Home > Uncategorized > Raymond L. M. Lee “Modernity, Mortality and Re-Enchantment”

Raymond L. M. Lee “Modernity, Mortality and Re-Enchantment”

Lee, Raymond L.M. 2008. Modernity, Mortality and Re-Enchantment: The Death Taboo Revisited. Sociology 42(4): 745-759.

For Weber, disenchantment inevitably generates a type of cultural nihilism in which strivings for the autonomy of ‘value-spheres’ become less likely to have any inner-worldly meaning for the individual (Gerth and Mills, 1946: 356). In this regard, a common death is seen as meaningless – a person simply dies and disappears without any possibility of evoking a condition of meaning with reference to an ultimate state. Indeed, death is confounded with the senselessness of modernity itself. (749)

If cultural values and ‘value-spheres’ have only relative significance in a disenchanted world and they point to no ultimate state, then it would be futile to speak and think of death as if it could lead to an ultimate state. Under this canopy of relativism, the death taboo can indeed flourish as a boundary marker of the modern world by repressing any hint of its senselessness. People can go about their daily lives without having to confront death as reflecting the senselessness of their routines. In short, modern relativism constitutes an unacknowledged source of the death taboo. (749)

With disenchantment, the gods became otiose and religions mere ethical blueprints. The mundane needed no transcendence and death lost its emancipatory value. Within the Weberian paradigm, the possibility of re-enchantment seemed remote. (749)

Although modernity was to a large extent anti-transcendental, i.e. it rejected other-worldly interpretations as authoritative, it did not completely exorcise mystical consciousness but harnessed that consciousness for mundane purposes. Tiryakian (1992: 84) referred to this process as the ‘secularization of magical consciousness’ from which ensued the currents of re-enchantment. In other words, the seeds of re-enchantment were deeply implanted within modernity. The culture of modernity was, on the one hand, anti-transcendental and, on the other hand, strongly attracted to the features of other worlds. This attraction formed a basis of romanticism that, in Tiryakian’s view, composed an important instance of re-enchantment within modernity. The romantic attempt to renew the modern world with creative ideas drawn from the enchanted view represented a counter-process to the scientific-industrial regime and, to a great extent, reopened the doors to the exotic and fantastic. The development of modern consumerism aided this counter-process by introducing to the general public literary and various media products highlighting romantic themes of the magical and fabulous (Campbell, 1989). So re-enchantment was not only a reclamation of the mystical but also a renewed attempt to escape the iron cage through the romantic imagination. (750)

In the context of re-enchantment, body-mind dualism was not just taken to mean a lack of identity between body and mind but a way to attribute greater importance and flexibility to the mind than the body. The mind was not seen merely as a repository of ideas and memories ensconced in the here and now but had the potential for moving beyond terra firma. In other words, the re-enchanted view addressed the mind as having almost unlimited freedom for projecting itself in different ways. (751)

In other words, the rationalistic methodology was considered indispensable to the currents of re-enchantment as seen in the development of parapsychology. This paradox did not imply that parapsychology became subsumed by the scientific paradigm, but that it could seek legitimacy only under the weight of that paradigm without abandoning its quest to redefine the power of the mind as distinct from the body. (751)

To be re-enchanted, then, is to be open to all possibilities of the mind and the idea of the mind’s subordination of the body as exemplified by the assumptions of parapsychology. The mind is seen as its own master and its powers thereof are not considered as delimited by death. This view has provided an alternative perspective to the fear that death denotes a descent into nothingness. Concern with the possibility of the mind surviving death is thought to disclose new paths to the meaning of life and existence and, in that sense, the death taboo had merely set a detour around the re-enchanted quest for transcendence. (752)

In New Age perception, subtle bodies do not suffer death in the physical sense since they constitute the vehicle for the movement of consciousness to other levels of existence. This belief is consistent with the New Age emphasis on reincarnation that treats self-identity as almost imperishable; the self maintains its identity through the subtle body in its sojourn of spiritual development. Contrary to the postmodern idea of the fragmented self, the role of reincarnation seems to be ‘used to extend the coherent self back before birth and forward after death’ (Walter, 2001: 36). This system of beliefs has ‘re-sacralized death’, as Walter (1993: 141) puts it, since death is not considered an undesirable and ominous event but an instrument of spiritual growth for individual souls. In this view, souls and subtle bodies are carriers of self-identity repeatedly experiencing reincarnation to complete their paths towards spiritual liberation. (753)

[…] the New Age attempt to redefine death as a special occasion for spiritual advancement, i.e. a transition from the gross mind to a possibly more refined state of awareness. In that respect, death is considered a friend rather than a feared enemy because it purportedly provides the pristine opportunity for personal liberation (Lief, 2001). Death as liberation, in the context of re-enchantment, offers an attractive solution to the problem of transcendence since it is seen to be a means of self-transformation for going beyond the limits of the present life. (754)

The publicity given to the near-death experience (NDE) has provided endorsement of this vista of new life. As a narrative of the return from death, the NDE purports to offer definitive proof of life beyond death. Returnees from death are typically resuscitated patients who provide unusual accounts of their experiences with darkness and light and encounters with deceased relatives and spiritual beings. (754)

Although disenchantment in science purges all mystical interests, including the question of the afterlife, scientists involved in NDE research seem oblivious to this constraint as if the challenges of the NDE data require a paradigm-shift towards a re-enchanted worldview. The NDE is no longer considered an anomaly of medical science but is seen to exemplify a way to remove current misunderstandings of death and dying (Fox, 2003). (755)

In most cases, patients relate their accounts of their journeys to the ‘other side’ as if they took a brief vacation away from their physical form. Some seem to spend this vacation on the ceiling of the operating room, looking down on the surgeons and nurses performing their chores. These accounts, published in many books on the NDE, are always given in the voice of a person who appears to retain consciousness and, most vitally, the sense of self that can objectively relate to ongoing events. (755)

Re-enchantment therefore attempts to restore to death its transcendental value. In late modernity, this attempt is speeded by a reflexive outlook that is iconoclastic of the death taboo. (757)

These current changes in the handling of death are not just intriguing, as Walter (1991) would seem to think, but radically utopian in the sense that death is now taking on a new image as a key to spiritual evolution. To speak of death is not to belittle the importance of being alive but to speculate meaningfully on self-transformation beyond the confines of this world. It means that perhaps there is a greater inclination to consider the possibility of not remaining the same in the afterlife and moving towards a new being. (757)

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