The Trouble with Re-Enchantment
By Jason CrawfordSeptember 7, 2020
At least, the whisper goes so. Just look at the books coming off English-language presses in recent years. The first two decades of this new millennium have seen the publication of Bernard Stiegler’s The Re-Enchantment of the World, Gordon Graham’s The Re-enchantment of the World, Silvia Federici’s Re-enchanting the World, and Joshua Landy and Michael Saler’s The Re-Enchantment of the World. There’s George Levine’s Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World and James K. A. Smith’s After Modernity?: Secularity, Globalization, and the Re-Enchantment of the World. And there’s much more, because you can re-enchant much more than just the world. Other book titles from the past two decades or so include The Reenchantment of Art, The Re-Enchantment of Nature, The Re-Enchantment of Morality, The Re-Enchantment of Political Science, The Reenchantment of Nineteenth Century Fiction, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life. David Morgan and James Elkins’s essay collection about religion in contemporary art is called simply, Re-Enchantment. So is Jeffery Paine’s book about Tibetan Buddhism in the West. You get the idea. For contemporary readers, re-enchantment speaks. Presumably it sells. Just possibly it’s happening, or is about to happen, or ought to happen.
But what is re-enchantment? Certainly all our talk about this new phenomenon is a sign of the times. Look for a literature on re-enchantment pre-2000, and there isn’t much to find. Go to the Oxford English Dictionary, and there’s nothing, anywhere, on re-enchant. The word itself is still busy being born, a rumor just emerging from our cultural noise. In its immediate background are conversations — longer running and spread across a number of academic disciplines and public debates — about a phenomenon that many commentators call disenchantment.
My own gateway to these conversations was Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age, which kicked up a great deal of discussion when it appeared in 2007. I was a graduate student in my 20s at the time, trying to make sense both of Europe’s early modern crises and of the world in the years after 9/11. Taylor’s book caught my attention because it had a big story to tell about the origins and energies of modernity. In this book, Taylor uses disenchantment to name the long process by which Western culture, beginning in the 16th century, came to suppose that “the only locus of thoughts, feelings, spiritual élan is what we call minds” and that “the only minds in the cosmos are those of humans.” This process depends on what Taylor calls the “buffering” of the self, the separation of human minds from the bodies and material orders in which they are nested. In the world of buffered selves as he describes it, the material cosmos is drained of meaning and animate vitality, available to be managed by the forces of instrumental reason and technological control. The human person herself is reconceived as a mechanism to be disciplined and policed, part of a social machinery that thrives on efficiency, homogeneity, and prudent calculation. Against this world of buffered selves Taylor sets an order that has been lost, a condition that he calls enchantment. Human agents in this pre-modern order are embodied and embedded, participants in a cosmos of occult presence and intelligent life. Spiritual power is mediated through sacramental practices and sacred places. Time is liturgical, gathered up into what Taylor calls “kairotic knots.” Science is entangled with magic.
Taylor’s account of modernity touched nerves in many corners of academic and public discourse. His language of disenchantment seemed to lay bare the genealogies of our most pressing cultural crises: ecosystems ravaged by technological industry, communities fractured by tribalism and unbridled consumption, religious identities defined by cultural militancy and inquisitorial discipline. Was it possible that enchantment could answer our need for something better: for ecologies that reimagine human participation in the life of the earth, for communities that root individual identity in mutual habitation, or for theologies that make space for the mystery of divine presence in the material world?
As I waded into this question, I learned that plenty of other writers were telling stories about modern disenchantment. In the decade or so before Taylor’s book appeared, there were Gilbert Germain’s A Discourse on Disenchantment, George Ritzer’s Enchanting a Disenchanted World, Jane Bennett’s The Enchantment of Modern Life, and the English-language version of Marcel Gauchet’s The Disenchantment of the World. There was the work of Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, and José Casanova on global religion, of Louis Dupré, Michael Allen Gillespie, and Alexandra Walsham on the late medieval and early modern genealogies of disenchantment. A few years after A Secular Age came the revisionist efforts of Jason Josephson-Storm’s The Myth of Disenchantment, Akeel Bilgrami’s Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment, and James Simpson’s Permanent Revolution. These writings and writers are widely diverse, but they represent something like a collective effort, loosely gathered around a common set of metaphors and texts. They all reckon with a Western modernity that increasingly seems parochial and fragile, astonishing in its possibilities but also entangled with histories of violence and ideologies of domination.
