Enchantment: the story of disconnection in our modern world

Last week I realized I need more enchantment in my life.  I am neck deep in the study of sociology and psychology; two subjects which, while deliciously interesting, are emotionally heavy and revealing.  They strip away the veneer, and force you to look under the proverbial carpet–that place humanity ‘hides’ what it doesn’t want to deal with.

While considering my need for enchantment, I also contemplated: how I define it, what it means to me, and why it is integral when talking about Place and understanding our feeling of disconnection.

Irish Daffodils

Here in Ireland, we’re still in winter’s grip.  Snowdrops have bloomed and are fading; daffodils are beginning to peek out at the world; lambs have been born, though many ewes are still heavy with expectancy; and yet, we anticipate a mid-March snow this weekend.  The Cailleach is not finished with us.  And because it is still her time of reflection and darkness, though waning, I begin my exploration of Enchantment with its darker half.

Prior to the sixteenth century, when the scientific revolution began in the west, most of us human-persons perceived mind, experience, sentience, or consciousness in matter; we viewed the rivers, rocks, and sky as alive. We lived with an enchanted world view.

The world was wondrous, alive, and human-persons felt at home in this environment. The cosmos was a place of be-longing. A member of this cosmos was a direct participant in its drama. His personal destiny was bound up with ‘its’ destiny, and this relationship gave meaning to life. This was a participatory consciousness and it involved merger or identification with one’s surroundings. The world, which included all of us, was Enchanted.

me, on the lane : cork : ireland

When modern science came along, the fundamental question changed.  Instead of asking “why” we began to ask “how.”

We wanted to dig into Nature’s treasure-chest and understand her deep workings.

 [My discoveries] have satisfied me that it is possible to reach knowledge that will be of much utility in this life; and that instead of the speculative philosophy now taught in the schools we can find a practical one, by which, knowing the nature and behavior of fire, water, air, stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies which surround us, as well as we now understand the different skills of our workers, we can employ these entities for all the purposes for which they are suited, and so make ourselves masters and possessors of nature.

–René Descartes, Discourse on Method (1637)

To facilitate this understanding (with its resultant dissection and exploitation), we separated ourselves from the web, from the fabric of Fate.  We stepped outside nature, and natural phenomena, to become observers of ‘it.’ And from the 16th century onward mind has been expunged from the phenomenal world. The scientific explanations now are matter and motion. There is a distinction made between observer and observed. We have disenchanted the world.

The end point of this way of thinking is total reification: everything is an object, alien, not-me; and I am ultimately an object too, an alienated “thing” in a world of other, equally meaningless “things.” This world is not of my own making; the cosmos care nothing for me, and I don’t really feel a sense of belonging to it. What I feel, in fact, is a sickness in the soul.

Social scientists have a word for this sickness: disenchantment.  It is cultural rationalization; a systemic devaluation of mysticism characteristic of modern society.  We now firmly and unequivocally place a higher value on scientific understanding than we do on experiential knowing.  I am no longer my experience; instead, I am an outside observer of it.  Magic has been pulled up, by the roots, from social life.

Disenchantment works on a macro-level, where it destroys the process of making sacred, i.e., telling sacred story, and mythologising. The chaotic social elements once sacralized to provide meaning (the old question of “why”) are now explained by mere knowledge (the “how”): a puny antidote against the monsters of the dark.  Disenchantment then, is related to Durkheim’s concept of anomie: an un-mooring of the individual from the ties that bind in society.

It arises from a modern landscape that has become a “mass administration” full of alienation. Jobs are stupefying, relationships vapid and transient, the arena of politics absurd. Ernest Gellner, the philosopher and social anthropologist, argued that disenchantment was the inevitable product of modernity, and he observed that many people could not, and still can not, stand a disenchanted world.

What of those who can not stand a disenchanted world? Well, for many, there is a retreat into the oblivion provided by television, video games, fictionalism, virtual reality, entertainment, drugs, and consumerism. In a world where we no longer merge ecstatically with nature, we seek an artificial merger.  We hunger for Enchantment, and so reach out blindly for mystery.

I’m for the Hare that Runs by Night : Martin Herbert

Ultimately, what we have created in our pursuit of “how” is a way of thinking about our world that rips us from it.  We have created social pathology where none existed.  Many of us engage the scientific method in our work, many defend scientific theory, many more love our modern technology (for both its medical benefit and convenience), and others are avid readers of science fiction, but the end point remains: scientific consciousness is alienated consciousness.

The fruit of our paradigm is evident in the environmental degradations of our time, the commodification of every available idea or place, and the feeling of loneliness hiding in the pit of our stomach.

Disenchantment is a complex topic, and many fine writers have explored it.  I highly recommend Morris Berman’s work –especially his trilogy beginning with The Reechantment of the World — if you would like to dig deeper.

My desire for a return to Enchantment is not anachronistic, nor am I devaluing science. What I am doing is encouraging us to examine our relationship with the world around us, and how our larger social structures impact our spirituality.

And what of my own re-enchantment? I’ll write about that next week!

