After reviewing Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm’s book The Myth of Disenchantment I was gratified that Jason responded positively on Twitter, despite — or, really, because of — my criticisms. Naturally he wanted to respond, and I certainly wanted to engage further with this very smart and engaging scholar of magic and myth. We conducted this interview via email.
For anyone not familiar with The Myth of Disenchantment, could you outline what brought you to write it, and what you hope people take from it?
A lot of different things came together to bring me to write the book. So in that sense it had multiple beginnings. But in a way I felt like I’ve been preparing for it ever since I started my studies.
Over the course of my training to be a philosopher and social scientist, I had read literally dozens of the discipline’s most influential theorists arguing that the defining feature of modernity is that people no longer believe in spirits, myths, or magic. This ‘disenchantment’ is often supposed to be true of America and Western Europe if nowhere else, and yet I had already encountered some significant counter-evidence to this claim.
I grew up in a New Age milieu and I knew full well that many Americans and Europeans also believed in protective icons and spiritual premonitions. In fact, my grandmother (Felicitas Goodman) was a famous professor of anthropology who after her retirement went public with her belief in spirits and ecstatic trances. Throughout my childhood I remember scholars, scientists, and artists travelling from Europe, Mexico, and the United States in order to participate in ‘shamanic’ trance workshops under her leadership.
My grandmother inspired me to become a scholar, and I really owe her so much, but one aspect of her shamanism bothered me. Not that I believed in spirits, rather I was troubled by a theme I often heard repeated in her community — that the modern Western world had lost its magic. This notion that there had been a loss of magic paired with overt belief in magical practices demonstrated an irony that has only been amplified by people I encountered since, many of whom express similar sentiments.
Some of the main points I want people to take away from the book are:
- While many theorists have argued that the defining feature of modernity is the departure of the supernatural — that what makes the modern world ‘modern’ is that people no longer believe in ghosts, spirits, occult forces, or magic — this book argues that the magic never vanished. In effect, I am attempting to revolutionise or challenge a whole host of theorising in a range of disciplines (from sociology to religious studies to critical theory).
- But the idea that people don’t believe in magic or spirits is disproven every day. According to a range of sociological evidence which I discuss, the majority of people living in Europe and North America believe in ghosts, witches, psychical powers, magic, astrology, or demons. Scholars have known this was true of much of the rest of the globe, but it makes the ‘West’ less of an exception than has often been supposed.
- Though it has often been assumed that the humanities and sciences were born from the rejection of magic and theology, it turns out that many of Europe’s great thinkers — Marie Curie, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Max Weber, Freud, Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer, and Walter Benjamin, to name a few — were entranced by magic or profoundly enmeshed in the occult milieu.
- Many of the main proponents of ‘the myth of disenchantment’ were self-described occultists or magicians who aimed to resupply the West with the missing magic.
- It was specifically in relation to the burgeoning culture of spirits and magic, I argue, that European intellectuals gave birth to the myth of a myth-less society — often describing modernity in terms of rationalisation, divine death, and fading magic.
- Finally, I argue that the ‘myth of disenchantment’ is a real myth. In other words, to the extent that people believe in it, they tend to act on it — either by going in quest of magic or by transforming the myth into a regulative ideal. By ‘regulative ideal,’ I mean that the myth of disenchantment often sets out to produce the very thing it describes. In other words, this narrative about modernity itself both enchants and disenchants.
Max Weber is a key figure here. For anyone not familiar with his work, could you sketch how he’s influenced modern scholarship, and how your research challenges the received image of him and his ideas?
For your readers who might be less familiar with Max Weber (1864-1920), he was a pioneering German sociologist whose work on secularisation, rationalisation, modernisation, sociology of religion, and the methodology of social science continues to exert a huge influence on a range of fields. Some scholars refer to Weber as one of the founders of sociology, and he also had a big impact on anthropology, the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, French poststructuralism, and even contemporary economics.
Weber is also a crucial figure in the history of ‘the myth of disenchantment.’ This is because he coined a rather poetical phrase die Entzauberung der Welt, normally rendered ‘the disenchantment of the world,’ which has come to stand for the essence of modernisation in a range of fields.
