On “Resonance”

Part I, On relations to the World

Posted on 2022-03-12

Resonance is a book by Harmut Rosa, a famous contemporary German sociologist and philosopher who theorised Acceleration as a core impact modernity has on society in a previous book. I have read the first part of this book in French but the ideas he set forth resonated - pun intended - so much with me I wanted to share them with a wider audience, hence this English summary.

My notes don’t do justice to the richness of the book which is very well written even if quite dense, and more importantly packed with concrete examples and actual results from studies in the field and experiments, whether from neurosciences, sociology, psychology… Something that’s rare enough in a theoretical book to be worthy of emphasis.

This small article tries to summarise the core ideas I understood from this rich book, and how those ideas relate to other ideas, feelings, experiences I have had in the past. It’s (un)structured as a loosely organised collection of notes, and my goal is to give the reader enough clues and intriguing ideas that she or he would want to have a closer look and read this important book.

How does a resonating life looks like?

Our life is essentially experienced as weaving bonds with beings and things, whether objects, practices, beliefs, groups), as a continuous stream of phenomenons manifesting that something outside of us Affects use. Rosa introduces his book with the description of the contrasted life of three pairs of people: * One person that seeks to maximise resonance of every single experience, versus one who tries to maximise the number of variety of lived experiences, * One that perceives the world as full of resonating bonds versus one the only feels alienated, * One that relates to the world and other beings through command & control, as instruments to suit her purpose, versus one that relates to others through mimetic assimilation.

Resonance thus occurs either horizontally, with other human beings (friends, relatives, lovers, activists…), diagonally with things, animals, ideas, or vertically with transcending “totalities” like The World, Nature, God, Humanity.

Embodiment of Resonance

Our body is what allows us to resonate with otheres, skin is our first communication medium: It’s first through touch and being touched that we experience the world, following the eerie state of the baby in his or her mother’s placenta. The skin is a membrane through which the outside affects us (scars, burns, strokes, tatoos), but with which we also express ourselves (flush, goose bumps). The more we consider our skin (and more generally our body) as an object the less we seem able to resonate.

Breathing and blowing are our very first, mostly unconscious, interaction with the world, ones which force us to let it penetrate us. Then comes eating and drinking.

We are social beings through and through even within our bodily interaction with the world: The way we walk, we perceive space, our attitude, how we stand up and sit down… This hexis is the embodiment of socially built constraints and habits and in return it has social effects.

The erotic relationship to the other, whether “purely” sexual or “merely” platonic, is a peak of resonance. It’s one of the most powerful and intense ways to resonate with the Other and the World as it involves every part of our being, physical, mental, aesthetic.

Relation to the World can be modelled as involving 3 parts: The Self, the Body and the World. The Body mediates the relationship of the Self to the World, and interactions happen in both directions yielding 4 different possible type of relations. Any of these relations can be experienced as resonating or muted. In the late modernity, the Body (and the World) are most often experienced as instrumental.

Reification is the process through which one aims at controlling and mastering the Body, considering it as an object. It can take two apparently opposite but deeply connected aspects:

Reification induces alienation by dissociating one’s Self from her Body, a symptom of which being the burn-out.

The separation between the objectal body and the subjectal body, between the body as it relates to the world and the body as it relates to the Self, is nowhere as obvious than in the varieties of sexuality and relationships to one’s gender. The fact that intersexuality, travesty, homosexuality or transsexuality can be powerful sources of alienation and pain for the individual demonstrates: 1. How much society values the objectal body over the subjectal one, and 2. That such fundamental things as our perceptions of our body are socially built.

Resonance & Culture

The deepest experiences of resonances are always devoid of a particular object hence of desire.

The Self and the World are not entities preexisting their relationship, but take shape through the relationnal process. p. 195

Man is an auto-interpretative being.

According to Weber and Habermas, each culture favors one or the other form of relation to the worlds, classified along 2 pairs of opposition: Active or Passive attitude, whereby the Self is an intentional subject actively engaging with the World, or merely a receptacle of whatever the World throws at her ; Affirmation or Negation as ways to evaluate one’s relationship to the world.

Active Passive
Affirmation Adaptation (Confucianism) Contemplation (Ancient Greece)
Negation Domination (Capitalism) Escape (hinduism, buddhism)

No culture is devoid of values hence of evaluation which is the process through which we attribute one or more values to something. We can distinguish between Weak evaluation which relates to our immediate desires, “I want X” and which are “internal”; and Strong evaluation which relates to our core values, “It is important that X”, and which are always external, within the World.

Evaluation allows to build a Moral map of the World with guides our choices and gives meaning, within the frame of a specific cultural context.

Gerhard Schulze studied the attitudes and beliefs of inhabitants of a small German city in the 80’s and proposed 5 classes identifiying each attitude with what he calls a Basic Existential Problem:

  1. Threat where the World is perceived mostly as a source of danger from which to seek protection,
  2. Trial: The world is a source of challenges to overcome,
  3. Stimulation: The World is a source of feelings and sensations,
  4. Self experience: The world is a way to know oneself better,
  5. Adaptation: The World as expectations to be met, to adapt with.

Resonance & Empathy

Empathy is a biological phenomenon that we have been programmed to feel, much like as social animals we have a natural tendency to imitate others. That’s why it’s pretty hard to act violently in normal circumstances, it requires exceptional situations and possibly several agressions to react.

Empathy has a neurological support, possibly through so-called mirror neurons and imitative instinct, but it is socially constructed through the child and adult’s interactions with others. “Wolf child” unvoluntary experiments and numerous psychological studies have proven that interactions are vital for the mental well-being and psychic development.

Saying or hearing can be performative because language is intimately linked to our capabilities to resonate. And language resonates because it links us to the social world.

Alienation vs. Resonance

Alienation is a concept which has received a lot of attention along the 20th century, so much so that it devolved into amorphous meaninglessness. Within the theory of resonance, alienation can receive a very precise definition as relation without relationship to the World, that is a form of being and interaction with the world, both things, animals and people, which is purely instrumental, muted, devoid of feedback.

That’s the exact opposite of resonance which is defined as a bi-directional, feedback rich, relation to the World, each party resonating with the others on its own frequency.

Alienation and resonance are dialectically related: Resonance emerges from consciousness of an alienation and the quest of a “solution” founded on trust into the very possibility of resonance.

This dialectic definition resonance and alienation ends the first part of the book, the second being devoted to identifying concrete manifestations of both in what Rosa calls Late modernity, namely our Western capitalist civilisation.