Can a review of a non-fiction book contain spoilers? I’ve never asked myself that question before, and now I have I’m not sure of the answer. In any case, it’s a testament to how interesting this book is that it’s provoked me in such a way. I’m torn about how to proceed, but I think I’ll cleave to the book’s overt image — a scholarly work, discussion of all aspects of which can only illuminate — and spoil away.

I’m hesitant because not knowing that the ending was going to be what it turned out to be found me frequently annoyed and impatient throughout the book. So perhaps ‘spoiling’ things will allow readers to relax and enjoy the many rich subtleties here. On the other hand, the annoyance acted like a stimulant, firing up a constant stream of questioning, defensiveness, and efforts to deepen my own thinking. In a now-favourite metaphor of mine, the debunking spirit does indeed act like the proverbial bucket of cold water — but after the initial shock, cold water is bracing. The metabolism works to compensate, the heart pumps faster, and there can be a delicious warm afterglow. If you love this kind of intellectual experience, perhaps you can take my word that this is a book worth reading, and come back when you’re done!

Josephson-Storm’s core argument here is that we — especially those embedded in the social sciences — have been captivated by the idea that ‘modernity’ is characterised by disenchantment: the banishment of wonder, magic, and spiritual reality. Quantities have usurped qualities, mechanisation has eroded the charm of organic craft, capitalism has reduced all values to exchange values, and the fair spirits of our pagan past have permanently deserted us. Some people — secularising champions of rationalist Enlightenment — celebrate all this. Some, from the piously religious to the heretically sorcerous, lament it. Both celebrants and lamenters, Josephson-Storm argues, are deluded. Disenchantment never actually happened. The ‘end of myth’ is, itself, a myth.

The first thing to pick up on here is ‘especially those embedded in the social sciences’. I came to this as someone who had little time for the Lacan and Derrida I was force-fed at university, and whose recent attempt at tackling Adorno and Horkheimer’s classic The Dialectic of Enlightenment (a key work discussed here) fell foul of boredom with oblique abstractions after a chapter or two. Happily, Josephson-Storm’s prose is always lucid, often entertaining. Most important quotations are paraphrased for clarity, with no sense of patronisation. However, this contributes to a slightly skewed sense of the intended audience. My lazy pleasure in feeling that this work was giving me the digestible gist of Adorno et al. belied the fact that the intellectual world being addressed is, to a significant degree, the one where Adorno et al. are taken for granted, and where he doesn’t need to be paraphrased.

This isn’t entirely the case, and there are important aspects to the argument here that are profoundly relevant in the wider cultural sphere. But it’s worth bearing in mind that very often the discussion of ‘disenchantment’ is specifically rooted in Max Weber’s famed use of the term. It’s a term that many who haven’t read Weber will have absorbed, and slipped its meaning away from his. Some of these ‘other disenchantments’ may have validity as readings of our times, and certain concessions are made here. But in an important sense, the book is threaded onto an analysis of the term’s pre-Weberian roots, and post-Weberian misunderstandings. All very important, but all fixated in an odd kind of essentialism on Weber’s meaning. Anyone with an intellectual life not conditioned by academic orthodoxy may find some passages confusing if this frame is forgotten.

The bulk of the book is a potted modern intellectual history, focusing on the surreptitious — or not so surreptitious — presence of ‘enchantment’, even — or especially — in thinkers who loudly proclaim ‘the end of myth’. The Hermetic and alchemical beliefs of the main architects of modern science and cosmology — Bacon, Kepler, Newton — are collated. Later, the over-rigid dualism between Freud’s apparent dismissal of occultism and Jung’s embrace of it is broken down with closer reading of Freud. Perhaps eyebrows are raised the highest by the chapter on the Vienna Circle, the gestators of Logical Positivism between the World Wars, famed for their über-rational attempt to eliminate metaphysics. And not so famed for their preoccupation with ghosts and the paranormal, and for their conception of their project as a kind of magical revival!

This unveiling of the occult aspects of such ‘obviously’ non-magical schools of thought isn’t new, but here it’s done as I’ve never seen it done before, making for some riveting reading. However, we’re now approaching some of my annoyances.

One of Josephson-Storm’s main arguments against ‘disenchantment’ as a characterisation of modernity is that it’s often been self-refuting. As a broad diagnosis, it’s provoked sometimes strong reactions, reassessments and revivals. Paradoxically, these have worked to keep enchantment alive. Remember that warm glow after a dip in cold water? But is this evidence against ‘disenchantment’? Surely it’s a paradoxical part of its story. Feeling warm after a dash of cold doesn’t mean it wasn’t cold — it means it was cold, but also that reality’s dynamics aren’t simple-minded.

