(Un)Making Modernity: Jason A. Josephson-Storm’s “The Myth of Disenchantment” and How We Got Here

By Rob Ames

The Met Society considers its mission as a decidedly modern one. Jessica Scott frames her work on metropolitan security as a self-consciously novel project. First recognizing that “domestic security” is a concept “we take for granted in the developed world in the late modern era,” she then presents the NYPD’s role in metropolitan security as a mission to protect a city characterized by “cultured high modern metropolitanism.” Similarly, the introduction to our work on Inter-Metropolitan Relations notes, in “the modern era, cities haven’t had their own global institutions,” which Karthik Sankaran frames as a uniquely modern problem: “Despite the centrality of cities, the world’s political and ideological structures have been organized for a few centuries around the dueling concepts of nation-state and class.” So here, we see two notions of modernity at work: on the one hand, there is the idea the that the city itself is modern, not only in that it is cultured and metropolitan (in Scott’s case), but also (in Sankaran’s case) that cities are simultaneously central to the global economy but underserved by contemporary, national institutions. On the other hand, in the case of domestic security in Scott’s article, there is the recognition that we take much of what we call modern for granted; it is simply a given that a political unit’s ability to provide security for its residents is a precondition of its being a developed, modern entity. Such appeals to development and modernity often rest on implicit assumptions about the relationship between reason and development; it is usually taken for granted that modernization is equivalent to bureaucratic rationalization, or, more broadly, the growth of instrumental rationality within a culture’s intellectual life. Given how frequently we at the Met Society appeal to the modern, we would benefit from some critical reflection on how we’ve come to equate development and reason.

Jason A. Josephson-Storm’s “The Myth of Disenchantment” offers the reader the opportunity for just such a reflection. The book’s titular disenchantment refers to some of the phenomena most characteristic of modernity: “the rise of instrumental reason, the gradual alienation of humanity from nature, and the production of a bureaucratic and technological life world stripped of mystery and wonder” (p. 4). Max Weber, who figures prominently in my discussion with Met Society executive director Peter Marino on the first episode of our podcast, is also one of the main characters in discussions of disenchantment, having first conceived of modernization as die Entzauberung der Welt, the “de-magic-ing” of the world, or, the process by which we’ve come to take it for granted “that the contemporary, industrial, capitalist societies of Western Europe and North America have lost their magic, and that it is this absence that makes them modern” (p. 4). In “The Myth of Disenchantment,” though, Josephson-Storm sets out to demonstrate that disenchanted modernity is “a hegemon that never achieved full mastery” by “exploring the haunting presence of magic in the very instances when disenchantment was itself being theorized,” as illustrated by the fact that a figure like Weber was “enmeshed in the occult milieu” (pp. 5-6). Josephson-Storm reconsiders the relationship between a number of theorists of modern disenchantment and magic, but, for the purposes of this review, I will focus on his treatment of Weber and the myths that have developed around his work. One such myth is Weber’s reputation as a purely disinterested sociologist, while another is the very notion that Weber referred to the modernizing phenomena listed above when using the phrase die Entzauberung der Welt.

To speak first to the question of the personal context of Weber’s writing: Josephson-Storm’s thorough research has revealed that Weber frequently vacationed at a commune in Ascona, Switzerland known as Monte Verita, which served as the headquarters of an organization known as the Hermetic Brotherhood of Light. In his 1917 constitution for this group (also known as the Ordo Templi Orientis), Theodor Reuss identified it as a “Modern School of Magic” (p. 269). Weber, famed though he may be for his theory of disenchantment, was quite enchanted with Ascona: in a 1914 letter, he called the commune there his “home” and regarded it as “a sort of oasis of purity” that contrasted sharply with the “‘human’ world based on superficial sensations” (p. 277).

