Modernity, Enchantment, and Fictionalism


Michael Saler in The Immanent Frame:

There are at least two ways that we can understand the meanings of “enchantment” and “disenchantment.” We can define them as stages within a broader historical process, and we can define them as human affects. In terms of historical process, the narrative of Weber and others described the shift from a premodern, “enchanted” world governed by an overarching supernatural order, to the modern “disenchanted” world characterized by scientific naturalism. Scholars advanced different historical periods for the origins of this process, but their accounts of its outcome were similar. A recognizable discourse equating modernity with disenchantment emerged among the late eighteenth century romantics, was given added momentum by nineteenth century cultural pessimists, and apparent scientific legitimacy by twentieth century sociologists, philosophers, and political scientists. The constant iteration that modernity has foresworn enchantment for disenchantment made it a virtual orthodoxy in the West until very recently.

In terms of human affect, since the Middle Ages “enchantment” had two meanings in Western culture: enchantment as “delight” and enchantment as “delusion.” The pleasures of enchantment as delight could be so overpowering that one is placed under a spell—an “enchantment”—and becomes deluded. The remedy was to become disenchanted. But disenchantment, like enchantment, also had positive and negative meanings. A positive meaning of disenchantment is that of emancipation: one is freed from dangerous illusions. A negative meaning of disenchantment is that of disillusion, a hard-bitten refusal of ideals or any form of transcendence.

The problem with the historical discourse was that it became conflated with the affective discourse. It equated the historical shift to a disenchanted world with the affect of disenchantment as disillusion, the end of a sense of wonder. States of enchantment might be delightful, but they were also delusory and regressive, at best suitable for children and other irrational beings, such as women, the working classes, and non-Western peoples. The historical narrative of modernity and enchantment could have positive elements—this was true of Weber’s account—but fundamentally it was one of discontent and loss.

More here.