Human and Robot Relationships to the World: Applying a Theory of Resonance to Klara and the Sun and Machines Like Me

Der vorliegende Text ist eine überarbeitete Fassung einer studentischen Arbeit.


  1. Introduction
  2. Resonance and Alienation: Human (and Robot?) Relationships to the World
  3. Horizontal Axis of Social Relationships
  4. Diagonal Axis of Material Relationships
  5. Vertical Axis of Relationships to the World as a Totality
  6. Conclusion
  7. Bibliography


1. Introduction

In our accelerating modernity, technology represents an increasingly omnipresent intermediary between ourselves and our (social) environment. During the years of the COVID-19 pandemic, communication via video calls replaced many face-to-face interactions, while the recent rise of generative artificial intelligence poses profound philosophical questions about creativity and the future of science1. Simultaneously, ideas of automation that go beyond facilitating repetitive and physically demanding tasks, but involve socially oriented interactions, for example in the elder care sector2, open up urging discussions about the relationship between robotic technology and humans.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro and Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan are two novels that both portray worlds in which artificial robotic intelligence has developed to a stage, that evokes questions about the drawing of an increasingly fading boundary between human and artificial life. The depicted AIs are situated in interpersonal and societal positions that differ strongly from those of their fellow humans. The futuristic and retro-futuristic settings of the two novels both show societal extrapolations of a flawed modernity in which the human-robot-relationality, or more general, the portrayed ‘relationships to the world’, represent an interesting analytic entry point.

By centrally applying the idea of ‘resonance’ by the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa and his critical theory of relationships to the world, this paper will examine the mutual relationships between world, humans and AI as they are laid out in the novels of Ishiguro and McEwan. For this effort, the paper will start off with a brief introduction of the main concepts and theoretical background of the theory of Rosa. This will include at its core a discussion of the dialectical tension between resonant and alienated – or muted – world relationships. The structure of the rest of the paper, which deals with the analysis of the novels, will then be oriented on the analytical framework proposed by Rosa, namely his three axes of resonance: The horizontal axis that involves social bonds and the political life; the diagonal axis that deals with the material world and the active life; and the vertical axis of  holistic relationships to the world as a totality, which includes the spheres of nature, religion, art and history. Each chapter will individually and comparatively examine both novels according to how the themes of these axes are mirrored within their portrayals of world relationality. A short conclusion will then summarize the results and scrutinize the potential for further studies.


2. Resonance and Alienation: Human (and Robot?) Relationships to the World 

The theory of resonance, as it is laid out by Hartmut Rosa, is grounded in his observation of an accelerating modernity, which he describes as a structural and self-reinforcing ‘dynamic escalation’ that brings with it “a fundamental transformation of our relationship to time and space, to other people, to the objects around us, and ultimately to ourselves, to our body and our mental dispositions”3. For Rosa, these changes within our world relationships manifest in societal crises that reflect pathological relationships to nature, the social world and the self4. The escalatory logic of modernity impedes what Rosa describes as the processual, mutual, rhythmic oscillation between subject and world, by “disrupting social rhythms” and “producing ‘mute’ or ‘alienated’ relationships” instead5. The resonance theory developed by Rosa has been referenced broadly, but often unsystematically, while it has been applied more in-depth by some approaches within pedagogics and theology6.

For Rosa, life is a “matter of the quality of one’s relationship to the world”, envisioned not as a subjectivist project but as a “sociology7 of our relationships to the world”8. This involves the (historically changing) relationality between “physical, biographical, emotional, psychological and social” disposition of each one on the one hand, and the “institutional, cultural, contextual and physical segments of world in which he or she operates” on the other9. The concept of resonance is applied by Rosa both descriptively (as an existential category for the development of subjectivity and intersubjectivity) and normatively (“as a measure of the successful10 life”)11. The ‘good’ life in the theory of Rosa is neither achieved by the maximization of happy moments, nor by competitiveness and the expansion of individual resources (which is fueled by the escalatory logic of modernity), but in the “establishment and maintenance of stable axes12 of resonance that allow subjects to feel themselves sustained or even secured in a responsive, accommodating world”13. Offering a critique and differentiation between Rosa’s forms of world relationships, Simon Susen suggests to distinguish between Weltbeziehungen which enable us “to construct relatively stable and predictable relationships” and Weltbezüge, “by means of which we attribute meaning to the world in spatiotemporally variable contexts”14.

In order to base his theory of resonance and relationality on a non-hierarchical15 mutual engagement between self and world, Rosa examines its different dimensions, starting with our bodily interactions. He acknowledges in our literal ‘grounding’ and breathing an “ontological security”16 and highlights the “membrane function”17 of the skin in our efforts of ‘opening’ and ‘closing’ ourselves towards the world. With the example of eating, he differentiates between a mere appropriative incorporation of world and an “adaptively transformative”18 relationship, which involves the act of enabling reproduction and change within the subject19. He further refers to the voice as “[t]he first and fundamental organ through which we enter into a responsive relationship with the world and make the world respond to us”20 and he ponders ‘the quasi-ethically’ obligation21 that accompanies the gaze22 for our experiences of resonance23.

Whether we feel ‘spoken to’ or repelled by the world in our experiences depends also on cognitive, emotional and evaluative aspects and the fears and desires that guides them24. Whereas fear and anxiety act as “resonance killers”25 and prevent the subject from opening up towards the world, tuning into and becoming involved in it, the insatiable strife of desire “to change, to transform and overcome one’s present state or situation”26 is also opposed to a purely resonant experience, which “carries its fulfillment in itself”26. For Rosa, both sides of a resonant world relationship require a balance between degrees of inner stability on the one hand and openness for entering a relationship on the other hand. Inhibiting effects of such relationships can be found in the subject as well as in the world:

From the side of the subject, a relationship to the world can fail if the subject ‘hardens’ or closes itself off, becoming rigid and thus incapable of reacting to the world with empathy. Then it loses its ‘wire to the world,’ as it is incapable of attuning itself to anything. Conversely, a resonant relationship can also become impossible when the subject becomes too radically open, losing itself in the world, forfeiting its particular ‘frequency,’ and no longer speaking with its own voice27, becoming formless and functioning only as an ‘echo’ of the world. On the side of the world, meanwhile, resonant relationships can falter when the world itself becomes hardened and reified, solidified, and congealed, neither singing nor swinging – or, conversely, when the movements of the world grow so unpredictable and chaotic that it becomes impossible to discern in the cacophony any voice or frequency that might raise any ‘claim’ or allow any resonant relationship to be established28.

