U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Intellectual History and the Age of Fracture, Part I

We might as well make this the week of Age of Fracture. I’ve been following the discussion of Daniel Rodgers’s book with great interest for the past several weeks. But as the reviews come in, and as the discussion of the book on this blog has developed, I have had a nagging feeling that Rodgers’s own method and purpose has been obscured rather than illuminated. Reading Lisa Szefel’s review crystallized my concern, because for all of its many insights–it really is a very perceptive and interesting review–she had a throw-away line that seemed highly problematic to me and was indicative of the wider questions that have arisen from my reading of the reviews. “While lending sheen and coherence to a neat narrative about fracture,” Szefel claims, “the methodology of intellectual history can skew analysis of issues and omit important developments.”

But what exactly is Rodgers’s intellectual history methodology? There seems to be a basic confusion on this issue, precisely because his methodology does not strictly follow the dominant approaches of intellectual history. Now I should say at the outset that I have found explicit discussion of methodology usually drifts into the arena of academic navel-gazing, but Rodgers’s book is so distinctive, and so interesting, that the question of methodology is key, in my view, to understanding the book as a whole.
Let’s start with what Rodgers is not doing (I’ll talk about what I think he is doing in my next post). Over the last forty years the dominant intellectual historical approach has built on the work of Quentin Skinner, who argued that the job of the intellectual historian is to place texts in their contexts and yet rejected a strict contextualism. Skinner drew on J.L. Austin’s speech act theory to suggest that intellectual historians should seek to explain how a text worked, how it operated, how it acted in a particular context. Skinner allowed that authors had a certain intended meaning in writing their texts, so texts could not be regarded merely as a reflection of their context but were designed to do something in that context. From a Skinnerian standpoint, Szefel’s claim that Rodgers did not properly address other issues–such as the AIDS crisis–is actually a criticism from within intellectual history methodology. Her claim could be reduced to: Rodgers left out relevant contextual material for the understanding of the texts that he chose to address. His work was not adequately contextualized, or not contextualized in the right way, she might have said.
Fair enough. But as I read Rodgers’s work, he is not quite a Skinnerian. Skinner, of course, focused on great thinkers and his methodology seems most useful in situating a canonical thinker into a wider context. It seems less useful for talking about the intellectual history of an era as a whole, because to talk about multiple thinkers in a period would mean that they can only be contextualized with one another, which is not quite what Skinner seemed to have in mind.
Rodgers seems to align more closely with the methodology of Dominick La Capra, who pointed out in his “Rethinking Intellectual History and Reading Texts,” which I read as an emendation of Skinner from the 1980s, that all of our contexts for the past come mediated through textual remainders. “The historian’s position is not unique,” La Capra explains, “in that all definitions of reality are implicated in textual processes,” which makes a strict separation of text and context difficult. Distinguishing between “documentary” aspects of texts (historical documentation evident in the text) and what he calls “worklike” aspects of texts (the rhetorical purposes and operations of a text), La Capra argues that placing a text in a context really means placing texts in dialogic relationship with one another. Focusing on the worklike aspects of texts in particular, La Capra urges that the intellectual historian attend to the way that texts work in six specific and overlapping textual contexts, rather than a singular context, as Skinner had suggested. These six contexts are: authorial intention, motivations, society, culture, the corpus, and structure (for what these mean, I’ll point the reader to La Capra’s essay). Of the six, the context of culture appears most closely associated with Rodgers’s method, because it is evident that the many texts that Rodgers analyzes are, to some extent, stand-ins for the larger cultural processes that have led to cultural fragmentation. But this fragmentation suggests the differences between Rodgers’s method and what we might call La Caprian contextualism. For La Capra, to contextualize a text in a cultural context is to show the shared meanings by which a text resonates with and promotes a somewhat unified cultural understanding. La Capra actually finds this mode of contextualizing somewhat dubious, because he is suspicious of making a connection between a text and a shared and often popular cultural understanding. Rodgers does place texts in dialogic relationship with one another, but his narrative of breakdown suggests not a unified cultural understanding but a veritable cacophony of voices that lack coherence.
Finally, I don’t think Rodgers’s work can be considered as an enactment of what we might call the Hollingerian methodology (a la David Hollinger in his essay for the Wingspread Conference) in which the intellectual historian studies the discourse of intellectuals. Rodgers certainly does study the discourse of intellectuals, but he also studies politicians, social activists, hip-hop figures, film makers, and artists. These are all cultural workers, for sure, but what unites them is not intellectual discourse.
Through Rodgers draws on each of the three dominant intellectual historical methodologies, I don’t think he can be reduced to a Skinnerian, a La Caprian, or a Hollingerian. So what is he up to in this book? I’ll try to explain what I see as his distinct methodological contribution in my post next week.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. David, I look forward to your follow-up. My sense is that Rodgers is resuscitating an older “zeitgesit” or spirit of the age approach, in which individual texts are read as symptoms of a common underlying set of orientations. There is very little close analysis of arguments or discourse here–rather, the texts are read largely as particular emanations of a “disaggregating” epistemology and aesthetic. So, no LaCapra or Hollinger here. Which is why the issue of “high” and “low” or scholarly and popular is really not an issue for Rodgers–he is reading across those boundaries in order to put texts into a common unified frame. The irony, of course, is that his theme is fragmentation and disaggregation, but his method is unifying and holistic.

