U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Szefel on Age of Fracture


I highly recommend Lisa Szefel‘s review of Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracture, over at the History News Network.

Szefel makes two points in particular that I would like to call your attention to:

1) Szefel contends that Rodgers’s analysis is constrained by his sole reliance on the methodology of intellectual history:

An intellectual historian who clearly delineates his methodology, Rodgers rarely ventures outside the realm of books and articles to explain how conceptions are formed, leading to some connections that ring hollow. In discussing the post-Fordist focus on the present, no mention is made of CNN, personal computers, or the ubiquity of media images. Ideas about race are dissected without analysis of the impact wielded by rap music, MTV, or films like Boyz n the Hood, giving the appearance that Charles Murray was primarily responsible for stereotypes that linked skin color to violence. Murray said little that Archie Bunker hadn’t already articulated more than a decade earlier and, while liberals were busy decrying the possessive investment in whiteness, ethnic Americans were denouncing the possessive investment in racism among the well-heeled. 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.

2) Szefel also makes the point, in a number of paragraphs at the end of the review, that by mostly ignoring the history of gay rights, AIDS, and homophobic politics, Rodgers’s history is limited. She writes:

Citing this omission is not just a plea for inclusion of yet another oppressed group. As Eva Kosofsky Sedgwick argues in Epistemology of the Closet (1990), leaving out queer voices distorts the historical lens. And, if these voices are needed to understand any era, it is most certainly the Reagan-Bush-Clinton years when anti-gay bigotry was embedded in social and intellectual life. Who else was subject to more vitriol? What other community suffered as many casualties as a result of the government’s inaction? Estimates place the number of lynchings during Jim Crow as high as 5,000. Over 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War. Between 1981 and 2000, the Center for Disease Control estimates that 459,518 Americans died of AIDS.

More on this:

Conservatism drew its force from antipathy toward a group of people who loved differently. This animus animated evangelicals and justified indifference to AIDS sufferers among Catholic leaders. It can be found everywhere in sermons, political speeches, journals, and newspapers. It inflected thinking on what constituted “normal,” on sex and gender more generally as well as reproductive rights. William Bennett, included in The Age of Fracture for work that expounds on virtues, was secretary of education, who, along with Undersecretary Gary Bauer (who later became head of the Family Research Council), served as the principle spokesmen for Reagan’s AIDS policies. Rick Warren receives mention by Rodgers for forging “more generous even radical frames for evangelical Protestant social thought” but not for barring gays from membership in his Saddleback Church. Pat Buchanan’s 1992 “culture war” speech gets airing for its patriotic invocations, but not his snide remarks about “homosexual rights” and denunciation of gay marriage as “amoral.” Irving Kristol’s work in the knowledge industry is acknowledged but not his charge that homosexuality was a “disease” (Reagan himself referred to it as “a tragic illness”). Andrew Sullivan is quoted for a comment on 9/11 but not for his work influencing political topics as a party-transcending gay, conservative, Catholic editor of The New Republic during Clinton’s first term in office. The issue of gays in the military and same-sex marriage played a decisive role in elections, including ballot initiatives in the 1970s, and get-out-the-vote anti-homosexual campaigns, gay-bashing, and gay-baiting in campaigns since then, even affecting the outcome of presidential contests between the “straight panic” years of 1996 and 2004. If Rodgers is interested in the power of ideas, why doesn’t he analyze the origins and allure of anti-gay ideas?

Both of these points might be worth discussing.

18 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Very interesting. The line between cultural and intellectual history is always difficult to draw. All the more reason to read Rodgers.

    Is it seriously legitimate to compare 500,000 AIDS deaths to 5,000 by lynching? This seems to me as thought it should be a morally repugnant comparison in both directions.

  2. It seems like all these aspects which, according to the reviewer, Rodgers chose not to explore are all well within the purview of intellectual history.

    If Rodgers elected to narrow the scope of his inquiry for methodological reasons, I would be interested to know why.

    I guess I’ll soon find out; this is next on my reading list.

