A conversation with Jason Josephson Storm

By Kristof Smeyers, 20 September 2022

Jason Josephson Storm is Professor of Religion and Chair of Science & Technology Studies at Williams College.


00:04 Kristof

Welcome fans and followers of Enchantment in the History of Capitalism, a young research network that wants to, I guess, conceptualize enchantment in ways that deepen our understanding of the history of capitalism. So do check us out on www.economic-enchantments.net, where you can find shared resources and reports of previous events as well as announcements of exciting upcoming events. And if you do check out our website, you will notice that our guest of this latest podcast episode has been involved with our network before, and rightly so.

Jason Josephson Storm is professor of religion and chair of Science and Technology Studies at Williams College, Massachusetts. Uh, Massachusetts. It's always a word that I dread saying out loud. A historian and philosopher of the human sciences, Jason has worked and is working still – and I think quite tirelessly, if I have some kind of idea of how busy you are – to decentre dominant narratives in the study of religion and science especially. And one myth that he has laid bare in a book, which is, by the way, essential reading in our network’s bibliography is that of disenchantment as a rupture, I think, between the premodern and modern world. Is that fair to say? And most recently, in 2021, Jason’s book Metamodernism: the Future of Theory articulated new methods of knowledge production in the humanities and the social sciences. So Jason, hi, thank you so much for doing this.

00:01:36 Jason

Hello, and it's a pleasure to be here. It's great to talk to you. I just came off of two hours of other meetings, so my voice may be a little bit hoarse, but please forgive that. This is really exciting and it's, but it's great to be able to chat with you about all this stuff, which I'm so passionate about, yeah. And especially the economic history side of it is something that it I've been just learning so much by listening to other conversations about this, whereas the enchantment stuff I've been tarrying with for, for quite a while, let's – so yeah.

00:02:05 Kristof

I'm happy to hear that, because I am aware that you've been talking about this book for – I think it came out 2017, I think, so you've been talking about it for five years now, so I'm hoping my questions won't be the same questions that you've been answering for the past five years. But even so, perhaps by means of introduction, and maybe it's an impossible question: what is enchantment to you? And what is it that drew you to wanting to pick at that myth of disenchantment, as you called it?

00:02:34 Jason

Yeah, well, let's… I'll answer those two questions in reverse in a certain way. So, I think the thing that drew me to the topic of the question of the myth of disenchantment from the beginning was – actually, it happened when I was doing various kinds of field work outside the United States. Actually, I was doing field work in Japan, and I kept hearing versions of the narrative that, you know, East Asia was enchanted and that the West was a place that was fundamentally disenchanted. And this, you know, seemed to reinforce various orientalized binaries that folks like Edward Said have written so eloquently in criticism of. And it also seemed to me to be deeply problematic and didn't fit my own experiential evidence. For example, my grandmother, Felicitas Goodman, was a fairly famous anthropologist who at a certain point in her life – the phrase that people use was ‘went native’, but in any case came to believe in the reality of spirits. And I knew that she wasn't very alone in that pattern. I had, you know – meeting with her friends, many of whom were well-respected academics and anthropologists, even – a lot of people in the so-called heartland of Disenchantment, the United States and also Europe, Western Europe and North America, actually did believe in spirits, in ghosts. Some of them even believed in things that they called magic.

And so it seemed hard to me to hold apart, and much more problematic, to suspend this kind of abyssal line between a West that was disenchanted and a South or an East that was somehow a wealth springs of enchantment. And so I begin to ask this question: How do we get the idea that the West was disenchanted, and then the further wrinkle of that, as I tried to do historiographical research, is that that myth, that narrative of the West as a place that it had this unique modern rupture really came to dominance in the nineteenth century, in a period in which most historians had noted the importance of spiritualism, Theosophy and occult revivals. So it was really, it became a double puzzle. Like why, against the backdrop of this range of phenomena, had Europe – Western Europe – and North America come to think of itself as uniquely rational or uniquely demythologized or uniquely absent in belief in the very things that historians now think were proliferating. And so, yeah, so I guess only in that. Well, that's one cut across your question, let's say.

