A Secular Age:

Understanding disenchantment

posted by Akeel Bilgrami

Jane Bennett’s sympathetic yet critical commentary on my essay “What is Enchantment?” (published in the volume Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age) describes the notion of disenchantment that I present as primarily addressing the theological displacements that emerged with the rise of the new science. Her own work, she says, offers a quite different focus, one of a mood or affect that “circulates between human bodies and the animal, vegetable, and mineral forces they encounter.”

I don’t doubt that this interesting focus is quite different from mine, though I think it would be wrong to represent my view as being focused on the theological. In my analysis, the theological had only a central genealogical role to play in the process of “disenchantment.” But, I had argued that the fallout of the theological—once the theological transformations were exploited in alliances forged between established religious interests, commercial interests, and the mandarin interests of organized scientific bodies (such as the Royal Society)—was impressively diverse, ranging from transformations in political economy to political governance and, further yet, to the mentalities of human culture in its relation to the natural world. So the focus, if any, on the theological was intended wholly to emphasize that, unlike purely materialist accounts, I was following more refined Marxists like Christopher Hill, who had written of the importance of the conflict of religious ideas in shaping the period of history in which I had invested my genealogical efforts.

I may have misled Bennett with the remark she quotes in her comment: “The point is not that nature in some self-standing sense is to be understood as enchanted, but rather that the world, understood as nature in its relations with its inhabitants, and a tradition and history that grows out of these relations, comprises the external evaluative enchantment.” One theme in my essay was to ask the question: “When and how did we transform the concept of nature into the concept of natural resources?” But, having raised the question, I had worried that it may seem to some that my interest in raising it was a narrow, ecological one. Because I didn’t want to ghettoize the question of nature into just this narrow self-standing concern, I wanted it to relate the “natural” with larger issues of politics, history and culture, and the quoted remark was only intended to convey that broader interest. The idea was not to deny—indeed, it was to assert—that material nature was suffused with value properties that made normative and affective demands on one. It’s just that nature was not to be seen as merely the value-laden material elements among the “actants” that Bennett describes, but also the relations between the actants and human actors and a tradition and history of those relations.  The idea was never to say that the latter in some way canceled the possibility of the former.

I think if there is disagreement between us, it is not about the relevance of the material elements and their normative status but about whether the fact of this circulatory mood that she describes as central to her idea of enchantment can support her claim that there was no loss of enchantment in the modern period. She says: “There is thus no need (contra Bilgrami) to  ‘re-enchant’ the secular world, though there remains the task of becoming more sensitized to the enchantments, the callings, already at work.”  But, in my view, there can be no understanding of the fact of our having become desensitized to enchantments without conceding what she doesn’t want to concede to me, which is that the world is viewed by us in ways that are properly described as disenchanted in just the way I had expounded.

Disenchantment, in my understanding of that process, was a result (a fallout, as I said above) of our having (among other things) over-intellectualized our relations to the world (including nature) as a result of having come to see it in a certain way: as not containing the properties that would make normative demands on us. Because of theological changes that led to viewing the world (including nature) as desacralized, one fundamental source of seeing the world as containing the value properties (good or bad, hostile or benign) that make normative demands on us was removed from our conception of the world. And this played a central role in seeing the world as alien to our sensibilities of practical engagement, something which became for us something either to be studied in a detached way or, when practically engaged with, to be engaged with as something alien, to be mastered, conquered, and controlled for our utility and gain, as in the extractive economies that were systematically generated first in that period.

I’ve italicized “conception” and “for us” in order to make clear that disenchantment cannot be understood as a process without understanding the desensitization that Bennett opposes when she says she wants us to be more “sensitized.”  She can’t have what she wants here without also opposing “disenchantment,” as I understand the term and, therefore, equally proposing “re-enchantment,” as I understand the term.