From another angle, it’s edifying to read how Freud downplayed his complex views on occultism. But equally, rather than showing that ‘magic lives on’, we could say that the downplaying precisely reveals the pressure and prevalence of disenchantment.

Of course, these paradoxes are far from missed here. There’s a lot of nuanced discussion looking at the dialectical, or enantiodromic1 nature of disenchantment. The term ‘bimodal concept’ is introduced to refer to ‘terms that function both to disenchant and enchant in different registers’.2

But still, the debunking weight of the title, at the same time as being nuanced by these discussions, is also affirmed — both in the blurb and the body. This frame derails the details as much as the details nuance the frame. The back cover tells us that ‘as broad cultural history goes, this narrative [of disenchantment] is wrong’. Even as a broad history, a low-resolution map, it’s not just over-simplistic, but wrong. This sweeping assertion is echoed in the introduction,3 and in concluding remarks calling for a definitive end to the disenchantment myth.4

Then there’s the use of the word ‘myth’. Josephson-Storm describes the two modes of the term as a polemical indication of an erroneous belief, on the one hand, and on the other a romantic idea of an archaic or sacred mode of discourse. ‘Although I admit to wilfully evoking the polemical usage,’ he writes, ‘by “myth” I mainly mean to gesture towards those repeated narrative symbols … that are adopted as prefabricated tropes or metaphors and whose transposition carries unconscious meaning from one domain to another.’5 The polemical usage is certainly not dominant in terms of a word count, but it punches way above its weight, and — in my view — generally undermines that prevalent thread of subtler argumentation.

Very early on I saw what I thought may have been a trap he had fallen into. The boldness of the title, the powerful aura of the debunking register, the slippage from complexifying the idea of disenchantment into dismissing it… All this, when heeded, revealed an elephant in the room. Isn’t the critique of ‘disenchantment’ as a myth also itself a myth?

This isn’t to draw an equivalence between Josephson-Storm’s attack on disenchantment and my attack on his attack. This books rallies an impressive weight of evidence, carefully tracing actual (or probable, or possible) lines of influence through the genealogies of the social sciences. I can’t counter this with equal firepower, but I think it’s a crucial point.

CHAOS: The Broadsheets of Ontological Anarchism by Hakim Bey

Without suggesting direct influence, a notable exponent of this myth — let’s call it ‘the myth that disenchantment never happened’ — is Hakim Bey. He writes in Chaos (1985):

Not only have the chains of the Law been broken, they never existed; demons never guarded the stars, the Empire never got started, Eros never grew a beard.

The tone is more prosaic, the focus is more specific, but the sense and rhythm are echoed closely near the end of The Myth of Disenchantment:

The modern world picture never completed. The tyranny of reason or instrumental rationality never occurred. … We are already free.6

Bey was drawing on a number of sources, such as heretical antinomian religious sects who believe ‘the Fall’ never happened. He was writing years before the major academic source acknowledged by Josephson-Storm, Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern (1991).

Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology by David Graeber

Someone else who comes to mind was influenced by Latour, and probably Bey too: anthropologist David Graeber. Speaking of our tendency to ‘totalise’ things like societies into systems which are seen to undergo Kuhnian paradigm shifts, he writes in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (2004):

The habit of thought which defines the world, or society, as a totalizing system … tends to lead almost inevitably to a view of revolutions as cataclysmic ruptures. Since, after all, how else could one totalizing system be replaced by a completely different one than by a cataclysmic rupture? Human history thus becomes a series of revolutions: the Neolithic revolution, the Industrial revolution, the Information revolution, etc.7

The point here isn’t to undermine the truth in what Josephson-Storm argues, by pointing at other instances of this ‘myth that disenchantment never happened’ and saying, ‘Look, it’s just a story because other people tell the same story’. It’s more to say that when dealing with vast unfathomables such as human history and culture, in some sense there’s no stopping, once you step back and say, ‘Well this is a myth.’ It’s myths all the way down.

So this was something bugging me a lot of the time through reading this. Wouldn’t it ease the pressure a bit if he’d admit this dimension? It wouldn’t have to undermine his argument, but it’d definitely give it a valuable extra dimension of complexity. Why doesn’t he frame it with this humility? Why?!

And this is my ‘spoiler’, such as it is. He does eventually fess up — in the final paragraph! I actually punched the air by that point. ‘Oh ye of little faith,’ I could hear him quip.