00:05:09 Kristof

And the way I read your book, it's very much an intellectual history. You could say it's about the theorists of this disenchantment myth. And I was wondering if you could say a little bit more about who produces those myths? And who consumes them in a way? Because you talk a lot about the social and the human sciences, I think, about the genealogy of this myth that originated in intellectual circles. But it's a myth that I think caught on very quickly in wider culture – precisely in the places where social and human scientists go to look for the subjects that they study.

00:05:42 Jason

Yeah, I mean it's a really… So doing archival research is really fun, and there are two discoveries.

There are two ways to sort of frame this. The first is that the narrative, one version of a narrative of disenchantment, s was actually incredibly widespread in folkloric milieus in the European historical context and alongside the trope of magic itself. So already since Chaucer's, you know, for instance Canterbury Tales but you know we could argue all the way back to, you know, Plutarch or something like that, there were narratives of the departure of, you know, people used to believe in spirits, or the gods used to be present, but now they're gone. Or the fairies used to be present but they had made their farewell, and many a book of magic began itself with an account of magic departure, or at least scarcity.

So, you know, and there are some good examples that I referenced in the book, and I can find other citational sources if you'd like. But basically, often, you know, a spell book will say, you know, this is the lost recovery of the wisdom of Moses, or you know of Solomon, or, you know, or something or another that otherwise, you know, has been unseen in the world. So in this respect an idea that magic was scarce or elsewhere or vanished was a common trope in folkloric circles in the European context already.

Some part of the very definition of the notion of magic had a kind of ‘archaicism’ often built into it, or at least an ‘elsewhereness’ built into it. We might trace this etymologically with the term magos as a term, for instance for Persian, let's say, ritual specialists that was used as an exoticizing term in the original Greek context.

So in the one case there were already these folklore tropes, but that wasn't quite the myth of disenchantment itself. In order to describe European history and culture with a kind of authority, scientific authority, or social scientific authority, and to describe it in terms of where that second piece, the recovery piece, was missing, that took something important, you know, not only was magic gone, but it wasn't – this wasn't a secret attempt to smuggle in the magic. That took a very concrete form, I want to argue that it first starts appearing in significant formulations at the beginning of the nineteenth century in German philosophical circles. It appears in the writings of a range of different folk in a circle in and around Hegel, for instance. But I focus in on Friedrich Schiller and his notion of an ‘entgƶttete Natur’ or de-godded nature as a significant – which appears in his famous poem the gods of Greece, where he starts to describe what is a kind of narrative about Christianization.

I'm sorry to talk a little quickly, but I know we don't have an Infinity of time. Also, I get it. I talk to quickly when I get excited. Deep breath. But Schiller imagined a nature stripped of its wonder if its animating forces as a side effect of both the ascent of a kind of what we would now call science, and as a part of a direct result of a Christianization process. So he was interested in how, you know, nature lost its gods in a way, or its animating forces, but it took a long time before that became a kind of a truism in ethnographic field work or in sociological theory, or what have you. One key figure – I’ll name two key figures there. The one that is likely to be less familiar today, although more influential in his own epoch, was J. G. Frazer, the important Scottish folklorist, classicist turned folklorist, who, in many respects, lifted some of the tropes from the folkloric milieu. He read about tropes like the fairy farewell, the idea that the fairies had been present but they were gone, and he referenced them. I found doing some archival work at Cambridge – I found, you know, clippings that he had made of passages where those were repeated. And he also developed an idea of a set of stages in which human history had gone through, where there was an age of magic and an age of religion, and then an age of science.

And so for him, there was this trajectory that he thought all historical civilizations should ideally go through. And then he was particularly worried about Britain or Great Britain or perhaps specifically Ireland’s failure to go through that and the lingering ‘superstitions’ that he described as, like, ready to burst forth. And he was thinking things like spiritualism in particular, but also fairy belief. So there was already that tension in his formulation.

