Was ist Entzauberung? (What is ‘Disenchantment’?)
One of Max Weber’s most famous statements declares that modernity’s chief experiential hallmark is its disenchantedness. This is a state of being which differs in essential ways from its predecessors, both historical and prehistorical. The ‘disenchantment of the world’ is a process by which the magical quality of a worldview in itself is transformed, as if the mystical transmutations touted by alchemy had been simply reversed. This reversal is, however, only the surface tension atop the fluids of contrasting discourses, for a mere reversal connotes a retreat, even a reversion. For Weber, the relationship between outlook and worldview is personalized in modernity, most especially in religion. It is Protestantism specifically that carries the vanguard of this personalization, even as the rest of the world around it became more depersonalized. At first, one would imagine that it is this latter effect alone which contributes to disenchantment, but in fact it is both, and in tandem. One the one hand, the world takes on an anonymous hue, while the personal life begins to craft its own enchantedness. From personal fable to even the ‘dreaded hobby’, as Adorno referred to it, in our time it is up to the individual not only to construct his personhood, but to provide herself with meaningfulness.
Meaning in itself has always been the purview of culture, not person. In premodern social contexts, the argument concerning Entzauberung suggests that there was no other level or form associated with fulfillment, in part because the very concept of the individuated person had not completely gelled. For premoderns, Augustinian subjectivity, known throughout by Godhead and housed in a being shot through with God Himself as imago dei, was perhaps the most radical form of individuation. Ours was a magical vessel set upon the surface of equally magical depths, the ‘ocean of being’, as Peter Gabriel, for one, might image. But meaningfulness was not a distinct character of that being, or possession thereof and therein. To understand something was to know its relation to creation, and although the ‘great chain of being’ proved to be a phrase and a conception portable to modernity – evolution does not obviate creation, but merely makes it more prescient of its outcomes – its premodern caste was made manifest through the divine autograph, in what Foucault has referred to as the ‘prose of the world’.
Meaning was thus the world in its presence, meaningfulness was the ‘why’ of that world; its purpose and its intent, to be revealed upon the apocalypse. Neither could be said to be remotely personal, and even insofar as one’s character and actions, one’s ‘faith and works’ would determine, if not predetermine, one’s ultimate fate in the revelatory soteriology of a religion of grace, forgiveness and salvation were still to be earned. This edge of the new ethics grew increasingly sharp with the Reformation; from now on, the person as an individual was to be responsible for their own faith. Thus the personalization of religion could proceed apace, while at the same time, the world was relieved of its enchanted quality. No longer could the hand of God be read off that world as signage, symbolic or hermeneutic. Instead, we moderns place a more rational faith in systems of signs themselves, and are skeptical of the symbolic in all of its remaining moments. And whether these residues are remanential only is an open question, for those who read too much into the world could be diagnosed as merely schizo-affective rather than as visionary.
If we rewind to the point of departure, the context wherein there was instantiated a metaphysical change, definitions of meaning and meaningfulness following along afterward, what can be observed is a conflation between human institution and Godhead, between longevity and infinity, and between luxury and divinity. The Roman church had, over a millennia, taken upon itself the responsibility for grace, while in so doing, granted itself a monopoly upon same. That one would object to this, at least in Western Europe, was generally unimaginable, though ‘folk Catholicisms’ existed long before the era of conquest. We see these phenomena specifically in Scandinavia and in Iberia, and there is yet some question as to how much of the pre-Columbian syncretisms of Catholicism were homegrown in Meso-American and elsewhere, and how much were in fact simply imported directly from the Iberian peninsula having been extant there for some centuries, even if driven into discreet enclaves by the Moorish presence. However this may have been, the model for later personalization does not arrive abruptly in 1517 alone. Even if there was but one God, he had many arrows in His quiver. The expansive sensibilities of the religious manifests of second stage Agrarian metaphysics; Buddhism, Christianity, Islam – the worldviews that introduced ethics to the world and as well, personhood – turned outward only when their once interiors began to foment dissent. It is not an historical coincidence that Europe, for one, sought the rest of the world at the same moment as the schism in belief was made official and became institutional. A religion must have believers in order to survive. Losing half of Europe meant that new franchises needed to be established. A competition between Catholic and Protestant imperialisms thus ensued, and within this, the syncretistic phenomenon were repeated, now on a global scale.
