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.