Regarding the concept of disenchantment itself, for Josephson-Storm, its normal use “as a poetical synonym for secularization or modern rationalization,” and the assumption among Weber scholars “that a disenchanted world has absolutely no magic in it” miss the mark when compared to Weber’s work itself. As evidence for his argument to dissociate disenchantment from secularization, Josephson-Storm points out that according to Weber, “the complete disenchantment of the world has only been carried out to its full conclusion” by Puritans, who are, of course, quite closely associated with superstition, given that they also conducted New England’s famous seventeenth-century witch trials (pp. 270-271). This suggests that 1) opposition to magic need not be accompanied by the withering away of religion in the public sphere and 2) that the rejection of magic need not entail the denial of its efficacy (after all, why hunt witches if you don’t believe in their magic?). According to Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” the disenchantment that Puritans enacted so thoroughly was theological and ethical rather descriptive or scientific: they did not deny the efficacy of magical action upon the world or in social life, but instead denied that there was any “magical means of attaining the grace of God,” which is simply to say that they were logically consistent in their adherence to the Protestant notion that the individual believer could not be saved through individual action or ritual performance, but instead “that salvation is solely due to the sovereign grace of God” (p. 281). Josephson-Storm goes on to note that the development of this denial into the idea that individuals’ conduct could not make an impact on cosmic affairs troubled Weber, who observed that the transformation of disenchantment info a “causal mechanism” leads “rational, empirical knowledge” into “tension with the demands of the ethical postulate” (p. 283). Josephson-Storm continues by pointing out that Weber’s later work proposed mysticism as one of the few alternatives remaining “alongside the de-deified (entgotteten) mechanism of the world;” in this view of Weber’s oeuvre, “one can see him working toward a set of oppositions: on one side, the alienation produced by bureaucracy, routinization, intellectual hyper-specialization; and on the other side, the potentially (but not necessarily) redemptive charisma, mysticism, and authentic prophecy” (p. 297). What are we to make of this new, mystical Weber? Why does this matter for an international affairs think tank?

To return to the themes with which I opened this review, I’ll begin to answer the above questions by saying that reading “the Myth of Disenchantment” gives us occasion to question our own self-consciously modern framing of the Met Society’s mission and to ponder the specific aspects of modernity in which we are investing when committing our projects to “the modern era.” Of greater import, though, is the bearing of Josephson-Storm’s project on international studies more generally. Disenchantment, the sciences born of a mechanistic cosmology, and capitalist economics were, until quite recently, taken as proof of the simultaneously natural and rational dominance of the West over the Global South, which was in turn deemed irrational, superstitious, and inferior because of the persistence of belief in magic there. More recent (and somewhat less monstrously colonial) accounts of modernity have countered this by highlighting the coexistence of magic and modernity within the Global South rather than casting the Global South as a world of tradition that contrasts a modern West. Josephson-Storm writes, “while lingering enchantments used to be taken as a rationale for the backwardness of non-European others, today, they are often regarded as evidence that the disenchantment model is an uncomfortable fit outside the land of its birth” (p. 23). His project goes a step further, though, and recognizes that the disenchantment model has been an uncomfortable fit within the land of its birth as well. Although I would hesitate to follow Josephson-Storm in adopting Bruno Latour’s maxim “we have never been modern,” I do think that  “The Myth of Disenchantment” offers a valuable lesson to self-consciously modern, Western analysts of international affairs. It reminds us that the concepts by which we define and justify our intellectual pursuits are myths. This is not to say that they lack any bearing on the real world, but rather to note that they function more to regulate our intellectual conduct than they do to describe a collection of historical facts. That being the case, Josephson-Storm gives us the chance to pause and ask what other myths we might take for granted in our analysis; he reminds us that many of the tools by which we study global affairs first developed to divide the west from the rest, and therefore enjoins us to ask whether how much our intellectual labor is really describing conditions as they are elsewhere in the world, and how much is simply repeating a story about who we’ve come to believe we ought to be.

The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences, by Jason A. Josephson-Storm, 400 pp., University of Chicago Press.