Disenchantment, Misenchantment, and Re-Enchantment: A Dialogue with Richard Tarnas

This dialogue took place in October 2013 at Esalen in Big Sur, CA.

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21 Comments Add yours

  1. This was excellent, thanks a lot for posting. Very inspiring discussion. The term ‘misenchantment’ in particular struck me as an important tool to think about modern ways of searching for ‘meaning’. I was reminded of the David Foster Wallace passage where he wrote that, “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

    I also agree with the person who objected to the prefix in ‘re-enchantment’ since it suggests a return, a kind of conservatism people tend to shy away from. If only for that reason, I find Barfield’s terminology of Original-Final Participation much more compelling. Thanks again.

    1. Thanks, Kasper.

      Yes, Barfield is definitely relevant here. I would have brought him up if we had more time!

  2. Thomas Matus says:

    Thank you both for allowing me to enter into the field of thought and reflection that you teach/lstudy, and where I am trying to move as I give an intensive course on the Bhagavad-Gita in Berkeley (GTU). As I listened, I thought of music and of the intelligences beyond and, dare I say, above the human. Part of the disaster of the Enlightenment was the near-total loss of a cosmic sense that removed the human from the chorus of voices and minds, singing telepathically, as it were; our singing minds, bereft of this counterpoint, were reduced to tunes accompanied by static, vertical chords, marching or waltzing in the empire of King Tonic and Queen Dominant. Thank the Ineffable for Debussy and Schoenberg, one with the whole-tone scale and the other with the twelve-tone row, and the liberating dissonance that re-enchants us in Stravinsky, Bartok, Messiaen, and Gubaidulina. Forgive me for insisting that we can and must fugue with other, superior minds, without demanding that they land on the White House lawn. They have already landed in our minds.

    1. Thomas, Your example really brings home what’s been lost. Thanks for that. I think you’re pointing to the need for Western folks like us to learn to listen again, not just to each other, but to the surrounding non-human (or more-than-human?) world. Whether we are trying to “re-enchant” or just redirect a misguided form of enchantment (with money, tech., celebrity, etc.), our principle task is to remember how to hear and how to participate in the music-making of the cosmos.

  3. milliern says:

    Hello, Matt. I have been reading through Weber, from time to time, so I was wondering if there is any secondary literature particularly on the disenchantment of the world (and the discussed, related concepts), which you would particularly recommend?

    Cheers, friend.

    1. Definitely check out Latour’s work, especially “We Have Never Been Modern” (mentioned in the video), as well as his newest book “An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence.”

      Also check out Charles Taylor’s book “A Secular Age.” Then there is Morris Berman’s “The Disenchantment of the World.”

      1. milliern says:

        I have read all of Latour’s books (sorry, I should have mentioned this), but I hadn’t heard of Berman’s or Taylor’s books. Thanks.

      2. milliern says:

        Just a follow-up; I think you meant “The Reenchantment of the World” by Berman. Figured I would post this before anyone goes looking for the title. Thanks, again.

  4. I liked it. I thought it was interesting that the idea of a nurturing darkness came up. I have thought along similar lines, with the current crises having their roots in the Over-Enlightenment. Particularly in the age of ubiquitous surveillance and inspection, the darkness that needs to be conjured is like the darkness of the dilated pupil – receptivity of the subject rather than illumination of the object.

    1. “the darkness that needs to be conjured is like the darkness of the dilated pupil–receptivity of the subject rather than illumination of the object.”

      I dig it. Like I said to Thomas above, so much of our modern problems seem related to our inability to listen to the various ways that the universe articulates itself. We have come to believe that only human beings are articulate.
      Emerson had it right: “It is not words only that are emblematic; it is things which are emblematic.”

  5. Hello Matt,

    I have been considering this issue (the re-enchantment of the world) for a long time, and came across a book by Ray Brassier titled Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. In it, he suggests that the disenchantment of the world should not be looked at as a task to be overcome, but celebrated as a sign of intellectual maturity. The human organism growing up and realizing that Santa Clause doesn’t exist, to put it crudely. For Brassier, the only way to overcome nihilism is to pass THROUGH it. Not to avoid it, but to dive right in.

