Interview with Hartmut Rosa #2: “We are in a test laboratory”

The corona pandemic forces us to rethink everything, claims sociologist Hartmut Rosa. Our society has reinvented itself – and heard it.

taz: Mr. Rosa, where do we reach you with our call?

Hartmut Rosa: In the Black Forest.

Did you follow the Chancellor’s recommendations and didn’t go to Jena?

Absolutely everything was canceled there and most of it was closed. It is a historically unique situation that the calendar empties instead of filling up. Most of the time the gaps are still filled with some dates. At the moment it is the other way round: I cancel this appointment, that appointment, this flight …

Do you have to rethink things now?
Yes, because it's something new. But I assume, I am not the only one who has a different everyday life all of a sudden.
You're the one who talked more about deceleration than many others. In your book “Resonance. A Sociology of the World Relationship“ you described the loss of resonance experience in relation to a constantly accelerating world.
Yes, and now we definitely have a form of forced deceleration, while we continue to live in a society that can only be maintained by increasing its structure. If you stop something like that, you usually pay a high price. We still have to pay for it. We live in a reality that is calibrated for growth, dynamism, growth - and that is now obsolete.
Because a virus got in the way. 
It doesn't eat up the planes or break the rails. Rather, we are the ones who stop this huge machine in suspicion, presumption, and sometimes also observation of danger. We have never had such a radical stopping. The result of it is completely uncertain.
If you had imagined such crisis scenarios months ago, you would probably have thought that everyone was hysterical and anxious. Though, now everything goes off very reasonably.
Panic is not really visible, I agree. However, I am a little worried that something similar to the refugee crisis of 2015 may happen again. Back then, as you may remember, the first reactions were really overwhelming, human and appropriate to the situation.

One could have been be really excited!

Indeed, solidarity, charity and a welcome culture at every train station and people thought: this is a sign, a new start for society. But it didn't last long. And today we have a total loss of solidarity and even compassion for the people who are on the Greek-Turkish border. Therefore, I am not sure how sustainable it is, what we see in terms of discipline, solidarity and reason. We have an exceptional situation that feels ambivalent.
What kind of conflict do you feel?
On the one hand, we have this notorious, long-practiced urge to act: the world becomes a point of aggression; you have to do a lot of things. Such an attitude does not disappear overnight. However, this attitude is currently shifting almost entirely to the digital world. The streams are still racing, you think you have to write to this friend here, inquire there, check the Guardian, the New York Times, social media. This is contrary to a massive slowdown in real physical life. Where on the one hand you feel shut down and excluded, on the other you suddenly discover new forms of solidarity and new forms of devotion.

Are you truly surprised?

No. That's what I've been trying to get across for a while through what I write. The fact that the hamster wheel is turning and doing this faster and faster, forces us into a mode of aggression towards the world. This blocks you from all kinds of perceptions. Acoustic signals, optical signals, signals from neighbors: Whoever and whatever I come across, I hide from them because I am in a hurry and I have a goal, I have to be efficient. Now, suddenly there is almost nothing left to do. My world is very limited in space and time to immediate vicinity: I cannot go far and cannot plan far into the future. I call this a radical reduction in global reach. And then you open up again in a mode that I describe as a resonance mode, namely: hearing, perceiving and answering without wanting to do anything in particular, without having to optimize.

This resonance moment is currently the common one, isn’t it?

Basically, I am convinced that new things can only be created through resonance relationships and moments. And that's why I would say that we are in a collective resonance moment: In a situation where we all listen, open up to each other and the world, and are able to find an answer. And there, perhaps in the sense of Hannah Arendt, something new can emerge collectively. Society can reinvent itself. And yes, it really needed it.

The crisis as opportunity, as some already say?

If one were to look for optimistic interpretations of the situation, I would say that this is exactly where the opportunity lies: that one experiences new forms of encounters in being in the world and dealing with one another, from which we may also be able to benefit or to be nourished, when the economic consequences, the unachievable pressure of increases take place.

Are you afraid of the radical, also ecological, halt in our society based on growth logic?