  3. Szefel’s review certainly captures one part of the problem with Rogers’s important but frustrating book, namely that his exclusive reliance on intellectual history methodology leads him to exclude all non-textual evidence – which is most unfortunate in any broad discussion of economics, gender, or race.

    What’s even more troubling, to my mind, is that Rogers applies his methodology indiscriminately to ALL texts, as if all writers deserved to be treated with identical seriousness. Blatant political hacks, like Peggy Noonan or Larry Mead, get the exact same analytic treatment as savants like Michael Walzer, John Rawls, or Robert Nozick.

    Now, I’m as inclined as anyone to broaden the scope of who counts as an intellectual and deserves to have their ideas taken seriously, but Rogers seems to me to go too far, perhaps way too far. If Rogers were to write a similar book about the current period, he’d probably be inclined to apply the tools of intellectual history to the “ideas” of Glenn Beck (or Jonah Goldberg, or Mark Steyn, or Marc Thiessen, or Ann Coulter, etc), rather than realizing that the appropriate approach to dealing with the writings of these sorts of people is to treat them as *political symptoms* rather than as substantively serious ideational contributions to a tradition of profound thought.

    Making these sorts of distinctions requires rendering some judgment about the motives behind the writing, and the larger political context of the writings themselves, which is to say a more nuanced understanding of what constitutes an intellectual – which is above all about (1) situating oneself within an intellectual tradition; and (2) having a commitment to truth-telling in the face of official lies and malfeasances.

  4. It’s not my understanding that “intellectual history” = “the history of intellectuals.” The object of analysis for an intellectual historian is a way of thinking, a frame of mind, a way of seeing the world which is embedded in the object of study. Such ways of thinking are revealed in all kinds of places, even in the writings of those who we would not regard as particularly “thoughtful.”

    So is he treating “hacks” as “intellectuals,” or is he acknowledging that their texts reflect a certain way of thinking which it behooves us to delineate and understand? In other words, is he “taking their ideas seriously,” or is he being serious about the historical work of understanding their ideas?

    These are, I would suggest, not the same thing.

    And how can it be a good idea to decide a priori that certain texts meet some canonical standard which makes them worthy objects of analysis for the intellectual historian, while other texts should be treated dismissively? That sounds like a recipe for continuing to see only what we are already looking for.

  5. “Is it seriously legitimate to compare 500,000 AIDS deaths to 5,000 by lynching? This seems to me as thought it should be a morally repugnant comparison in both directions.”
    Eric, in juxtaposing the two, my goal was not to either minimize or directly compare the two, but to bring into relief the stark absence of historical treatments of AIDS, which affected so many. It is not a zero sum game; by analyzing one calamity with rigor there is still plenty of room to treat seriously another calamity. I hope this clarifies my rationale. I would be happy to provide further explanation.
    Thanks, Andrew, for including my review in this forum. I am delighted to be a part of the invigorating discussion that takes place here.

  6. LD, I certainly don’t think one should decide “a priori” that some texts are worthy of the intellectual history method and others are not. One needs to do it based on some sort of analysis of the context and purpose for the production of the texts.

    I just think it’s silly to blind applying the same methodological tools to all things. Sometimes you want to use a hammer, and sometimes a screwdriver; which you choose involves judgments about the task at hand and the nature of the materials you’re working with. Lisa’s point is that Rodgers’s single-minded dedication to the hammer of intellectual history leads him to ignore some choice-looking screws; my point is that same single-mindedness leads him to inappropriately hammer some of those screws.

    And no, I don’t think it’s bigoted to render judgment that the differences between the writings of Peggy Noonan and the writings of John Rawls are as different as nails and screws.

    As to whether “intellectual history” = “the history of intellectuals” vs. “the history of mentalities”… this is a rehash of the old debate about whether there’s a distinction between cultural history and intellectual history – a debate that I thought got beaten to death in the 1990s. Do we really want to keep up the postmodern pretense that there is no legitimate concept of “higher” and “lower” in the realm of cultural production? That it’s all the same, just a text, whether we’re talking about “Jersey Shore” or the Sistine Chapel, “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” or “Invisible Man,” Larry Mead or Michael Walzer, etc.? Really?

