Marketing Disenchantment

Hey! Next time you’re in a supermarket, staring at the great bounty of sustenance produced by the ascension of humanity’s technological and economic progress, try looking up:

(Supermarket Ceiling)

Courtesy: Jenn Kearney

It’s kinda easy to forget sometimes, until you see the exposed ducts, fluorescent lights, and (if you’re lucky) cobwebs and mold–you’re not only in a grocery store, you’re also in a warehouse.  Let your eyes follow the wall down from the ceiling and you may see signs over sections, bakery, butcher, produce, often angled to evoke the sense of roofs, of separate shops.

People get paid lots of money to help you world a grocery store. Buying food in warehouses is a little alienating, and there are some great histories written about the struggle to help us poor mortals adjust to them. Food powders in colored boxes, machine-harvested flesh in plastic (with carbon monoxide to preserve color), sterile lights and white floors all seem rather distant from walking down streets between small shops or stalls to select what you intend to eat that day. Supermarkets are so many abstractions away from nature that we sometimes have trouble fathoming the relationship between dirt and food.

There are nicer grocery stores where people were paid even more money to help the shoppers forget they’re also in a warehouse. Once, I remember shuddering as I noticed the trickery of herbs sealed in plastic hanging from posts under a green canopy, as if I were plucking bay leaves from a laurel tree. There are organic grocery stores and co-ops where one can feel a bit better about our industrialized and capitalism-sustained distance from nature, but these aren’t very poor-friendly. I once paid 4 dollars for an in-season green pepper at a co-op in Seattle–looking up from the register I saw Tibetan prayer flags.  I don’t think the Dali Lama was getting my money.

There are also other markets on pre-industrial models–but they’re chaotic. The Maybuchufer Turkish Market in Berlin is my favorite–kilo-bags of Ceylon tea stacked beside mounds of Turkish flatbread across from bolts of coloured fabrics. Old women in headscarves, anti-fascist punks, grizzled queers and furry hipsters mingling and processing as if in awe, as if on pilgrimage, each stall a station of the cross.

Maybuchufer Markt

Maybuchufer Markt, Berlin–Courtesy: Max Fassnacht

This isn’t a post about food, industrial agriculture, or farmer’s markets. It’s an example of how worlding works. Part collective imagination, part collective practice, worlding can be used to enchant or disenchant. We world all the time, including when shuffling down long aisles of paper-board boxes colored to represent ideas of food.

Disenchantment and Materialism

Not only are some markets more fun than others (supermarkets only seem fun when I’m doing something in ‘em I’m not supposed to), there’s also a palatable sense of place in some markets utterly absent in others. Markets are not just places to shop, they are social exchanges, physical practices, places of new ideas, and part of the narratives of our lives: that is, markets are co-created worlds.

American supermarkets can teach us something important: in the disjuncture between the material existence (the warehouse full of boxes) and the worlding (our experience of a grocery store) lies a shadow, a gap. In such gaps, our longing to world the earth confronts the disenchantment of the world, and in that confrontation, in that jilted desire, we have an opening to sense what’s missing.

While many others on Patheos and elsewhere have written significantly on disenchantment (John Halstead, John Beckett), they usually stop short of fully confronting Materialism’s relationship to it. My fellow Sense of Place writer, Traci, gets much closer to the crux of the matter:

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.

Disenchantment and Materialism are inextricably linked. Materialism is this: everything that exists is only matter and energy and can only be explained thusly. Like Rationalism (from the latin word meaning “root,”) and Reductionism (“reduce”), Materialism makes a bold statement about existence, evinced in the words: merely, only, just, and actually:

A market is only a place to get food. A shrine is just a religious artifact. The Other is merely a psychological experience. Or, the gods and spirits and fae are actually just stories.