By invoking the language of myth, it might seem that I have become a partisan of disenchantment, but my point is the reverse: that we can never fully escape myth. Criticism may imply demythologization, but we merely exchange one tale for another, albeit hopefully, a better one.8

This aspect fascinates me because it seems so fundamental to how we approach knowledge, especially historical knowledge; and also because it obsessed me so much as I wrote my book North. The model of history I used there comes in three stages, pivoting firstly on the Agricultural Revolution, and then on the Copernican Revolution. The latter’s epochal ushering-in of ‘modernity’, and my heavy use of the idea that modernity consists of a loss of our ancient animism, places me roughly in Josephson-Storm’s firing line. At the same time, while I sometimes sensed defensive reflexes kicking in as I read this book, at others I found myself fired up with a sense of justification, having my perspectives confirmed. What to make of this split reaction?

I think the key is in two different approaches to the fact that ‘we can never fully escape myth’. Josephson-Storm generally sticks to the strategic pretence that the ground he’s making a stand on is solid, enabling him to settle into the task of destabilising the ground of others. The admission that this ground, too, is subject to the shifty perils of ‘prefabricated tropes’ and ‘unconscious meaning’ is brought in as a kind of ‘reveal’ at the end. This is audacious, in a way, and probably works very differently for different readers. For me it had a curious triumphant sense of relief, tinged with frustration, because it was only then that I could fully relax into the author’s company. For anyone heavily invested in the idea that myths are just there to be debunked, the effect would be mixed in a different way. The pleasure at seeing ‘the myth of modernity’ upended would be constantly undermined by the fact that this was being done in service of the idea that myth and enchantment are still very much alive, indeed will never go away; and this latter sense would be ramped up at the end, learning that — horror of horrors! — even the debunking process partook of myth.

My own approach in North — governed by my position as a speculative independent writer, and by self-awareness of this errant vocation — was to bring myth and narrative centre-stage. The entire book is framed as a story from the start. I knew there were interesting perspectives to be gained from my two-pivot, three-stage image of history, but I was very uncomfortable with any kind of ‘single vision’9 handling of these simplifications. So I saw it as non-fiction where I addressed the ‘argument’ as a ‘narrative’. And this frame is set into personal biographical stories which hint at my own bias, reasons why I might be more disposed than some to Graeber’s narratives of ‘cataclysmic rupture’. Not to utterly undermine my perspective, but to loosen it a little, let it breathe in the fresh air of multiplicity.

There are hints — at the end of The Myth of Disenchantment — of Josephson-Storm’s own personal bias. His grandmother was an anthropologist who, in retirement, went public with her belief in spirits, becoming more vocal in her vision of the very divide between ‘ancient animism’ and ‘modern mechanism’ which this book attacks. It seems to be an affectionate rather than fractious reaction against his grandmother which fed into this book’s roots, but the inclusion of it is, like the final admission of partaking in myth, very welcome — again, letting the bulk of his argument breathe a little.

Another facet of my dual reaction of defensiveness and justification lies in the a core paradox under attack here. Beyond the straight debunking implied by the title, the next offensive is against the fact that many if not most of the scholars and writers who formulated the myth of disenchantment did so from a position touched by, even immersed in, magic, spirits, and séances. How on Earth could they be so blind and hypocritical? I’m exaggerating — Josephson-Storm doesn’t accuse viciously like this. But this sometimes seems to be the amplified essence of his implication. One of the book’s main scoops seems to be the revelation that Weber, the key exponent of the myth of disenchantment, and apparently seen by most as a sober founder of sociology, frequented the pagan anarchist commune at Monte Verità in Ascona, Switzerland.

This, along with the overwhelming amount of other insights into the magical predilections of key figures in the social sciences, is of course fascinating and important to digest. But does it really support the blunt end of Josephson-Storm’s project? Magic seems to have been rife among proto-sociologists, but they were formulating theories about the deeper nature of wider society, not about academia. Wouldn’t contact with a pagan commune naturally intensify by contrast the sense of disenchantment prevalent in wider society, rather than lead to the conclusion that all is well and the fairies never departed? Wouldn’t the latter imply a kind of blinkered immersion in a sub-culture?

