Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Ethics of Enchantment, II: The Trouble with Enchantment

The last post has drawn some skeptical reactions (some essentially friendly, others cooler), so here I want to clear some ground by considering the core reasons to deny that enchantment – that deliberately controversial word – might contribute something important to our environmental conversation.

First is disregard for science. Enchantment can mean license to indulge in interpretations of nature that fit one’s moral, political, and even aesthetic likes despite – or more likely because of – contradicting science. The hugely obvious example right now is skepticism about climate change on the American right, which also happens to be a politically congenial example for me: of course I think it’s irrational! But there are plenty of examples among greens and others more like me. Fantastical medical theories and rejection of vaccines don’t have the constituency of climate denial, and their effect on public policy is likely to be less serious, but such attitudes have plenty of potential to make us collectively less able to secure our health and safety. That can mean willing submission to the same kinds of blind and cruel physical necessity that the emancipation from enchantment was aimed at overcoming.

Second, there’s a pair of what I think of as more purely ethical problems. Both come from finding too much comfort in a congenial view of nature. The first is mainly a matter of intellectual honesty, of good faith. If you live within the modern project of trying to come to grips with the world as it is, then an enchanted nature can be an appealing but counterproductive way out. Consider John Muir’s portraiture of the American West, for instance. Muir’s nature is all harmony: as he once put it, “no struggle for existence” intruded into his high Sierra. The place was an aesthetic and spiritual pleasuring-ground, where all species were brethren. It is difficult to take this as a serious attitude toward nature, or toward life, though the all-embracing optimism Muir expounded was supposed to reveal the real character of nature and also much about the human place in the world.

This problem sheds some light on the wistful refrain of the early Sierra Club: that sojourns in the high country had to end in return to the disenchanted lowlands, geographic and spiritual, of everyday life. The Club had little to say about what a Sierra epiphany might mean for the rest of life, social or personal. Maybe this is partly because the terrain the Club’s expeditions ascended into was not just literally rarefied: it was also a landscape of enchantment in the sense that the Club’s way of describing and seeing it glossed over the jagged and bloody parts, and also the flat, disappointing, meaningless ones. (Admittedly, in the Sierra summer, there often seems to be little of the latter: from individual flowers to peaks and valley vistas, the region can seem made to delight at every scale and angle of vision.)

The other ethical problem can be a lot worse, because it breaks faith with other people, not just with one’s self. Often when I mention that I’m interested in the relationships among Romanticism, conceptions of nature, and politics, thoughtful people go straight to the appropriate historical challenge: what about Germany? To put it cursorily, skating over the horror, adoration of the German landscape and joyous expeditions into nature were ubiquitous in the politics of left (at least as far as the social democrats) and right from the later nineteenth century on forward. As Luc Ferry argued in his tendentious but hard-to-ignore New Ecological Order, Nazism, which incorporated and carried on the right-most of these movements, was both “ecological” in some of its substantive concerns (including organic agriculture and, in some infamous characters, vegetarianism and concern for animal rights) and “enchanted” in its romantic praise of “blood and soil.”

The general danger here is that enchanted views of nature almost automatically foster the belief that some people are closer to nature’s purposes, more aligned with its right order, than others. This needn’t lead to exclusionary nationalism, but it has that affinity, since it is a convenient way of explaining one group’s “superior” claim to a land: their organic connection to it, its entwinement with their innate identity. But even without that – and American nature romanticism has had only a weak association with nationalism, tending instead to universal spiritual claims – it certainly asserts that my nature is the right nature, and that, because I understand it, I am its inevitable spokesperson, the best judge of how to use and inhabit it. When there was a brief argument in the 1970s about giving legal standing to natural phenomena, through representatives such as the Sierra Club, the real substance of the cultural conflict was whether such groups, with their highly particular (and, from some perspectives, conceited) takes on nature, should have a special claim to understand and represent it. Of course, this would have meant, in practice, having a special claim to define the public interest in nature, and that, in turn, would have been a pre-emption of ordinary political debate. Elite aesthetes belong to nature, and it to them; developers, mine bosses, and the like, do not, nor it to them. You can very well prefer the agenda of the aesthetes and, nonetheless, believe this is an illegitimate kind of argument.

