David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Consider the Lobster,” goes right for the question that dinner guests would prefer not to raise: Does the lobster feel pain when it’s boiled? Presumably at least some readers of Gourmet Magazine, where this essay appeared, would rather have considered the lobster from almost any other angle—wine pairings, for example. Wallace was being a killjoy.
The killjoy is the person who ruins the pleasures of the table. Think of “table” in an expansive sense—as a place of gathering, with unstated rules and expectations of shared enjoyment—and this definition works well for the killjoy across a range of settings. Sara Ahmed locates the birth of the feminist killjoy at a table. “Around this table, the family gathers, having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up,” Ahmed writes. Something problematic is said. The feminist killjoy calls out the problem and thus creates a problem. By questioning the conventions that make the gathering possible, the killjoy ruins the lobster and fragilizes the group.
Are debunkers killjoys? More than one story of secularization would have them so. According to such stories, debunkers desecrate religious ritual, scourge supernatural inhabitants from the landscape, and generally chase away the pleasures and consolations of enchantment. Maybe debunkers point out a chicanery that was always there. Maybe, instead, they puncture a delicate mutual agreement to suspend disbelief. Either way, debunkers can seem like spoilsports. Charles Taylor has pushed back against one major aspect of such narratives. For him, secularity represents not the dispelling of old illusions, but the invention of new sources of meaning. Yet even here, the killjoy concept creeps in when Taylor describes how “all the different views in presence” in a secular age, whether “believing or unbelieving,” tend to “fragilize” each other. In other words, it’s harder to maintain one’s belief with unbelievers nearby, and vice versa. This is secularity as a banquet hall of reciprocal killjoy-ism, the pleasures of each table imperiled by the mere presence of the next.
But here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s true that debunking kills the joys of enchantment. Not even when the debunkers are contemptuous and the believers they target are, well, credulous. In Credulity, I take a different approach. Debunking, I argue there, amounts not to the quashing of enchantment but to the management of enchantment. This management, in turn, has unpredictable effects. The attempt to administrate what debunkers call credulity, or excessive belief, ends up producing a much more diverse set of relations: dismissal, yes, but also compensatory use, improvisation, and enthusiastic re-deployment. Let’s give up on the view that modern enchantment is that which either escapes debunkers’ best efforts, or evanesces in the face of those efforts. Instead, as I write, “modern enchantment . . . is the refracted and refractory array of results, some intended and some not, that arises from the attempt to manage credulity.” Even if debunkers are a pain, it’s also to debunkers that occultists owe an important share of their pleasures.
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I am grateful to Donovan Schaefer and Caleb Smith for their productive, provocative responses. Both in their different ways have written about debunking and pleasure. Smith, in a description on which I couldn’t improve, says that the book “shows what secularism loves and not just what it hates, what it desires and not just what it wishes to get rid of; Credulity is, among other things, a study of ‘debunking’s pleasures.’” Schaefer, however, is concerned that Credulity may participate in a view of disenchantment as joyless. In Schaefer’s words: “Could we talk about the modern desire for debunking as something other than a dalliance with contempt?”
We can, and on my view, Credulity does. Since Smith sees the book as preeminently concerned with secularism’s loves, desires, and pleasures—since, in fact, he lists among my “virtues” the fact that “[I do] not make it [my] business simply to debunk the debunkers”—I trust that my sense of what I’ve written isn’t entirely misplaced. But this book’s account of loves, desires, and pleasures may not be precisely the one that many readers would expect to find. I don’t rescue debunking from the charge of contempt. Instead, I point out that contemptuous debunking is a far more generative activity than we tend to imagine, with products that include pain and pleasure on all sides.
Schaefer generously calls Credulity a “vivid account of the jagged intersections of science, modernity, and enchantment,” in which mesmerism, “rather than [being] a clear-cut illustration of something like enchantment or disenchantment, lands in a contorted S-shape across those categories.” I love this description. Let’s contort the shape still more, and twist the joys of debunking a little further. Debunking might be a dalliance with contempt—emphasis on dalliance, a word that means, after all, not only trifling, but also amorous play—and yet still be much more than a merely destructive activity. What would loving, contemptuous play between debunking and credulity look like? A good deal like mesmerism, I’d be inclined to answer.
