Saturday, November 17, 2018

Modernity and Disenchantment

Art by FrodoK (Leszek Kostuj)
The discourse of modernity as disenchantment: empiricists and positivists from David Hume to Auguste Comte to James Frazer argued that knowledge is based on sensation and thus is limited to the material world, or that history progresses from the superstitions of folk and organized religions to science and to what Max Weber called the rationalization of society, that is, the triumph of instrumental reason and the organization of everything according to the ego-driven principle that the environment can and should be controlled. Thus, the bureaucratic state ascends with what Thomas Frank calls the professional class of liberal technocrats, and with the neoliberal ideology that market forces should be socially omnipotent. Once we understand that the real world is only natural, we’re free (thanks to the secular state) to learn how indifferent, natural processes work so that we might advance our interests by controlling those processes. We, too, are natural beings and so we either control ourselves or are controlled by others.

The world we experience, then, is disenchanted, which means that life has lost its charm. We who are informed about the philosophical upshot of the last few centuries of scientific discoveries or who at least live in the “modern” world created by the technological and ideological applications of science suffer from ennui, angst, apathy, depression, cynicism. This is the so-called postmodern fallout of early-modern optimism about Reason. Romantics reminded the disenchanters that nature is vastly larger than we can likely comprehend and that we yearn on the contrary to experience the world as carefree children do, gleeful and awed as they are by the mysteries that surround them. Charles Taylor argues in The Secular Age that this progress of instrumental reason doesn’t entail the subtraction of mystery and religion, after all; instead, what humanism and the separation of church and state made possible was cultural pluralism. John Grey, Erik Davis, and Yuval Harari show that secular humanism and liberalism are rooted in old theologies, religious values, or mystical aspirations, and so we have the ironic prospect of modern re-enchantment. Nietzsche was a modern prophet who called for such a return of wonder in the face of nature’s power. The psychologically and historically advanced person seeks union with mighty nature by accepting the harshness of the world’s indifference to our preferences. More recently, Josephson-Storm argues in The Myth of Disenchantment that, contrary to the Frankfurt School, for example, reason only appears to drain mystery from the world, since modern history’s champions and theorists of disenchanted reason, from Kant and Freud to Weber and Carnap were steeped in mysticism and the esoteric. 

The Charmed Life

Those are some themes of “modern enchantment,” but to understand them we need to be clear on the nature of an enchanted life. Patrick Curry clarifies the concept well in Enlightenment and Modernity, when he quotes J.R.R. Tolkien’s distinction between magic and enchantment. Magic, says Tolkien, “produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary is not an art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills.” By contrast, the “primal desire at the heart of FaĆ«rie [that is, enchantment]” is “the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.” So science grows out of magic, both being forms of instrumental reason, whereas an experience of enchantment requires an admission of powerlessness, as in the case of the audience that can’t fathom how a magic trick was pulled off. According to Curry, enchantment “partakes of a non-anthropocentric animism, or what Plumwood called ‘active intentionality’, in which subjectivity (the quality of being a subject) manifests in ways which transgress the official boundaries between human/ non-human, animate/ inanimate, as well as spiritual/ material.” Moreover,
enchantment is irredeemably wild; as such, unbiddable; and as such again, unusable. This is not at all to say enchantment has no effects, of course; they can be life-changing. But they cannot be controlled. By the same token, enchantment can be invited but not commanded. (Artists know this; the best materials, the most skilled writer, painter or musician, a stellar cast – none of this guarantees a performance that truly enchants.) In contrast to anything that can, at least apparently, be manipulated mechanically, enchantment entails not mastery but existential equality; not dictation but negotiation; not programme but discovery. It follows that any attempt at a programmatic use of enchantment necessarily converts it into something else, no matter how similar that may appear to be, and its handlers want it to be, to the original.
Because enchantment is wild, it’s associated with the wilderness or nature, although the two aren’t identical, says Curry, since we can experience wonder and enchantment in cities.

