We Have Never Been Disenchanted

There are some great essays in The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age, edited by Josh Landy and Michael Saler (Stanford UP, 2009).  Overall, these essays are better than most of the usual fare on the topic of enchantment. 

Typically, in most accounts, discussions of enchantment end up positing a very simplistic account of modernization.  This comes from Max Weber’s famous description of “the disenchantment of the world” (die Entzauberung der Welt), which adopts Friedrich Schiller’s term “disenchantment.”  Weber argued that processes of modern rationalization increasingly devalue and secularize the world, thus taking away all of its “magic” (Zauber).  Here’s the narrative: having lost our premodern enchantment to modern disenchantment, our task now is to re-enchant the world.  That’s simply not true!    

Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern was the first book I read that showed that we have never been disenchanted.  Then Lee Bailey’s The Enchantments of Technology, then Jane Bennett’s The Enchantment of Modern Life.  Latour, Bailey, and Bennett all argue that the supposed disenchantment of the world was always accompanied by a proliferation of enchantments.  If we were ever disenchanted, we were simultaneously undergoing re-enchantment.  This is the theme of the anthology edited by Landy and Saler.  We’ve always been re-enchanted!

My favorite part of the question of enchantment is the musical metaphor.  “Enchant” derives from the Latin incantare, which comes from cantare (“to sing”).  Whereas the German word “Entzauberung” suggests a loss of “magic” (Zauber), its translation in English as “disenchantment” suggests that chanting or singing is somehow involved, as if the disenchantment of the world occurred when there was no longer any singing in the world or, more likely, when the singing could no longer be heard.

I was pleased to find out that Michel Serres has an essay in Landy’s and Saler’s book, and he addresses the aural dimension of enchantment in his chapter, “Epilogue: What Hearing Knows.”  Basically, Serres invites us to experience the enchantment of the world by listening to “the world’s song”: “A keen ear and silence give us over to its enchantment.  Listen” (259). 

Serres remarks that some people don’t notice that enchantment.  Some, “never hearing the song of the world with their hardened ears, devoted to the human sciences and thus deafened by the noises of the collectivity, even believe that the universe is disenchanted” (272).  For Serres, this is just a failure of listening.  What if we listen better?  “Do we reach the song of enchantment of the things themselves?  Yes” (268).

If vibrations exist in every domain, a sort of universal acoustics, then music and language, both universal in some way, should be able to construct an epistemology founded on hearing at least as easily as the one that, beginning with Plato, we have founded on sight.  The universal acoustics would allow us, finally, to hear the world’s song and its enchantment. (271)

4 thoughts on “We Have Never Been Disenchanted

  1. You are forgetting how in English the mode of a witch or wizard casting a spell is called “incantation.” Zauber means magic OR charm. Charm itself derives from L. carmen (hence the enchanting gypsy of the eponymous opera) which comes from L. canere. (Of note as well: the term GERM forks off at a similar place in the etymological plant of living English, thus opening a nice rhizomatic nexus around this term). Altogether, a most excellent translation I think. 8ˆ)

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