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 ( . 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.