But the language of enchantment and disenchantment has its own history and its own ideological baggage. This history is as old as the first emergence of cultural modernity, and it continues to shape our conversations about modernity and its discontents, as some of the writers I’ve named here have done much to show. How can reflecting on the metaphor of disenchantment help us understand our current rumors of re-enchantment? Just what do these rumors prophesy or perceive? And in what ways is our search for re-enchantment determined, and constrained, by the very language in which we tend to frame it?
Everyone who writes about disenchantment is aware of writing in the shadow of Max Weber. It was Weber who described the intellectual and cultural projects of post-Reformation Europe as expressions of the Entzauberung der Welt. Here he is in his 1917 lecture “Science as Vocation”:
The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the Entzauberung der Welt. Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations. (translated by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills)
Die Entzauberung der Welt: “the unmagicking of the world.” Weber in his later writings returned to this phrase again and again. His first English translators tended to render it as “the elimination of magic from the world,” and this translation captures well enough (if not very memorably) the plain sense of Weber’s formulation, with its narrow emphasis on magic and its simple structure of negation.
But most English readers have come to know this phrase as “the disenchantment of the world” — and “disenchantment,” as a translation of Entzauberung, is a bit of a stretch. Since the 19th century, the English word “disenchantment” has, after all, signified not just an elimination of magic but a state of weariness, of entrenched disappointment, of experience against innocence. (George Eliot puts this meaning in play when in Daniel Deronda she diagnoses Gwendolen Harleth’s “general disenchantment with the world,” as does Charles Dickens when in Nicholas Nickleby he describes Mr. Lillyvick as “a crest-fallen, dispirited, disenchanted man.”) And “enchantment,” since the late 17th century, has likewise indicated not just a magic incantation but a state of innocence against experience, of delighted wonder, of rapture touched with eros. Both forms of the word come loaded with affective freight. Much more than Entzauberung, they concern themselves with the experiences of thinking, feeling persons.
This affective freight, though, might be just the thing that has made the disenchantment of the world so resonant as a rendering of Weber’s famous phrase. To read modernity as disenchantment is to activate the narrative of loss latent in the English usage of this word. If enchantment is dreaming or innocence, disenchantment is waking up or growing up. It is a time after, just as maturity is a time after naïveté, and just as modernity is a time after illusion, after tradition, after antiquity: a “ruthless forgetting,” as Paul de Man called it, of a receding history. The language of disenchantment therefore captures Weber’s own association of modernity with weariness and melancholia, the condition of being “tired of life.” The word disenchantment has, since Weber, come to indicate a condition of historical lateness; a bondage to technologies and ideologies that reduce, exploit, and exhaust; a peculiarly modern form of intellectualized, bureaucratized despair. It’s no surprise, perhaps, that the disenchantment of the world has become for so many contemporary writers something like an icon of the modern, a compression of Weber’s whole grand narrative into a single, complexly resonant phrase.
It’s also unsurprising that the re-enchantment of the world has become an icon of the postmodern, framed by narratives of loss and recovery. Most of the writers I’ve named above use the phrase with constructive and prophetic purpose. Re-enchantment, for them, is a project to be dreamed up and fought for by those who want, as Thomas Moore writes in The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, “a way out of the black-and-white world of disenchantment.” James K. A. Smith (After Modernity?: Secularity, Globalization, and the Re-Enchantment of the World) tries to imagine “an account of the world that is enchanted but not magical — in short, the world as creation.” Joshua Landy and Michael Saler (The Re-Enchantment of the World) seek “fully secular and deliberate strategies for re-enchantment. […] offering fully secularized subjects an affirmation of existence that does not come at the cost of naïveté, irrationalism, or hypocrisy.” Jane Bennett (The Enchantment of Modern Life) wants to convince the inhabitants of late modernity that “one must be enamored with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it in order to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others,” and she wants to insist “both that the contemporary world retains the power to enchant humans and that humans can cultivate themselves so as to experience more of that effect.” These writers intuit in various ways that cultivating renewed forms of something called “enchantment” can help us to cultivate renewed forms of ecological habitation, of sacramental communion, of epistemic humility and wonder, of ethical attachment and care.
