Hartmut Rosa – The Uncontrollability of the World (Polity)
Srećko Horvat – After The Apocalypse (Polity)
Hartmut Rosa’s book seems partly to be a short guide to his larger works. It isn’t pitched as one, but the text refers throughout to the more expansive and difficult books Rosa has completed. It is an accessible entry point to a philosopher I consider to be important. The reader can map the concepts out onto their own lives and experiences easily. For this alone I recommend it. The politics are there too. Rosa cites Marx, Adorno and Horkheimer, Bruno Latour, et al.
One of Rosa’s key concepts is Resonance, the idea of being in dialogue with something or someone. Simple enough on the surface, but this idea in Rosa’s hands is shot through with the unavailability of Resonance: whether we can resonate with objects, situations, other people (other subjectivities) or not, is much less in our hands than we might imagine it to be.
A key part of Rosa’s philosophy is also gathered around the idea of a world not under control, and here he explains how resonance and its elusiveness is central to that concept. The Uncontrollability of the World seems to be one of those books which came out in the global pandemic already describing it, without having been written in it (the preface signs off March 2020).
Some books seemed to be erased by that year, but this one is redoubled by it. It seems to have been written for it, before it. Rosa describes how our western polity and individual subjectivities arose out of, essentially, enlightenment rationality. A world that is first made viewable – via telescopes, microscopes – then accessible, then manageable, and finally, useful. I am reminded of Martin Jay’s work on the visual here.
But after three hundred years of this snowballing, instrumentalising activity, the world is still not controllable and we are not in control. Anyone who watched the recent Adam Curtis documentaries, their conclusions – whatever else one might say about them – were not a description of a global human situation which is finally managed. Far from it.
Srećko Horvat’s After The Apocalypse takes this statement as a given. For him, the apocalypse, climate-burnout, nuclear catastrophe, is so very possible due to escalating risk and possibility tipping-points, that we might as well say it already happened. Not only are we are living ‘in the end times’, we are living after the end, before it.
But Rosa says that we would profit from being penetrated by the world’s uncontrollability a little more, rather than remaining in the enlightenment mode of attempting to control at a distance. Because ultimately, not only do we fail to achieve the goal of control, in our attempts, we make the world more uncontrollable as we try. Surely there is no better example of this philosophical point than the proliferation of nuclear weapons since the end of WW2. The maddest, inverted logic of control-at-a-distance. I think about them all the way through, but Rosa doesn’t use nukes as an example until the very end of the book.
Many writers are making the connection between the collapse of globalisation, the rise of rightwing populism and the increased instability of world politics now. This also means the possibility of new wars, which at this point means the risk of nuclear strikes, or at best standoffs. I Hate The Lake District by Charlie Gere (MIT/Goldsmiths see my previous review) also seemed haunted by this idea. I am personally, haunted by all this, and have been – on and off, to a greater or lesser degree – since the 1980s.
My ghosts now have their own armchairs in the living room. The conclusion of this book is very pessimistic. So much so that Rosa places a caveat at the end to say that the work is just a first foray. But Emerson’s ‘things are in the saddle and ride mankind’ seems to be at peak decay in early 2021.
Some of the examples in Rosa’s book seem slight, computers not working, the cat clawing you: I can imagine a day in 1910 in which the adding machine stuck and the cat swiped out. But this does nothing to dim the unbearable glare of the central thesis.
Another MIT/Goldsmiths book, Six Concepts for the End of the World by Steve Beard, is part of this tradition. They are the most fatalistic books of critical theory I have read in a long time. Creative, playful, yes, but morbidly messianic too. Peak Libido by Dominic Pettman also seems to be part of it. I know how they feel.
But there’s something else to figure out here. Is all of this literature delayed millenarianism? It is certainly messianic in its tendencies. Horvat’s book particularly, with its Benjaminian time-manipulation. It is the inverse of Pauline ‘good news’, that the messiah has not arrived and yet, somehow, still has. It is negation’s revelation. The apocalypse has already happened, just not yet. For Horvat our position is no longer ‘socialism or barbarism’, but total reinvention of the world, or mass extinction.
But it seems to me that full millenarianism may have arrived twenty years into the new century. Can we bracket this strand of critical theory completely off from the anti-vaxxers? Yes, I think, but that they co-exist is at least interesting. Does the existence of a unanimous science, all nodding at the oncoming catastrophes, mean that a verdict of ‘delayed millenarianism’ should be ruled out? Maybe. I can’t answer it yet, it needs more prodding. To try to answer this in a facile way here would be pointless.
However we view the cultural trend of it, the concerns all of these books have are terrifyingly real. And to sign off saying ‘now we all need to remake the world, duh-duh duh-duh duh-duh‘ would be, in Rosa’s own philosophical terms, neither resonant nor transformative. It would be worse than merely crass and naive. It would be an insult to the millions of us who have to live under this newly intensified shadow. Even worse for the young and yet to be born.
There might not be any pure and innocent adult humans, but I also don’t buy the idea that we have all created this shadow either. I do not hold on to any of the leftwing evangelisms I once did. Back in 2017 and before I might have signed this article off with some worthy but ultimately empty lines about what ‘we’ must all do next.
But I can and still will imagine the ways in which the world might be different, even without hope. These books are great resources to use, to at least start thinking again.