    To my mind, Rodgers’s work – and I should note here that the work contains many striking insights, as well as being beautifully written – exemplifies the failure to draw distinctions of these sorts.

  7. I suppose I don’t see the cultural objects of the world as being simply divided into “screws” and “nails,” nor our analytic tools as being so refined that the “hammers” and “screwdrivers” are perfectly suited for such clearly defined classes of objects.

    Put another way, Peggy Noonan op-eds are in some ways like, and in some ways unlike, books by John Rawls. One can learn certain things by treating them similarly; one can learn other things by treating them differently. Dogmatically insisting on one or the other approach would be the problem (not that anyone is doing so in this discussion).

    When it comes to the methodology of intellectual (or intellectual/cultural) history, let a hundred flowers bloom!

  8. Nils–
    “Really?” isn’t an argument. You seem to be suggesting that we all know in some way that doesn’t need to be explained that there is a lower and a higher elements of thought and one “deserves” to be taken seriously and the other doesn’t. But as LD suggests, if we are trying to understand the historical pattern of thinking, all thought should be taken seriously, and its not a question of “desert” or “profundity,” unless we think history should be about finding usable models of thought for the present: but I thought _that_ idea was buried in the 1970s! But disparaging a method of intellectual history that takes the broadest subject matter under the umbrella of “thought” as its focus as a matter of “postmodern pretense” only suggests that you have some unexplicated and assumed standard by which you value some texts and devalue others. To extend your metaphor: nails and screws are both fasteners, and intellectual historians have a toolkit that includes hammers and screwdrivers; we don’t have to say I’m only going to hammer nails; we can say that if I want to build a house I’m going to use whatever fastener and whatever tools I need. Methodology is more like a toolkit than a tool, and the better history is the one that uses the best tools. But this doesn’t break down on some simple high/low distinction. I use a different set of tools to talk about a work of philosophy than a work of sociology or journalism or film because I recognize differences in genre unrelated to hierarchical conceptions of high and low. If the alternative to “postmodern pretense” is returning to modernist unquestioned assumptions of cultural hierarchy and significance, I’ll go with postmodern pretense (although I seem to find versions of it well before the “postmodern” era). I guess my point would be that saying intellectual history covers all thought is not the same thing as saying “it’s all the same,” but that characterizing LD’s position that way is a way to reaffirm a notion of hierarchy that seems to come down to “I like and value these kinds of texts because they align with my own sense of what intellectuals should do.” Like modernists (and even postmodernists like LaCapra) who invoked “complexity,” this substitutes an aesthetic and moral preference for an analytic understanding. If there’s an argument for affirming a return to hierarchy, as an analytic device, other than failing to do so would be “so 1990s,” I would be glad to hear it.

  9. Nils, thanks for clarifying your thinking on some of my questions. I dare not express a judgment on what Rodgers’s work does or fails to do until I have finished reading it.

    I find it odd that are defending yourself against a charge of bigotry. Where is that coming from? I don’t know what you think we’re talking about here, but what I think we’re talking about here is intellectual history as a discipline.

    I do take exception to the notion that I’m simply taking one side of a stale debate (“ideas” v. “mentalities”). Beware the hegemony of simple binaries, even heuristically useful ones.

    Your line of questioning — ending with the indignant “Really?” — would seem to indicate that you have decided to cast me on the wrong side of a debate I’m not even having.

    However, since you asked…

    The kinds of cultural productions which I value, privilege and prefer, the texts which measure up to my own aesthetic and intellectual criteria as being worthy of the esteem of a thoughtful human being interested in the true, the good and the beautiful — these represent a very small subset of the texts which are available to me as an intellectual historian interested in uncovering the sensibilities informing a particular historical moment.

    So, if I were so unfortunate as to conclude that a critical analysis of “Jersey Shore” would provide an indispensable insight into the question I am considering, I would sit down, pour myself a stiff drink, and watch the damn thing.

  10. I’m enjoying the unexpected turn of this discussion!

    I’m all for hierarchies of historical causation. In other words, *this* factored more than *that.* So, if one wants to argue that Charles Murray factored more than Archie Bunker in refashioning racialism, that’s a legitimate historical argument, even if others might disagree. I’m sure we’re all on the same page here.