There is strong evidence rallied that modernity has never been entirely disenchanted, and that it’s been more enchanted than is often thought. Of course, the surprise of the latter is a function of the distorting effects of the myth of disenchantment — and correcting this distortion is the valuable, irrefutable part of the project here. But there is never a conclusive sense here that disenchantment, as ‘a broad cultural narrative’, is ‘wrong’. Absolute numbers for the nineteenth century rise of spiritualism are given,10 and are very impressive — but there’s no attempt to contextualise them in relative terms. The results of surveys show that a majority in the States and Europe hold some form of non-secular belief,11 but these surveys are very recent, in ‘postmodern’ times which aren’t necessarily relevant to arguments about the nature of ‘modernity’.12

I offer these niggles in full knowledge that I’ve already laid out here the obvious reason for such ‘counter-distortions’: Josephson-Storm is countering the myth of disenchantment with his own myth, the myth that it never happened, and evidence necessarily skews when framed by myth. But I think there are deeper levels to this which aren’t addressed. For instance, in some sense the evidence rallied for enchantment in modernity is quite shallow. Professing a spiritual belief in a survey is one thing. But what is the nature of this belief? How does it operate in the textures of one’s life? How does it function in relation to daily life, and in relation to the beliefs and attitudes of everyone you interact with? How are these beliefs embodied in social institutions of all kinds, and in the shifting fields of relationship between people and things? And, to bring things back to disenchantment: how might the answers to these questions reflect on differences between the broad cultural narratives of modernity and pre-modernity?

These questions are of course impossibly complex in one sense. Both past and present are prohibitively resistant to authoritative answers: the past because it’s gone, the present because we’re so close to it. But this is precisely where ‘myth’ (in the sense of a poetic or intuitive attempt at capturing the truth of a complex system) becomes a useful tool rather than a benighted hindrance. There is a sense here in which the myth of disenchantment functions as a more sophisticated apprehension than its denial. To return to Graeber’s critique of imaginative totalities (e.g. ‘modernity’) separated by cataclysmic ruptures, I find something more pragmatic in his approach than in Josephson-Storm’s penchant for absolutist dismissal. Graeber writes:

This is not an appeal for a flat-out rejection of such imaginative totalities — even assuming this were possible, which it probably isn’t, since they are probably a necessary tool of human thought. It is an appeal to bear in mind that they are always just that: tools of thought.13

Josephson-Storm does finally concede that the flat-out rejection he aims for isn’t possible. But I remain curious as to how this book might have functioned with an up-front realistic embrace of this, rather than a final grudging acceptance.

The best concession he makes, usefully complexifying rather than just rejecting, involves a simple shift in the key term:

As I interpret Max Weber, we live in a disenchanting world in which magic is embattled and intermittently contained with its own cultural sphere, but not a disenchanted one in which magic is gone.14

Here, and in many other places, I found myself scanning my own memories, my own writings, to see how I’ve expressed my sense of modern disenchantment. I thought hard about those figures Josephson-Storm frames as enacting some form of duplicity, in claiming magic to be dead even as they got into it. In the latter case, I applied my ‘if you sat them down’ thought experiment: before you accuse someone based on some specific, overt textual evidence, imagine sitting them down in the pub and asking them what they really thought. Not necessarily that they had been publicly lying, but that they might have been taking something for granted, or temporarily ignoring something to make a point. Again and again, in plumbing my sense of these people, and of myself, I found it hard if not impossible to imagine anyone actually, really believing that magic is irrevocably dead.15 Is all of this really muddle-headed or duplicitous? Perhaps some people approach reality’s paradoxes and complexities by giving each facet a voice (and find some more interesting than others), rather than trying to resolve them into a single vision.

The idea that someone may hold modernity to be both disenchanted and a time of enchantment re-asserting itself, rather than constantly expressing both aspects in a finely wrought compromise, doesn’t seem that strange. Perhaps some people take this ‘double vision’ for granted, and would only spell their awareness of the paradox out if you sat them down and pressed them on the matter. And yes, perhaps taking this sort of thing for granted has its pitfalls, and cold reminders are necessary. In the end, though, Josephson-Storm’s rebukes seem to be most applicable within his own profession — where the issue is less that people entertain bimodal visions of reality, but that they suppress from public view the disavowed, enchanted half of their vision. In other contexts, there’s an element of straw man argumentation in his image of people really believing modernity is disenchanted rather than disenchanting.

