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.

And:

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.

Further:

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.

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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The Consolations of a Technologically Re-enchanted World

Navneet Alang writes about digital culture with a rare combination of insight and eloquence. In a characteristically humane meditation on the perennial longings expressed by our use of social media and digital devices, Alang recounts a brief exchange he found himself having with Alexa, the AI assistant that accompanies Amazon Echo.

Alang had asked Alexa about the weather while he was traveling in an unfamiliar city. Alexa alerted him of the forecasted rain, and, without knowing why exactly, Alang thanked the device. “No problem,” Alexa replied.

It was Alang’s subsequent reflection on that exchange that I found especially interesting:

In retrospect, I had what was a very strange reaction: a little jolt of pleasure. Perhaps it was because I had mostly spent those two weeks alone, but Alexa’s response was close enough to the outline of human communication to elicit a feeling of relief in me. For a moment, I felt a little less lonely.

From there, Alang considers apps which allow users to anonymously publish their secrets to the world or to the void–who can tell–and little-used social media sites on which users compose surprisingly revealing messages seemingly directed at no one in particular. A reminder that, as Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has noted, “Confession, once rooted in religious practice, has assumed a secular importance that can be difficult to describe.”

Part of what makes the effort to understand technology so fascinating and challenging is that we are not, finally, trying to understand discreet artifacts or even expansive systems; what we are really trying to understand is the human condition, alternatively and sometimes simultaneously expressed, constituted, and frustrated by our use of all that we call technology.

As Alang notes near the end of his essay, “what digital technologies do best, to our benefit and detriment, is to act as a canvas for our desires.” And, in his discussion, social media and confessional apps express “a wish to be seen, to be heard, to be apprehended as nothing less than who we imagine ourselves to be.” In the most striking paragraph of the piece, Alang expands on this point:

“Perhaps, then, that Instagram shot or confessional tweet isn’t always meant to evoke some mythical, pretend version of ourselves, but instead seeks to invoke the imagined perfect audience—the non-existent people who will see us exactly as we want to be seen. We are not curating an ideal self, but rather, an ideal Other, a fantasy in which our struggle to become ourselves is met with the utmost empathy.”

This strikes me as being rather near the mark. We might also consider the possibility that we seek this ideal Other precisely so that we might receive back from it a more coherent version of ourselves. The empathetic Other who comes to know me may then tell me what I need to know about myself. A trajectory begins to come into focus taking up both the confessional booth and the therapist’s office. Perhaps this presses the point too far, I don’t know. It is, in any case, a promise implicit in the rhetoric of Big Data, that it is the Other that knows us better than we know ourselves. If, to borrow St. Augustine’s formulation, we have become a question to ourselves, then the purveyors of Big Data proffer to us the answer.

It also strikes me that the yearning Alang describes, in another era, would have been understood chiefly as a deeply religious longing. We may see it as fantasy, or, as C.S. Lewis once put it, we may see it as “the truest index of our real situation.”

Interestingly, the paragraph from which that line is taken may bring us back to where we started: with Alang deriving a “little jolt of pleasure” from his exchange with Alexa. `Here is the rest of it:

“Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.”

For some time now, I’ve entertained the idea that the combination of technologies that promises to animate our mute and unresponsive material environment–think Internet of Things, autonomous machines, augmented reality, AI–entice us with a re-enchanted world: the human-built world, technologically enchanted. Which is to say a material world that flatters us by appearing to be responsive to our wishes and desires, even speaking to us when spoken to–in short, noting us and thereby marginally assuaging the loneliness for which our social media posts are just another sort of therapy.