Sounds promising. I, for one, wouldn’t need much persuading to enlist. Start reading into the literature on re-enchantment, though, and strange problems come into view. Right away one notices how eager our contemporary writers are to identify all the things we are not asking for when we ask for re-enchantment. Look again at James K. A. Smith’s call for “an account of the world that is enchanted but not magical,” or Joshua Landy and Michael Saler’s call for an enchantment “that does not come at the cost of naïveté, irrationalism, or hypocrisy.” These sorts of exclusions abound in the literature; we’ll have our enchantment without the magic, please, and without too much atavistic instinct or childlike innocence. Even Thomas Moore, who urges that one strategy for re-enchantment “is to refuse to leave Eden” and who looks for guidance both to “serious Western philosophical magicians” and to “my children, who are experts in enchantment,” is at pains to clarify that he doesn’t mean to champion “naive understandings of the physical world that we have surpassed with our science.” We’ll have our enchantment without the superstition, too, and without the scientific ignorance that characterizes the cosmological outlooks of actual children or of people who engage in what many of us like to call “magical thinking.”
Much of this recent literature seems, in fact, to want something like re-enchantment without the enchantment. John W. McCarthy’s lecture “The Re-Enchantment of Nature as the Word and Beauty of God” doesn’t use the term enchantment anywhere outside its title. His key terms, rather, are creation, incarnation, and indwelling, and he advocates for an account of nature rooted in a Trinitarian theology of God’s active engagement with the world. Silvia Federici’s key terms in Re-enchanting the World are collective and commons, and she advocates (again without invoking the language of enchantment much at all) for more communal forms of ownership and social organization. Bernard Stiegler’s key terms in The Re-Enchantment of the World are participation, association, and individuation, and his actual interest is in alternative forms of capitalism. So it goes: the literature on enchantment seems actually to be uncomfortable talking about enchantment. Richard Harris’s The Re-Enchantment of Morality briefly invokes a line of Stevie Smith’s that worries about “diminishing good without enchantment,” but the line is clearly just a source for a good title in a book that is otherwise about the challenge of making moral choices in a decreasingly religious culture. Alister McGrath’s The Re-Enchantment of Nature reiterates a couple of times the claim that “if nature has become disenchanted, the remedy lies in its re-enchantment,” but these moments, too, have the air of justifying the title of a book which has as its actual key terms respect, appreciation, deference, and wonder. James K. A. Smith, in the introduction to his edited collection After Modernity?: Secularity, Globalization, and the Re-Enchantment of the World, reflects at length on terms such as religion, globalization, secularity, and knowledge, and David Ray Griffin, in the introduction to his edited collection The Reenchantment of Science: Postmodern Proposals, reflects on organicism, truth, and causation. Both these editors begin by nodding toward Max Weber, and both go on to gather wonderfully provocative and valuable essays around various of Weber’s key themes. Hardly any of these essays deals significantly with enchantment.
Something isn’t right. Why do the very writers who have come to proclaim the re-enchantment of the world retreat so persistently from their own metaphors of enchantment? The answer to this question lies further back than Max Weber, in a history that many accounts of cultural disenchantment don’t tell. Our language of enchantment has roots, after all, in a crucial scene of modern emergence: the Protestant Reformation. The culture wars surrounding the Reformation exemplified the traumas of early modernity, and the combatants in those wars preached, whispered, and wrote about enchantment just as often as we do now. What can the uses of this metaphor in English-language writings during that convulsive period teach us about its current uses? Was “enchantment” for early modern writers, as it is for us, a language of promise, an invitation into the graced rhythms of a flourishing, wonder-filled world?
Not exactly. If there is a base text for early modern disenchantment, it might well be found in the biblical vision of the whore of Babylon: “[F]or thy marchaunts were the grett men of the erth. And with thyne inchantment were deceaved all nacions” (Revelation 18:23). That’s Tyndale’s translation, published in 1526. In the hands of Protestant reformers, this passage was electric with provocative energy. The reformers suspected, after all, that the great whore was the Roman church, and that her enchantment was the very power against which they had taken up arms. The early reformer John Bale, who built an enormous apocalyptic commentary around this interpretation, is typical — almost archetypical — in the language of his gloss on this passage:
Yea, and wyth thy prevye legardimain, with the juglinge castes, with the craftes, & inchauntmentes of thy subtyle charmers were all nacions of the worlde deceyved. Wyth lyes in hipocrisye were the great governours most miserable blinded, and with errours in supersticion the common people seduced.
