…the contemporary world retains the power to enchant humans and that humans can cultivate themselves so as to experience more of that effect. Enchantment is something that we encounter, that hits us, but it is also a comportment that can be fostered through deliberate strategies. One of those strategies might be to give greater expression to the sense of play, another to hone sensory receptivity to the marvelous specificity of things. Yet another way to enhance the enchantment effect is to resist the story of the disenchantment of modernity.

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.

These acts fall into the shadow of your rushing, indignant body. You note them—they are within the purview of your experience—but you pass them by. But if you were to gather up these dark, discarded scraps and peer into them, you would be on a different path, the path of a Kafkan tale.

The disenchantment tale figures nonhuman nature as more or less inert “matter”; it construes the modern West as a radical break from other cultures; and it depicts the modern self as predisposed toward rationalism, skepticism, and the problem of meaninglessness.

To be enchanted, then, is to participate in a momentarily immobilizing encounter; it is to be transfixed, spellbound.

My counterstory seeks to induce an experience of the contemporary world—a world of inequity, racism, pollution, poverty, violence of all kinds—as also enchanted—not a tale of reenchantment but one that calls attention to magical sites already here. Not magical in the sense of “a set of rituals for summoning up supernatural powers within a coherent cosmology,” but in the sense of cultural practices that mark “the marvelous erupting amid the everyday.”

Sometimes this wariness of joy is expressed as the charge of elitism— that is, only effete intellectuals have the luxury of feeling enchanted, whereas real people must cope with the real world. It surely is the case that hunger and other serious deprivations are incompatible with wonder. But the claim that the capacity for wonder is restricted to the rich, learned, and leisured, or that it finds its most vibrant expression there, is more confidently asserted than established. Even if it were true, all the more reason for privileged intellectuals to develop that capacity. For, if enchantment can foster an ethically laudable generosity of spirit, then the cultivation of an eye for the wonderful becomes something like an academic duty.

The charge of naive optimism is more probing. It raises the question of the link between enchantment and mindlessness, between joy and forgetfulness. In the chapters that follow, I do not deny such a link or its dangers, but I also argue that, in small, controlled doses, a certain forgetfulness is ethically indispensable.

Enchantment, as I use the term, is an uneasy combination of artifice and spontaneity.

I think that both those who celebrate disenchantment and those who lament it remain too governed by a single model of enchantment. My quasi-pagan model of enchantment pushes against a powerful and versatile Western tradition (in the disciplines of history, philosophy, and literature) that make enchantment depend on a divine creator, Providence, or, at the very least, a physical world with some original connection to a divine will. But what is at stake in such a retelling? The answer for me has to do with the effect—always indirect—that a cultural narrative has on the ethical sensibility of its bearers.

Affective fascination with a world thought to be worthy of it may help to ward off the existential resentment that plagues mortals, that is, the sense of victimization that recurrently descends upon the tragic (or absurd or incomplete) beings called human.

Jane Bennett: The Enchantment of Modern Life (2001)


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