    I’m also all for aesthetic hierarchies. “This” is more beautiful or more truthful than “that.” So if a critic wants to argue that John Rawls is more truthful than Milton Friedman, this is legitimate, again, even if others might disagree. We might not be on the same page anymore, but I tend to think that when we’re honest, we can all agree some philosophers are better than other, some pieces of art better than others. And most of us can also agree that many forms of popular culture or punditry don’t qualify as art or philosophy.

    But in terms of intellectual historical methodology, I tend to agree with LD and others that whatever form of thought is influential or helps us understand something from the past, then that form of thought should be taken as seriously as if we were analyzing the most sophisticated philosophical tract. In my post last week I argued that intellectual historians need to take Christian Right thinking about secular humanism more seriously. Not because I agree with it or find it intellectually astute. But because it informs millions and has helped shape our political and educational culture. I guess this is my version of “Jersey Shore.”

  11. Hey All: Will try to post this again to see if I can manage to get this to work . . .

    We’re running a forum on Rodgers’s book in the April issue of Historically Speaking. Rodgers has the lead essay and comments come from Melani McAlister, Bruce Schulman, Donald Critchlow, and Michael Kimmage.

  12. Sweet! Thanks for posting this, Randall. I will want to read that forum as soon as it’s available. I think I can get it right away through Project Muse. Hope so anyhow.

  13. Dan, thanks for your comment – I agree entirely with your formulation that “Methodology is [or ought to be] more like a toolkit than a tool, and the better history is the one that uses the best tool” – but that requires rendering some judgment as to what the appropriate tool is for the particular job at hand is, and this is where, methodologically, I think Rodgers’s book is deficient – he applies the same tool to every text, rather than different tools to different texts. The question of whether Archie Bunker or Charles Murray had a greater impact on the reformulation of racialism is an intriguing one, but it’s one that you can’t answer just with the tools of intellectual history, at least as I understand those tools.

    As to the issue of cultural hierarchies, I would argue that Rodgers actually probably does have some notion of hierarchy – after all, he’s excluding Archie Bunker (and Richard Pryor), if not Charles Murray – it’s just that it’s an insufficiently rigorous and refined one, and certainly not one that he’s articulating in a direct manner.

    To me, the issue of whether a text is appropriate subject-matter for the tools of intellectual history has mainly to do with whether the text was produced with a community of intellectuals as at least one of its intended targets, by someone recognized by that community as a legitimate participant in their discourse. Now, this of course begs the question of what constitutes a “community of intellectuals,” but here there is a voluminous literature in the history of science that helps us make precisely such distinctions. For example, we need a way to bound the community of biological scientists, so that we don’t have to keep referring to creationists as somehow part of the same conversation as the people publishing in “Science,” “Nature,” or “Evolution.” The idea is that there exists a “community of warrant” that has a variety of mechanisms designed to exclude hacks and ignoramuses. We all know what this is about, and let’s not lie about. To take an example somewhat closer to home: just go talk to one of your medieval historian colleagues about the measures they take to exclude “Society for Creative Anachronism” and “Renaissance Faire” interlopers from their conferences.

    Indeed, the very discipline of intellectual history makes no sense without such a distinction, and what I fear about Rodgers’s promiscuous expansion of the boundaries of who gets included in the community of warrant is that it risks undermining the integrity of the realm of intellectual production, in much the same way that admitting creationists would destroy a department of evolutionary biology. There’s almost a performative contradiction, in Habermas’s sense, in this reckless boundary displacement.

    Now, this is not to say that contemporary creationism (or the Renaissance Faire phenomenon) is not a subject eminently worthy of study; it’s just to say that to treat what these people do as science in the same sense as what Francisco Ayala (or Rosamond McKitterick) does is just methodologically obtuse. And my point is that this is just about what Rodgers does in treating, say, Paul Weyrich’s bloviations as somehow equivalent to the work of Ronald Coase’s, and amenable to the same methodological treatment.

    As to the issue of the legitimacy of cultural hierarchies, let’s leave that broader subject to another day and time.

