Enchantment is a closed-loop language game. Once you say “enchanted” among scholars of religion you know where the conversation will go. No matter where one begins, the possible moves around enchantment are all mapped out. More precisely, then, enchantment is a web of concepts and mutually supporting cognates (disenchantment, re-enchantment, etc.). This isn’t to say the closed-loop game is a simple or uncomplicated one. It can be fun to find oneself in it, navigating amongst the various swoops and checks and twists, among the believers and debunkers, the earnest and the skeptical, the affected and the affective. It can be a pleasure to consider the intimacies of the minor stakes in the eddies of enchantment, or to trace routes from the insignificant to the monumental. It can be slightly titillating to ask, on embarking, whether the knots will tie together as they always have. But this fun is interesting in the same way a James Bond film can be, where you are curious about the variations and also take comfort in the fact that there won’t be many.
The game was set in motion innocently enough by Max Weber’s announcement of enchantment’s disappearance. This claim for a disenchanted modernity appeared uncontroversial to most. But others took issue. The question then emerged: If Weber was wrong, then in what respects? Some argued the world had never become disenchanted, and that one could trace continuities in histories of magic and gnosticism through time and space. Others thought that enchantment, like religion, had been thoroughly transformed by modern circumstances and continued in translations and new guises. Of these, opinion was further mixed: some argued that scholars’ openness to presence and possibilities of enchantment was necessary for the humanistic study of religion if not humanity itself, while others worried that modern desires for enchantments (even ambivalent desires) made moderns prone to authoritarianism. The stakes seemed to rise as a new loop of the argument took shape, a meta-conversation where still other scholars observed that perhaps it was the debates about disenchantment that created and propelled that desire. In this new loop, scholars argued that enchantment discourse was a way for the disenchanted scholars to enchant themselves, and that the desire for enchantment was likewise a nostalgic hope for return (to something that may or may not have existed—an enchanted world!) Some writing in this vein observed that disenchantment was hard to give a history to—when did it happen? And this perspective turned others to probe enchantment and disenchantment as a mode or experiencing modernity’s excesses and exclusions, and its new metaphysics. But then yet others responded that if enchantment depended more on contemporary dreams (or nightmares) than history, then debates about who was enchanted could not be solved by evidence. And as a consequence some others argued enchantment was best taken up as an ethical approach, or inquiry into our powers of our being human. “But whose being human?” others then pushed back with a question that seemed poised to expose yet another loop. “Can a term so tied to the violences of cleaving the world into the modern and the premodern, ever be used to repair that world, or build another?” Who was and is being enchanted by enchantment?
This is to say, along with Bruno Latour, not to mention Emily Ogden, Jason Josephson-Storm, Susan Lepselter, Melani McAlister, Caleb Smith, David Walker, and many others, that investigating or debating enchantment is principally about giving oneself over to a particular evaluative mode of understanding modernity. Enchantment is a game of modernity that suggests a surplus of meaning, agency, living, worldmaking beyond or extra to modernity, and that simultaneously forecloses the paths wherein we might consider that surplus to be anything other than already circumscribed within modernity. Modernity’s surplus is not surplus at all. Once we have that in view, we can see that entering into arguments about enchantment and disenchantment is never a matter of simply identifying objects or people as enchanted or not. It is, more precisely, about participating in and replaying a set of modern claims about epochs, moods, structures, secularities that are made real within a network of ideas, one that makes it possible to be a person who can make such claims to begin with. Enchantment is always about something big—about the arc of history, about secularization, about agency, about desire and loss, and about the conditions of living in the now.
But enchantment is a term, and terms have limits. As in “term limits.” A term is a fixed or finite period. And so, in the spirit of that particular meaning of “term,” I invite us to consider whether maybe enchantment’s current term is nearing an end. Our most brilliant writers and thinkers show us what we can do with it and what all its moves make possible to say. As we reach the end of this term, enchantment’s claims to exhaustiveness become exhausting.
Of course, I admit that no matter what I say about it, enchantment will remain a potent game, one that seems to play itself and catch people in it. And it will remain necessary to learn how the game works, and to know what it makes possible to say. But let’s also admit that we have come to the point where “enchantment” has done little more than keep us moving within its loop of familiar places, and familiar findings, and familiar thoughts.
So, are there other ways to consider the stuff that has been marked as modernity’s surpluses? Are there other terms (with their own term limits) that enable us to think this stuff otherwise—that is, without invoking the readymade distinctions contained in “enchantment”?
Rather than make a big claim about surplus and thus catch myself in a new cycle of questions about what kind of thing surplus can be in modernity, I instead merely present a surplus of words. Some are much in use, others not at all. Some offer different sets of distinctions for thinking about modernity and our worlds—or perhaps no distinctions at all. A list like this gestures toward a surplus of other terms of the past, present, and future that may allow us to engage the questions hovering around enchantment, but that its discourse has foreclosed.