Of course, the concern is that jobs will be lost, public budgets will be imbalanced, and the health system will not be maintained. The question is how this kind of society, which we have established, can live at such a slow pace in the medium or long term. You have to come up with institutional changes, but maybe this now virally induced crisis is exactly the point at which we make a transition. I mean, since the Club of Rome report in the early 1970s, people have somehow dreamed of reducing emissions or putting a stop to this insane growth. And we were completely incapable of it. Smart books, conferences, taz conferences and other things, took on this growth constraint or the logic of growth. The climate crisis threatens us more and more - and nothing has changed at all. But the virus instantly stops this huge machine. It is absolutely fascinating.

A crisis without an enemy?

The virus is the enemy, not only the political president Emmanuel Macron has declared war on it. This enemy represents the socially unavailable: we do not have it under control scientifically, we cannot treat it medically, there is no vaccination, we cannot keep it from spreading politically, there is no regulation, the economic consequences are becoming increasingly dark. I find that really interesting, theoretically this concerns me the most at the moment. Because I read the crisis a bit like the last chapter of my book on incomprehensibility, which has the title: The Return of Incomprehensibility as a Monster.

An anonymized process, right?

Behind our back, unavailability creeps into all everyday practical levels of life. Because we don't hear the virus, we don't smell it, we don't taste it. Suddenly we don't know if the handle or the bill we touch carries a potentially fatal germ. There is an enemy in the game for sure, but fortunately this enemy currently has no national, political or personnel component.

How long can society sit through this?

At the moment it is the case that most people, especially the younger ones, say: Actually I am not at risk, but I show solidarity with the older and the weak ...

… at least most of them.

The question is how this will have effects in the long term. I am not so convinced that the corona experience is sufficient to suddenly transform us into thoroughly civilized people. We shouldn't be blue-eyed.

German to English translation kindly undertaken by Maria Faust M.A.and it was supported by the Czech Science Foundation grant no 19-15511S. The interview was published at Taz.De and conducted by Jan Feddersen and Edith Kresta. Here is the original sourceHartmut Rosa agreed with translation and publication of this interview. 

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Interview with Hartmut Rosa #1 : “All of a sudden we are no longer the hunted”


Perhaps the epidemic reminds us that the world is ultimately unavailable, that we can never fully control it if we do not want to create monsters? This is what the sociologist Hartmut Rosa means, with whom we spoke while he was in quarantine.


As a critic of acceleration, do you see the COVID19 epidemic as a deceleration?


Hartmut Rosa: Definitely. In contrast to other decelerations in recent years – such as the financial crisis of 2008 or the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjöll in 2010, which temporarily paralyzed air traffic – this time it was the decision-makers of various institutions who ordered the deceleration itself as a precautionary measure. In the event of the volcanic eruption, one could say that the suspension of the flights was also a preventive measure, but we were actually close to a technical impossibility and the impact on global growth was negligible. As for the stock market crash of 2008, it happened completely unintentionally. This time, the reason is a perceived but diffuse threat, so that both public and private actors have to renounce their travels and events, and that’s interesting. It resulted in the circumstances that people suddenly have unexpected free time, either because a trip or event has been canceled or because they are in quarantine or in a shut off red zone. I am still amazed that so many processes have been suspended on such a large geographical scale in such a short time. There is a tremendous economic and social slowdown, but it is linked to a physical slowdown that is physically noticeable.

You are personally affected, as you are in quarantine yourself, now that we are discussing on the phone.

HR:  Yes, I have some kind of flu and have been banned from leaving the house until I have the result of my COVID19 test, which is expected to come this afternoon. Unfortunately, I have to miss out on a trip to Los Angeles, where I was supposed to receive a prize at the University of California and give two lectures. If my test is positive, which I don’t hope, I shouldn’t leave my apartment for at least a fortnight. It seems to me like a kind of gift, the prospect of this free time! But I feel torn. On the one hand, to put it like Pierre Bourdieu, I have the habit of an active man, I want to run off as soon as possible; I also feel like I have to use this free time, fill it out. Imagine, I even made a list of everything I could finally do in these two weeks of forced retreat! On the other, the technical temptations are always present these days, there is a risk of distraction if I watch Netflix all day and read social media. I am also tempted to keep track of the information – media coverage of the epidemic in real time is symptomatically filling the void. Overall, I have the impression that socio-cultural life is currently split into a physically decelerated ‘real world’ and a hyper-ventilating digital life.