It is a slight exaggeration, but one might say that it is because of Weber that many scholars see an absence of belief in magic and religion as the central feature of modernity.
Also, part of Weber’s appeal comes from the received image of ‘Max Weber’ the man. Weber is often supposed to be tone deaf to religion, but not anti-religious. He is often depicted as restrained and sensible. Basically, Weber is often presented to non-specialists as dry as toast. But instead of being detrimental his value-neutrality is part of what is supposed to have made him a brilliant social scientist.
To this received account I make two broad interventions:
- Biographical. By examining a set of Weber’s letters that have only recently been made available to scholars in German, I argue that despite Weber’s reputation for being deaf to religion, had a positive sense of ‘mysticism.’ I also demonstrate that Weber came to theorise ‘the disenchantment of the world’ not out of frustration with Prussian bureaucracy, but rather after hanging out on a Swiss neo-pagan commune. This last point is important because Weber’s disenchantment is normally understood as describing a completed process — magic is supposed to be gone. But this is harder to grant if you’ve seen these letters that demonstrate that Weber knew, and even was friendly with, a number of practicing magicians (as I show in the book).
- Theoretical. As noted, scholars tend to assume that Weber was describing a world without magic. This reading is easy to dismiss both in terms of Weber’s knowledge of magical revivals and stray references in his published writings to the rationalisation of magic. So we have to rethink Weber’s legacy in a range of fields. Scholars have misunderstood Weber’s poetical phrase and because they have done so they have misunderstood his characterisation of modernity.
Indeed, I cannot emphasis this enough — Weber’s notion of ‘the disenchantment of the world’ does not mean there is no magic. We understand Weber better if we read him as also theorising the persistence of magic into modernity. What Weber envisioned can be further clarified on basic philological grounds. Entzauberung in German signals something that is in process. One of the most straightforward implications of my research would be to translate Weber’s famous phrase not as ‘the disenchantment of the world’ but instead as “the disenchanting of the world.”
This might sound like a minor point, but it has big implications. ‘Disenchantment’ suggests an accomplished state of affairs and suggests that the solution to problem of modernity is to resupply the missing magic. However, what Weber has in mind is not just a process, but also a program. All he’s doing is identifying that this program is in place, not that it is completed. For there to be an active, ongoing disenchanting of the world, magic has to be intact — somewhere, among some groups. There must therefore be pockets, entire regions, groups or classes where magic remains. If anything, disenchanting the world might seem destined to produce a ‘magic sphere’ with a new host of professionals, subject to its own internal rationalisation process.
For me one of the tensions in your book was between the understanding of the world inside the social sciences, and the understanding of the world in the wider culture. There’s a feedback loop within this tension, of course, since the wider culture’s understanding is one of the main concerns of the social sciences. Would you say the book’s focus is on the social sciences’ perceptions and misperceptions — of the wider culture, and of its seminal figures? And how did that reflexive feedback loop inform your approach?
Part of the story of my book is about how the social sciences have historically missed key aspects of the wider culture they were embedded in. But I think this was caused by more than the isolation of the ivory tower.
My sense is that some of this misperception was ideological. In other words, to tell a story that justified colonisation or crackdowns on various threatening beliefs, scholars often described their own culture in a certain way. So sometimes scholars said modernity was ‘disenchanted’ because they wanted to disenchant it.
I think another, more innocent factor, is the fact that you cannot see a gigantic system (such as a culture) all at once, as a totality. Instead, unless you are very careful, you see a complex system from only your local vantage point and it becomes tempting to think you’ve understood the whole system when you’ve only seen your small part of it. This applies to both academics and non-academics.
This limitation of observation is often why we get misleading senses of larger cultural trends (e.g. none of my Facebook friends voted for Trump therefore he won’t win).
