A conversation with Michael Saler

By Kristof Smeyers, 18 August 2022

Michael Saler is Professor of History at the University of California, Davis.


00:00:01 Kristof

Welcome, dear listeners, to the podcast of Enchantment in the History of Capitalism. We are a young research network that aims to conceptualize enchantment, I suppose to better understand the history of capitalism, either as a tool, or as a structure, or as a founding principle of economic markets or institutions or relationships. And with ‘we’ I mostly mean Anat Rosenberg Astrid Van den Bossche, the two initiators of the network who in the spring started with a series of roundtables in which we got scholars together to talk about enchantment and how we can think about enchantment in terms of capitalism.

And now, over the summer, we’re talking to scholars who have engaged with enchantment in their work and who have also developed important working definitions of what enchantment is. And it’s therefore, I think, entirely self-evident to introduce you to Michael Saler, our guest of today, who’s a professor of History at the University of California, Davis, and he teaches European cultural and intellectual history. And those who look or will look or have already looked at the bibliography on our website may have seen that Michael has contributed quite significantly to the bibliography, and also to the historiography, and in many ways actually steered – helped steer – that historiography of enchantment. And it’s actually, I noticed, the ten-year anniversary of Michael’s book As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality, which I can only recommend, also by means of introduction. Congratulations on the anniversary, Michael.

00:01:37 Michael

Thank you.

00:01:39 Kristof

Thank you very much for wanting to do this. Perhaps as a first introductory question: What is it that continues to draw you to enchantment as a concept with which to study modernity, I suppose?

00:01:54 Michael

Huh, interesting, very interesting question. Well, I think enchantment has always been very important to me, simply in terms of my own investment in the imagination, whether it be literature or art or imaginary worlds in general. It’s something that has just been part of my life. And I’m a modern person, and so as I was growing up and becoming a little more cognitively aware, to be told that the world was disenchanted was always a puzzle to me. And I think in some ways that’s what also continues to draw me to this question of enchantment and disenchantment.

Uhm, these are very ambiguous terms, confusing terms. It’s very easy to kind of get lost in various definitions and feel like you’re spinning your wheels. But the broader issue of enchantment and disenchantment seems so key to definitions of certainly Western modernity, and maybe more so now global modernity, since we’re in a truly global age now. But certainly since the 18th century the idea that the West was disenchanted, it’s not the 17th century since the scientific revolution has been a prevalent paradigm. And I guess I was curious about why that was so, because it didn’t seem to me to be true, not in terms of my own life experience and not in terms of my peers come and looking into it.

I found it to be a very interesting historical discourse. It was revelatory of other issues of modernity, and in a sense it’s an ingress into maybe how we can think about modernity and even perhaps postmodernity, you know, it’s just one of those kind of tools that we can use maybe to ask broader questions. So I still think it’s an important discourse to look at. It certainly had very important effects and it opens many interesting questions. So that’s how I would answer that question, yes.

00:04:00 Kristof

I think it’s a very good answer, actually, that opens up a lot of new questions indeed. I guess one of which is linked to some of the questions that the network asks as well. Do you see it and I think you’ve partly answered it already, but maybe you can say a little more about: Is there a chronology of enchantment and disenchantment or the dynamic between the two, in your eyes?

00:04:25 Michael

I do think there is. I do think that if you look for the historical origins of this discourse, you do find it, particularly among our early romantic poets in Germany. Of course, Weber drew on one in particular in the late 18th century, and then, you know, popular discourses about the world in the 19th century, which did discuss the term disenchantment. It’s something you can go on to Google Ngram and actually find peaks and valleys, and certainly there are more peaks.

So historically, I think the issue of modern disenchantment in the West is one that really arose primarily in the late 18th century and just continued. And then of course was given canonical formation, I suppose, or formulation by Max Weber in his 1917 lecture and then previously, you know, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism we talked about rationalization and disenchantment as being kind of key to Western modernity, the dominant problem and what’s interesting there, I think, in terms of this chronology, is that of course he was a sociologist and he was taken up by other sociologists, translated into English by Talcott Parsons, who actually gave us the term disenchantment, that was not Weber’s term. Weber’s term was ‘Entzauberung’: the removal of magic from the world, and he had a very specific idea about magic. Magic was rational for him, for example, but Talcott Parsons' term Is really a kind of brilliant term, I think, because it also included an affective dimension that was not in ‘Entzauberung’, and that is the kind of melee that we feel in modernity, I think by living in a kind of bureaucratic, rational world where we have to follow certain procedures, it seemed completely irrational to us and not addressing our own inner needs. Spiritual, emotional, aesthetic, existential needs. And that’s very much I do think a part of Western modernity.

