Control And Enchantment
Yesterday I listened to Jordan Peterson’s podcast interview with Chloé Valdary, the antiracism educator whose program is called “Theory of Enchantment.” I have been following her for some time on Twitter, because she always seems humane, compassionate, and wise. After listening to her explain her worldview and program on JBP’s podcast, I realized that as much as I hate everything about DEI, I would actually like to take Valdary’s course. Why? Because from what I can tell, Valdary builds her antiracism approach not on resentment and power dynamics, but on encouraging people to find ways to love each other. Her approach also confronts people with the fact that no matter what their race, sex, or whatever, they too have the capacity for evil. She goes at this by looking at people not as bearers of group identity, but as individuals. It is through individual hearts, not between groups, that the line between good and evil passes. I hate standard DEI because it is moralistic politicized hatred. That’s not what Valdary does. When she tells JBP that some companies call in her consultancy to repair the damage done by standard Kendi/DiAngelo-style DEI, I believe her.
Another reason I listened to the podcast episode is to find out what Valdary means by “enchantment.” As you may recall, I have just begun working on a book about re-enchantment. I wanted to discover where our insights overlap. Some of what she has to say reminded me of a book I read last weekend by German sociologist Hartmut Rosa: The Uncontrollability of the World. Carl Trueman recommended it to me, and I put off reading it for a while, because the idea of reading German sociology did not really appeal. I finally got around to it last weekend, and boy, was I ever wrong to put it off. Rosa writes beautifully, and the book is short and easy to digest. And it lands perfectly with the work I’m doing now.
Because listening to the Valdary podcast has me thinking hard about the idea of enchantment, and why it’s so important today, I’m going to repost for you here most of a Substack post I wrote the other day about Rosa’s work. Normally I don’t reproduce my Substack writing here, but I think this one makes a good crossover. Here goes:
Here is Rosa’s diagnosis of our disenchantment. I marked out these quotes on my Kindle, which doesn’t allow you to see where the breaks are. I’m just guessing. Rosa writes:
The driving cultural force of that form of life we call “modern” is the idea, the hope and desire, that we can make the world controllable. Yet it is only in encountering the uncontrollable that we really experience the world. Only then do we feel touched, moved, alive.
My hypothesis is this: because we, as late modern human beings, aim to make the world controllable at every level—individual, cultural, institutional, and structural—we invariably encounter the world as a “point of aggressions” or as a series of points of aggression, in other words as a series of objects that we have to know, attain, conquer, master, or exploit. And precisely because of this, “life,” the experience of feeling alive and of truly encountering the world—that which makes resonance possible—always seems to elude us.
The first guiding thesis that I would like to develop in this essay is that, for late modern human beings, the world has simply become a point of aggression. Everything that appears to us must be known, mastered, conquered, made useful.
A modern society, as I define it, is one that can stabilize itself only dynamically, in other words one that requires constant economic growth, technological acceleration, and cultural innovation in order to maintain its institutional status quo.
This game of escalation is perpetuated not by a lust for more, but by the fear of having less and less. It is never enough not because we are insatiable, but because we are, always and everywhere, moving down the escalator.
Our life will be better if we manage to bring more world within our reach: this is the mantra of modern life, unspoken but relentlessly reiterated and reified in our actions and behavior. As I would like to demonstrate in this essay, the categorical imperative of late modernity—Always act in such a way that your share of the world is increased—has become the dominant principle behind our decision-making in all areas of life and across all ages, from toddlers to the elderly.
This really resonates (no pun intended) with McGilchrist’s writing about how we in the modern West have become slaves to the left-hemisphere view of reality. As you will recall from my past writing about McGilchrist, the left brain is where our capacity for analyzing our experience of the world and construing it for the sake of control is located. To refresh your memory, McGilchrist, a psychiatrist, believes that this faculty is necessary for a full human life, but if we give it dominance — as we have, on a culture-wide scale — we will live in unreality, and lose our capacity for a healthy, reasonable life. We only thrive when the insights of the left hemisphere are returned to the right hemisphere — which is the part of our brains where our intuitive, noetic faculties are located — for integration into the broader picture.
As you will see, what McGilchrist holds as the ideal state is pretty much what Rosa means by resonance.