Keeping those attributes in mind, we should ask what exactly it is to experience the world as enchanted. The word “enchant” derives from the Latin for “incantation,” which means to put a spell on or to bewitch. A spell, in turn, is “a word, phrase, or form of words supposed to have magic power; charm” or “any dominating or irresistible influence; fascination.” The most important word there seems to me “charm.” As I suggested, we’re deprived of enchantment when something loses its charm for us. Charm in this sense means “a power of pleasing or attracting, as through personality or beauty.” So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Curry’s analysis of “enchantment” points to qualities that are associated as well with childhood. Children view the world as full of wonder, as alive (as opposed to being subject to a Cartesian dualism between minds and lifeless objects), and so children are enraptured by the world because everything is strange and new to them. By contrast, adults fall into routines, settled characters, and social roles and we lose our innocence and become complacent in our conceptions. Even should we encounter a novel situation, we’re quick to box it in with familiar categories rather than humbly submit to the wildness of not knowing, of suffering the implications of strangeness.

The most relevant aspect of enchantment, therefore, is the bliss of ignorance which nevertheless lends the world an air of strangeness, because to cope with the unsettling suspicion that something’s not right with beings in general, the person under enchantment projects familiar ideas onto the unknown, personifying nature to feel at home under all circumstances. This tension between ignorance-based alienation and the coping strategy of animism makes enchantment bittersweet. Children fear the unknown, as Ernest Becker explains in The Denial of Death, but they’re also easily distracted. And to feel that the world is enchanted is to recapture a child’s sense of wonder. We allow ourselves to be swept up in some experience of art or of a relationship, and we’re struck by the feeling of a mystery that’s both terrifying and fascinating, as in Rudolph Otto’s concept of the holy.

The Deeper Mystery of Demystified Nature

"Fantasy Door" by Empalu
What, then, is disenchantment? The key point isn’t just that modernity unleashes instrumental reason and drives us all to seek to maximize utility by calculating and controlling everything we encounter. That bureaucratic, utilitarian lifestyle is only a coping strategy. The deeper problem is that we’ve lost the double sense of nature’s mystery. We have the terror but not the fascination, the strangeness of the living-dead flow of godless physicality, but not the childish mental projections. We sense that the world is strange not because we’re wholly ignorant as children, but because we know enough about our smallness in the universal scheme, to have reason to doubt even our treasured convictions. We know that organic life’s advent is probably unplanned, that there’s no satisfying reason for unnecessary suffering in nature, that life proceeds largely by chance and thus is unfair, and that we all die no matter how we live, which makes our choices absurd. Moreover, we acquire abundant sour memories from everyday experience which prove that there’s no grand plan and thus that subjectivity isn’t central to nature, in spite of our personal longing to be appreciated.

To say, then, that life loses its charm is to say not just that we’re bored when oppressed by the overly-familiar, but that the terror of living in a strange, apparently godless but monstrous place comes to outweigh the attraction. The dynamic of addiction makes for a compelling example. At first, there’s the newness of some pleasurable experience, which hooks us. We try out the same drug or other source of pleasure to recapture that mood, but the iterations prove increasingly anticlimactic as we’re cursed with too many expectations, which enable us to master the experience, preventing our being once again swept up by it. When we realize we’re addicted, are only going through the motions like a machine, and are no longer thrilled by the pleasure’s novelty and rawness, we’re inflicted with “postmodern” anguish, with some cynical, dehumanizing perspective of pessimism. In short, we become intimate with some humiliating bit of foolishness in life as we “fall from grace,” to borrow the Christian expression. All habits are like addictions in that we often struggle to avoid being jaded by repetition. We form our tastes as young adults, when our neurochemistry is wild and overloaded, and no later version of the interaction can compare with what happens in that formative period. Our favourite music and movies, for example, are locked in before we have the wherewithal to realize what’s happening to us. Only years later, thanks to medical advances and our long lifespans, do we understand why art no longer compels us as it once did, why we no longer scream hysterically when in the presence of some young celebrity we used to worship. It’s not just that we’ve seen too much or that tastes have changed, but that all pleasures are addictive and thus they inevitably taper off, leaving us with the sense of absurdity, of having been used by natural or social mechanisms.  