By reducing our worlds to the material, our thoughts to chemical reactions, our stories to illusions, and our experiences of the Other to delusions, Materialism rips from us the very tools by which we world the Other into the earth. While denying the Other and turning our desire and experience of it into mere psychological states and disorders, we find ourselves disarmed, alienated: we become disinhabited things.

The worst part? We not only accept this state of affairs, we cling to it, sustain it, and re-enact it.

This is where things get very uncomfortable, and why I suspect many writers are reluctant to follow the connection between Materialism and disenchantment very far: our physical existence, our technologies, our jobs, and our very means of getting food are tied up in the project of disenchantment. Not only are there people earning fortunes by worlding the earth into disenchantment, we help them do it. And we’re duly compensated with the glittering spoils of a ravaged earth.

Disenchantment has to be sustained, just like pavement needs to be patched—tree roots and grasses threaten to uproot its illusory permanence. Just as we need pavement to park our cars at the grocery store, we need Materialism to justify the sterile, disenchanted markets and the empty wonders they bestow upon us.

Besides, the Other is traumatic and untidy, much like the chaos of an outdoor market or the clutter of a forest floor.

About Rhyd Wildermuth

An intractable tea-swilling leftist-punk bard, Rhyd Wildermuth has left bits of his heart(h) everywhere—in a satyr’s den in Berlin, hanging from an elder tree over a holy well in Bretagne, scattered in back alleys of Seattle, and lost somewhere in the bottom of his rucksack. He’s devoted to Welsh gods, breathes words, makes candles, plays recorder, fumbles with tech, and refuses ever to learn to drive. He also writes at

  • Thisica

    …or maybe not. In one of the comments I’ve posted, we have to consider the possibility that we’ve been brought up into a simplistic story about our recent past. I do think that disenchantment is not a universal feature of modernity, nor is it something that is inevitable. So…how do you consider researchers who effectively fell in in love with the world? Are they just continuing on with the disenchantment process, or is there something more complex going on in their life? Such is the problems raised by this kind of story about disenchantment: you forget that other humans are Other as well, living their lives in ways that you may not completely understand, yet value.

    On a different point: I do wonder why the word ‘just’ is used. If we are ‘just’ material creatures, which we are, then it should make no difference to how we live our life. I don’t think that a lot of people consider materialism to be something that they would justify their current ways of living. I consider non-idea-based causes as part of the reason they currently live in ways which may not be healthy for them…such as being raised up in a poor neighbourhood with high rates of crimes, indebtedness, not being educated enough, etc. Their spiritual life may or may not flourish in such circumstances, but we can’t prejudge their life without meeting them. I would prefer to not make such sweeping generalisations about how people live.

    I also consider the possibility that the underlying values of capitalism, especially that of machine-like efficiency and self-oriented work, greatly shape how individuals live their life as well, as Michael Foucault’s analysis of decentralised power demonstrates. We are brought up in these values, which makes it all so hard for people to recognise that they’re present.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      Perhaps it’s because I actually have a background in microbiology, but the scientists of my acquaintance were perfectly aware of the fact that studies are purposefully simplified abstractions of natural complexity. The reductionism (and often the materialism) is methodological, not ontological. The map is not the territory. The petri dish is not the soil.

      Probably the history in microbiology is why it’s difficult for me to see Beings as unary things. I am a Being, but I’m also a community of Beings. A Tree is a Being, but Tree is also a community of Beings. Already I’m dealing with a fractal set of Relations.

      • rhyd wildermuth

        They may be methodological in the laboratory, but they function ontologically in society. This sort of thing isn’t uncommon–my evolutionary biologist friends in germany complained to me of their frustration that so much evolutionary theory gets published in the service of capitalism. Some of this is the fault of the researchers, though, who’ve found that books written about how our evolutionary history plays out in the choice of SUV versus hybrid car, or books like Sex at Dawn, do very well with the public.

        • CBrachyrhynchos

          I think evolutionary psychology is neither evolution nor good psychology. I left biology largely because of the ethics of research appropriated for factory farming. But that was an ethical commitment grounded in co-existence with ecosystems as morally relevant.