What does Rosa mean by expanding our share of the world? He’s talking about processing experience in such a way that brings it as a phenomenon under our control, or at least potentially so. He says that the experience of being able to communicate with many people globally, instantly, via smartphones is an example of this. More:
Not only are all our friends and acquaintances, our loved ones and our not so loved ones, now always just a “click” away, we also have all the knowledge in the world—every song, every film, every image, every bit of data that has been digitized—in close proximity at all times. We literally carry it on our person. The world is now at our fingertips in a historically unprecedented way. The idea, or rather the conviction correlated with these processes —that life comes down to bringing the world within reach—is inscribed in our bodies and in our psychological and emotional dispositions.
Reading this, I recalled how when I was a young teenager, I wrote off to a penpal agency asking for a penpal in Europe. They connected me to a teenage girl in the Netherlands. We struck up a wonderful epistolary friendship. At one point, we decided to connect by telephone (this was the early 1980s). I can still recite from memory her family’s phone number, because I pondered it anxiously for a long time before I mustered the courage to call it. Talking on the phone with Europe back then was such an exciting thing! It wasn’t cheap, and I paid my parents back for the cost of those calls. But it was glorious, at least to me. It was entering into a mystery.
Today, my kids can FaceTime or WhatsApp the kids of my Dutch friends, like it’s no big deal, not only speaking, but communicating with visuals too! All the mysterious pleasures of those friendships with faraway people no longer exist. Do I wish we didn’t have the technology to make that ease of communication possible? No, I am grateful for these technological developments. But it has come at a cost, as Rosa helps me to understand. It is no longer a special thing. Europe — and really, anywhere in the world — is not as much the mysterious Other, not like it was. And therefore, it is, and cannot help being, less enchanting.
The sociocultural formation of modernity thus turns out to be, in a way, doubly calibrated for the strategy of making the world controllable. We are structurally compelled (from without) and culturally driven (from within) to turn the world into a point of aggression. It appears to us as something to be known, exploited, attained, appropriated, mastered, and controlled. And often this is not just about bringing things—segments of world—within reach, but about making them faster, easier, cheaper, more efficient, less resistant, more reliably controllable.
Making the world controllable means, first, making it visible, that is, making it knowable, expanding our knowledge of what is there. Making the world controllable means, furthermore, making it physically reachable or accessible.
Inextricably linked with this is the third dimension of bringing the world under control, namely by making it manageable.
… Distinct from this mode of conquering the world technologically and politically, at least in analytical terms, is a fourth dimension of making the world controllable, namely by making it useful, pressing it into service. Here the point is not simply to bring the world under our control, but to make it into an instrument for our own purposes.
So, the four parts of this process:
- Make the world visible.
- Make the visible world accessible.
- Make the visible, accessible world manageable — meaning, increasing our control over it.
- Make the visible, accessible, manageable world do what we want it to do.
Reading this, I thought, “He’s talking about how we disenchant the world.” And then, lo:
Max Weber, the other great “founding father” of modern sociology, likewise finds it highly irrational that human beings do not work in order to live, but live in order to work and accumulate (in my terminology, to grow, accelerate, and innovate). Yet he understands this relation to the world as part and parcel and the result of a great “western process of rationalization” that unfolds over the centuries and the core of which consists in making life and the world calculable, manageable, and predictable—scientifically, technologically, economically, legally, politically, and finally also in everyday life. This means nothing less than making the world controllable… .
Weber identifies this as the flipside of rationalization as a process of progressive alienation, of the world’s falling mute, which he describes as a “disenchantment.” Weber’s at times deeply pessimistic diagnosis is that the world made manageable and predictable has lost not only its color and its magic, but also its voice, its meaning. It has “cooled” into a dull “steel-hard shell,” within which economic and bureaucratic reason blindly and soullessly advance escalatory processes to the point where human beings have become “nonentities” who “imagine they have attained a stage of humankind never before reached.”