  14. Nils–
    Thanks for your response. I think the problem here is that you are conflating two very different things–the intellectual communities of warrant, as you call them, and the objects that intellectual historians study. As a consequence, the distinctions you make about the validity and significance of ideas in terms of their truth functions are imputed to the objects we study. These are two very different things. I’m happy to have standards to keep people who don’t know anything about history from mouthing off in scholarly history journals. This says nothing at all about how we study ideas and thought historically, that is, what the proper tools and objects of study are.

    While I agree that one might limit the object of study to a community of discourse in the Kuhnian– or dare I say– Hollingerian sense (here the reference is to Hollinger’s essay on the discourse of intellectuals in Higham and Conkin, eds., New Directions in American Intellectual History), the methods of intellectual history are not limited to that object. Novick’s That Noble Dream, for instance, is a fine example of an important work of intellectual history that takes as its object specifically a body of ideas within an academic field. But this is not the only model of intellectual history, and the further we get from the history of professional communities of discourse in the modern sense–which have been around for only 150 years–the less sense it makes. What I am objecting to here is the idea that all intellectual history must follow this model, and its methods must be based on distinguishing “genuine” intellectual work from some substandard “symptom” produced by “hacks”. Some varieties of intellectual history, for instance, can safely regard all texts as “symptoms,” instead of privileging warranted texts as demanding their own methods of reading. And this is not at all “methodologically obtuse.” But anyone who has been around a contemporary academic community knows that whatever our shared standards and boundaries are, they don’t automatically exclude hacks and ignoramuses, and that intellectuals who write for a broad public are not as insulated as those in specialized communities, such as scientists. In fact, scientists are probably rather bad examples of the kinds of thinkers that most intellectual historians study–there’s a reason why history of science gets itself segregated from intellectual history more broadly conceived.
    Part I (Cont.)

  15. Part II (cont.)
    You say:

    “The idea is that there exists a “community of warrant” that has a variety of mechanisms designed to exclude hacks and ignoramuses. We all know what this is about, and let’s not lie about it.”

    I have to say, I read this as another version of “Really?” We all apparently know where this line is to be drawn. This putative consensus seems to me to be a statement that we don’t have to examine the arbitrary nature of that distinction. From one point of view creationists are different from evolutionary biologists; from another, they are engaged in a common discourse. When Carl Sagan or Stephen Jay Gould seek to reach an audience outside of their community of warrant, do they become “hacks,” unworthy of treatment in terms of the history of ideas? I don’t think so.

    “Indeed, the very discipline of intellectual history makes no sense without such a distinction, and what I fear about Rodgers’s promiscuous expansion of the boundaries of who gets included in the community of warrant is that it risks undermining the integrity of the realm of intellectual production, in much the same way that admitting creationists would destroy a department of evolutionary biology.”

    I would suggest that all historical treatment of ideas “risks undermining the integrity of the realm of intellectual production,” if what we mean by that is taking an agnostic stand on the truth or moral value of those ideas, or looking at them from outside the frame of their “community of warrant”. The historians task is not to defend some ideas (objects) as better than others, or to establish the transhistorical value of ideas; it it to understand the ways in which thought occurs historically, to show the homologies and contradictions in past patterns of thought, to explore the origins, manifestations, development, and exhaustion of ideas and modes of thought. We should be less concerned with preserving the integrity of intellectual production, and more concerned with a critical understanding of thought in history. Evolutionary biologists can defend their own turf–they don’t need intellectual historians to do it for them.

    I’m with Ben Alpers on this: let a thousand flowers bloom!

  16. Nils: It might help if you could be more specific about how exactly Rodgers promiscuously expands the boundaries of who gets included in the community of warrant, as you put it. For example, in his Chapter 2 (“The Rediscovery of the Market”), he analyzes and contextualizes academic economists from Friedman and the monetarists to Course, Posner, and the law and economics circle. But he also goes on to write about supply-siders like Jude Wanniski and George Gilder, who wormed their ideas into Reagan policy. Rodgers treats their thought just as seriously, despite them being non-academic autodidacts and, yes, habitual over-simplifiers. Was this wrong of Rodgers to do so, even though these “novices,” as he refers to them, ultimately had more influence? I think Rodgers is pretty clear about delineating between academic and non-academic discourses–communities of warrant–but also in analyzing the ways in which the two discourses bled into one another as part of an overarching zeitgeist.