Bale’s commentary first appeared in the 1540s, and even in this short passage it lays down the lexicon of much early modern anti-Roman polemic: craft, error, juggling, deceit, lies, subtlety, hypocrisy, superstition, seduction — this is the stuff of which Popish enchantment is made. The thing to notice about this passage is that Bale reads enchantment as a form of abuse. Here nations are deceived, governors blinded, entire populations seduced, by a powerful practitioner of dangerous crafts. Where the Biblical text emphasizes the whore’s global reach — a reach extending to what Tyndale renders accurately enough as “all nations” — Bale throws much of his emphasis on the victims of enchantment, and on what he calls the “common people,” a people vulnerable, violated, and inert.
Plenty of early modern writers followed suit. John Foxe, in the 1563 edition of his hugely influential Acts and Monuments (popularly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs), described an English people “turned & altred, not onely from the nature of man into the nature of brute beastes, but […] from the likenes of God & his Angels, into the likenes of divels.” The Scottish churchman Patrick Forbes wrote, in his 1613 commentary on Revelation, of the whore’s “bewitching vanity and poisonable sting tormenting superstitious mindes.” These writers persistently imagined the enchantments of Babylon as acts of violence and Babylon herself as not just a seducer but a tyrant: “[N]ot only a Whore,” says Forbes, “but a bloudie Whore.” Even in a play like Othello (ca. 1605), hardly an exercise in religious polemic, the figure of this bloody whore comes subtly into view when Brabantio calls the seductive Moor “an abuser of the world” just after accusing him of exercising a powerful magic against a vulnerable, susceptible Desdemona: “Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her,” he says, “abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals.” His lament over his daughter seems to echo the laments of Protestant prophets over an English people taken into bondage “and corrupted,” as Brabantio says, “by spells.”
This association of enchantment with the abuse of a credulous people tends to lead, in early Protestant writings, to a contradiction. Look at what happens, for instance, when the popular preacher George Gifford takes up the familiar notion of enchantment as violence in his sermons on Revelation (1596):
The Popes of Rome and their clergie hath set up and maintained their usurped power, with lyes, with sleights, and with the illusions of the divell: and that the nations and kingdoms of the earth did beleeve them, the holy Ghost calleth it a witcherie. And verily if Satan had not even bewitched the minds of men, how could they have doted in such sort upon so foule a strumpet?
Gifford’s language here makes clear an early modern tension. On the one hand, enchantment is mere imposture, sleights and illusions, a cheap conjurer’s trick; how could they believe such flimsy stuff? But notice, on the other hand, how he answers the question. The people have succumbed to these illusions of one spiritual power only because another spiritual power, a real Satanic bewitchment, has ensnared them.
This play of belief and disbelief haunted Protestant writers such as Samuel Harsnett, whose incendiary 1603 polemic A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures was clearly on Shakespeare’s mind as he wrote King Lear. Harsnett set out in this treatise to debunk the Catholic priests who conducted an infamous set of underground exorcisms in 1585–’86 before they were captured and executed. Along the way, he cultivated a febrile rhetoric of disenchantment, an idiom that blends jeering, mocking, moralizing hilarity with real live fear. How is it, Harsnett asks the credulous Catholics of England,
that men as you are, borne free of an understanding spirit, and ingenious disposition, should so basely degenerate, as to captivate your wits, wils, & spirits, to a forraine Idol Gull, composed of palpable fiction, and diabolicall fascination, whose enchaunted chalice of heathenish drugs, & Lamian superstition, hath the power of Circes, and Medeas cup, to metamorphose men into asses, bayards, & swine. Is it not their owne brand they have stamped on your forheads, that England hath been always good asse to the Pope?
Harsnett here adopts both a posture of eye-rolling disbelief and a posture of vigilant, tremulous belief. Notice the sneer in his tone, the world-weary “hath always been,” the dismissal of the English people as asses and swine. And notice, too, the ambiguities in Harsnett’s warnings against “diabolicall fascination” and the power of Circe’s cup. There are whispers of satire in these phrases, currents of mocking disbelief; but there are also undercurrents of real anxiety, a suspicion that the Roman conjurers might have something more than the stupidity of the English people working in their favor.