The Burning Heart of the Forest
Elemental Ethos: Water
Pagan is Latin for Redneck
Elemental Ethos: Air
About Traci

Traci Laird is an animist living in Ireland and hails from the great state of Texas (a mythic heritage she is quite proud of!).  Her current academic pursuits are in Sociology and Psychology, and she engages a “sensuous scholarship” when seeking to understand Place.  She can also be found at Confessions of a Hedge Witch

  • http://www.12stepwitch.com 12stepwitch

    This means a lot to me, thank you for writing it. I was especially moved by the part when you spoke about how people who can stand disenchantment might seek “there is a retreat into the oblivion provided by television, video games, fictionalism, virtual reality, entertainment, drugs, and consumerism. In a world where we no longer merge ecstatically with nature, we seek an artificial merger. We hunger for Enchantment, and so reach out blindly for mystery.” I really relate to that–I definitely reached out to find mystery in the wrong places in the past. But we can find mystery by bringing ecstatic practices into our lives. I don’t need LSD to feel the effects of raising a cone of power. Great article!

    • http://hedgeconfessions.com Traci

      Hi there! Thanks for reading. I am glad you enjoyed it. I think we all relate to the search for connection and enchantment. It’s built into us as human-persons. We are custom made, so to speak, for relationship with our environment…and always, we seek it. As a species, we have unnecessarily placed a few obstacles in our way, but we can experience participatory consciousness and enchantment, as you point out. Here’s to the Re-enchantment of the World!

  • http://www.haloquin.net Halo

    Hi Traci!

    Have you read any of Heidegger’s writings where he talks about enframing? To me it reads as a very similar concept to disenchantment as you’ve written about it here but talking of the why as coming from our tendency to view everything as a resource, rather than the switch from the why to the how. Those are connected ideas, of course, but subtly different I think. He writes about how art is that which has the greatest potential to ‘save’ us from enframing as it can reframe the world/the beings in the world and thus show us a healthier way to live. I wonder what your opinions on that are? :)

    I love how you’ve written this piece, how clearly you have expressed the complexities of philosophical disenchantment… My work is centred around the process of re-enchanting the world and I wonder if you’d be up for writing a guest post for me related to the concept of enchantment/disenchantment in social sciences? Along the lines of what you’ve got here would be fine, or you could take a different tack if you like!

    Let me know what you think :)


    • http://hedgeconfessions.com Traci

      Hi Halo!

      Thanks for reading, and posting! So glad you enjoyed the article. I admit, I haven’t read much of Heidegger, though I have a vague memory of agreeing with his view of technology: that it further separates human-persons. His ideas, as you express them, on art as a mechanism to ‘save’ us from enframing are intriguing. I have long mused that the Great Work of the 21st century is to untangle our sciences from the western centric world view (with its accompanying separation of spirt/matter/body). What would science look like it if emerged from a holistic premise? I’ll dive into Heidegger a bit, on your recommendation, and let you know more on my personal blog–or maybe here, who knows.

      I’ve watched a few of your videos! Lovely, really lovely. I’m glad you included a link to your website. I would be happy to offer a re-work of the ideas I presented here for a guest post. We can chat privately.


  • Theora

    Thank you for this! You know, I never really thought about the derivation of the word “disenchantment” even though I’d have used it to describe my reaction to the grind of modern life. But yes: dis-enchanted, in need of re-enchantment. Looking forward to the second part of this.

    • http://hedgeconfessions.com Traci

      Hi Theora! Thanks for reading, and posting! The more I ponder what is happening to us, wondering why we are so inherently unhappy with the social structures we have crafted for ourselves, the more I come back to science–or rather, the philosophy behind our sciences. It is a complex web, to be sure, but I can’t help but feel if we can identify the foundation the shoddy structure is built upon, we can make conscious choices about whether to re-model or start fresh.
      I look forward to hearing from you next week, as well!

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  • Thisica

    I’ve been slow to realise this need for intimate connections with the land I live on. For quite some time, I have been unaware of it. But when I realised I had quite some teary eyes when I read about such things practiced by other groups of humans which are non-’Western’, I started to consider in depth what was in those traditions that had brought me to tears. And then I realised, ever slowly, that I have little clue about the local environment I live in, which is part of the Sydney basin region in Australia. So there I am, now struggling to make sense of such sentiments and trying to honour them, even when it brings extra moral burden on me. Better to have a good sense of being present in the world and look after that, then to be blind. This has been going on in the background as I have also been working towards an honours degree in physics as well, which I am deeply passionate about.

    A struggle, it was–and still is. But a worthwhile struggle, to keep both my understand of the world and my sense of belonging to the world intact…together preferably!

    • Traci

      Hi Thisica,
      Australia is a land I can hardly imagine. How do you experience it? What is the Place like? If you described your place to me, as you would a classmate, what words would you use?