  17. Andrew, let me try to get more specific. In my view, the best parts of Rodgers’s boom are the sections on economic theory and constitutional originalism; not coincidentally, these chapters are also the most conventional exercises in intellectual history, in the sense that the chosen texts in both cases are describing a clearly defined set of issues, understood by interlocutors who in fact do follow each other’s writings — e.g. an evident community of discourse. These are also the sections that most obviously connect to his framing device, namely Presidential-level “public discourse.” These are issues that are in their essences matters of public policy and discussion.

    By contrast, the chapters on race and gender are the worst because Rodgers is all over the place and purchases breadth by ignoring the details of the actual arguments made by his cast of characters. Personally, I don’t see that Rodgers has any coherent principle underpinning his selection of texts, other than their utility in serving his fracture thesis, and he leaves contesting voices largely unexplored. And worst of all, at the end of the book he then tries to pull all of the fracturing together under the concept of the market, which seems to me a highly misleading kind of backdoor importation of base-superstructure thinking.

    What’s more, if the question is as particular as where and Presidential speechwriters get their ideas from, it’s very weird that he would completely ignore popular culture. If the goal is to discuss the transformation in racial conceptions as it fed into “public discourse” during this period, doesn’t Bill Cosby rate a nod, to say nothing of Richard Pryor? Even as he dismantles the wall between serious scholarship and hackery, he leaves popular culture out in the cold. Hard to see how that gets justified except on the basis of methodological single-mindedness. Szefel may be unfair to suggest that intellectual history consists of a single method, but she’s not wrong that Rodgers himself (in this book) only applies a single mode of intellectual history, and appears to have selected which texts to write about mainly based on their amenability to his method.

    So yes, let a thousand flowers methodological bloom, but let’s plant them in the appropriate textual soils.

  18. Nils, I agree that the chapter on race is not his best. (The chapter on gender is better). But my complaints are different from yours. I’m fine with his choice of texts, people, sources–everything from Roots (which is popular culture, no?) to William Julius Wilson to Henry Louis Gates. My problem is rather the general overall treatment of these issues, and his inability to tie any of this very well to his overarching theme. He makes some excellent points, such as when he discusses the contradictions of left-leaning theorists deconstructing race:

    “To challenge the ontology of race was to risk challenging the ontology of black racial experience: the authenticity of living on one side, rather than the other, of the socially imposed lines of domination and power” (138). The nearly impossible trick was how to argue race was a social construct, which deconstructs white supremacy, while also maintaining a focus on the negative consequences of racism, especially since conservatives used social constructivist arguments to their advantage, i.e. Linda Chavez: “Any attempt to systematically classify human beings according to race will fail, because race is an arbitrary concept” (141).

    But a lot of this is only covered superficially. For example, he briefly mentions that historians began to treat race as an ideology rather than a material reality with a Barbara Fields essay in 1982. He says there were major disagreements. But he doesn’t outline who was doing the disagreeing or why, or how this debate played out. It’s all so cursory.

    His close reading of the judicial back-and-forth over affirmative action is pretty clear about how conservatives co-opted colorblind language, but I’m not sure it relates very well to his thesis about fracture, except to say that colorblindness is individualistic and ahistorical.

    But the the biggest weakness of the race chapter is how Rodgers makes highly controversial debates seem banal. In part this is because he refuses to take sides. But it also stems from his lack of rigor in analyzing the criticism of someone like W.J. Wilson. Rodgers is too cursory. He only mentions that people like Kenneth Clark disagreed with Wilson’s lack of emphasis on race as oppressive. Why not include Adolph Reed’s famous critique in the Nation, where Reed essentially called Wilson a technocrat in the Booker T. Washington mold? This would have added life to the debate and given a better sense of how Wilson was portrayed as a latter day Daniel Patrick Moynihan, with his tangled web of pathology, culture of poverty language.

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