Even if every death is dramatic, the total asset of the epidemic with 4,000 deaths is still relatively small-scale. In comparison, there are approximately 1.2 million deaths from car accidents worldwide every year, and 8 million die from cigarettes without us taking any action. How can it be explained that 4,000 deaths have such a big impact on the Chinese economy and global activities, is that irrational?
HR:  That is the crucial point that I find the most interesting about the current phenomenon. We all know that the progression of climate change, that our competition for unlimited growth is unsustainable, that we are heading for disasters, and that despite this knowledge, we have not been able to make the slightest change of this course at a collective level, to make the smallest change in our way of life. And now we suddenly realize that it is almost easy to cut everything, that greenhouse gas emissions in China have dropped 30-40% overnight - which used to be structurally excluded. Why can such a weak reason have such a big impact? I think it is related to the thesis that I developed in my book Unavailability. Let us take up your examples: In the case of tobacco or car, I am in a position in which I am in control or at least believe that I can influence my fate in a self-effective way. There are the cigarettes, they are available to me, it is up to me to decide whether I smoke or not. I also decide whether to buy a car and whether to drive it. So I remain in the typical modern logic of exercising unlimited domination over the world. If I get sick or have an accident, these are risks I deliberately accept.
In a world based on growth, we cannot slow down without losing balance

HR: But in the case of COVID19, such control is impossible. The virus is extremely unavailable.  We cannot bear that we are unable to predict the consequences of events, that we do not have an antidote. This explains this senseless movement of efforts to regain control. We cannot see or hear the disease. We don’t know if this young girl who just coughed on the street next to us is a virus carrier; maybe she doesn’t know herself.  The virus may be in my body without me noticing. This impotence drives us crazy. The COVID19 epidemic confirms my conviction that there is a risk that the unavailable will return as a monster in our societies: as the uncanny, which we cannot control technically, which cannot be controlled politically, which we have not even scientifically recognized, and which we have to face powerlessly: we cannot even perceive it with our sensory apparatus.

Does one run the risk of feeling a certain malicious joy about the slowing down of the global economy if one has an ecological or anti-capitalist attitude?

HR: No, because the issue is that our modern societies in their current constitutions can only stabilize with the help of dynamics. In other words, in a world based on growth, we cannot slow down without losing our balance. If a bike just stops, it falls over. A worsening of the epidemic would result in bankruptcies, an increase in unemployment, perhaps scarcity, and the interruption of supply chains and with the stock market crash, which was triggered by the drastic lowering of the oil price decided by Saudi Arabia, I even see black recession scenarios signs that will be followed by a social and political crisis, besides the fact that the majority of health systems will be seriously affected … The global economic downturn in 2020 may be good news for nature, but I can hardly imagine who else should benefit from it. Furthermore, an epidemic like this is unlikely to result in a more fundamental reform of our institutions and our economic functioning, our way of life. So it’s not a good idea find delight in this phenomenon.

So quarantine is not the opportunity for resonance experiences?

HR: In my opinion, being in resonance means having a mutual relationship with the world and others; You hear that your voice speaks into the world and that the world answers you.  But it seems to me that an epidemic like this attacks our resonance axes. You enter a public space, a train station, and wonder if the virus is there, in the air. The air wreathes the earth and is essential for the preservation of the human world, but now it is poisoned. Just like this door handle, this table in the restaurant. The fear of contagion directly threatens our “ontological security”, using a term by Anthony Giddens. Even worse, we no longer dare to shake hands, no longer dare to hug the people we love, no longer dare to have erotic adventures. Relationships become suspect. Perhaps this will strengthen the sense of community in some groups? I actually doubt it and rather see how a growing alienation is emerging.

So you think that the COVID19 epidemic is a slowdown, but without any resonance experience?

