This week my students and I are beginning Jane Bennett’s Enchantment of Modern Life. Despite my occasional grumbling about Bennett, I always feel as if I am at home when I read her work, that I’m encountering a profoundly like-minded person, and as if she’s asking exactly the right kinds of questions. I find that her work is always pervaded by a profound generosity and kindness, coupled with a wonderful fascination with the bizarre (her discussions of rotting garbage heaps, worms, and smart parrots are unforgettable) that mark a true love of the world.
In The Enchantment of Modern Life Bennett addresses some of the less attractive problems that emerge from the project of secularization, enlightenment, and disenchantment. As Bennett writes,
I tell my alter-tale because it seems to me that presumptive generosity, as well as the will to social justice, are sustained by periodic bouts of being enamored with existence, and that it is too hard to love a disenchanted world. 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 humans. (12)
Bennett’s worry is that the project of disenchantment generates a sense of meaninglessness (so nicely described by Nietzsche in The Gay Science when he discusses the death of God) where it becomes impossible to be ethically and politically committed to anything. What she seeks is a form of secular enchantment, of captivation with the world, that might propel and motivate us to ethically and politically engage with the world. In short, her idea is that ethical and political engagement require certain affects to be efficacious. Even Kant, in the Critique of Practical Reason had to appeal to a peculiar sort of affect (respect for the moral law) to account for our obedience to that law.
For Bennett, these affects are enchantment, joy, and love. As she powerfully writes:
If popular psychological wisdom has it that you have to love yourself before you can love another, my story suggests that you have to love life before you can care about anything. The wager is that, to some small but irreducible extent, one must be enamored with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it in order to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others. (4)
Look at how worked up people get trying to save a particular mountaintop from mining or a particular animal from extinction. Look at how much fire is generated by the Wall Street protestors and how much fervor animates the new type of social relation they’re trying to forge. Lurking behind these things, I think, is a certain way of being enamored and enchanted with something (an idea, a thing, an animal, etc) such that we become powerfully driven to either preserve that thing even where it serves no utilitarian or consumptive function or where we be become powerfully driven to bring a new form of being-together into existence. The question then becomes one of how this enchantment, wonder, and love can be fostered. People will say it’s impossible to produce affects and that this is precisely why we must rely on abstract moral laws. It’s strange that they don’t seem to notice that we have just as much difficulty getting people to embrace formal moral laws, if not moreso.