Are We Really Disenchanted?

I turn into my neighborhood off a street that is a bit run down. The strip mall, freestanding buildings, auto shops, and gas stations are old and they show it. During the recession, many of the shops closed down, the strip mall was vacated, and a couple of the gas stations were mothballed. In the midst of all of this, though, one proprietor prospered. So much so, in fact, that they renovated their stand-alone building, nearly doubling its footprint and greatly enhancing its appearance.

I won’t keep you in suspense: it was a palm reader. To be precise, the “psychic guide” offers to read palms, cards, crystals, and stars in order to provide the spiritual counseling and direction you need to overcome anxiety, depression, sexual problems, etc. Chief among the promised outcomes are a cluster of services that revolve around preserving romantic relationships from infidelity.

Perhaps we do not live in a disenchanted world after all. That is the claim advanced by Jason Josephson-Storm in The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences. I have not been entirely convinced.

I’m coming back to Josephson-Storm’s book at this point because Alan Jacobs has recently commented on The Myth of Disenchantment. I’ve been keen to hear Jacobs’ take on the book since last August when Jacobs posted the readings for a class on the history of disenchantment. That class now concluded, Jacobs has posted some brief reflections on Josephson-Storm’s thesis. He, too, has reservations, with which, for what its worth,  I concur.  Addressing the kind of phenomena which Josephson-Storm takes as evidence that “we have never been disenchanted” Jacobs contents that “this kind of thing does not mean that ‘we have never been disenchanted,’ but that we have, and sometimes we hate it.” That strikes me as basically right. My own two cents follow.

It’s been some time since last I posted about disenchantment, technology, and modernity. Over the past few years, I’ve occasionally advanced the thesis that modern societies are not so much disenchanted as they are alternatively enchanted, by which I mean that, in many of its functional aspects, the locus of enchantment has merely migrated from the magical and spiritual to the technological.

Given this admittedly idiosyncratic interest in disenchantment theory, I’ve been intrigued by Josephson-Storm’s work. My interest has also been related to fact that Josephson-Storm presents his work as a challenge to Charles Taylor’s account of disenchantment in A Secular Age.  I was intrigued because Taylor’s work has been an important component of own thinking, particularly in my attempt to (re)work the disenchantment hypothesis into my understanding of technology’s place in modern society.

Josephson-Storm opens with an impressive assemblage of evidence suggesting that belief in the mystical, the spiritual, and the magical has persisted throughout the modern era. Indeed, it has persisted in the least likely of places, among the very scientists, philosophers, and sociologist that one might have expected to be paragons of disenchantment. The vignette with which I opened fits nicely within the counter-narrative that Josephson-Storm advances.

I’m not, however, convinced that this amounts to a rebuttal of the disenchantment thesis, especially in the manner that Charles Taylor has elaborated. In characterizing what he means by a secular age, Taylor grants that belief might very well persist but it will be of a different sort. If it does persist, belief will be experienced differently, it will be felt differently, its functions will shift. Likewise, belief in the magical/mystical may persist, but its role in shaping our tacit understanding of the world will be altered or diminished. It will, for one thing, become newly conscious of itself, and, to the degree that it is, it will tend to undermine its own experiential integrity.

Here’s something else to consider. One way of thinking about disenchantment is to focus on the eclipse of magical or mystical phenomenon. If that were it, then the mere presence of magical or mystical practices might appear to defeat the thesis. But we might also think of enchantment as involving an order of meaning or intelligibility inscribed into the cosmos. The enchanted world is not only a world populated by fairies and angels and magical objects, it is also an eloquent world, it is charged with meaning. It is, moreover, a world within whose meaningful order an individual could locate her place. It is not altogether clear to me that the modern search for enchantment supplies the same experience of ordered meaningfulness. Indeed, it would appear that the search for enchantment is itself a symptom of the loss of meaning that Taylor’s more traditional account of disenchantment describes.

Consider, as well, this broadly painted contrast. Modern individuals, considered as a type, assumes that what meaning is to be had, they must supply. They seek out and engage in the practices of enchantment as a part of this meaning-making work. The pre-modern individual encounters a meaningful order to which they simply submit; they do not experience a quest for meaning nor do they imagine that they must fabricate their own meaning. Meaning, in the latter case, is given not made. As hungry for meaning as the modern individual may be, they will be unlikely to cede their autonomy to the idea of an order that exists independently of their own will and desires.

One last pass at the matter by way of a simile: enchantment, as I understand the traditional account, is like a fabric woven through the social world. Modernity tore the fabric apart, but threads remain. When the denizens of modernity flirt, even seriously so, with the supernatural and the mystical, they are merely picking up the threads. The fabric is lost to them.

One thought on “Are We Really Disenchanted?

  1. “As hungry for meaning as the modern individual may be, they will be unlikely to cede their autonomy to the idea of an order that exists independently of their own will and desires.”

    This does not comport with the evidence around me. While it may seem to be the case with the Western consumer class, but I question whether it is generally true that individuals sense that they are either autonomous or free to pursue their own will and/or desires.

    It is the tension between what is implicitly promised by your thesis and the reality that they know that produces the widespread social anger around us.

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