In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845), a dying man undergoes mesmeric treatment in the hopes that if he expires while entranced, he will be able to speak from beyond the grave. It works: the man, M. Valdemar, does speak after death, in a voice that is “indescribable.” It seems at once “to reach our ears . . . from a vast distance, or from some deep cavern within the earth” and also, somehow, to affect the sense of hearing “as gelatinous or glutinous matters impress the sense of touch.” The voice echoes, and it sticks. It is resonant. It also, if you will, leaves residues.
I initially interpreted the prompt of this forum, “modernity’s resonances,” to mean “resonance within modernity.” Where and how do we find the flourishing of sympathetic response and mimetic reverberation in a secular age? The books and essays here speak richly to this question. Pamela Klassen’s The Story of Radio Mind gives us psychic “transmissions” between father and daughter across vast distances. Susan Lepselter’s The Resonance of Unseen Things uncovers a “poetics” of “half-rhymes” among UFO experiencers, a way of making sense by rubbing partially corresponding events together. Graham Jones’s Magic’s Reason shows us how spiritualism preoccupied E. B. Tylor, a founding figure of British anthropology. But I came to feel that there’s another question to which these works speak: Not only, “What resonates within modernity,” but also, “How does modernity itself resound, in altered forms, even when its aspirations have been bracketed or even refuted?” How is modernity sticky—prone to leaving a residue? How are secularization theses still affecting us “as gelatinous or glutinous matters impress the sense of touch,” even though such theses would appear to have been thoroughly debunked?
Like it or not, true or not, stories of disenchantment are abroad and at work. Calling them chimerical will not make them go away. It has been often said, and just as often forgotten, that, as John Lardas Modern puts it, “Secularism . . . cannot be approached as an ideological ruse. It neither deceived nor promulgated inaccurate representations of reality” but was instead “part and parcel to the very constitution of the real.” Debunking secularism will not clean the residues from our hands. Indeed, the gesture of debunking is both integral to the secular imaginary and prone to producing the very forms of enchantment that it apparently sets out to repress (as I’ve argued in Credulity and in my other essay for this forum, “The secularist killjoy”).
So the job of the student of secularism is neither to promote, nor to debunk, secularization theses. It’s to figure out how at once to study and live among the residues of such theses—modernity’s residues, if you will. Klassen’s, Lepselter’s, and Jones’s works form the syllabus of a master class on the methodological and substantive question of how to describe modernity while its disjecta membra still surround you.
To see how secularization theses abide far past the moment of scholarly recantation, we need go no further than the introduction to Magic’s Reason. Here Jones describes the handwritten bibliography that a contemporary French stage magician, or magico, passed to him upon learning his profession (Jones is an anthropologist; his work includes ethnography of stage magic). The bibliography is a well-informed list of works on what Jones calls “the anthropological magic concept” from the leading lights of Victorian and early twentieth-century anthropology: James Frazer, Marcel Mauss, and others. For this magico, primitive magic is the constitutive other for his own practice of legerdemain.
Jones shows us how, even if scholars have subjected the anthropological magic concept to thoroughgoing critique, applying it cautiously and reflexively if at all, that concept is nonetheless still in enthusiastic use in other spheres. Nor is the magico the confused victim of his own hyperactive secularist imagination, seeing resonances between his own practice and the work of Frazer when in fact, none exist. Jones demonstrates that anthropology’s elaboration of the concept of the primitive magician was informed at every turn by the near presence of stage illusionists. The analogy the magico makes is much the same as the one Victorian anthropologists relied upon: if primitive magic is the unscrupulous use of illusion to inspire “belief,” stage magic is the proper use of illusion to entertain, eliciting the spectator’s engagement in “the as-if register of suspended disbelief.”
