Thursday, March 12, 2009

A subversive twist

I've read some more of Kasey Edwards's book Thirty Something & Over It. In my last post I looked at the feminist aspects of the book. But there's more to it.

I've often criticised liberalism for limiting people to relatively trivial life aims. Liberalism limits us to those spheres of life which we can pursue as self-defining, autonomous individuals.

The most obvious areas in which we can seek fulfilment as an autonomous individual are careers, travel, education, shopping, entertainment and the various kinds of hedonistic pursuits.

Kasey Edwards was raised within a liberal culture. She therefore sought to define herself, and find meaning, primarily through career, money, dining out and retail therapy. It's clear that another plank of her life philosophy was a commitment to feminist politics: she was on the women's team battling it out with men in the workplace.

So what happened? She hasn't dropped the liberal intellectual framework. On the other hand, she has very much decided that the liberal life aims aren't enough. They don't provide an adequate source of meaning and fulfilment in life.

The book is a record of her efforts, as an intelligent and well-meaning woman, to battle her way through to an alternative.

It's not surprising that the liberal intellectual framework is still in place. People don't generally let go of an older justification for their life before a new one is ready to be put in its place.

In the first chapter, therefore, we are treated to a dose of liberal autonomy theory - but with a subversive twist. Ordinarily liberals argue that women who commit to motherhood are following a merely biological destiny - something predetermined rather than self-determined.

Kasey Edwards doesn't challenge the liberal idea that we should avoid what is predetermined. But it's not motherhood that she thinks of as being predetermined for her but careerism.

It all begins with Kasey's brother telling her,

"you need to experience a life that is outside the one that was prescribed for you."

He says that for our entire lives, both Emma and I have done exactly what was expected of us. We are overachieving 'good girls', and now we're bored with it. We've reached the point where we need to live our own lives, not the ones that were set out for us.

... What I've achieved to date has been like an inheritance. I inherited a life path as a result of my family and society. I went to university and studied business communication. I landed a job in public relations, moved on to a better job in online communication ... no matter how hard it got, there was always a predetermined course to follow.

I've always done what was expected of me - what my parents wanted, what my teachers wanted, what my bosses wanted. And society supported this path and reinforced my compliance ... When I stare into the face of my inheritance, it feels like contemplating a death sentence.

Kasey Edwards is trying to think her way out of her predicament still using the principles she was raised with. It is now careerism which is rejected as violating liberal autonomy by being predetermined. It's a reasonable argument at one level: for most young women the predetermined course these days would be the careerist one.

If this gets Kasey Edwards to the next stage I'm all for it. But it's not a helpful position in general. If we set out to self-determine by rejecting what we inherit, then every generation would have to set itself against what it was raised with. You would have a generation of careerist women followed by a generation of stay at home mothers in a continuing cycle.

What is inherited or predetermined has to be judged on its own merits. If Kasey Edwards has found that career status isn't sufficiently fulfilling, then maybe that's not because it was a predetermined path laid out for her by society, but because it really, objectively isn't meaningful - at least not just by itself.

There's another way that a liberal culture persists in Kasey Edwards's way of thinking. She spends much of the book assuming that she could put things right if only she found what she really wanted. If she knew the right desire to pursue and fulfil as an individual, then she would find meaning.

This kind of "right desire" or "authentic want" proves elusive. She undertakes a personality test to find out what would be the most appropriate career for her and the results show that she had chosen correctly in the first place - but without finding contentment.

(Her friend Emma also stays for a while within the sphere of individualistic liberal pursuits. She jettisons career ambitions in favour of hedonistic pursuits involving much alcohol and casual sex. But she gets sick, catches the HPV virus and has a cervical cancer scare.)

Kasey is perceptive enough though to begin to reach beyond the limits of liberalism. But it's a battle for her to make progress in accepting other sources of identity and meaning, such as those involving family. Her gradual transformation is an interesting one which I'll cover in a later post.


  1. I have long believed that "Career" is vastly over-rated Preferring instead the adage that one should work to live rather than living to work. What this woman has discovered is precisely the same revelation that drives many men to take up motorcycles or to buy a sports car. It is called the mid life crisis and there is nothing that special about it at all.

  2. 'She spends much of the book assuming that she could put things right if only she found what she really wanted.'

    But she'll never find out what she wants because her feminism has prevented her from considering that, indeed, she may want to be a wife and mother. Perish the thought! So the thought never occurs, and she is left aimlessly adrift.