Jane Bennett (2001) The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics

Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-08813-6.

Fables of Reconstruction

Sean Saraka

In The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics, Jane Bennett endeavours to prepare the ground for a contemporary rediscovery of a sense of wonder in everyday life. She seeks to reverse the effects of the many narratives of modern disenchantment and postmodern cynicism extant today, from Marx, Weber, and the Frankfurt School, to their contemporary counterparts and adherents. Bennett attributes to modern and postmodern critical theory an attitude of emotional detachment that grounds itself in a false sense of both historical fatalism and ontological determinism, and fosters sentiments of alienation, hopelessness and ingenerosity in its exponents, and she examines the dispirited sobriety of critical theory in light of the contemporary concern with ethics. ‘[T]he image of ethics as a code to which one is obligated’, she argues, is an image in which ‘the affective dimensions of ethics are drawn too lightly’. Insofar as sober pessimism, however lucid, remains insufficient ‘to the enactment of ethical aspirations’, Bennett seeks to advance the ‘affective force’ of moments of wonder as a source of energy that might ‘propel ethical generosity’ (1).

To this end, Bennett presents enchantment or wonder as the experience of being ‘struck and shaken by the extraordinary that lives amid the everyday’ (2). This experience may descend upon individuals unawares, or may be cultivated through ‘deliberate strategies’. According to Bennett, enchantment combines two distinct sensations or moments: on one hand, ‘a pleasurable feeling of being charmed [by an] as yet unprocessed experience’, as well as, on the other, ‘a more unheimlich. . .feeling of being torn out of one’s default sensory-psychic-intellectual disposition’. ‘The overall effect of enchantment’, Bennett continues, ‘is a mood of fullness, plenitude or liveliness, a sense of having had one’s nerves or circulation or concentration powers tuned up and recharged – a shot in the arm, a fleeting return to childlike excitement about life’ (5).

For Bennett, the experience of enchantment arises from an ‘encounter’, which is also typically the occasion of a ‘crossing’ – a more or less unanticipated and immediate moment of ‘active engagement with objects of sensuous experience’ (5). As she suggests in Chapter 2, a crossing may be the outcome of a deliberate experiment in hybridity, for example, of the kind that produces Deleuze and Guattari’s body without organs, in which the crossing of heterogeneous and inassimilable species gives rise to something new and improbable. This notion of hybrid crossings also appears to constitute the paradigm case for the fugitive experiences of enchantment in general: intimate, immediate, and sensuous encounters between different species of life and matter, which produce transformations both expected and unexpected, for better and for worse.

Critical Philosophy and Disenchantment

The immediate, sensuous, emotionally-charged context into which Bennett seeks to transpose contemporary critical theory brings her into conflict with Kant and the privileged bearers of his heritage in contemporary social thought. Max Weber’s archetypal disenchantment tale figures prominently here, in Chapter 4 and elsewhere, as does a particularly pessimistic rehearsal of Horkheimer and Adorno’s ‘culture industry’ thesis (Chapter 6). While she addresses Kant directly at a number of points in her argument (Chapters 1, 3, and 7), Bennett declines to comment on the extent to which the modern and contemporary theoretical tendencies that she examines bear a Kantian inflection as well. Given the Kantian tenor of the present-day revival of ethics, as well as Derrida’s formative influence on the same, it is notable that Bennett declines to make explicit the implications of her argument in more general terms. This is likely a consequence of the avowedly affirmative tone that she adopts in this book, and her intention to negotiate contemporary problematics in a decidedly different way. Yet Kant appears at crucial points in this book as a principal theoretical foil. In Chapter 3, ‘Signs and Wonders’, Bennett positions Kant’s supersensualism against the more and less enchanted ontologies of Paracelsus and Gilles Deleuze. In Chapter 7, Bennett’s turn to the problem of ethics begins with an examination of Kant’s argument for morality in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone.