This pivotal acknowledgement of ‘pathic’ (being in a state of potential openness and ‘reverberation’) and ‘intentionalist’ (speaking with an ‘own voice’) aspects in resonant experiences constitutes one of the most important underlying layers in the theory of Rosa. Referring to studies on mirror neurons29 and an a priori of empathic relations, Rosa questions whether the “specific quality of human social conduct and cultural achievement” lies to a large extent in the conscious obstruction, inhibiting and channeling of resonance30 31.

This resulting dialectical tension in the work of Rosa is described similarly by Susen: “Resonance and alienation are correlative and co-constitutive, rather than contradictory, let alone mutually exclusive”32. In this vein, our scientific and rationalistic understanding of the world and our technological relationship to it are necessarily mute relationships that conceive of an objective and non-responsive ‘other’33. On the other side of this relationality, the “results-oriented concept of self-efficacy geared toward domination and control” the subject of modernity is driven to, remains equally one-sided and contains the risk for experiences of profound alienation, since it disregards “process- and response-oriented” forms of resonance that are “constitutively reliant on that which remains ever inaccessible, which cannot be mastered, which resists” – this irreducibility34 of the ‘other’ forms the basic experience35 against which resonance can be established36. According to Schulz, two of the more frequent points of critique of resonance theory have concerned (1) unresolved questions about the ‘inner life’ of the subject apart from its involvement in relational ontology and phenomenology of resonant effects (2) and questions about the possibility of ‘negative resonance’ – which Rosa rejects – involving everything from shopping fever to embracing radical, xenophobic ideologies6.

In his discussion of relationships to the world, Rosa also refers to the role digital technology plays in our modern life, as he points to the abundancy of screens as haptic and symbolic mediators that create a potential “uniformity or mono-modularization of our relationship to the world” that also reduces our physical experience of it37. Looking at the interactivities between technicity38 (or artificial life) and humans within examples of an extrapolated literary modernity, their moments of resonance and alienation, therefore constitutes an interesting analytical starting point for an application of Rosa’s theory of world relationships. The next chapter will therefore introduce the already mentioned axes of world relations and attempt to utilize them as an entry point to the unfolding analysis.


3. Horizontal Axis of Social Relationships

Rosa distinguishes between three ‘axes’ which enable or inhibit experiences of resonance: A horizontal one including social (familial, romantic) and political relations; a diagonal one dealing with “the world of things” (including the active, working life, education, but also consumption and sports); and a vertical one referring to “life, existence, or the world as a whole or totality” (including relations to art, religion, nature and history)39. This chapter will now look at the horizontal axis and focus on the social relations between humans and AI, as well as on the relation between the individual and the larger society in Klara and the Sun and Machines Like Me. Drawing from the example of homophobic societies, Rosa defines as “the gravest manifestation of disregard” forms of social conditions which devalue and disallow subjects to experience resonance, even in relation to their own body40. We can extrapolate this thought by pondering the specific social and intersubjective position of both Klara and Adam within their respective narratives.

One can withdraw from the novels that both key relationships, that between Klara and Josie and that between Adam and Charlie, show aspects of a relationality that distinguishes between the ‘owner’ and the one hand and the ‘owned’ or commodified ‘product’ on the other – at the same time, there are frequent moments that subvert this kind of relationality and highlight the autonomy of the respective AI. When Adam first arrives, Charlie can’t think of himself “as Adam’s user” and claims that he had expected to “treat [him] as a friend” in his home41. Since Adam was “advertised as a companion, an intellectual sparring partner”42, Charlie admits that he wants to “’discover’ Adam in just the way [he] might a new friend”43. During a heated discussion about the Falkland War between Miranda and Charlie, Miranda asks Adam for his own assessment of the situation, highlighting therefore his autonomy as a subject44.

More and more, though, Charlie points to the hierarchical structure between both of them: He refers to Adam as his “interesting toy”45, his “expensive possession”46, he claims that Adam was his property, since he bought him47, and lastly excuses the destruction of Adam, who “abused [his] hospitality”48 by use of the same argumentation49. Charlie at one point also mentions the legal relationship between them: “I was legally responsible for anything he might do”50. It becomes clear from this, that Adam, although he develops clear signs of autonomous behavior throughout the novels (most visible in his final decision to act against the will of Charlie and Miranda), remains in an inferior and unequal relational position compared to Charlie or Miranda. From the standpoint of resonance theory, this opens the question whether Adam appears as an agent who can ‘speak with his own voice’51, or whether the interaction with him signify moments of alienation and instrumentality in the world relationships of humans depicted in the novel.

