The Enchanted World We Might Learn to See

In The Enchantment of Modern Life, Jane Bennett challenges the received wisdom regarding the disenchantment of modernity. She questions “whether the very characterization of the world as disenchanted ignores and then discourages affective attachment to the world.” “The question is important,” she adds, “because the mood of enchantment may be valuable for ethical life.”

I’m reading Bennett as part of my ongoing interest in the story we tell about disenchanted modernity and my hunch that we are, in fact, not so much disenchanted as differently enchanted: technologically enchanted.

Bennett believes that “the contemporary world retains the power to enchant humans and that humans can cultivate themselves so as to experience more of that effect.” “To be enchanted,” she suggests, “is to be struck and shaken by the extraordinary that lives amid the familiar and everyday.” She also relates enchantment to “moments of joy,” a joy that can “propel ethics.”

Bennet goes on to explain that enchantment, in her view, “entails a state of wonder, and one of the distinctions of this state is the temporary suspension of chronological time and bodily movement.” She further describes this experience by likening it to what Philip Fisher, in Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences, called moments of “pure presence.”

“The moment of pure presence within wonder,” Fisher wrote,

“lies in the object’s difference and uniqueness being so striking to the mind that it does not remind us of anything and we find ourselves delaying in its presence for a time in which the mind does not move on by association to something else.”

Thoughts and body are “brought to rest,” Bennett elaborates,

even as the sense continue to operate, indeed, in high gear. You notice new colors, discern details previously ignored, hear extraordinary sounds, as familiar landscapes of sense sharpen and intensify. The world comes alive as a collection of singularities. Enchantment includes, then, a condition of exhilaration or acute sensory activity. To be simultaneously transfixed in wonder and transported by sense, to be both caught up and carried away—enchantment is marked by this odd combination of somatic effects.

I’m not yet sure what to make of Bennett’s overall thesis and I’m not sure how it will relate to the questions in which I’m most interested, but I found this early discussion of enchantment/wonder poignant.

I do believe the world has something to offer us. How we understand that something is, of course, a contentious matter, but let us assume for a moment that the world offers something of value if only we are able to properly attend to it. The problem, it seems to me, is that we do not, in fact, ordinarily attend to the world very well.

There are certainly a variety of reasons for this state of affairs. Among Bennett’s more intriguing propositions is that buying into disenchantment talk becomes something like a self-fulfilling prophecy. This seems plausible enough. If we are talking about a peculiar kind of seeing (or hearing, etc.) and if this seeing requires a peculiar kind of attentiveness, then it makes sense that we wouldn’t bother with the attentiveness if we didn’t think there was anything to see.

I’ve suggested before that angst about digital distraction will not amount to much if we don’t also consider what, in fact, we ought to direct our attention toward. We should not, however, think about attention merely as a faculty that we discipline so that we might purposefully direct it. We do not, after all, always know what it is that we should be looking for. Somehow, then, attention must involve not only purposeful directedness, but also a purposeful openness or receptivity. In truth, it’s a matter of becoming a certain kind of person, and, as Bennett hopefully suggests, it may be possible to “cultivate” ourselves in order to do so.

Not surprisingly, I’m less than sanguine about how digital tools tend to enter into this work. It is abundantly clear that the devices, services, platforms, and apps that structure so much of our experience are more likely to erode the sort of attentiveness that Bennett and Fisher have in mind than they are to sustain and encourage it. In fact, it is increasingly clear that they were consciously designed to divide and conquer our attention with consequences that spill out into the whole of our experience.

“Enchantment is something that we encounter, that hits us,” Bennett writes, “but it is also a comportment that can be fostered through deliberate strategies.” Among those strategies, Bennett mentions three: (1) giving greater expression to the sense of play, (2) honing sensory receptivity to the marvelous specificity of things, and (3) resisting the story of the disenchantment of modernity.

We would do well to add a fourth: recovering the virtue of temperance, particularly with regard to our use of digital media.

Whether or not we speak of it as enchantment, the world before us, though it often appears cruel and bleak, nonetheless offers beauty, wonder, and joy to those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Among all that we might resolve to do and to be in the year ahead, it seems to me that we could do far worse than resolve to be better stewards of our attention, a precious resource that, well-tended, can yield sometimes modest, sometimes deeply meaningful rewards.

7 thoughts on “The Enchanted World We Might Learn to See

  1. This is a fascinating topic although i do wonder whether without more definition the word lends itself to too many different meanings. There is of course the Weberian sense. Should it be construed strictly in Weberian terms? Or can it be broadened? To me enchantment connotes a deep meaningful engagement with the world. Doesnt the sublime spark the same sense of engagement? What are the merits and demerits of conflating these terms?

  2. Here is a story in which the author describes how he will build a 270 teraflop computer entity for under $10k with off the shelf parts that will sit under his desk. His project is artificial intuition.

    My first reaction was that this was more horsepower than one person could manage. But it’s fairly clear that we must evolve along with the “artificial” mechanisms or we shall perish.

    There is little point in worrying about it, or trying to devise strategies for coexistence, as if we were in control of either our biological future or the artificial one. The very same principles of evolution apply to both. (Gideon’s “Mechanization Takes Command”)

    The point is, as it has always been, to find and live in what we loosely refer to as our “humanity”. This challenge is not new, and the demons only change in their appearance.

    View at

  3. Flusser wrote that Auschwitz (and Hiroshima and the Gulags and on and on…) is a characteristic realization of modern Western culture. He asks how can we live in a culture that has thus been unmasked. Until we deal with this there should be no wonderment at our modernity….

  4. Micheal, I’m happy to see you addressing this very fertile topic, and glad to find the links to your previous posts on it, many of which I missed. I’m pursuing a related topic, still in its formative stages. And as mentioned to you in an earlier comment, the subject of disenchantment came up on my post on Elon Musk’s “wizard hat” project.

    I think the point Luke Fernandez makes above re definitions of terms is important — what is the difference, for example, between enchantment and seduction, or mesmerization? No doubt you have addressed this or will be addressing it.

    I’ll be following your explorations of this topic with interest. It does seem to be one that is bubbling up at the moment. Presumably you’re aware of this book — “The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences,” by Jason A. Josephson-Storm — which I just saw mentioned on Twitter.

    1. Yes, Luke is right. The question of definition is crucial here. The word is used in a variety of ways throughout the literature. As with “technology,” this variety makes me wonder whether it is useful at all. But also as with “technology,” it is hard not to use it. In any case, I’ll be looking forward to your own reflections on the topic.

      As for Josephson-Storm’s book, I’ve made a start of it myself. Right now, I’d say that I take his point, but I’m not sure I buy it wholesale … again because of the question of definition and what is meant by it.

      I found Charles Taylor’s discussion of disenchantment in A Secular Age very helpful.


  5. Jane Bennett’s *Vibrant Matter* is a pretty useful book, if one that drives me crazy in certain ways. I need to get around to *Enchantment.* I suspect she’s interested in developing a sort of non-theistic religion, and I would imagine her argument for enchantment in modernity serves to an extent as an apologetic for that kind of viewpoint. That doesn’t mean it’s useless to those of us with a theistic POV, but I do find her a thinker with some partisan leanings. But maybe not! I haven’t read *Enchantment* yet.

    1. An “enchanted materialism,” I think she calls it. I’m only part way through enchantment myself and I have not read anything else by Bennett, but your assessments seems right.

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