U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Intellectual History and the Age of Fracture, Part II

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.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “And the market, with its guiding principle of caveat emptor, has little room for solidarity!”

    Interesting recent quote from conservative David Frum (former Bush speech writer, now conservative movement gadfly):

    “I moved to Washington, D.C., in 1996. And there I began to notice something disturbing. While the congressional victory of 1994 had ceased to produce much in the way of important conservative legislation, it sure was producing a lot of wealth for individual conservatives. They were moving from the staff offices of Congress to lobbying firms and professional associations. Washington (to quote something I’d write later) began to feel like a giant Tupperware party, where people you had thought of as friends suddenly seemed always to be trying to sell you something. Acquaintances of mine began accepting all-expense-paid trips to the South Pacific from Jack Abramoff.

    Whenever things get tough for the Republican party, conservatives will draw a separation between (good, pure) philosophical conservatism and (compromised, tainted) Republican politics. But the people who began making a lot of money out of politics in the 1990s did so precisely as conservatives. “Here’s why conservatives should support Microsoft, not Netscape,” they would explain. “AT&T is right from a conservative point of view, and Verizon is wrong,” another would chime. “Conservatives cherish federalism — and that’s why we must insist that electrical utilities continue to be regulated by the state power commissions!””

    http://www.frumforum.com/welcome-to-ff-party-crashers

  2. “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!”

    If Rodgers sees this as problematic (and I think he does), I’m not sure that he sees the academy as capable of serving as a place from which people can begin to work towards “reaggregation.” One of the leitmotifs which appears throughout his book is the academy as marketplace, and his view is not very sanguine.

    Academe as market more than a leitmotif in my life, and perhaps in the lives of most of the USIH readers. Students are now “education consumers,” and we professors and instructors are there not to teach, not to educate, not to train, but to provide “customer service.”

    Yet even as we decry this model — and decry it we should — we are in some ways complicit in it.

    I blogged about this today: The Marketplace of Intellectuals.

    Believe me, when it’s time, I will go on the “job market” like everybody else and hope that the invisible hand doesn’t come up empty.

  3. Hi David. I love this post. I think you’re right to identify Rodgers’s method with Rorty. Very astute observation, that “Rodgers occupies what might be called the Rortyean intellectual tradition of analyzing vocabularies.”

    I have one quibble, which I noted while reading Rodgers, and now I note again in reading this post. You write: “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.'”

    My critique of Rodgers is that he mentions the Marxist challenge in his introduction, says it must be taken seriously, then discards it without ever making the case as to why it should be taken seriously or discarded. As you seem to think, his rejection was implicit throughout, in his own methodological structure, which is fine. But, his mention of base-superstructure makes me think he perhaps might not have even read Harvey and Jameson, at least not in any depth, since they don’t employ a base-superstructure methodology. In fact, Marxist thinkers haven’t resorted to thinking about ideas and culture as superstuctural in decades, since the Gramscian and Althusserian turns, which assumed that ideas and economy worked together in social formation.

  4. David & Others,

    Before I direct any comments at the book, I want to thank David for this and last week’s post. I’m not sure that Rodgers himself would buy David’s overlay (despite pages 177-78 and attendant notes), probably arguing in return that this analysis reflects David’s interests more than his. But I nonetheless appreciate the thought that has gone into this post.

    My reading is still incomplete, but I see Rodgers focus on the history of ideas ~as a means~ to analyzing the failings of capitalism and its role in facilitating fracture in this period.

    Rodgers index (usually an indicator of the authors taste, at least in the low-level publishing world) and text are littered with references to Business cycles, Capitalism, Class, Communism, Economic crisis of 1970s, Economics, Energy crisis of 1970s, Milton Friedman, Full employment policies, Futurology, J.K. Galbraith, Global economy, Inequality, Inflation, J.M. Keynes/Keynesianism, Labor history/unions, Law and economics movement, Macroeconomics, Markets, Karl Marx/Marxism, Microeconomics, Monetarism, Rational Choice theory, Government regulation, Socialism, Tax policy, Unemployment, Welfare policy, William Julius Wilson, etc.

    And these are just the major entries.

    I’m forced to conclude that even though Rodgers avoids Marxian analysis (old and new), he’s using language, metaphor, and even (if you buy David’s assertion) Rortyean pragmatism to analyze economic structures, the focus of Marxian concern.

    @LD: I read your post, and you’re right on to consider the commodification of U.S. university/intellectual life.

    – TL

  5. @Tim – Thanks for reading. It’s almost impossible to NOT consider the commodification of the academy — constant reminders from U. admin, the press, the culture at large. Whole departments rise or fall w/ “the market” — the value of what we do is determined by some combination of the # of undergraduate butts in chairs, times the amount of research or grant $ brought in, divided by the average number of years it takes faculty to publish, or something like that.

