A Review of
Late Modernity in Crisis: Why We Need a Theory of Society
Andreas Reckwitz and Hartmut Rosa
Reviewed by John W. Hawthorne
Over the course of my teaching career in different Christian Universities, I was often assigned the sociological theory class. I had some wonderful classes in my own education and found those “big ideas” to be compelling. My undergrad theory class was excellent. In grad school, I had one course in “modern” sociological theory (really 1940s to 1970s) and two semester length classes in classical theorists Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx (taught by the Dalai Lama’s nephew!). I would have taken the Max Weber class to finish off the Big Three, but it conflicted with my dissertation proposal work.
And so, I was intrigued when the Englewood Review of Books asked me to read Late Modernity in Crisis by German sociologists Andreas Reckwitz and Hartmut Rosa. The former teaches sociological theory and cultural sociology at Humboldt University in Berlin and the latter is Director of the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies in Erfurt, Germany.
Here are a few things to know about the book before I get into analysis. First, it’s not really a coauthored work. An introduction from the authors is followed by Reckwitz’s argument and then Rosa’s argument. The last 39 pages of the book is a dialogue between the authors moderated by London School of Economics social psychologist Martin Bauer. (Hint: read the dialogue first and then go back to the theoretical arguments).
The second thing to know is that because the book was written first in German and then translated to English, the sentence structure can be a little challenging. This is exacerbated by the authors who use concepts without fully defining them.
The third challenge is that both authors make continual reference to the work of both classical and contemporary sociologists and cultural analysts. Because of my love of sociological theory, I knew the vast majority of these theorists, but the authors assume that knowledge from their readers. With those disclaimers out of the way, I can turn to the heart of their respective arguments.
Andreas Reckwitz opens his section with a cogent critique of modern sociology. He argues that the niche-focused empirical work contemporary sociologists do is useful but what we need is not simply “social theory” but a “theory of society”. In that regard, he is calling back to the founding figures of the discipline who sought to understand society and its transformation from feudal to agrarian to industrial to knowledge-based forms of social organization. A theory of society that attempts to understand modernity (that latter form) shouldn’t be designed as a comprehensive system in the model of Parsonian Functionalism or Systems Theory. Rather, the theory of society should be seen as a tool that can be used to analyze specific forms in particular points of history. Reckwitz imagines these as the analytics units of particular practices covering a range of social components: discourses (language), affects (emotions), subjects (actors), and institutions (organizational forms).
Next, he explores the contingencies of the modern world which switch from being open to change or closed to it. He posits these in a dialectical relationship (oscillating from one to the other) with no end-goal in sight. These practices and contingencies can be expressed as generalities (becoming normative in practice) or as singularities. The tension between the general and the singular creates an experience of loss as we experience social change without resolution. In late modernity — our current crisis – the subject as consumer is supreme. Individual expression becomes dominant, and populism is ascendant. Reckwitz argues that “the peak of late modernity’s early hopeful stage became a thing of the past around the year 2020.” We are now in post-late modernity. This new period is characterized by a move from a “society of equals” to individual (singular) achievement, from shared cultural bonds to individual aspirations, and from the state’s failure to support the general welfare. He closes his section of the book with a discussion of theory as critique. He argues that sociologists should be concerned with articulating the current tensions between various open and closed spheres to offer paths out of those tensions.
Reckwitz’s notion of the theory of society as a tool is helpful. Contemporary issues from cancel culture to trans issues to QAnon to partisan animus can be understood through his analytical lenses. The tension between an anonymous society and subgroup identification helps illuminate tensions between the general and specific interests. The closing of hopeful contingency combined with the weakening of our political institutions helps shine a light on election denial and even the Capital insurrection. The challenge we’re left with is trying to figure out how to open contingencies that allow both general and specific identities to thrive.
Harmut Rosa draws inspiration from the classical sociological theorists blended with Charles Taylor’s critique of modernity. The heart of the social enterprise is self-description and self-interpretation: for societies, for institutions, and for individuals. Those self-interpretations are recursive in that they change the nature of the social units themselves. Such understandings occur in both “first person” and in “third person”, for the individual and for the general understanding. The latter explains why people or organizations behave in similar ways to other people of organizations. The former explains innovation/deviance and the emergence of new forms. Rosa adds that we need to understand the energy that drives both compliance and innovation. This often comes in the form of “fears, wishes, and ambitions of subjects”.
Rosa draws particular attention to the “political, digital, and neoliberal” revolutions developing during the 1990s. These have resulted in an expansion of possibilities within the social world. What is needed, he argues, is “dynamic stabilization”. Recognizing that reversing course isn’t possible, he argues that society needs to continue moving forward at a rapid clip. He draws an analogy with riding a bike that gets wobbly when one slows down but remains stable when going fast enough. Yet this increasingly rapid change is essentially destabilizing, especially when different segments of society are moving at different speeds. He illustrates this by analyzing four issues: the Great Recession, the crisis of democracy (including both governing dysfunction and the rise of authoritarianism), the ecological crisis, and the mental health crisis. What is needed to resolve the alienation arising from these crises is what he calls “resonance”. Drawing upon musical imagery, resonance occurs when the various components of society are mutually reinforcing. The resonance would ideally occur with four dimensions: social relations, material relations, historical/natural relations, and self-resonance (diminishing alienation).
Rosa’s analysis of acceleration (a subject of one of his earlier books) is a helpful critique of those caught in nostalgia. Going back to some imagined quieter period isn’t possible. The challenge, then, becomes figuring out how to create the stability in the moment that allows those of differing perspectives to coexist. In my own writing, I find it helpful to imagine how this works around issues of religious freedom. The challenge arises in how we attempt to protect freedoms of those from a variety of religious perspectives – Christian and non-Christian alike – as well as those who aren’t religious at all. While we certainly lack resonance in this example in our current moment, Rosa’s theoretical analysis gives me hope.
I won’t try to summarize the dialogue at the end of the book given how much back and forth there is. It’s worth reading in one sitting.
As I suggested earlier, this is not an easy book to read. The concepts are very abstract and there is a lot of assumed knowledge. Nevertheless, it reflects an admirable attempt to raise the kind of Big Ideas that the founding figures of sociology – Durkheim, Marx, Weber, Simmel, and others – thought were important if we were to understand society as a whole. It might be just what we need at this fraught period in our journey together as a global society.
John Hawthorne is a retired sociology professor interested in sociology of religion, contemporary politics, and higher education. Find him online via his Substack: https://johnhawthorne.substack.com/
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