On Hartmut Rosa’s theory of ‘resonant democracy’ & The Sonic Episteme

Here’s an excerpt from my book/manuscript The Sonic Episteme; it’s in a chapter on acoustic resonance as political ontology and follows a discussion of Ranciere’s Disagreement, Cavarero’s For More Than One Voice, & Fred Evans’s The Multivoiced Body.


German social theorist Hartmut Rosa also proposes “resonance” as a solution to the problems of both classical and late modernity; classical modernity’s skeptical melancholy, combined with capitalism, makes us “alienated,” and late modernity and neoliberal capitalism leave us with the problem of ever-intensifying acceleration. Perhaps because he’s working more within critical theory than phenomenology, his definition of “resonance” is somewhat different than Cavarero’s and Evans’s, and more similar to Ranciere’s concept of postdemocratic sophrosyne. For Rosa, including all voices, even and especially dissonant, noisy ones, produces a pattern of social interaction that is the ideal sweet spot between two problematic extremes (modernity’s skeptically melancholic silence and late capitalism’s hyperaccelerated barrage of signal).


His overall concept of resonance is full of slippages and conflations among different concepts of sound and harmony and is only very loosely tied to how musicians, audio engineers, and sound studies scholars understand and have understood resonance. In an interview with Public Seminar, Rosa defines resonance in terms that combine notions of sympathetic resonance (the idea that, say, a string on an instrument will pick up the vibrations of nearby strings and itself begin to resonate) and acoustic resonance as alternating patterns of condensation and rarefaction. Arguing that “resonance is a primordial mode of relating to the world” (PS) prior to our alienation from it by modern philosophy and capitalism, Rosa imagines resonance as connectedness, the capacity to affect and be affected by people and things that are different from you. “When you’re in resonance, when you feel that the thing you interact with is important, then it speaks to you, it touches and affects you” (Rosa, PS). This idea of sympathetic resonance is clearest in Rosa’s summary of Sloterdijk’s discussion of the relationship between foetus and mother:

even the embryo is surrounded by a kind of soft tissue that is very much in resonance with him or her. So the two heartbeats are somehow synchronized, there is the addressing voice of the mother, there is responsive bodily movement, and there is a resonant, streaming connection through the blood circulation, right? (Rosa, PS).[1]

This passage combines notions of sympathetic resonance–the mutually affecting tissues–with acoustic resonance/phase relationships (the synchronized heartbeats, the antiphonal relationship between voice and movement). For Rosa, there appears to be a causal relationship between these two concepts of resonance: openness to being affected by otherness facilitates the antiphonal, dialogic interaction he thinks is missing from contemporary political life.


To understand Rosa’s concept of resonance as antiphonal, dialogic interaction, you have to throw all technical knowledge of music, audio, and sound studies vocabulary out the window. On the one hand, as “a dynamics of conflict and convergence” (Rosa PS), Rosa’s concept of resonance sounds a lot like acoustically resonant patterns of condensation and rarefaction. However, Rosa’s understanding of harmony, consonance, and dissonance completely departs from mainstream thought in music and sound scholarship and aligns more closely with Ranciere’s idea of “moderate” consensus (i.e., sophrosyne). “Arguing that “resonance is the in-between of consonance and dissonance” that “move[s] beyond the sterile opposition between difference-theory and identity-thinking” (PS), Rosa understands resonance as the healthy middle between theories of absolute pluralism, where there is no agreement, and theories of essentialist identitarianism, where there is strict agreement.[2] For Rosa, resonance is mutually affective and transformative antiphonal interaction that includes both “conflict” and “transformative rapprochement” (Rosa PS).[3] Resonance balances noisy disagreement and resolution in a consensus that maximizes both individual and social wellbeing. “Democracy only works, I claim, when it functions as a sphere of resonance.” (Rosa PS).


Rosa’s resonant democracy is a variation on Rancieriean postdemocracy because it views the ideal society as one that exhibits moderation or sophrosyne, not as hierarchically ordered ratios, but as the balance between signal and noise. It also resembles Rancierian postdemocracy in its claim to overcome traditional identity-based exclusion; unlike traditional political theories like Aristotle’s that exclude noisy rabble from citizenship, Rosa thinks “difference and dissonance are necessary elements of resonance” (PS). Resonant democracy includes formerly excluded noise and, according to Rosa, this “it allowed me to move beyond identity and authenticity as ultimate normative yardsticks” (PS). He thinks resonance overcomes both traditional modes of social exclusion and the identity-based civil rights movements that fought for inclusion.[4] So, for Rosa, the benefit of resonance as a political ontology is that it overcomes past commitments to exclusion and the reliance on identity politics. And like all the other constituents of the sonic episteme, this post-identity move is also the fulcrum around which Rosa enacts a politics of exception. In his view, resonance is a route out of European modernity and late capitalism–it overcomes their flawed commitments by finding a healthy mix of signal and noise. Resonance is explicilty not available to societies that didn’t adopt (or were colonized by) modernity’s skeptical melancholy and late capitalism’s speed. For example, in the Public Seminar interview, Rosa argues that “You have to conceive yourself as being at two with nature to be in resonance with it, and this is a modern idea which we probably never find with Indigenous people, right? Because they have a very different relationship with their natural surroundings.” This claim asserts that modern skeptical melancholy–the alienation from nature, our bodies, the capacity to be receptive to both–is what makes resonance possible, so societies that don’t adopt that philosophical practice don’t need and can’t experience “resonant” political interaction. However, a few sentences later, Rosa describes resonance as a universal feature of humanity: “as human subjects, we are first and foremost resonant beings” (PS). This slippage between “modern man” and “human” highlights how Rosa’s theory of resonance renders non-Western, non-white groups as exception. Even if they exhibit patterns of thought and practice that resemble Rosa’s concept of resonance, it doesn’t count as such because it’s not the result of overcoming past commitments to exclusivity (either social exclusion, identity-based essentialism, or skeptical melancholy). Like the other constituents of the sonic episteme that use acoustic resonance as political ontology, Rosa’s theory of resonant democracy hides post-identity biopolitics behind claims to overcome identity politics.



[1] This also recalls Jean-Luc Nancy’s discussion of the womb as the quintessentially resonant phenomenon in Listening. For more on this see James, Robin. “Affective Resonance: On the Uses and Abuses of Music In And For Philosophy” in PhaenEx TKTK.

[2] Rosa understands consonance as unison and dissonance as disalignment. This is not how music and sound scholars understand them. Consonance is the product of rational phase relationships among different frequencies; it is not a unison. Dissonance is the product of irrational phase relationships among different frequencies. In music and sound scholarship, both consonance and dissonance are relationships among different patterns.

[3] In this sense, resonance works more like Hegel’s dialectic without the teleology or the determinate negation (the motion back and forth between two different positions creates transformation in them both, kind of like how the motion back and forth between “being, pure being” and “nothing, pure nothing” is itself the movement of “becoming”).

[4] In his own variation on the stereotypical Marx-bro line that all forms of domination are reducible to class, Rosa repeatedly emphasizes that “alienation” is a more fundamental social problem than “inequality.” For example, he says “most people on the left more generally speaking, think okay, let’s first do something about exploitation and injustice, and then we can go about the remaining problems of alienation. But I believe that we actually see through history that this does not work…because the problem lies deeper…I think the problem of alienation in the mode of existence…if you overcome that, then you can also solve the problem of justice” (PS).