But there is a deeper reason at work here, and that is: a structural division in any worldview shows not only a loss of faith in the reigning institution of religion, but also a change of heart regarding the source of its beliefs. If the church were part of the world alone, that same world held within it contrasting signatories, human and divine, which thence gives forth the diabolic in their own competing claims. What once was magic might be turned to sorcery. What once was sidereal may in fact be merely real. In religion do we find the first consideration, in science, the second. The church was once the rampart of magic alone, the priest the latter-day magician. This vehicular alchemy was pronounced first by Moses himself, trained in Egyptian magic by the pyramidal priesthood, later outmatching it, providing the grounds for the once Akhenatonites now Hebrews to journey to a new homeland. By the late Middle Ages, however, magic had already given in to the manipulation associated with the sorcerer who, having always been an outsider, sought through his superior use of enchantedness, to gain purchase within official quarters, just as Satan’s mission was to regain Heaven and reorder it to his own less scrupulous affairs. In part, we see the personalization of magic in the troubador’s poetic discourse, the idea of courtly love and personal romance, rather than that merely personified in antique allegorical figures. The ‘love potion’ motif also begins here, and was it not fitting that it was French fashion revolutionary who resuscitated this ‘scent-sibility’ in Qabalistically numbered alchemical parfums.
If sorcery could have been seen as the proverbial ‘left hand of God’, His ‘darker materials’, and so on, by definition it could not occupy the lighted space of institutional, or institutionalized, being. Its fuller presence within the interior of grace could only lead to disenchantedness, which today is our common lot. We are very aware of the corruption of political institutions and organizations alike, the success of those who cheat not merely at games but somehow also at life, and the loopholes, legal or otherwise, which inhabit the detailed deviltries of policy and policing, of schools and schooling, of familiality and family as well as others. Some of us have reacted to this present context by instigating nostalgia in lieu of authentic magic, but this is a dead end, as Weber himself recognized. For the fin de siecle thinkers, only art could provide the outlet for a human being, otherwise historical through and through, to generate meaningfulness in the face of the abyssal void. This sense was particularly evident in Freud, and even he was unsure of art’s long-term ability to provide a niche of enchanted existence. If science has conquered much of the discursive territory religion used to rule, it is art that has proven to be a more essential iconoclast, since it has taken up the task of replacing divine grace itself with an aesthetic subjectivity which ‘glimpses the shared soul’.
This oversoul has itself become humanized, just as our individual participation in it has become personalized. Attending a concert or taking in a gallery showing does not make us a community. Just as politics fails to unite us, modern aesthetics reaches into our consciousness in order to scandalize it in its too-complacent relationship with the normative. In that, it is deserving of all of our efforts, but at the same time, unless this critical stance is itself able to construct something meaningfully novel and generative of community in the face of anonymous and rationalized relationships, however ‘interpersonal’ or even intimate they may be, then we are at an historical loss whose absence of meaning may well be subject to latter-day sorcery. And if politics may be safely divorced from morality, it cannot be so from ethics. Correspondingly, belief may be separated from aesthetics proper, but it cannot lose the quality of enchantedness now primarily associated with art. And while art is still not life as lived, it is nevertheless life in one of its ideal formulations; that which transcends the moment and thus reveals its history.
So, while Entzauberung has been the default of modern culture for some centuries, it is equally clear that sorcery, the darker magic of manipulation, has survived, and even flourished, the more disenchanted we become. For in Weber’s argument there is a subtext: the world’s loss of magical quality begins with our disenchantedness at its worldly magus; that is, we ourselves. We doubt our ability to make meaningful remaining meanings because we are taught nothing of the hermeneutic in our education. ‘Interpretation’ is rather something to be avoided, we claim, because all it does is foster conflict. Yet since there cannot be, in the work of existence, one true meaning shared by all, a reactionary sectarianism promotes an anti-hermeneutic soteriology. But it is hardly the sole instance of Babel to this regard. Governments self-promote an official truth, the schools a pedagogic one, the family one based on personal loyalty to status-authority alone, and even science may be guilty of overstating its paradigms, noting that while its methods are open-ended and include interpretation, its results, once evidenced, are the less so. Science, as the historically favored child of religion, has never quite been able to rise above its original kinship to this regard.
Even so, if it is art that engages us with otherwise scandalous, even evil, insights, exposing our moral hypocrisies and our ethical heresies alike, it is science which in turn reveals cosmic wonders seemingly as infinite as was the premodern idea of creation. And even if demographically it is the case that the vast majority of sectarians have been culturally divorced from both art and science and thus have had to cast round for meaning in the fearful undergrowth of human hope and dream, the more noble instantiations of modernity’s self-made freedoms are nevertheless available to all. That one must approach both art and science with the lingering overtones of magic and sorcery respectively, does contain a challenge to each of us as persons. We experience wonder now as an unsure sign of re-enchantment, in art and through science, but we must do so in the absence of a community which can itself agree on what meanings these wonders denote. In our uncertain certainty that we have at all a future, the will to life demands a magic that will overcome human finitude, and receives in turn only a sorcery which distends existence in various ways. To recognize our historical condition as one in which magic is itself effable and sorcery only nostalgic is to begin to separate disenchantment, which is of a world made into ratios and not necessarily understood rationally, and disenchantedness, which is not of the world at all, resting instead in the heart of the overly personalized meaning of an overtly rationalized human life.
G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in ethics, aesthetics, education, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.