Credulity begins with the observation that for US mesmerism at least, debunking precedes and underwrites practice. Mesmerism is a technique of entrancement that was imported from France to the United States in the 1830s, where it thrived until being displaced by séance spiritualism just before the Civil War. By the time of mesmerism’s arrival in the United States, the French practice had already incorporated an important theoretical element derived from a 1784 Paris debunking of mesmerism at the hands of Benjamin Franklin and others. This theoretical element was the idea that mesmeric effects could be attributed to the credulous imagination, or to what we might call suggestion. Thus, in a sense, mesmerism’s early explicators and its early debunkers founded it together, and I’m not the first to say so; this was American mesmerist J. Stanley Grimes’s position. Unlike Franklin, later US debunkers of mesmerism were mostly not practitioners of science: they include a Methodist minister and some other divines, a future insane asylum director, a newspaper editor, a few poets, a balloonist, and mesmerists themselves (in internecine conflicts). So we need not worry, as Schaefer briefly does, that the richness of scientific practice is being reduced to debunking, if only because in the history of US mesmerism, debunking and science don’t overlap very much.
But I also worry less about such a reduction than Schaefer does, because debunking itself is so rich. Credulity shows how debunking involves an uneven and unpredictable fertility, not a suppression; a negotiation, not a laying down of the law; a reversal of roles, not a maintenance of stable power dynamics. Beyond early debunkers’ important contributions to later practice, I could cite the example of William Leete Stone, a newspaper editor known for his skepticism who turned into spirit-traveler Loraina Brackett’s leading supporter. Or I could mention how mesmerist Grimes’s debunking of phrenomesmerism in turn inspired both stage hypnosis and séance spiritualism—much to his chagrin. As I write in Credulity, “practice does not compete with debunking and with instrumentalization; it feeds off both.”
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Back to the enchanted table whose pleasures the killjoy might be supposed to interrupt. Smith prompted my thinking about the killjoy by using the term in a weighty aside. He writes that skeptics tend “to grant to the deluded a kind of good faith” because otherwise—if everyone is in on the game—“the debunker comes off as a killjoy, the kind of fellow who denounces the inauthenticity of professional wrestling or pornography.” As Smith observes, “debunkers do not kill mesmerism.” This is true, and something more is true, too: they help bring it into being.
The strongest reason for refusing to call a debunker a killjoy—and for refusing to think of secularity as a round robin of sport-spoiling—is that the joys of the enchanted and of the disenchanted are intertwined, sometimes pleasurably and sometimes painfully, in a secular age. It’s all one table. While Ahmed imagines the feminist killjoy leaving the table of the bourgeois family and being seated at other, “feminist tables”—which, she clearly states, have their own problems—it seems to me that secularist killjoys cannot have their own tables. Their tables must also seat the people whose joy they kill. The secularist table is the enchanted table, and vice versa.
When Grimes, late in his career, was laboring to debunk spiritualism, he did an experiment with a table. He reproduced table-turning through what he said were suggestive rather than supernatural means: “I usually call on the spirit of Sampson to push the table over, and at the same time urge the young man, the subject, to hold it up. . . . I say: ‘Push, young man! push, spirit! push, both of you!’” Audiences sometimes mistook Grimes for “a wonderful medium.”
So whose table was this? Grimes could not do his work as an “investigator” of spiritualism without first seating himself at the table whose wonders he set out to deflate. But to some audience members, this sham table became their séance table, with Grimes as the “wonderful medium.” In the hall of modern enchantment, contempt dallies with credulity; debunkers and mystics are com-panions (that is, they share bread). Tables spoof other tables. People commandeer the spoofed tables and use them for real. A table does not exist for some people, but it does for others.
Metaphors, in short, break down. The particular way they break down is instructive: things stop making sense when you start opposing the debunkers and the practitioners to each other—or separating them, as it were, on the seating chart. As I explain in Credulity, “modern enchantment is the negotiation between those who are aiming at modernity”—Talal Asad’s phrase—“and those whom they see as nonmodern.” It is the set of unpredictable results that arises from the attempt to manage credulity. Or to put it in the terms of the banquet hall: modern enchantment is a disputatious table, filled with people who claim to be walking out on each other in a huff. But actually, these people find their way to their practices by seating themselves together—a séance, too, is a seating—and muttering imprecations under their breath.