Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

on the myth of disenchantment

I just wrapped up my course on The History of Disenchantment and one of the interesting elements of the class – well, interesting to me, anyway, but I think also to most of my students – involved the ways that Jason Josephson-Storm’s The Myth of Disenchantment challenges the big narrative of Taylor’s A Secular Age.

Taylor’s argument, radically condensed, is that the early modern era in the West inaugurated the construction of the Modern Moral Order: an order in which (a) spirits do not populate the world and therefore cannot be directed and need not be propitiated; (b) magic is impossible; (c) God exists but is not directly involved with the world He made, which runs along on its own power; and (d) God expects everyone to meet His moral standards. In such an environment, which is not created all at once but over a period of centuries, human beings are no longer “porous” but rather “buffered” selves who dwell within a “disciplinary society” that produces good citizens of a disenchanted order.

From this account – which is of course, in its large outlines, not unique to Taylor, though he adds some unique elements – Josephson-Storm (hereafter JJS) dissents.

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. Attempts to suppress magic have historically failed more often than they’ve succeeded. It is unclear to me that science necessarily deanimates nature. In fact, I will argue à la Bruno Latour that we have never been disenchanted.

JJS believes, rather, that secularization, far from extinguishing enchantment, promotes and encourages and in a sense creates it. Even when the Christian God is excluded from socially acceptable belief, spirits come to take His place. Thus, “In the face of things like [Marie] Curie’s scientific séances, spiritualist revivals, and the modern resurgence of magical orders like the Golden Dawn, how did we get the idea that modernity meant disenchantment in the first place?” The Myth of Disenchantment is a fascinating and illuminating book, but I’m not sure that it successfully makes its case; I think Taylor’s argument largely survives JJS’s critique.

The first point I want to note in this context is that JJS makes a subtle and unacknowledged but important shift in the terms of his argument. Early in the book he cites a series of studies that show the persistence of beliefs in spirits, ghosts, and a wide range of paranormal phenomena. This lays the groundwork for his claim that “we have never been disenchanted.” But then the rest of the book focuses exclusively on intellectuals: philosophers, physicists, historians, social scientists, plus the odd quasi-intellectual like Madame Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley.

One consequence of this shift of attention is that it allows JJS to ignore enchantments or re-enchantments that had no popularity among intellectuals: thus the Order of the Golden Dawn gets discussed but not Pentecostalism, which is by any sociological measure infinitely more important and influential than the Golden Dawn. More generally, the whole vast history of Christian (and for that matter Jewish) renewal movements over the past four hundred years plays no role here. It seems to me that JJS ought at least to tip his hat to them.

That said, such movements need play no major role in his story, because that story is not about Everyone, but rather primarily about those figures — from Bacon and Descartes to Madame Curie and Theodor Adorno — who are thought to be representatives of a disenchanted cosmos, or who thought themselves to be, or both. That is, the story JJS tells is of enchantment and re-enchantment appearing where they are least expected. And he tells it well.

But even so, not wholly convincingly. I do not have time or leisure to develop this argument at the length it deserves, but it seems to me that what we see in episodes like Madame Curie’s interest in séances, or Max Müller’s endorsement of mysticism, or James Frazer’s speculations about some realm of knowledge that lies beyond science as we now know it, is not the persistence of an enchanted cosmos or the renewal of one. Rather, I think what we see is a group of people dwelling day-by-day and hour-by-hour fully within Taylor’s MMO who occasionally peer over the fence at goings-on among the naive, credulous, and superstitious.

The spirit, I think, is at its strongest the “wishing it might be so” of Hardy’s “The Oxen,”, and more often appears as a kind of brief mental vacation from a disenchanted world of buffered selves, from Weber’s “iron cage of rationality” — the sort of impulse that made Darwin so delighted by sentimental novels:

Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did. On the other hand, novels which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily—against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all the better.

One might also cite the great affection of so many hard-core materialists for fantasy and superhero stories. In contrast to JJS, I would contend that this kind of thing does not mean that “we have never been disenchanted,” but that we have, and sometimes we hate it.

(There is so much more to be said about this fascinating book, to which I have scarcely done justice here — maybe I can return to it later.)

3 comments:

  • Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    I like much of what you have to say, but I wanted to provide three small points of clarification.

    First, I shift from popular to intellectual sources because there are already good histories of popular belief in spiritualism, pentecostalism, and the like. But intellectuals are usually supposed to be the exception (and scholars of disenchantment are if anything supposed to be the most extreme exceptions). So that is why I focus on them in the book to show that they were part of popular cultural trends. I try and make that clear but only briefly. Still I cite some of that scholarship in the notes (e.g. p.323-324). But you are right I could have gone into more detail about that.

    Second, I wanted to make my engagement with Taylor a bigger part of the book. But it was one of the things lost on the cutting room floor (as they say). But I may publish (or blog) those thoughts independently soon. In brief, I agree with Taylor about some things, but I also have numerous disagreements with him (I signal a few in the book). Most centrally I reject his notion of the buffered self. But it is a fair critique insofar as I want to be clearer about my relationship to Taylor. This is something I’m hoping to address soon.

    Third, I read Madame Curie, Müller and so on differently than you. I think the evidence is clear that they were exploring in various forms of enchantment, not merely cataloging the beliefs of others. I think what you call “the hate for disenchantment” actually does produce enchantment. But again this may be definitional.

    All that said, I want to thank you again for your thoughtful comments and for reading and teaching my book!

  • Thanks for these thoughts, JJS! (We all ended up calling you JJS because I discovered that I struggled to pronounce the sequence of phonemes “Josephson-Storm.”) I should have been more cleat that the emphasis on Taylor in my post reflects the fact that we began our class with Taylor and then spent the rest of the term deciding whether his narrative holds up in light of certain fictional explorations of these themes and of your own revisionist account of them. So that’s really about my course design rather than about your argument. I have some further thoughts about your account of the Curies etc. that I will save for another post. Thanks for writing such a fascinating book!

  • Sounds like a fascinating course. I would scarcely have been prepared for it as an undergrad. The two competing narratives here sound too much like package deals to me: all or nothing. Even if they’re aimed instead at the Zeitgeist and use influential scientists, philosophers, and so-called thought leaders as exemplars, I still have doubts that broad cultural movements toward and away from enchantment (and then back again, especially in times of stress and uncertainty) form a compelling, unidirectional trend line.

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