It’s pretty hard to resist this point, at least on some level. Pre-empting the usual means of making social decisions by asserting that the land is mine on aesthetic or spiritual grounds does seem wrong. Certainly no one likes it when the other side does this – for instance, when Tea Partiers appear to be saying that, because of the kind of relationship humans have with God, we can know that the minerals lodged in American soil are there for our use and benefit. And the reason is that this kind of argument – if argument is even the word: appeal seems better – is so hard to engage responsively. There’s a kind of modesty and reciprocal respect in the disenchanted way of arguing about such decisions: expressing our various “preferences” and coming to more-or-less majoritarian decisions that don’t try to leap out of the field of human interests and values.

I think these three kinds of difficulties, particularly the last, account for a lot of the hostile response that many thoughtful people have to any dalliance with the language of enchantment. To ask what kind of approach we should take to enchanted attitudes, and whether there is a constructive approach, can seem to lead ineluctably to indulging irrationality, including the arrogant and exclusionary irrationality that tries to defect from our settled ways of making collective choices. We don’t even have to invoke actual political violence or bloody-minded (and soil-minded) nationalism to get at what’s wrong with it.

If this is what enchantment means, then the only ethics of enchantment is to get away from enchantment: we should be unreservedly loyal to the emancipating program of disenchantment that I sketched in the last post. At a time when some enchantment-mongers are helping to scuttle climate action, which must rank among the most important political failures of our time, this seems a particularly natural move. As Bill Ragette politely implied in his comment on an earlier post, it looks like science still needs to be a fighting creed.

If there’s more to say, it has to take these problems fully on board and not dodge them. It seems to me that the question is whether there is work of moral imagination, in the register I’ve been calling enchantment, that contributes importantly to our ability to appreciate and engage nature as a moral, political, and cultural problem. And the argument cannot just be that, as a matter of history, we owe some of our legal and political commitments to Romantic and other pro-enchantment developments that we might be skeptical toward if they arose today. That kind of poignant historical irony wouldn’t necessarily show anything about the attitude we should take going forward. Although those examples might be informative, the question is whether the mode of experience or imagination that I’ve been calling enchantment can enter into a productive relationship with such indispensable commitments as rationality and equality among citizens, which both drove disenchantment and continue to ground powerful considerations against enchantment.

1 comment:

  1. This may be dodging the problems you sketched out, but I have in mind a kind of enchantment that is neither ignorant, nor naive, nor divisive. It does not, in its worst incarnations, justify violence against people or other forms of life. The key, I think, is in the language used throughout your two posts about humility vs. arrogance, and feeling vulnerable before nature vs. taking command of it.

    Disenchantment need not monopolize the kind of modest argument you describe. Similarly, enchantment does not own arrogance or irrationality – the disenchanted can be smug, can take harmful actions based on faulty reasoning, mistaken belief, or arrogance. The disenchanted can seek to control or destroy the sources of its fears. A productive (a sterile word for such a subject) kind of enchantment is different from the three examples in your post because it is humble.

    As opposed to the willfully ignorant use of magical language, at war with science: enchantment does not end the search for understanding but fills the spaces in our minds that cannot be filled with knowledge. I don't mean the space left by those things that scientific study has not yet discovered and may never discover - though that provides a big enough space to fill. Rather, it is the sense that all things are permeated by something that cannot be known. So while we might call something a Latin name and understand certain things about its behavior, we know that these are simply well-made and useful observations, and not complete answers to the questions “why” or “how.”

    I am not worried as much about the idea that nature is always congenial and harmonious, because I don’t think that idea is very powerful. The “dark” side of nature, or the side that is not so friendly to people, is always close at hand to express itself. Danger permeates the language of science and the language of magic equally. John Muir was an anomalous human being. Denial of the more threatening possibilities in the natural world may occasionally be a misguided PR campaign launched to win over those who would destroy or control things. An attempt to eradicate fear in order to also eradicate the destructive impulses it engenders. Maybe I’m underestimating the danger presented by this particular misuse of enchantment, but I think that attempts to do away with human fear of bears and earthquakes are not only ill-advised but ill-fated.

    A humble enchantment by definition does not lend itself to use as a weapon to control or destroy other people. Briefly, just as enchantment can embody lack of knowledge and understanding in a way that is healthy, it can embody lack of control and power in a positive way. These gaps in our knowledge and our power are inevitable. I’m suggesting that it might be useful to fill those gaps with something intangible and mysterious, so that we are not tempted to fill them with things that are false. Without, I hope, overwhelming what we know to be true. Perhaps an impossible balance.