The idea of “suspended disbelief” is one that illusionists themselves employ, and that some of their scholarly analysts have taken up. What I want to point out is that in doing so, they have introduced another analogy into the conceptual field: of magic to literature. When illusionists and historians of stage magic describe spectators as “suspending disbelief,” they are invoking (knowingly or not) Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s description, in his Biographia Literaria (1817), of the appropriate attitude toward poetry. Coleridge recounts there how his task in the poems he wrote for the Lyrical Ballads (1798), his joint composition with William Wordsworth, was to describe “persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic” in such a way as to “procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith” (my emphasis). So to say that spectators of modern magic “suspend their disbelief” is to analogize them not only to primitive magic-viewers, but to modern poetry-readers.
Internal to the suspension of disbelief is yet another analogy, one working to “purify” the practice of modern reading of premodern residues in much the way that Jones, or Bruno Latour, might lead us to expect. Coleridge’s “poetic faith” concept is explicitly formed by comparison to “delusion.” Coleridge hoped his depictions of supernatural events would excite the same emotions that might be expected to follow, “supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency.” As the stage-magic spectator is to the false priest’s dupe, so is the poetry-reader to the false prophet’s enthralled auditor. The suspension of disbelief, Jones notes, “ultimately functions to reinforce, rather than destabilize, the separation of supernatural elements from magic.” Thus it’s not surprising if illusionists find Coleridge congenial.
Jones comments that it may be impossible ever to disentangle the anthropological magic concept from the concept of “modernity.” These two ideas may be like particles subject to quantum entanglement, he suggests: once tied together, they always act together, however distantly they become separated. Is literary reading, with its disanalogy to credulity, also subject to quantum entanglement with the modern? Critics of fiction in particular commonly rely upon a notion of willing suspension of disbelief; it’s less common to see this notion subjected to deliberate critical attention (though Michael Saler, Michael Tomko, and Catherine Gallagher1 are among the exceptions). Jones speculates that it may be that stage magic has mostly escaped ethnographic inquiry because it “so fully embodied the ‘correct’ way of engaging in magical practices that . . . it simply didn’t pose an analytical problem.” Perhaps the willing suspension of disbelief has powers of invisibility for much the same reason: its modernity is pitch-perfect.
Jones invokes at one point Latour’s metaphor of “recalling” modernity as a factory might recall a defective product. Should the willing suspension of disbelief be recalled? Magic’s Reason in a sense recalls the anthropological magic concept, although certainly it does so without any naïve expectation that the product can ultimately be removed from the market. This recall is more like a persistent effort to enter into critical conversation with the discontinued concept. It is not a matter of trying to shed modernity’s residues for once and for all. In their essays for this forum, Jones and Mei Zhan have both pointed out the central role of analogy in anthropology: Zhan writes, and Jones agrees, “I cannot imagine a world or an anthropology without analogies.” For my part, I can’t imagine a world or a literary criticism without analogies. Purification cannot be the objective. And yet the analogical formation in which literature in some way replaces religion in modernity—keeping what’s good about belief, and discarding what’s bad—can do with all the critical attention we can give it. Tracy Fessenden’s landmark essay, “The Problem of the Postsecular,” where she urges that “we balance our care for whatever autonomy we wish to grant to literature against the danger of making literature a privileged site of sacred authority in a secular age,” would point our way.
Jones comments that analogy is best thought of neither as a means of making one clear term illuminate a less clear one, nor as a means of mutual illumination: “Sometimes it seems most apt to say that what analogies produce is neither illumination nor distortion, but rather culture as a system that organizes and classifies patterns across domains according to its own priorities.” Thus analogy produces a system of resonances, and Coleridge’s analogy is no exception. Modernity’s resonances surround the willing suspension of disbelief. I’d like to see what would happen if literary critics were to subject this central analogy of our field—poetic faith, and faith—to a thoroughgoing scrutiny something like the one Jones applies to stage magic, and magic. The goal would not be to have clean hands, but to describe the “indescribable” voice of modernity as it still reaches our ears, echoing out of its deep cavern within the earth.
Gallagher, Catherine. “The Rise of Fictionality.” In The Novel, vol. 1 of History, Geography, and Culture, edited by Franco Moretti, 336–63. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.↩