Bennett plays suggestively upon the coeval separations and correspondences that run through Kant’s thought. Although she does not put it this way, Kant’s reflections on human knowledge, worldly possibility and ethical obligation epitomize the strange ambivalence of the Western secular tradition, what Foucault termed the ‘blackmail of the enlightenment’ (1984: 42). Kant asserts an absolute divide between nature and mind that elevates the human will to knowledge to the status of heroism, while at the same time asserting its formal impossibility. Similarly, Deleuze’s critique of Kant tends to emphasize the coincidence of his transcendental shift with the legislative force with which Kant endows reason (see Deleuze, 1983; 1984). The primacy of reason asserts a disciplinary hierarchy within both the physical and the social body; for Deleuze, this defines the character of Kant’s work as ‘state philosophy’.

In Chapter 3, ‘The Marvelous Worlds of Paracelsus, Kant, and Deleuze’, Bennett portrays Kant’s dichotomies as equivocal instances of wonder in themselves. In place of the ontologically-grounded wonders of Paracelsus and Deleuze, Bennett argues that Kant has only substituted the transcendental wonders of reason. This marks a shift from outer to inner nature: whereas for Paracelsus knowledge consisted in ascribing a telos to objects based on their sensuous qualities, Kant will redefine teleology in terms of transcendental reason. If teleology cannot be materially grounded, it nevertheless remains a necessary invention of human mind. On one hand, this means that Kant depreciates the status of the object world in favour of the solitary powers of apperception, and Bennett identifies this as a typical feature of modern disenchantment tales. But on the other hand, if the ontological world is denuded of wonder, Bennett insists that Being in its entirety is not. ‘I identify “reason”‘, she writes, ‘with its imperious, generative power, as the first wonder in a Kantian world. This reason never fails to create the concept of the supersensible’ (43).

This is to say that Bennett’s engagement with Kant and others is typically less critical than supplementary: rather than contradict their claims directly, with a view to overturning them, she appends further possibilities to their thought. However, her treatment of Kant is less generous in Chapter 7, where she considers the implications of Kantian philosophy for the thinking of ethical obligation. Here, Kant’s determination to retain a categorical separation between the sensible and the supersensible gives rise to a panoply of non-somatic or purely intellectual sentiments. Bennett argues that this underscores the insufficiency of his transcendental account of ethics. Since Kant’s critical philosophy limits him from deducing ethical obligation from ontological claims or bodily states, he must instead account for the force of moral law in transcendental terms. Bennett shows that he does this, on one hand, by describing moral law as sublime: ‘[T]he law excites a feeling of sublimity that awakens moral sentiments‘ (136). On the other hand, the moral sentiments that the law excites consist of ‘self-enacting’, abstract imperatives like courage, hope and duty. As Kant himself writes, ‘simply to make the demand for courage goes halfway towards infusing it’ (quoted by Bennett, 136). It is precisely to supplement this austere account of ethical obligation that Bennett undertakes her exploration of affectivity and enchantment.

Joyful Ontology

The modern attitude of disenchantment has been buttressed by the assumption of matter as inert, of a nature denuded of mystery and, ultimately, of possibilities. This assumption is present not only in Kant’s thought, or in Weber’s narrative of scientific demystification, but also figures in the anti-ontological strain in late- and postmodern theory, as Bennett demonstrates in her examination of contemporary ‘disenchantment tales’ by Hans Blumenberg and Simon Critchley. Alternatively, roughly the first half of The Disenchantment of Modern Life is devoted to the description of an avowedly ontological ‘enchanted materialism’, informed principally by contemporary Epicurean materialism, and in particular the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.

Bennett echoes contemporary French Epicureans, including Deleuze, Bruno Latour (whom she addresses in Chapter 5) and Michel Serres when she presents the theorization of chance as a principal feature of Epicurus’ materialism. Epicurus’ theory of the ‘clinamen’ – the chance swerve that causes atoms to collide, producing the atomic combinations of matter – prefigures the theorization of chance in present-day physics. Bennett points in particular to the Deleuzian notion of singularity, derived in part from molecular biologist Ilya Prigogine’s theory of nonequilibrium systems, according to which the qualitative state of matter at a given locality can give rise to chance variations that may escape structural determination entirely. But the Epicurean discernment of contingency at an atomic level is presented as a ‘third way between a teleological cosmos and a self-assertive rationalism’ (73), and this entails an attitude of neither teleological fatalism nor rationalist voluntarism, but an ethic of engagement and affirmation.

