Soon after reading Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, I turned to Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals. It is a work of elegant inquiry and provocative precision—not only because Bender refuses to locate her subjects in a progressive history of flowering individualism, that old saw about the evolution of liberal cosmopolitanism, but because, in adopting an approach that reminded me of Brown’s reading of Marx, Bender’s portrait of new-age Cambridge refuses Taylor’s narrative frame. Rather, Bender’s cast of characters offers a critical perspective on what might be called the nova effect of arguments in the grain of Taylor. I am struck by the inadvertent but eerie parodic quality of scenes depicting homeopathic healers, yoga practitioners, past-life regressioners, shamanic drummers and bankers, energy intuitives, and lecturers in esoteric astrology. Indeed, these characters, at least on my reading, become strange reflections of Taylor’s existential élan and sober tone of explanation. They become, in other words, down-market versions of Taylor’s magisterial aspirations.
I will return to this latter, and perhaps over-caffeinated, comparative claim. But first I want to address the kind of materialism that fuels Bender’s patient and exacting study of contemporary spirituality.
In The New Metaphysicals, Bender homes in on a storied orbit of an American Metaphysical tradition, at once thick with the debris of precedent and inhabited by those who skillfully avoid contact. Bender addresses the “practices of experience” manifest in and around Cambridge, MA—the practice of past experiences and present ones, of future encounters, and of experiences desired, feared, and deflected. A virtual world of experience, divorced from much of what came before it, yet inflected by Puritan intellect, liberal reform (from Unitarianism and pragmatism to neo-pagan enclaves), as well as, in some cases, evangelical affect. Experiences, historically speaking, that are decidedly neither seamless nor self-contained (pace Emerson’s circa-1836 injunction to establish an original relationship with the universe).
As a matter of professional instinct, historians may be inclined to frame contemporary spirituality against a background of, say, emergent institutions of Unitarianism and Universalism, evangelical approaches to the question of mediation, therapeutic institutions, or perhaps the circles emanating outward from the figure of William James. It is equally necessary, however, to account for the synchronic affects of history in the moment—the backstory of spirituality as it becomes anonymous, diffuse, and utterly present precisely because it is unacknowledged.
“Experience,” writes Bender, “does not just happen.” Looking askance at some cherished traditions revolving around the history of liberal experimentation, Bender interrogates a subject who can doubt, distill, debate, and triumph.
Take, for example, the following image of what might be called secular religious consciousness: “I eavesdropped on two older women clad in track suits who were standing in Mondazzi Book Emporium’s occult section. One had a copy of The Idiot’s Guide to Communicating with Spirits in her hand, and said to her friend, ‘You see, look here, I knew I was right!’ The other read over her shoulder, nodding without much enthusiasm as she browsed the tarot decks.” One senses here both self-deprecation on Bender’s part and a subtle questioning of Geertzian thick description. The requisite winks and nods conform to a looking-over-the-shoulder ethnographic sensitivity. Yet for Bender, the significance of the scene does not reveal the “real” reason why two people would consider, largely independent of one another, the fashion of the tracksuit circa 2002, not to mention the practice of spirit communication. For rather than the promise of descriptive closure, scenes such as this accumulate and make evident the thickness of the atmosphere in which both observed and observer find themselves.
There is a representative quality to this scene, something having to do with an American imagination. As with everyone else these days, the belief-practices of Cambridge metaphysicians are mediated by market-driven circulations. Such mediation is, of course, acknowledged in the bookstore (you do not pick up an Idiot’s Guide because you think you are an idiot, but because you have gauged your current limitations). Such acknowledgment, then, serves to confirm that whatever terms the market may introduce into the process of self-knowledge, true self-knowledge, has nothing, essentially, to do with the market. But they are wearing track suits, for God’s sake!
Cutting to the chase, there is a methodological wager in Bender’s book that is reminiscent of a radicalism shared by Marx (or at least Wendy Brown’s reading of Marx)—an analytic admission that historical forces may not only exist but may also, at some admittedly vague level, possess an agency of their own.
An implication of Bender’s argument, and the one most pressing for me as an historian, is the decoupling of experience and agency. Although most would claim that free will is only a working ideal (a benefit of the doubt, a social construction), there is a way that this ideal begins to go without saying because it continually arrives without saying—what might be called an involuntary voluntarism. In other words, there is a particular kind of epistemics going on here, processes by which various doxa secure their own replication.
“Even in the age of the Internet,” writes Bender, “many spiritual teachers and healers spend time ‘flyering’ every month, walking from the Harvest Coop to the second-hand bookstore up the street, across to a café, to several branches of the public library, and hitting the homeopathic apothecary, the adult education center, and a number of others as well.”
The seeming banality of walking from place to place and posting signs at eye-level, perhaps endlessly—“a number of others as well”—is betrayed by the primitive potency of the technic. Public discourse, at ground level, is perhaps accomplished by something not unlike a stapler. The rhythms of perforated corkboard. Fine steel snapping into place. Over and over again.
Bender’s object of inquiry is a clan in the Durkheimian sense—the representations of time, space, and technology becoming atmospheric. Consequently, Bender’s scenes of inquiry range across book clubs, group therapies, Starbucks, Whole Foods, TJ Maxx, Annie Call’s The Power of Repose (1851), Harvard Square, Swedenborgian Churches, the Old Cambridge Baptist Church, dining room tables, William James and The Varieties of Religious Experience, Friends Meeting Houses, Congregational Churches, rooms of Reiki, Zen, and acupuncture, the Theosophical Society, the Mystical Arts and Talent Show, yoga studios, the Boston Whole Health Expo hosted at the Park Plaza Hotel, and journeys to the Middle East on the astral plane. And although one could focus on the epistemic processes at work in any one of these social fields, Bender’s is a panorama of lives lived within them all. Together, her vignettes reveal how a particular discursive framing of piety congeals, almost imperceptibly, by resonating between multiple sites.