I think Weber was right in so many respects, and subsequent sociologists, and I include among those Max Weber and Horkheimer, Adorno, you know, Marcuse, of course, with the New Left, Foucault, who was not a sociologist but, I mean, continued the Weberian discourse. And you can take it right through Charles Taylor with A Secular Age, a philosopher who once again repeats this same discourse. So it’s become, at least within academia, broader than sociology, within cultural studies everywhere, history, it’s become, it became a prominent, prominent paradigm. In fact, let’s go further than that. Let’s just say that the Western, the most prominent definition of Western modernity has really been Weber’s idea, both rationalization and disenchantment. Reason is at the heart of Western modernity, and that’s replicated again by all those figures that I talked about and that disenchantment, that sense of affective malaise, oppression, is also very much a part of that paradigm.

And it’s the wrong paradigm. That’s the interesting thing. Although to be fair, I mean we only can say this because we have the advantage of hindsight, historical hindsight. I mean, I think Weber when he was postulating his theories in The Protestant Ethic was on to something absolutely true, particularly for his own time. It’s just that in the course of the 20th century, I think we began to see other processes within Western modernity that he had kind of marginalized take on a greater and greater hold in the world, rendering that paradigm that he has given us, less useful than it was at the time. I’m particularly thinking about the role of imagination. Which, like a good Victorian, like so many of them, it goes back to classical antiquity. The imagination was always subordinate to reason in the West, and this just perpetuated that very, not just Western, but very Protestant suspicion of desire, and imagining things that aren’t there, or maybe being the victims of the delusive enchantments of papists, etc.

But, you know, the imagination continued to be a problem right through, you know, the late 19th century for many. But it was at the late 19th century, really the mid to late 19th century, that the imagination as, you know, Bratton later said in the 1920s began to assert its rights. And so, so really, I think Weber was talking about a true but true first-time paradigm that does not hold water, did not hold water from the late 19th century and particularly the present where I would argue in fact, that reason is not the problem right now. Reason is the necessary solution. I think fantasy, the imagination, may be the problem to some extent.

What I would like to see is more of a balance between the two and I think actually that might be one of the most important dynamics of Western modernity in retrospect that we can see. And that is, it wasn’t just the Enlightenment that is the defining feature. Enlightenment reason, instrumental reason, is the defining feature of Western modernity. It’s the Enlightenment and romanticism – any attempt. Two of both those so-called camps, each of which actually acknowledged the other. I mean the Romantics valued reason, many of them, and science, enlightenment thinkers, Hume and Kant and Smith: they valued the imagination.

You know, it was not binary, but I think that the real issue that we see in very interesting ways, particularly from the late 19th century through the present, is the attempt to bring reason and the imagination together in some sort of productive synthesis.

00:10:21 Kristof

That’s yeah, yeah. I think that’s something that this network is also working towards, to seeing that dynamic as the driving force in a way of changing how people think their way through their own modernity. And it’s like you say, you link it very strongly in your work as well to literary and artistic imagination and maybe also to the way that the output of that imagination is consumed by a growing, yes, well, cultural consumption, I guess. A mass consumption. Perhaps you could say something a little more about the reception side of this idea of the enchanted imagination?

00:11:04 Michael

Yeah, it’s a really interesting question. I think I was… I wrote a book about it actually, the book you mentioned and I was overly optimistic. I myself came of age in the 1990s, when the great – I was a techno utopian. I mean, you know, the utopian. Getting onto the Internet was like getting into heaven for me in the 1990s. And I just thought, this is marvelous and so many people did, right. This is going to change everything. Knowledge is going to be available, we’ll be global, we’ll be connected. We’ll be able to have rational exchanges with one another in these public spheres, To the imagination. You know it, it will all work out, Habermas was right? And this is going to be the fulfillment of it to some degree or other. And that’s not how it turned out at all. So in that 2012 book, I still think that bore traces of a kind of more hopeful and optimistic side.

You know, and I do think that was right at the time that, you know, social media had just begun to take over and we began to see them align very bad influences of these platforms and you know, Internet culture in general and what it can do in terms of this sort of enchantment in a negative sense, you know, the perpetuation of delusive enchantment. Which is really an interesting question now. I mean, that’s really what we’re having to deal with, trying to find tools to work around and address. I am reminded, though, of course, that you know all of this is very recent and we shouldn’t be too impatient. I mean, we need to be impatient, actually, we need it. Things are moving very quickly, so we do need to be impatient and actually try to forestall what’s going on. Dictatorships are rising and returning everywhere and lots of other things, global warming, etc. But nevertheless, I mean, let’s not beat ourselves up for not being able to address these as quickly as we need to, too, because we’re just dealing with something that’s a totally new kind of dominant, cultural dominant.