Accordingly, Bennett discerns enchantment in some unexpected places. She bucks conventional wisdom when she explores the enchanting possibilities of new genetic technologies (Chapter 2), for example, and products of contemporary commercial culture such as the Gap ‘Khakis Swing’ ad campaign (Chapter 6). But perhaps the most surprising of these affirmations occurs in Chapter 5, where Bennett shifts from an appreciation of complexity in nature to a parallel appreciation of modern bureaucratic complexity. How would bureaucracy appear, Bennett asks, if liberated from Weber’s iron cage? ‘Bureaucracy would enclose and suppress, and . . . propel the urge to break out, but it would also sometimes fascinate and lure. Both sets of effects would have the same source, the complexity of the structure’ (105). What’s more, this startling affirmation is conjoined with one of an ongoing series of references to the unsettling fiction of Franz Kafka. As regards the former, Bennett suggests that social complexity exercises a ‘strange hold’ over us. As regards the latter, Bennett argues that Kafka’s neurotic surrealism adeptly captures the aspect of wonder amidst the drabness of modern life. In both cases, the encounter with complexity holds out the possibility for escape in a particularly Deleuzian fashion, via some form of singular play.

Such enchantments are intrinsically ethically ambiguous, and this entails that any evaluation of their merits devolves to consideration of the ethical practices into which they are incorporated. Here, the ontological bent of Bennett’s theory recognizes a multitude of forms of experimentation: the practices of ‘monstrous’ combination associated with Deleuze and Guattari’s Body without Organs; practices of ethical experimentation or ‘play’ derived from Schiller and Foucault; a literal enchantment or singing that plays on pseudo-Paracelsian similitudes, resonances, or ‘sonorities’. In this connection, what is most significant is the affirmation of ontology itself, of an extensive world that not only exceeds conscious knowledge but also responds to the touch. The notion of experimentation, according to which untried combinations and unexplored possibilities may produce unexpected results, requires that such a world exist; as does a theory of wonder or enchantment that posits a world of surprise and possibility that exceeds the bounds of human knowledge.

Affirmation and Public Discourse

Recent years have seen a deepening of the affirmative strain within postmodern thought, typically, as in the case of Bennett’s book, under the rubric of Deleuze. Over the course of his career, Deleuze described and consolidated an Epicurean or ‘Spinozist’ tradition in continental philosophy, which can be located in the works of Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser and, further afield, Jacques Lacan, Georges Bataille, Henri Bergson, Friedrich Nietzsche, G. W. Leibniz, Baruch Spinoza, and Lucretius. Bennett’s book holds a place alongside other recent contributions by Brian Massumi (2002), William Connolly (2002) and Michael Shapiro (1999), who have begun to flesh out the implications of this work for Anglo-American social theory. What is perhaps most remarkable about this new work is its participation in what Stephen K. White (2000) has described as the ‘weak ontological turn’ in contemporary social thought. While Bennett refers to Deleuze in order to present an enchanted materialism, his appropriations of contemporary physics, brain science, and cybernetics have just as often been presented as singularly rigorous deployments of science in the service of contemporary philosophy.

The most recent appreciations of Deleuze in the Anglo-American world have arrived in the form of scholarly reception of his Cinema books (Deleuze, 1986; 1989), in which Deleuze borrows from Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory (1991) to present an alternative theory of perception and cognition. Accordingly, recent books such as William Connolly’s Neuropolitics (2002) and Massumi’s Parables for the Virtual (2002) – including a growing literature in film studies itself, for example Rodowick (1997) and Flaxman (2000) – have explored the relationship between ontology and perception, and the implications of contemporary neuroscience for our understanding of the processes and potentials of conceptual thought. If this literature can be understood in terms of ‘weak’ ontology, it is because, as with Deleuze’s appropriations from physics, it posits indeterminacy as a fundamental ontological element, which can be tempered or exploited through a variety of concrete practices.