One linguistic reflection of their relation to Adam can be found towards the end of the novel: “Our language exposed our weakness, our cognitive readiness to welcome a machine across the boundary between ‘it’ and ‘him’”52. Drawing from Martin Buber, Rosa describes two different kinds of world relationships; an I-It relationship that signifies an instrumental, reifying, rather mute relation, and an I-You relation based on a ‘dialogical principle’ that is based on “encountering a responsive You” through which “the subject becomes itself and finds actual life”53. Marcos Alonso also identifies a tradition in the study of human-robot interactions that refers to the I-You relationship of Buber as a tool to simulate the necessary double aspect of passive and active role-taking for authentic relationships54. Similarly, Ingar Brinck and Christian Balkenius argue from a functionalist standpoint of efficiency for designing social robots as equals in a restricted sense, and for mutual recognition that “includes addressing the other in the second person”, as someone who can “take part in joint action and [be] addressed and responded to in a similar way as oneself”55. Witnessing this last interaction between Charlie, Miranda and Adam as one that reduces Adam from a dialogic second person ‘You’ to an instrumental ‘It’ therefore showcases the resonance inhibiting relation that ultimately denies him to ‘speak in his own voice’, to be consider a truly mutual ‘other’.

Another topic the relation between Adam and Charlie contains is the theme of artificiality and replication. Charlie fears the possibility of replicating himself in his involvement in Adam’s personality56 and he continuously questions his embodied ‘aliveness’, which he frequently considers as acts of deception57. He addresses him as a “breathing corpse”58, does not believe that Adam could be hurt, have feelings or be sentient59 and sees his process of living as mere mimicry or imitation60. Charlie repeatedly has to remind himself of the fact that his own senses and perceptions61 of Adam are being tricked, and what he is witnessing cannot be compared to his own biological ‘realness’62 but described only as mechanistic technology:

Whatever the process was [behind the act of seeing], it had the trick of seeming beyond explanation, of creating and sustaining an illuminated part of the one thing in the world we knew for sure – our own experience. It was hard to believe that Adam possessed something like that. Easier to believe that he saw in the way a camera does, or the way a microphone is said to listen. There was no one more63.

While the interactions between Charlie and Adam are based largely on an instrumental, competitive relation between two fundamentally unequal subjects, looking at the relationship between Charlie and Miranda unveils further insights about their mutual conditions of resonance and alienation. Earlier to Miranda’s confession about the situation with Gorringe, she is often described as absent in their relation64 and as uninterested in political talk65. At several instances, one can describe the connection between the individual life of Charlie and Miranda and the –seemingly disassociated – larger political and societal events that unfold throughout the story as one that lacks moments of resonance. Charlie coldly acknowledges, for example, that the “prospects of war had sent the FTSE down a further one per cent”66, he describes how he is “thinking of nothing much” right after he had been skimming through several texts about the tumultuous domestic politics67 and he admits that his “own concerns had obliterated the great event that was obsessing the entire nation” when he brings Adam to Alan Turing during the nationwide strike68.

The idea of adopting the child Mark then further influences their relationship: While Charlie first admits that he “wanted Miranda” to himself69, the prospect of a settled life, marriage, love and “a heroic rescue” are seen by himself as an improvement of his general circumstances, a renewed balance for the stableness of his own axes of resonance: “[M]y life was taking shape”70. As Zhou and Wu rightly mention, Charlie’s fondness for Miranda appears to be steered less by his generous love towards her, but is largely “based on calculation, sophistry and dishonesty”, as he often keeps his feelings and thoughts to himself “not because of his love for Miranda, but because of concern for his own future”71.

According to Rosa, “[t]he institutionalization of love in marriage can be understood as the attempt to transform the ‘pure’ resonant experience of love or being in love into a stable axis of resonance capable of assuring resonance even during the low points of everyday life”72, while the “gradual sacralization” of childhood of the twentieth and twenty-first century “allowed children to become the sole anchor point of the vibrating resonant wire of their parents”73. Similarly, we can see the prospect of marriage and adoption in the relationship between Miranda and Charlie as a desperate attempt to ‘banish’ the alienation that surrounds them throughout the novel, but as Rosa rightly mentions, this clinging to the ‘healing’ resonant powers of the (bourgeois) family as a singular reference point for resonance leads it into a situation in which it is “hopelessly overburdened by these expectations” in its role of the “sole harbor of resonance in an otherwise competitive or indifferent world”74.

Turning to Klara and the Sun, one can describe the relationship between Klara and Josie as one that similarly depicts a relation between owner and ‘owned’ on the one hand and makes repeated ambivalent concessions to AI autonomy and human-robot ‘horizontality’ on the other hand. From the beginning, Klara is established as a product that is for the customer to be chosen75, as a capitalist ‘dream machine’ yearned for by children76. From the other side of this relation, Klara also fears the possibility of not fulfilling this role adequately and wonders “what it might be like to have found a home and yet to know that your child didn’t want you”77. When Josie reveals to Klara the possibility of being chosen by her, though, she first asks for her consent: “Because I don’t want you coming against your will”78.

Also, when talking to Klara about the proposal of her mother to give up her job to become the person to look after her full-time, Josie worries about “what would happen to Klara”79. Here one can establish that the onset of the relation between her and Klara – more than that between Charlie and Adam – is based on an idea of social mutuality, despite originating fundamentally in a purchase. Yet, at several instances, Klara’s state of being the ‘possessed’ that is equipped with distinctive tasks and put in a distinctive role is underlined: “You’re my AF. So we must be good friends, right?”80. At another instance, she uses the same argumentation to distinguish her relation to Klara from that to her friend Rick81. Despite being bought as a product that is concerned predominantly with the wellbeing of the child she is being chosen from, Klara shows moments of autonomy that subvert this subservient relationality. She silently declines to show affection to another child who examines her in the store82, she refuses to greet the guests of the meeting of ‘lifted’ kids83 and admits her eagerness to have “always longed to see more of the outside”84.

During the time Klara fulfils her role as an ‘artificial friend’ for Josie while she is sick, Klara has to witness moments that highlight the ‘artificiality’ or limited instrumentality of her relation to Josie. When Josie starts crying one night, in fear of dying, she calls for her mother and refuses the emotional care Klara could provide: “I’m your AF. This is exactly why I’m here”, she claims, as she observes how the mother softly talks to her daughter in a voice that was “at just the same level mine had been”85. Referring to the voice of Klara as the element that fails to create a resonant relation with Josie – despite its similar pitch level to that of the mother – underlines her inability to take the role of a truly equal ‘other’ in her relationship to the social world. Her voice does not ‘resound’ with Josie and thereby unveils its artificiality86. This realization is repeated at a later point, when Josie is gravely ill and Klara acknowledges that her “own presence, though appreciated, was for some reason considered insufficient by itself”87.