    I am independently studying Chinese philosophy, and in it can be discerned a thread of thought which suggests that Universe is so inconceivably large and complex, so beyond the correlates of the rational mind, that any attempt to capture it is utterly absurd.

    Not that I totally subscribe to this notion, but it makes me wonder whether or not there is some nutritious value here. Perhaps, instead of striving to re-enchanting the universe, we came to see the possibility that we have not disenchanted it enough. We have not passed through the disenchantment. That is, we have yet to really confront the disenchantment of the self. The assumption of the self as a unitary rational agent confronting a world which can present itself as meaningful/less.

    In other words, what if we reverse the relationship to consider the agent which is to re-enchant the universe. The human organism as dying, or as Lyotard’s expression of the solar catastrophe would put it, as already dead.

    What if the way to re-enchant the universe was to disenchant it fully. To disenchant ourselves. Where would that take us?

    Just some fragmented thoughts for you to consider.

    1. Hi there,

      I’ve read Brassier’s book. I agree that nihilism/disenchantment must be passed through, that it is a necessary developmental stage. But I don’t think we should stop growing at that point. I feel the same way about atheism (once you’ve outgrown the sky-daddy image of god, there is still a need to imagine alternative “God-images”, alternative ways of worshipping and of affirming the beauty and goodness of existence, etc.). There is a further possibility after disenchantment: What if the modern disenchanted view of the world as a giant heartless machine is no less a psychological projection than the ancient/medieval enchanted cosmos? Perhaps Western civilization needed to drain nature of all meaning and subjectivity in order to realize the important values of individual freedom and democratic self-governance. I think contemporary techno-capitalist society has gone way too far in its neutralization of nature; the individual human subject has been over-inflated by this new market-dominated circumstance, and the non-human earth community has been pushed beyond the ecological breaking point. As I see it, the need to re-imagine civilization on a more ecological basis entails our participation in a new form of scientifically informed enchantment. I touched on what this would look like in the discussion component of the video. I’ve also written about it (here, for ex.: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02604027.2011.615620?journalCode=gwof20#.UtcHBWRDtbU)

      1. As for disenchanting the self, I’m not so sure. I think the robust sense of individuality/selfhood fostered by the process of Enlightenment was its most important achievement. This helped Western society overcome slavery, sexism, etc. (still work to do, of course). I would agree, as I said above, that capitalism has inflated the human ego to the point of absurdity (the Tea Party movement is an example of individualism gone wrong). We need a good dose of relationality. But I agree with Emerson, who said “He only who is able to stand alone, is qualified for society.”

        Also, its not for the human self to re-enchant the world, as though we were the agents decided whether the non-human universe has meaning or not. The point, at least from my perspective, is that the universe has intrinsic meaning regardless of what we human beings may think or believe. Re-enchantment has more to do with renewing our capacity to listen to the meaning that is already there.

      2. sar1906 says:

        I agree. The modern disenchanted view of the world as devoid of all meaning IS a psychological projection. It is more a reflection of the organism making the statement. Just as people who always complain about being bored (even though they spend their entire day watching television) are only expressing the state of their own minds and their set of acquired behavior habits. How can one be bored when there is an infinite selection of activities to participate in? Read a book,draw a picture, walk under some trees, ride a bicycle, study a foreign language, and so on.

        And I absolutely agree in the values of individual freedom/self hood. The works of Thoreau and Emerson approach the value of sacred texts, in my eyes. I believe that, by virtue of the fact of our anatomical independence from each other, this notion of self hood is crucial for healthy development as a complete organism.

        I have come more and more, however, to distinguish between egoism and narcissism. Egoism consisting of a healthy, strong self-reliance, self-assuredness and non-conformity. “Whoso would be a man should be a non-conformist” and narcissism the opposite. A sick, weak dependence, self-doubt and conformity that (perhaps unconsciously) appeals to a self-image which can only be supplied from outside, from Nature, God, Society, the Nation, et cetera. The Tea Party would then be a silly case of narcissistic nationalist reactivity.

