Friday, November 19, 2010

The Ethics of Enchantment, I: Must We Be Disenchanted?

Do we need to be disenchanted? Is there an honorable place for magic in environmental thought? I obviously use the word magic to unsettle serious people: I don’t mean to ask whether we should protect unicorns under the Endangered Species Act. But I mean to ask a serious question about how much freedom we have to reimagine our relationship to nature, to our landscapes, in the time we inhabit.

I’ve been thinking all day about enchantment. It has been that kind of day, even simply as a matter of the fall light, but I mean the word as the counter to disenchantment. Disenchantment is closely associated with Max Weber’s canonical account of modernity. Weber believed that reason was a force in history – a thin but relentless rationality, which pushed human thought and undertakings toward consistency and systematic expression. This had different effects on different areas of life. As for nature, rationalization brought it thoroughly under the sway of modern science: consistent, systematic accounts of cause-and-effect relationships, with no idea that it all had any “purpose” or “meant” anything. Weber called this approach to nature (and other things) instrumental reason: learning how to master the world to achieve our goals, without gaining any insight on what our goals might be (let alone the idea that the world itself might have goals). He was contemptuous of romantics who imagined that by going into the forests and mountains, they learned something about how they should live or the meaning of their lives. Purposes, values, were human things, and pretending to find them outside our own choices was giving ourselves a comfort no one deserved.

Disenchanted nature was nature without meaning, nature that could teach us nothing except how to manipulate it. Humanity in a disenchanted world should understand this and not indulge fantasies to the contrary. The ethics of disenchantment, then, was an ethics of maturity: humanity freeing itself from self-imposed intellectual infancy. It had charisma in the hands of expositors like Weber: charisma based in the courage to face things as they were, not as one might like them to be.
Modern law, and, by and large, ethics and political theory, are disenchanted in this way – and, in the way I just sketched, the disenchantment is a source of pride: these are (on their own self-conception) disciplines for grown-ups The first modern Anglo-American legal theorist, Jeremy Bentham, spent his inferno of a lifetime stripping English law of moss, Latin epigraphs, and icons. The dominant way of assessing law in American scholarship and regulation, cost-benefit analysis, is a low-built version of Bentham’s utilitarian calculus, intended to replace arbitrary values with the facts of human pleasures and pains (or, in this case, with the wealth to spend on pleasures).

Our other major normative approach, built on various versions of equal human rights, is the other major ethic of disenchantment: people matter equally, because of some basic property we have in common – we can all make choices, we all value things and have life-plans, at the minimum, we all value our own lives immeasurably; and from this, it follows that we should all be equally respected. (In this commitment to equality, the equal-rights approach rejoins Bentham’s utilitarianism, which was very basically about the idea that everyone’s pleasures and pains should count equally, whether they were bishops or peasants.

My puzzlement around this starts with the fact that ideas about nature, and, just as much, the ways people experience nature have persistently resisted disenchantment. For many, they have remained resolutely magical. And these experiences of enchantment have contributed very importantly to the environmental politics, law, and culture that we in fact have. So it isn’t just sentiment that is senchanted around nature: it seems to be the legal and institutional structure, and the set of beliefs and social movements that helped produce it and now maintain it.
What might this tell us about the opening question – whether disenchantment is intellectually mandatory, the only respectable attitude?

I need to start this discussion by doing something that I learned in college never to do, but that seems increasingly unavoidable as I get older: generalize about cultures, at least in a rough-cut way. Studies of pre-modern “magical” culture in Europe and extant “animist” groups elsewhere seem to converge on some ways that people experience nature in those times and places. They make for a pretty good starting sketch of what an enchanted experience of nature looks like.

First is the idea that mind and world are connected, and so are speech and world. Words and thoughts are invisible threads reaching to the secret heart of things. Bad thoughts, blasphemy, disrespect for the spirit of a place, can cause trouble: a plague, failed crops or a bad hunt, a “monstrous” birth. (That word is telling: it meant “misshapen,” but it is also related to the Latin for show, as in demonstrate, and it was thought that a misshapen calf, let alone an infant, displayed God’s reproach.) Mastered, these relationships could be magic in the usual technical sense of the word: manipulating physical phenomena for good or bad ends, outside the schemes of science). This is why Weber though “primitive” religion was a failed form of instrumental reason, basically a skein of charms and propitiations to stave off infertility and starvation.

But – and here is the second thing about an enchanted nature – these accounts often suggest an ethical relationship to natural phenomena. In propitiating a spirit – of, say, a place or a species – you might be hoping for a good hunt the next year, but you would also be trying to show it respect because showing respect is the right way to behave. It’s a lot like life among other people: there’s advantage to staying on their good side, but we also try to do right for them because that is how people decently relate to one another.

The ethical dimension of relating to nature could mean that nature stood in judgment on us, or, more usually, expressed divine judgment over us. (This is the significance of the monstrous birth, remember.) There is a very long and hydra-headed tradition of calling on the spontaneous human fear of thunder as a true perception that the Gods, or God, are angry, and that we had better get on our knees as fast as we can. If you’re ever in the mood for good science fiction but feeling antiquarian, read a Puritan sermon on earthquakes as expressions of divine wrath, and how they remind to be always – always – prepared for smiting. So, contrary to the sense that the word may give, enchantment didn’t mean fitting snugly into a world of friendly dryads and other place-spirits: it mean the awesomeness (in the strict sense of the word) of nature was out to get you. Or at least it could mean that.

