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.

Technological Enchantments and the End of Modernity

Dissatisfied with existing theories of secularization, Charles Taylor proposed his own account in his much-discussed 2007 book, A Secular Age. Taylor argued that traditional secularization stories were at best inadequate. They were in adequate because they were what Taylor called “subtraction stories.” According to such stories, secularization is what you get when belief in God goes away or when the Church loses its cultural power or when religious language is excised from the public square, etc. Taylor did not believe that secular society is simply what you have left when you slough off religious belief and institutions. Rather, he argued for the rise of something novel, exclusive humanism, which could fill the role that religious experience once served to provide “fullness” to people’s lives. Additionally, he argued that secularism as he understood it was not something that characterized only the unbelievers in a society. It was also the context for and conditions of belief and thus no one escaped its consequences.

I find Taylor’s work compelling and instructive, however, I bring it up only to make use of a small part of his multi-faceted and nuanced argument: his understanding of disenchantment.

The enchanted world was one of the features of pre-modern society which had to be overcome in order for a secular world, in Taylor’s sense, to emerge. The enchanted world as he describes it yields a particular experience of the self, what Taylor calls the “porous self” which later gives way to the modern “buffered self.”

Before moving on to explain what Taylor means by the porous self, I think it is useful to emphasize that Taylor is not after a theory of the self that pre-modern people may or not have held. Rather, he is after something more subjective, the background of lived experience or what was naively taken for granted. Taylor describes what he trying to get at as “the construal we just live in, without ever being aware of it as a construal, or–for the most of us–without ever even formulating it.”

This is a useful way of approaching these matters because rarely do we carry around with us a fully developed theory we could articulate to explain our beliefs and actions. Much of what we say and do arises from a tacit understanding of the world and our place in it, an understanding we might be hard pressed to put into words.

This is helpful because when I talk about technological re-enchantment, I don’t mean to suggest that anyone today would claim that there are spirits in the iPhone like a medieval peasant might have believed there were dryads in the forest. Nonetheless, we may experience our technology in a way that is functionally similar or analogous to the premodern experience of enchantment. And we may do so naively, that is without reflection and in a taken for granted manner.

Taylor’s discussion of enchantment unfolds as a theory of the self, and his understanding enchantment begins with the question of meaning. In a our modern disenchanted world, meaning arises only from mind, and the human mind is the only kind of mind there is. Nothing external to the human mind bears any meaning in itself. Moreover, there are no non-human agents in the world, either of matter or spirit.

By contrast, things (and spirits) in the enchanted world have the “power of exogenously inducing or imposing meaning,” a meaning that is independent of the perceiver. A meaning that someone may be forced to reckon with whether they would like to or not. Additionally, in the enchanted world objects can have a causal power. The “charged” objects, Taylor explains, “have what we usually call ‘magic’ powers.” Crucially, this power may be either benevolent or malevolent. The objects in question may bring blessing or trouble, cure or disease, rescue or danger.

“Thus in the enchanted world,” Taylor concludes, “charged things can impose meanings, and bring about physical outcomes proportionate to their meanings.” He calls these “influence” and ” causal power,” respectively.

The corresponding experience of the self that arises from this state of affairs is key for my purposes. Boundaries in the enchanted world are decidedly fuzzy. Taylor writes that the enchanted world “shows a perplexing absence of certain boundaries which seem to us essential.” In particular, “the boundary between mind and world is porous.” The porous self that corresponds to an enchanted world is “vulnerable, to spirits, demons, cosmic forces. And along with this go certain fears which can grip it in certain circumstances.”

The buffered self characteristic of the disenchanted world is, by contrast, “invulnerable” and “master of the meanings of things for it.” It is also immune to the fears that may grip the porous self. It is sealed off from the world, its boundaries are not at all fuzzy, meaning resides neatly within its own mind, it occupies a world of inert matter. It is autonomous and self-possessed. It is in other words, a thoroughly modern individual.

It would be fair to ask at this point, what any of this has to do with technology. My working hypothesis is something along these lines: contemporary technologies have taken on attributes that render their presence in our lived understanding of the world analogous to that of the “charged” objects of the enchanted world Taylor describes.

Two clarifications. First, I don’t mean to suggest that contemporary technology is in any literal sense magical. I am no more committed to that conclusion than a contemporary historian is committed to attributing real power to medieval relics when she describes them as enchanted.

Secondly, I don’t have in mind every kind of contemporary technology. Chiefly, I have in view technologies and objects that appear to be animated (as I’ve described elsewhere), and also processes, real or rhetorical, such as AI, automation, algorithms, and Big Data, which constitute something like an immaterial field of often inscrutable forces within which we conduct our lives.

