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.”
Intellectual History and the Age of Fracture, Part I
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.