But anyway, I’m kind of digressing here. You asked me about reception and so I can’t – I don’t have an answer really, except that I’m seeing a lot, as we all are, a lot of negatives to the promulgation of the imagination, fantasy, desire, of course. And you know, obviously the Internet, social media provides tools for us to have unimaginable information at our fingertips to disseminate and conversations that we do have and I think we’ve had a lot of positives from that as well, not to downgrade and denigrate that side of it as well. But really, how to bring the imagination and the desire that comes with it together with the rational skeptical critical component, is really one of the, for me at least, that conundrum.

00:14:03 Kristof

That’s a very similar dynamic to what you were describing earlier in many ways. The one between, well, ratio between quotation marks and the imagination on one hand, and what you call the delight and the delusion on the other.

00:14:16 Michael

Yeah, yeah, yeah, that still is there. Right.

00:14:19 Kristof

They’re intertwined in a way that we can’t really pull apart.

00:14:22 Michael

That’s right. That’s right. They are, they are and they have been historically inextricable. That’s absolutely right. They have been. And you know, and I, I think there’s some common-sense tools that that we have, you know, basic education in terms of critical thinking and compassion, you know, being more tolerant. I mean, you know, all sorts of shibboleths that we can kind of throw out, but for whatever reason it seems like they don’t stick. All of that again be an artifact of false vision that we get from the kind of strident voices that we’re exposed to on the Internet. We have to always remember that we’re only getting a part, not the whole, when we, you know, turn on Twitter and we’re just assaulted and we assume that’s the world, but it may not be. I hope it isn’t, but.

Uh, anyway, anyway, to me that is another reason why this discourse of enchantment and disenchantment remains alive. For all the ambiguities of these terms, they still are playing out in in real life. So and you know. As you know, right, and in your whole research network, Jane Bennett and you know how enchantment – these terms have practical pay offs, not just negative or positive. And so we’re all interested in kind of figuring out capitalism, how does this work? How, how can we use these ideas that we’ve inherited historically and to better the world, I suppose. And again, I guess if I can just end this diatribe on a final note, I suppose for me, I’m a historian and I really do think that’s where we can find answers both to the question of what is enchantment? What is disenchantment? There are multiple definitions, as you know, and they’re there in history, too. What were the dynamics going on that engendered these debates and discussions? What were the answers, what were the countervailing, you know, views? How did this develop? How did it get settled? Where do we go from here? And I really do think that, you know, continued research historically is a way to answer some of these questions about what this is. What do these terms mean? How can we usefully discuss them? Otherwise we do… There is that danger, of course, defining one set of ambiguous terms by several sets of other ambiguous terms.

00:16:53 Kristof

I think in a way you’ve given a very good answer to the question that I had written down which I didn’t get around to asking, which is whether enchantment is best understood as something that is continued throughout history or if it’s something that’s historically contingent or specific to a specific context, because it’s both in a way. It’s a very useful tool to look at very long term process. This is, while being able to pick up the specific context or the specific dynamics at a given moment at a given place.

00:17:23 Michael

Yes, that’s right, yes.

00:17:25 Kristof

And that’s very helpful for us actually, yes.

00:17:30 Michael

We speak to the choir here. But yes, no, I agree with you. I totally agree with, you know philosophy begins in wonder and that goes back, of course to Plato and wonder is connected to enchantment. I think we could say that. And so these remain important terms worthy of continued work for specifically that reason, but I just am reminded of a famous historian of science whose name I will not mention, came to our campus. And at one point, I mean, she had, in her own work, touched on enchantment, disenchantment. But she was, at that point, thoroughly disenchanted with these terms and she really did talk about the wheel spinning and I certainly am sympathetic to that, but from my own perspective I think it’s still worth continuing to investigate and explore, for all the frustrations.

And, you know, it’s probably not much different than exploring something like romanticism, which has, you know, hundreds of definitions or for that matter, a term like the Gothic, right. I mean, in some ways, to historians, I suppose it seems very puzzling that we still talk about the Gothic mode of literature, and we subsume so many different expressions into the Gothic. And yet, historians wanted to say, wait a minute, the Gothic arose in the late 18th century in in response to certain questions and issues and discourses, and then the world has changed drastically. So to say that Dracula is a Gothic novel seems counter intuitive when it was also addressing so many other things that couldn’t possibly have been considered in the 18th century. And then why are we talking about, you know, Game of Thrones is the modern Gothic simply because it’s romantic medieval in some ways, but you know. So I’m all… This is by way of saying if you… This is the part and parcel of the Academy, anyway. Just what we do.

00:19:30 Kristof

Yeah, which means this is a very good point to end the conversation as well for now or end the recording at least. And thank you very much for joining in the discussion. We’ll also put like, well, I’ll stop the recording here if that’s OK.

00:19:44 Michael

Well, thank you. Yes, I appreciate having a chance to talk with you.

This podcast was generously funded by the Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London.
Musical intro is Sleepwalking by airtone.