As they confronted the Roman enchanter, early modern Protestant writers persistently adopted these contrary postures. And they persistently linked these postures to a sense of their own modernity. In a writer such as Reginald Scot, who set out in a 1584 treatise to expose the tricks and techniques of Roman witch-hunters, the peculiar music of early modern cultural disenchantment is at full blast:
But Robin goodfellowe ceaseth now to be much feared, and poperie is sufficientlie discovered. Nevertheles, witches charms, and conjurors cousenages are yet thought effectuall. Yea the Gentiles have espied the fraud of their cousening oracles, and our cold prophets and inchanters make us fooles still, to the shame of us all, but speciallie of papists, who conjure everie thing, and thereby bring to passe nothing.
Notice here how Scot cultivates a tone of world-weary cynicism, something approaching the posture of disenchantment in the later senses of that word. And notice how this cynical style depends on a narrative of historical departure. Robin Goodfellow ceaseth now to be much feared, Scot says. How is it, then, that you yet believe — even now, in 1584 — in the cozenages of the Roman enchanters? The passage links the experience of being disabused with an experience of self-conscious modernity. Believing in fairies and popery, for Scot, is not just erroneous but out of style. These enchantments were debunked long ago, and to know this is to stand on the other side of a historical rupture, to be aware of living in a new age after the old.
It might seem strange, in the context of this latter-day skepticism, that Scot goes on to urge his readers not just to keep a good skeptical head but to “defie the divell.” But such is the strangeness of cultural disenchantment in this hot, formative moment. Its pioneers inhabit the interstices between apocalyptic vision and idol-busting skepticism. They know that belief saves, and that belief destroys. They defy the devil and hang the exorcists. In their hands, enchantment is an object both of fascination and of derision.
Could it be that our own ambivalences about enchantment have roots in these early modern paradoxes? The evasions I’ve noticed in the recent literature on enchantment begin to make some sense, I think, when we pay attention to the few instances in which the metaphor actually does matter. Jane Bennett keeps the language of enchantment central to her The Enchantment of Modern Life, and gains real traction from that language, because she explores the capacity of the word to denote states of wonder, surprise, attachment, ecstasy, involvement, generosity. Her hope for her book, she says, is that “[i]t offers an account of the world that highlights its capacity for inspiring wonder.” If this account of wonder is rooted in what Bennett calls “weak ontology” or “fanciful descriptions,” that’s fine by her. The book’s goal, after all, is “to augment our actual attachments to the world,” to explore certain affective states and certain kinds of experience. Among our contemporary writers, it’s here, in the areas of affect and experience, that the language of enchantment has something to do. Thomas Moore generates a great deal of energy around his metaphors of enchantment because he wants to enter into certain states of mystical contemplation, of childlike play, of living “as wholeheartedly as possible in order to enjoy just a taste of Eden.” James K. A. Smith makes something of the metaphor in the fascinating two or three pages where he advocates for the exercise of “fantasy” as the basis for “a kind of theorizing that is imaginative,” and Bernard Stiegler turns to the language of enchantment in the couple of pages where he talks about the things he loves, and about what happens to him when he sees in the beloved object a “singularity,” a specialness, that does not empirically exist.
But in the language of “fantasy” and “fanciful descriptions,” and in Stiegler’s commitment to believing in a specialness that isn’t in fact believable, a tension becomes apparent, and this tension is closely related to the contradictions I’ve found in early modern writers. Notice that contemporary promises of enchantment tend to begin with a knowledge, which Bennett confesses out loud, that a weak ontology is in play. In the prescriptions for secular re-enchantment that Joshua Landy and Michael Saler gather in their edited volume, there’s a recurring notion of enchantment as a kind of willed forgetting, a controlled ignorance of what we actually and inescapably know. Among the sites of enchantment they discuss in their summative introduction to this volume are genre fiction (a place where we can inhabit a supernatural realm “which is ‘real’ only as long as the story lasts”), the poetry of Mallarmé (who “sets out to remedy the predicament” of the world’s arbitrariness “by creating an alternative world”), and the experience of linguistic indeterminacy (which offers “a new infinite, understood as a potentially endless series of points of view”). Again, the enchantments frankly confess their distance from the material world of our waking experience. The “alternative” worlds of genre fiction and Mallarmé might offer some solace to the citizens of a disenchanted world, but they don’t really change the condition of that world. There are moments of marvelous beauty in the visions of enchantment Landy and Saler have gathered — the sports stadium as an epiphany of embodiment and collective belonging, or the gardens of people experiencing homelessness as “a point of contact between uprooted individuals and the world in which they live” — but there’s a persistent, palpable consciousness throughout their account of those visions that the enchantments on offer are thin, troubled by a kind of unreality. One can’t help but hear a certain strain of ambivalence when Landy and Saler promise, of the “individual redemption” offered when we take a view of our lives “in which apparent setbacks turn out to have been indispensable conduits to success,” that “not only can the Christian concept [of redemption] be replaced, but the replacement actually turns out to be superior to the original.”
