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.

The Enchanted World We Might Learn to See

In The Enchantment of Modern Life, Jane Bennett challenges the received wisdom regarding the disenchantment of modernity. She questions “whether the very characterization of the world as disenchanted ignores and then discourages affective attachment to the world.” “The question is important,” she adds, “because the mood of enchantment may be valuable for ethical life.”

I’m reading Bennett as part of my ongoing interest in the story we tell about disenchanted modernity and my hunch that we are, in fact, not so much disenchanted as differently enchanted: technologically enchanted.

Bennett believes that “the contemporary world retains the power to enchant humans and that humans can cultivate themselves so as to experience more of that effect.” “To be enchanted,” she suggests, “is to be struck and shaken by the extraordinary that lives amid the familiar and everyday.” She also relates enchantment to “moments of joy,” a joy that can “propel ethics.”

Bennet goes on to explain that enchantment, in her view, “entails a state of wonder, and one of the distinctions of this state is the temporary suspension of chronological time and bodily movement.” She further describes this experience by likening it to what Philip Fisher, in Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences, called moments of “pure presence.”

“The moment of pure presence within wonder,” Fisher wrote,

“lies in the object’s difference and uniqueness being so striking to the mind that it does not remind us of anything and we find ourselves delaying in its presence for a time in which the mind does not move on by association to something else.”

Thoughts and body are “brought to rest,” Bennett elaborates,

even as the sense continue to operate, indeed, in high gear. You notice new colors, discern details previously ignored, hear extraordinary sounds, as familiar landscapes of sense sharpen and intensify. The world comes alive as a collection of singularities. Enchantment includes, then, a condition of exhilaration or acute sensory activity. To be simultaneously transfixed in wonder and transported by sense, to be both caught up and carried away—enchantment is marked by this odd combination of somatic effects.

I’m not yet sure what to make of Bennett’s overall thesis and I’m not sure how it will relate to the questions in which I’m most interested, but I found this early discussion of enchantment/wonder poignant.

I do believe the world has something to offer us. How we understand that something is, of course, a contentious matter, but let us assume for a moment that the world offers something of value if only we are able to properly attend to it. The problem, it seems to me, is that we do not, in fact, ordinarily attend to the world very well.

There are certainly a variety of reasons for this state of affairs. Among Bennett’s more intriguing propositions is that buying into disenchantment talk becomes something like a self-fulfilling prophecy. This seems plausible enough. If we are talking about a peculiar kind of seeing (or hearing, etc.) and if this seeing requires a peculiar kind of attentiveness, then it makes sense that we wouldn’t bother with the attentiveness if we didn’t think there was anything to see.

I’ve suggested before that angst about digital distraction will not amount to much if we don’t also consider what, in fact, we ought to direct our attention toward. We should not, however, think about attention merely as a faculty that we discipline so that we might purposefully direct it. We do not, after all, always know what it is that we should be looking for. Somehow, then, attention must involve not only purposeful directedness, but also a purposeful openness or receptivity. In truth, it’s a matter of becoming a certain kind of person, and, as Bennett hopefully suggests, it may be possible to “cultivate” ourselves in order to do so.

Not surprisingly, I’m less than sanguine about how digital tools tend to enter into this work. It is abundantly clear that the devices, services, platforms, and apps that structure so much of our experience are more likely to erode the sort of attentiveness that Bennett and Fisher have in mind than they are to sustain and encourage it. In fact, it is increasingly clear that they were consciously designed to divide and conquer our attention with consequences that spill out into the whole of our experience.

“Enchantment is something that we encounter, that hits us,” Bennett writes, “but it is also a comportment that can be fostered through deliberate strategies.” Among those strategies, Bennett mentions three: (1) giving greater expression to the sense of play, (2) honing sensory receptivity to the marvelous specificity of things, and (3) resisting the story of the disenchantment of modernity.

We would do well to add a fourth: recovering the virtue of temperance, particularly with regard to our use of digital media.

Whether or not we speak of it as enchantment, the world before us, though it often appears cruel and bleak, nonetheless offers beauty, wonder, and joy to those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Among all that we might resolve to do and to be in the year ahead, it seems to me that we could do far worse than resolve to be better stewards of our attention, a precious resource that, well-tended, can yield sometimes modest, sometimes deeply meaningful rewards.

Notes Toward An Understanding of Our Technologically Enchanted World, 2

An entry in a series. The following excerpts are taken from the Introduction to Peter Dews 1995 collection of essays, The Limits of Disenchantment: Essays on Contemporary European Philosophy (Verso). 