  2. David: That line from Szefel’s review troubled me as a well. She never explained. So I’m glad to see your proposed archaeology of Rodgers’ method here. I absolutely agree that this is no Hollinger-inspired “community of discourse” study; that would be conspiracy-theorists’ reading of the period.

    Dan: Well said, on all counts (e.g. irony, zeitgeist). I’m only beginning my reading, but I saw the book as a Huizinga’ish reading of a/the times.

  3. Interesting post, David.

    Dan, I agree with your assessment that Rodgers offers a history of the zeitgeist, which is ironic, as you point out. You say this is an older approach. Would you mind citing a few examples? Although more theoretical than historical, David Harvey does this in “The Condition of Postmodernity,” also ironic given that he totalized an era marked by a distaste for totalizing theories.

  4. Andrew–
    Well, the classic texts I was thinking of are Burckhardt, _Civilization of the Renaissance in Italty_, and Huizinga, _Waning of the Middle Ages_, but there are various more recent iterations (I suppose fewer on the American sign). A book like Miles Orvell’s _The Real Thing_ has some of the elements of “zeitgeist,” as does John Higham in some of his writings (“The Reorientation of American Culture in the 1890s,” for instance). A book like Wiebe’s _Search for Order_, while having a kind of modernization theory basis, also could be seen as a history of the zeitgeist. I think what is characteristic of this approach is to find a common orientation in what appear to be diverse, particularistic modes of expression–so Rodgers shows us that advocates of “the market,” for instance, were caught up in promoting a breakdown in centralized and unifying structures, just as were, say critical legal theorists. The politics and surface concerns are entirely different and in fact opposed to one another, but they both express the common disaggregating impulse.

  5. Well, I’m no Daniel Rodgers, and I don’t believe in geists…but I think he’s onto something.

    I wonder if perhaps he didn’t have some kind of framing device which helped him settle on these particular expressions. I haven’t heard mention of it yet, but I haven’t finished the book. Maybe it’s in the epilogue?

  6. “While lending sheen and coherence to a neat narrative about fracture, the methodology of intellectual history can skew analysis of issues and omit important developments.”
    This line was inspired by one of my favorite all-time sentences from Kloppenberg’s “Uncertain Victory”: “Intellectual developments during the years from 1870-1920 had all the neatness of a shattered kaleidoscope, and some of the chaotic brilliance.” Originally, I did explain it, but the “review” went on to surpass 4,000 words, so I did a lot of chopping.
    In that sentence, I applauded the coherence and precision with which Rodgers traced ideas–from left to right, from economics textbooks to presidential podiums. Sometimes this methodology–ideas bouncing from one to the next–is highly appropriate. Sometimes, however, it belies the way ideas actually circulated. The chapter on race covers television, music, pop culture icons, and mass media publications. No other chapter draws on that breadth of texts. Why the inconsistency? By not taking this approach when discussing, for example, sexuality or white ethnics, he necessarily left out a great deal. I argued that Rodgers was operating to some degree as a Progressive era historian, with his focus on community and the waning of a reform ethos. If a key intent in Age of Fracture is to delineate the moral and political economy of compassion (with a particular focus on empathy toward those left behind in the forward march of neo-liberal markets), to leave unexamined the one group that was dying by the tens of thousands,who were blamed for their own suffering and refused critical research funding into the disease, that seems to be a large omission. Religious groups were spending so much time on symbolic issues and demonizing gay people that little space was left to pursue the social justice agenda Jesus laid out two thousand years ago.
    Gay Americans were also the one group that, unlike African Americans and women whose radicalism took a cultural turn, that persisted in their calls for a more truly compassionate capitalism. I argue,in a book I am currently working on, that anti-gay bigotry, which fueled the AIDS crisis,is a central part of the Reagan era. How could and why would someone writing about this period sidestep it?
    Age of Fracture, as Andrew aptly noted, has canonical written all over it. My comments are meant to explore avenues for future historians of the period. I appreciate David’s smart typology and the comments that followed. As a cultural historian, I feel a bit like a kid-in-a-candy-shop-interloper here, with all the anticipation and thanks.

  7. @Lisa – whoa, women and African Americans didn’t persist through the 1980s in their call for a more truly compassionate capitalism? None of them? I mean, Jesse Jackson’s 1984 campaign focused, inter alia, on: creating a new WPA-like infrastructure-and-jobs program; reversing Reagan’s upper bracket tax cuts; giving reparations to decendants of slaves; cutting the DoD budget; creating a single-payer universal health care system; etc. If those things aren’t the components of “a more truly compassionate capitalism,” I’m not sure I know what standard you’re holding out.

    With that said, I agree with your critique of Rodgers, which could be multiplied out in the way he makes no effort to really look at the material specifics of deindustrialization and flexibilization of the American workforce over this same period, or the rise of the software and microcomputing industry (wait, doesn’t software count as an “idea”?)

    @David, what unites all those cultural workers in Dan’s chapters on race and gender is simply that *these are the people than Dan decided to write about* – nothing more. I challenge anyone to make a strong defense of how Dan decided who/what should or should not be included in either of those chapters.

  8. Hopefully it’s not a breach to re-post an earlier post – the following from Jan 10, 2011 –

    I agree with Andrew Hartman’s prediction that Rodgers’ Age of Fracture will be a much-discussed work, and here I 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 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.

  9. Bill: Well said—again! My reading is going slowly, so I predict I’ll post on this in about a month or so. I’m feeling overwhelmed this spring with the number of books demanding my attention. – TL

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