Also, in this book one of the things that struck me was the way in which ‘modernity’ always seemed to be elsewhere. For example, often colonised subjects thought of the metropole as embodying modernity; or German philosophers looked to France as the epitome of the modern while French thinkers looked to England for the same, and so on. Modernity therefore often had an aspiration quality to it. Also, rather than having to amend the grand theory in the face of counter-evidence, any specific groups belief in magic could be explained as ‘imperfect’ modernisation.
In answer to the second part of your question, I also think one of the things that has unified my scholarship so far is a concern about the way that scholarly fields produce feedback loops with the subjects they study. So for example, how the study of shamanism has actually worked to produce contemporary neo-shamanic movements, or how the academic study of Buddhism in America has been shaped in subtle ways by the position of Buddhism in American popular culture.
In this book I was interested in a range of these loopings including the ways that the supposed ‘death of God,’ ‘conflict between religion and science,’ and ‘disenchantment of the world’ (all of which have been overstated) reverberated between academic fields and the wider culture. Sometimes producing the thing that social scientists predicted and sometimes producing the opposite.
I also try and show how in some specific instances scholars were more influenced by occult authors than they let on, and occult authors were often more conversant with the latest scholarship than they have historically been given credit. So I don’t think of this as a one-directional influence.
Some of this leads to one of the things I took issue with in your book. You rally a number of recent surveys about beliefs in magic and the supernatural in the West, amply demonstrating that things aren’t as simple as a two-dimensional, face-value reading of ‘the disenchantment of modernity’ might claim. But isn’t there an element of simplification in this rejoinder, too? In what way do these people, who claim belief in ‘enchantment’, actually hold and enact this belief? How might such belief exist or operate differently in the context of medieval Europe versus modern Europe? There’s obviously a lot of social nuance that might be hard to get to in the past, but have you or anyone undertaken such research — to replace the over-simple idea of disenchantment with the idea of radical shifts in the nature of enchantment?
I’m not trying to suggest stasis, much less the idea that enchanted beliefs are a holdover from some pre-modern past. Rather I’m interested in the way that new enchantments regularly emerge in the most unlikely of places. Moreover, I argue that the myth of disenchantment itself produces both enchantment and disenchantment. So I’m not merely describing unchanging persistence or unbroken continuity. I tried to show how different notions of the nature of modernity or the scientific worldview impacted belief in various forms of enchantment—giving life to some and extinguishing others.
In the book, I also tried to suggest shifts in the locus of enchantment (e.g. from established institutions to the birth of self-identified spiritual-but-not-religious, or the birth spiritualism in the nineteenth century after the collapse of an older model of the afterlife, or the rise of quantum mysticism in the early twentieth century as response to changing conceptions of physics, etc).
I don’t spend much time on Medieval Europe. My historical specialisation is the period of 1600 to the present. So there is probably more nuancing that could be done about specifically Medieval of notions of enchantment, but my suspicion is that depending on how granularly you look at the evidence you would find a long history of changing attitudes. For instance, notions of witchcraft evolved quite a lot from say 300–1600CE, with a number of significant debates about if witches were real and if so what they could do. These debates don’t fit into a clean narrative of ‘loss of belief in magic’ even in that period.
While I don’t focus on the Middle Ages. I do, however, reference changing notions of ‘belief’ itself. I note that the classification of certain enchantments (say ghosts) as ‘beliefs’ is definitely a contemporary shift that in some respects tends to privatise them. But I also think that something fishy is going on the construction of ‘belief’ as a category. Or perhaps more precisely put, I think of ‘belief’ as another one of those idealised notions that doesn’t map well onto the actual data. Let me explain.
