The Magic in Modernity

It is something of a commonplace that the mix of capitalist exchange and technological advance we call ‘modernity’ has stripped the world of its luster. Once we dwelt in fairy glens and dwarven vales, greeting Helios as he made his way across the sky, wishing well the naiads as they bubbled on their way. We do so no longer. Science has stripped nature of its wonder; all sorts of “isms” and “izations” have stripped even this diminished nature from our lives. Concrete and wires, ink and paper, white shirts and dark suits—the symbols of our age are seen in grayscale. In this colorless sea we drift from suburb to office space and back again. Everywhere we find the antiseptic and the artificial. Everywhere we find that modernity has sucked out the magic of human life. 

 Whether this narrative accurately describes the 20th and 21st century experience is not the subject of this short post. I only want to show that this notion of technological and scientific advance disenchanting the world of its wonders was not inevitable. There was a time when men found magic in modernity. 

George Bancroft was one of the most famous intellectuals of 19th century America. In addition to writing a famed multi-volume history of the United states, Bancroft was a popular orator and essayist, a rare Bostonian Brahmin who turned traitor to his tribe and advanced the cause of The Democracy—at least until the Civil War, when that party’s cause was shattered by disunion. But through his life Bancroft saw himself a Jackson man. He viewed Jackson as the embodiment of a favored ideal: progress. 

Bancroft saw evidence of progress everywhere he went. It was the subject of one of his most famous speeches, a lengthy 1858 oration with the lengthy title “The Necessity, the Reality, and the Promise of the Progress of the Human Race.” This is an unfortunate title for a speech delivered just a few years before the horrors of civil war, but Bancroft’s vision was larger than America. Progress, he thought, was not just manifest in American life. It coursed through the human race. One evidence of this was the technological wonders and scientific discoveries made in his own life:

Of the nature of electricity, more has been discovered in the last fifty years than in all past time, not even excepting the age when our own Franklin called it from the clouds. This aërial, invisible power has learnt to fly as man’s faithful messenger, till the mystic wires tremble with his passions, and bear his errands on the wings of lightning. He divines how this agency, which holds the globe in its invisible embrace, guides floating atoms to their places in the crystal; or teaches the mineral ores the line in which they should move, where to assemble together, and where to lie down and take their rest. It whispers to the meteorologist the secrets of the atmosphere and the skies. For the chemist in his laboratory it perfects the instruments of heat, dissolves the closest affinities, and reunites the sundered elements. It joins the artisan at his toil, and, busily employed at his side, this subtlest and swiftest of existences tamely applies itself to its task, with patient care reproduces the designs of the engraver or the plastic art, and disposes the metal with a skillful delicacy and exactness which the best workman cannot rival. Nay more: it enters into the composition of man himself, and is ever present as the inmost witness of his thoughts and volitions. These are discoveries of our time.1

1

 George Bancroft, The Necessity, the Reality, and the Promise of the Progress of the Human Race. Oration before the New York Historical Society (Liverpool: D. Marples, 1858), 15

Mystic wires! Wings of lightning! Whisperer of the secret skies! Hear Bancroft describe electricity! It is clear that for Bancroft growing scientific knowledge does not make the world less divine, but more so. I suspect science and technology enchants him so in part because of his beliefs about divinity:

The progress of man consists in this, that he himself arrives at the perception of truth. The Divine mind, which is its source, left it to be discovered, appropriated, and developed by finite creatures… all creation is a manifestation of the Almighty ; not the result of caprice, but the glorious display of his perfection; and as the universe thus produced is always in the course of change, so its regulating mind is a living Providence, perpetually exerting itself anew. If his designs could be thwarted, we should lose the great evidence of his unity, as well as the anchor of our own hope.2

2

ibid., 5, 9.

  In other words, the fairies and the naiads might dissolve into chemical equations and laws of nature with no loss, for each one of those laws was—in Bancroft’s mind—a testament to the majesty of a living God. All creation is suffused with divinity when it is divine law that directs all of creation. 

If this interpretation is true, then it is not the skyscrapers, nor the laboratories, nor even the sedate stream of office memos that has taken the magic out of modernity. It is less technology that disenchants than the way we conceive it workings.

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 To read other posts on the history of meaning in modernity, look to “For God and Progress,” “On the American Football Game,” “On Laws and Gods,” “Tradition is Smarter Than You Are,” and “Questing For Transcendence.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible. 