Yes! McGilchrist says the same thing. The left brain is performing its natural function when it engages in this process — and this is not necessarily a bad thing. It turns bad, though, when we allow the left brain to triumph over the right, and convince ourselves that the left brain has figured out the truth of the world, and that “this is all there is.” Our right brains know that this is not all there is, that there is in the phenomena of the world more than we can every fully grasp. Modern Western culture has taught us, however, to downplay our noetic intuitions, and to dismiss them as “subjective,” meaning mere opinion.
In truth, as Kierkegaard said, “truth is subjectivity.” He did not mean that there is no such thing as objective truth. He meant rather that all the truths for which one would live or die can only be known subjectively. For example, you cannot objectively prove that God exists — but God’s existence does not depend on our being able to prove it objectively. The nature of the phenomenon we call “God” is such that He can only be known subjectively. Similarly with love. You cannot prove objectively that you love your spouse. Even if you made a long list of all the things you have done that demonstrate your love, it will always be possible to say that you use the word “love” to refer to selfish acts.
See what I mean? God may or may not exist, and your love for your spouse may or may not be real, but the point is that you will not be able to demonstrate that in the same sense that you can demonstrate a mathematical proof, or a physical law. You can only demonstrate the truth of these claims by being willing to live by them, and even die by them. McGilchrist points out several times in his book that this can be a difficult thing for English speakers to grasp because we have only one verb for “to know,” whereas other languages — like French and German — have different verbs to describe knowing as possessing knowledge of things, and knowing as a relationship. To know about a man is not the same thing as knowing a man personally.
Rosa says that gaining mastery over the world — conquering it — can lead us to despair:
None of this means anything to me. It doesn’t matter to me, it doesn’t affect me, and I’m not having any effect on the outside world. This experience is characteristic of a depressive condition, when all axes of resonance have fallen mute and “nothing speaks to us anymore.” This feeling of a loss of world exists independently of the question of how expansive one’s share of the world is. It can arise, individually and collectively, even where—in fact especially where – we have the world technologically, economically, and socially largely in our grasp. Everything out there is dead, gray, empty, and cold, and everything within me is mute and numb, too.
Taking all the above reflections and observations into account, we can note that the individual and institutional efforts of modernity to make the world controllable, in all four dimensions and with an ever wider reach, have yielded paradoxical side effects, which can be described as disenchantment as opposed to ensoulment (Weber). Modernity stands at risk of no longer hearing the world and, for this very reason, losing its sense of itself. This is the conclusion of my sociology of our relationship to the world. Modernity has lost its ability to be called, to be reached.
Modernity has lost its ability to be called, to be reached. What a powerful line, reflecting a profound insight. And it goes right to the heart of my new book project, which is about restoring to us the ability to be called, and reached — by God.
Do y’all remember me banging on and on last year about that dream scene in Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia in which the protagonist, Andrei, is stalking through a ruined church, and the voice of the Virgin asks God to speak to him, because he’s so lost, or to show Himself to Andrei … but God replies that Andrei is not receptive to Him. Here it is:
Andrei is modern Western man. If his way of life is really a way of death, then what is the way out of the dark wood? Rosa:
What does a successful relationship to the world look like? If the culturally and structurally enforced attitude of conceiving of the world as a point of scientific, technological, economic, and political aggression, as something to be brought within our individual reach, turns out to be the cause of our ever increasing alienation from the world, then the question becomes: What other attitude toward the world is even possible or conceivable?
The answer, says Rosa, is resonance.
The basic mode of vibrant human existence consists not in exerting control over things but in resonating with them, making them respond to us—thus experiencing self-efficacy—and responding to them in turn.
My argument is that resonance is not just a metaphor for a certain experience, or a subjective emotional state, but is a mode of relation that can be precisely defined by four exemplary characteristics:
1. Being affected. Resonating with another person, or even with a landscape, a melody, or an idea, means being “inwardly” reached, touched, or moved by them.
2. Self-efficacy. At the same time, we can speak of true resonance only when this call is followed by our own active response. This always manifests itself in a physical reaction that we might describe in everyday language as “getting goosebumps,” “the hair on the back our neck standing on end,” or “a shiver running down our spine” and that, in medical terms, may be measured as a change in our skin resistance, breathing rate, heart rate, or blood pressure. Resonance also involves our reacting to the impulse that calls us by reaching out toward that which moves…
3. Adaptive transformation. Whenever we resonate with another human being, a book, a song, a landscape, an idea, a piece of wood, we are transformed by the encounter, although of course in very different ways. There are encounters that leave us “a different person” in their wake, and there are adaptive transformations that produce barely noticeable, often only temporary changes, for example in our voice. In every instance, however, a change in how we relate to the world is constitutive of resonant experience. When we resonate with the world, we are no longer the same afterwards.
