Who is afraid of resonance?

I don’t like screams – resonance scares me – when all parts of my body resonate – a soprano for instance makes me want to vomit.

Aude, Butoh dancer, during a workshop on Corps Sauvage (Savage Body), February 2021

The topic of resonance has occupied my thinking, writing, and art making for a while now. At some point during the writing of our book COMMON IMAGE which will be out in November 2021 we came across Hartmut Rosa’s book Resonanz. Eine Soziologie der Weltbeziehung (2016) which by now is translated to both English and French. Art, alongside Love, Friendship, Work, Sport, Nature, and Religion, is for Rosa a “resonance axis” which enables “resonance experiences”.

Support by the Dorit & Alexander Otto Foundation and the Hamburger Kulturstiftung during Corona lockdown enabled me to launch my research on resonance in Spring 2021. This meant to work my way through Rosa’s opus magnum and conduct interviews among artist and musician friends about their notion of resonance.

This text is the result of my inquiry, juxtaposing a rather theoretical prose with bribes of interviews in an attempt to combine a critical summary of Rosa’s core theses with a reflection on resonance as a world relation relates to (my own) art making.

Our corporeal, affective and cognitive relations to the world are processes of resonance. Resonance, coming from re-sonate (to re-sound, to re-echo, to reverberate with, to echo with) is a term taken from physical acoustics. It occurs when the self-oscillation of a body incites the self-oscillation of another body in the sense that both bodies, although „attuned“, continue to „speak with their own voice“. As Rosa puts it with his own voice (on page 298):

Resonance relations require that subject and world are sufficiently „closed“ or consistent to be able to speak with their respective own voice, and open enough to be affected and reached.

When two bodies enter into resonance, that is, vibrate in the same frequency, their respective amplitudes can increase. When we strike a tuning fork and then place it on the resonance body of a guitar the almost inaudible sound of it will be transmitted to and amplified by the guitar’s own frequency. Rosa also mentions the infamous resonance catastrophe, such as when soldiers marching in cadence over a bridge can cause the bridge to collapse… And while it is possible that resonance is refused (Rosa calls this “resonance blockage”), it is usually a process of „response“ and of mutual attunement: bodies respond to the oscillations of another and after a while oscillate in unison. Walking side by side, we will unconsciously fall in step, not doing so is hard…

For Rosa, resonance is a metaphor for world relations in general, „concerning all fields of human life“ (281), not only physical oscillation.1 He insists that resonance is not a material or substantial but a strictly relational term; it is „a mode of being in the world, a specific mode of entering-into-relation between subject and world, a mode that gives both, subject and world, their form“ (285). World and subject mutually affect each other and transform each other (298). Here, Rosa is strikingly ‚in tune“ with thinkers that are certainly not on his cognitive map, which is that of phenomenology and critical theory. I am thinking of Eduard Glissant for whom „relation“ (one of his core concepts) is an open-ended process of which our identities are mere „resonating echos“. Or John Dewey and his concept of transaction as mutual exchange which I’ve explored in a recent lecture-performance for ZHdK Zurich based on my article Image-Transaction (Parallax 26:1, 2020).

Back to Rosa… Self and world affect each other; they respond to each other while continuing to speak with their own voice. Resonance, as a result, is a bidirectional oscillation, for which Rosa finds the formula Af←fect (from latin adfacere) and E→motion (to move towards the outside). Resonance is not linear, causalistic, instrumental; it is not the predictable effect of a mechanical force (e.g. the wheels of a car turning because they are made to do so). And it is not an echo for an echo – dixit Rosa – has no voice of its own, it occurs mechanically, without variation. What re-echoes is only the „self“, not the responding body.

Has Rosa ever tried out his own voice with different rocks or other reverberating material re-sounding it? Sure, what echoes back is one’s own voice, but each time carrying an alien timbre due to the material quality of the given rock and, what is more, carrying also the time-space traversed by the sound waves in both ways, from impulse to echo. I for my part consider an echo a response; an alien one, for sure, but a response in its own right, as different rock configurations embrace and answer my bodily and sonic presence. Or, when the earth moves, when rocks burst and fall, my bodily fabric resonates…

Resonance, according to Rosa, is not an emotional state, but a mode of relation (288). Hence, there are no „positive“ or „negative“ resonances because what would count as a negative resonance is in fact a „repulsive“ world relation, a form of alienation which Rosa also calls „mute” world relation. in contrast to the „responsive” world relation which manifests as a „vibrating wire to the world“, as sparkling eyes. Responsive world relations are what constitutes a „good life“ for Rosa. However, they are grounded in a fundamental undisposability (Unverfügbarkeit) of the world, in its profound alienness, as the responding pole of a resonance relation is always resounding with its own voice. Obsessively striving to make the world „disposable“ by technical means in order to to fight the fundamental human anxiety of a world that remains mute, that is not answering, or not understood, as we moderns do, is the wrong way and only leads to ever more „mute“ world relations.