Does modernity relieve nature of its charm? Richard Dawkins pointed out that instead of “unweaving the rainbow,” scientific knowledge always raises more questions. As a winsome salesman for the New Atheist movement, though, he’s not permitted to say why that’s so. The reason why nature paradoxically becomes necessarily more mysterious even as scientific knowledge advances is that scientific explanations are naturalistic, which entails that the universe being explained is posited as godless. Thus, every natural process or mechanism must be an abomination, an appalling monstrosity, a mindless, unplanned-for, living-dead cycling to nowhere and for nothing. Science supplies materialistic models that enable us to control nature for our benefit, and these models are poised to horrify because they depict the universe as a colossal, shockingly-counterintuitive monster. Newton or Einstein can explain gravity, for example, but only by positing brute, unexplained forces and materials (including the so-called nothingness of the quantum vacuum from which natural order arises, according to quantum mechanics and the Big Bang Theory). The completeness of scientific understanding is illusory, because at the end of technoscientific mastery is the horror that nothing that ever happens can happen for a lasting good. The greater our power over nature, the deader our sensibilities become as we’re haunted by the philosophical implications of the success of scientific objectification. To understand how the universe works and to be convinced there’s no deeper question about why the processes happen or whether they have some inherent value is still to be perturbed by the realization that that sort of universe is appalling on existential grounds. And by “existential grounds” I mean that such a universe poses a threat to our desire to continue living—if we’ve managed to develop anything like a sensitive, conscience-bound interior life.

Art by Harshita Bishta
Josephson-Storm’s discovery that modern intellectuals are often attracted to the esoteric isn’t so surprising, then, because the loss of a sense of wonder is intolerable. Disenchantment slides into re-enchantment because we cope with the letdown by seeking out idols and fresh addictions. The atheist’s search for a feeling of being part of a larger whole or for an encounter with the numinous doesn’t prove that atheism is false because we have a “God-sized hole in our heart,” as sappy Christians are wont to say. Nature’s re-enchantment through cultural interpretation is consistent with that theistic explanation, but also with the atheistic one that we prefer not to languish in a state of disenchantment. Reality may be too dire to bear and so we create an alternative reality, a fantasy world to indulge our nostalgia and to cope with our oppressive grasp of our natural insignificance. We re-enchant nature and inadvertently vindicate the ancient animists by amassing our artificial habitats (our cities and empires, worldviews and cultures).  

One way in which modernity doesn’t disenchant, however, but on the contrary deepens the universal mystery is apparent from the role of spells in enchantment. Children view the world as magical, because they don’t understand how or why most events unfold, and so they fall back on biased intuitions. The world appears ordered but the child isn’t aware of the real causality that brought that order about, and so fortunate events seem to her so many magically produced gifts of the child’s omnipotent parents (assuming the child grows up in a relatively prosperous, sheltered environment). The archetype of the spell-casting wizard stands in for causal knowledge, not just because it’s easy to appeal to mumbo jumbo to provide an illusion of understanding, but because the witch or wizard has that dual character of being both terrifying and fascinating, strange and familiar, which makes for the frisson of wonder.

However, when angels and demons, faeries and gods fled the scene as we came to excel at causal explanations, the symbol of the magical spell cast on the world to make it run became incoherent, because there was no longer room for an intelligent designer or manager of natural affairs. Nevertheless, science presupposes natural order as its explanandum, and so we have the mystery of a spell with no spell-caster. The universe somehow directs itself into being, according to modern naturalism. The mindlessness of nature’s foundations provides for a less satisfying but more mysterious call for wonder, since the absurdity of self-creation baffles even our intuitions which are so readily deployed to belittle any phenomenon by personifying it. 


  1. You know, I often wonder how people can get caught up in paper-thin conspiracy theories of some cryptocracy running the show and leaving them powerless, or how people can get caught up in equally paper-thin religions, where the foundations of the universe are different than they appear, but this gives me something to think about. There's a feeling of powerlessness, of loss of wonder, and then that is filled in with something that artificially takes them back to a childlike state (I'm not using that term in a negative way).

    I've never gone in for an -ism because music is the way I stave off ennui. Granted, as pointed out here, I found most of my favorite albums in the year when I was 14 and 15, but I still search for that perfect sound.

    1. I think most "modern" folks aren't explicitly nostalgic, yearning for a return of childhood wonder. They're too stressed and busy with work and family to think about what's missing. Instead, we suffer from ennui, as in the Arcade Fire song "Modern Man" or as in Citizen Kane (the meaning of "rosebud"). As Durkheim said, modernity entails anomie, the loss of reliable social norms, since we humanists lose faith in anything but ourselves.

