Post-secularism 2: Enchantment (long) after Weber

Now to take a deep breath after Smith’s take on Radical Orthodoxy and continue to a non-theistic, non-teleogical proposal for living in a post-secular world: Jane Bennett’s The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, Ethics (2001).

Bennett is perhaps the most directly engaged with Weber’s secularization/disenchantment narrative of the three books I’ve discussed so far, and her discussion of Latour helped me formulate my opening thought in this blog post. I find her mind rangy, playful, generous, sympathetic—all qualities I greatly value in a scholar and in a book. Her main contention is that the disenchantment narrative leads to cynicism and despair and completely undercuts the needed motivation for a successful ethics; the emotions and the body must be engaged in order to create truly ethical humans, and one place to engage those emotions is in the everyday moments of enchantment we all experience. Bennett defines this echantment as a feeling of wonder and of expanded generosity through an unexpected sense of connection with the Other, whether human, inter-species, or inanimate matter. Drawing on sources as diverse as chaos theory and Epicurean philosophy and on examples ranging from cognitively advanced parrots to robopets to ads for GAP khakis, Bennett produces a highly suggestive account that enchantment is in fact a key mark of modern life and that we must embrace it to begin cultivating the kinds of ethics that will lead to real political, economic, and ecological care.

Bennett is a political theorist at Johns Hopkins, though she was at Goucher College when she wrote this book (three cheers for liberal arts colleges in this bibliography!). Her sense of play, of investment in her world, and of genuine care for her subject are delightful elements of her work. Yet I found myself by the end of the book with two major concerns, one rational and the other more embodied.

The first was that I found myself unconvinced that the emotional experiences she describes were strong or directional enough to lead to an effective ethics; along the same lines, I didn’t understand how these fugitive moments, unpredictable and evanescent (though it may be possible to orchestrate them—Bennett insists these moments are often the result of human effort and intention) can lead to an ethics. As a literary historian, I’ve spent a fair amount of time with the tradition(s) identified by the label “sentimentalism,” which is predicated on generating certain acceptable kinds of emotions in readers in order to create pleasure, fellow-feeling, belonging, etc. One of the major criticism of sentimentalism over the past two centuries at least is that the moment of identification with a suffering character, a scene of injustice, or a moral principle demonstrated, doesn’t have to lead to right action. Often, that momentary feeling is the moral victory as far as the reader (and often the writer) is concerned. While famous examples such as the abolitionist furor inspired by Uncle Tom’s Cabin exist, there does not seem to be much evidence that reading sentimentalism led people to live better lives. The same can be said of any literature. I love Bennett’s commitment to story, and one of the most important thinkers for her in her book is Franz Kafka, but the old sentimental problem seems to haunt her call to embrace enchantment.

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