Are they sure about that? Do not the labels of “original” and “replacement” already establish a certain hierarchy? The language of the promise itself seems to concede, from the outset, that the re-enchantment on offer is a kind of consolation prize, consigned to the “most irrational and thereby real kernel of life” that Weber prophesies as the inevitable counterpart of an intellectualized, mechanized, disenchanted human rationality. These searchers after re-enchantment seem to know that the full-blooded gods of the old redemptive order have passed us by. What remains is a shadow, derivative, and late to the game.
These intimations of unreality are particularly pronounced in the recent writers who speak of re-enchantment less prescriptively and more descriptively, as something already happening on a large scale in the world of late modernity. A number of these writers have used the term “re-enchantment” to name the tendency of rationalized late-capitalist economies to manufacture their own forms of sacramental, charismatic, and magical experience. The sociologist George Ritzer writes about Las Vegas casino-hotels that simulate ancient Rome and old New York, about Caribbean islands owned and stage-managed by cruise lines, about entire towns fashioned as simulacra of other times and places (Disney’s town of Celebration, Florida, is a notably creepy example), and about how these spaces are engineered to have “an enchanted, sometimes even sacred, religious character.” The theologian Graham Ward writes about the tendency of late capitalism to package religion itself into new kinds of artificially flavored experiences: biblical theme parks, Exorcist movie franchises, apocalyptic metal bands, megachurches as sites of communion via consumption. It’s not hard to see the trouble here. A lost religious and social order gives us the Holy Land. Re-enchantment gives us “The Holy Land Experience,” just up the road from SeaWorld. Even if we claim that “the replacement actually turns out to be superior to the original,” our narratives of re-enchantment have marked the replacement as different, estranged from the primary thing by a history of loss.
These are not merely late modern or post-modern tensions. Look again at the writers who engaged in the early modern wars of disenchantment. They, like us, tended to share a notion of enchantment as otherness. When Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene describes the “enchaunted” Florimell melting like snow in the presence of the true Florimell, he imagines enchantment as secondary to something authentic, a declension from or counterfeit of a real thing. When Samuel Harsnett describes the Roman whore as a “forraine Idol Gull, composed of palpable fiction,” he imagines the agent of enchantment operating beyond the horizon of the real, excluded from the rational spheres of domestic and public life. To be disenchanted, for these writers, is to be authentically modern, authentically Christian, authentically English. No surprise that English writers in the middle and later 17th century went on to deploy the weaponized language of enchantment not just against the church of Rome but against a whole host of society’s others: witches, folk-healers, New World populations, Quakers, atheists, Jews. Within the discourses of enchantment, these figures are all foreign idol gulls, invested both with a shadowy unreality and with a terrifying power to abuse the common people. They collectively embody the capacity of enchantment, as a metaphor, to power a machinery of cultural violence.