      We're supposed to be confident in our rationality, self-control, and creativity, but with the death of God and the humiliation of theocracies at the hands of tangible technoscientific progress, we prefer to escape our solitude and join movements to feel larger than we are. Perhaps introverts or overbearing libertarians are the truest humanists, since they presume they're self-reliant and don't need social norms to dictate how they should live. But the problem is that godless social norms are often uninspired and championed by hypocrites. As many philosophers from Nietzsche onward have pointed out, we lack myths we can believe in, because the modern world doesn't inspire much great art.

  2. I suppose me posting what I want to say to you here may end up an embarrassment Benjamin. I'm not above it. I used your "Contact this blog's author" link a few months back and got no response. A few years ago I left an enthusiastic comment or two at this blog, with no reciprocal acknowledgment (if memory serves). I have followed your blog over the years and even enjoyed and commented on your youtube videos in earnest. My wish is for feedback and/or a minor collaboration - to be and have a friendly existential dialogue - yet what I'm met with is a seemingly impenetrable, albeit *enchanting* fortress of depersonalized thought and imagery. (Are you familiar with C.S. Lewis's evocation of Psyche and Eros' unwitnessable fortress in his final tale Till We Have Faces?) If you recognize that letting down that guard would be safe given the right circumstances, I hope you will be in touch.

    1. My apologies, Michelle. I didn't mean to shun you. I must have missed your contact form message. I just searched for it and found a message from you with a couple of links. This was from July 29. I seem to recall writing a comment on one of your blogs a while back.

      Sorry again for missing your comments. If a reader leaves a general Thumbs Up comment on my blog or on one of my videos, I may just say "Thanks" or let the comment stand for itself. Of course I appreciate the encouragement, but I almost appreciate criticisms or specific thought-provoking observations more, since they often inspire me to write better articles. Also, general positive comments on my blog can be mistaken for spam, in which case they might be accidentally deleted. I have less time now to work on my blog and videos than I used to, but I enjoy talking to my readers.

      So let's have a dialogue. I'll have to read more of your articles to get a sense of where you're coming from. Do you see some fruitful areas of disagreement between our views? If so, feel free to lay out some criticisms or your analysis of the situation, and we can go from there.

      I see that you're involved in science and philosophy, and that you may have some radical criticisms. I wonder if you read my exchanges with R. Scott Bakker on scientism.

      I haven't read that Lewis story, but upon googling it I see that it's about the importance of faith. Or are you suggesting my writing is like a depersonalized fortress of thought and imagery? I'm not sure my blog is depersonalized exactly, since I put myself into my writing. But it's true I don't usually write directly about myself. There's plenty of egoism on the internet (e.g. displaying what you had for dinner on Instagram). My writings do express my experience and my judgments, but they're also independently supported by arguments and evidence, so I'm not inclined to put myself at the forefront. If anything, my "fortress" is visible (anyone can read the blog) and I'm the invisible one.

  3. I like to say nonhuman living beings have a overdominance of primary instincts which make them absolute in their own dimensional perceptions while human beings thanks for self-awareness, discover the essence of life, the individuality, as well its real size in front of gigantic reality, and religion appeared in the down of humankind to reconnect us to this lost instinctive sensation, to be the center of itself-perceptive-world. Humans feels and know more than they want, than what they can tolerate. So, religion is the propaganda of meta-physical, of, what i call ''holystic dimension or plan'' but, in the truth, it's the regression to this lost absolute self-centerism where the world make all sense because no have reflection or doubts, even the doubt of empty.

    1. But what exactly is this lost sensation of being? I like to think of it as an appreciation of nature's aesthetic dimension. Spinoza called it the vision of deterministic eternity or the recognition of how everything has its place in the whole of the universe (in the metaphysical "substance").

      I think that's just what's forever missing. The structure of knowledge and the division between life and nonlife make for a tragic disconnect between the whole of reality and a mind or species finding itself within that whole. Thus, reality is monstrous and has negative aesthetic value. There's beauty and grandeur in nature, to be sure, but it's an alarming, appalling order, not a comforting one. Religion can indeed bring focus on these deep questions, but religion can also easily become propaganda and rationalization for political ends and unjust (animalistic) social structures.