U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Historically Speaking: “America in an Age of Fracture: A Forum”

Today’s post is an overview of the forum on Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracture, which appears in the pages of the April 2011 edition of Historically Speaking. I highly recommend that everyone read the forum. For those yet to read it, this post will serve as a sort of CliffsNotes version.

Rodgers introduces the roundtable discussion with a better encapsulation of his argument than anything he writes in the book itself. He contends that sometime during the 1970s a revolution in the American experience occurred. This revolution, though, was not political. “The battles over taxes and regulation that Reagan’s election precipitated represented no revolutionary break with history,” he writes. “Even the ‘culture wars’ and their partisan mobilization of religious loyalties replayed long-standing strains in 20th-century American politics.” Rodgers concedes that the economic realm was transformed to some degree. But the most profound metamorphosis occurred in social thought. Intellectual history matters! “A whole vocabulary of concepts that had once seemed the common sense of social thought weakened and new languages took their place.” We’ve discussed at length the new “vocabulary of concepts.” In short, more and more Americans began to think in smaller and smaller units. The individual replaced society in our ethical imaginations.

Rodgers anticipates an important criticism when he asks whether or not areas existed that transcended fracture. His conclusion: yes and no. For example: “Religious communities on the religious side of the culture wars stressed not individual autonomy but loyalties and obligations. And yet, built on their own consumer economies, drawing their members through defection from their mainstream rivals during what was said to be a general religious revival but was, in fact, a great reshuffling of faiths in the spiritual marketplace, the socially conservative churches, too, lived within worlds of choice.” In politics, even social conservatives, those most likely to summon duty, obligation, and order, reframed their language around individual rights. School prayer was their right—an argument that would have been alien to earlier moral establishmentarians who argued that a Christian public sphere was necessary for social order.

The first response in the forum comes from Bruce Schulman, who paradoxically claims that Rodgers’s “age of fracture” represents a new form of consensus history. Schulman believes that Rodgers’s sense that fracture was everywhere is a form of consensus history. “Beneath the veneer of conflict and partisanship that occasions so much handwringing in contemporary political discourse, Rodgers discerns remarkable harmony,” Schulman writes. “Indeed, ‘Age of Fracture’ refers not to the absence of, or the collapse of, an intellectual consensus, but rather to the creation of one—the widespread resonance of a view of the world as atomized, indeterminate, fractured.” This is an interesting way of thinking about Age of Fracture that I had not entertained. But I’m not sure it makes sense. The original consensus historians like Hofstadter believed that basic agreement existed among most Americans about first principles—capitalism and democracy. Rodgers, on the other hand, assumes that American social thought was increasingly disaggregated. Disaggregation as a common trend might imply that Americans were all caught in the same slipstream, but it hardly entails agreement over first principles. Although Schulman is quick to point out that there are far worse things than being lumped with Hofstadter, his most damning critique is that Rodgers repeats Hofstadter’s nostalgia. I don’t think Hofstadter or Rodgers work from a position of nostalgia.

Melani McAlister writes the next essay in the forum. Her forte is popular culture (check out her brilliant book Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945-2000 for a taste). As such, the gist of her essay is that, though she thinks Rodgers’s book is an excellent exploration of “the hothouse of journals and academic presses,” his narrative of fracture might have been complicated by going “to the movies.” In other words, unlike in other forms of social thought, centralized forms of power have prevailed in film since the 1970s. “In the imagination of Hollywood ‘the system’ is not fractured or dissipated, it is alive and well.” For support she cites Star Wars (1977), Blade Runner (1982), No Way Out (1987), Mission Impossible (1996), The Pelican Brief (1993), The Game (1997), and, most importantly, The Matrix (1999) and its sequels. The bulk of McAlister’s essay then follows as an analysis of power in The Matrix, “a near perfect exemplar of the mix of fears and delights that infused American reactions to the globalization of culture and the rise of new, powerful technologies that were in the process of transforming daily experience.” I really enjoyed this essay, but it left me unsatisfied. It is a fairly serious critique of Rodgers, but only by way of arguing that Rodgers omitted something important. One might assume that the social thought represented by film exists in an alternative universe to that represented by, say, gender theory, where Judith Butler’s theory of identity fracture seems very different from the “system.” Or does it? If we reverse the vectors of intellectual history (as Warren Susman and James Livingston advise) we should be able to bring popular culture and “high” intellectual history together. Let me briefly attempt to do this.

Rodgers points to Foucault’s theory of power as an early sign of fracture. But I would argue that his theory of power, upon which Butler based her thinking about gender, was as follows: rather than residing in the agency of sovereign subjects, power was too diffuse to be contained by mere individuals. In other words, power was not to be found solely in a specific political sphere but rather in the “politics of everyday life,” which lent philosophical support to the feminist slogan that the “personal is political.” But more important to the poststructuralist feminist theorizing of Butler, such a conception introduced the idea that power shaped people positively rather than negatively, that people acted out of desire rather than fear. So, as Nemo has written in his review of Rodgers, Butler continued to think about power, but differently. And the way she thinks about power, as diffuse but somewhere out there, playing on our desires, is precisely how power—“the system”—works in a film like The Matrix.