Another aspect of the enchanted world was a belief that the patterns we saw in nature – how things resembled one another, for instance – revealed something about the meaning of things. So, for instance, the perception that every realm of animal life seemed to have a ruler – the eagle among birds, the lion among animals – showed that nature was hierarchically arranged, and this, in turn, had political meaning: the king was ruler by the same hierarchical principle that ordered the other species’ affairs. The idea that aesthetics is a quality of the perceiving mind, rather than a correspondence between perception and the meaning of the world, is partly a product of a disenchanted view of nature.


By now it should be somewhat clear why disenchantment was not just a process of growing rationality, but a mission connected with an insurgent idea of human freedom. For people to take command of their own fates, driving back the horizons of vulnerability and need, they had to be able to do certain things. One was to fact nature without fear: to start down the thunderstorm, look without flinching at the “monstrous” birth. Otherwise, they could never expect to be constant in their own purposes, authors, within whatever constraints, of their own lives (as some neo-Stoic humanists imagined it in early-modern Europe), or their own salvation (as many Protestant divines demanded). Nature had to be disenchanted to drive out the demons and divine judgments and free the human mind from fear. The aim to do this was as old as Epicurus and Lucretius, and was revived by humanists like Montaigne. It could be an atheistic program, and Epicureans were often thought to be atheists; but, whether or not it left room for God at the apex of the cosmos, it needed nature itself to be a purely natural, de-moralized phenomenon, for the sake of the vulnerable people who had to live in it.

By the way, I have been reading Puritan governor John Winthrop’s journals, and the everyday vulnerability to nature is astonishing. Calves and pigs are always getting eaten by wolves. People are always dying in the cold, or crushed beneath trees they are cutting for wood in the heart of the Massachusetts winter. People die suddenly of known diseases, or unknown ones. Where the victims are blasphemers, or lewd, or defiant servants, the judgment of God is invoked. Otherwise, Winthrop praises the survivors for their prayer and fortitude.

The Puritan experience speaks to the other emancipation: to make themselves less physically vulnerable to an often violent nature, people had to master it: Weber’s “instrumental rationality” really had to get going. It’s now often pointed out that, early on, magic and science were closely related: if you were a physicist, well, you might well be an alchemist. What was a chemist (other than an herbalist) but an alchemist? But, increasingly, the views of people like Francis Bacon came to the fore, and understanding nature as a neutral set of processes subject to our manipulation became prominent, dominant, the only serious alternative.

This last point is seriously overdrawn, as I am going to argue. In practice, many people continued to have both Christian and, if you will, pagan experiences of an enchanted nature. But the agenda of disenchantment, the emancipation from fear and need, powerfully affected all parts of common life. Most of all, it shaped the highest, or haughtiest, echelons: the elite arbiters of what could count as a serious approach to the world. It was the generalization of that agenda that produced the disenchanted approaches to law, politics, and ethics that I sketched earlier – and on much the same humanistic and progressive motives that I have been sketching.

But. The ways of experience nature that I described as enchanted have proved very persistent. It may be more accurate to say that the ways of experiencing one’s life, in landscapes and among other living things, have proved persistent. And, as I said at the beginning, the seemingly perennial hunger for them, and the ways they have been adapted to a changed – industrial, democratic – world, have done a great deal to form our environmental law and politics. And they have shaped the modes and maps of experience that we carry and live, the meanings nature has for us.

What to make of this? In my next post, I plan to sketch how the appetite for enchantment helped form today’s many relations to nature, and to begin asking whether the only serious attitude is a disenchanted one. And, if not, what are the uses we can make of it? Is there an ethics of enchantment?

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Jed,

    You know I don't have to be convinced that there's something worth investigating in modern institutions' persistent enchanted or magical aspects. As someone who's on record asserting that modern adjudication has a potentially legitimate magical mode, I'm completely in sympathy with this project. I'm also on board with violating the good critical practices we were taught in (post) modern humanities classes and making generalizations about culture. I think it's the only way we are ever going to get to what is interesting or worthwhile about this problem of the persistence of magic or enchantment in our own avowedly rationalist culture.

    One thing that seems crucial for your project is to think about how instrumental rationality and enchantment can coexist. Obviously Weber defined enchantment in opposition to modernity, maturity and rationality. That doesn't mean we're stuck with that opposition. This is one place that ethnographic work can really help. I thought immediately upon reading your post about Malinowski's assertion that magic is not a misunderstanding of nature but an aspect of people's relationship with nature. He pointed out that the Trobriand Islanders knew how to build seaworthy canoes based on accurate principles of hydrodynamics. Their magic rites didn't interfere with their technical rationality as boat builders -- the magic was for something else. Have you read Stanley Tambiah's "Magic, Science and Religion and the Scope of Rationality"? This book really turned me on to this point.

    Another book I read recently that seems relevant to your project is Ritua and Its Consequences by Adam Seligman et al This book totally goes to town on the broad cross cultural comparisons in a very brave way that I think pays off big. Their main point is that many different cultures (if not all cultures) partake of two aspects they call "ritual" and "sincerity" and that one or the other aspect tends to be dominant in different times and places but never goes it all alone.

    The point about the coexistence of technical rationality and magic seems important not only practically but theoretically. As a practical matter, obviously we don't want to give up good science in our understanding of the environment. On the theory side, if enchantment works with instrumental reason, that kind of defeats the tired Piagetian identification of instrumental reason as the more mature, advanced, civilized approach and the identification of enchantment with childish attitudes.

    Anyway, thanks for the provocative post and I look forward to more.

    Jessie Allen