      • Thisica

        Weather-wise: tempestuous–hot days alternate with cold days. I have had strong affinity with the cold south-west winds which originate from the Southern Ocean in winter since childhood. We don’t have seasons there, so no wonder a lot of religious traditions that mention them don’t have such strong affinity with me. Land-wise: stately and immense, in strong part to the geology, though hidden by roads and houses (thanks to the 3-D map of the Sydney basin geology at uni for such details!). The semi-urban place which I live in is hosted to many bird species–quite chatty and active. I love the crickets chirping at night–they keep me company throughout the summer nights, which I find rather hard to fall asleep. The trees are quite tall and straight, yet have a soft core as they sway about in the wind. They’re also quite playful, as I’ve discovered recently.

        • Traci

          What a beautiful description! Is the cold South wind a similar tearing Mother, as our North wind is? I imagine the pure south as devoid of life, but it really isn’t. The North has the dancing borealis lights. Does the South have any phenomena unique to it? It’s a mysterious land to me…that Place below the equator.

          • Thisica

            I consider the south-west winds refreshing, especially after a hot day. They bring the rains, condensed from sea water from south of the continent. So let’s say that they’re life-giving! The north-west winds that come from the vast deserts west of the Great Dividing Range–which is a long mountainous line that stretches for most of east Australia– are dry and unforgiving during December-January, which had historically given rise to terrible bushfires. But this year, we had an early start to the bushfire season (that’s how we characterise seasons–by what actually happens here, not strictly following the agricultural year) in October. Given that already I live in a fluid environment where seasons are somewhat non-existent, things are getting weirder, climate-wise.

            As to unique phenomena…Australia is a rather old continent, so in some places, things haven’t changed much geologically for many millions of years, perhaps billions of years. There’s no volcanic activity nor fault lines within the continent, so that mostly explains that. Shark Bay in Western Australia is home to arguably the oldest kinds of life that has existed on Earth, which are stromatolites. The australis lights can be seen from Tasmania, but alas I don’t live there.

          • Traci

            What an amazing place to live! You paint a picture of an eloquent primordial environment that one must pay attention to–no taking it for granted. Does that sense of oldness conflict with modern life there?

          • Thisica

            As someone living in the Sydney basin, there’s conflict, since a lot of that is hidden by what we have built on top of the land. But the various times of drought send that message home, as well as dust storms that occasionally wash over the region.

  • Thisica

    I am quite in awe of what we have discovered about the world through the dedicated work of so many researchers during the past few centuries. Ideas like Deep Time, evolution, even the spontaneous symmetry breaking that made the universe so rich in material existences have given us a beautiful story of how we came to be in the world. If only if we could convey such richness of understanding, and yet humility, to the wider world…

    Heidegger did consider the possibility that philosophy, as traditionally practiced, would become irrelevant as it made people less aware of how they are as Being-in-the-world. Philosophy abstracts from everyday life and distorts the way in which we understand that. This is worrying, as our inability to be present–in part due to the distractions mentioned in your post–has screwed up our perspective of our place in the universe.

    • Traci

      Yes, the western ‘developed’ world seems determined to isolate the individual into its own skull. Besieged by messages of inadequacy, pathology, and judged according to one single human-person’s ability to rise above the clawing fray to achieve the ultimate in consumer fantasy, it is no wonder we retreat into dream worlds of fiction and fantasy genre. Even paganism offers this escape. We can dress-up in Stevie Nicks inspired skirts, go to festivals, wear elf ears, and pretend the work-a-day world does not exist. But by checking-out, we remove our ability to make the change we truly want.

      There is nothing wrong with artistic expression, and cosplay can be wonderful public art. But if that does not translate into a lived and embodied expression of personal ethic, it has turned to so much faery gold: crumbling leaves in our grasping hands.

  • Thisica

    I think that we are still struggling to get out of the old ways of thinking that has come to us from Christianity. I think this is part of the rotten core that has made escapism from living in the world so tempting. There is a focus away from this life towards the ‘afterlife’ which is part of what makes it so alluring, especially to people who are currently living a poor life–which is the majority of humans at the moment. Disenchantment of the world in which we live is part and parcel of this thought system.

    As for reductionism–that’s a side-effect of using scientific tools too liberally to every aspect of human life, which I see as both bad from a spiritual and from a scientific (!) point of view. I don’t think such tools can be used in everything. It’s also an attempt to shield ourselves from the unknown, which can’t be good. This opens the doors to dishonesty, arrogance and hubris.

    So what kinds of values and motivations underpin scientific research? It’s a mixed bag–from wanting to save other people’s lives in medicine, to having a strong appreciation for the awesome universe in which we live from geology, evolutionary biology and astronomy. I consider the consideration that researchers are human first to be vital here, lest we end up demonising such a complex human practice, which can be disconcerting to me, seeing that I value such practices. In a way, our society has been sold a straw-man depiction of research, which strips the humanness of it all to an idealised form, which makes it all the harder to connect. By depersonalising the process of research, we are unable to respond ethically to what we do. Passing the buck, so to speak. So I see the types of stories we tell about the realities of research matter.

    I see, though, the fear of the unknown to be paramount, compounded by the almost barren ecology of religious ideas that have been promoted by some Christian groups down the centuries. As for the emptiness induced by capitalism…a sense of inadequacy and the isolation induced by the personalised ‘message’ of such inadequacy also plays a role.

    All of these factors have contributed to the overall sense of disenchantment. There can be many others as well…

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