I’m very interested in this concept, which I was introduced to through the work of Pierpaolo Donati and Andrea Maccarini earlier this year. It emerged from the work of Arnold Gehlen and refers to the role of human institutions in unburdening us from existential demands. This is quoted from his Human Beings and Institutions on pg 257 of Social Theory: Twenty Introductory Lectures by Hans Joas and Wolfgang Knobl. He writes that institutions
are those entities which enable a being, a being at risk, unstable and affectively overburdened by nature, to put up with his fellows and wit himself, something on the basis of which one can count on and rely on oneself and others. On the one hand, human objectives are jointly tackled and pursued within these institutions; on the other, people gear themselves toward definitive certainties of doing and to doing with in them, with the extraordinary benefit that their inner life is stabilized, so that they do not have to deal with profound emotional issues or make fundamental decisions at every turn.
In an interesting essay last year, Will Davies reflected on the ‘pleasure of dependence’ in a way which captures my understanding of entlastung. It can be a relief to trust in something outside of ourselves, settling into dependence on the understanding that our context is defined by a degree of reliability due to an agency other than our own:
I have a memory from childhood, a happy memory — one of complete trust and comfort. It’s dark, and I’m kneeling in the tiny floor area of the back seat of a car, resting my head on the seat. I’m perhaps six years old. I look upward to the window, through which I can see streetlights and buildings rushing by in a foreign town whose name and location I’m completely unaware of. In the front seats sit my parents, and in front of them, the warm yellow and red glow of the dashboard, with my dad at the steering wheel.
Contrary to the sentiment of so many ads and products, this memory reminds me that dependence can be a source of deep, almost visceral pleasure: to know nothing of where one is going, to have no responsibility for how one gets there or the risks involved. I must have knelt on the floor of the car backward to further increase that feeling of powerlessness as I stared up at the passing lights.
At a time when entlastung is failing, when institutions are coming to lose this capacity to unburden us, could faith in self-tracking, big data and digital technology fill the gap? The technological system as a whole comes to constitute the remaining possibility of entlastung and we enthusiastically throw ourselves into its embrace, as the only way left to feel some relief from the creeping anxiety that characterises daily life.
The essay by Will Davies is really worth reading: http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-data-sublime/