Enlightened Enchantment?

Over at The Atlantic, anthropologist Christine Folch wonders why Americans love science fiction and fantasy films, whereas Indians don’t. It’s Hollywood v. Bollywood, with the former dishing out endless fantasy while the latter generates lots of family drama. Folch suggests that the preferential difference is due to disenchantment: Americans allegedly are “western” heirs to an Enlightenment tradition that has rationalized life, making it more scientific and secular:

Why are we so into science fiction and fantasy? Nineteenth-century German sociologist Max Weber had a useful theory about this: The answer may be that we in the West are “disenchanted.” The world in which we live feels explainable, predictable, and boring. Weber posited that because of modern science, a rise in secularism, an impersonal market economy, and government administered through bureaucracies rather than bonds of loyalty, Western societies perceived the world as knowably rational and systematic, leading to a widespread loss of a sense of wonder and magic. Because reality is composed of processes that can be identified with a powerful-enough microscope or calculated with a fast-enough computer, so Weber’s notion of disenchantment goes, there is no place for mystery. But this state of disenchantment is a difficult one because people seem to like wonder. And so we turn to science fiction and fantasy in an attempt to re-enchant the world.

If it were true that Americans had become secular or scientific and disenchanted, this would be a plausible hypothesis. But it’s hard to make a case for “widespread loss of magic and wonder” in the face of these facts:

  • 138,000,000 Americans believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years;
  • 120,000,000 Americans believe that Jesus will “definitely” or “probably” return to earth in the next 40 years; and
  • 40,000,000 Americans believe that Obama either is or may be the Antichrist.

There is a great deal of “magic and wonder” in these figures, with about half of all Americans showing serious signs of enchantment. Weber’s thesis may have some validity for other western countries that are indeed more secular-scientific than the United States, but the Enlightenment message seems to have shipwrecked on these shores.

Though Folch may not have intended this, if we flip her narrative it suggests that Indians were more or less unaffected by the Enlightenment and have therefore remained enchanted. Because their lives are filled with (Hindu) enchantment, they don’t need any more fantasy from Bollywood. While this might possibly be the case, I don’t see the US as being that much different, except for our orientalist discourse about others.


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2 thoughts on “Enlightened Enchantment?

  1. Stu Grimson

    There is that weird Northern European Protestant mentality of holding weird, out of step cosmological beliefs while still having a complete materialist, rational daily interaction with your world.

  2. Cris Post author

    I think this weirdness is rather more widespread and not just limited to Northern European Protestants. But I get your point and think it well taken. To paraphrase Mencken, no one has ever gone broke underestimating the power of cognitive dissonance.

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