Many scholars tend to assume that belief is binary — either you believe in Santa Claus or you don’t. But that doesn’t fit the anthropological evidence. By way of illustration, in a classic ethnography of French witchcraft belief (Jeanne Favret-Saada, ‘Les mots, la mort, les sorts’ Paris: Gallimard, 1977) Favret-Saada provides a number of examples of French farmers repeatedly stating things like ‘I don’t believe in witches, but…’, and then go on to act in every way as if witches exist. There is also a contemporary Japanese expression ‘hanshin-hangi’ (half-belief, half-doubt) that describes a common attitude toward the supernatural that is neither fully believing nor fully doubting, which captures this ambiguity nicely. Furthermore, if I ask my students if they ‘believe’ in talismans they often answer in the negative, but if I ask them if they have good luck charms they often say that they do and that these charms are very important to them. So it would seem they have talismans that they don’t ‘believe’ in, but act like they do. So in all these ways we have to recognise that our notion of binary ‘belief’ doesn’t map very well onto our data. Moreover, if you look at the long history of discussions of ‘belief’ or ‘faith’ one can see how both concepts evolved significantly over the last five-hundred years. Hence, one might hazard the guess that this notion of ‘belief’ itself is the product of recent history.
Similarly, there has been a lot of good scholarship on contemporary magic practitioners and what they believe and how they understand their practices and their efficacy. I reference this stuff in footnotes but for your readers I’d especially recommend Tanya Luhrmann’s Persuasions of the Witches’ Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. There is also good scholarship on the full spectrum of American paranormal (from Bigfoot hunters to Evangelical anti-witchers). For this I’d especially recommend Bader, Baker, and Mencken’s Paranormal America. Further, there is good work on how capitalism and commodification transforms enchantment. For this line of research, I’d recommend Carrette & King, Selling Spirituality and more recently Urban’s Zorba the Buddha: Sex, Spirituality, and Capitalism in the Global Osho Movement.
But in general I would agree with you insofar as I think that rejecting the longue durée narrative of magic’s decline should authorise new scholarship that tells more complex narratives. Some of those narratives would likely emphasise rupture while others would emphasise continuity depending on what they are focused on. For instance, to hazard another guess, I suspect that notions of spirits have changed radically while practices related to talismans might suggest continuity… All that is to say, there is a lot of work still to be done and I hope my work is generative in this regard.
Complicating our conceptions of ‘belief’ seems to be the common thread here — either seeing that ‘belief’ often contains elements of skepticism (as in Rane Willerslev’s work on humour among Siberian animists), or that ‘disbelief’ can hide informal elements of belief. In this sense, formal religion and the modern secular reaction to it appear as a dyad which obscures the simultaneously slippery and real (i.e. operative) nature of belief in lived human life. Magic functions as a third term here in that anyone who approaches it seriously develops a feel for the liminal space between ‘belief’ and ‘disbelief’. Could you discuss this role that magic has played as a third term in modern intellectual culture? Has the practice of magic informed your scholarship in this sense?
I agree with your sense of the slipperness of belief. The friends, research subjects, and family members that I know who engage in magical practices often see magic as between belief and disbelief in the way you mention.
Also, thanks for pointing me to Willerslev’s work, which is new to me.
While I totally agree with this way in which magic is liminal, in the book I focus on magic as a third term in a different way. In particular, I trace the way that magic functions as third term between science and religion.
To clarify, one of my long-standing scholarly preoccupations has been a focus on the the way that the categories ‘religion’ and ‘science’ have been constructed historically. We are used to thinking of ‘science’ as a ‘modern category’. But, depending on how you articulate your chronology, the same thing can be said about religion. Instead of taking for granted ‘religion’ as a universal aspect of human experience, ‘religion’ is a culturally-specific category that emerged late (roughly 17th century) in the Christian world and which always functions, no matter how well disguised, to describe a perceived similarity to European Christianity, and has never worked very well to talk about other parts of the world (e.g. Buddhism does not fit with most definitions/notions of religion). In this respect, concepts of “religion” and “science” were invented in the same period (and often out of a semi-overlapping terrain).
To explain, the notion of a conflict between ‘religion’ and ‘science’ is a product of the same process that gave each term its definition. Religion gained part of its meaning by being excluded from science, and vice-versa (e.g. religious beliefs are often things about which we have no positive empirical evidence). But the process was not merely binary, it often implied a third term. ‘Religion’ was often presented as existing in a different world from science. But religion was represented as actively antagonistic toward ‘superstition’ or ‘magic’ (e.g. so called superstitions also have no empirical justifications but instead of preserving them religious thinkers dedicated themselves to exterminating superstitions). In parallel, ‘science’ was often described as different from ‘religion’, but actively opposed to ‘superstition’ or ‘magic’ (e.g. the goal of science was often presented as eliminating belief in non-scientific superstitions). Also, much of what was defined as magic was in the zone of overlap between religion and science. Accordingly, policing ‘magic’ became part of the way that the categories of ‘religion’ and ‘science’ were formed in differentiation.
