Modernity: What we were Promised and What we Got | Daanish Mustafa’s Blog

Oct 2013

I once asked my, then partner, if there was any other time in history she would have liked to have lived instead of the contemporary. And her answer was a troubled, no. Given what we know, or have been told about what life was like in the times past, almost none of those times look very appetizing to the females of our species—and rightly so. It is told in all the comic strips that the Paleolithic (cavemen) people generally used a strike on the head with a mammoth femur bone as a form of foreplay with their women. The Neolithic (iron age) women, when not bearing biblical prophets, were getting swapped around as sex slaves or having their babies slaughtered by the pharos. I don’t need to go through the list of every imaginable physical and mental torture, confinement, and degradation that has been the normal lot of women during different times in history, except perhaps the present era of cultural, scientific and technological modernity. The project of modernity did, after all, promise us material plenty, intellectual fulfillment, and social emancipation if, and only if we bought into its vision, culture and political economy. I guess if you are reading this, like me, you did. Modernity also seemingly delivered—but then again, did it?

When one starts getting into middle age, one of the bad things is that one starts getting closer to understanding the fragility of human existence. People around you start dying. The other thing is that one starts seeing friends and contemporaries grow into the adults and people they are most likely going to be for the rest of their lives. Seeing many of my female friends and colleagues grow into that mid-life has been one of the most unsettling slow onset heartbreaks for me. And it has really made me question the emancipatory promise of modernity—its material and intellectual promises were always partial anyway. But emancipation was supposed to be for all.

I had always argued that the modern capitalist political economy is a fundamentally patriarchal construct centered around masculine historico-cultural experience and emergent values. The fundamental definition of efficiency under modernity is more productivity per unit input. Such elementary definitions, let alone the super structure of ethos and embodied practices that modern capitalist mass production, mass consumption societies are built upon, are fundamentally antithetical to the feminine structure of feeling and experience. Women cannot possibly compete with men and win, in a world designed for men–the one that rewards masculine strengths and emasculates feminine strengths—notice even the etymology of the word emasculates.

So what is a successful career path for a young woman who wants to go to college? These days, college can go anywhere from 4-5 years, putting a fresh female college graduate of 21-23 in the first 3rd of the reproductively ripe age range of 17-35 for women—give or take a few years mostly at the tail end. But these days, for an ambitious woman, an undergraduate degree just may not be enough, she must also either consider graduate education, and, ideally, some work experience. No matter, one can enjoy one’s early adulthood, and besides there are a couple of decades of theoretical reproductive ability ahead of you. Just as a young woman in her late 20s is embarking upon her career, she is also approaching the middle of her reproductive years. A few more years of career building, if she wants to do that, means serious compromises on her inherent biological capacity to reproduce. So, many women, having prioritized career earlier, have a terrifying ride hurtling towards the reproductive wall. Sadly, this is an increasingly common story in contemporary modern societies.

Even when young women succeed in reproducing, they often end up sacrificing careers, or face incredible guilt about their choices. Their children grow up and do not need them as much in their teens. And, then your middle-age heroines are left with empty nests, post-graduate degrees, and no career prospects.

Why is it that women, and not men, have to confront the choice between reproduction and career progression? Is it fair? Is it a natural order of things? It is most certainly not on both counts. We have built a system and a political economy whose imperatives of efficiency are antithetical to the women’s needs for time and support, to exercise their reproductive choices.

As if the above structural imperatives were not bad enough, the system with its perpetual need for new consumers has also built a perverse system of consumerism through image consumption. Impossible images of love, perfect bodies, friends, life styles, material possession and sexuality are sold to mesmerized populaces. The consequences of the hyper-sexualization of the female form have been discussed well, elsewhere. But even the psychological effect of young men and women always looking for somebody better out there, over the horizon, are shocking! This reminds me of what my friend, who is a Vice Provost for some student life stuff at Stanford, mentioned during my recent trips. The young people at Stanford, California! Stanford! Have outrageously dysfunctional dating lives! They are so hung up on how they look, are perceived by everybody around campus, and waiting for the perfect impossible match, that more and more of them are going through college without ever dating at all.

Having been a witness to the loneliness, frustration and above all emotional and sexual dysfunction that our modern society has dealt to the women—in particular—and hence to a lesser extent to men, I fear that even the emancipation promise was also, perhaps, a chimera. The system promised us freedom to pursue our dreams—and we seem to be doing it—except that more of us, particularly women, are finding ourselves celibate, anxious and alone.

Daanish Mustafa is a Reader in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography, King’s College, London. He spends his time contesting the despotism of the reader over the message of the Author.

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