No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Unverfügbarkeit (Unavailability) – Harmut Rosa (2018), Wien: Residenz Verlag GmbH.



The cultural driving force behind the modern life, according to Rosa, is the idea and desire to make the world available. However, vitality, being in touch and real experience come from the encounter with the unavailable. “A world that is completely known, planned and controlled would be a dead world.” Life happens on the border what is available to us and what remains unavailable to us, yet concerns us. Games are so appealing to us, because wins and defeats can't be made available. Granted, with money, good preparation, (mental) training and relaxation one can influence the game. But a win, or the next point, can’t be forced. The more you force it, the less you will succeed. Hence, people perform rituals to make the unavailable available. That doesn’t just apply to winning games, but also to falling asleep, and staying healthy.

The focus of Rosa’s analysis in this book is the way in which we relate individually, culturally, institutionally and structurally to the unavailable. “The world always encounters us as a 'point of aggression' or as a series of points of aggression, that is, of objects to be known, achieved, conquered, mastered or used, which is exactly what 'life' seems to us.” This aggression, according to Rosa, makes the experience of liveliness and encounter withdraw. This, in turn leads to fear, frustration, anger, even despair, which can then be reflected in political aggression.

I - The world as a point of aggression

Rosa’s sociology of world relations understands subject (self) and object (world) as the two poles of a constituent relationship. The way we relate to the world depends on the social and cultural conditions in which we are socialized.

Rosa’s first thesis is that for ‘late modern’ subjects, the world has become a point of aggression. Everything that appears must be known, controlled, conquered and made useful. This attitude is not only due to the current technical possibilities of digitization and political and economic pressure. increasing and optimizing capitalism in the financial markets and unleashing competition establishes new radicalism. This attitude can be recognized even where we don't seem to want to conquer at all: the processing of exploding to-do lists and the entries on this list are the points of aggression that the world encounters: shopping, the call, the expert visit , the work: do it, get it, remove it, master, solve, complete. This normalization and naturalization of an aggressive world relationship is the result of a social formation that has developed over three centuries, based structurally on the principle of dynamic stabilization and culturally on the principle of incessant expansion of reach.

The form and dynamics of a social formation can only be understood through the interplay between its institutional or structural constitution and its cultural driving forces, that is, its fears, promises and desires. The structural dimension can be described using empirical scientific observation. It is impossible to capture the dynamic and energetic moment of society: social life and social change only happen on the basis of the fears and hopes of the people living in a formation, and these driving forces, the promises and fears, can only be Reconstructing from a first person perspective, hermeneutical, from a cultural and scientific point of view.

A society is modern, according to Rosa, if it can only stabilize itself dynamically, that is, if it needs constant (economic) growth, (technical) acceleration and (cultural) innovation to maintain its institutional status quo. Growth, acceleration and innovation no longer seem like a promise to make life better and better, but as a claustrophobic threat: better, faster, cheaper. It is not the greed for more, but the fear of less jobs and less tax revenues that keeps the game going. According to Rosa, we are always on moving escalators, unable to pause or to say "enough is enough." We are also hooked by the promise of greater global reach by means of transport, smartphone, etc. We are also attracted by the big city. We are both forced from the outside and culturally driven from within to make things accessible, attainable, available.

II - Four Dimensions of Availability

  1. Make visible;

2.Make available;

3.Make manageable; get something under control; the prerequisite for this mastery is the scientific analysis, “penetration” and understanding of the causal mechanisms of action;

4.Make useful.

These four dimensions of availability are solidly institutionalized in the basic settings of modern society:

- science promises more and more knowledge;

- technological development promises to make the scientifically determined segments of the world manageable;

- economic development provides the means for this;

- legal regulations and political-administrative devices have the task of making social processes predictable and manageable.

Power manifests itself in the expansion of one's global reach, often at the expense of others.

III - The Paradoxical Reverse: The Mysterious Retreat of the World

The institutionally enforced and culturally functioning promise/program to make the world available, according to Rosa, is not working and is currently being turned into its opposite. The consequences of environmental degradation threaten us more and more. Protectionists and militarists promise to protect us by all means from the limited world of the known, while globalization reveals a chaotic, dangerous, uncontrollable outer world. The world is simultaneously eerily threatened and eerily threatening - the exact opposite of availability. Modernity’s basic fear is the loss of the world.

Karl Marx early in his career wrote about the alienation of people from the world they encountered:

- Workers are alienated from the product of their labor, because what they produce does not belong to them under capitalist conditions (wage work);

- Workers are alienated from the work process; it no longer defines and shapes their whole being, because they are not allowed to determine the ends, means and forms of production.

- Workers become alienated from nature, because the nature to be processed only confronts them as an economically viable raw material or design object.

- People meet each other primarily as competitors, in latent enmity, because people compete with each other constantly and existentially.