I would diagnose this misunderstanding of “disenchantment” on her part as perhaps reflecting a rather deep philosophical disagreement between us on how to conceive of nature and matter, when we conceive of it in the non-mechanized way that we both wish to do. My stress on “conception” and “for us” are meant to convey something like the following conception of nature and matter. When one views nature and matter as not merely mechanized, as not merely something that we study in the natural sciences, i.e., with relative detachment, one views it as essentially containing properties that can’t be understood correctly unless one sees our capacity for responsiveness to them with our practical agency (that is what the “for us” was doing in my use of it above, stressing the relevance of this responsiveness) as built-into the kind of properties they are. They are not properties that are anyway there, independent of the kind of sensibility (our sensibility for practical normative engagement) that we, as agents, have. This does not mean that we mentally construct and project these properties onto the world, which in itself is brutely material (in the sense that “mechanized” is supposed to convey). It is a non-sequitur to say that, just because a certain property (value properties) in the world can only be viewed by a certain kind of sensibility (the one that subjects or creatures possessed of a certain self-conscious agency possess), the subjects who possess that sensibility must be constructing these properties and projecting them onto the world. That is what Hume and others influenced by him think to this day, and they were first systematically encouraged to do so by the transformations that I was calling “disenchantment” that began in the late seventeenth century. In my view, the properties are really properties of nature and matter, they are not constructed by us. But they are properties in some sense “for us,” since those who do not possess the kind of self-conscious agency that is moved by normative demands would see darkness in the world where we might see it as containing values making those normative demands.

If her “actants” are not conceived this way, then what she means by “actants” is not what I would have meant by them, had I used that word.  In fact, I would have thought one has not gotten past mechanization, if one didn’t think of nature and matter as containing properties of the kind I am suggesting, over and above the properties studied by natural science.

Thus, when Bennett says we should be more sensitized to the participatory role of material “actants” (that is, to what I, in my terminology, call the normative demands of the value properties in nature and matter), she is precisely saying what I, in my terminology, mean when I say that our angle on the world should be less detached and more responsive to its normative demands. But this predominance of detachment was exactly what was generated by the process of disenchantment, as I understand that process. Hence, there is no avoiding “re-enchantment” if ‘sensitization’ is what you seek.

There may also be something to sort out between us (a possible disagreement, I mean) on the subject of agency, though I rather think it may be more verbal than substantial. Bennett says: “There is a difference between these nonhuman actants and a human (compound) individual, but neither considered alone has real agency. The locus of agency is always a human-nonhuman collective. Bilgrami himself makes a gesture toward the distributive quality of agency in his notion of an external calling from tradition and history, two complex assemblages formed by many different agents at work over different times and places. But these assemblages are not ones in which nonhumans qualify as real participants.”

I am going to put aside what I have already clarified, viz., I am not emphasizing history and tradition with a view to denying that material and non-human elements of nature can make normative demands on us.

Nor do I want to deny that there may be collective and distributed agency of various sorts. So, I don’t think that is the issue between us either, if there is one at all.

I gave an argument in my essay for saying that we wouldn’t be agents if there were not such things as “actants,” as I would use that term. In other words, we would not be agents if there were not normative demands being made on our agency by value properties in matter and nature, that is, value properties in the world that we inhabit. And when I say that these value properties and actants make demands on us, I suppose that I am asserting that they are “real participants,” to use her expression. But there are ways to be “participants” in “assemblages” (these are all her and Latour’s terms, not mine, but I am using them in a way that I find plausible, which may not be what is intended by them) without possessing the kind of self-conscious agency we possess. I would deny that value properties in nature and matter that make normative demands on us are themselves agents in this self-conscious sense. So their demands on us are not intentional demands. They do not intend to make those demands since they don’t have any intentions.