Resonance, for Rosa, is a basic human need and a basic human ability: subjectivity and intersubjectivity are processes of resonance relations; desire is a desire for resonance (similar to the desire for food or recognition). However, “muteness” is not per se negative; a mute and alien world is constitutive of the possibility of resonance; it is the very backdrop against which we can feel connected to it. A total attuning with the world would lead to „identity terror“ and „political totalitarianism“ because all that would cause “detuning” (alienation) “would be subject to critique and correction.” (295). What is needed instead are stable resonance axes (Family, Friendship, Work, Sport, Nature, Religion, Art) that are developed in cultural resonance spaces, different in each culture. This is one of the rare instances where Rosa acknowledges non-Western cultures:

(…) ritual practices establish contacts between ancestors and spirits, living and the dead, things and souls…“ (…) „Rituals institute socioculturally established resonance axes, alongside which vertical (to gods, cosmos, time and eternity), horizontal (in the social community) and diagonal (with relation to things) resonance relations can be experienced.“ (297)

Here is the core of his critique of modernity, here is his normative approach which posits that a good life should be measured not in „range extension“ (Reichweitenvergrößerung) und „resource augmentation“ (Ressourcensteigerung) that solely aim at mastery and mute and reified world relations (278) but in the possibility and the actual experience of „resonance experiences“.

Here also lies my disappointment with Rosa, for while the concept of resonance is meant as a fundamental and systematic critique of modernity and its values such as rationalism and objectivity he seems to shy away from it and even defend these very values resulting in reified (non-empathic) world relations are a cultural achievement necessary for the protection of the quality of life (such as in the court or in surgery) and of cultural resonance spaces (295). This does not mean to belittle the task he has given himself with this book, that, is coming up with a concept that may embrace the totality of human world relations and to systematically investigate all its aspects.

Referring to social and emotional neuroscience, Rosa stresses the desire for and the ability to resonance as grounding the development of the human as a social being; egotism is not primary, in fact we are evolutionary conditioned to “emotional resonance”. According to “theory of mind” and mirror cell research, we are able to develop a “theory” of somebody else’s and our own mental states and are capable to simulate these states. And even the “communication” between nerve and brain cells is not a unilateral “data exchange” but a synchronic mutual relationship.

I asked a musician friend to comment on Rosa’s metaphor of the two diapasons to describing two modes of world relations that we can find in humans: the proactive, outgoing one who gives an impact (self-impact prevails) and the responsive one who prefers to receive it and resonate (world-impact prevails). Michel told me that this distinction does not hold.

We are always-already (as would write Derrida) in vibration from elsewhere, by direct impact or relay, even if we can give new impulses and create new resonances.

So why is Rosa, whose own impulse to write this book (as his previous book on acceleration as a societal phenomenon) is grounded in a critique of the muteness of modern society and the firm belief that this muteness is the very contrary to the “good life”, not more radical? Why is he so keen to find beneficial aspects of modern resonance blockage despite everything? Why is he so scared of spirituality, keeping clear of any aspects of resonance that could be deemed “esoteric”, preferring to ground his cultural critique in the reassuring waters of sociology?

But how could we radicalize resonance? I made a first attempt in my film I cried into the forest and it laughed back at me, filmed in two parts. While part I focused on bodily resonance, part 2 focused on sound resonance, both human and nonhuman. Each part investigated eight modes of resonances: muteness/appropriation, silence/hullabaloo, augmentation/diminuation, synchronization/out of sync, complementing these with modes found together with the group of performers. While part 1 gave rise to a short poetic film, part 2 turned out an almost feature-length experimental film; a sample is online.

In December 2021, I held a workshop at Errant Bodies, Berlin, where I presented both Hartmut Rosa’s notion of resonance and my critique of it and gave an insight into my own resonance practice as a theory-performer and director of General Humanity. Here is a short extract.

1 The quotes are taken from the German original version: Resonanz. Eine Soziologie der Weltbeziehung. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2016, and translated by me.

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