What I find most encouraging about this ontological-affirmative turn is the possibility that it offers for a new voice for the left, particularly in an American context. Since the end of the 1960s (or so the story goes), political pessimism and paranoia on the left, as well as the paradigmatic wrangling that has marked its theoretical practice, have constituted a near-fatal political liability in a society known for its optimistic and strictly antiphilosophical political culture. Tocqueville (2000: 305) remarked that Americans were possessed of no indigenous philosophical school, but it is perhaps more correct to say (with a nod to Harold Bloom (1992)), that Americans have typically elevated pragmatism to metaphysical heights. At its best, this attitude has produced a tradition of homegrown geniuses, as unconventional as they are expansive in spirit. Describing her enchanted materialism and framing a context for the canny wonders of the everyday, Bennett’s is thus a fundamentally American book, in the best sense. She communicates with an older and enduring American temperament, one as removed from present cynicism as it is identical in its philosophical values. Her recourse to Thoreau therefore most welcome, and one would hope to find efforts conducted on behalf of Walt Whitman, William James, Herman Melville and others – all of whom have been amply celebrated in the work of Deleuze himself.

In this sense, Bennett’s book, as much as, and possibly more than, any of the other recent publications that I have cited, holds out the possibility of an Anglo-American left pragmatism to counter the decades-long right-wing hegemony over both moral right and common sense in American public discourse, and which has manifested itself in everything from The Closing of the American Mind (Bloom 1987) and Habits of the Heart (Bellah et al., 1985) to The Rules (Fein & Schneider, 1995). The vulnerability of the left, on which critics like Stanley Fish have capitalized with such confounding success, has been its inability to delineate a vision of pluralism and other social goods in concrete and convincingly desirable terms. This is not quite the same thing as excoriating the left for relativism; nor it is to suggest that rightist discourses on these issue have anything substantially correct – William Chaloupka (1999), whom Bennett also cites, documents the enduring chill effect of the New Right’s rhetoric of anti-government suspicion, private virtue, and economic self-reliance on everyday politics in America.

But what the right has understood correctly is that Americans seek a pragmatic public discourse that can offer both an image of the good life and unambiguous ethical criteria for everyday living. Here the right-wing combination of the almighty dollar and the Holy Bible proves very nearly insuperable, and the success of a countervailing effort such as Bennett’s must both depend on its ability to advance a compelling vision of (post)secular belief and offer a believable account of everyday pleasures. For Bennett this boils down to the nature of the satisfactions that attend her account of affirmation. But to what extent does her account of physical attractions and ethical compulsions succeed?


What is most engaging about The Enchantment of Modern Life is the concept of enchantment itself. Bennett is at her most eloquent and convincing when she is writing about the magical aspects of human existence and the sometimes farfetched possibilities that it holds. Her injunction to give in to enchantment is perhaps most pertinent in the thoroughly intellectualized academic context in which it appears; yet if the displacement of the primacy of cognition is itself a philosophically correct gesture, it is also to Bennett’s credit that she is able to attach a hint of benevolent self-indulgence, adventurousness, and even mischief to her claims.

Bennett is therefore most successful in demonstrating the inadequacies of modern intellectual fatalism, and her intervention is most welcome as a critical supplement to the contemporary revival of ethics to which it is addressed. But the implications of Bennett’s work for other domains in social and political theory are more ambiguous and, perhaps, more tenuous. My own doubts concerning her arguments center on the relationship of affirmation to pleasure and power: Bennett’s argument in Chapter 6 regarding the Gap ‘Khakis Swing’ campaign is exemplary in this respect.

For Bennett, the television ads in question – in which well-scrubbed young people swing-dance through a series of special effects, to the tune of Louis Prima’s ‘Jump, Jive, and Wail’ – constitute an everyday wonder of a type which academic critics are loathe to recognize. Bennett’s appreciation of the ad therefore unfolds in dialogue with the critiques of commodity culture put forth by Marx and Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School. Bennett argues that the framework of Marx’s political economy simply does not take into account the subjective satisfactions and fugitive wonders of consumer society. Horkheimer and Adorno, she claims, ‘do not distinguish between [stupefying] amusement and enchantment’ (128), and ‘allow their insight into the way commodities manipulate/activate our bodies to drown in a vocabulary of mind’ (124).

The small pleasures of consumer society – for a long time now guilty pleasures for adherents of left politics, and therefore, sadly, laced with ressentiment – undeniably do furnish a daily surplus of energy and goodwill that can go a long way, and the Gap ‘Khakis’ campaign is perhaps an apt demonstration of this. But to what extent does a fleeting moment of enchantment supersede the critique of the injustices of capitalist society? Bennett’s arguments on this point suggest a signal disjunction in her conception of enchantment.