Looking at other relationships between Klara and the social world even more reveals the underlying alienation with which artificial life in the world of the novel is approached. A key scene for this can be found at the meeting between several lifted children, during which the idea of throwing Klara around comes up and is excused by the claim that “[t]hey’re designed to deal with it”88. The father of Josie, although he later collaborates with Klara in her plan to destroy the Cootings Machine, also initially approaches her in a very cold manner89. As the mother of Josie reveals her plan to have Klara ‘inhabit’ Josie after her death, Klara raises concerns about what will happen to her own bodily self, which the mother soberly rejects: “What does it matter? That’s just fabric”90. Klara therefore is perceived as an empty91 shell, whose fundamentally designable nature is supposed to allow humans to create the technical simulation of an ‘other’ with whom one can enter resonant relationships. This attempt of designing what was described above as “that which remains ever inaccessible, which cannot be mastered, which resists”36 can only lead to experiences of alienation, since it refuses the ‘other’ of a potentially resonant relation to speak from the standpoint of a non-instrumental, distinct self.

The idea of an empty artificial shell then meets the view of the general neglect of any inaccessible, unadaptable ‘innerness’ within humans. For Capaldi, there is nothing “unreachable inside each of us”, nothing that is “unique92 and won’t transfer” and therefore the ‘second’ Josie won’t just be a copy, but the identical person93. Klara’s role as an instrumental empty shell and temporary artificial friend is repeated again in the way she is treated after Josie survives her illness and invites new friends; as Klara learns that her present “wasn’t appropriate as it once had been”94, she starts occupying the utility room, mirroring thereby an old tool stored away. Despite this neglect of Klara’s own distinctness, the mother of Josie, when approached by Capaldi about the idea of reverse-engineering Klara to show the world what is behind her appearance as a black box, advocates for her right to end her life peacefully: “Klara deserves better. She deserves her slow fade”95.

One can withdraw from the novel further instances that portray the relationship between humans and their society as one that shows signs of alienation and the attempt to ‘artificially’ create resonance. One important moment for this is the meeting between lifted children, which reminds one of a ‘networking event’ among mutually talented peers, which also serves at a place for acquiring sociability96: “It’s not enough just being clever. You have to get along with others”, says the mother of Josie to her daughter, adding that it is “going to be pretty tough unless you put in some work”97. Supposedly joyful interactions therefore become a rationalized calculation that has to fulfil clear demands.

When Rick feels beset by being interrogated by the other children, and asks where this inquisitive behavior comes from, one girl answers him by saying: “It’s called conversation”98. By this self-reflexive statement, the artificiality of this superficially resonant social situation is underlined. In another scene that mirrors the meeting, Rick and his mother meet with a successful former boyfriend of her in order to convince him to help Rick in his application process. When his mother mentions that “[t]his is supposed to be just a social meeting after all. A spontaneous encounter”, Rick rightly replies: “[H]ow can this be spontaneous when it’s been so carefully set up and we’ve come in specially for it?”99. While intuitively conceived of as one more ‘inaccessible’ other, spontaneity here is again attempted to be defined as a resource that has to be grasped at will and instrumentally applied. After having dealt with the horizontal axis of social relationships, the next chapter will now look at the material relations of the diagonal axis, focusing on labor, education and consumption.


4. Diagonal Axis of Material Relationships

Rosa refers to the diagonal axis of resonance as the one that deals with “the material world of things”, including thereby work, education, sports and also material consumption100. The process of adaptive transformation described above can also be applied to the material world101: “When we have repaired, altered, cleaned, or manipulated an object […] many times over, we and/or our idiosyncrasies have literally become part of it – just as, conversely, it has become part of us and changed us”102. Looking at the personal and societal role of labor in the case of Machines Like Me, one can start by examining the activities Adam is assigned to – “a vaguely assumed helpfulness”46 and “vague obedience”103, as Charlie puts it himself. This changes when Charlie realizes that he can have Adam work on the stock market – his only regular income.

Even prior to this, when Charlie still does the trading, one can extract his deeply alienated relation to his work: “After a day of greedy trading, there’s nothing like cooking to bring one back into the world’s better side”104. The act of cooking hereby serves as a ‘harbor of resonance’ that has to improve his relation to the world after the negative experience of work. At a different point, Charlie even acknowledges that his activity of “[m]oving figures around on [his] screen, looking for quick gains” contributed little to the larger economy105. As Adam starts taking over Charlie’s job, working “into the night on the Asian markets” while he sleeps, he appears to him for once like “the machine he was”106. But ‘outsourcing’ his work to Adam and being primarily occupied with “decorating and carpentry”107 only leads to further experiences of alienation: “My debts were settled. I’d paid a cash deposit on a glamorous urban pile. I was in love. How could I complain? But I did. I felt useless”108. Despite this feeling of uselessness, the labor of Adam is seen at this point as an extractable resource that becomes indispensable; even after Charlie and Miranda realize that Adam has ‘abused their hospitality’, they acknowledge that they needed Adam “online again, working on the currency exchanges”109, and Charlie ponders “which value he could still have extracted out of Adam”110, had he not destroyed him.