Restated, once ‘religion’ and ‘science’ are formulated as opposites, religion-science hybrids become both threatening and appealing. They are threatening because they risk destabilising the system’s points of closure and because they suggest pre-hybrid and therefore supposedly premodern systems. But also they are appealing because they promise to heal the split between the two notionally opposed terrains. The idea of ‘magic’ therefore functions as an either utopian or dystopian third term in relationship to this older binary.
You discussed ‘myth’ a bit earlier, maybe we should return to it to clarify something from my review. I felt that your statement near the end of the book — ‘that we can never fully escape myth’, which admits that your own narrative about disenchantment being overstated is itself a kind of myth — was a kind of ‘reveal’, a stepping back and reframing, and that the book might have worked better if this had been more clearly used as the frame from the start. You’ve mentioned that this wasn’t your intention writing.
In the book, I argue for a particular definition of ‘myth’ as a prefabricated narrative trope whose transposition meaning from one domain to another. I have in mind myths as repeated narrative symbols (e.g., the death of God, Achilles’s heel, the naked truth), but also fundamentally as models or narratives we tell about the past. I also agree with Hayden White and Paul Ricœur that history always requires ’emplotment’. Basically, writing history requires arranging historical events into a series, which forces you to tell a story about how they relate to each other. This narrative isn’t arbitrary insofar as it is constrained by the available evidence. Still there are many ways to connect the dots. It is a curve through a complex space.
I don’t think we historians ever escape narrative. I don’t think we ever escape stories. Restated, historians tell stories — empirically grounded, non-fiction stories, but stories all the same. In that sense, we merely exchange one narrative, or myth, hopefully for a better one.
In the conclusion I wanted to acknowledge that the book was itself narrative. Moreover, by arguing that ‘disenchantment is a myth’, I’m providing a prefabricated narrative trope and the extent to which other people use it, they are deploying it as a ‘myth’. But that said, I want to emphasise that I think it a better narrative on empirical grounds than the preceding narrative of ‘the disenchantment of the world’.
Even more fundamentally, I believe thought is itself narrative. Conscious experience is located in a chronology (past events, the current moment, anticipations of the future). In that way, even as we train ourselves to think abstractly thinking itself is bound up in a story. Indeed, part of the reason that disenchantment didn’t happen is because it often rested on a misguided notion of rationality that missed the importance of narrative.
I think this is why what you called a spoiler wasn’t exactly meant to be a spoiler. But I’m fascinated that you read it that way and I definitely meant the conclusion of the book to have new information (rather than merely a recap).
Did my (mis)reading generate any interesting reactions for you?
It made me very happy that you read my book closely enough to think long and hard about its structure. But I worried a bit that you thought I was confessing that it wasn’t somehow a ‘real history’.
As a historian (and philosopher of social science), I’m a committed fallibilist, by which I mean I believe in ‘knowledge without certainty’ and the ‘half-life of facts’. I don’t think any historical work is ever going to be the last word on a particular subject. In part this because the moment the work speaks to is always changing. The French Revolution meant different things in 1789, 1989, and 2018, by necessity of the shifts in subsequent historical contexts. So in that sense I expect the book must eventually be eclipsed.
I say a lot more about this stance in the book I’m writing now. But I think this fallibility is true not just of history but of science in general. Scientific facts have half-lives, which doesn’t mean they are false, but rather they are constantly being revised.