Michael Kimmage follows McAlister and offers one of the more insightful critiques of Age of Fracture. Thought he thinks the argument—“the will to have less in common is what Americans had in common in the 1980s and 1990s”—is brilliantly fleshed out, Kimmage disagrees with one of Rodgers’s counterintuitive historical revisions, made in the first chapter on Reagan’s presidential rhetoric. Rodgers believes that Reagan, who is often credited for winning the Cold War, in fact lost the words for the Cold War because he lost the words for the nation. Kimmage, in contrast, contends that Reagan indeed sought the nation. Reagan’s nationalism, Kimmage correctly points out, stemmed from U.S. intellectual history: “Since the early 1970s neoconservative intellectuals—Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeanne Kirkpatrick—had done what the could to articulate a workable ideology of American nationalism, less in the sphere of political economy than in the sphere of international relations.” To this degree, distinctions must be drawn between right and left in ways that Rodgers seems unwilling to do.

Donald Critchlow makes a similar point in his contention that fracture was far from widespread, especially when it comes to nationalism. He writes: “The belief that the United States is an exceptional country prevails among most Americans.” “This abiding faith in the free market, the rule of law, equal opportunity, and balanced government has enabled conservatives to construct a narrative that appeals to the American electorate.” Critchlow concludes: “ours is not an age of fracture, but of intellectual confusion on the part of some.” Now, to a certain degree, this avoids Rodgers’s main argument, that the revolution from aggregation to disaggregation occurred in the realm of social thought, not in the realm of politics. But I think it does open up an important point of departure: How fractured is the age when most Americans agree that their nation is exceptional? Does this assume too much?—Do most Americans even think the nation exceptional?

In Rodgers’s concluding remarks, he briefly ponders the question of the American nation. Though he says that his career has long been a search for America, he concedes that “America” cannot be found because “America is an argument: a big, multitudinous, often contradictory amalgam of persons, experiences, aspirations, and dissents.”


As an aside, it appears that Rodgers has been tuning into our discussion. He writes: “In the intellectual history blogs and again in this exchange, questions of the casual assumptions behind Age of Fracture have been pressed forward. Which foot moved first? Did the economic transformations of late capitalism set loose these new debates? Or did ideas move first? My response is neither and both.”

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for the summary, Andrew! Neither I, nor my library, subscribe to Historically Speaking, so I need to order this forum through interlibrary loan.

    Two thoughts that came to mind when reading your summary (again, I haven’t read the forum, so this is at best responding to an intellectual game of telephone):

    1) In thinking of the intersection of popular culture with the issues Rodgers discusses, JFK might be an interesting film to ponder. On the one hand, there is a definable shadowy conspiracy, a unified truth-of-the-matter that is, in principle, knowable. And yet, the best we can do is know that it exists; its details will likely elude us because They are so powerful. Stone’s version of the assassination is not a simple “X did it with a rifle on the grassy knoll” story. But it’s also not as totally fragmented as Don DeLillo’s novel Libra in which it’s not even clear there is a fact-of-the-matter.

    2) I would guess that one major area of disagreement between Critchlow and Rodgers concerns the newness of late 20th-century conservative understandings of American society. Rodgers in Age of Fracture stresses the many ways in which, e.g., economics in the 1970s and beyond departed from older ways of talking about American society. It sounds as if Critchlow says — and from having read other things by Critchlow I can easily imagine him saying — that although the details may have been different, the fundamental beliefs of late 20th-century conservatives were old…perhaps as old as the republic itself. (To invoke another USIH conversation, Andrew, is Critchlow essentially arguing that we’d all be unified, if it weren’t for that darn New Class (i.e. the some who are “intellectually confused”)?)

  2. Ben: Thanks, JFK would be a good film to ponder in relation to Age of Fracture. My basic point is that there aren’t necessarily two separate discourses at work, so it would be interesting to have an analysis of film that builds on and/or complicates Age of Fracture.

    I think you’re exactly right about Critchlow. Notice his choice of language, which is the last sentence of his essay: “ours is not an age of fracture, but of intellectual confusion on the part of some.” Confusion, not fracture. Most Americans aren’t fractured because they aren’t confused, unlike the pesky “new class.” Great observation. This relates to the rest of Critchlow’s essay, where he says that Rodgers is on shaky grounds when discussing the economic theories of the monetarists. Where Rodgers contends the monetarists quit believing in their theory right around 1981, when it was proven unworkable, Crtichlow makes some confusing point about montarism having intellectual consistency. It’s basically his garbled, cryptic way of saying that conservative economic policy makes a lot of sense. For evidence, he cites Bernanke’s telling Milton Friedman in 2002: “Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.” It’s a confusing essay–maybe others can make better sense of it.

  3. Thanks, Randall, but though my university has access to some journals through Project MUSE, it doesn’t have access to this one (this has come up before around here….)

  4. I see that you two have beat this dead horse, but I must say again that I’m drawn to the line from Critchlow (“ours is not an age of fracture, but of intellectual confusion on the part of some”). I keep coming back to this in my great books work—confusion about what it means to be an American, to be implicated in the long history of the Enlightenment project, and confused about the safety nets developed—economically if not intellectually! I think Adler and his crowd saw the potential for, and of, anti-intellectualism at the mid-century, and set about a kind of anti-anti-intellectualism. That project was confused with having an ideological stance (pro-Westernism), which is correct to some degree, but misses the larger point: namely, even if progress fails periodically, reason cannot be abandoned at any cost. – TL

  5. Perhaps, however, I’m confusing things: Is Critchlow making an argument for confusion on the part of political intellectual conservatives only (the new class), or the broader conservative movement and Americans generally? – TL

  6. Tim: No, Critchlow is making the very typical conservative argument that liberal academics–postmodernists, poststructuralists, feminists, multiculturalists, et.–are confused about truth, justice and the American way.

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