In this technologically enchanted world we inhabit, then, we encounter objects and forces that, to borrow Taylor’s terminology, both influence us and exert causal power over our affairs. Some of these objects and forces appear also to have an agency independent of any human actor. I want to reiterate again that I am not talking about what some, including myself, would want to argue is actually the case: that technology is never wholly independent of human agency. Rather, like Taylor, I’m after what our unreflective experience of the world feels like.

Our technologically enchanted objects confront us with meaning that imposes itself on us and with which we must reckon. We turn to our technologies for help and invest our hope in their power. We also fear our technologies and see them as the cause of our troubles. The technological forces we encounter are sometimes benevolent but just as often malevolent forces undermining our efforts and derailing our projects.

It is not only that technological objects have the potential to empower us and sometimes even fill us with wonder. It is also that we experience these objects and forces as important determiners of our weal and woe and that they act upon us independently of our control and without our understanding. We are, in other words, vulnerable, and our autonomy is compromised by the lines of technologically distributed agency that intersect our will and desires.

This means, then, that the experience of the self that emerges out of this technologically enchanted milieu more resembles the porous self of the previously enchanted world than the buffered self that corresponded to disenchanted modernity. This is the key point at the end of this line of thought: a technologically enchanted world is inhospitable to the characteristically modern self. Postmodernity, then, at least the postmodern experience of the self, may be understood as an effect of our technological milieu.

“We are as gods,” Stewart Brand famously declared, “and might as well get good at it.” I suspect, though, that while the technologically enchanted world may tempt us with that possibility, most will experience it in a decidedly more creaturely and thus precarious mode. And not unlike the previous age of enchantment, our age will yield its own forms of serfdom, its own clerical class whose esoteric knowledge we turn to navigate the promise and perils of enchantment, and its own eschatological hope.

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Creatures of Technological Habit

Sometimes the most obvious realities are those that slip just below our awareness of things, blending into the background of lived experience, surreptitiously shaping and forming our assumptions, intentions, and actions. These realities are in a sense too big to notice, or better, too pervasive to notice. Their very ordinariness renders them ordinarily invisible.

When we think and talk about technology, particularly digital technologies or the Internet, we tend not to think very much about our bodies. In fact, digital technologies have inspired dreams (or, nightmares) of disembodied existence and uploaded consciousness. Even if we are not quite entertaining the possibility of digital immortality, we do tend to talk about digital technology in language that obscures the body’s presence. The Cloud, the Information Age, virtual reality — each of these terms, and others beside, suggest something ethereal and abstract. In any case, they certainly do not invite us to notice the role our bodies may play in the digital order of things.

The scholars associated with the website Cyborgology have coined the phrase digital dualism to describe the tendency to abstract the virtual world of bits and data from the “real” world of atoms and stuff when we talk and think about the Internet. I’m sympathetic to their critique of digital dualism. There are different kinds of realities at play, each with their own distinguishing characteristics, but one is not less real than the other and each affects the other in very real ways. Simply put, there is only one reality with digital and material dimensions always informing one another.

But dualisms can be hard to overcome. We like to think in oppositional pairs or binaries. Interestingly, like many of our habits of thought, this may in part be linked to our experience of moving about as bodies in physical space. The world presents itself to us as either here or there, near or far, up or down. As we move about, we are faced with a choice between left and right, backward and forward. And so it may be that digital dualism is built upon a much earlier and more venerable dualism — the old fashioned mind/body variety usually associated with Descartes.

But, consider the following for a moment:

When we update our status on Facebook, we are doing something with our body.

When we send out a tweet, we are doing something with our body.

When we take a picture with our phones, we are doing something with our body.

When we enter and send a text, we are doing something with our body.

When we search the Internet, we are doing something with our body.

And on and on it goes. Our bodies are the one intractable fact that we cannot escape. The body is the ground of being. And I say this while not adhering to philosophical materialism. We may be more than our bodies, but we are certainly not less than our bodies. But we really need not get caught up in metaphysical debates here. What I’m talking about is tangible, not unlike Samuel Johnson’s stone.

Dancers, athletes, craftsmen, and members of liturgical religious communities have an intuitive grasp of the body’s often unnoticed but pervasive influence on the conduct of our everyday lives. Let me illustrate with a personal anecdote or two from the realm of athletics.

A few days ago, when I was getting ready to go running I asked my wife to toss me a shoe that was just out of reach. She did, and without thinking about it, as the shoe was coming toward me, I “trapped” it with my foot using the same gesture I would’ve used to trap a soccer ball. Now it has been a very long time since I’ve played soccer, but that gesture materialized without any conscious thought on my part. It was instinctively activated from a repertoire of possible techniques that my body knew and deployed without my conscious reflection. It became a part of this repertoire by being repeated until it became habitual.