This entanglement of enchantment and cultural violence is not a historical byway or oddity, and it wasn’t confined to ephemeral pamphlets such as Quakers are Inchanters and Dangerous Seducers (1655) and The Spreading Evills, and Pernicious Inchantments of Papisme, and Other Errors (1641). The works of major writers like Shakespeare, too, exemplify the imaginative and cultural consequences of this entanglement. When Othello responds to Brabantio’s accusation that he has enchanted Desdemona, he professes to have cast the spell with nothing more than a narration of “all my pilgrimage,” his long labors among cannibals and exotic monsters. His mantle of otherness explains his power to enchant. The same sort of otherness defines the phantasmic personhood of Cleopatra the Egyptian (“this enchanting queen,” Antony call her), of Richard the hunchback, of Shylock the Jew, of Edmund the bastard, of Aaron the Moor. These cultural foreigners, like Othello, are imagined as possessing extraordinary sexual potency or allure, are invested with a frightening seductive charisma, are called “devil” again and again, and are, in the end, harassed to the margins of a rational social order. They are enchanting figures, every one, and their power to charm marks them out not just for attention and admiration but also for violent attack. Against them Shakespeare sets disenchanters such as Othello’s antagonist Iago, “nothing if not critical” by his own admission, the master of a myth-busting, body-hating, devil-haunted, world-renouncing suspicion. It’s all too easy to forget, in the midst of his racist atrocities, what a compelling moralist Iago is, how vividly he exemplifies a Weberian ethic of self-discipline and managerial rationality. He anticipates some of the most toxic spiritual consequences of modern disenchantment, just as his campaign against Othello anticipates some of modernity’s most horrific scenes of violence. Like Hamlet, who for many readers has seemed the prophet of a modernity under the sign of Coleridge, Freud, or Sartre, Iago lays bare the pattern for peculiarly modern forms of skepticism, inquisition, and traumatic loss.
How different are Shakespeare’s enchanting others from the Jesuits, exorcists, witch-mongers, and seducers who haunted the imagination of the culture in which he lived and worked? How different are they, for that matter, from the figures — immigrants, “inner city” communities, sexual and religious minorities, ideological extremists, the working class — who haunt current narratives of rational civic life and its cultural others? To take one example from contemporary American life: think about the tendency of certain populations to regard other, socially marginalized populations as zones of social, sexual, and moral disorder and, at the same time, as sites of charisma, erotic allure, and spiritual authenticity. Or think about our tendency to manufacture spiritual vitality by appropriating, into a modern Western economy of privatized religion and consumer choice, exotic cultures of religious and magical practice. These tendencies might prompt us to ask how disenchanted we really are. Or they might suggest exactly what the discourses of early modern England suggest: that disenchantment is not so much a static condition of liberated rationality or disappointed skepticism as it is a dynamic, unstable practice of mystification, fascination, suspicion, and exclusion.
It could be that the cultural projects of post-Reformation modernity were never going to lead anyone into a promised land of pure Entzauberung, scrubbed clean of spiritual presence and power. It could be that modernity has always constituted itself around its enchanted others, in the 21st century as in the 16th. And it could be that the language of enchantment has always come creeping in alongside modernity’s peculiar problems: the traumas of cultural revolution and historical loss, the shock of global encounter, the bewilderment of living under networks of bureaucratic power and campaigns of propaganda.
More to the point: it could be that the contradictions of early modern disenchantment are bound to trouble any program of postmodern re-enchantment. If enchantment is illusion, melting like snow, then there’s a kind of absurdity in willing your own enchantment. At the very least, the work of re-enchantment will always involve the willing suspension of a disbelief that must remain the baseline of our cognitive and spiritual existence. No wonder that when we talk of re-enchantment, we talk of fantasy genres, of simulations and theme parks, of adults choosing to inhabit a condition of childhood. The whole notion of entering a dream state depends upon the notion of leaving a waking state, presumably with the intention of returning. On the other hand: if enchantment is violence, undergirded by real spiritual power, then the notion of willing my own enchantment is fraught in other ways. Within the notions of enchantment that shape much early modern writing, the power to enchant does not belong to the one under the spell. If you’re enchanted, you probably don’t know it and can’t name it. You certainly can’t control or orchestrate it, can’t relegate it to your leisurely reading time or schedule it for Saturday evening, after the tailgate party. You can do these things with entertainment, and with the goods of a consumer economy. But enchantment, as the early architects of modernity experienced it, is a more potent spirit than that.
What to conclude, then, about the literature on re-enchantment? Perhaps I’ve learned, for one thing, that there is no literature on re-enchantment. The books and essays I’ve been reading represent a constellation of disparate literatures, gathered under the banner of a single metaphor. Still, that metaphor matters, and I worry that the language of re-enchantment might come freighted with a baggage we cannot easily unload. We might, in our attempts to think again about modernity, have adopted a language that bears within itself the very histories, ideologies, and forms of violence on which it was supposed to help us reflect.
