The question of “modernity and (dis)enchantment,” prominent among intellectuals a century ago, sounds a bit fusty today. We are more likely to be pissed off or super happy than disenchanted or enchanted. For all its arcane trappings, though, this particular question is crucial. It produced a standard definition of Western modernity that lasted until the turn of the twenty-first century—when it was reconsidered and decisively challenged. Modernity used to be widely identified as the “Age of Reason,” but today it must also be understood as the “Age of Imagination.”
The German sociologist Max Weber evocatively linked modernity and disenchantment in his 1917 lecture, “Science as a Vocation.” In the modern West, he insisted, “there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted.” His vision of modernity appealingly combined the eighteenth-century Enlightenment narrative of the West as progressively rational with the nineteenth-century Romantic critique of the corrosive effects this tendency had on everyday life. It became the basis for post-1945 Modernization Theory, which was less ambivalent than Weber about the rational direction of the West. At the same time, it informed less celebratory accounts of Western modernity, such as those by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (especially their 1944 Dialectic of Enlightenment) and Michel Foucault (notably his 1975 Discipline and Punish). These accounts echoed Weber’s exposure of reason, in its instrumental-rational form, as a potential tool of domination rather than emancipation.
Weber’s formulation thus pervaded the social sciences and humanities through the late twentieth century. For all the deconstructive challenges to it by postmodernists, the paradigm remained the reigning understanding of modernity within the academy until the past two decades, when scholars from multiple disciplines began to question the nature and extent of modern disenchantment, and how it related to concepts of enchantment and re-enchantment.
In place of Weber’s binary opposition between rational, modern disenchantment and irrational, atavistic enchantment, these scholars stress the complementary interplay between disenchantment and enchantment. Modernist culture tends to be self-reflexive, ironic, double-minded; F. Scott Fitzgerald nicely captured its peculiar “double consciousness” when he observed, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” “Enchantment” has long had the dual meanings of “to delight” and “to delude”; while Weber stressed delusive enchantments, recent scholarship has focused on “disenchanted enchantments,” which ideally delight without deluding.
Perhaps the most remarkable revision to a paradigm devoted to rationalization has to do with a new appraisal of the imagination as reason’s coequal. This is a dramatic departure from the traditional subordination of the imagination to reason within the Western philosophic tradition, which Weber upheld and felt he needed to defend against late nineteenth-century “irrationalist” currents such as lebensphilosophie and aestheticism. The gradual legitimation of the imagination began in the eighteenth century in the thought of Joseph Addison, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Immanuel Kant, among others, as well as the new concept of “fictionality” spurred by the rise of the novel. At the turn of the century, Romanticism privileged the imagination as a source of secular spirituality. There was a hiatus in this project during the mid-nineteenth century when “scientists”—the term was coined in 1833—widely disparaged the imagination in order to distinguish their new profession as the rational guarantor of genuine, “objective” knowledge. But late nineteenth-century explorations of the unconscious and symbolic communications, alongside the expansion of mass culture and the turn to art as a locus of spiritual replenishment, refocused attention on the imagination as reason’s partner.
The vast expansion of mass culture in the first half of the twentieth century (including film, radio, pulp and paperback fiction, and television) secured the imagination’s public predominance against those intellectual gatekeepers anxious to preserve an earlier status quo and reluctant to entertain mass culture’s complexities. There were other intellectuals who defended and even extended the imagination’s legitimation. Space precludes a detailed history of this epochal shift, but certain highpoints can be noted. In his first Manifesto of Surrealism of 1924, André Breton defined the imagination in complementary terms as exploring the midpoint at which reason and the imagination, reality and dream, merge. He speculated hopefully that, “the imagination is perhaps on the point of reasserting itself, of reclaiming its rights.”
His intimation was certainly true in twentieth-century France, challenging the profound sway of Cartesian rationality. In 1936, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the first work of Western philosophy devoted exclusively to the imagination, and in 1968, student protestors in Paris plastered walls with the slogan, “All Power to the Imagination.” Outside of France, the imagination finally recovered its rights, as well, notably within academia. It became a central explanatory device in such influential works as Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination (1950), C. Wright Mills’s The Sociological Imagination (1959), and Martin Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination (1966); other important studies delved into “imagined communities” and “social imaginaries.”
Scientists, however, remained reticent about the role of the imagination during the first half of the twentieth century. (Albert Einstein’s more overt enthusiasm for the imagination was tolerated as an idiosyncrasy on a par with his unkempt hair and fondness for sporting sandals.) The new genre of science fiction stepped into the breach: Hugo Gernsback, who gave the literature its oxymoronic name and published the first magazine devoted to it, Amazing Stories, in 1926, insisted that SF’s role was to complement science by engaging in the imaginative speculations eschewed by sober scholars. According to a guest editorial in a 1928 issue of Amazing Stories Quarterly, science fiction “takes the basis of science, considers all the clues that science has to offer, and then adds a thing that is alien to science—imagination. It goes ahead and lights the way. And when science sees the things made real in the author’s mind, it makes them real indeed.”
However, even scientists began to challenge the separation of the “Two Cultures” that they helped establish, especially after 1945, when that phrase became widely known. There were many reasons for this, the most obvious being the development of quantum mechanics, which required robust imaginations no less than expensive cyclotrons. Following the use of atomic weapons, the public and scientific community alike recognized the need for an ethical as well as practical imagination in science. The mathematician and poet Jacob Bronowski, who lived with his own guilt over his ballistics work during the war, became a vocal proponent of the unity of the imagination and reason in the postwar decades, making his most public case for it in the popular 1973 BBC television series The Ascent of Man. Carl Sagan’s 1976 television series Cosmos was inspired by the show, and Sagan made a point of exploring various scientific topics though his “ship of the imagination.” Today, Richard Dawkins and other scientists openly acknowledge that science is beholden to the imagination: it does not exclusively disenchant or, in Dawkins’s words, “unweave the rainbow.” Science disenchants and reenchants the world simultaneously.
While Weber claimed that modernity had essentially extirpated “mysterious, incalculable forces,” the modern imagination has become a central one in contemporary life. It provides both spiritual and secular solace, filling the vacuum created by secularization. The imagination as a source of metaphysical comfort was explored by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817. He presented an essentialist notion of the imagination as the “repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite act of I AM.” And in 1942, the poet Wallace Stevens explored the imagination as a source of contingent metafictions, to which he pledged a secular faith: “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.” In modernity, the mysterious, incalculable force of the imagination speaks to the religious and secular alike, retaining the elements of magic, mystery, and enchantment that Weber implied had been vanquished through rationalization. Modernity is now understood as being both disenchanted and reenchanted. The ideal is to achieve a balance between reason and imagination: to be delighted, but not deluded.