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Observing Limits to Re-enchant a Mute World: A Review of The Uncontrollability of the World

By Adam Smith at Front Porch Republic

Photo by Ronan Furuta / Unsplash

Some people who have heard me speak glowingly of “limits” might get confused when they hear me complain mightily about “rules.” If I like “limits” so much, why do I talk trash about bureaucrats and administrators and other professional limit-mongers? What’s the difference between what I want and what they’re selling?

You can find many good responses to this question in the FPR archives. As Jeff Polet notes, “it is useful . . . to defend a ‘Porcher idea of limits,’ since the word does, after all, appear in our three-word tagline.” Jeremy Beer defends it when he locates the real contradiction in the enemy’s camp: “while technocrats might say that there are and ought to be no natural limits on human behavior, and that by overcoming nature’s tyranny their rule therefore expands the scope of human freedom, the technocratic regime is in practice shot through with injunctions, taboos, and prohibitions that hem in human liberty ever more tightly.”

This suggests that our idea of limits can be put pretty clearly. If you think of a “limit” as “something that controls people,” then yes, it’s hard to see the difference between what we like and what we don’t. But of course that’s not what we have in mind. By “limits” we mean, very explicitly, limits to control. We have in mind the limits to our ability to control our circumstances by making rules and procedures, systems and machines.

The crucial difference between limits and controls is the subject of Hartmut Rosa’s The Uncontrollability of the World. This is a short and very readable book (I am thinking of reading it with some undergraduates this summer) that summarizes his larger body of work, which he develops mainly in Resonance: A Sociology of our Relationship to the World and Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. As these titles suggest, Rosa’s broader theme is that strange and familiar thing called “modernity.”

For Rosa, as for many others, the modern project at its core is the transgression of limits in pursuit of control. Most modernity critics argue that what is lost in this pursuit is the wide range of essential goods that can only be enjoyed when limits are respected. Rosa does too, and his own catalog of loss stands out for its concreteness. Despite being a sociologist, he prefers the poet’s telling detail to sociology’s mute statistics. But he adds a crucial note to this common refrain.

When I want an image of modern “transgression,” I usually turn to Dosteovesky’s Crime and Punishment. The titular word “crime” in Russian is prestuplenie (Преступлéние), which means “stepping over.” Raskolnikov “oversteps.” That he does so in his mind first, before actually committing the crime, is crucial. Raskolnikov is exquisitely aware of the limit he will break. His real crime is to act inwardly against this awareness, to use his powerful intellect against his simple knowledge that murder is wrong no matter how “useful.” And it is because he retains this knowledge in spite of his intellect that he cannot afterward dismiss his feeling of guilt as a mere “social construct.” He remains aware of the limit he has crossed. More than this: the crossing has sharpened his awareness. Now he must repent, or die a spiritual death far worse than any punishment prescribed by human law.

Rosa helps me see that this image is powerful but insufficient. After all, most of us are not Raskolnikov. The limits we transgress are rarely so obvious as “thou shalt not kill.” Crime and Punishment dramatizes the act of “stepping over,” and by throwing that act into stark relief, Dostoevesky shows us its psychological structure in forensic detail. But the Average Modern Joe is not contemplating murder (although there are times when even murder is banal, and the Average Joe is Eichmann). If modernity entails a habitual transgression of limits, the modern experience for most people is not the confrontation with one monumental temptation but with a thousand daily choices. And it is there, in the humdrum course of “modern life,” that we face the real problem of our time.

The real problem is not the Luciferian urge to step over those limits we can hardly help seeing. Such limits may be forbidding enough (for now) to tempt the great souls, but great souls are always few. Many modernity critics err in this direction, supposing our besetting sin is titanic pride. If the sinner is “civilization,” then that makes sense. But if we are thinking more concretely, we have to see that most people are not titans, moving fast and breaking things. “Our” besetting sin, the sin that bedevils not civilization but you and me and everyone we know, is more nearly the opposite of such pride: moral sloth, acedia, vacillation, the lukewarmness of a Laodecian. As Matthew Crawford often argues, the real problem is not too much thymos, but too little.

But even this analysis is still not quite right. It needs a further thought. After all, weakness of will is not peculiar to modernity. What is peculiar—and now we come back to Rosa—is not so much the indifference to known limits as it is the ignorance of them. If we are weak-willed, it is because this ignorance exhausts us. I think it is simply harder for us moderns to see the limits we transgress, not in great crimes but in the little decisions that add up to our lives. It is harder for us than it was for our ancestors. We grow weary of doing good, of living daily life well, because we do not know what it is.

I say “ignorance,” but I must be clear: it is not textbook knowledge that we lack and that our ancestors had. What we have lost is not a knowledge of “the rules,” but rather a moral skill. “Seeing the limits,” and specifically the little limits that matter most, is a matter of know-how. Rosa’s key contribution is not his critique of modernity, it’s his conception of this atrophied know-how, this capability that enables us to experience what he calls “resonance.” The primary good that we lose to our civilization’s pursuit of control is our ability to “resonate” with what is uncontrollable: to live and work within the limits that surround us. Lacking this ability, we then lose the goods that only resonance can discover, the simple goods that cannot be produced and can only be destroyed by rules and procedures, systems and machines.

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