CONTINGENCY & DISENCHANTMENT
from Part 4 - We are disembedded from human social relations and re-embedded in impersonal institutional relations.
Two things had to happen for this to be possible. First, there had to be a disenchantment with nature; and second, we had to share a need for general purpose, universalized money.
To understand disenchantment - a concept we are borrowing from the sociologist Max Weber - we need to return to the time under review by Gregory, Reformation and post-Reformation, but this time looking at it through the eyes of a feminist scholar, Carolyn Merchant.
In her book, canonical among deep environmentalists, entitled The Death of Nature, she maps the history of human affect toward and ideas about nature, including those ideas that gave rise to and reproduced cultural norms for various societies with regard to attitudes toward nature.
What Merchant demonstrates, pretty conclusively, is that until the period between the Reformation and the Great Transformation, key ideas in the West - ideas that have now become hegemonic worldwide - changed with regard to nature in a way that was as a cataclysmic to nature as the Great Transformation was to human relations. This correspondence is not accidental, but part of the same epochal phase-shift. "The Great Transformation" and the "Death of Nature" were mutually constitutive, and that constitution can be traced through both popular culture and philosophy.
Every society before this critical period from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, had in common some form of belief about the universe that implied that nature is both animate and aware. Philosophy, in particular "natural philosophy," discovered highly efficacious means for the manipulation of nature, and using the power of that efficacy, established itself as the new king of philosophy, which was reflected over time in popular culture. It is reflected in our culture today, in ways so terrifying that we may soon become disenchanted with disenchantment.
I know I am.
What natural philosophy, which came to be "natural science," did, in a nutshell, is it killed nature. (Certain) Human beings came to be understood as subjects, and the sum of all that is not human came to be understood as objects... as things to be acted upon, but with no vitality or awareness or naturally-occurring relationship we are obligated to respect. The living world was reduced to a corpse on the anatomy table of modern science, that would be dissected to identify and catalog forms and functions.
Merchant described the de-animation of nature through the 15-16th Century alchemist Agrippa, who wanted to elevate man alongside God in the dominion over nature – yet who bitterly opposed mining and other rapacious extractions from nature. She then shows how Bacon “stood Agrippa on his head,” by agreeing with the apotheosis of Man over Nature, but insisting that the material world be aggressively conquered and subdued… all in purely gendered terms I might add.
The role of Christianity and Christians in this unexpected turn can be made clearer by reading Ivan Illich's remarks to David Cayley not long before Illich died, in which he describes the emergence of contingency in the Western mind, and he cites Merchant:
[L]ook at the change in the meaning of nature between classical and modern times, as the historian Carolyn Merchant has done in an easily understandable book called The Death of Nature. One thing was certain in antiquity: nature was alive. There were different and conflicting philosophical interpretations of what nature was; but to all of them was common the certainty that natura nacitura dicitur, that nature is a concept, an idea, an experience derived from birth-giving.
To take the history of the "death of nature" further back than Merchant's identification of it with Agrippa, Illich describes the emergence of contingency, a theological notion that dates to the 11th Century.
Contingency... is one of the few concepts that are specifically Christian in origin... Contingency expresses the state of being of a world which has been created from nothing, is destined to disappear and is upheld in its existence by one thing, and one thing only: divine will... This is an event in the history of philosophy, but I believe that I can show... [it expressed] a transformation in people's feelings...
...The world comes to be considered as something contingent, something indifferent to its own existence, something that does not bear within itself a reason or right to exist.” (Ivan Illich, Rivers North of the Future, p. 65)
Contingency was used to describe the world and all things as a pure gift; but the notion opened another door onto something entirely unexpected: an arbitrariness of God (which was an easy leap, given that God had come to be understood more and more in the constantinian age as a kind of oriental despot).
One consequence of this strange belief in the sovereignty of will, of One will, of God's will is that it allows Scholasticism to make a distinction between essence and existence, between what things are and that they are - "cat" doesn't yet mean there's a cat there - a distinction which also indicates the structure of the whole cosmos. It could just as well be that God would not have made us the gift of bringing this or that thing into existence. (p. 66)
He describes this a "voluntarism," though it hasn't yet reached the tipping point that would lead to the death of nature. Illich identifies that with the same period as Merchant, and with Rene Descartes, a Catholic philosopher of the early 17h Century.
[I]n the thought of Rene Descartes each being finds in its own nature, what is in itself, a reason and a claim, not only to existence, but o being what it is. Things are no longer what they are because they correspond to God's will but because God has laid into what we now call nature the laws by which they evolve...
...For a long time, through the seventeenth, eighteenth, and even nineteenth century, many of Descartes successors remained true Christian believers who affirmed that God made the world as it is by placing the seed of nature into each thing. But the possibility of understanding things without reference to God had been created, because once God's will had become totally arbitrary it has also become, in a sense, redundant, and the connection between God and the world can be easily cut...
...[I]t was only in a society in which people had strongly experienced the world as lying in the hands of God that it would be possible, later on, to take that world our of God's hands. (pp. 68-69)
With the subsequent de-animation of nature - which is second nature to us in our own time, when we cavalierly rip up land or create giant mountains of trash without a second thought - the possibility of science applied to the development of earth-stressing machines came into existence. It is that lack of a "second thought" that Weber referred to as "disenchantment." Nature is an object, de-sacralized, which is purely for our use.