Enchantment in theology and scholarship on magic

This roundtable took place on 24 February 2022.


Professor Owen Davies, University of Hertfordshire

Professor Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm, Williams College



By Kristof Smeyers

‘Is capitalism enchanted?’ is a question that, perhaps, no longer bears asking. Since the economic crisis that begun in 2007-2008, opinion pieces about the irrationality of the markets or the fortune and misfortune of the stock market refer to capitalism as, for example, ‘modernity’s most beguiling and dangerous form of enchantment’. That money and material commodity – the promise of wealth and comfort – abound in ‘metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’ theorists have realized as early as Marx, who compared capitalists to sorcerers. The categories of enchantment and religion have been popular tools with which rationalists as well as romantics and churchgoers criticized commerce and industry since at least the eighteenth century.

How is capitalism enchanted?’, on the other hand, is a question that deserves closer attention because, as this network hopes, it opens up alternative ways to approach the history of a range of subjects, from market organisation to business models to advertising in the service economy.

To begin to answer that question, this first roundtable explored the two-way dynamic between capitalism and magic in a historical sense. The speakers, Jason Josephson Storm and Owen Davies, have both published extensively about the ‘magical marketplace’, although from very different angles.

Josephson Storm’s talk built on and expanded his work on the ‘myth of disenchantment’ and ‘metamodernism’ by problematizing the conceptual framework of this research network: What do we mean by ‘capitalism’ and ‘enchantment’? This theoretical approach proves to be an especially useful starting point, because the definitional shifts of either concept are driven by particular purposes. Put simply: it matters what we define as ‘capitalist’ or ‘enchanted’ – and what we exclude from those definitions – just as it matters to study what people meant by those terms in different places at particular times (and, one could add, why it became necessary or important to define them in the first place). Approaching a concept from the perspective of the characteristics people imbued it with, as he proposes to do in a new article addressing the questions set by this network, adds to Josephson Storm’s previous genealogy of ‘disenchantment’ that fundamentally deconstructs mainstream Weberian (but not Weber’s!) definitions of the term as the decline of magic, and proposes instead a ‘disenchanting’ rather than disenchanted world, where magic is intermittently contained within its own cultural sphere.

In that regard it is worth pointing out that enchantment and/or magic cannot exclude religion outright, as yet another concept that was (re)developed for contingent reasons in the later nineteenth century. Davies deepened this argument by looking at the, often hierarchical, interpretations of the relationship between magic, religion and science – not coincidentally all terms that were redefined in the west, in the nineteenth century – and how those interpretations compared to or contrasted with what people were ‘actually engaging with on the ground’. Davies deployed three categories to think about how the concept of magic functions within and in relation to the economy more generally: through material commodities, as a service economy, and as a way of thinking. As these functions shift, so too do the meanings of ‘enchantment’.

Josephson Storm also introduced a theme that will likely return in future roundtable discussions, and which Davies went on to further highlight in a very practical, material manner: the commodification of magic. Enchantment has not been excluded from market logic and consumerism: it suffices, as Josephson Storm pointed out, to look on social media, on eBay or, as the next roundtable will do, at the booming business of astrology, to get an idea of what constitutes the modern ‘magical marketplace’.

This is not new, although magical goods and services now are more readily available than in previous centuries, often one or two clicks away. Davies, employing social and cultural historical methods to study how enchanted economies worked ‘on the ground’, turns to a few key moments in the past four hundred years to illustrate how this magical marketplace functioned and how, like other markets, it showed itself versatile, flexible, and open to technological and communication innovations. In a first instance, this means paying closer attention to the material history of magic: how were objects produced, how were they put on the market, how were they advertised (‘the advertiser is a key component’ in presenting a product as enchanted, Davies points out), and how were they used? The perceived authenticity or uniqueness of an object could enshrine it with immense power, but early twentieth-century mass production, for example, did not necessarily diminish the enchanted qualities of products such as talismans. Makers of grimoires, as Davies for instance shows, profited from advances in print and publishing industries.

A facsimile of the Necronomicon for sale on eBay for €175.00

A facsimile of the Necronomicon for sale on eBay for €175.00

The ‘magical marketplace’ therefore also always intersects with other parts of society that historians like to talk about in terms of marketplaces: the medical marketplace, for example in the case of miracle healers and cunning-folk, or the religious marketplace. Davies' focus on materiality in what Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh has called the ‘underground economy’ helps to look critically at several points that Josephson Storm also raised, such as the continuing representations of magical or enchanted commodities and practices as countercultural, even anti-capitalist: as ‘critical diacritic of capitalism’.1 Capitalism can – and often will ­– commodify anti-capitalism; and self-styled anti-capitalist magical economies have depended on professional advertising since the early twentieth century.

From a historical and historiographical perspective, Josephson Storm and Davies raised many crucial points about how enchantment and magic have always worked within economic frameworks, not outside them. Even so, their arguments raise questions that deserve further exploration, such as about the spaces in which this enchanted economy existed – especially since, as Josephson Storm posits, the trope of magic is often its dislocation. ‘Underground economy’, like ‘enchantment’ and ‘capitalism’ themselves, cannot be taken as a given and must be historicized. When and in what circumstances was the market for magic ‘dislocated’, moved into the margins or even into criminality? As Davies points out in his article on cunning-folk, for example, multipurpose magical service providers moved freely in and out of the medical marketplace until well into the nineteenth century when the field professionalized. Josephson Storm gives the example of a contemporary thriving psychic business on Wall Street.

These dynamics can invite us to think about enchantment and capitalism in terms of spatiality and practices: rather than ask ‘How is capitalism enchanted?’, we could ask ‘How did people enchant their daily economic transactions and their ways of thinking?’ This first roundtable session set out some important parameters of the project: for example, the speakers stressed the importance of defining ‘enchantment’ and ‘capitalism’ in historically meaningful ways in light of the goals of this research network. Going forward, and moving the discussion into other disciplines with different methodologies, it will be interesting to see how this conceptual versatility is grounded in contingent, historical practices and ideas.

  1. Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, Off the books: the underground economy of the urban poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006). ‘Foreword’, in Brian Moeran and Timothy de Waal Malefyt, eds., Magical capitalism: enchantment, spells, and occult practices in contemporary economies (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), v. ↩︎