I argued in last week’s post that Daniel Rodgers’s Age of Fracture does not grow out of the major intellectual historical methodologies and instead offers an innovative example for intellectual historians of the future. Rather than simply placing texts in contexts (Skinner), or placing texts in dialogic relationship with one another (La Capra), or analyzing intellectual communities of discourse (Hollinger), in Age of Fracture Rodgers occupies what might be called the Rortyean intellectual tradition of analyzing vocabularies, a method that has definite advantages for his purposes.
Because Rorty lays out his method with more depth and clarity than Rodgers, let me start there and work toward Age of Fracture. Rorty begins Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) with a claim that the antifoundational turn in philosophy requires us to recognize that truth is not a property that exists out in the world. “To say that truth is not out there,” Rorty explains, “is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations” (p. 5). Truth consists not of correspondence to the world outside, according to Rorty. It consists in the comportment of an idea to its use. Put a different way, since vocabularies, which are a constituent part of languages, don’t correspond to the world but cohere internally, vocabularies come into use and disuse because they are literally useful. They allow the people who use them to do something in the world. As examples of the kind of vocabularies he has in mind, Rorty mentions ancient Athenian democratic politics versus Jeffersonian democratic politics as embodying different vocabularies and therefore different social worlds. Neither can be said to be true or even right. They are simply useful to different ends with no way outside of each vocabulary to decide between them.
This view antifoundational view changes how we should analyze language and language games because it causes a whole set of common questions about a particular vocabulary—such as whether it corresponds to reality or whether it is right—to become simply inapt. “We should not try to answer such questions,” Rorty recommends. “We should restrict ourselves to questions like ‘Does our use of these words get in the way of our use of those other words?’” (p. 12). This makes the analysis of language a species of cultural criticism that takes part in cultural politics. It plays various vocabularies off of one another, asking how they relate to one another in the various uses to which they are be put. A Rortyean analyzes languages and offers alternative vocabularies in order to effect social change. Rorty is particularly acute on the role of metaphor here. For Rorty, language-change (and therefore social change) relies essentially on metaphor, so much so that intellectual history becomes “viewed as the history of metaphor” (p. 16). That’s because metaphors are essential to the transformation of vocabularies. Drawing on the work of Donald Davidson, Rorty argues we should not think of metaphors as having a figurative meaning as opposed to a literal one because “to have a meaning is to have a place in a language game.” “Metaphors, by definition, do not,” he adds. Metaphors are used precisely because what one wants to say cannot be said in a conventional vocabulary. “An attempt to state that meaning [of a metaphor] would be an attempt to find some familiar (that is, literal) use of words—some sentence which already had a place in the language game—and, to claim that one might just as well have said that. But the unparaphrasability of metaphor is just the unsuitability of any such familiar sentence for one’s purpose” (p. 18). As a result, the extensive use of metaphors can represent the emergence of a new vocabulary, a vocabulary that has not yet been concretized and literalized.
In Age of Fracture Daniel Rodgers embodies this focus on language and presumes the antifoundational turn in philosophy (including social philosophy). Rodgers is relentless in his search for language transformation, referencing (among the many examples I might offer) the grammar of presidential speechwriting (p. 18ff), conservatives’ ability to use keywords to exert “control of the language” after Reagan (p. 29), “new metaphors of market and society” that emerged in economic thought (p. 76), the thinning of the “dominant languages of power” across the political spectrum (p. 79), and the inevitability that actors across the political spectrum would draw upon “the new era’s common bank of metaphors” (p. 144). His focus on grammars, vocabularies, and metaphors implies a rejection of the Marxist idea of base and superstructure, a rejection that he makes explicit at the beginning of the book. Criticizing leftist writers such as Frederic Jameson and David Harvey who claim, in Rodgers’s words, that “economic structures moved first, carrying ideas in their wake,” Rodgers asserts that this view “does not adequately explain the age.” That’s because “economies are rooted not only in structures of exchange, but also, and just as fundamentally, in ideas, practices, norms, and conventions” (p. 9).
One problem with this approach, which Robert Westbrook has noted, is that it is unclear in Rodgers’s narrative why the last forty years have seen this “contagion of metaphors,” in Rodgers’s words (and his own telling metaphor) (p. 10). Having rejected structural change as a cause that moved ideas, Rodgers seems to argue that ideas moved structural change but he backs away from any clear articulation of agency. In this, he again follows Rorty. As Rorty says, from the perspective of an antifoundationalist choice often is beside the point. “Europe did not decide to accept the idiom of Romantic poetry, or of socialist politics, or of Galilean mechanics,” Rorty explains. “That sort of shift was no more an act of will than it was a result of argument. Rather, Europe gradually lost the habit of using certain words and gradually acquired the habit of using others” (p. 6). This loss of language seems to proceed without anyone’s will. Groups of words simply drop away and are replaced by others.
For Rodgers, the relevant loss of language is that of the mid-century social idiom. And if he is not much interested in what caused the shift, that is because he is more interested in showing what resulted from this shift in vocabularies. In my reading, Age of Fracture is an extended and more theoretical elaboration of a point made in 2006 by David Hollinger (in “From Identity to Solidarity”) when Hollinger said: “The problem of solidarity is shaping up as the problem of the twenty-first century.” By focusing on the metaphors and pictures of society circulating after 1970, Rodgers seeks to show how that problem of solidarity came to be. As Rodgers writes in his introduction, “What matters [in understanding the transformations of social argument after the 1970s] are the processes by which the flux and tensions of experience are shaped into mental frames and pictures” (p. 10). By focusing on the grammars, the vocabularies, and the metaphors (i.e. pictures) by which new conceptions of society emerged and the possibility of solidarity declined, Rodgers is able to show how these pictures can “come to seem . . . natural and inevitable” even when they are not (p. 10).
And because vocabularies are not inevitable, because they do not grow out of a necessary comportment with the world, he seems to suggest that these vocabularies can and will be changed. By September 11 when the question of solidarity again emerged, Rodgers notes that “the disaggregation of the block categories of mid-century had run its course” (p. 271). A new intellectual landscape had taken its place. But that disaggregation had left very little with which to create a new unity, even when one was wanted. All of the old categories of solidarity had thinned or been blown into pieces, which left the idea of the market as the only coherent metaphor for understanding society. And the market, with its guiding principle of caveat emptor, has little room for solidarity! Rodgers leaves little doubt that he sees this situation as untenable and undesirable, but he does not offer any specific way out beyond what seems implied by his method. Given only the fragments of mid-century social thought, those who care about solidarity are left with dawning realization that “the pieces [of social thought] would have to be reassembled on different frames, the tensions between self and society resolved anew” (p. 271). Let the reaggregation begin.