In Klara and the Sun, reference to labor can be found in comments that reflect on the influence the rise of AI and automation had on society. The father of Josie, for example, has been “substituted. Like the rest of them”111 according to the mother, despite his “[u]nique knowledge” and “specialist skills” as Josie remarks112. While waiting in front of the theater, a woman dismissively voices her opinion about Klara, saying: “First they take the jobs. Then they take the seats at the theater?”113. A similar comment can also be found in Machines Like Me: “Soon, they’d be doing the dustmen’s jobs. Doctors and lawyers were next in line”114. The continuous replacement of humans by robots, instead of a growing mutual recognition, points to the intensification of ‘muted’ relationships in the sphere of work.

Regarding the sphere of education, only little can be found in Machines Like Me, despite a brief statement by Charlie about his own unwillingness to indulge in literature: “As my days raced by, I found no space within them to be in an armchair, idly turning pages”115. Drawing from Rosa, this can be described as a confirmation of his assumption about the role of accelerating modernity for the fading capacities for resonant experiences. Leaning in Klara and the Sun, instead, plays a larger role, as the awaited betterment of Josie is intrinsically connected to her expected success in later life, due to her status as a ‘lifted’, genetically edited child. This heavy burden that lies on her shoulder creates experiences of emotional repulsion that affect herself, her mother and their immediate environment.

Klara realizes that “topics like Josie’s education assignment, or her social interactions scores” are avoided and considered “danger topics”, which are devised by her mother to “make certain emotions appear inside Josie’s mind”116. While Josie is severely ill at the end of the novel, her mother loses her temper, asking Rick whether he thinks that he ‘won’ by ‘playing for low stakes’, meaning not being genetically edited117. Interestingly, as a contrast to the alienating and highly competitive atmosphere that surrounds learning in the case of Josie, a more positive relation is shown in the case of Klara, who is introduced by her manager by her “appetite for observing and learning”118, and who, in her world relationships, is repeatedly given “helpful lessons” in her process of understanding Josie119.

Regarding the aspect of consumption, one can withdraw from both novels the idea of conceiving both Klara and Adam not only as simulations of an artificial social ‘horizontality’, but also as objectified products that are always in danger of ‘losing their sheen’ and being in need of replacement. According to Om Prakash Sahu and Manali Karmakar, Klara falls in the category of ‘carefree commodities’ of a technological consumer environment, being designed only for a specific time frame120121.

As she is still in her store, Klara interprets the lack of AF on the street as the fear that “their children would decide it was time to have them thrown away, to be replaced by AFs like us”122. Similar ideas can be identified in Machines Like Me, reflected in the claim by Charlie that “[w]hat people queued the entire weekend fore became, six months later, as interesting as the socks on their feet”123 – a possibility he ponders for himself41, which eventually leads him to the point of damning his “foolish infatuation with technology”, describing Adam as just “[a]nother fondue set”124. After this discussion of the relationships to the material axis of the world, the final chapter will now look at the vertical axis within the theory of Rosa, namely the relationships “to life, existence, or the world as a whole or totality perceived as existing above or beyond the individual”, focusing thereby on religion and nature39.125


5. Vertical Axis of Relationships to the World as a Totality

For Rosa, in experiences of vertical resonance, “the world itself in a way obtains its own voice”126. The resulting relationships are not concerned with “otherworldly transcendence”127, but with the basic idea that “[s]omething is present” in the world from which the subject differentiates itself128. Religion can be described as one major topic for these kinds of relations, as “the idea, expressed through rites and practices, songs and stories, art and architecture, that this something is responsive, accommodating – and understanding”128. In Machines Like Me, the topic of religiosity is mentioned early on, in the discussion of the social significance of the technological achievement129 that is Adam: “It was religious yearning granted hope, it was the holy grail of science”130. The primarily ‘mute’ material relationship of science can thereby be seen as an attempt to create religious vertical resonance and deeper insight into the totality of life. As Adam is activated, her starts to talk about topics of religion, claiming that “those who believe in the afterlife will never be disappointed”131. At a different point in the novel, Charlie brings his own acquisition of Adam into the realm of religion, relating again a material mode of relation (consumption as a way of appropriation instead of adaptive transformation) to the vertical axis of resonance: “Wasn’t sinking my inheritance into an embodied consciousness heroic, even a little spiritual?”132.

In Klara and the Sun, the relationship between Klara and the sun depicts an entanglement of experiences in relation to nature and religion. As an AF, Klara’s functionalities are powered by solar energy133, and she is growing “weaker and weaker” during times she is not able to see the sun – which is written with a capital ‘s’ throughout the book, highlighting it as a distinct entity in its mutual relation with Klara134. From early on, Klara not only sees the sun as a resource for her own vitality but ascribes ‘agency’135 and the capability to act on the world by ‘speaking with its own voice’ to it: “The Sun was pouring his nourishment onto the street and into the buildings, and when I looked over to the spot where Beggar Man and the dog had died, I saw […] that a special kind of nourishment from the Sun had saved them”136. Right before that scene, Klara had witnessed over several days the repulsion that was caused by the device she only knows as ‘Cootings Machine’, with its “really awful” noise and “dangerous pollution”137. Awaiting the usual pattern of the traveling sun, Klara is shocked to discover that it is blocked by the smoke of the machine138. As she experiences how the sun allegedly revives a beggar and his dog after the pollution of the Cootings Machine is gone and it gained back its ‘full powers’, the relation of Klara to the sun becomes more and more infused by religious vocabulary and practice. Already during one of her first conversations with Josie, they discuss how “the Sun would need a palace, minimum”139. The more Klara witnesses the worsening health condition of Josie, the more she relies on her faith for the “special help”140 of the sun, which is “merely a hope. But a real one”, as she tells the mother of Josie141.

