Thoughts for a spring equinox…
Complexity theorist (and colleague of mine here at the University of Vermont) Stuart Kauffman takes stock here of the Enlightenment and sings of a re-enchantment to come.
Disenchantment and re-enchantment are long-running tropes in the intellectual currents of modernity, which I’ve frequently explored in my writing (see here for a quick synopsis of those explorations, and here for an entry point into a discussion on The Immanent Frame, one of the most intelligent blogs exploring these issues).
The linear narrative according to which we once lived in an enchanted world, which then got progressively disenchanted (by science, technology, modernity, capitalism, or what have you), and that we can feebly lament, or maybe feel called upon to reverse — a narrative that gets suggested by Max Weber and then picked up by Horkheimer and Adorno, Lynn White, Jr., the whole field of “religion and ecology,” and countercultural thinkers like Morris Berman — tends to be overly simplistic in its more popular forms. Historians have more recently been probing its limit points and gaps: the ways in which the debate ebbs and flows, appearing, for instance, in the late nineteenth century and contributing to the upsurge of late modern occultisms, and the ways in which our world today remains very much an enchanted one.
But we shouldn’t throw out the idea either. An enchanted life is one that allows for experiences of wonder, awe, and mystery — all markers of a good childhood. These are the very things that disappear once we “mature” into the “adult” world of pre-digested, authoritative stories spelling out the way things are and our proper place within them, and admitting of no great mysteries left unsolved. Science doesn’t have to be the handmaiden of this kind of disenchantment — it is (at its best) a self-correcting enterprise that’s always throwing up new mysteries (black holes! string theory! 12-dimensional universes! dark matter! and so on). Religion, on the other hand, is far from being the only vehicle of enchantment; if anything, religious institutions tend to corral up the religious imagination, doling out its wonders only in the manageable chunks that allow the structure to retain its form within the marketplace of allegiances.
But defined more broadly, the religious is that dimension that has always connected people to their worlds using the instruments we’ve always had for extra-human connectivity: affective bodily action, imaginative sensory extension (and compelling, nonordinary states of mind to go with it), ritual periodicity, mythic narrative, and other modes of creative relationality. The gods have always been embodiments, personifications, of the powers on which we depend and with which we flow. In this sense, it’s no wonder that Christianity in practice always comes out looking different than Christianity in theory. While worldly powers use religious beliefs and allegiances to pursue their own interests, earthly powers — the ones that emerge out of our relations with the extra-human world around us — keep creeping in, turning Christ (for instance) into the dying-and-resurrecting god of an agro-vegetative cosmos, Mary into creatrix and protectress of all, saints into local deities, and so on. (I spelled out an early version of this argument in a chapter in James Lewis’s 1996 book on magical religion, which I’ve been meaning to revisit, since my thinking has evolved a great deal since then.)
Over the long haul of history, it is paganism — the creative religiosity of living in a particular place, with its forces and powers and flows — that keeps re-emerging, because it’s most closely attuned to the neuro-ecology of the eco-human relationship. In a world in which the secular/religious binary no longer holds, religion itself will have disappeared back into the world (or “earth,” to follow Heidegger’s distinction between the two). Or, as I’ve put it elsewhere, like Michel Foucault’s figure of man (l’homme), ‘‘a recent invention’’ that, with a shift in structural relations, might ‘‘be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea,’’ religion‘s disappearance will simply be a guarantee that the elements that made it up will “persist in other forms for as long as there is sand, salt, and sea.”
And enchantments will arise with it, as long as the sea remains sea — not standing-reserve, not pretty sight, but roiling, cacophonous ocean itself.
Go on die salt light
You billion yeared
Sad as wife & hill
Loved as mother & fog
Oh! Oh! Oh!
(from Kerouac, “Sea,” Big Sur)
An admission, to round things up:
The ironies here, including using a Beat poem and a much/over-interpreted piece of Japanese art to depict “ocean” (and choosing an eco-apocalyptic reframing of that very image), are all part of the big picture. The universe, after all, is the great ironist, not a sublime silence but (as Sean Cubitt puts it) an “excess of signification,” communicativity all the way down. It’s in opening up to that communicativity that enchantment finds us; it’s in closing ourselves off from it that it sneaks out, but always only to sneak back in disguised, and all the more shocking when we realize what’s hitting us.
Happy first day of spring (for northern hemispherians; fall, for the rest).