Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, May 12, 2018

more on disenchantment

A follow-up to this post

In the Introduction to The Myth of Disenchantment, Jason Josephson-Storm writes: 

For three years, starting in 1905, some of France’s most famous scientists had assembled in apartments and laboratories in Paris to study this particular Italian spirit medium — Eusapia Palladino. In addition to the Curies, others often in attendance were the celebrated physiologist Jacques-Arsène d’Arsonval, the eminent psychiatrist Gilbert Ballet, the aristocratic doctor Count Arnaud de Gramont, and three future Nobel Prize winners — the physicist Jean Baptiste Perrin, the physiologist Charles Richet, and the philosopher Henri Bergson. The French were not the only ones interested in Eusapia; from 1872 until her death in 1918, her powers were tested by teams of researchers in England, Italy, Poland, Germany, Russia, and the United States. The paranormal researchers who investigated Eusapia were not marginal eccentrics, but the cutting edge of the period’s academic establishment. Yet these researchers were exploring areas that were often marked out by their contemporaries as occult, if not downright magical. They did so not as a legacy of medieval “superstitions,” nor generally as a way to overturn science, but rather as a means to extend its borders….

In one of the last letters before his death (addressed to Louis Georges Gouy, April 14, 1906), Pierre Curie remarked, “We have had several more séances with the medium Eusapia Palladino (we already had sessions with her last summer). The result is that these phenomena really exist and it is no longer possible for me doubt them. It is incredible but it is so; and it is impossible to deny it after the sessions, which we performed under perfectly controlled conditions.” He added: “In my opinion, there is here a whole domain of completely new facts and physical states of space about which we have had no conception.” 

JJS, commenting on this exemplary scene, continues, 

I challenge one conventional notion of modernity and suggest that we should be less surprised than we usually are to find scientists of all stripes keeping company with magicians; that reason does not eliminate “superstition” but piggybacks upon it; that mechanism often produces vitalism; and that often, in a single room, we can find both séance and science. The single most familiar story in the history of science is the tale of disenchantment — of magic’s exit from the henceforth law-governed world. I am here to tell you that as broad cultural history, this narrative is wrong.

Now, JJS knows far more about all this than I do, so you should my quibbles with several large grains of salt, but the story of the Curies looks different to me than it does to JJS. It seems to me that the Curies — and many like them — seek to bring the manifestations of spiritualism within the disenchanted order, under the disciplinary control of what Bruno Latour calls the “modern constitution.” Thus Pierre Curie’s emphasis on observing Eusapia under “perfectly controlled conditions”: all supposedly paranormal phenomena must justify themselves at the bar of the scientific method, and if they do, then they are no longer paranormal — they’re just normal. And in that way we do see what JJS calls “extending the borders” of science, but not in a way that restores enchantment. Rather, the modern constitution, the methodological guarantee of disenchantment, remains in place. 

PSA: I’ll be traveling for the next week, so there probably won’t be any posts. 


  • Another way that secular reasoning processes enchantment of the paranormal variety is to historicize ghost stories. Reading an excellent popular work of this variety, Ghostland by Colin Dickey, I get the impression that in back of Dickey's retelling of America's ghost history is the same old boring assumption that none of this stuff is real and that we shouldn't get too far from the skeptical, emotionally intelligent and bemused perspective of your average New Yorker writer. There has to be a place of enchantment somewhere between Adam Gopnik and Charles Williams. Anybody know the way there?

  • Scientists hang with magicians because magicians know better than most how easy it is to be fooled by charlatans.

  • Where does someone like Carl Sagan fit into this narrative of enchantment and disenchantment? If we can seek to disenchant the enchanted, bringing it into the scientific order, does it also make sense to enchant the disenchanted, by using scientific fact in order to deliberately evoke a sense of awe and wonder?

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