She might even grant this and say that intentional agency of a kind that implies the capacity for self-consciousness of the sort we possess, is not the only kind of agency that there is. I would have no objection to that, so long as one keeps different uses of the word agency apart and makes clear which one is in play. But, in the passage I have just cited, Bennett denies that we (human beings) have “real” agency. Well, in that case, she and I must mean different things by agency. And it is not credible to me that she is denying that we possess something that has been called “agency” for centuries by philosophers, and not just philosophers. So she must be stipulating a use of the term agency (let’s use her term for it, “real agency”) that is different from this. It is supposed to be something that has a more distributed locus than being located in either us, human actors, or in non-human “actants.” I think the interest of that stipulated use of the word agent (“real agent”) would depend on what systematic philosophical use it was put to. Bennett, in a short blog, doesn’t say enough for me to assess that. But, however that assessment may turn out, what we would be assessing can’t be something that stands in disagreement with me—if disagreement means that she says something that I deny or vice versa. I have not said that no one can find any form of agency in the world other than of the sort that I am discussing with the term agency.  And since it is not credible that she is denying that there is something of the sort I mean by the term agency, which human beings posses but pharmaceuticals or bacteria (to take just two examples of the “actants” that “participate” in her “assemblages”) don’t possess, we can resolve all these issues amicably in the word, by disambiguating the term agency in these ways. The disambiguation, it would appear, goes three ways. There is the kind of agency we possess. There is the kind of agency that “actants” possess. (If we see them, as I do with my metaphor, as “making normative demands” on us, or if we see them, as Bennett does, as “participants,” I suppose they must be allowed some “agency,” even if not ours).  And then there is the distributed agency that Bennett calls “real agency,” which is neither of the above. I look forward to reading her book, which, judging from the hints given in this blog, brings the third of these to centre-stage. But with this disambiguation in place, I cannot see that I have to withdraw anything I said on the basis of anything that is allowed in allowing this third notion of agency.

One final point of what seems like a more substantial disagreement. Bennett ends her blog with the following comment on my notion of enchantment: “But it [her idea of enchantment] seems also more attentive than Bilgrami is to the fact that an emergent and generative universe is not pre-designed to ensure human justice or happiness, is not fully predictable, and does not necessarily tend toward equilibrium. Thus Bilgrami’s quest for ‘a life of harmony between the demands of an external source and our dispositional responses to its demands’ seems not quite right.   A certain disharmony is built into the world at large and also into the mood of enchantment, which includes discomfort in the face of forms of material agency that one can neither master nor ignore. Thus it is that I find ethical utility in the experience of alienation, whereas Bilgrami seeks ways for secular moderns to live an ‘unalienated life.’”

I think this is a rather basic misunderstanding of my view. Indeed I think there is a straightforward and unnoticed double movement with which the words “harmony” and “unalienated” are used in this passage that leads directly to this misunderstanding.

There is one sense or use of the term harmony in which I was not suggesting that a world that was enchanted would induce an unalienated or harmonious life within it. Suppose we saw the world as enchanted, in my sense of the term. To do so is to see it as, not merely mechanized, but containing value properties that make normative demands on us. Let’s work with a simple example, simpler than the ones that involve her more complicated “actants,” though nothing that I will have to say is such that it can’t be extended to more complicated examples. Let’s say that there is a meteorological perturbation off the coast of Bangladesh. Now, if there is to be enchantment of the sort I have in mind, that fragment of the world (nature, matter) is to be described, not just in that detached way (“meteorological perturbation”), as natural science would, but also as a fragment of the world which contains a “threat.”  Threats are value properties in nature. They are not constructions of our vulnerability, which are then projected onto nature, as the disenchanted worldview would have it. But even though they are in nature, the natural sciences don’t study threats. Threats make normative demands on our practical agency, not demands for detached explanatory study, as meteorological perturbations do. Notice, however, that this particular value property off the coast of Bangladesh is certainly not harmony-inducing (in this first sense or use of the term, “harmony”) to the Bangladeshi fisherman living in a thatched dwelling on the coast, seeing it come in his direction. It is a threat, after all. It is, if you like, just what Bennett describes with her term “hostile.” It is a hostile part of the enchanted world. So, no harmony in one sense or use of the word “harmony,” despite enchantment.