The classic sociologists all described this problem of the world relation of the modern time, e.g.:

  • Karl Marx saw alienation as the cause of the establishment of an economic system in which the movement of capital as an endless process of accumulation could become the very subject of history.
  • Max Weber saw it as highly irrational to see people living to work and accumulate instead of working to live. He observed an alienating rationalization process, in which a predictable and controllable world loses its magic, its color, its meaning, and its voice.
  • Georg Simmel described how people in the modern metropolis met in the basic mode of an existential reserve, a latent aversion. The modern, urban person is just-not-impressed with the world around him/her.
  • Emile Durkheim saw an existential disconnection with other people as the cause of anomie: the lack of rules, order and law in social life.
  • Adorno and Lukacs saw reification instead of a lively relation.

In short: The modern world is a world that no longer can be called and reached.

IV - The world as a point of resonance

Rosa sees the ability to resonate as the essence of all possible world relations; it precedes the ability to keep the world at a distance and within manipulative reach. The fundamental way of living of human existence is resonating with things, bringing them to an answer through one's own ability and in turn responding to this answer. Resonance as a relationship mode is determined by four defining characteristics:

  1. Affection: The thing or person from whom we experience a call appears to be intrinsically important to us. We leave the mode of aggression and put off the armor of reification with which we usually operate in a world aimed at improvement and optimization, calculation and control.
  2. Self-efficacy: We react actively and physically. Examples: goosebumps, faster breathing, heart rate and blood pressure.
  3. Transformation: We ourselves and the objects change for us through the experience of resonance.
  4. Unavailability: There is no method or guide that can be used to ensure that we can resonate with people or things. Whether there will be a response, and if so, how long it will last, can never be predicted.

Resonance (see Rosa’s 2018 book) is in fundamental tension with the social logic of unceasing improvement and optimization and with the corresponding world attitude in which the world always appears as a point of aggression. Once we enter a fighting relationship, we are forced into a resonance-dampening closure. Then we do not want to be reached, but to assert ourselves, then we do not aim for influence, but for instrumental-manipulative self-efficacy.

V - Five statements about the availability of things and the unavailability of experience

We can only resonate with people or things if they move between full availability and total unavailability. Resonance requires that one is open to the unexpected. With someone who always agrees with us and encourages us and always shares our opinion and fulfills all our wishes, one can at most have an echo relationship. Someone or something can only be and remain a resonating counterpart as long as one has not fully grasped, understood and digested it, as long as it continues to engage us. Between subject and world and in the things themselves must be a moment of constitutive unavailability.

A resonance experience involves the feeling of an inner transformation and above all the assumption that it would be worth getting involved, because we still have what appeals to us, do not fully understand or not yet have exhausted. What a (book, a sonata, the Matterhorn) says also depends on our answer. When we are done with something because we have fully mastered it, it no longer tells us anything. If one always wants to hear or see something new, the doubt arises that the things one saw or heard were once resonance axes for us. Reaching the camera shifts the focus and attitude with which we encounter the world; we adopt a stance aimed at seizing the world potential (compare Erich Fromm’s “haben und sein”).

We can only allow ourselves to be reached if we don't feel overwhelmed or challenged. The attempt to control and optimize interaction processes in relation to results turns the resonance axis silent. Whilst the modern age is being forced to turn accessibility into availability (self-optimization/output maximalisation), resonance requires an accessible, but not a boundlessly available world. Resonance has the character of a gift.

VI - Make it available or let it happen? The Fundamental Conflict in Six Stages of the Life Course

Listening and answering is a different attitude than planning (e.g. the modern way of pregnancy planning), doing and calculating. A sociologist certainly does not need to know the correct answer to the question if this is right or wrong, but he/she must be allowed to ask it. Techniques and courses with the help of which the unavailability of an elementary process like birth is to be brought within reach, have the paradoxical result that both the fear of giving birth and the perceived unavailability and risks become greater. This undermines confidence in one's own effectiveness and in the ability to hear and respond appropriately by transferring this ability to devices and the experts. The same goes for security technology: the more surveillance cameras, warning systems, burglar alarms and protective fences are placed around a building, the less safe the residents feel. Resonance relations require an accommodative or speaking unavailability, and the possibility of a self-effective response.

VII - Making available as an institutional necessity: The structural dimension of the basic conflict

Optimization means achieving the best possible result in the shortest possible time while maintaining control over the process. Calculating and mastering are the basic modes of process control in business, politics, care, education, etc. Anyone who has to go to the airport under time pressure must not engage in a conversation, idea, landscape, music or people who cross their path, otherwise does he or she miss the plane.

In all institutional spheres of operation, unavailability is not only unavoidable, it is practically indispensable. In the case of severe illnesses, healing is based on uncontrollable self-efficacy. Politic projects for more jobs, better environmental conditions, more efficient traffic, etc. often achieve the opposite of what was promised. It is precisely from this that the dynamic of socio-political life develops - it is unavailable.