I learned a lot about my own thinking reading this book. At one point a conceptual ‘Franco-Frankfurt-Frankenstein’s monster’ is described, a mish-mash of the ideas of Deleuze & Guattari, Heidegger, Adorno & Horkheimer, and Cixous. Without having read any of these, nor any writers heavily influenced by them, I was fascinated to see a pretty accurate description of my own thinking, certainly circa 1996. Then I was humbled to hear it described as a derivative pastiche not worth taking seriously. Then I was hooked to hear it wasn’t a derivative postmodern pastiche at all, but a fair summary of the thought of one Ludwig Klages (1872-1956), a figure I’ve never encountered before. (One of the mixed blessings of being self-taught. You seem foolish sometimes for reinventing a wheel or two; but then, learning to invent wheels isn’t to be sniffed at.)

Heavily tarnished by anti-semitism (apparently rooted in a pagan critique of Judeo-Christianity gone awry), Klages’ ideas sound nevertheless rich to my ear. One in particular felt like reading my own thoughts.

Klages maintained that we are all animists at heart. His evidence is the ability of poetry to capture the particularity of specific moment: the sudden curl of a woman’s lips just before she breaks into a full smile, the dappled light of one particular May afternoon, or the ferocious beauty of an oncoming storm.16

I found myself mirrored again — again, in a double-edged way — in folklorist James Frazer’s work. I’ve got an abridged Golden Bough on my shelves, but I’ve barely touched it, just used it occasionally for reference. But apparently his evolutionary model is a fair fit for my model in North. Frazer envisioned a primal era of magic, followed by one of religion, then by the modern era of science. Crucially, he saw magic and science as sharing significant commonalities. This sense of resonance between pre-agricultural life and modernity is perhaps my own way of breaking down the sense of modernity being a unique pinnacle in a linear progression. I wasn’t aware that this way of complexifying the evolutionist sense of social development had such deep roots in modern scholarship. And even though Josephson-Storm’s heavy-handed critique of broad characterisations of history often irked me, there’s also a good amount of appreciation here for some of the unexpectedly sophisticated — if still problematic — thinking beneath the surface in figures such as Frazer and the Logical Positivists.

One of the most justified critiques here is that of the Eurocentrism of the myths of modernity and disenchantment. Much of Josephson-Storm’s work has been in and about Japan, certainly a society capable of capsizing anyone’s simplistic notions of the transitions and interplays between animism and industrial or digital capitalist economics. The case for exploring some Eurocentric narratives can’t be denied — not least if you’re European, or trying to understand the obviously important global role it has played in the past 500 years or so. But when it comes to understanding humanity as a whole, the false sense of a clean narrative line provided by Eurocentrism rings ever more hollow. Opening ourselves to cultural histories and religious patterns previously occluded by our own powerful story will challenge and enrich our understanding of ourselves, and create space for other stories — and this book contributes solidly to this project.

Finally, it’s interesting to step back and see something that both ‘the myth of disenchantment’ and ‘the myth that disenchantment never happened’ have in common. Both derive something from the role of the underdog. Those magic-leaning folk who see the modern world as disenchanted, even as they immerse themselves in practices and subcultures of enchantment, surely find their sense of enchanted immersion boosted as well as threatened by the perceived lack of magic surrounding them. The sense of fighting against a dominant trend which is threatening the world can be a powerful source of energy. But paradoxically, Josephson-Storm’s position is also ‘the underdog’. The myth of disenchantment is perceived to be dominant (a view certainly inflected by his professional context), and the myth that it never happened is a minority view, gaining energy from its plucky David-against-Goliath status. His rhetoric, aiming to ‘put an end’ to the myth of disenchantment (even while finally admitting this is impossible) is a familiar underdog over-compensation, like communism’s understandable but naive sense of being able to enact a year-zero fresh start.

In all, this is a valuable narrative, thoroughly researched and skilfully wrought. It takes on the mantle of ‘fresh start’ debunking a little too heavily, but in the end we realise that this is part of the game. It’s part of playing the game in a time when we’re unable to rewind the radical destabilisation of postmodern thought, but when we’re also struggling to avoid the intellectual dead-ends it brought us to, of excessive playfulness and detached irrelevance. It’s also, surely, part of playing the game of academia, where you have to make bold statements to carve out a niche for yourself in saturated intellectual space, as much as commercial writers have to get attention to shift units. For my money, Josephson-Storm underplays his awareness that he’s also caught up in mythologising, and I’m not going to be shocked when people who have read him (or read shallow reviews) tell me straight-faced that disenchantment simply never happened. But crucially, that awareness is there, so ultimately we can have a conversation. We accept we’re all story-driven humans, all prey to the seductions of narrative, all trying to turn narratives to our own advantage, and all hoping that out of the meeting and clashing of our stories, some sparks of wisdom fly off.