Even so, it might be that that value property in that fragment of the world makes a normative demand, let’s say on the municipality of that Bangladeshi locality to do one or another thing to remove the threat to the fisherman and his hut. If there were a suitable agentive responsiveness on the part of those on whom the normative demand was made, that would be a small and, as I said, very simple example of human agency being in sync with the normative demands of appropriate properties of matter and nature. When there is such responsiveness to such demands, there is “harmony” in a second, quite different sense and use of the word than the sense I mentioned above. And this harmony is a harmony between human agency and non-human properties of matter and nature.

It seems apparent, then, that there need not be any disagreement between Bennett and me on any of this. I have accommodated what she means by hostility and disharmony in the relations in her “assemblages,” and I have shown how it is quite compatible with what I had in mind by talking of harmony generated by seeing the world as containing value properties (threats over and above meteorological perturbations) and our suitable agentive responses to them. All we need to do is avoid a conflation of two different uses of words like harmony and alienation.  Let there be all the hostility and disharmony she finds in these relations. It does nothing whatsoever to register disagreement with my points about a quite different notion of an unalienated life.

My notion of alienation is, if I understand her views, probably very close to a state of affairs that results from a too great “desensitization” to the elements of enchantment that she finds in the world. By this criterion of what is and is not alienated, one partly (though not wholly) overcomes alienation by even so much as recognizing (becoming “sensitized” to) the enchanted elements in the material environment, including what she describes as the “hostile” elements. To move from this partial to a more complete overcoming of alienation would require being responsive with our agency in the way I was describing above to the normative demands of the enchanted elements, including the hostile ones. The value properties in an enchanted world, as I said earlier, are defined upon our capacity to recognize them, but they are not defined upon our actually recognizing them and certainly not defined upon our being responsive to their normative demands in our practical agency. So she is very wide of the mark when she describes my view as being committed to something “pre-designed to ensure human justice or happiness.” I dare say, it is no more pre-designed to do so than her notion of enchantment.

She is right, however, to point out that I do stress the moral, perhaps measurably more than she does. That is already evident in the fact that my rhetoric is the rhetoric of value-properties (some of which are bound to include normative moral demands on us) whereas her rhetoric is restricted to talk of circulating “moods and affects.”  My view derives from an Aristotelian picture of morals (if some recent interpretations of Aristotle, owing to John McDowell, are correct in their interpretations), where values in the world prompt our moral agency, rather than moral agency emanating entirely from a self-standing psychology, as in Hume and the very widespread Humean legacy of contemporary Ethics, which sees the world beyond our subjectivity as evacuated of anything that is not within the purview of natural science. It looks to me as if Bennett has no interest in seeing enchantment as, in this way, being part a wider metaphysics in which the metaphysics of morals is one embedded element. I detect only phenomena such as mood, affect, and the political implications of seeing enchantment along those lines, in what she has to say.

I can’t myself see a way to a politics that flows from questions of enchantment without also seeing morals as flowing from it. Politics, in my view, can’t be in an orbit entirely of its own, independent of considerations of moral and other values. There is nothing moralistic in claiming this. It is not as if, in saying that the politics generated by recognizing such things as “actants” must be related to the normative moral demands that those things make on us, one is identifying the “politics of things” with those normative moral demands. Still, relating them together may put some theoretical constraints on how we are to understand the “politics of things.”  I don’t know if Bennett would want to impose such constraints on the politics she would want to embed in a notion of enchantment. Her rhetoric in general and her criticism of me in particular (the criticism that, unlike her, I stress the moral) doesn’t make it obvious how she would permit such a constraint. But I say all this with some hesitation. I would need to read more of her work in detail to be able to say anything more confidently.

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