U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Fractured?

What follows is not a review of Rodger’s book, The Age of Fracture, but a contribution to a discussion that I have found, yet again, very interesting.

Fracture presumes that there was once something whole and that, in the future, there will probably be something relatively whole again, since this only an “age” and not history. What interests me, initially at least, in Rodgers’s argument is this notion that something whole had broken apart. I am also interested, and have been since graduate school, in how challenges to prevailing cultural authorities recast older authorities into something that seems useless. I’ve looked at how movies went from being considered throwaway amusements to the defining art of modern America; how film critics went from being considered utterly irrelevant to the high priests of this new art only to return to a position of relative irrelevance again; and how the idea of freedom in the arts moved pornography from the shadows to the box office and then into video stores and now the internet. Along the way, I kept writing about the breakdown of cultural authority in one place and the creation of it in another. There was often an irony to this transition, in that what seemed to be the future imagined by the challengers ended up being a bit worse than they had hoped. Nothing too surprising.

But something that I didn’t find, though, was the kind of cultural and intellectual unity that Rodgers’s argument appears to depend upon. He contends early on that “What matters are the processes by which the flux and tensions of experience are shaped into mental frames and pictures that, in the end, come to seem themselves natural and inevitable: ingrained in the very logic of things.” This is a nicely evocative way of describing how narratives are created and come to define general notions of social reality. Ronald Reagan is a prime agent of that process, according to Rodgers. As president, Reagan seemed to understand intuitively that the older language–the words–of the cold war no longer meant as much to his audiences and would not create the leverage he needed as a national leader to move the people. In this age of fracture, no single narrative emerged, rather a “contagion of metaphors” came to define how ideas “slipped across the normal divisions of intellectual life.”

For the rest of the book, Rodgers writes about groups, intellectuals, parties, and other agents of fracturing who simultaneously pine for some kind of unifying theory while denouncing some other unifying theory. The cold war provided a “sacred canopy” of meaning for the nation, once it frayed, the fracturing began. He ends his book suggesting that 9/11 provided a temporary and illusory unity–we will never be whole again.

My question is what was the “whole” to begin with? I am now writing on civil religion. And notice that every once in a while Rodgers notes the decline and fall of the popular debate about civil religion as American society entered the age of fracture. He uses the civil religion debate as a barometer: once sociologists gave up on it, America had officially fractured. Yet here again, he seems to presume that civil religion described an empirical reality or at least was accepted as such by enough people to be a narrative that could collapse. In this respect, I agree with how David Sehat characterizes this idea in his last chapter of his most recent book: civil religion is best understood as a myth; it exists as a deliberate argument made by those with interests in it working in a certain way. Starting from that premise, though, would not allow a declensionist historical arc, which seems to be the path Rodgers is on here.

If, as Dan Wickberg notes, Rodgers seeks to capture the sense of the time, is fracture the best way to describe this sense? It seems to me that “fracture” describes a process or action that certainly seems pervasive in this time but as a historical term it doesn’t get at the deeper or larger meaning of what the agents of the period created. In other words, I don’t see fracturing as an end in itself. But if the age is not one defined by fracturing, then what does define it?

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Excellent post and question, Ray. I’d add that we might also ask the chronological question of what constitutes our age. Rodgers’s view that our age begins in the middle 1970s seems sensible to me, but how we characterize our age depends in large measure on how we define the period of time that constitutes it.

  2. Ray (& Ben): As is evident in my prior comments to posts by Andrew, David, and Bill Fine, I prefer to see the “culture wars”, from the 1970s going forward (a legitimate chronological period of study on the topic), as the ~intensification~ of prior existing fractures. I hesitate to use an aftershocks analogy (it’s, well, insensitive right now), but the fractures identified by Rodgers all have earlier precedents. This is why I think a ~real~ history of the culture wars has to include more of the 20th century; all narratives beginning in the 1960s and 1970s miss the earlier fractures of modernity (alienation, sexual mores, tribalism (e.g. KKK), pluralism, debates about secularism, schools as preeminent sites of conflict, etc.). In other words, what fractured was the false consensus that only existed as a myth among white elites in the 1950s. – TL

  3. As an addendum to my post and a response to your comments, Ben and Tim (and thanks for them), I came across this interesting paragraph from Thomas Ricks (now quite famous for his chronicles of the wars under Bush II). Ricks wrote a very well-received and, in a way, landmark essay on civilian-military relations in 1997. He said this:

    “There is widespread agreement that over the past few decades American society has become more fragmented, more individualistic, and less disciplined, with institutions such as church, family, and school wielding less influence. Whatever the implications of these changes, they put society at odds with the classic military values of sacrifice, unity, self-discipline, and considering the interests of the group before those of the individual.”

    Obviously he too saw fracturing as a symbol of the age, but his second sentence underscores the role that a particular institution played (or presumed to play) as a force that resisted fracturing. The job Rodgers has done giving shape to so many aspects of the fracturing is awe-inspiring and incredibly helpful. But at times I was a bit overwhelmed with fracture-fatigue.

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