          • rhyd wildermuth

            I wish more people felt as you do about it!
            Science in the service of capitalism gets really, really gross, almost as bad as religion in its service.

          • Thisica

            I do find this all very concerning. But you have to consider the sober reality that politicians care a lot about the usefulness of science, not the creative blue-sky research which involves curiosity…which I find lacking in politicians, unfortunately. We also have to consider that just because science is funded in part by people who endorse capitalism, doesn’t mean that the resulting research is terrible. We have to be very careful and make judgements on a case-by-case basis. For me, modern psychiatry is something that I avoid like the plague: the research money is very corruptible of scientific research. These people are unable to investigate matters without pandering to the big drug companies, which is very scary.

          • rhyd wildermuth

            We ran into something similar in social work. I worked for a very large non-profit which did pioneering work in harm-reduction. When they opened up an alcohol-managed housing facility for chronic inebriates with long histories of homelessness, the only political tactic that seemed to work to secure and maintain funding (as well as keep the angry conservative hoardes from burning the place down) was to point out that the facility was “saving public money” and “maintaining public order.”

            It’s nauseating that the only way to defend housing the homeless was to resort to utilitarianism, as if one needs to be convinced that the homeless should have homes!

            So there are massive parallels in multiple fields, and the issue seems to come down to the way we’ve collectively decided to world the social sphere and assign “value.”

          • Thisica

            I dislike that utilitarian outlook of life. Mind you, neoclassical economics (which drives a lot of economic policies today. Scary that too!) derives a lot of power from Bentham’s work on utilitarianism in the 19th century and transmogrified such ideas into something that Bentham wouldn’t recognise. The idea of the utility-maximising self-centred agent is at the core of modern economic thought. This is what I have learned from my studies of political economy and philosophy at university–one of the few standing teaching this kind of thing.

            By the way, Steven Keen, who has been thrown out of the University of Western Sydney, amongst other important scholars in political economy, has written a book called “Debunking economics”, which highlights the shoddy reasoning of so-called economists.I had the fortune to visit him a week ago and had some good conversation about such matters…and of the importance of the non-instrumental life.

          • Thisica

            Evolutionary psychology makes a simple mistake about how organisms live: their lives are based deeply on instincts only. But they, as well as us, live in the present, ever changing depending on circumstances. There is no sense in which organisms are stuck in the old patterns in the way that some (not all!) researchers say. Mind you, a lot of the rubbish from that field arises from poor journalism, which often likes to clip out the complications of research and just presents the stuff that sounds ‘hip’ to their audience…which I don’t like as a researcher. Modest claims get inflated into ridiculous ones, to the point where people can justify hideous actions (e.g. rape) by pointing to such ‘findings’, which often, when you look at the actual papers, aren’t there.

          • rhyd wildermuth

            The appalling example I like to use (and shudder) is what comes from “lad mags,” the sort of absurd “what she wants” articles that discuss how evolution makes a woman pull the hair back from her ears and use lipstick in order to make men think about vaginas and labias.

            The stuff is disgusting. It’s also frightfully popular, and I suspect its popularity at least partially derives from our diverted/disenchanted desire to discover and weave meaning. Worse, it insidiously re-inscribes itself back into societal consciousness as a way of worlding.

    • rhyd wildermuth

      Yay Foucault! I’m getting to him later. The Order of Things is endlessly useful.

      I hope I haven’t come across as forgetting that humans can be other–in fact, my intention has been to expand the Lacanian Other into the supernatural Other. In essence, one can experience the Other in an Other. This could be messy, but I’m more a poet than a theorist, so I’m comfortable with such problems.

      Much of my background is in political activism and social work, and I spent much of my life in the circumstances you mention. This will be coming up quite soon, as I tried to hint at in the first essay’s mention of the homeless encampment.