And then the second important figure that I would lift up now… I talk about many more in the book, but the one I think it's important to emphasize is the German sociologist Max Weber, whose formulation of the phrase ‘die Entzauberung der Welt’ or the disenchantment, or literally the disenchanting of the world, gave this notion of the loss of magic a really portable formulation, a really easy shorthand to describe what was seen as this particular process which Weber thought of as central to the history of – European history, basically, Western history stretching all the way back to the Hebrew prophets. He said, you know, that there was a product of a certain kind of rationalization process.

But it is here that, and I know that some of the other guests in your program have gesture back to Weber, there are a lot of misunderstandings about Weber in particular, because there's a standard reading of Weber that comes from only reading this public talk, basically, that he gave to a bunch of students, the ‘Sciences Vocation’ lecture, and kind of riffing on that as if that's the canonical formulation of that phrase, as if that tells us everything Weber meant.

And unfortunately for later scholars and historians, Weber was in many respects extemporizing or talking in poetic language that was unusual for the otherwise super dry sociologists and it wasn't his most serious and concise formulation of what he meant by either the disenchanting of the world, or by magic or by rationalization. You know, he talked – there are a lot of gestures in that text that he doesn't repeat in more serious formulations. Rather, he wanted to argue and I've done this both in the book The Myth of Disenchantment, but also I ended up condensing it and making it even more pointed in an article or in a book chapter ‘Max Weber and the Rationalization of Magic’, where I kind of spell out the implications of my intervention a little more specifically than I did in my book chapter.

The thing is, a lot of scholars of Weber have mistakenly assumed that rationalization and magic were opposed. That magic is the opposite of rationalization. And you know, there are reasons that you might get that if you only read or primarily just read that lecture of his and maybe the few scattered remarks in The Protestant Ethic, etc. That's not what Weber had in mind, as is clear in his writings, for example on interpretive sociology and what have you, he talks about how magic itself is instrumentally rational. He's very clear about that. Magic has a purpose to it. It's for, especially in his mind, primitive peoples. It's totally rational for them to believe in magic, and magic is instrumental for them and so in that respect, it's not an opposite of rationalization. And indeed, in his famous Economy and Society text that was edited, et cetera, as a, you know, a big culminating text of his, even describes – or he thinks of East Asia as a place that underwent a systematic rationalization toward magic. Rather than disenchantment, it developed a rationalized set of enchanted beliefs, and he's thinking particularly in that context about Chinese forms of divination, particularly huli jing practices, but also what we could call feng shui and also Chinese medicine basically. So, in that respect, magic and rationalization are not opposites. Magic can itself be rationalized into something that he thinks of, at least in the Chinese context, as a kind of magic sphere.

And then also the other key point is that when he's describing the disenchantment of the world or the disenchanting of the world, he doesn't think that magic is gone or that even people stop believing in it. If you read him carefully, he's interested in how a category of magic is created and then demonized. And so, as he puts it pretty clearly, the Puritans, for example, who are key figures for him in ‘die Entzauberung der Welt’, had witchcraft trials, and if anything, he knows that they proliferated. And so, and he knows that they continue to believe in, you know, spirits and magic, even as they render those demonic.

So for him, what the disenchantment of the world meant was not a world stripped of magic, but a world in which magic is increasingly either demonized or located within its own sphere. It becomes demarcated and separated and distinguished from things like religion, or like science, or like what have you. And so anyway, so that's an intervention that I make for Weber scholars.

00:14:17 Kristof

Can I just quickly jump in there and ask if – you know, myths usually have some kind of purpose. So is that one of the purposes of the myth of disenchantment to, and I think you mentioned it in the round table as well a few months ago: you took, you mentioned Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh's term, the ‘underground economy’. Is that one of the purposes of the myth or is there no such intentionality? You know, the dislocation of this magical marketplace into margins and into criminality or illegality.

00:14:46 Jason

I mean, I think that's one product of what's happened by the demarcation of a sphere and calling it magic. It then tended to, you know, if we look at the trajectory of, let's say, European history from, you know, the eighteenth century to the present, increasingly so-called ‘magical services’ have been, or certain sets of practices are pushed into the underground economy. Those that aren't monopolized by other sectors of society – medical professions or clerical professions, etc. – tend to then be pushed and located that way. I don't think that's… But I want to be careful about purpose versus consequence. So I want to suggest that on the one hand European thinkers did begin to demonize magic as part of a long history of Christian anti-paganism, so that's one of the things that's going on.