When I played baseball I was a catcher. To this day, some years since I’ve actually caught a game, if I crouch I can feel all sorts of latent bodily “I-cans” coiling up. I can feel the movements of the arm and wrist used to receive a pitch. I can feel exactly what to do if a ball comes in the dirt or if runner breaks for second. These movements are inscribed in me as a form of bodily, non-theoretical know-how. I am told that the experience of professional dancers is similar as is that of craftsmen who have honed an intuitive feel for their work in whatever their medium of specialization. The craftsmen is an especially apt example for our purposes for the way in which tools are implicated in the craftsman’s bodily skill. Finally, consider also the religious believer shaped by a liturgy. For example, the Catholic who crosses themselves reflexively at appropriate moments.

All of this reflects what Henri Bergson called “habit memory.” The temptation may be to minimize this form of memory when compared to our explicit memory of people, events, images, etc. But, returning to my example above, I remember less and less of my soccer games in that sense, while I will never forget how to trap a soccer ball (even if my ability to actually do so wanes significantly over time).

Our ordinary experience in the world is constantly mediated by this kind of embodied, not quite conscious “know-how.” The preeminent philosopher of the body, Merleau-Ponty, called it coping. Hubert Dreyfus, building on Merleau-Ponty, has called it “intelligence without representation.” It is the way in which we are constantly and non-consciously fine-tuning our movements and actions so as to find the best “grip” on reality as we experience it.

Charles Taylor offers this illustration of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of coping, or how we make our way about the world:

“Living with things involves a certain kind of understanding, which we might also call ‘pre-understanding.’ That is, things figure for us in their meaning or relevance for our purposes, desires, activities. As I navigate my way along the path up the hill, my mind totally absorbed anticipating the difficult conversation I’m going to have at my destination, I treat the different features of the terrain as obstacles, supports, openings, invitations to tread more warily or run freely, and so on. Even when I’m not thinking of them, these things have those relevances for me; I know my way about among them.”

The best way to become aware of this dimension of our experience is to think about the moments when it breaks down. My favorite example of this is the Empty Milk Jug Effect. When you pick up an empty milk jug that you think is full, you’re caught off guard; you experience a palpable rupture between non-conscious, embodied judgments and the feedback flowing back through the embodied instantiation of those judgments. The point is that without consciously thinking about it, your body had adjusted itself to find “optimal grip” based on habit memory and when those adjustments proved inadequate you get that sudden sensation of applying way too much force. But what we need to consider is how infrequently this happens. Most of the time our bodies, the world, and our non-conscious thought processes are more or less in sync.

One more example to bring it closer to the realm of digital technology. Since I’ve become habituated to the use of my MacBook, I have an odd experience every once and awhile. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m willing to bet it’s not. When opening a new window or tab I often begin scrolling with my fingers on the track pad simultaneously with the loading of the page. There are times, however, when there is a slight delay in the opening of the page and I experience a momentary visual disorientation as my eyes move to track with a page that isn’t moving as it should given my habit memory associated with my fingers scrolling on the track pad.

Now at one level this may seem insignificant, but it functions like the tip of an iceberg. It’s a momentary awareness of an immense but ordinarily veiled reality that structures the whole of our experience. (I could be talked down from the scope of that last statement, but I’ll let it stand for now.)

Taylor added that “our grasp of things is not something that is in us, over against the world; it lies in the way we are in contact with the world.” And this brings us to the point: we are in contact with the world through our tools. Our tools, our bodies, our brains, and the world form a circuit of pre-understanding, perception, thinking, and action. A large portion of this circuit is composed of non-conscious habit-memory, and some of that habit-memory is formed through our technologically mediated engagement with the world. The way we use our tools can form habits that sink below the level of consciousness and thereby become part of the pre-understanging through which we navigate experience. And this happens because we use our technologies with our bodies and repeated bodily actions turn into our habit-memory.

We casually (with a nervous laughter) speak of being addicted to the Internet or to Facebook or of panicking when we forget our cell phones. We feel a certain compulsion, but we tend to psychologize this compulsion, that is we render it a mental or emotion disposition. And so it may be, in part. But the compulsions of technology may be less in the mind than in the body. Or better yet, they are anchored in the mind through the body.

Moreover, because our technologies enter into the circuit comprising our engagement with the world, they change the nature of our experience. As we navigate the world, our pre-understanding does not merely recognize objects in themselves within our field of experience. Rather, we perceive objects as they are for-us and how they figure in whatever activity we are engaged in. Our tools then shape how things and experiences appear to be for-us. Having hammer in hand changes how things present themselves; it opens up new possibilities for action that were not present before. For the person with a smartphone, their grasp of things lies in all of the ways the smartphone enables contact with the world. Repeated, embodied activation of these possibilities form habit memories that are then sedimented into the pre-understandings we bring to bear upon experience.

We have formed countless habit memories with our digital technologies, especially as they have become increasingly portable and handheld. We instinctively relate to the world through the capacities and capabilities that we have learned through the embodied use of our tools.


Two related posts:

Technology, Habit, and Being in the World 

Technology Use and the Body