Her argument rests principally on the notion that the Marxian critique of consumption brings a negative, emotionally depressive energy to bear on subjective satisfactions. She therefore acknowledges that commodity capitalism is not wholly positive in its effects, but nevertheless criticizes Marxism for its denial of small pleasures. Elsewhere, Bennett is emphatic that enchantment is something other than a simply pleasurable experience, but her encounter with the Marxian critique of consumer society points to a series of different but related issues: Does every tale need to be an enchantment tale? On one hand, not all ethical impulses derive from the positive feelings associated with enchantment. On the other, Bennett’s reluctance to contemplate the negative aspects of consumer society calls into question her notion of enchantment itself: Does the magical aspect of enchantment in fact derive from a wilful disregard of other kinds of theoretical narratives?

For example, Bennett presents the following passage from Dialectic of Enlightenment as evidence of Horkheimer and Adorno’s cynicism:

In this age of universal publicity, any innovation and ideal appears suspect to us. We have learned how to identify abstract concepts as sales propaganda Language based entirely on truth simply arouses impatience to get on with the business deal it is probably advancing. (quoted in Bennett 128)

Bennett interprets this passage to mean that, for Horkheimer and Adorno, ‘the forces of stupor had recently proved so hideous . . . in even liberal, democratic contexts . . . that even an ethically useful kind of enchantment was not worth the risk’ (128). While such a reading is plausible, by dismissing Horkheimer and Adorno’s point as pure cynicism, Bennett elides the existence of the advertising industry itself – a massive professional apparatus principally dedicated to both the behavioral control of individuals, and the colonization of public discourse. Yes, Gap Khakis swing, but is that all they do? Enchantments are themselves neither wholly positive, nor wholly innocent of manipulation.

Bennett asks herself, ‘What image of power do I invoke in my story? One that shares Deleuze and Guattari’s conviction that ‘”there is always something that flows, that escapes the overcoding machine”. . .’ (115-6). While Bennett’s is an apt response to what she calls ‘Adorno’s picture of power as a hypercompetent and impermeable fortress’ (116), it falls short of the Deleuzo-Foucauldian conception of power itself. Bennett appears to conflate affirmation with optimism or happiness, but the ‘positivity’ of the conception of power presented by Deleuze and Foucault denotes not its emotional tenor but its well-nigh ontological character, its ubiquity and durability. The ‘productivity of power’ (to use Foucault’s phrase) always holds out the possibility of not only resistance but also manipulation, cooptation, and subjugation.

Bennett’s optimism courts complacency here and elsewhere in The Enchantment of Modern Life, and this appears to arise from a more of less fixed conception of subjectivity latent in her work. While Bennett heartily endorses encounters and crossings of all kinds, she presents these principally as forms of play. In so doing, she imputes a kind of reversibility to such choices between worldviews and ways of being that is not always the case, and this suggests – to me, at least – that latent in Bennett arguments is more or less modernist conception of the subject, an unified subject who, at base, remains somehow unchanged through life’s experiences and transformations, for whom extreme experiences of one kind or another may be often chosen at will, and always taken in stride. This subtext furnishes a sense of security that Bennett’s forbears have not always shared. As Foucault explains, ‘My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous. . .’ (Foucault, 1984: 343). The kind of experimentation that Bennett recommends also risks the annihilation of the subject, and this itself can form a basis for the most powerful affirmations.

In conclusion, then, Bennett advances a persuasive and suggestive argument for a reassessment of the place of enchantment in modern life, one that represents an important turn in postcontemporary Anglo-American social and political thought. Yet what limits the effectiveness of Bennett’s argument is not so much her optimism as her reluctance to simultaneously affirm the existence of what remains painful, dangerous, or problematic in life and society. Bennett’s reluctance underscores the ambiguous relationship of her conception of enchantment to conventional, critical social theory, and suggests an unnecessarily limited conception of affirmation itself. Nevertheless, Bennett makes an excellent case for a new appreciation of enchantment and the broader role of emotions in contemporary social theory.


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Sean Saraka is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at York University in Toronto, Canada, where he also teaches in political science, cultural theory, and communications. He is currently completing his dissertation on poststructuralism and the Marxian theory of value.