But also, you know, demonize a category of practices that they called magic. Or, you know, some of that happened in Protestant and Catholic confessional struggles, where in and around the Reformation, Protestant thinkers accused all kinds of ritual practices of being magical, or many kinds of them being magical. And Catholic thinkers, a part of the Counter Reformation then wanted to demarcate themselves off from folk practices that they had previously been basically OK with and that, you know, so there became a new kind of renewed ‘anti-paganism’.

This also happens in a moment where elite culture is demarcating a sphere of, you know, practices that have been previously labeled as either witchcraft or natural magic, and redefining them as science in part to cause themselves to escape persecution for things like alchemy, et cetera. And so there, you know, there are a bunch of different forces at stake. And I'm talking even concretely, you know, thinkers like Francis Bacon, who are, you know, so famous for formulating what's called the scientific method, who himself described what he was doing and points as the science of magic. And he took this term ‘magic’ and he was trying to render it, you know, de-esoteric, basically, and make it amenable to experimental evidence, et cetera, but so a lot of that struggle happens at a particular moment and we can look at those effects.

Now the myth of disenchantment, insofar as it's a sociological or anthropological myth, I think it has a different kind of function. I think part of it is a way that European thinkers had come to think of the uniqueness of the West and it served both by proponents and critics of what was seen as the West uniqueness. So on the one hand people like Frazer who were in effect boosters for, you know, European colonization projects, basically, who thought that, you know, wanted to extend Enlightenment to the globe; the West’s disenchantment or at least its transition from religion to magic to science was something that everybody should emulate. It gave the European project special authority.

On the other hand, there were critics of that. There were people – I read Weber as a much more melancholy thinker, for instance, who is conflicted, at least, about the departure of belief in, you know, magical belief or belief in sort of the specialness of things. And, well, he often equates magic and charisma together, and so, not always – sometimes – he distinguishes them, but in a few famous places he glosses them as the same term. And I think he was, in a way, melancholy of how a certain kind of scientific rationality had rendered the world less special in certain ways, and it demonized certain kinds of beliefs and practices.

And then that very myth, sociological myth, often animated contemporary enchantment projects because it's not just academics who read other academics. It's a little bit like that, but there are exceptions. And things like Frazer's Golden Bough, which was where he articulated his mission of disenchantment, was, for example, a very famous source when Aleister Crowley was formulating his magical revival. He, again, he said, oh, look, here's the, you know, anthropological, folkloric evidence that magic is gone. But let me look through this and use it as an inspiration for spells so that I can then use it to revive magic. So in that respect the myth of disenchantment has in a certain sense been self-refuting: the more you talk about magic being absent.

There's another piece here in my particular version of this model, which is I want to say that it partially emerges from presuming that science and religion are autonomous and separate spheres. And so the other key sort of landmark moment in the formulation of a myth of disenchantment is the moment in the, basically, early, well mid 19th century European context where discourse around science and religion as two things that are in conflict begins to emerge. I see it around figures like Draper's famous book The Conflict Between Religion and Science, their fights in, you know, German natural sciences a little bit earlier and other fights a little bit later, in France. But in effect once you have the idea that there's a conflict between religion and science, it becomes tempting to solve that conflict by finding places where they overlap. And it makes the place where they overlap particularly fraught. So a lot of people who, like Aleister Crowley, were promoting what they thought of as religious sciences or, you know, occult sciences, which are often the places where religion and science were seen as overlapping – that's part of why I do, you know, Religion and Science and Technology Studies – it's been one of my interesting preoccupations all along, because there are different ways to approach those overlapping spheres.

Or, you know, discursively people arguing that they're, you know, we either need to differentiate them more and they're in conflict, or arguing that they have discovered a new way of, like, fixing the problem between religion and science. Another key example for that is the Theosophical Society and Madam Blavatsky, who argued for a kind of science of religion that was supposed to research what she saw as a conflict originating between Christianity and science, perhaps. And although, you know, she had her own anti-Darwinism and some other complications in her particular wrinkle.