It is with this in mind that I read Bender’s claim that spirituality “is not its own field, but this does not mean that it is not organized except through the market, nor does it mean that it is ‘emergent’ into a field of its own.” Entanglements across and all the way down. A narrative of contagion that one cannot help but sense between the lines of Bender’s prose. A virus that seeks to secure the vitality of its hosts—to become a carrier of language, consciousness, and institutions. What Durkheim called the contagion of the sacred and what I have called secularism in other venues: atmospheric; an emergence that is not singular; a discourse that exhibits signs of organizational compatibility, moving systematicity, and feedback.
As scene follows scene in The New Metaphysicals, something is revealed: a mode of thinking and being that is not born solely of capitalism, nor that is unique to the economic sphere. It has emerged across a range of practices—work and consumption, to be sure, but also moral considerations and those of something called religion, political alignments and attitudes, struggles with familial relations and intimacy, modes of civic engagement, and imaginings of disengagement. Perhaps even the mood one inhabits when sitting at Starbucks, sun shining fiercely through the window.
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In The New Metaphysicals, there is, once more, a representative quality to contemporary spirituality. Representative of what, exactly, is an open question.
So, although it may seem outrageous, I am struck by the degree to which the belief-practices of Cambridge metaphysicals resonate with Taylor’s subtle deflections of history, capitalism, and their attendant opacities. For Taylor’s epistemics of hope—his particular commitment to making the world a better, more just, and more humane place—posits something like an astral plane, a polis not unlike the space in which telepathy is a matter of intention and direction.
On the astral plane, explained Doug, “there is no room for error, you don’t have to be very careful about what it is you’re articulating because communication is absolutely perfect. It’s your intention—it’s your sort of perfect thought form that is being communicated, not the words. So you can have someone who speaks French as their natural language and someone who speaks Russian, and they’ll have a perfectly beautiful conversation and understand each other entirely well. Because it’s not the language that they’re communicating, they’re actually kind of expressing telepathically the essence of what they intended to say.” Overlapping consensus cannot help but emerge on the astral plane. And although this dream of the cosmopolis is impossible to translate into ordinary language, Doug affirms non-mediation as an assumption worth holding onto and working with in his daily life. This assumption is the sine qua non of Doug’s reasoning, without which there is little reason to think at all.
The expectations of immediacy can also be a source of awkward tension, as when Wes asks Bender for permission to “read” her energy. “I was surprised at how put off I was by Wes’s claims that he had found a way into my energetic interior, or rather, that our energetic interiors were so readily available to touch and sense.” And although Wes seems innocent enough as he and Bender sit around a kitchen table, there is emitted a kind of blithe aggression, not unlike the best intentions of an American empire.
So, to pick up a thread from the current discussion about The New Metaphysicals, “Market,” Economy,” and other secular distinctions are not the substantial equivalents of karma, energy, or soul clusters. These former concepts are perhaps even more auratic, more magical in their capacity to organize the social spaces in which humans eat, work, dream, and think.
For Economy, the State, the Market, God, etc., are those words—spare and capitalized—that gesture toward a complexity that cannot not be summarized. Such words, despite their analytical limitations, do real work in the world. They are limit terms, efforts to encompass something that cannot be contained. Such words serve to convince the user that the complexity is not overwhelming.
Thus, what strikes me about Bender’s metaphysicals is not their inconsistency, their illogic, nor their bad faith, but their reasoning skills. For it is precisely their rationality that allows them, on one hand, to acknowledge that forces beyond their control pervade the universe, and, on the other hand, to immunize themselves from those forces (which is to say, from the more radical implications of the entanglements they acknowledge at the outset).
There is an honest grappling with enchantment among Bender’s dabblers. They may be ridiculous. They may be misguided. They may be inappropriately and overly enthusiastic when it comes to coming to terms with the vibrancy of the material world. But they are on to something even when they do not necessarily follow through on their critical insights. They grapple with thorny epistemic issues. They seek perspective upon institutionalized injustice and wrestle with their own alienation. They adhere to the myth of liberalism even as they question aspects of it.
Many of Bender’s metaphysicals, in other words, do consider enchantment as a possibility, but only before domesticating it. Rather than theorize or practice a dissolution of the self, they inevitably protect themselves from the more radical implications of enchantment, keeping them at a distance.
“I am tired of the chronic uncertainty,” says Marcy, an aspiring yoga teacher with an “incredibly stiff neck.” Uncertainty is “making me sick—affecting me physically.” Marcy still considers returning to “advertising in corporate America” or taking a job at Starbucks, where she could at least get health insurance. Marcy’s friends are empathetic. They are soothing. They offer suggestions that would allow Marcy to continue her metaphysical practice uninterrupted—writing more, working out an exchange with a chiropractor, and other ways of addressing the blockage of her “fifth chakra.”
Marcy’s friends are nothing but helpful. They share her despair over an uncertainty that is chronic. Their suggestions, however, frame uncertainty as an aberration, something that can be overcome if only one’s present situation could be seen with clarity. What corrupts such epistemic capacities are the contingencies of the corporate world (not to mention a model of insurance that allows bets to be hedged against a death that is both certain and opaque). For in Marcy’s case, as in so many others, the problem of uncertainty depends upon normalizing the state of present transparency. Consequently, auras are there to be read; past lives ready to be known; futures to be insured.
And it is upon this kind of reasoning that Bender’s book provides genealogical reflection. For in TNM, there is a hallucinatory quality to lives lived and imagined in the metaphysical grain. But those hallucinations are not simply their problem. The hallucinations, on the contrary, have as much to do with other spaces of submission.