On Enchantment in Modernity

For most people (elite and popular) the choice is not one between disenchantment and enchantment, science and religion, or myth and mythless rationality, but rather between different competing enchanted life worlds — even if people do not always recognize them as such.

"Why Do We Think We Are Disenchanted?", Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm

Over the past few years, or perhaps the last few centuries, a discourse has emerged regarding "enchantment", or more specifically "disenchantment", centering around the claim that the modern world, with its science, technology, and progress toward Truth, causes a sort of withdrawal from an enchanted fantasy world, the world of classical myth, faeries, Gods, etc. This particular claim regarding disenchantment has been thoroughly dealt with, most recently in Josephson-Storm's The Myth of Disenchantment, but I see less conversation regarding the positive side: if we assume that the world is, to some degree, enchanted, then how does that manifest? What is enchantment and where might we find it?

Regarding disenchantment, Josephson-Storm writes:

A key insight is that many [definitions of disenchantment] bundle some combination of a sociological or historical account together with some kind of melancholy or negative emotional affect.

In particular, while tracing many different characterizations of modernity, I focus especially on the theorists who defined modernity in terms of the loss of myth, popular belief in spirits, or magic... my point is that “modernity” as it has long been defined — as a world that is “disenchanted” (devoid of belief in spirits, myth, and magic) — does not accurately describe the world we live in.

For the purposes of Josephson-Storm's argument, enchantment consists of "myth, popular belief in spirits, or magic". Rather than tackle and expand these terms directly (myth, spirits, magic), as many occultists have already done, I would like to tackle the term "enchantment" head-on, expand its definition, and provide a sense of where it exists in modern life without relying on these historical forms or terminology.

My working definition: "enchantment" is a property of experience where the subject projects a fantasy, in the broad sense, onto the experience itself. Enchantment as such elevates the experience beyond its mere factual or physical essence, and brings it into a "super-sensible" relation with the actor. To use Fristonian terminology, the degree to which an experience is enchanted is the degree to which top-down priors predominate over bottom-up.

Working from this basic definition, I created an image which might function as a roadmap or guide to the rest of this essay:

You may notice that, given the above definition, most experiences remain enchanted, as most people are attuned to concepts, ideas, beliefs that extend beyond matter alone. But how exactly does this extra layer of fantasy interact with experience? If we follow the phenomenologers in claiming that an experience consists of a relation of the subject to the object of their perception, then we note that there are two key terms: the subject's consciousness of themselves, in the "I", and the subject's consciousness of the world, the "this", "here", "now". Using this taxonomy, we can locate fairy tale and ancient magic as an elevation of the "this": I see that "this" rabbit hole is special, because I believe in some mystical opportunity for discovery that I project onto the rabbit hole.

Contemporary enchantment tends to accumulate around other terms than the "this". One finds the enchantment of the "I"; enchantment is privatized, relating to the subject's experience of themselves rather than to their experience of the sensuous world1. This is why we no longer see the daemons and fairies of the old world: instead of "I see that this rabbit hole is magical", we have "I, a magical explorer, see this rather mundane rabbit hole."

To make this distinction more clear, consider the difference between classical fantasy and the superhero film. Both portray enchanted experiences, but most will find one easier to identify with than the other. In the classical situation, Frodo is a normal guy dealing with an enchanted world. In the superhero movie, Spiderman is a special guy dealing with a normal world. My claim is that we see ourselves as more like Spiderman than like Frodo, that narcissism, or the overvaluation of the "I" (ego), is itself a form of enchantment2.

Fantasy, as a fictional portrayal of enchantment, comes in "light" and "dark" forms; so too with enchantment itself. The superhero world and the world of fantastical wonder are "positively" enchanted, where the subject projects desirable qualities onto the object of fantasy, whether themselves or the world. The "dark" form is instead negative, whether "the world is undesirable, scary" or "I am undesirable, scary to myself".