The precepts of equal treatment and justice demand the systematic exclusion of arbitrariness and all kinds of advantages. The operational framework of modern public action makes social life reliable. In the public service it is expected that one is treated equally and that the treatment is based on understandable, codified and predictable reasons. A network of legal provisions and official regulations tries to make all the coincidences and vicissitudes of life available. However, the compulsion to be treated equally creates injustice because life cannot be made available. Anyone who tries through the strictest rules and controls to ensure that no one can abuse the state’s basic security will find that they have now caused many cases that produce unintended, inhuman hardship. Anyone who tries to avoid such hardships must accept that help will be sought in many cases that appear to be unjustified. If you want to exclude both, you have to formulate infinitely complex sets of rules and you will still not achieve your goal. It is not uncommon for things to only work productively because rules and responsibilities are ignored (for once).

Availability also means accountability. If today almost everywhere employees and professionals complain that they can hardly get to do their actual work or that they no longer have time to do it well, this is by no means only due to the (economic) pressure to increase and accelerate, but precisely in the futile attempt to make all processes and relationships at the workplace transparent, accountable, controllable and efficient in this way.

Wherever misfortunes and accidents occur, we try to identify the culprits and those responsible, as if the prerequisites for this were basically available. "Somebody has to be responsible"; "Somebody has to be to blame. Somebody has to be held accountable." "Somebody must have disregarded the regulations, neglected the protective measures, overlooked the warning signs."

In public and political discourse there is simply no place for thought, for the reality of unavailability in social life. It is certainly difficult to accept that basically avoidable accidents occur, but we pay a price for trying to rule this out in an increasingly radical and categorical manner.

Acquiring a thing is in principle synonymous with being able to dispose of it; Availability is the core of the ownership idea. Quality assurance is of central interest to producers and consumers: a purchased product must have all the properties and components that are implicitly or explicitly the subject of the sales contract. Legal proceedings make it clear how much the demand for comprehensive availability has also increased on the side of consumers and consumer protection, driven not least by the fact that the providers of the relevant services always promise or suggest availability and, above all, sell it. The experience of resonance cannot be commodified.

What Theodor W. Adorno called identifying thinking is that unavailability becomes an impossibility to think because it is only understood as what is not yet available, that which is still to be made available, and where it therefore also becomes impossibility to experience, because no response relationship, but only a relationship of powerlessness can develop. For Adorno, the urge to make the world completely available and to eliminate the unavailable is therefore already inherent in the nature and attitude of this thinking. Identifying thinking asserts us of the possibility of relating to a thing we encounter as an unavailable counterpart to which we would first have to listen before we could respond. We encounter things as something to be known, to be paid for, to be controlled, to be acquired, to be done. We experience things as principally available, even if we do not know, control or possess them. We do not even experience things in their phenomenal diversity, but only what we have made available in them conceptually, economically or technically.

VIII - The unavailability of desire and the desire of the unavailable

Who we desire and which practices we find exciting elude our will. This also applies to our taste preferences when it comes to eating or drinking, dressing or living, in music and literature. We develop our will and our convictions in constant confrontation with the structure and content of desire. Desire itself is also constantly transforming itself, albeit often in an unpredictable direction. We keep discovering new sides of ourselves, and we respond to them. This unavailability is experienced and understood by us as a genuine response relationship. If we would always give in to our desires, we would lack a voice of our own with which to respond to our requests. This voice is formed by experience-based convictions that there are things in the world that are absolutely important, e.g. God's commandments, moral law or reason, international solidarity or nature. If, however, you always and exclusively adhere to such values ​​and the norms and principles derived from them and never give in to your desire, you will become hardened and incapable of resonance towards yourself and the world. We desire what we do not have or at least do not have completely or what we cannot completely control. The basic structure of human desire is a relationship desire: We want to achieve or make something accessible that is not at hand.

A fundamental mistake of modern culture is that it transforms the longing for the accessibility of the world into the need for availability and this in the program of expanding global reach. The logic of capitalist economy and consumerism is based on appropriation rather than on the process of adaptation. The trick of capitalism is that we consumers are always disappointed with the objects we have purchased, but that we still desire new and different objects in an endless spiral of disappointment and hope without ever finding what we are looking for in them.

IX - The return of the unavailable as a monster

Not only the technical complexity (e.g. computers that do completely erratic things) creates practical unavailability, so do the complexity and speed of social processes. Fear arises from the fact that, despite the unpredictability and uncontrollability of the circumstances, one is held responsible for the results, that one should have known, or could have recognized.

In the course of the digitization of life, more and more processes and relationships are made parametrically visible. We can influence our BMI, but without complete ownership. This kind of information is highly contradictory and confusing and becomes the cause of perceived uncertainty and powerlessness. Information about our body, in parameters of medicine and technology, confront us as external data, to which we have no inner, sensitive relationship. Another example: The basic parameters of political action are determined by markets, processes of globalization and the logic of competition. In addition, there is the uncontrollable momentum of the media and social networks, which can trigger waves of outrage or enthusiasm with large consequences in a very short time. Hence chaos-theoretical approaches to the social-scientific interpretation of the social world are gaining in importance. They suggest that there are no hard connections between causes and effects.

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