The Paradox of Control

  
0:00
-9:21

You can listen to the newsletter by clicking the play button above or you can click the “Listen in Podcast app” link and follow the directions to open this feed in your podcast app. Currently, you may find the feed on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and Spotify.


A number of unpleasant realities have been exposed by the troubles we have endured throughout the past year. Few of these have been as difficult to bear as the reminder, if we needed it, that the world we inhabit is ultimately beyond our ability to predict and to control. This may seem like a banal observation, but I suspect that many of us operate under the implicit assumption that we can and should try to control as much of our environment and our lives as possible. In fact, we might even believe that our happiness and flourishing depend precisely on our ability to bring ever more of the world under our control, even if we might not exactly put it to ourselves that way. However, it is almost certainly the case that acting on the basis of this assumption ultimately undermines both our happiness and our flourishing. 

If we do believe that our flourishing is directly correlated to our capacity to control our experience, we are merely reflecting one of modernity’s core principles. The modern project, dating back at least to the 17th century, particularly in its techno-scientific dimensions, can be interpreted as a grand effort to tame nature and bring it under human control. And, of course, as C. S. Lewis observed in The Abolition of Man, the drive to control nature was eventually turned on humanity itself. More recently, digital technologies have made it possible to imagine that we can measure, quantify, and thus manage ever more of nature and human society than what the founders of the modern world dared to imagine.

Indeed, through a host of personal tracking technologies, we have brought this impulse to bear on even the most mundane and intimate aspects of our bodily experience. Yet, it is also apparent that we are increasingly frustrated by a world that eludes our mastery, and one which, paradoxically, grows more unpredictable and uncontrollable despite (and perhaps because of) the panoply of sophisticated tools and systems we deploy to manage it.

In his most recent work, a slim volume titled The Uncontrollability of the World, the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa explores the darkly paradoxical nature of the modern quest for control.

The thesis of Rosa’s little book is straightforward: “The driving cultural force of that form of life we call ‘modern’ is the idea, the hope and desire, that we can make the world controllable. Yet it is only in encountering the uncontrollable that we really experience the world. Only then do we feel touched, moved, alive.” “A world that is fully known, in which everything has been planned and mastered,” Rosa adds, “would be a dead world.”

Rosa’s work is an effort to understand why we find it so frustrating and often disheartening to live in a world that often seems, at least for the more fortunate among us, to provide us with a remarkable variety of goods, services, and experiences. Or, as the writer Colin Horgan once put it, “a world we all chose, but that nobody seems to want.” As I read him, Rosa is suggesting that the fundamental problem is rooted in our orientation to the world, principally in the adversarial relationship that arises from an underlying desire to control, master, or otherwise manipulate the world. 

Because we strive to make the world controllable, Rosa believes we consequently “encounter the world as a ‘point of aggression’ or as a series of points of aggression … as a series of objects that we have to know, attain, conquer, master, or exploit.” As a result, Rosa concludes, “the experience of feeling alive and of truly encountering the world—that which makes resonance possible—always seems to elude us.” And, as a further consequence, “this leads to anxiety, frustration, anger and even despair, which then manifest themselves, among other things, in acts of impotent political aggression.”

What Rosa calls resonance is a way of relating to the world such that we are open to being affected by it, can respond to its ‘call,’ and then both transform and be transformed by it. 

Consider, by way of example, something as prosaic as an encounter with another person. Such an encounter will be resonant only when we offer ourselves to the encounter in such a way that we can be affected or moved by the other person and when we, in turn, respond in kind to this call. As a result, such encounters transform both of the people involved. One key to such encounters, however, is a measure of uncontrollability. As some of us may know from experience, any effort to manufacture a “resonant” encounter with another person is almost certainly destined to fail. 

Similarly, if an object or a person were altogether subject to our control or manipulation, the experience of resonance would also fail to materialize. They would not call to us or be able to creatively respond to us. Indeed, Rosa argues, whatever is wholly within our control we experience as inert and mute. As a result, the farther we extend the imperative to control the world, the more the world will fail to resonate, the more it falls silent, leaving us feeling alienated from it. This particular observation recalls Simone Weil’s observation in her profound analysis of the Iliad that “force” is “that x that turns anyone who is subjected to it into a thing.”

Interestingly, Rosa, who otherwise develops his argument in strictly sociological language, nonetheless notes an analogy to religious insights. “Religious concepts such as grace or the gift of God,” Rosa writes, “suggest that accommodation cannot be earned, demanded, or compelled, but rather is rooted in an attitude of approachability to which the subject-as-recipient can contribute insofar as he or she must be receptive to God’s gift or grace.” “In sociological terms,” he adds, “this means that resonance always has the character of a gift.” 

We cannot fabricate or manage the resonant encounter or experience—the encounter or experience that will speak to us deeply, satisfy us, enliven us, renew us, delight us. Such encounters and experience are, to borrow a line from Walker Percy, like “some dim, dazzling trick of grace.”

In one of his Sabbath poems, Wendell Berry reminded us that “we live the given life, not the planned.” I can’t think of a more pithy way of putting the matter. By the “given life,” of course, Berry does not mean what is implied by the phrase “that’s a given,” something, that is, which is taken for granted. Rather, Berry means the gifted life, the life that is given to us. We are presented with a choice: we can receive the world as a gift or we can think of it merely as raw material subject to our managing, planning, predicting, and controlling.

Naturally, the word “merely” is doing a lot of work in that last line. I am not arguing, and neither is Rosa, that there is no place for wise planning or the exercise of prudence in the choices we make. What matters is that we pursue these tasks not only reasonably but also in the spirit of humility, which accords with our creaturely status. We might even find that in relinquishing the impulse to control the world, we will learn to receive it as the gift that it is.

Michael Sacasas
Associate Director


Study Center Resources

If you’re receiving this newsletter, then you are also receiving audio of our director’s classes. Additionally, Mike Sacasas is offering a lecture series on Ivan Illich. The third lecture will be held on March 24 at 8:00 p.m. as a Zoom webinar.

If you have any questions about our program, please contact Mike at mike@christianstudycenter.org.


Recommended Reading

— Stephanie Bennet on “why the soul needs silence”:

Silence is a necessary counter to the relentless preoccupation of our multitasking minds – something that should provide a contra­puntal rhythm to the steady beat of our busy human brains. Just as we are wise to protect the earth’s vulnerable woodlands from overdevelopment, so we must protect the sanctuary of our interior lives. Speech, relationships, the soul: they begin with, and are sustained by, silence.

— Brad East reviews two books that we have been a part of our Christian Imagination reading group, Alan Jacobs’s Breaking Bread with the Dead and Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought:

Hitz and Jacobs have spread us a feast, but they are more than hosts. They are part of the meal. Though living, their own ideas are now of a piece with all other ideas on offer. Their books, though new, will one day be old. They will, if we let them, insert themselves into our ever-expanding circle of fellow thinkers. We need neither eat nor think alone. Not every book is worthy of friendship, but for the purposes of thinking-with, these two make for good company.