Review: The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics

The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics. Jane Bennett. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. Pp. viii + 213.

Disenchantment is conventionally attached to modernity and ethical thought. Yet, Jane Bennett finds that detachment is not so easily attached to modern life. Her book, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics, illuminates the enchantment of the contemporary world by uncovering the everyday attachments that diversify and enrich life. From the onset, she explicitly avows her aim to interrogate two problematic principles of modern thought: the disenchantment attributed to modernity and the non-affectivity ascribed to ethics. The first point of modern life’s disenchantment not only presumes but also neglects the existence and potential of “affective attachments” in the everyday world (3). For Bennett, the ordinary does not in itself generate affective enchantment but can most frequently be found in everyday human and nonhuman matter and its countless, interconnecting attachments. Humans’ active relations with material objects is Bennett’s focus for accessing enchantment in modern life. In turn, disenchantment assumes disengagement from the material world, and enchantment, by contrast, imagines affective engagement with the wondrous nature of matter. As for the non-affectivity of ethics, Bennett contends that feeling is vital to the “enactment of ethical aspirations,” hinging upon multiple emotional and physical bodily responses, acts, and maneuvers (3). The Enchantment of Modern Life thus reasons that the affective experience of daily enchantment and consequent attachment to the material world will produce ethical outlooks in accordance with this positive perspective. The text does not say what social or political changes would occur, but rather how productive, ethically driven change can transpire. Bennett’s political project and vibrant language generate a valuable reconsideration of human engagement with the modern world and celebrate affective relations and ethics.

To situate her analysis, Bennett defines enchantment as “a state of wonder” and a temporal and physical “suspension” that emerges from “active engagement with objects of sensuous awe” (5). The two stages of pleasurable surprise and an uncanny-infused disruption must occur for an enchanting experience and attachment to take place. In Bennett’s rendering, enchantment comprises a dissonance of linearity and physicality generated by an unanticipated simultaneous familiarity and unfamiliarity with the material world. While enchantment may appear to coincide with Kant’s sublime, Bennett notes that enchantment can arise from minor experiences and objects and, more significantly, can be brought about through “deliberate strategies” (4). Enchantment’s object is not limited to the natural but can be artificial and intentional as well. Enchantment resides in both the human and nonhuman and their intermixing. To illustrate enchantment, Bennett brings together ordinary and extraordinary material objects—from a GAP advertisement for khaki pants and ladybug-plant relations to Franz Kafka’s ape-man Rotpeter and a robot-pet toy. While the enchantment of the extraordinary may be more obvious, her readings of everyday and not-so-everyday objects are carefully detailed—familiarizing and unfamiliarizing both object categories.

After theorizing enchantment, Bennett explains her critical method by briefly discussing Kafka’s background-object-focused approach. In the vein of Kafka’s The Trail, where the tale is told through surrounding objects, Bennett takes a similar approach: to illustrate enchantment through seemingly extraneous, everyday objects and human attachments to them. Bennett’s study invokes modern texts by Kant, Foucault, Nietzsche, and Marx, as well as classical philosophies from Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, and Paracelsus, alongside contemporary thinkers, such as Deleuze, Guattari, and Latour. Bennett illuminates how minor objects can be read through major, philosophical lens. The temporal span of her resources also speaks to the significance of enchantment and matter across various contexts. Bennett’s formalistic interpretation helps communicate her engagements with diverse philosophies in a single chapter, yet her chapters offer different views of enchantment rather than a progressive narrative of it. Bennett analyzes enchantment in various frameworks and scenes, providing a multifaceted study of modernity’s enchantment and ethic’s affectivity.

While Bennett does not provide an introduction, her first chapter, “The World of Minor Experiences,” asserts her call for an enchantment-driven world vision and ethical actions that ensue. Chapter Two, “Cross-Species Encounters” examines the enchanting nature tied to “interspecies and intra-species crossings” and the ethical implications of such enchantment (17). Chapter Three, “The Marvelous Worlds of Paracelsus, Kant, and Deleuze” discusses Paracelsus’s concept of enchantment as contingent upon a “teleological” world perspective (46). However, Bennett diverges from this by offering Kant’s and Deleuze’s celebratory, world-without-design view which aligns with a modern version of enchantment. In Chapter Four, “Disenchantment Tales,” accounts of modernity’s disenchantment by Max Weber, Hans Blumenber, and Simon Critchley are summarized and contrasted to Bennett’s “alter-tale,” which follows a matter-centered conception of modern enchantment (57). Chapter Five, “Complexity and Enchantment,” turns to three minor stories by Henry David Thoreau, Latour, and chaos theorist Ilya Prigogine to account for the power of matter to fascinate. Using Kafka, Bennett shows not only how nonhuman objects can enchant but also how social organizations and governmental bodies do so as well. Chapter Seven, “Ethical Energies,” traces affect’s indispensability to ethical considerations and actions. The concluding eighth chapter, “Attachments and Refrains,” connects enchantment to political and social theory in order to expound upon the vast, possible imaginings of enchantment’s affective and ethical dimensions.

Exemplary of Bennett’s method is her reading of GAP’s advertisement for khaki pants in Chapter Six, “Commodity Fetishism and Commodity Enchantment,” which looks at how commodities enchant, not only as a commodity fetish but as an everyday example of matter’s mobility, vitality, and agency. Bennett recognizes affect as a centralizing force in commodity culture and proposes that consumerism’s affects are not always already negative. While she notes that commodity culture is inescapable in modern life, its enchantments bear the potential to yield an ethically conscious participation in capitalism. For Bennett, GAP’s 1998-1999 commercials for khaki pants spotlight the secret life of objects through the pants’ and the pants-wearing bodies’ propelled movements and energizing “morphings” (112). Bennett shows how the aesthetics of the camera’s movements and the music create an atmosphere for the simultaneously human/nonhuman and frozen/dynamic quality of the pants and their wearers. In turn, the animated material of the pants becomes indistinguishable from the human body. The khaki pants’ ontological entanglements with human bodies produce an enchanting affect, which, ultimately, “violate[s] an order ranking humans incomparably higher than animals, vegetables, and minerals” (114). The affect rendered by objects’ liveliness demonstrates human “affective attachments” to life. With this material consciousness, “more just and more ecologically sustainable” ways for consumer culture can be fashioned (113). In this chapter, the potential of enchantment to stimulate positive ethical awareness in modern life is rendered most explicit and applicable, illustrating affect’s ethical power.

While Bennett provides an effective definition of enchantment, her diverse categorizations of enchantment go unaddressed. At various moments, enchantment is described as a state, a mood, a feeling, and an affect. The nuances between these categories go unexplained, resulting in a conflation of these terms. Perhaps these different terms help demonstrate enchantment as an ever-wavering sensation—identifiable in characteristics, unidentifiable in type. Yet, Bennett’s unspecified uses of enchantment’s multiple classifications somewhat conflict with her detailed treatment of enchantment’s description. Overall, this shortcoming does not detract from her general message, and, more importantly, the text itself provokes several intriguing questions. Can one become desensitized to enchantment? Are ethical responses to enchantment always positive? Or are there potentially negative consequences to this process? Can ethics be disrupted by too much affectivity? Can these material “affective attachments” also be brought to bear on inter-human relations, which might locate enchantment in the body? What about humans who do not have privileged access to those designated everyday objects? How can they access Bennett’s proposed affect of enchantment? What other affects are possible between and among human and nonhuman attachments? Even with these questions, Bennett’s The Enchantment of Modern Life offers an innovative reading of ordinary things and their attachments that finds ethical productivity within affects rather than separate from them.

Brooke Clark