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November 15, 2017

The muddle of modernity


November 15, 2017

It has become so much easier to talk people out of something than getting them interested in a subject for long enough to draw a thoughtful reflection. Distractions abound and a relentless flurry of news – with the good, bad and ugly all lumped together – forms a bewildering panorama of twisted emotions where all tragedy and celebration, hope and despair are dumped in the same place.

Yet we can’t seem to get enough of it. Everything tickles our fancy. Like a rodent who has to eat three times its own weight every day to survive, we have to get our instant gratification every time some fresh news item pops up before our eyes. For those of us who are maniacally glued to our tablets, laptops and smartphones, life seems to offer little else in the way of solace. What fades from the screen, fades from the mind.

Our contact with reality has never been so transient, so hopelessly shallow and effectively detached. Indeed, the subjectivity and illusory nature of postmodern truth has made the lie ever so indiscernible. Trapped in a crystal maze of multiple realities and mindless rhetoric, we can no longer differentiate between issues and non-issues, causes and effects.

This mental disintegration of the ‘modern’ man/woman seldom gets the attention that it deserves even though its social implications are immense. In the course of its evolution, besides reinforcing the historical social divisions of race, gender and religion, one of the most profound consequences of the ‘modernisation’ project has been the compartmentalisation of society into a competitive network of carefully guarded fiefdoms of experts and celebrities that typify the modern rat race in a gigantic corporate arena. Much of it is attributed to what Marxists call the “commodification” of social life – a process that objectifies and reduces all human interaction and expression to that of a disposable commodity.

To get some sense of the idea, one need not look beyond all the hysterical game shows and their unforgiving Morlocks (the monsters in H G Wells’ Time Machine) who callously berate and dehumanise obliging participants on national television.

An unrelenting commercial agenda – whether declared or concealed by philanthropic vernacular – permeates all domains of human existence, which probably explains the emergence of explicitly for-profit NGOs and welfare organisations. Corporate clichés like ‘capacity-building’ and ‘poverty alleviation’ have been thrown around unreflectively for decades to justify vain “development interventions” designed by an imported army of policy consultants – some of whom, by their own confessions, are picturing their next holiday destination in their minds well before they have landed in their country of assignment. Many of our daily undertakings are characterised by such impassive, fleeting commitments to greater social good, with little concern for anything but our own warm piece of the side walk.

John Locke’s benevolent state of nature has been eclipsed by a predatory Hobessian instinct that is induced by modernity in the way it is preached and practised. Modern social sciences – economics in particular – led the charge in shaping the popular fictional image of an all-knowing, unerringly “rational” superhuman who shuns all value judgments and makes the world a paradise for all of mankind as he figures out how to spend his last dollar in a way that best satisfies all the demons of desire lumbering in his head. The zealously prophesied reconciliation between his self-interest and public interest never quite arrived though. Much effort has since been dedicated to making him appear a bit more doubtful and considerate in his latest theoretical “reincarnations”.

But the damage has already been done. A hedonistic civilisation comprising self-indulged and self-promoting objectified citizens, who are strictly guided by the blinkers of reason, cropped up as the necessary fuel and fodder that would set the wheels of modernity in motion. Religion and theology became one of its prime targets and all human ability and wisdom had to carry a price tag in order to be recognised and valued. America championed the modernist cause and vociferously exported its content worldwide, often and where required, with the help of the much-envied B-52s.

Indeed modernity’s materialistic orientation has long been lamented and its disastrous repercussions for the natural world that we inhabit have begun to unfold at an unprecedented pace. While frequent flashfloods, rapid soil erosion and prolonged droughts are causing rural displacements, contaminated water and smog are terrorising our metropolis. In spite of such spasmodic alarms of caution, our embrace of modernity, with all its Schumpeterian gale of creative destruction, has only tightened.

At the end of the day, some would argue that modernity, with all its discontents, was inevitable. Given the globalised nature of our world and the political and economic balance of power tilted heavily in favour of the postwar ‘modern’ West, its subscription was rather compulsory than a matter of choice.

Strong and impenetrable status quos are often erected and fortified by the recurrent transactional approbation of rigid power structures by the vulnerable stratums of society (both at the global and local levels) in return for some real or nominal patronage from the powers that be. The age-old dictum of ‘might is right’ has proved to be a historical compass that has always successfully determined the direction and flow of such power relations and the spread of modernity in the last couple of centuries.

But criticising the abusive privilege and manipulative power of the elite, corporations, academia and the mass media alone won’t lead us anywhere. Many have tried and perished, not bearing any mention even in the footnotes of history. Perhaps the greatest irony and tragedy of our times is that all the means of agitation and revolt available to an aspiring revolutionary are exclusively designed and controlled by the evil that he seeks to eliminate. To overcome evil, we have got to match its genius. Without any awareness of our own position on a chessboard, every move we make may prove fatal.

If my crude and clumsy attempt at ‘elucidating’ an issue of such immense complexity and existential significance leaves any room for offering a conclusion, I would like to reproduce a few lines from the conversation I had with someone who probably understands modernity better than many who have only just begun to pay some attention to its impact on our lives.

“Human[s] cannot be respectfully imagined without a living relationship of our disposition to some authentic tradition of truth. [The] truth here stands for a comprehensive cosmology that sets us or helps us to set ourselves in an intelligible relationship with the world around us. Modern times do not believe in essence, pure essential meanings or [the] nature of things. As a result, the world becomes a meaningless nightmare. ”

That is one succinct diagnosis of the problem of modern life. While he recognises that confronting modern times can be an uphill task, reclaiming our habits of the body and mind from the clutches of modernity requires a constant practice of conscious restraint. For a start, perhaps we need to reflect a little more before we react.


The writer is a postgrad student of economics at the University of Bonn.

Email: asadullahkhan628

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