So all that is to say, once you have these two spheres held in tension, it's often tempting to produce a third sphere. And that third sphere is often demarcated as the superstitious or if you're more positive toward it, the magical, and therefore it's a place to be recouped. But it's also a place to be policed.

I guess the other piece of it that I would add is that academics – there… It's not a linear trajectory. Academic disciplines seem to then often look outside of themselves for different kinds of resources, and then sometimes police themselves anew. So for example, we might think of the history of telepathy in anthropology. Margaret Mead, for example, was a proponent of telepathy. And then it gets purged again. Or I was just reading some contemporary anthropologist on the history of a folkloric account of bears and he was like – there's a weird reference. It's interesting reference to telepathy in that text. Maybe it's coming back again, I don't know. But anyway, you know, like the beliefs go up and down in patterns. What gets defined as magical or superstitious and then policed out of various academic disciplines, you know.

And all that said, if you look at the sociological evidence on belief in America and Western Europe, if you look at surveys of people who say that they believe in, let's say, spirits or magic or witchcraft, etc., the percentages are quite high. I reviewed different kinds of sociological evidence in The Myth of Disenchantment. And viewers are welcome to consult it there. But based on how you define it, something like 73% of Americans hold some kind of – the person doing the survey called it paranormal, that's not my preferred term – but about 73% of Americans hold some kind of paranormal belief, and it's probably the case that academics hold a lower percentage of them. Or are more likely to be skeptical. But even so, it's not the case that as sort of broad, generalizing sociology, these beliefs have not vanished They've changed and they've evolved or, you know, shifted in significant ways over the span of the last, you know, any unit of time you're interested in, but these beliefs haven't vanished, and so for that reason there's also a tendency for them to seep back in, perhaps into academic context as well as others. So, yeah, I guess that's one, you know, when one cut across the material, yeah.

00:22:18 Kristof

That's a very helpful summary of the whole book, almost, I think. But also just maybe as a final question, I was just wondering about this myth as an intellectual construct. It became a vernacular myth at some point, and I was wondering because at some point I think you mentioned somewhere that capitalism has the capacity to – I can't remember exactly how you said it, but it absorbs or integrates all magic. And I was wondering if one extent, you know, the enchanted fields or I don't know how to call it – the underground economy, in a way, has itself absorbed the myth of disenchantment to present itself as modern in a way or as, you know, thriving in in current capitalist structures.

00:23:04 Jason

Yeah, I mean, two ways I could put this, but it's a great question. So in the first instance, you know, there was a longstanding historiographical tradition that imagined that capitalism itself was fundamentally disenchanting. Basically, like, as countries got – capitalism was allied with a kind of rationality, at least an ends-means rationality, that the process of quantification was opposed to notions of qualification and value and therefore, you know, everything gets turned into numbers.

That was a theory. Now that clearly hasn't happened, right? Like, capitalism didn't make people more rational, at least, not in that respect. I mean, you know, people now are more quick to put a price sticker on something or whatever, but in that notion…

So instead, what happened? What seems to have happened is that various things that are demarcated as enchantments are heavily commodified. And so what you tend to get is, you know, you can go to Walmart and get, you know, smudge, you know, materials for smudges and magical crystals. You can get on eBay and ask people to perform spells for you. That's apparently a lucrative, or at least for a while was a lucrative field on eBay. So you know. But capitalism also, even if it were opposed to capitalism, even if enchantment and capitalism were opposed systems, capitalism has the capacity to commodify its own opposition. So, for instance, you know, like you can also get at Walmart like, you know, shirts that have Che Guevara on them, you know, I mean, or like, you know, you can buy the Communist Manifesto on, you know, eBay or, you know, whatever.

So capitalism has already had the capacity to already assimilate its putative opposites. So this shouldn't surprise us. What's interesting is the way that exactly a lot of internal practices tend to emerge in the underground economy. So there's been some great work, for example, on the role of fortune telling among African-American women in urban areas as something that – because there's not, you know, these are professions that people can get into without, you know, rigorous training or any kind of particular formal schooling and then they seem to fill needs that people have in the community.