    Some will say that this has always been the case, but I suspect that what has happened is that “the consumer” has shifted — it’s not “society” or “the state” or “employers” or “parents” anymore, but the 18-24 year old demographic, whose purchasing decisions are reshaping the university in far-reaching but short-sighted ways.

  6. David–
    Interesting, but I don’t think Rodgers’s use of concepts of metaphor or language rises to the level of “method,” rather than occasional invocation–that is, there is no systematic attempt to identify vocabularies, and certainly not their incommensurability, since despite the different vocabularies various thinkers are using, Rodgers finds in them common underlying assumptions. What do you make of the fact that Rorty earns about a page in Rodgers’s book (as a representative of the “anti-Bloom” move to a qualified “relativism” in the chapter on gender), and neopragmatism as an important intellectual movement of the past three decades receives exactly no treatment?

  7. The real irony of this interpretation of Rodgers’s book, as DanW hints at in the last comment, is that if in fact “The Age of Fracture” is a Rorty-inspired text, then it is an almost textbook example of the Bloomian “anxiety of influence”: It’s a book about the loss of a common foundation that discusses the leading guru of anti-foundationalism in a single plage, as a coda to a chapter on… gender [WTF?]!

    Again, sorry to keep beating the dead horse here, but remind me: on what basis Rodgers decided which texts to discuss and which not to discuss? In throwing out the canonical baby, we’re left drinking the bathwater of texts selected at the whim of the historian, texts that have nothing intrinsic in common other than some resonant metaphor divined ex post facto by the historian himself.

    If such arbitrary textuality, based on the whims of the scholar, is the essence of what DanW calls “the history of ideas,” then please give me back by “social history of intellectuals.”

  8. “have nothing intrinsic in common other than some resonant metaphor divined ex post facto by the historian himself”

    Are you simply saying you were not convinced in this cage (Rodgers), or that a historian should never seek to unite such variegated texts via metaphors, common thought patterns, and the like? And for the most part how is canonicity not something imposed in retrospect by historians? I think you are right that Rodgers selection is arbitrary, but not because he crosses the canonical/non-canonical, but because the attempt to describe an entire age is always impossible.

    Historical work is often the reconstruction of patterns not visible to the actors involved, and far from being a weakness, that is a strength. -B

  9. I had worried prior to posting this piece that it was stating the obvious to say that Rodgers was analyzing vocabularies. So I’m interested to see that many of the commentators think that not only is the idea not obvious, but also suspect. I particularly like the point made by both Tim Lacy and Dan Wickberg that Rodgers mentions Rorty only once, and he does so in an odd appendage to the gender chapter. I’d like to think that this comes from the difficulty of historicizing one’s own theoretical inclinations, but I really don’t have a good answer to that observation.

    As for Dan Wickberg’s suggestion that Rodgers’s attention to vocabulary lacks the rigor to rise to the level of method, I suppose I see that point if by vocabulary we mean a set of words that together maintain a particular sensibility or viewpoint. But I don’t require that level of rigor to say that he is analyzing a vocabulary, partly because he doesn’t see any coherent viewpoint. Yet he does see a common grouping of words that remain from the mid-century and yet have become so distended as to be unusable. Each chapter is really about a word: gender, race, power, the market, etc. In that way, he organizes each chapter around the contestations over the meaning and use of that word. And the first chapter on presidential rhetoric is quite explicitly about a vocabulary–losing the words of the Cold War. To Nils’s point that Rodgers writes about whatever he wants, my response is: so what? If he is analyzing a contested vocabulary, anything that shows the contestation over vocabulary will do, and it seems to me that a better critical response would be to show how something that he did not talk about would disrupt his method on its own terms.

    One last thought: What I did not mean to suggest is that Rodgers a neo-pragmatist, even though, of course, Rorty was. I really just meant that Rodgers is an antifoundationalist who follows, like Rorty, in the tradition of Ludwig Wittgenstein (who he does not mention at all, unless I am mistaken, but I don’t have the book in front of me, so someone correct me if I’m wrong). Rodgers’s book is best thought of as an analysis of language games and the loss of common language for expressing solidarity except for that of the market.

  10. @Nils: “Again, sorry to keep beating the dead horse here, but remind me: on what basis Rodgers decided which texts to discuss and which not to discuss?”

    Like all historians, his principle of inclusion stems from the questions he is asking, and not from some inherent ontological status of the object. Since what he is looking for is repeated patterns and movements, rather than the specific influence of one text upon another or the internal discourse of a self-defined community of thinkers, he looks to various texts as symptoms of that movement. There are many choices to make, since one can’t talk about everything, but failure to discuss specific texts does not mean that he’s got it wrong. For instance, he never mentions Kwame Anthony Appiah’s _In My Father’s House_, which I take to be a very widely recognized and cited work on the meaning of race, but it would fit very comfortably within his discussion of race. That a text is in or out may be more dependent on stylistic and rhetorical considerations, since he’s making an argument and not writing an inclusive catalogue of thought.

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