a threat, that produces anger. And in place of genuine dialog, a type of statement politics ensues, in which the point is to outdo yourself; you need to prove to others that you’re tougher and even more resolute in pooh-poohing any and all relationships. I believe that leads to a catastrophe, and it is my hope that we can all soon turn the corner here.