Perhaps we need to think beyond the language of enchantment and beyond the linear narratives of pre-modern fullness and modern loss (or of pre-modern error and modern awakening) that tend to creep in with that language. Many recent writers have argued that the history of cultural disenchantment is in fact much older than the crises of the 16th century. There were projects of what we might call disenchantment in Plato’s critical discourses, in the exegetical practices of the Stoics, in early Christian campaigns against the Roman pantheon. These pre-modern philosophical and religious movements all participated in a dynamic of unbelief, in an estrangement from the gods and an ambivalence about spiritual presence in the material world.
The forms of estrangement and ambivalence that trouble our recent projects of re-enchantment might in fact point toward ancient apprehensions: that childlikeness can be the way to maturity, that the powers of fantasy can be a conduit for knowledge, that the artifice of ritual can make space for real spiritual presence. And they might suggest some of the other vocabularies and paradigms to which our current projects might turn. The tensions I find in our promises of re-enchantment might be found also in the Christian virtue of faith, which operates in an eschatological tension between presence and absence, between a kingdom that is now and a kingdom that is not yet. The willed suspensions of disbelief I find in our recent discourses might also be found in the virtue of love, which, as Saint Paul and Bernard Stiegler both say, hopes all things and believes all things. Our discourses on re-enchantment are sensitive, in other words, to negotiations of belief and doubt, of presence and absence, that have been underway since long before the era that we call modernity. What if the path to re-enchantment lies in the many terms and forms of life — participation, incarnation, creation, apocalypse, community, contemplation, hope — that these long negotiations have yielded? What if these terms bear within themselves alternatives to the narratives of linear progress that always come riding in on our language of enchantment?
Or what if the trailheads of re-enchantment lie right there at the dawn of modernity, along byways that our mainline narratives of disenchantment have never been able to follow? Intellectual and cultural historians have had a lot to say lately about early modern cultural trends — from the Cambridge Neo-Platonists to the cult of martyrdom surrounding Charles I — that resisted, or offered alternatives to, the projects and postures we tend to associate with disenchantment. For many, the high road of modern disenchantment has always led back to Hamlet and Iago, emblematic high priests of critical uncertainty and ironic self-regard. But perhaps there are other paths worth following.
If Shakespeare’s drama of modern emergence gives us these arch-skeptics, after all, it also gives us Prospero, the arch-magician casting his staff into the sea. At the end of The Tempest, probably the last play Shakespeare wrote alone, this prophetic figure comes to stand before us, an old enchanter at the threshold of a new age and an image of the playwright at the end of his own career. In his final confession, Prospero pardons his deceivers and renounces his world-making magic, what he calls his “art to enchant.” This renunciation is, for him, a conversion, a turn from the sovereign rule he has exercised on his island. And it’s an escape, from the grievances and tainted histories that have bound him all along. He asks the audience gathered before him to help him through the hard passage — “Let me not, / Since I have my dukedom got, / And pardoned the deceiver, dwell / In this bare island by your spell” — and in his final words he reveals that this gathered community has its own form of spiritual power:
And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
There’s a story of disenchantment here, and a story of disenchantment as liberation. But it isn’t a story that our Weberian grammars can help us to tell. Prospero’s liberation does not come in the form of a critical rationality or a myth-busting, mind-freeing skepticism. It does not come in the form of an Entzauberung der Welt or of Paul de Man’s “ruthless forgetting.” The old magician promises, instead, a liberation from the old bonds of enchantment into new bonds, just as powerful. And he reveals that we, his audience, have also entered into these bonds. He prophecies that we too need pardon, and he asks us for something he calls “prayer,” for the gift of a magic that can convert debt to communion and vengeance to mercy. In making this plea, he frames his renunciation of enchantment not as an elimination of spiritual power but rather as a conversion of spiritual power into new forms. He engages, here at the end, in a delicate play of memory and anticipation, and his exodus from enchantment coincides with an entry into eschatological vision, a longing for a homeland that is both far off and present all around.
Is this disenchantment? Is it re-enchantment? Or does the magician in his twilight invite us to imagine ourselves, and the sea changes of our modernity, in terms more rich and strange than these?
Jason Crawford teaches in the Department of English at Union University. He is the author of Allegory and Enchantment: An Early Modern Poetics (Oxford University Press, 2017).
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