        I would suggest that disenchantment of the self entails a disenchantment of the hypnotic effect of narcissistic imitation and psychological grasping that produces an auto-pilot self which reacts to its social environment instead of responding intelligently. A disenchantment of the techno capitalist self of consumer accumulation and positive self-help. A self which we all, due to our embeddedness in the culture of techno capitalism and sensational mass media, are hypnotized by, to differing degrees.

        So when you suggest that the universe has meaning regardless of whether we believe it or not, what do you mean, specifically? Rather, how does one access that meaning. Does it entail the cultivation of latent sense organs, for example? Do we retreat into nature preserves and meditate? Though, I certainly agree more time in nature isn’t a bad thing…

        Recently, I have begun to believe that the reason we are continuing to seek external meaning is because we have yet to question the self which may access external meaning. I suspect that a thorough investigation would find all the meaning one could possibly imagine right where we are sitting, in the peristalsis of the digestive tract and the shedding of e skin.

  6. dmfant says:

    when I see the overwhelming statistics of people who believe in the extra-natural/para-normal from full-blown theists/spiritualists (angels, ghosts, etc) to believers in luck and such I’m left wondering where exactly is the great and powerful “disenchantment” to be found? When and where were we ever so “modern” as a species?

    1. We’re in agreement here. Hence my preference for the concept of “misenchantment.”

      1. dmfant says:

        except in the talk you seem to except the premise that Latour was wrong when he points out that there was no Enlightenment, what is unfortunate is that Bruno has walked away from the particulars (affordances&resistances) of fieldwork into the kinds of baseless (speculative?) theo-logical assertions by folks like Taylor and co. that there were these “epochal” shifts in consciousness (like the “axial”) without really ever explaining what the mechanism/medium could be for such a mass conversion (without resuming the old metaphysics of Presence in one guise or another) as opposed to us being more or less the same old all-too-human critters we have been for ages but now armed with more powerful tools. Could you except “enchantment” as talking about the powers of rhetoric/imagination/poetic-dwelling or would you insist that somehow people are getting to a “higher” consciousness, somehow more in tune with what is Real?

      2. I would insist that rhetoric/imagination/poetry are intrinsic to the fabric of the Real. The Real is rhea (“flow”), it is essentially magical (i.e., a matter of power; as Whitehead says [quoting Plato], “being is simply power,” the ability to affect and to be affected), and it is poeticizing (i.e., creative, always “in-the-making”).

      3. Don’t mistake my meaning: Human rhetoric, imagination, and poetics do not simply create the Real by fiat, as though reality is just a matter of human wish-fulfillment. The multifarious non-human world also participates in expressing the Real. The world was already articulating itself before we came along to put it into English.

  7. sar1906 says:

    What if we take a Nietzschean perspective and posit the search for external meaning as a symptom of the decadent physiology of the organism? An organism grown with too many choices made for it, too many answers provided. A butterfly with stunted wings because a Good Samaritan came along and helped it break through the cocoon?

    Sometimes I wonder if the drive to re-access the meaning in the universe overlooks the possibility that that meaning is always a function of the internal state of the organism. Think of how silly the question of meaning would be during/after a vigorous hike, competitive sports event, freestyle writing, etc.

    You said it yourself, “…is no less a psychological projection than the ancient/medieval enchanted cosmos.”

    Perhaps meaning is a physiological state, and not an external content to be accessed.

  8. Mike Wahl says:

    I’m rather late for this discussion…and have enjoyed reading many of the postings.
    The experience of synchronicity seems to bridge the ‘inner/outer’ chasm, as a kind of Yin/Yang pointer on our life’s journey.
    The British sociologist Richard Jenkins has introduced the terms ‘substantial’ and ‘transient’ as useful terms for describing types of (re)enchantments. It seems common for those with substantial enchantments, such as religious or political commitments, to decry those with transient enchantments, such as sex, drugs and rock & roll (etc. There are thousands of such transient enchantments). The connection between enchantment and (hierarchical) state structure, and what Jung called “the collective unconscious” seems obvious.
    .

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