It is symptomatic of depression, a state in which all our axes of resonance have fallen mute and grown numb, that nothing touches or moves us anymore. At the same time, we also feel that we ourselves cannot reach anyone, that we are “frozen” and thus incapable of change.
Even if we wish to leave aside the argument, put forth by authors such as Philippe Descola and Bruno Latour, that attributing a capacity for resonance to human beings alone and holding everything else in the universe to be mute and “dead” is a highly dubious, one-sided approach peculiar to the modern rationalistic–scientific worldview (along with its corresponding mode of aggression), it is nevertheless evident that resonant experiences also significantly change inanimate objects (if only for us).
Without the trifecta of af←fect (in the sense of being affected by an other), e→motion (as a self-efficacious response that creates a connection), and adaptive transformation, appropriation remains a relation of relationlessness.
4. Uncontrollability. The fourth (and, for this book, critical) aspect of resonant relationships consists in the fact that the “pathological” (or simply unfortunate) conditions described above cannot be changed merely through an act of will, that resonance cannot be manufactured or engineered. I describe this as the uncontrollability of resonance, which means, first, that there is no method, no seven- or nine-step guide that can guarantee that we will be able to resonate with people or things.
This sends me back to the advent of nominalism, which defeated metaphysical realism in the High Middle Ages. At the risk of gross oversimplification, the metaphysical realist position holds that God is, in some sense, intrinsically present in the material world. How this works is controversial; the Latin church and the Byzantine church have different explanations, because in no case can we say that the material world is God. That would be idolatry. It suffices to say that before nominalism, the divine participates in the material world intrinsically. The nominalist view places God outside of the material world (which He created, as they acknowledge).
In my view — and it’s not original to me — disenchantment began with nominalism. I won’t go there right now, because I want to stick to Rosa. Keep in mind, though, as you read on, that there is a metaphysical and religious dimension to what he’s saying, though he writes as a sociologist.
Rosa contends that we cannot hope to find resonance with the world if we insist on controlling everything, and having an “attitude of constantly perceiving the world as a point of aggression” — that is, as something to be consumed and mastered. But it is not the case that resonance and uncontrollability are the same thing!
In fact we are able to resonate with other people or things only when they are in a way “semicontrollable,” when they move between complete controllability and total uncontrollability.
Rather, we must establish a relationship to the world. He explains:
It is not enough that I have access to and can take hold of the world. Resonance demands that I allow myself to be called, that I be affected, that something reach me from the outside.
In other words, we must in some sense seek to “know” the world in the subjective sense. Obviously objects don’t have personalities; what he means is that we should focus on how interacting with things in the world can change us. This can only happen if we recognize that for these phenomena to change us, we have to accept that we can never fully control them, which is to say, never completely possess them. More:
My argument is that, if I could make it snow at will, then I could never experience being called by the falling snow.
If my cat were a programmable robot that always purred and wanted to be cuddled, she would become nothing to me but a dead thing.
In another sense, this also applies, say, to a poem that I feel has something to say to me. A poem can resonate with me only as long as I have not yet fully grasped, understood, and processed it (dimension 3) [making the visible world accessible and manageable — RD], only as long as it continues to occupy me and still seems to be hiding something from me.
To restate for the sake of clarity, “Things we can completely control in all four dimensions lose their resonant quality.”
We can only resonate with a counterpart that in a way “speaks with its own voice,” that has something like its own will or character, or at least its own inner logic that, as such, remains beyond our control. What is more, we must be able to understand this voice as speaking to us, and thus as being in some sense responsive.
Rosa goes on:
Resonance demands a form of uncontrollability that “speaks,” that is more than just contingency.
