The Enlightenment Trap

“Was ist Enchantment?” Why the way forward requires us to abandon illusions

Michel Foucault begins his 1983 lecture “What is Enlightenment?” with the claim that the whole of modern philosophy since Kant‘s famous 1784 essay of the same name (“Was ist Aufklarung?”) is an effort to answer this question. And this effort continues. There still isn’t a consensus on what enlightenment is, or even whether the term refers to a historical process, period, or mindset. 

Addressing this debate in 2012 Nick Land’s influential essay “The Dark Enlightenment” argued that “Enlightenment” is “a leading candidate for the ‘true name’ of modernity.” Enlightenment for Land is also a historical movement: once set in motion, the process is irreversible – so that any alternative becomes inconceivable. 

The concept of “dark enlightenment” is obviously paradoxical, and for this reason doesn’t offer a legible political vision. If “enlightenment” is the problem we face, perhaps the opposite of enlightenment is the solution we need. But the opposite of enlightenment is “endarkening,” and it isn’t clear that anyone wants a darkening – whether understood culturally or politically. 

Enlightenment is a visual concept. By increasing light, the true nature of things is revealed. This revelation – apocalypse – carries a hint of finality: after the knowledge of something is completely revealed, it becomes immutable. As enlightenment expands, culture is consolidated. Global monoculture is the inevitable conclusion: what is sometimes called globohomo is nothing less than the homogenization and ossification of a universalizing knowledge that manifests in every field of human activity: the home, the family, the state, religion, thought, work, sex, art and design, and everything else.

Enlightenment illuminates the material world, but where does this light come from? It can’t be the light of reality, since if it was, there would be no need for “enlightenment.” From God? Perhaps, but the logic of enlightenment rejects religious authority. Enlightenment identifies reason as the source of human power over darkness. Kant claims in no uncertain terms that religious faith inhibits enlightenment: “I have placed the main point of enlightenment – the escape of men from their self-incurred tutelage – chiefly in matters of religion because […] religious incompetence [as opposed to other forms] is not only the most harmful but also the most degrading of all.”

For Kant, man’s benighted mental state isn’t natural: our “tutelage” (i.e., our dependence on, and desire for, external sources of authority) is “self-incurred.” Enlightenment, then, allows for no natural withholding of truth by external forces; cosmic, historical, or otherwise. Man is imbued by nature with the power to know. To use one’s reason is to affirm the subordination of the world to human intellect. 

The use of reason demands the courage to see things as they really are, stripped of illusions. Enlightenment assumes that the mind is superior to the material world; we are the subjects, and it is the object. Our moral duty is to find the fortitude to accept our role as masters of the world. Not only is everything knowable, everything must be known. The end result of enlightenment is consequently absolute, universalized knowledge and the “end of history” infamously announced by Fukuyama. 

Nietzsche saw in the advance of reason a process of forgetting and a movement away from reality: “only by means of the petrification and coagulation of a mass of images which originally streamed from the primal faculty like a fiery liquid, […] only by forgetting that he himself is an artistically creating subject, does man live with any repose, security, and consistency.” What is gained by instrumental reason is material comfort. But the cost, as Nietzsche illustrates in “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense,” is the death of unmediated experience and the atrophying of the inventive capacity that defines our essence. 

The pessimism of people who now see enlightenment as a denigration of the human spirit derives from their sense that this is too great a cost to pay. The apocalyptic end of enlightenment is a spiritual wasteland. There are no more mysteries. There is nothing to improve. There is no more striving because everything is accomplished. There is nothing left to know, so no more wonder. No suffering, but no real enjoyment either. Reverence for the past is annihilated because history is now identified with imperfection – a period of darkness mercifully erased by the refinement of our rationality.

Is there an alternative?

Like Land, the Catholic thinker Augusto Del Noce defines modernity as a “point of no return” in human development. Enlightenment creates a mode of being that makes us incapable of imagining the world in any other way. The parallel historical process is what Max Weber called disenchantment, in both the psychological and mystical senses of the term. Whereas enlightenment is a visual metaphor, enchantment is aural and oral. The “chant” in enchantment is connected to music, while the idea of enchantment as magical action comes from its ties to incantation. 

Incantation is the mechanism that allows the speaker to tap into powers that supersede reason, and allows for the enchantment of the world and our experience of it. Like enlightenment, enchantment also “deifies” man, but in a different way. The enlightened man is god-like because of his perception of ultimate, immutable truth. By contrast, an enchanted man is the reflection of the divine creator. Enchantment remakes the world through speech, an echo of God’s speaking the world into being. Enlightenment places the world before us. By contrast, enchantment places us within the world; like music, it envelopes us. Reality becomes mysterious again.

The effectiveness of a magic spell depends on its proper expression. We learned this from watching cartoons, but it can also be gleaned from the etymology of the English word grammar. If you say it wrong, the spell has no creative force. Enchantment, as a way of experiencing the world, operates in the same way. 

A song or canto is an ordered experience. There are melodies, harmonies, verses, choruses, and refrains. If there are multiple parts to a song, these are played by different people in unison. In this sense, enchantment and incantation restore our severed relation to the past – humans have a unique capacity to remember songs. These memories would allow for a continuity of culture and tradition, even in a world made unfamiliar by enlightenment. Our incantations have a grammar and a time signature, which would ground our experience of a new, undiscovered reality. 

Understood as two opposed historical trajectories for the future, therefore, Enlightenment and Enchantment have clear limitations. Foucault warns that “we must free ourselves from the intellectual blackmail of “being for or against the Enlightenment,” and points out that our historical situation is never a neat fork in the road. It is not true that we have a choice between Enlightenment and Enchantment. We don’t. But Enlightenment has enjoyed three centuries as the uncontested guiding metaphor of western “progress,” and if its flaws are evident, it is useful to think through what a different way of inhabiting the world might entail. 

We must also resist the urge to call for re-enchantment of the world: enlightenment has transformed us in ways that preclude any RETVRN to the enchanted world of premodernity. The task is to enchant the world in a new way. It starts with a remembrance of our inventive capacity to speak reality into being: a power to foment encounters with the unknown, the strange, the ineffable, and the mysterious – a quest for the “fiery liquid” that flows from the immediacy of experience and the newness of half-known truths which still remain partly concealed.

Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston, Downtown, and a contributor to the American Mind, among other publications.


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