Phil Smith’s Enchanted Things is a fascinating illustrated pamphlet that signposts a number of different ways in which we might engage with, or orient ourselves within, the landscape. And the landscape here is interpreted in the widest possible sense. This is neither a pastoral paeon nor an urban dérive, although it dips toes in both ends of the spectrum.
Smith’s primary concern is a project for re-enchanting the landscape. This ambition is not tied to some sort of regeneration of the landscape, nor of seeking out special or numinous places. Instead it consists of noticing and bringing into sharper focus those wyrd juxtapositions that might most usually be glimpsed in contemporary art exhibitions. Smith’s point, I think, is that we now no longer need any particular skill in drawing out special objects that might link together in some higher conceptual sense; that might be suggestive of something subversive beyond the overt function for which they were designed. Instead, the increasing circulation and proliferation of these objects is causing them to flood our environments and so the possibilities for unique messages to communicate themselves to us is increasing at a similar rate. We would benefit from readjusting our perceptual apparatus to see these poetic moments unfolding all around us.
Smith’s approach is compelling. He recognises that the division between rural and urban has disappeared; furthermore, he also disparages any meaningful sense in which edgelands can be identified as a unique and definable territory. The edgelands have bled out in both directions, infecting both the rural and the urban with the unstoppable detritus of capital. It makes sense to think of the growth of the edgelands in this way but, still, I do think that it can be beneficial to identify places as edgelands regardless of their territorial location. Whether a service road behind city centre shops or a campsite in the heart of the wild, the utility of recognising a place as edgelands territory is in teasing out the interface and interplay between the machines of capitalism and nature, and in relocating the position of the human as a consequence. But then I am an edgelands chauvinist.
The book is well illustrated: the photographs sit on the recto whilst the text is on the verso. In this way, the text runs alongside a rapidly circulating array of signs, symbols and pareidolic markings which mimics well the sort of imaginative and image-rich journeys that the text describes. There are no living creatures in these pictures, save the occasional piece of statuary and the formal pedestrian man symbol forever in the act of walking nowhere.
Of course, there is an obvious objection here. Why take delight in the increasingly useless, wasteful and polluting products of capitalism? Isn’t such a response irresponsible? Shouldn’t we be identifying the structural mechanics behind the proliferation of these things and critiquing it with a view to ameliorating or revolutionising those relationships of production? These are all very fair points but I think that Smith’s project of re-enchantment consists of more than laughing amongst the ruins. In fact, there’s something of the Kurt Schwitters approach going on here. Schwitters spent his time wandering round, collecting discarded detritus and transforming it into art. His Merz artworks performed a critique of the market economy, with the term Merz itself being a mutilation of the overriding system (Kommerz). There is also something of the Land Artists here too, people like Richard Long or Andy Goldsworthy.
If we accept that artists such as Schwitters have something worthwhile to say about their societies, then it is certainly worth exploring the possibility that these statements can be made personally by all of us, outside of the gallery or the academy. This process could mark the beginnings of an actual demystification of the commodity object, rather than the sort of recommodification that seems to happen when these objects become a part of the art world.
Furthermore, Smith is interested in the ways in which these objects somehow act against their nature. That is to say that these symbols and commodities are born out of the systems of regulation and control, whether municipal or capitalist, but that when viewed in decontextualized frames, or even when looked at with less jaded eyes, they can begin to resist and breach the confines of their remit: “they serve as recalcitrantly specific things, placing a restrictive friction on smooth generalisations, causing a distorting torque in the smooth spaces of postmodernism and globalisation.” Things (objects and signifiers) are produced to fit into tightly regulated systems but, as we all know, they are not built to last like they used to be, and so they are soon discarded and pass over into an almost spectral underworld of dead signifiers. It is to this zone of forgotten meaning that Smith implores us to pay attention and to begin the process of re-enchantment.
I find all of this to be wholly worthwhile. What particularly strikes me as plausible in Smith’s argument is the notion that with capital’s increasing acceleration and ubiquity there are myriad unwritten narratives and unseen frames lurking in the shadows and in the lights; they are unseen because of our devotion to the discipline of focused attention; having been designated as obsolete or surplus they slip by as barely subliminal non-presences, hauntological detritus. They are seeded everywhere and their name is legion. What this all amounts to is a feeling that the unknowable and ungraspable immensity of capital can communicate certain moments of revelation, or parables of discordant meaning to us in mysterious ways. It hints towards a possibility for a new sublime to emerge based on the contemplation of, not nature’s, but capital’s vastness.
Capital renders us small and impotent, powerless to influence its flows, and always running to catch up with some chimerical ‘meaning’. Smith’s antidote is a recommendation to stop chasing illusions and slow down to read the stories written in its wake. This in itself is a refusal to engage with the text of capital as writ, and a practice of subversive perambulatomancy. Where such a praxis might actually lead to is anybody’s guess, but it seems like a path (permissive or not) worth following.
Enchanted Things is available from Triarchy Press: https://www.triarchypress.net/enchanted-things.html