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7 Comments

Might be worth noting that this speech was a year before On the Origin of Species. There seems to have been a transitional zone in which science’s claims had not yet begun to seriously infringe upon those of the supernatural, at least those of the Church and at least in the common consciousness. This could explain disenchantment’s necessity.

Sorry I didn’t mean to post two comments thought the first one didn’t go through for some reason, please delete these last two. Sorry about that!

Some of this spirit remains alive among quite secular people in the tech world. This is distinct from the Singularity techno-religion.

Look at the bizarre cover of the influential textbook "Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs", which depicts a sorcerer holding a compass and a crystal ball and some sort of transcendent floating lambda. (Seriously, look it up, it's strikingly weird.)

Or the introduction to "The Pattern on the Stone", a popular science book about computers by W. Danny Hillis:

"I etch a pattern of geometric shapes onto a stone. To the uninitiated, the shapes look mysterious and complex, but I know that when arranged correctly they will give the stone a special power, enabling it to respond to incantations in a language no human being has ever spoken. I will ask the stone questions in this language, and it will answer by showing me a vision: a world created by my spell, a world imagined within the pattern on the stone…The stone is a wafer of silicon, and the incantations are software."

I think, among people who actually get to program the computers, the sense that they have a kind of magic to them is still fairly common, and most of them are basically secular.

As someone who does research in physics for a living, I think it is awfully sad that people think science has stripped nature of its wonder. Science is wondrous and fun, and there are so many mysteries that we have not figured out yet! In my opinion, the prevalence of that mindset is much more an indictment of early STEM education than anything.

It is true. It is true in the cool air conditioned breeze by the doors of a supermarket; true in the ridges and depths of the moon seen through finely crafted Celestron binoculars; true in the rush of power felt in the hum of a muscle car; and true in the joy and terror of the otherworldliness that is virtual reality. This truth, so self-evident to me as a young child, was gradually lost, ground down in the vicious contempt of things which modern culture suffuses through uncountable turns of phrases; reaching critical mass and mental illness in politics in particular. I pulled back from that brink when I rediscovered that childlike hope and wonder; that spark of joy and divinity in simply living – the wonders of science, the wonders of technology, of art and nature and of personal experience.

To me, it has become a clear and self evident truth that wonder, hope, euphoria and divinity are not gone due to technology. Many have merely become blind to it, or worse still – chosen to see that which is ugly above all else. Like observing a beautiful woman, and proceeding to pick at her freckles, criticize her scars, and complain that she is flawed, and therefore cannot be loved.

I stood outside, by a grassy park near my house one night, and observed a streak of light. What could it be? I googled, and found that it was most likely connected to Elon Musk's starlink program – the sunlight reflected off its solar panels, returning to my eyes as it made its way across the sky above. How ugly, how base, much of modern culture would decry. It obscures the telescopes of the astronomer, it is nothing more than space trash polluting the heavens themselves! So many articles would have us believe. I saw differently. How magnificent, how majestic – even if it is still a problem which needs to be solved for its obstruction of the astronomer. But consider – that I stood there that night, and saw a harbinger of the wonders of our future to come. A future by which a glittering belt of technology stands visible in the cosmos themselves, illuminating our night sky with a show of light, a symbol of how far we have come. A show of light, sharing the space with the stars above, neither outshining the other – out addition to this cosmic symphony. Is it not majestic?

@Canadian reader: I too saw Starlink satellites in the late evening sky a month or so ago; I was in darkness, they were at an altitude where the Sun was still shining.

The experience was distinctly creepy because I have considerable experience looking at the sky and am familiar with the appearance of satellites and the Space Station passing over under similar conditions.

But that evening there were scads of satellites, all flying in formation as they separated in orbit post-launch. Was it magical? Not really: it was more alarming until I figured out what I was seeing.

As for the original post, Guardians of Culture have long disparaged advances in technology, probably because nobody ever consults them before taking new things live. But so it always is: new techne is always a double- or even multiple-edged sword.

@Anonymous

It was particularly magical for me due to context – I am an avid science fiction reader, and the sight of streaking stars across the sky at regular intervals being satelites invoked in me the image of the glitter belt of revelation space, and what it might be like centuries later – hen there is so much more in space. I also have less of an experience watching satelites and the ISS, so it was the first time the sight hit me. That is, it was the mystique of the novelty of the sight, combined with the imagination of what it meant, combined with the greater context of how it all happened which invoked such feelings in me, I believe.