      Can I ask a question? Do you consider the statement you made:
      “If we are ‘just’ material creatures, which we are”
      to be a statement of faith?

      I’m inclined to, particularly because of my readings both of history and historiography as it relates to both religion and thought. That is, Materialism’s ontology is that everything that is not ontic is not, there’s no residue possible, and therefore no metaphysics. But this is a statement of faith, as any residue which might exist just needs to be explained with more science, when we “progress” that far, a sort of messianic hope of eventual, perfect theory.

      The more honest statement of Materialism, especially Reductionism, would seem to be “we are at least material” (leaving off “being,” since “being-ness” is residual).

      • Thisica

        I see what you mean. I don’t consider materialism (with a capital M) to be something that I hold dearly. I don’t think there is anything to be gained from taking such a position as faith. I frankly have no need for such dogmatism. It’s a burden to me and can make me blind to the world that is beyond human concepts. I just let Beings be and not insert my own opinions, since I have really no idea. Our scientific knowledge is helpful, but it is no substitute for directly experiencing the world in all its glory, without judgement.

        If reductionism is true, then there wouldn’t be many fields of human inquiry, just one. But that’s not the reality anyway, so reductionism is refuted!

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    “everything that exists is only matter and energy and can only be explained thusly.”

    This is the point where I start asking whether I’m quite a bit crazier than I thought I was, or is the rest of humanity. That matter and energy are inherently sacred, vital, wondrous, present, and coexistent is a self-evident principle for me. Matter and energy are sufficient to explain wonders, because they themselves are wondrous things that dance, change, and sing. It is a world of intersubjective relations and histories going back into Deep Time, so a statement like, “A market is only a place to get food,” is patently ridiculous.

    Thankfully, I have enough philosophy at my fingertips to suggest that intersubjectivity and interbeing isn’t all that crazy. To me, you’re disenchanting by insisting that all that sacredness lives somewhere beyond my fingertips.

    There’s something weird here in the statement that we can worship spirits of place, spirits associated with place, deified places, deified principles, archetypical spirits that symbolize the forces of a place, but we can’t worship the place itself as a sacred thing.

    But there’s more than a little bit of revisionism going on here when you’re suggesting that a tiny philosophical minority that has been subjected to discrimination and blacklists to the present day is more responsible for Wallmart than the doctrine of divine providence.

    • rhyd wildermuth

      You’re not responsible for Walmart. I think we all probably are.

      Your mystical embrace of matter and energy is beautiful, as is your discussion of Deep Time. Have you written a book? Because I would read it to bits. Please honestly consider this.

      But I’m not sure I can quite understand that you’re a Materialist. I mean, of course, you can define yourself as you will, but I’m uncertain others would necessarily know you as one. This is probably at least some of the frustration you must be feeling. But naming is both a collective and a personal rite in my world, so I won’t redefine you.

      You can certainly worship the place itself, or at the very least revere the place. I don’t worship forests or temples, but I worship through forests and temples as “gates” to the Other. To the outside observer, it probably looks like the same thing.

      We may not fully understand each other yet. This is okay, as we’ve time.

      • CBrachyrhynchos

        Probably an early influence on me here is Asimov’s “The Cinderella Compound” which was my first introduction as a child to organic chemistry. Carbon is marvelous not just because of carbon’s essence but because carbon creates relations with other substances across the periodic table. It’s the relations that are fundamental to chemistry (and to all the other sciences), not just the essence of the things.

        Part of this disagreement comes from my sense that you’re arguing against an ontology and epistemology (and conflating the two) that is largely obsolete or has been subjected to considerable critique. I also note that the usual antagonist to materialism (pragmatic and reductive) is a religious idealism that’s often equally reductive. Examples include the energy model of disease, application of anthropomorphic archetypes and gender to non-human nature, and Christian metaphysics.