HR: Yes, exactly, this danger definitely exists. On the other hand, I am tempted to strive again for the good old Hölderlin: where there is danger, there salvation may also grow: The fact that society is currently applying such huge brakes to the hamster wheel is currently leading to a radical reduction in global reach temporally and spatially: The spatial horizon is limited to the area around the apartment, we only think ahead for a few days, because who knows what will be in two weeks? But that changes the way we relate to the world: Suddenly we are no longer the hunted, we come out of everyday despair, out of aggression towards the world and everyday life. We have time. We can suddenly hear and perceive what is happening around us: maybe we really hear the birds and see the flowers and greet the neighbors. Listening and answering (instead of dominating and controlling): That is the beginning of a resonance relationship, and it is exactly from this relationship that new things can arise. There natality, rebirth occurs, in the sense of Hannah Arendt. So maybe we are experiencing a moment of collective natality: in this crisis phase, the form, the mode of our world relationship is transformed. That would be the optimistic alternative - we should give it a chance! 

First published March 18, 2020 in PHILOSOPHIE MAGAZIN (https://philomag.de/auf-einmal-sind-wir-nicht-mehr-die-gejagten/) . The interview was conducted by Alexandre Lacroix / translation by Grit Fröhlich. German to English translation by Maria Faust M.A. Translation to English supported by The Czech Science Foundation no. 19-15511S. Hartmut Rosa agreed with translation and publication of this interview.

“NUCLEAR ACCELERATION” — LECTURE BY BENOÎT PELOPIDAS, DEC 15, 2020, 11am (CET)

Nuclear Acceleration: The Birth of Nuclear Eternity and Global Surveillance in the 1960s

Benoît Pelopidas (Sciences Po (CERI), France)

Discussant: Jan Slánský (Charles University (FSV), Czech Republic)

DECEMBER 15, 2020, 11am (CET), ZOOM: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/7099881647Register here https://forms.gle/Eq7cq1nYE9EjEFkL8 or email filip@filipvostal.net and you will receive preparatory readings

The 1960s are commonly portrayed as the decade of emancipation and opening up of future possibilities. In this lecture, I will argue that this does not apply to the nuclear weapons realm at all. In that realm, the 1960s witness a series of intellectual and technological changes that considerably narrow the scope of imagined futures. The idea that nuclear weapons are the least changeable part of our world becomes entrenched to the point of turning the nuclear eternity into the only conceivable future. Further, I will argue that this nuclear eternity was born alongside an acceleration of nuclear weapons politics with the deployment and mass production of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) which travel roughly twenty times faster than bombers, the previous generation of delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons. Given the intolerability of nuclear explosions and the incentive to strike first which comes with such an increase in the speed of possible nuclear violence, locating and targeting any enemy nuclear weapons become imperative. These imperatives were the main drivers of the production of a satellite infrastructure of global surveillance which will produce the image of the Earth as a whole. In that respect, the entrenchment of an imaginary of nuclear eternity and the infrastructure of global surveillance were produced at the same time, during that decade hastily characterized as a time of emancipation.

Benoît Pelopidas is the founding director of the Nuclear Knowledges program at Sciences Po (CERI) (formerly chair of excellence in Security Studies) and an affiliate of the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University.  Nuclear Knowledges is the first scholarly research program in France on the nuclear phenomenon which refuses funding from stakeholders of the nuclear weapons enterprise or from antinuclear activists in order to problematize conflicts of interest and their effect on knowledge production. It offers conceptual innovation and unearths untapped primary sources worldwide to grasp nuclear vulnerabilities and rethink possibilities in the realm of nuclear weapons policies. Benoît has been awarded four international prizes for his research on the scoping of publicly available nuclear choices and the most prestigious scholarly grants in Europe (including ERC Starting Grant). He can be reached at www.sciencespo.fr/nk/en

This lecture is organized by Centre for Sciences, Technology, and Society Studies (CSTSS), IoF, Czech Academy of Sciences, and Department of Security Studies, FSV, Charles University as a part of a graduate seminar Technoscientific Imaginaries & Futures led by Filip Vostal. The lecture is supported by Charles University’s Centre of Excellence Project UNCE/HUM/037 (realized at Dept of Security, FSV, CUNI) and by Czech Science Foundation’s project 19-15511S (realized at CSTSS, IoF, Czech Academy of Sciences). The lecture and discussion will be held in English. For further info get in touch: filip@filipvostal.net