HP Lovecraft is perhaps the best example of the negatively enchanted world, where regular guys encounter nightmares from the outer realms and intense paranoia. David Foster Wallace instead exemplifies the negatively enchanted "I", his characters trapped in anxious internal fantasies while engaging with a fairly mundane world. This is why I claim that anxiety3 is a form of enchantment4, as it is the "negative" of a narcissistic overvaluation: one still projects their priors, but they fear that their expectations or desirable beliefs will go unsatisfied by the material substance of life. This form of enchantment produces avoidance, a "moving away" or "warding off", what The Last Psychiatrist, writing as Edward Teach, calls the purpose of "ritual"5:

a ritual is necessary for a good outcome (or to avoid a bad outcome). if OUTCOME then RITUAL... The ritual does not guarantee results, but it is absolutely necessary, there is a 100% catastrophe rate without it... A ritual is strongly suggested when the consequence that results from not performing it is described as a subjective catastrophe, e.g. "I may as well be dead!"

A more succinct phrasing might of the distinction between positive and negative enchantment that I draw above might be "I know that I/the world is special, and that's good/bad". But what if we know that this is untrue, that I/the world are not special?

This stance, that "nothing is special", is where I locate the true sense of "disenchantment". It is common, best exemplified by popular followers of the stoics (I am not special) and the absurdists (the world is not special) respectively. Sustaining a stance of disenchantment can result in a depressive or catatonic state, where the world is sapped of meaning. And yet, even the stance of "nothing is special" requires at least one belief, the enchantment of "non-specialness", which permeates the depressed experience of the world. One needs at least a little enchantment, a little sense in which future outcomes are either desirable or undesirable, in order to act at all, and even this little kernel can provide the energy to bootstrap an individual out of their depressive state.

Where does enchantment come from? Political and news institutions, inherently conservative, i.e. wanting to produce action which maintains the present order of the world, encourage enchantment in negative, through their selection of disseminated information. Those who take heed respond with action to ward off: think of all the ritual and avoidant behaviors in the wake of the COVID pandemic, rooted in fantasies that come from what one reads, out of step with the "objective" severity of the situation. This focuses the energy of the audience away from enacting positive changes, which may result in turmoil and the collapse of the institution, and toward the prevention of negative outcomes.

Popular cultural media, like magazines and "entertainment" websites, instead attempt to produce positive enchantment, but only in relation to the "I". Longform essays are about the magical person, usually the author6, and rarely about the magical world. The result is people invest a lot of energy into their own status, their reflexive perception of the "I", which is a private and thus tenuous thing: who can witness it, who can provide the recognition that affirms one's specialness? This precarious situation keeps them coming back for more culture, more status, etc., in hopes that one day they will be "seen for who they [believe they] are".

Why is this the predominant form of popular media? It seems like narcissistic enchantment comes from the constraints of the essay medium, read to the mind's audience of one. It is difficult to cultivate a positive external enchantment without public or common knowledge, agreement from others that the world is as one believes it is. To believe in the enchanted world in contemporary times requires a willingness to ignore the peanut gallery who insists that life is mundane, a mere manifestation of matter. But even if you know in your thoughts that "this" world is mere matter, one can still be enchanted by the particularity of the "here" and "now" as they present themselves to you, your inner "I", as the Here and Now are always changing, always in flux. As ancient philosopher Heraclitus put it, "you cannot step into the same river twice."

  1. https://twitter.com/qorprate/status/1455305058053246982 

  2. https://twitter.com/qorprate/status/1455304788934074375 

  3. One might contest that anxiety does not always relate to the "I", and I agree that this is the case. There is a more mundane anxiety involving anticipation of real events, like missing a flight, which is not exactly of the same form, but even this anxiety carries a trace of enchantment, in that it involves the fantasy of an impediment to desire. However, most of what we call "anxiety" in psychological language, as a pervasive "disorder", is a sort of social or "I"-oriented anxiety, and it is this type that I'm addressing. 

  4. https://twitter.com/qorprate/status/1455296226275037185 

  5. Watch What You Hear, Edward Teach, p. 64 (footnote 40, which begins on p. 61). 

  6. Think about what is produced in the reader as a result of the "The First-Person Industrial Complex": http://www.slate.com/articles/life/technology/2015/09/the_first_person_industrial_complex_how_the_harrowing_personal_essay_took.html 

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