        But primarily what I object to is the notion of a matter/spirit schism in which the Sacred and morally relevant are estranged from us.

        • rhyd wildermuth

          We’re not in utter disagreement here, particularly in your last statement. What I’m primarily concerned with is that it is “we” who are doing the estrangement. The Other recedes only insofar as we deny it from our worlding.

          That is, when we make nothing sacred, then everything is completely for our use. This has its roots in Calvinism (but not in Catholicism) and is definitely evident in Adam Smith’s discussions of “improvement,” particularly when speaking of justifications for colonialism in America (simplified: the natives aren’t improving their land, so therefore they’re doing nothing with it).

          • Thisica

            Ah, yes, the myth of progress. John Gray has written a book
            on such themes, called “The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other
            Modern Myths”.

          • rhyd wildermuth

            Gray’s such a grumpy fellow, and also delightful to read. Is that the one where he says, in essence, progress has pretty much just given us better dentistry and not much else?

          • Thisica

            I think so. At least he’s doing the things that we should be doing as a society: question what sorts of things we have been handed down from generations past and try to sort out the good from the bad for our present time.

          • Thisica

            So, what does the ‘sacred’ means to you?

  • John Beckett

    This is a good description of the problem. And I think your comment about the limitations of my own writings on disenchantment is more right than not.

    What’s Step One? What do we do to begin to reverse this situation? Paganism is such a response, but it’s easy for us to get distracted or co-opted. Can we speed up the process? Or is all we can do is to keep meditating and circling and worshipping and wait for the changes to come?

    • rhyd wildermuth

      Hi John!

      I’m a relentless fan of your writing, you should know. :)

      I suspect we all need to be a bit more…radical, shall we say, regarding disenchantment. That’s possibly the first step, along with recognizing our collective and individual complicity in it.

      Also, I think we should be careful when we speak of Paganism as a mere response, as this feeds back into the Materialist/Capitalist progress narrative. If we are only part of a response, than we are merely reacting.

      You’re utterly right about co-option. While changes of consciousness are important, a lot of such notions end up de-clawing our ferocity and re-inscribing our resistance back into the project of disenchantment. Consider the bank advertisements of women sitting lotus-style on a bed, checking their online bank balances; meditation rooms in corporate headquarters like Amazon or Google, or, the aforementioned Tibetan Prayer Flags over a cash register and you’ll get a sense of what seems to happen when internal changes are all that matter–the danger we present is averted.

      Much of what I hope to get at in my posts here is that we need to be disabused of the delusion that disenchantment only happens to us, not through us. From there, we can begin recognising our agency and reclaiming our role in worlding the Other into the earth; that is, radical worlding or re-enchantment.

      • Thisica

        This invites me into desiring to fight for what matters to us, as political beings. But what is it that we value so highly to defend is such an important issue that we can’t just take it as a solely personal burden. I have had illusions in the past of taking on these burdens upon myself that it had sent me through periodic times of darkness.

  • Laine Glaistig

    This has come to me at a good time.

    I’ve recently come out of a place in my life of complete and utter disenchantment and have been struggling and battling to find myself and to bring reality into the world. A few mantra that came from the depths of me (or perhaps from outside of me, I can’t be sure) that have helped me back on my way have been:

    Nothing is “just” anything.

    If everything is nothing, there sure is a lot of it!

    Both of these phrases have been meditation aids for me, touchstones and guides back to healthy ways of thinking, from a point where I couldn’t bear to stand on the shore of the lake because the erosion of the waves reminded me of the ultimate futility of everything. Nothing is “just” something, everything is a part of a living, flowing, flowering existence.

    Thank you for writing this.

    • rhyd wildermuth


      Those are both beautiful mantras. I think I’m gonna take them up m’self; not only would it be a good reminder, but it sounds they’d both be incredible counter-spells against despair, against those moments where the meaning seems to have drained out of the world and we fear it’s gone completely.

      Thanks so much for sharing them!