“What Is Modernity?”
There’s fear in his eyes. His cheeks pucker upward in an awkward smile, the way one smiles before a job interview. But the wide stare betrays a lack of trust, perhaps guilt. In either case he can’t control it. His hands extend asymmetrically around the laptop in front of him, mirroring the disconnect between his eyes and the muscles in his face. There’s something robotic about this man. He appears to be sitting on a comfortable sofa with his laptop, smiling over his shoulder at approaching company. But his crooked posture doesn’t quite look human. Does he exist? Or does he represent a particular kind of existence we’re supposed to find appealing? The ad’s intention is unclear.
I wanted to think he doesn’t exist. “He could be the amalgamation of a series of stock images someone managed to assemble in the shape of a billboard,” I thought as I biked passed the intersection. The man’s hair is neatly manicured and his suit is firmly pressed, but he looks undeniably nervous. The laptop’s screen is blank. In the background above his head, faintly discernable planes appear to be arriving and departing in the distance. A web of bright industrial lines denote the antiseptic corridors of an airport terminal branching into space. Surely the man’s sofa, laptop, and business attire are meant to convey his acquaintance with the ideals of entrepreneurial success. But the lack of confidence in his face is unmistakable. As if to make a wry joke, the billboard’s caption stretches across the left side of the sofa beside him: “M.S. in Strategic Leadership, Now Online!”
Both the man and the message sit atop an abandoned building across the street from 7-Eleven and kitty corner to Rent-A-Center in Rochester, NY. Someone must have thought this was an appropriate way to pay homage to Monroe Avenue.
I arrived at Boulder Coffee and couldn’t take my eyes off the barista’s t-shirt. White type against black background, “Keeping Providence Drunk One Punk At A Time” was not something one said without meaning it. I took it to represent the transvaluation of Christian asceticism at the same time it was ostensibly an advertisement for a local punk band. Glancing at the artful tattoo that graced the right side of her scalp, then the black handkerchief that hung outside her back pocket, I wondered if she’d seen them perform. Clear lines leading back in time, I wanted to know what she thought her punk credentials meant. I remembered the flag I saw flying outside the anarchist collective a few streets earlier. “Don’t Tread On Me” it declared in similar bold white type against a menacing black background. Punishing the punisher, sentencing Him to death; waging war against all manner of restraint. These are the archetypal trappings of youth who’ve learned to spite. I could feel her anger press against me as she took my order, but I dismissed it with the same ease that I rode passed the anarchists’ flag without pausing. None of this is shocking anymore; ordinariness is the modern insignia of conquest.
Riding back up Meigs Street I came to a four-way stop sign. My normal habit would be to blow right through it without stopping, but in this case I was one of four motorists arrested by arriving at the intersection in unison. We had a moment there, the four of us. We were part of something just before we ascended toward our respective destinations. The source of authority that bound us together was impersonal and abstract, but we all observed it, if only for a moment before it was time to proceed beyond the social compact back into our private lives.
The fact that we advanced in near perfect synchronicity made the passage of our little community feel sad. Once codified into conventions like this, mutual self-interest can be so bittersweet. The two cars to my right and left streamed passed each other first, then the Dodge pick-up and I moved toward each other almost lovingly, crossing hip to hip for a split second. We all got what we wanted, but we were each headed in opposite directions. The inanimate, undiscriminating symbol that established order and regulated our shared movements had served its purpose, and we were free to go; but where?
I for one was peddling fast and headed home.
Out of nowhere, the question came back to me as I pushed passed Pearl Street. It had been over a year since the day of my oral exams, but the memory of that moment still haunts me.
“What is modernity?” the professor started off in his characteristically sprawling tone. I knew this was coming, and I had an answer prepared. But I should have known that it would fall flat the way any answer to that question must in an academic setting. “Modernity is the recognition and diffusion of autonomy throughout growing sectors of society over time,” I spouted confidently, thinking I’d handled his opening salvo quite well.
To his credit, the professor proceeded to savage me, revealing my ignorance of specifics despite so much hard work unmasking generalities. As loathe as I was to admit it, I deserved to pass knowing I had failed to grasp the question.
Rounding the last corner before the entrance to my driveway, I told myself again that it was hubris to think I could have answered him adequately. “Modernity is a feeling, ‘all that’s solid melts into air’ is an abstraction,” I whispered as I approached my empty house. Glancing up at the setting sun, I lifted my bike onto one shoulder and closed the garage door as soon as I was safely inside.