Indeed, in everyday language we say things like “This book (or song) appeals to me” to describe even the most banal forms of this sensation. By this we do not mean that the book or song in question actually speaks to us in any concrete or metaphysical sense, but rather that we are in some way called by it, and that at the same time we, or something inside us, react and respond to it. Such experiences, however—regardless of whether our counterpart is another person, a piece of music, a mountain, or the falling snow—also involve, first, a feeling of inner change or transformation and, second and foremost, the assumption or hope that it might be worth engaging more closely with that which appeals to us, precisely because we do not fully understand it or have not yet exhausted it.
This is not simply saying that we like this or that thing. It’s much deeper. This is what Rilke means by his poem “Archaic Torso Of Apollo”:
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
The meaning of a poem, a song, a tree, a building, etc., depends on how we respond to it. In a resonant relationship, both sides are transformed by their relationship.
Charles Taylor, the fundamental achievement of the philosophy and poetry of German romanticism, as encountered in the work of Hölderlin, Friedrich and August Schlegel, Novalis, and Schelling, was making it possible to conceive of reality as being co-constituted in this way, in a mutual movement between subject and world.
… Fatally, it is precisely our sense that we are not yet finished with something, that there is still something there, that tempts us into trying to “take hold” of it in order to bring it under our control, to be able to access and engage with it at will. Our efforts to secure “resonant” encounters medially, especially by photographing or filming them, are a particularly revealing example of this. Such media make it possible for us to take naturally ephemeral phenomena such as snowfalls and sunsets “out of time,” making them accessible and controllable for the future. Unfortunately, however, attempting to take hold of the dynamic of resonance generally means paralyzing it. When we approach a landscape, an event, or an object with the eye of a photographer, these things stop speaking to us. We may well be able to sense that a landscape would have something to say to us, which is why we want to take hold of it in the first place, but it does not speak to us when we fix our photographic gaze on it or capture it on film. This observation is difficult to prove empirically, but anyone can experience it for themselves at any time.
Establishing a resonant relationship with the world requires us to renounce the impulse to make a phenomenon controllable. “Such an attitude destroys any experience of resonance by paralyzing its intrinsic dynamism,” Rosa writes.
As we have already seen, uncontrollability on the side of the subject means that we must be willing to allow ourselves to be touched and changed in unpredictable ways.
Resonance implies vulnerability and a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable. On the object side, uncontrollability means that what we encounter must resist us in at least one of the four dimensions of calculation and control. There must be at least one “obstinate remainder” that has something to say to us, that is meaningful to us in the sense of a strong evaluation.
… When we engage in activities in which we are certain of the outcome, we may well experience success, but never resonance.
“Strong evaluation” is a term from Charles Taylor, referencing things we decide are fundamental truths around which we must orient ourselves. Something that we evaluate in a “strong” way is a thing or value that we cannot render inert by absorbing it fully into our own subjectivity.
For the subject, being reachable means being fundamentally capable of being touched, of being called, such that resonance may occur. As we have seen, however, subjects cannot control their capacity for resonance. Today I will allow myself to be touched! I intend to be moved by my date tonight!
At the same time, reachability is not a matter of pure contingency. We can of course try to create the dispositional and situational conditions necessary for us to be capable of being moved. A museum, for instance, is a place where we generally do not pursue any instrumental aims, where we want instead to come into contact with things in a way that is geared not toward escalation or control, but toward unexpected or unpredictable, resonant encounters, where we are inwardly open and ready to be called.
As we have seen, the same applies to the objects we encounter. Resonance is impossible if we cannot reach or access them in some form (we must able to read the Bible or Marx’s Capital, or hear a piece of music, in order to resonate with it), but equally impossible if they are completely controllable in all four dimensions. Resonance requires giving up control over both what we encounter and the process of encountering it, and at the same time being able—and trusting in our ability—to reach out to this other side and establish responsive contact with it.
Reminds of me of Elaine Scarry’s line about education: it involves training students to be looking in the right corner of the sky when the comet passes.
Rosa says that modernity’s basic conflict is to confuse reachability for controllability. This is built into the logic of modernity, which tells us that we can only be our fullest selves if we use technology to bring more and more of the world under our control, to produce desired outcomes. But you cannot find resonance with the world if you seek to impose total control over it.