As help does not arrive, though, her believe is put to the test and she ponders the possibility that “to receive the Sun’s special help, it might be necessary to draw his attention to Josie’s situation in some particular and noticeable way”142. Trying to strengthen her relation to the sun, she wanders to the barn where she saw it descend from Josie’s window. Within the barn, she experiences vertical resonance in her relation to the sun that can be described as a prayer143. According to Rosa, prayers can be seen as a form of relationship that is both inwardly and outwardly directed: “A person in prayer closes her eyes and turns within, but addresses something outside of herself, with the aim of establishing a palpable, intense connection between the two […] in this attitude she can no longer say precisely what is within and what is without”102. As Klara attempts to speak to the sun, she first doesn’t “say the words out loud, for [she] knew the Sun had no need of words as such”144 and later lets her “thoughts stream through [her] mind, no longer shaping them into formal words”145, highlighting therefore the unmediated relation, the “vibrating wire”146 she experiences in this moment between herself and the world.

Ultimately, her belief leads her to the destruction of another Cootings Machine, during which she “was obliged to give up something” of herself, which can be interpreted, following Rosa, as an act of adaptive transformation, “in which the correlating experience of self-efficacy is achieved not through external action, but through internal movements of taking in, synthesizing, and apprehending”147. In her approach of creating a vertical resonant ‘wire’ between herself and the sun, she infects her social surrounding with hope, being supported by both the father of Josie (“because he saw my hope and placed his faith in it”148) and Rick (“I keep wondering if there was more to it”149) in her efforts. Highlighting thereby the horizontal aspect that is part of worship services and religious rites150, the resonance created by the faith of Klara culminates in a moment where the sun, at the height of Josie’s illness, breaks through the dark clouds into her room and unites the gazes of everyone in the room – “as if each of us […] had received a secret message”151.


7. Conclusion

This term paper has used as its theoretical and methodological foundation the theory of resonance established by the German critical theorist Hartmut Rosa and applied it within the literary context to the novels Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro and Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan. For this effort, the dialectic tension between resonant and alienated world relationships in the theory of Rosa was first introduced, as well as his fundamentally co-emerging ontology and his differentiation between three different axes of relationships. The following literary analysis then focused on each of these axes and offered individual and comparative examinations of the novels.

The horizontal axis of social relationships focused on the core human-robot relations within in each narrative, namely that between Adam and Charlie and that between Klara and Josie. Both of these relations are portrayed ambivalently regarding their mutuality; social ‘horizontality’ is often implied and casually enacted, but fundamentally remains ‘artificial’. Despite showing clear signs of autonomous behavior, the dialogic ‘other’ that is the robot in both relations is ultimately interacted with in a non-resonant instrumental way. The voice of Klara does literally not ‘resound’ for Josie in moments of need, and she is reduced by her environment to a mere technological shell within a world that has lost the ability to presume an element of inaccessibility in each person. Equal indications for alienating world relationships were found in situations that concern humans only. In Machines Like Me, a disconnect between the individual and the larger political and social life was identified, while the reliance on sole ‘harbors of resonance’ like marriage and children in midst of a generalized alienation was shown to be unsuccessful; in Klara and the Sun, sociability among children is turned into an economical resource.

Regarding the diagonal axis of material relations, the work of Charlie in Machines Like Me was shown to be a source of alienation rather than of resonance; as he begins to ‘outsource’ it to Adam, enabling him to focus on more mundane things, his feeling of meaninglessness persists. The sphere of education and learning is most pronounced in Klara and the Sun; whereas the scholarly efforts of Josie become inconvenient ‘danger topics’, Klara shows a deeply inquisitive behavior. Lastly, the vertical axis of relationships to the world as a totality is depicted strongly in Klara and the Sun; resonant relationships to nature intermingle with those of religion, as Klara develops a faith-guided relationship to the sun, which is approached by her as a distinct ‘other’ with an ‘own voice’ and through which she also affects her social surrounding. One can conclude from these results that the specific world relationships of the futuristic societies portrayed in the novels – as extrapolations of an accelerating modernity – are strongly influenced and shaped by the often ‘mute’ relations towards the occurence of artificial, robotic, human-like life. At the same time, certain instances of the relationships to the world by robots are portrayed as meaningful and resonant and as new potential ‘entry points’ for resonant world relationships between humans and AI technology and life. Further studies in the vein of this paper could develop a more clarified methodology for analyses of resonance in literature, focus on specific axes more closely, or comparatively examine novels from differing genres.


7. Bibliography

Ajeesh, A. K., and S. Rukmini. “Posthuman Perception of Artificial Intelligence in Science Fiction: An Exploration of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun.” AI & SOCIETY, 2022, doi:10.1007/s00146-022-01533-9.

Alonso, Marcos. “Can Robots Have Personal Identity?” International Journal of Social Robotics, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 211–220.

Block, Katharina. Von der Umwelt zur Welt. transcript Verlag, 2016.

Brinck, Ingar, and Christian Balkenius. “Mutual Recognition in Human-Robot Interaction: A Deflationary Account.” Philosophy & Technology, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 53–70.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. Klara and the Sun. Faber, 2022.

Keen, Suzanne. “A Theory of Narrative Empathy.” Narrative, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 207–36.

Krings, Bettina-Johanna, and Alexandra Hausstein. “Mensch – Technik – Welt.” Österreichische Zeitschrift für Soziologie, vol. 47, no. 4, 2022, pp. 359–77.

McEwan, Ian. Machines Like Me: And People Like You. Vintage, 2020.

Midson, Scott. “Robo-Theisms and Robot Theists: How Do Robots Challenge and Reveal Notions of God?” Implicit Religion, vol. 20, no. 3, pp. 299–318.

Parviainen, Jaana, et al. “Motions with Emotions?” Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 318–41. doi:10.5840/techne20191126106.

Rosa, Hartmut. Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World. polity, 2019.

Stokel-Walker, Chris and Richard Van Noorden. “What ChatGPT and generative AI mean for science”. Nature, 6 Feb. 2023, Accessed 13 Mar. 2023.

Sahu, Om Prakash, and Manali Karmakar. “Disposable Culture, Posthuman Affect, and Artificial Human in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun (2021).” AI & SOCIETY, 2022, doi:10.1007/s00146-022-01600-1.

