The Re-Enchantment of the World:
Secular Magic in a Rational Age
In their influential accounts of Western Modernity, Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Weber characterized it as a “progressive disenchantment of the world,” proceeding from the “death of God.” By putting into memorable phrases what romantic thinkers had been arguing since the late eighteenth century, Nietzsche and Weber helped to solidify Westerners’ self-understanding as inhabitants of a thoroughly disenchanted universe. Thus, in their 1998 Wonders and the Order of Nature, Lorraine and Katherine Park conclude that “To be a member of a modern elite is to regard wonder and wonders with studied indifference; enlightenment is still defined in part as the anti-marvellous.”
There is, of course, something powerfully apt about this view: religion and mystery have indeed retreated further and further from the visible world, replaced by secular institutions and the rational explanations. Yet it omits a crucial counter-tendency in modern culture, namely the overwhelming urge to fill again the vacuum left by departed convictions. Even where such an urge is recognised, historians tend to speak merely of old beliefs reemerging, like repressed contents, in new spaces (as Victoria Nelson suggests in her 2002 The Secret Life of Puppets); enchantment continues to be understood as anti-rational and quasi-mystical, a source of cognitive deception and affective indulgence.
What we aim to show, in this edited volume, is that modernity produces an entirely new array of strategies, compatible with secular rationality, for re-enchanting a disenchanted world. We perceive this as being an exciting new trend in current conceptualizations of Western modernity, particularly as exemplified in such recent works as Simon During’s Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic (Harvard, 2002) and Jane Bennett’s The Enchantment of Modern Life: Crossings, Attachments, and Ethics (Princeton, 2002). Our own volume will focus on the array of strategies necessary for rendering secular modernity compatible with enchantment, necessary because God has many “aspects”—or to put it in more secular terms, because traditional religion offers so much in so many domains. From one thinker to the next, the question of just what, in religious enchantment, needs to be replaced in a secular world receives an entirely different answer.
Some, like the Surrealists, want to reinstate the dimension of depth, even if it now means turning within, towards an unconscious that animates the inanimate and hints, by and through the strange stereoscopic images it conjures, at a hidden dimension of experience; others, like Proust, seek a new infinite, this time configured not as the cosmic scope of God but as the stellar array of human perspectives on the world. Those who desire a universal order (kosmos) may find it, now in intermittent fashion, in secular epiphanies, moments of being in which, for a brief moment, the center appears to hold; those who, on the other hand, require a reason for their existence and effort, find it in the last place they would have looked: science, not merely a destroyer of beliefs but also, as Renan understood, their replacement. For redemption from regret, there is now the “eternal recurrence” doctrine of Nietzsche; for a hierarchy of significance, there is the genre of detective fiction, in which everyday objects become, once more, potentially salient; for mystery, there is the perennial fact of our bafflement in face of the world, a fact which enlightenment, ironically, serves more and more to confirm. And the hankering for other worlds, once satisfied by visions of paradise, is now satisfied by the creation of “secondary” or “virtual” universes (J.R.R. Tolkien and Star Trek providing respective examples)—universes whose fictitiousness is, at the same time, always acknowledged. Just like their premodern predecessors, these rational forms of enchantment are also catalyzers of community.