Dews opens with a passage from Niezsche critiquing Wagner for his Hegelianism, for “inventing a style charged with ‘infinite meaning'” and rendering music as “idea.”

Nietzsche’s virtuoso attack on Wagner’s music for its portentous depths and sham reconciliations … marks the emergence of a distinctly modernist sensibility. For this new outlook, philosophical and aesthetic attempts to restore meaning to a disenchanted universe are in deep collusion with what they seem to oppose.


Astutely, Nietzsche suggests that “transposed into hugeness, Wagner does not seem to have been interested in any problems except those which now occupy the little decadents in Paris. Always five steps from the hospital. All of them entirely modern, entirely metropolitan problems.”

Dews here describes trauma of disenchantment and its shock waves:

Since the time of Nietzsche’s polemics, this suspicion of depth and meaning–of any mode of significance which cannot be relativized to a specific practice, framework or perspective–has recurred throughout twentieth-century art and philosophy. One might have thought that the disenchantment of the world classically described by Max Weber, the collapse of belief in a cosmic order whose immanent meaning guides human endeavor, would constitute a cultural trauma of such magnitude that philosophy could do little other than struggle to come to terms with it–indeed, the shock waves of this collapse have reverberated throughout nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinking.


Other recent thinkers have been intolerant of even this residual soft-heartedness [speaking of Rorty’s assumption that we can “take seriously meanings which we know we have created”]. They have considered it their job to track down and eradicate those last traces of meaning which adhere to the human world, to dissolve any supposedly intrinsic significance of lived experience into an effect of impersonal structures and forces. The impulse here is still Promethean: for meaning, as Adorno emphasized, implies givenness–it is something we encounter and experience, not something we can arbitrarily posit, as Rorty and others too quickly assume. And this very givenness seems often to be regarded as an affront to human powers of self-assertion.”

This last point is worth considering at length. It speaks to the relationship between a distinctly modern understanding of the self–Promethean, autonomous, unbounded–and its relationship to disenchantment. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, technology, that is our tools of Promethean self-assertion, have more recently begun to appear as threats to the modern conception of the self as autonomous and unbounded, yielding a technologically induced post-modern condition.

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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Notes Toward Understanding Our Technologically Enchanted World

Three years ago, reflecting on developments in the realm of “smart” technology, I suggested that it might be best to understand modernity not as a disenchanted realm but rather as an alternatively enchanted realm. I’ve continued to think on and off about this claim since then, and I remain convinced of its usefulness. I’ll be posting about it occasionally in the coming weeks, sometimes just to present a few relevant excerpts or notes on the topic. Below are some selections from Lee Worth Bailey’s The Enchantments of Technology. Bailey develops the idea of enchantment in a way that is useful, although I’ll ultimately take the term in slightly different directions. For Bailey, technologies are enchanted insomuch as they cannot be understood apart from acknowledged and unacknowledged human desires, passions, aspirations, etc.

“Enchantments,” in Bailey’s understanding, “are common, ever-present factors of consciousness, whether mild or strong, denied or obvious, positive or negative.” He goes on to add, “Enchantments introduce certain meanings into cultural life that take on a serious, rational tone but have a deep undercurrent of emotional and imaginative power.”

“Just below the surface, apparently ‘pure’ rationality is in bed with enchantments.”

“When we examine enchantments we go deeper still, into the unconscious depths that shape our motives, values, and decisions in the dark basement of the soul. Then we see that our machinery is not only a utilitarian necessity, or an autonomous realm of deterministic forces, but rather enchanted technologies designed to slake our endless thirst for speed, comfort, pleasure, power, and even transcendence.”

Max Weber, quoted by Bailey: “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm or mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relation.” Note that Weber does not here characterize disenchantment merely as a matter of subtraction or deletion. Rather, it is a matter of retreat or migration, specifically out of the public realm into varieties private experience.

Apparent disenchantment “is a strong surface phenomenon, and many valuable benefits have come out of it. But underneath surges a vast sea of unacknowledged, influential desires, passions, and quests for spirituality.”

“Technology does not inhabit a neutral world of pure space, time, causation, and reason. Rather, technology’s lifeworld is imbued with imagination, purpose, ethics, motivation, and meaning.”

“How many soldiers using gunpowder against opponents with spears resisted the desire to feel absolutely powerful?”

Next in the series: Technological Enchantments and the End of Modernity and Notes Toward An Understanding of Our Technologically Enchanted World, 2.

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