Friday, June 2, 2017

Jason A. Josephson-Storm's "The Myth of Disenchantment"

Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm is associate professor in and chair of the Department of Religion at Williams College. He is the author of The Invention of Religion in Japan.

Josephson-Storm applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Tylor argued that over time the rude animism of the savage is ultimately replaced by polytheism; and then, finally, the most rational system of all— monotheism—emerges. Again, in Tylor’s evolutionary teleology, we arrive at a Voltaire-esque rational Supreme Being as the ultimate fruit of human cognition, and a rational religion that looks like Tylor’s minimalistic Quaker faith. Although never explicitly stated as such, cultural progress means the gradual elimination of paganism.

Tylor also explained why humans, despite our inherent empiricism and rationality, are not all believers in a rational Supreme Being. To do so, he invokes the concepts of superstition and survivals. Tylor argued that in direct contrast to a positive and progressive religion, humans also retain certain holdovers from previous cultural forms. According to a false etymology originally proposed by Cicero, Tylor calls these survivals, or remnants, “superstitions.” These false “superstitions,” which ought to vanish through successive stages in human cultural evolution, obscure or occlude the essentially rational nature of religion. Indeed, in a move reminiscent of the philosophes’ project, Tylor argues that the goal of ethnography is precisely “to expose the remains of crude old culture which have passed into harmful superstition, and to mark these out for destruction.”

“Magic”and the“occult sciences”—two terms Tylor treats as synonymous— represent the most dangerous form of superstition. In his account, magic belongs to “the lower races” and the “lowest known stages of civilization,” and the racialization is clear insofar as he means it to be the providence of Africans, Aborigines, and Native Americans. Magic resembles science in its style of reasoning but is based in a basically backward way of thinking or a confusion that mistakes an analogy or a symbol for the thing it represents. Magic is based in a savage semiotics, which fails to appreciate the civilized realization of the meaninglessness of the relationship between the sign and the thing. Tylor gave the example of a West African “Obi-man” who makes a packet of grave dust and bones in order to kill an enemy, thereby mistaking symbolic killing with real death.
Page 99 of The Myth of Disenchantment discusses the pioneering anthropologist E.B. Tylor. Tylor is today famous for having promoting the theory that animism or belief in “spiritual beings” was the foundation of “primitive” religion and for contending that religion evolves alongside culture (he thought advanced cultures had advanced religions).

The interesting, and less known, fact about Tylor is that he secretly attended spiritualist séances. As I discuss in p.100-101 this poses a problem for the way his theory of religion is often understood because Tylor knew that many of his fellow Victorians believed in roughly the same kind of “spiritual beings” that his own theory described as the essence of primitive belief. Moreover, as a reading of his diary shows, he was closer to belief in spiritual powers than is often supposed. In this respect, as I argue on p.101 Tylor failed to “recognize that he was one of his own primitives—or at least, that Victorians were the real animists.”

Although the book has only a handful of pages on Tylor, page 99 is representative of a broader pattern I observe in the book, namely that a number of influential figures—including Theodor Adorno, Francis Bacon, Walter Benjamin, Rudolf Carnap, Marie Curie, Denis Diderot, Sigmund Freud, G. W. F. Hegel, Max Müller, Friedrich Schiller, Arthur Schopenhauer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Max Weber, and others—were not only aware of, but profoundly enmeshed in the occult milieu, such that the very objects of inquiry, methods, and even the self-definition of many disciplines still bear the marks of this important early encounter with esotericism.

In the book as a whole, I trace the genealogy of the myth of disenchantment and how it came to function as a regulative ideal, the myth itself producing both enchantment and disenchantment. Indeed, I show that it was specifically in relation to this burgeoning culture of spirits and magic that European intellectuals gave birth to the myth of a myth-less society—a claim that was simultaneously celebrated as progress and lamented—often while being described in terms of rationalization, divine death, and fading magic.
Learn more about The Myth of Disenchantment at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue