Becoming Placed, Part I

Some asked me to put my notes from my presentation at Many Gods West up, so here you go. This text is something I talked from.

I have to preface this with a note that since the conference I have seen some bloggers (let’s just call them humanists) using disenchantment in a diluted metaphoric way, specifically making claims like ‘enchantment does not require gods, spirits, magic’ and the like. The word enchantment literally means using song/chant to magic. Let’s not lose this term, which has a long history in pagan and polytheist discourse and a key role in historical studies of the transition from feudal Europe to early modern Europe and the radical change in social/economic relations called capitalism. Sociologists and historians specifically used the word because of the people of western European countries losing their ‘beliefs’ and relations with non-human others, certainly including of the ‘invisible’ kinds: fairies, hobs, trolls, demons, and a myriad more, and was part of the process of making the modern world of objectified resources, all freed for exploiting. This is a case where reenchant/disenchant/enchant do have a vital core meaning.

Becoming Placed: Imagination and Reenchantment

Part I: Disenchantment or How We Became Unplaced

As this is a huge topic, I’m focusing a lot on one key player in the western history of disenchantment: Francis Bacon (1561-1626) because of the enormous impact he had and central role in the development of science.

To understand Bacon and his thinking it’s necessary to understand his historical context, including religious struggle, his Puritan sympathies, the backdrop of technical skills, poor laws, etc. His father had benefitted in the great upheavals of the closing of the monasteries and the seizing and redistribution of the vast lands of the Church under the Protestant monarchs. This was a time of enclosures of common lands and resistance against them. As the subsistence economy of feudal times began to be disrupted and broken up large numbers of displaced people were on the roads, the vagabonds. This is the world he grew up in, what Max Weber called the Protestant Revolution and the birth of capitalism. Bacon flourished and was in government under James I (James VI of Scotland) who in his younger years was paranoid of being harmed by witches, and even thought he had almost been drowned by them during a voyage with his bride from Norway to Britain. The king wrote a famous tract on diabolical witchcraft, the Demonomanie. Bacon was very aware of the investigations and procedures that were used at the time on the bodies of women in witchcraft investigations, and the rhetoric of that will permeate his scientific work.

Bacon had some of the strongest influence on the development of modern science, and his rhetoric is especially revealing of his disdain for the natural world and how it must be violently interrogated. He also saw himself very much at odds with the Renaissance magus or with the alchemist. And his rhetoric also shows his acute awareness of witchcraft interrogations and torture.

A few quotes from the ‘great man’:

“The magus was wrong in thinking his effort was to assist nature.”

James I, his patron and book on witches referenced below:

“For you have but to follow and as it were hound nature in her wanderings, and you will be able when you like to lea and drive her afterward to the same place again…..Neither ought a man to make scruple of entering and penetrating these holes and corners, when the inquisition of truth is his whole object—as your majesty has shown in your own example” (Merchant 168).

“For like as a man’s disposition is never well known or proved till he be crossed, nor Proteus ever changed shapes till he was straitened and held fast, so nature exhibits herself more clearly under the trials and vexations of art (mechanical devices) than when left to herself.” His rhetoric of the womb is particularly revealing: “There is therefore much ground for hoping that there are still laid up in the womb of nature many secrets of excellent use having no affinity or parallelism with anything that is now known…only by the method which we are not treating can they be speedily and suddenly and simultaneously presented and anticipated.”

Bacon believed man could recover the power over nature that had been lost when Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden (Merchant 170).

More thoughts on female Nature:

“She is either free and follows her ordinary course of development as in the heaven, in the animal and vegetable creation, and in the general array of the universe; or she is driven out of her ordinary course by the perverseness, insolence, and forcedness of mater and violence of impediments, as in the case of monsters; or lastly, she is put in constraint, modeled, and made as it were new by art and the hand of man; as in things artificial. 170

Nature would not come on her own—she had to be bound and forced. Miners and smiths Bacon thought were the pioneers. People should forsake “Minerva and the Muses as barren virgins, to rely upon Vulcan” (171). Alchemists should throw out their books. Go completely empirical and material, in other words.

The new system of investigation, that is modern science, would combine mechanical technology and the new method of science, a “New Organon”. It aimed “to endeavor to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe’. Bacon believed this was a divine bequest to man.

And so a new objectivity was made: the role of observing. As Ran Priur, a green anarchist has written: “To observe something is to perceive it while distancing oneself emotionally and physically, to have a one-way channel of “information” moving from the observer thing to “self”, which is defined as not being part of that thing” (Green Anarchy 59).

And so Bacon’s most ambitious book was New Atlantis published in 1627, a year after his death. Here he envisions a utopia with research facilities that eerily foreshadow contemporary laboratories. A highly scientific and Christian (Protestant, of course) culture is revealed in the remoteness of the southern reaches of the Pacific, a small continent named Bensalem. It is governed by a patriarchal scientific body called Solomon’s House. The narrator of this fiction was on a ship that had been traveling from Peru to Asia but became adrift in the infamous doldrums—and for such a long time that its stocks ran perilously low. But at the time of their direst need they saw clouds piling up on the horizon, a sign of land. Soon it turns out that they have been sighted and a small boat comes up to them and escorts them into the harbor of this land. There they are quarantined. The oddest think about this scientific nation is that they are unknown to Europe and Asia and the rest of the world but they know about every nation, having been surveilling them for centuries, basically. They are aware of current events as well as the history of the various nations. Solomon’s House practitioners seem to know all, casting a scientific gaze across the planet. Its agents have long disguised themselves as members of various cultures and passed among them incognito. Then they return with their reports and surveys. The governor who visits the sequestered men from the ship questions their selected elite and some questions but not all and reveals the history of this hidden nation. Long ago their nation had been better known and they reveal the tale of how Bensalem had converted to Christianity via the descent of a mysterious pillar of light which rotated on the nearby sea, and which revealed a box containing the Bible. In the ensuing years a blend of science and religion had proliferated; the eye of Bensalem, as the country was called seems like a colossal and haunting eye that is able to veil itself (some mythic resonance there!). A vision of science as invisible itself, yet always gazing on a world that it has penetrated, is a trope that would play out tremendously in centuries to come.

Nineteen hundred years previously, this Atlantis of the Pacific was governed by a kind of Platonic philosopher king named Solomon who founded the Institute, called both Solomon’s House and the College of the Six Days’ Works. The governor related to the men that the House was named for the Hebrew king and that it held the book of Natural History written by that wise king—a work that had been lost to the rest of the world, and that through familiarity with this text and cataloguing the Biblical God’s works had come the other name of the College. This shows the heart of Bacon’s ideology, that namely the earth had been created for Man, and that it was time that men learned how to use all of the resources that god had provided that lay in wait; in utilitarian fashion all species and aspects of the planet inherently existed for human exploitation and with the new scientific method were ripe for the taking.

“The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things, and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible”.

The governor goes onto describe Solomon’s House and some of its key projects: it is an amazing document with Bacon being quite prescient about many things to come. There are deep underground mines and chambers where various experiments are carried out as well as high towers up to half a mile in height with observatories. There are establishments which sound remarkably like places for genetic engineering. “We have means to make…diverse new plants, differing from the vulgar. “By art likewise, we make them greater or taller than their kind is, and contrariwise barren and no generative; also we make them different in color, shape, activity—many new kinds….We make a number of serpents, worms, flies, fishes, of putrefaction, whereas some are advanced(in effect) to be perfect creatures, like beasts or birds, and have sexes, and do propagate. Neither do we do this by chance, but we know beforehand, of what matter and commixture, what kind of those creatures will arise.” Sounds like a manifesto for Monsanto! Bensalem’s shadow could be the plastic continent now arising in the eastern Pacific, the so-called Great Garbage Patch.

From such vision the laboratory science of Robert Boyle could be grounded later in the century (which has set the tone for lab science all the way to today). This new science would be stamped with a Protestant character…sober and chaste as technoscience remains. Science historian and theorist, Donna Haraway writes of the knowledge produced that was, “constructed to have the ground-breaking capacity to ground social order objectively, literally. This separation of expert knowledge from mere opinion as the legitimating knowledge for ways of life, without appeals to transcendent authority or to abstract uncertainty of any kind, is a founding gesture of what we call modernity.” Immeasurable violence was required for its founding.

A breather: there was so much resistance to the enclosures, the draining of wetlands and loss of common lands, the deprival of rights to use woods for sustenance, etc. at the times. Some inspiring examples of this comes from the Fen Dwellers of East Anglia, whose tavern protest songs display a life lived in deep relationality, and heart-breaking loss as early agribusiness interests drained the fens. Here is a song:

Fen song

 Come brethren of the water, let us all assemble,

To treat upon this matter, which makes us quake and tremble

For we shall rue it, if’t be true, that Fens be undertaken,

And where we feed in fen and reed, they’ll feed both Beef and Bacon.

The feathered Fowls have wings to fly to other nations;

but we have no such things, to help our transportations;

We must give place (oh grievous case) to horned beast and cattle

Except that we canal agree to drive them out by battle (Merchant 60).


Newton and Descartes on Space


Descartes was most interested in measurability. For him, place was a subordinate feature of matter and space, parasitic on res extensa. For Newton place becomes nothing but a means of measurement. Place is dissolved into absolute space, place at best becomes a marker. Places are conceived as mere parts of space; the geometrizing of space that occurs there belongs properly to mechanics, that is to laws governing material bodies at rest, or in motion….the aim of Newtonian geometry is measurement. “Therefore, geometry is founded in mechanical practice,” says Newton, and is “nothing but the part of universal mechanics which accurately proposes and demonstrates the art of measuring.” But the basis of measuring is precisely the regularity, the homogeneity of the space to be measured. In this way, too, the triumph of space over place is assured, given that implacement, moving into place asks merely to be experienced or perceived, not to be measured…” (Casey 147).

This radical predominance of Space occurs in the zeitgeist (and its corollary of measurability) of the early capitalism of the times….It can hardly be accidental as a new economic orientation, capitalist relations for which everything was resource to be used, measured, sold for profit that the absolutism of space which dissolved all places reigned. All while place after place was being conquered, and peoples decimated and enslaved in vast new worlds, whose wealth needed to be measured and sent to Europe. Even those illimitable regions of the sea were lined with longitude and latitude. All must be measured, quantified and made open, after being stripped of qualities.


After having just transited through three airports I brought up airports as de-placed spaces. Edward Casey quotes philosopher Lassiter on such interchangeability that has become ubiquitous in modern life: “for the modern self, all places are essentially the same: in the uniform, homogenous space of the Euclidean-Newtonian grid, all places are essentially interchangeable. Our homes, even our places for homes are defined by objective measures.” And flying is the quintessential modern activity. Great point was brought up by an attendee: airports, and these other deplaced sites can be mythologized as the sci-fi writer J.G. Ballard did brilliantly.

The ocean is also for the westerner (but not at all for the Polynesian, or Micronesian for example), a nearly endless emptied out SPACE, devoid of place, an abstraction of the Newtonian world.

In consideration of all this I keep wondering why do Pagans always talk about SPACE, creating sacred space and so on, but not much about PLACE?


Francis Bacon. New Atlantis.                                                                                        Edward Casey. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History.                                   Donna Haraway. Modest_Witness @ Second_Millennium.                                 Carolyn Merchant. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution.                                                                                                                  Uncivilized: The Best of Green Anarchy.               

 Max Weber. The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Capitalism.


9 thoughts on “Becoming Placed, Part I

  1. Pingback: List of Many Gods West Write-ups | Heathen Chinese

  2. My personal path has always been very place focused but at the same time in relation to spirits of place and deities both with known and no associations with my locality. I’m personally against the idea of doing away with gods, spirits, magic, as they’re part of the hidden depths of local and national heritage.

    A paragraph I keep coming back to in relation is John Webster of Clitheroe’s ‘The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft’ (1677). Speaking of the superstitions of Lancashire people, he says ‘these will take a bush to be a Boggard, and a black Sheep to be a Demon, the noise of the wild Swans flying high in the night, to be Spirits, or (as they call them here in the North) Gabriel Ratchets; the calling of a Daker-hen in the meadow, to be the Whistlers, the howling of a female Fox in the Gill, or a Clough for the male, when they are for copulation, to be the cry of young Children, or such creatures as the common people call Fayries’.

    Whilst he is using this to negate witchcraft for me it shows the intrinsic connections between nature and the spirit world for local people. His attempt to save ‘witches’ unfortunately negates this world view. King James, Bacon, Newton, Descartes they have a lot to answer for….

    1. Very interesting quote: I love these glimpses of rural British people’s deeply relational, and spirited understandings of their world; so different than the Early Modern elites and rising middle class. And their mechanistic views still dominate….

      While my gods pretty much originate far away, land spirits, are well genii locii and are a vital part of place in my practice.

  3. Pingback: Let’s Disenchant the World! Part 3 | Son of Hel

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