Here is Rosa’s understanding of how this applies to faith:
In my layman’s understanding, the essence of the Judeo-Christian conception of God consists in an idea entirely in keeping with resonance theory. Even if—and especially if—God is conceived of in generally negative theological terms, as fundamentally inaccessible or beyond control, the relationship between God and the human being is understood to be one of mutual relatedness and reachability. Humans are supposed to listen to God or hear God’s word, and God in turn can be reached through prayer—although this precisely does not mean that he can in any way be controlled. Leaving aside any and all endless theological debates, responsivity here signifies an ultimate, potentially transformative relationship of mutual listening that also allows each side its “own voice” and freedom to respond. Whether resonance occurs or what its result might be remains uncontrollably open.
In my view, this kind of relatedness forms the basis of the practice of prayer, which cannot be understood otherwise. In contrast to what happens in the practices of alchemy or magic, in prayer there is no attempt to manipulate the other side or to engineer a particular result. The aim is rather to feel or sense an accommodating response, the content of which is not predetermined.
Listening and responding constitute a different attitude from planning, doing, and calculating.
Thus falling in love is not compatible with a late modern culture geared toward making life controllable.
This made me wonder if the increasing difficulty young people have today pairing off is because they are formatted from the beginning by this culture to expect that the world is controllable. This is one of the malign features of porn: it gives its user a sexual experience that is entirely controllable.
If you have followed me in my writing about Iain McGilchrist’s new book, you will know why this clip from Rosa is so, well, resonant. It’s what the left hemisphere does:
Identity thinking operates according to the opposite principle: it is always already finished with everything. This is easily and clearly illustrated through everyday situations. Let us imagine that we are captivated by the sight of the moon, turn to our companion, and say: Oh, look, the moon! To which they respond: What about it? It’s been there the whole time. It’s just a rocky orb, 385,000 kilometers away, littered with craters, without any life. It’s been like that for millions of years, it never changes. What are you talking about?
We wouldn’t know what to say. That is in fact what the moon is. But it is not only that. It is also an object of fear and desire and longing, and has been for millennia. It’s the moon of “Fly Me to the Moon,” Dark Side of the Moon, and thousands of other songs and fairy tales. Its biological significance as well as its psychological influence on us are still not entirely clear scientifically. It even has an important social meaning, as it structures and modifies our social rhythms and calendars. But, in going after all of these different meanings and trying to “nail them down,” we too are already in the realm of fixating, mortifying identity thinking, the very destroyer of things. It is impossible to enter into a responsive relationship with the moon in this way; nor can we explain in this way what we meant when we called out to our companion, “Look!”
So it is with God — and this, I think, is one great strength of the Eastern Orthodox approach to God via negative theology, which is describing who God is by saying what He is not.
Rosa says that our desire for the world — our eros directed towards it — is fundamentally human. All desire is first directed toward something uncontrollable, by “a longing to bring something unreachable into our reach.”
The problem is that when he have mastered it completely, we have hollowed it out, and we believe that there is no longer anything to discover about it.
If my arguments here are sound, then modern culture has committed a fundamental error in transforming our always open-ended longing to bring the world within reach into a demand to bring it reliably under control, a demand that has been systematized into a program of constant expansion of our share of the world, making it controllable in all four dimensions.
Where “everything is under control,” the world no longer has anything to say to us, and where it has become newly uncontrollable, we can no longer hear it, because we cannot reach it.
So this is why it is so much more difficult to believe in God in modern times: because we resist what we cannot control and explain, and because granting free reign to the impulse to dominate and control is what it means to be modern. Again, this is a different way of saying what Iain McGilchrist says in his work on culture and brain hemispheres.
There’s more to what I wrote, but this is most of it. If you want to read more regular commentary like that, please subscribe to Rod Dreher’s Diary, my Substack newsletter, which focuses on spirituality, culture, art, and reasons to hope. I hope the post above will inspire you to order Rosa’s wonderful short book, and to dive into the parallel work of Iain McGilchrist. Find out more about McGilchrist at his website, Channel McGilchrist. I’m reading now his massive new book, The Matter With Things, but a more manageable introduction to his work is his highly acclaimed 2009 book The Master And His Emissary.