The other piece that we could add, I could add, riffing on capitalism is that capitalism, one of the other features of capitalism is its unpredictability like any, you know, hedge fund manager will tell, you know, will have to admit if you push on it – or a serious economist – capitalism has fluctuations in it.

And in that respect, that very unpredictability of capitalism has often contributed to people wanting various kinds of spiritual or supernatural forecasting. And so, there's also a long history of seers or you know for the market, prophets of the market. And then we can see as capitalism globalizes and enters the other parts of, let's say the Global South – there's been some great field work on, for instance, and I think of Birgit Meier's work but here in Africa where… and also the Comaroffs work also on this geography as well. But basically, you know, capitalism can enter a new area and then it changes economic standing. It upsets older hierarchies. People suddenly get wealthy for reasons that seem unpredictable. And for those reasons, too, often people turn to a language of magic or witchcraft to try and explain the unpredictability built into the system of capitalism itself. So I mean, those are just some of the many ways in which capitalism and “enchantment” have historically intersected, not the least of which there – yeah.

There's also then a vast literature when we were talking about the economic dimension of this, the commodification of the myth of disenchantment itself. So then, of course, you – I also have books both written for popular and academic audiences that tend to describe the West in particular terms. And so you have, you know, or modernity in particular terms. Sometimes these are aspirational texts that are being marketed to, you know, people: ‘We should be more modern’, for instance. And especially in the late 19th and early 20th century there were a lot of, you know, texts that were pushing various times of modernization projects. You know: ‘Why France needs to become more modern’ or whatever, ‘The people are too “superstitious”’, et cetera, et cetera. And sometimes that was marketed to popular audiences: ‘Look at how backward the French peasants are.’ Assume a lot of things I'm saying are in quotes here, are suspended, so there's that. But there's also, you know, you can flip open contemporary new age materials that often begin describing the ‘West’ as stripped of enchantment. And then, of course, then they go back to this older folkloric trope there then aiming to resupply what they're describing is missing and there's a strong, you know, history of advertising. Part of how advertising works is sometimes is it encourages you or inculcates in you a sense of absence or loss or need, in order to then provide itself as the solution to that need, you know. Like, you know, if you think about your elbows – the example that I often use when I'm talking to students about, you know, like if you can convince people they have rough elbows, you can sell them rough elbow cream, right? Like if you look at your elbows enough, you'll probably be convinced of your rough elbows, right? So partially convinces you that you have a need and then provides it, or the cream is the solution to that need.

So in certain respects, the myth of disenchantment itself is kind of like, oh look, you have rough elbows. Whether it's often because you know it can be described in terms of melancholy or loss.

And in that sense one of my home disciplines, that of critical theory, and even the way I got into this project in another way is through my profound admiration for the work of Adorno and Horkheimer, in particular The Dialect of Enlightenment, which was the main book that I'm responding to in The Myth of Disenchantment. So The Dialectic of Enlightenment in a certain respect begins or has as part of its narrative a melancholy disenchantment narrative. It it's one of the main places that we might say a left Weberism kind of lingers on in its melancholy aspect. And so in that respect, critical theory functions as advertising for re-enchantment narratives. And you can see this, you know concretely, you know, in the whole spectrum of works, that a so-called new animism or new vitalism or new materialism, many of which take as their starting premises texts and critical theory which have described disenchantment – either Weber, but more often by second or third order and, you know, texts. But then the proposed solution is not literally magical practices, but often supposed to be scholarly reorientations that will allow one to see the world as vibrant, et cetera, et cetera, in some new way. Anyway, so that's at least another intersection, Because I always want to remind my interlocutors and listeners that we academics, as much as we like to position ourselves as outside the capitalist market and in certain ways as we're buffered from it, can still get caught up in it, yeah.

00:30:07 Kristof

I think that's a quite an important point to end on, especially moving forward with the network as well. So I think… I'm quite conscious of the time, so I'll have to cut it off here. But it's very lovely to talk to you, Jason.

00:30:18 Jason

Yeah, it was a pleasure to talk to you as well. Thank you.

00:30:20 Kristof

Have to do more of this soon. Thank you.

This podcast was generously funded by the Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London.
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