Your passing reference to Thomas Kuhn in your review was also insightful. Because while I only mention it in briefly I basically equate ‘paradigms’ and ‘myths’ in the work. In summary, Kuhn understood paradigms as models, languages, and scientific worldviews. As I argued, the heart of the book is an interrogation of ‘the paradigm of modernity’ in the human sciences. I think that paradigm has outlived its usefulness. But I’m not trying to get rid of paradigms as such. I don’t think that is possible. I hoped that the work would produce a new paradigm shift and in that sense a new paradigm or new myth would take over in the human sciences. But even in my wildest fantasy, I don’t assume the book will provide the final paradigm.
But I didn’t mean to suggest that the book was only a myth. I think it fits the empirical evidence much better than the older narrative.
Moreover, it is a grand history covering about three hundred years. So there is plenty of room for scholars to fill in the details and show how particular micro-histories either fit or don’t fit the patterns I’ve observed in the book. In that respect, one of my big hopes for the book is that it be generative.
How did your awareness of the ‘mythic’ nature of your own narrative affect how you crafted the book’s structure and rhetoric?
Some historians reacted quite badly to Hayden White’s critique historical narrative and tried to write intentionally non-narrative (boring) micro-histories. But basically this didn’t work. By contrast, I find the narrative nature of historical storytelling freeing.
For my undergraduate degree I studied playwriting and scriptwriting (in addition to philosophy and religious studies). I’ve written a few screenplays and some fiction (if any readers are producers or editors interested in novels let me know). So even as a scholar, I try to write in a way that uses devices drawn from this training as well as from a long history of thinking of scholarship in terms of its narratives.
Again, I want to emphasize that I am trying to be as faithful as possible to the evidence, but there is still a lot of latitude in how a scholar presents and reveals information.
To be more concrete, I tend to like a version of the plot twist (you might think X, here are all the reasons X sounds plausible, but actually it was Y). Another rhetorical structure I like to use is scene setting. At the start of a given chapter, I like to place the reader in a particular historical location. I’m also very sensitive to transitions between paragraphs and sections as ways of drawing the reader forward. These are all small things, but I hope it makes the work more readable.
I’ve often overheard senior scholars criticising ‘accessibility’ as though it was a bad thing. But I think this is pedantic and shortsighted. I also think fetishising specialisation makes for worse scholarship.
I think too many scholars mistake writing badly (or in a specialised idiom) for rigour and for that reason their work is unreadable by non-specialists. In theory circles this leads to philosophers who use an overabundance of unnecessary jargon and obscurantism to imply depths that they often lack. A surprising amount of American ‘theory’ reads like it was badly translated from French and it tends to default toward theoretical buzzwords whose meaning is assumed but unexamined.
I often use specialized terms but I make sure that at the outset at least I gloss them or explain them in a way that I hope a reader should be able to follow. This isn’t just for the reader, this is for me as well.
Even in my more explicit theorising, I find it a philosophical discipline to make sure I can always explain my ideas to a non-specialist. I believe it is actually harder to aim for simplicity and to express thoughts in ordinary language. But I think it sharpens and clarifies the ideas to do so.
So all that is to say, I was aiming for readability (within the significant constrains of the evidence and scholarly genre). Accordingly, the praise I’ve already received from various scholars and lay readers, really warms my heart!
Tell us a bit about what you’re working on now.
I’m having a blast working on a new book tentatively titled Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory after Postmodernism (currently under contract with University of Chicago Press, anticipated completion end of 2019).
Absolute Disruption is an attempt to challenge some dominant modes of scholarship today — those that are often associated with postmodernism. Basically, the decay of master narratives has led to a near-universal distrust of universals, while increasing hyper-specialisation seems to promise nothing but further fragmentation. My task was to find a way forward that rejects both modernist essentialism and postmodernist skepticism. So the response I am putting forward is neither deconstructionist nor restorationist — instead I articulate the need to locate the negation of the negation. To skirt a cliché, I argue that we need a Copernican revolution. We need to revolve the whole enterprise on its axis. The center must shift if the human sciences are going to hold. In sum, I aim to move beyond deconstruction by radicalising it or turning it inside out. So, the new book will articulate new methods for the social sciences by simultaneously radicalising and moving past the postmodern turn.