Re-Thinking the Disenchantment of Hard Polytheism

Over at The Postmodern Polytheist, the Anarcho-Heathen published a critique of an older essay of mine, “The Disenchantment of Hard Polytheism”.   At the time it was published, my essay provoked a quite a bit of controversy in the Pagan blogosphere. In it, I argued that certain forms of polytheism which view the gods as radically distinct individuals contribute to the ongoing disenchantment of the world, just as do certain reductive forms of scientism which view human and other beings as radically distinct individuals.  In contrast to both these forms of alienation, I contrasted a form of Paganism which emphasizes the interconnectedness of everything, including humans and gods.

Continuing my pattern of pissing of folks on both sides of the argument, I later refined these ideas in a two part series at HumanisticPaganism.com, “Literal Gods Are for the Literal Minded” and “Literal Minded Atheism”.

I was interested to read the Anarcho-Heathen’s critique, not only because I myself am anarcho-curious, but because I share their interest in pre-Socratic and Continental philosophy.  Not since Julian Bekowski wrote at Patheos (his blog has now disappeared), have I been able to exchange ideas with someone about the intersection of Paganism and Martin Heidegger’s thought.

I almost stopped reading when the Anarcho-Heathen began with the tired tale of the marginalized polytheist, though.  But I’m glad I didn’t, because it turns out that, unlike so many other criticisms of the essay, they demonstrate an excellent handle of my argument.

The Anarcho-Heathen begins by criticizing–I think correctly–my use of alienating language in the essay.  For example, I write about when we stopped “seeing gods and spirits in nature”  rather than when we stopped experiencing the gods and spirits in nature.  And I write about reenchantment as a “realization” of our interconnectedness.  This word choice implies that disenchantment (and hence, reenchantment) is a “thought process” rather than a mode of being.  In this way, I inadvertently perpetuated the very disenchantment that I complained of.

I agree with the Anarcho-Heathen’s conclusion that focused “far too much on thought and not at all on action.” (emphasis original)  They cleverly rephrase a famous Marxian aphorism: “Pagans have hitherto only interpreted our relation to nature. The point is to change it.”  I couldn’t agree more.

Where I disagree is with their claim that “actual relations and actual ‘interconnectedness'” requires one to defend “the distinct and real existence of the gods” (emphasis mine).  In fact, I think there are plenty of examples where such an emphasis on distinctness actually impairs the experience of interconnectedness, both inside and outside of Paganism.

Actually, I’ve come to think that all of this thinking (and writing and talking) gets in the way.  The growth of devotional polytheism after 2001 was in response to a facile application of Jungian psychology to polytheism which had gradually disenchanted the experience of the gods for many Pagans.  In turn, those dogmatic forms of polytheism which insisted on an ontological separation of humans from gods had their own disechanting effect, as did the more literal-minded forms of atheistic Paganism which were themselves a reaction to the literal-minded forms of polytheism.

There’s way too many words being used here.  At least too much of a certain kind of words: too much theology and not enough poetry.  None of this is really paganism, as I understand it.  To paraphrase R. R. Marett, paganism is “is not so much something thought out as danced out.”

For that reason, I embrace the Anarcho-Heathen’s critique of my focus on consciousness over praxis.  This is a common criticism that I get from those who embrace Marx’s theory of historical materialism, and one I am glad to be reminded of.

For the Anarcho-Heathen, the disenchantment or alienated consciousness is a function of social relations. They quote Marx as saying that language is “practical consciousness” and like consciousness, is a social product, not the other way around.  Specifically, they (like Marx) argue that alienated consciousness is “a product of the socioeconomic conditions of capitalism.”  It’s an excellent critique of capitalsim, and I urge you to go read it yourself.

While I agree with most everything the Anarcho-Heathen wrote, I have two relatively minor issues with their critique.

The first has to do with historical priority.  The Anarcho-Heathen traces alienated consciousness back to capitalism.  They write that scientific consciousness arose from capitalism, which they date to the enclosure of peasant land and the growth of industrial towns.

I think the Anarcho-Heathen conflates two related but distinct processes.  The mass migration to cities happened over the course of the late 18th and early 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution, long after the enclosure laws which were passed in the 16th century. While both of these were arguably part of a larger process, to conflate them confuses the matter, because the Scientific Revolution predates the Industrial Revolution (but not the enclosure laws).

What’s more, I think there is a good argument to be made that the process of alienation began even before the enclosure laws.  Since Lynn White, many have argued that disenchantment was also fostered by Neo-Platonic/Pauline Christianity, which predated any form of capitalism by more than a millennia. Others (including the anarcho-primitivsists) go back even further and locate the origins of our alienation in the Agrarian Revolution and the birth of civilization.

While I agree that capitalism is responsible in large part for the disenchantment of our consciousness, I believe that process began earlier with the triumph of a certain form of Christianity and was accelerated by the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution.  I also think it’s helpful to distinguish between early, agrarian forms of capitalism and its later, industrial forms.

The second issue I have is one of theoretical priority.  As I said above, I think my essay overemphasized consciousness over praxis, thought over action.  That’s a chronic problem for me.

But at the same time, I think the Marxian-Hegelian debated about the priority of consciousness and material conditions is really a chicken and the egg question.  It’s not either-or, but both-and.  I imagine our material conditions, our social relations, and our modes of consciousness existing, not in a hierarchical relationship, but in a circular, reciprocal relationship.  Each influences and reinforces the other.

So yes, the enclosure acts lead to a physical separation of people from the land, which fostered a degree of alienated consciousness, but that in turn was made possible by a mode of consciousness which dated back to Pauline Christianity.  The disenchantment of the world occurred through a long process of mutually reinforcing social and material conditions and increasingly alienated modes of consciousness.

We can break the cycle at any point.  My wife, who is a psychotherapist, is fond of a quote by Christina Baldwin: “When you are stuck in a spiral, to change the aspects of the spin you only need to change one thing.”  We can begin the re-enchantment of the world at any level: at the level of material conditions (i.e., direct bodily contact with wild nature), social relations (i.e., cooperative economies), or consciousness (i.e., unlearning dualistic habits of thought).  For some people, one may be more effective than the others.  They are not mutually exclusive, so I think we need to be working on all these levels at once.

All that being said, the Anarcho-Heathen’s critique is a thoughtful analysis, well worth the short read, and I look forward to their future posts (especially if they are going to continue to draw on Heideggerian thought!).

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