Michael Saler – The Disenchanted Enchantments of Modernity: From Sacred Spaces to Imaginary Worlds

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Sacred Modernities: Rethinking Modernity in a Post-Secular Age

19 September 2009

Michael Saler (University of California)
The Disenchanted Enchantments of Modernity: From Sacred Spaces to Imaginary Worlds

Max Weber’s memorable pronouncement that the ‘world is disenchanted” captured a widely shared view among intellectuals in the West since the late eighteenth century, and helped to perpetuate it well into the late twentieth century. Like the romantics before him and the cultural pessimists who succeeded him, Weber pointed to an expanding secularization and narrowing rationalization of the world to account for disenchantment. Yet it was during this period that the West was rapidly re-enchanted in a variety of ways corresponding to the multiple comforts of a waning theism – meaning, mystery, and wonder – and the liberating promises of reason. I will focus on the secular and rational enchantments of one approach, fictionalism, which gathered momentum in the late nineteenth century. In particular, I want to examine the transformation of imaginary worlds of fiction into virtual worlds of communal habitation and participation. From the first “virtual reality” character of literature, Sherlock Holmes, to fully-realized virtual worlds on the internet like Second Life, modern fictionalism has provided a central resource of wonder, meaning, and rational discourse: a disenchanted form of enchantment, one that in its ideal form delights but does not delude.

Michael Saler is Professor at the University of California, Davis, where he teaches modern intellectual history. He is the author of The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: ‘Medieval Modernism’ and the London Underground (Oxford, 1999) and co-editor, with Joshua Landy, of The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age (Stanford, 2009). He is completing a work on the literary prehistory of virtual reality, focusing on imaginary worlds from the late nineteenth century to the present.

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