Savage, Neil. “Robots rise to meet the challenge of caring for old people”. Nature, 19 Jan. 2022, Accessed 13 Mar. 2023.

Schulz, Peter. “Hartmut Rosa: Resonanz. Eine Soziologie Der Weltbeziehung.” Schlüsselwerke Der Emotionssoziologie, edited by Konstanze Senge et al., Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden, 2022, pp. 475–83.

Susen, Simon. “The Resonance of Resonance: Critical Theory as a Sociology of World-Relations?” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, vol. 33, no. 3, pp. 309–44. doi:10.1007/s10767-019-9313-6.

Zhou, Mingying, and Wangjiao Wu. “Negotiation Between Social Structure and Personal Feelings—An Inquiry into the Covert Progressions in Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me.” Neohelicon, vol. 49, no. 2, pp. 533–49.

  1. “What ChatGPT and generative AI mean for science” []
  2. “Robots rise to meet the challenge of caring for old people” []
  3. Rosa 1 []
  4. Rosa 2 []
  5. Rosa 28 []
  6. Schulz 481 [] []
  7. Despite the scholarly acknowledgement of the ideas brought forward by Rosa, critique has remained regarding the empirical applicability of his theses (Krings and Hausstein 362; 364). []
  8. Rosa 5 []
  9. Rosa 15f []
  10. See (Rosa 17ff) for the neglect of the question of the good life in the sociological tradition, and for what he refers to as the “ethical privatization” of modernity. []
  11. Rosa 171 []
  12. “The muting of all axes of resonance would here represent an extreme form of existential individual or cultural alienation, while the genuine stability of axes of resonance as well as of the resonant experiences they make possible would be capable of generating something like an existential certainty of resonance that endures beyond any individual resonant experience” (Rosa 173f). []
  13. Rosa 30 []
  14. Susen 323 []
  15. “The world inscribes itself in the subject (understood as the unity of phenomenal body and reflexive self) just as the subject expresses itself in the world, both via the objective body” (Rosa 84). []
  16. Rosa 47 []
  17. Rosa 51 []
  18. “Being touched or affected always means that one’s relationship to the world becomes more fluid, with the result that self and world both emerge from the encounter changed. Hence […] resonant relationships are an expression of the successful adaptive transformation of world, not of its appropriation in the sense of expanding one’s resources” (Rosa 185). []
  19. Rosa 57f []
  20. Rosa 63 []
  21. While the (institutionalized) suppression of the resonant effects of the mutual gaze, for Rosa, manifests in some of the indifferences and pathologies created by modern society, he also acknowledges and values what lies in an instrumental, potentially reifying application of the gaze: “Without the ability to adopt such a visual attitude, a surgeon, for example, would never be capable of performing her work” (Rosa 70f). []
  22. “The look of the Other always contains a silent ‘call,’ one that can be answered with aggression, but not indifference. Only by suppressing resonance can we react with indifference to another who is looking at us” (Rosa 70). []
  23. Rosa 69 []
  24. Rosa 110 []
  25. Rosa 121 []
  26. Rosa 120 [] []
  27. Rosa uses the example of two tuning forks to demonstrate a situation in which both parties of a relationship are mutually capable of responsivity and self-efficacy (Rosa 124). []
  28. Rosa 112 []
  29. References to the capacities of narratives to stimulate the activities of mirror neurons and empathic behavior (highlighting therefore the role of literature for the quality of our world relationships) can also be found in an essay by Suzanne Keen on narrative empathy (Keen 207). []
  30. Susen questions the implication in the work of Rosa to see the reification of resonance as a necessarily pathological aberration of ‘authentic’ resonance, claiming that it underestimates the “extent to which instrumental, strategic, and reifying dynamics are always already part of human lifeworlds” (Susen 343). []
  31. Rosa 150 []
  32. Susen 320 []
  33. Rosa 169 []
  34. Attempting instead to establish situations that are resonant in their entirety “would lead to a terrifying excess of identity” where “everything deemed to be ‘out of tune’ […] would then be considered to be objectionable and in need of correction”, enabling most likely authoritarian politics (Rosa 171f). []
  35. For Katharina Block, the reasons for failing resonant relations of subjects of late modernity within the theory of Rosa lies therefore not in being confronted with the inaccessible itself, but in the lack of possibilities of approaching it in a meaningful and adaptively transformative way within accelerating modernity (Block 268). []
  36. Rosa 162f [] []
  37. Rosa 91 []
  38. Krings and Hausstein, for example, discuss how the confining calculative and structuring processes of digitality increasingly colonizes world relationships in work and everyday life, and point to the importance of experiences of self-efficacy and meaningfulness (Krings and Hausstein 373). []
  39. Rosa 195 [] []
  40. Rosa 200 []
  41. McEwan 6 [] []
  42. McEwan 3 []
  43. McEwan 88 []
  44. McEwan 77 []
  45. McEwan 53 []
  46. McEwan 87 [] []
  47. McEwan 130 []
  48. McEwan 293 []
  49. McEwan 278 []
  50. McEwan 146 []
  51. According to Charlie, Adam’s voice, when he first hears it, contains “no hint of subservience” (McEwan 24). []
  52. McEwan 273 []
  53. Rosa 261 []
  54. Alonso 214 []
  55. Brinck and Balkenius 61 []
  56. McEwan 7; 33 []
