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.