U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Daniel Rodgers, AGE OF FRACTURE

In my last post on Neoconservatism and the Spirit of the Anti-Sixties, I briefly mentioned the new book by Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracture. I also linked to a good review of it by Robert Westbrook. A couple of readers mentioned that they would like a forum to discuss the book. So I offer such a forum. I’ll be writing a review of the book for USIH at a later date. And I’m organizing a roundtable on it at the next USIH conference. So this will hardly be the last time we discuss the book here. But it’s a start.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for posting this thread, Andrew…and for putting the panel together. Since I’ll be taking part in the panel, I’ll probably reserve my comments. But I just started reading AGE OF FRACTURE this weekend, and so far it’s wonderful. Not surprisingly, it engages many of the issues we’ve discussed on this blog over the years.

  2. I would also like to reserve comment for the time being, since I’ve only just begun reading the book, and since I’ll have much more to say in the future, both on the blog and at the next conference. But the last few paragraphs of the Westbrook review strike me as a good place to start, since he contrasts AGE OF FRACTURE with Livingston’s latest, THE WORLD TURNED INSIDE OUT, which I recently reviewed here at USIH (a review to which Livingston offered a long response) :

    “Rodgers withholds an explicit judgment on the story he narrates. Yet he appears to regard the new dispensation of American social thought with less equanimity than does Rutgers historian James Livingston, who argues in The World Turned Inside Out (2009) that American cultural history at the end of the past century has provided a rich and supple legacy for future thinkers and social critics.”

    More: “Exuberant modernists have long contended that a world in which all that is solid melts into air presents an exhilarating prospect. Meanwhile, its detractors insist that such a world makes for an unsettling, even frightening, vision of the future. Number Livingston among the exhilarated and Rodgers among the unsettled. I will take my stand with the frightened.”

    First, I wonder why Rodgers withholds judgment, if indeed he does? Second, I wonder where others stand on the spectrum from exhilarated to unsettled to frightened?

  3. The Rogers book is on its way as I have just finished The World Turned Inside Out last month and Reading Obama back in November. And while it is sad how long it takes me to get to and through these books I am looking forward to reading Rogers.

    I am already looking forward to USIH 2011.

  4. I agree with Andrew Hartman’s prediction that Rodgers’ Age of Fracture will be a much-discussed work, and I want to offer a few thoughts based on an initial reading. The book may be important in part because of what Rodgers doesn’t do — focus on the 60s as the template for decades that followed; rely on the cold war paradigm to make sense of disparate trends and events; construct a mainly political history of liberal decline and conservative ascendance, or from welfare-state liberalism to neo-liberalism; view history through the lens of the cultural turn, culture wars or postmodernism; or, finally, give comfort to those who seek a materialized, sub-structural real. Each of these elements or themes plays only a part in Rodgers’ encompassing but pluralized, de-centered history that finds coherence only in the “disaggregating” flows of key terms, ideas and a metaphors. Change takes place across a variety of “fronts” and seems to lack an underlying organizing logic. He finds “not a single, dominant idea — postmodern, new right, or neoliberal — but a contagion of metaphors.”

    I’d guess that much of the contention sure to follow will be among those with different understandings of the elements that Rodgers claims (or should have claimed) are foundational or originative; while others may see the book as too open-ended or indeterminate, or as merely a descriptive account of disaggregation, an enumeration of fragments, instead of a synthetic explanation. To me the first order of business is to assess carefully his attempt to trace simultaneously the flows and mutations of multiple keywords, and strike the appropriate balance between disorder and coherence, parts and whole, disaggregation and re-aggregation. I look forward to fruitful discussions of this important work.

    Bill Fine

  5. Thanks for the comment Bill. Your reading of Rodgers seems to run against the grain of Westbrook, who says Rodgers implies the “all that is solid melts into air” effects of capitalism ultimately cause disaggregation. I’m not far enough along in the book to say, but if you’re correct that Rodgers does not look to any one historical force, then are all the many fragmentations mere coincidence?

  6. Andrew – The difference may be only apparent, since Westbrook says that while Rodgers “hints” that capitalism is “at the bottom of things,” his main criticism seems to be precisely that he didn’t do more than intimate it, ie, that he didn’t provide a more “comprehensive explanation.” So the difference may be only that I’m not sure Rodgers makes this claim even indirectly, particularly if “hint” is taken to mean that while he “really” thinks capitalism is the explanation, he fell short in not providing a fully inclusive account. To me, he doesn’t fall short in showing that capitalism is “the” cause because he doesn’t hold that view; though I’d agree that his explanation isn’t as fully developed as one might prefer. I’m not sure either he’d accede to characterizations of his project by the use of causal language.
    In any case, Rodgers denies that changes in ideas are mere reflections of material, economic changes, and asserts instead that “raw changes in social experience…never translate automatically into mind.” Rather, “what matters are the processes by which the flux and tensions of experience are shaped into mental frames and pictures that, in the end, come to seem themselves natural and inevitable.” He also reminds us that “economies are rooted… in ideas, practices, norms and conventions,” and that during the period he’s considering, changes in economic thinking preceded the neo-liberal policies that installed a new economic regime.
    Your excellent question — that if “Rodgers does not look to any one historical force, then are all the many fragmentations mere coincidence?” — is an excellent one, and I don’t really have an answer, except to say there seem to be many possibilities in between these two extremes.

    Bill Fine

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