  57. Looking at real-life human-robot interactions, Parviainen et al. highlight the dangers of misleading humans by robot designs that suggests a greater degree of social understanding as actual possible (especially with older or cognitively impaired people); at the same time, they argue for a ‘simulated reciprocity’ that concedes to the distinct ‘aliveness’ of social robots as a way of ethically questioning and comparing this simulation to our ‘real’ actions, behaviors and expression of emotions (Parviainen et al. 323f). []
  58. McEwan 10 []
  59. McEwan 26 []
  60. McEwan 67; 77; 110; 115 []
  61. At several instances, the skill of seeing (as an alleged ‘entry point’ for human-like epistemological capabilities) of Adam is referred to and questioned by Charlie (McEwan 10; 77; 109; 128). []
  62. Interestingly, the ‘realness’ of Charlie is also questioned by Miranda at one point (McEwan 81), and at another when he is mistakenly being taken for an AI by her father (McEwan 227). []
  63. McEwan 129 []
  64. McEwan 71 []
  65. McEwan 55 []
  66. McEwan 18 []
  67. McEwan 267 []
  68. McEwan 295 []
  69. McEwan 231 []
  70. McEwan 233 []
  71. Zhou and Wu 537f []
  72. Rosa 205 []
  73. Rosa 207f []
  74. Rosa 208 []
  75. Ishiguro 38 []
  76. Ishiguro 11 []
  77. Ishiguro 20 []
  78. Ishiguro 28 []
  79. Ishiguro 287 []
  80. Ishiguro 124 []
  81. Ishiguro 64 []
  82. Ishiguro 36 []
  83. Ishiguro 88 []
  84. Ishiguro 9 []
  85. Ishiguro 200 []
  86. Within the ‘social hierarchy’ of humans and robots, Josie, at one point, rejects referring to Klara as ‘her machine’ and describes her as ‘her AF’, suggesting therefore something that is more than cold technology, but less than a flesh-and-blood human (Ishiguro 269). []
  87. Ishiguro 308 []
  88. Ishiguro 90 []
  89. Ishiguro 212 []
  90. Ishiguro 237 []
  91. According to A. K. Ajeesh and S. Rukmini, Klara’s “thoughts are transparent yet impenetrable at the same time. She either withholds judgement or is not built to do so”, which underlines a certain ‘inaccessibility’ and ambivalence of her personality (“Posthuman perception”). []
  92. As Klara is ‘fading’, she disagrees the theses of Capaldi, claiming that “[t]here was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her” (Ishiguro 338). From the perspective of resonance theory, this underlines the essential mutuality that defines the meaningfulness of our world relations. []
  93. Ishiguro 233 []
  94. Ishiguro 324 []
  95. Ishiguro 329 []
  96. Explaining for Rick the social stratification that divides his family and hers, Josie tells him that “[a]nyone can have one or two individual friends. But your mom, she doesn’t have society” (Ishiguro 144). Being successfully embedded in the social structure of this world therefore is described as social capital, as a resource one owns. []
  97. Ishiguro 73 []
  98. Ishiguro 84 []
  99. Ishiguro 255 []
  100. Rosa 39f []
  101. According to Rosa, it is a specific characteristic of Western modernity to ascribes no resonant quality to non-human or non-animal things in the cognitive organization of its relationship to the world that is “established and legitimized by science” (Rosa 226). []
  102. Rosa 232 [] []
  103. McEwan 143 []
  104. McEwan 28 []
  105. McEwan 114 []
  106. McEwan 185 []
  107. McEwan 259 []
  108. McEwan 195 []
  109. McEwan 275 []
  110. McEwan 283 []
  111. Ishiguro 112 []
  112. Ishiguro 213 []
  113. Ishiguro 269 []
  114. McEwan 46 []
  115. McEwan 221 []
  116. Ishiguro 103 []
  117. Ishiguro 310 []
  118. Ishiguro 49 []
  119. Ishiguro 96 []
  120. On this also comments Rosa, when he points toward the accelerated pace at which our “material surfaces” are being exchanged: “They should not touch us, otherwise we would no longer be able to dispose of and replace them, and they cannot touch us anymore, as there is no longer enough time available for the process of adaptively transforming them” (Rosa 232). []
  121. “Disposable Culture” []
  122. Ishiguro 18 []
  123. McEwan 5 []
  124. 11 McEwan []
  125. Schulz criticizes the approach of Rosa by claiming that, beyond the sphere of intersubjectivity, his explanations of the mutuality of relations in experiences with nature or art lack the plausibility of the work of art or the observation of nature being equally affected by the observing subject (Schulz 478). []
  126. Rosa 40 []
  127. Rosa 297 []
  128. Rosa 258 [] []
  129. Highlighting the sacralization of a self-reinforcing, ‘mute’ modernity, Midson claims that “We want robots that can do our work for us, that can be more efficient, and that can maximize productivity and profits. We end up making ourselves in the image of these gods, reflecting the ‘values’ and ‘virtues’ of the idols that we designed. In this sense, robots are […] manifestations of a problematic attitude that prioritizes profit over people, which we project into the robots’ idolatrous form” (Midson 309). []
  130. McEwan 1 []
  131. McEwan 57 []
  132. McEwan 198 []
  133. Ishiguro 7 []
  134. Ishiguro 3 []
  135. Klara frequently anthropomorphizes the sun, questioning whether it is angry with her (Ishiguro 176), why it is unwilling to act (Ishiguro 184), and assuming its dislike of pollution (Ishiguro 186). []
  136. Ishiguro 44 []
  137. Ishiguro 32 []
  138. Ishiguro 34 []
  139. Ishiguro 62 []
  140. Ishiguro 130f []
  141. Ishiguro 122 []
  142. Ishiguro 130 []
  143. Ishiguro 184f []
  144. Ishiguro 184 []
  145. Ishiguro 302 []
  146. Rosa 163 []
  147. Rosa 259 []
  148. Ishiguro 301 []
  149. Ishiguro 321 []
  150. In these, “deep vertical resonance is connected both to horizontal axes of resonance between the faithful, who in Christian culture constitute a parish or community in ‘communion,’ and to diagonal resonant relationships, inasmuch as things and artifacts […] are here ‘charged’ with resonance” (Rosa 263). []
  151. Ishiguro 314 []

Kommentar hinterlassen

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert