U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Rodgers Responds (Part V of AGE OF FRACTURE roundtable)

Dear readers: This response by Dan Rodgers is the fifth installment in our roundtable. For the first, see my review here. For the second, see Jim Livingston’s review here. For the third, see Lisa Szefel’s review here. For the fourth, See Mary Dudziak’s review here.
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It is a great pleasure to participate in this forum, and I am grateful to Andrew Hartman and Ben Alpers for organizing it and to Andrew, Lisa Szefel, Mary Dudziak, and Jim Livingston for their thoughtful and wide-ranging comments. Those comments have focused in part on Age of Fracture, but they have also focused on the period as a whole, on the books that others are completing (Jim’s new rereading of the late twentieth-century economy and Mary’s forthcoming book on the concept of “wartime”), and on books that they would like to see written, as Lisa urged in her HNN review and repeatedly so eloquently today. And that is as it should be. The subjects of our times are big and urgent, and there is no way that a single book can, or should presume to, encompass all of what needs to be done.

Because this forum has ranged so widely, however, it may be useful to start by saying what I intended in Age of Fracture. I wanted to think about social ideas and arguments in the last quarter of the twentieth century, but still more I wanted to map out some stories about change. I wanted to probe the ways in which certain assumptions fell out of use, new terms crowded in, and debates were reframed. This was an experience everyone felt who lived through this period, and I thought there might be something to be gained by looking at it more closely.

This is not the only way to write a period’s intellectual history. Many of our best models in intellectual history are, by design, static. They identify a period’s key thinkers and key books, they work their way into the period’s central debates, and they figure out a pattern, a wall mural of sorts, that will hold them all. This is important work, and we have all done some of it, if not in print then in our undergraduate teaching.

But I wanted to experiment with a different design: to take some key arenas of debate in which change was particularly striking and explore the ways in which, within those same arenas, the very terms, arguments, and assumptions cracked and shifted. As those who have read Age of Fracture know, I was particularly interested in those arenas where academic thought and public argument met. I wanted to probe the way economics changed its skin, how its disciplinary axis and textbook formulas shifted and how economic argument and policy shifted with them. I wanted to explore not only arguments about race and racism in American society but the ways in which the very terms for thinking about race and identity shifted. I was interested in the ways in which feminism, launched so confidently at the period’s beginning, was remade. I was interested in the ways in which notions of instantly traversable time moved into unexpected places. In the mid-twentieth-century moment in which Alexander Bickel’s jurisprudence was formed, as Mary Dudziak notes, time and history had a glacial presence. It was the point of law school and college education to demonstrate how slowly history moved and how sticky and massive its motions were.

That mid-twentieth-century moment in social thought and argument is the reference point for these and other stories of change braided through Age of Fracture: the years of the high Cold War, when recognition of the power of history, society, institutions, and social structures was at its height in the academies and in public life. By looking at the same fields of argument as their common sense shifted over the next quarter century, I thought we might learn something important both about ideas and about change.

Shaping the design of the project in this way meant leaving out a lot. Popular media, the cracking of the monopoly of network television, the extraordinarily rapid dissemination of the personal computer, the rise of new media icons, the collapse of mid-twentieth-century censorship: all this and more fell outside the core focus of the book. So did many other debates that I might have followed, not the least, as Lisa has reemphasized, the crisis, which was simultaneously a crisis in ideas, identities, politics, and society, over AIDS and its devastations. I wasn’t trying to map the whole terrain of argument and debate. The idea of a Zeitgeist went out, or should have, at the end of the nineteenth century. I was interested in probing some critically important parts of the intellectual terrain in which we now live. But there is a lot left do, and a lot that should be done.

These, then, were my intentions in writing Age of Fracture, and I’d like to think that in some ways I succeeded in realizing them. But no one should endeavor a serious project without anticipating serious critique. That, too, is as it should be. In the comments at this forum and in other venues, critical reactions to Age of Fracture have tended to cluster around three issues which, in shorthand, might be called machinery, metaphors, and mood. First, where is the causal motor to be found behind the shifts in ideas and argument that Age of Fracture describes? What drove and explains the pervasive fracturing of the vocabulary of social life into small, actor-centered pieces, imagined as choosing, preference-satisfying individuals? Second, in this quest for causal explanations, of what serious use, if at all, is a phrase like “a contagion of metaphors?” Last, what is the mood of Age of Fracture? Austere and bleak, as Michael O’Brien reads it, elegiac and funereal, as Jim Livingston has it, or ambivalent, as Andrew Hartman suggests? All of these are invitations to larger discussions about which there’s time here only to say a word.

In explaining why a larger, thicker sense of society became so much more difficult to grasp in the last quarter of the twentieth century there are two powerful arguments in the existing scholarship. The first points to the work of the conservative foundations and the efforts of their managers and business funders to alter the terms of social debate. The second points, more generally, to the new shape of the post-industrial, post-Fordist economy and the needs of the new regime of flexible accumulation for the provisional, socially disembedded selves and disembedded ideas that the era produced.

Both these explanations are terrifically important, and yet, in themselves, they both seem to me insufficient. Assuming relatively passive audiences for the books the conservative think tanks fostered and for the economic forces of the age, they leave out the enormous amount of intellectual work that pervaded the era: the arguing, debating, claiming, refuting, puzzling out, and creative intellectual imagining that also shaped these years. Without wrestling seriously with its intense intellectual labor, we miss a key part of the age.

Is it naive of me to think that we must hold simultaneously to the extraordinary importance of structures—social, economic, technical, and political–and to the extraordinary vitality of ideas, aspirations, nightmares, and theories: the stuff of the mind? I think not. For to pose it as an either-or choice—choose structures or choose culture, as Andrew Hartman proposes—seems to me a false demand. And that is not because I like some forms of structural reasoning for some purposes, and like culturalist explanations for others. Or because I like or don’t like their political outcomes. It is a false choice because there is no recognizable picture of the world that doesn’t have a strong place for both structures and ideas. To refuse a false choice isn’t to slip into ambiguity. It is a position of realism.

But once you take the demands of the late-capitalist economy out of the driver’s seat and once you recognize that money can’t, in itself, buy assent, how are we to understand the ways in which so many of these debates seemed to echo each others’ terms and assumptions? This was not the case at the outset. Economists struggling to find adequate models for the economic turmoil of the 1970s, feminists struggling to forge a politics in which the personal and the solidaristic would hold together, political theorists struggling to find explanations for power more adequate to their symbol-saturated age, and others moved initially within separate and sharply defined contours of argument and experience. Only in time did it become apparent that these efforts had taken many of them down uncannily parallel tracks.

Through a “contagion of metaphors,” I wrote, and in retrospect it is clear that I should have made it an argument not just a phrase. I won’t spell out that argument now, but it’s a realm of intellectual and cultural life that intellectual historians ought to take more seriously than we do. For nothing is more powerful in shaping ways of seeing than a claim of likeness. “War is a surgical operation.” “War is hell.” “War is a strategic game.” “War is a gigantic fog.” These are not simply phrases. They act as trump cards in academic as well as popular debate: analogies with powerful real-life consequences.

The play of opposing metaphors can lead toward standoffs; it may strew the field of argument with the radical incommensurabilities that make discussion impossible. But claims of likeness can also be generative, as ways of seeing and claiming move from one terrain to another. 1960s liberation movements were all about seeing one’s own situation and claims for justice as like that of others. To see the Berkeley campus as another version of racist Mississippi, to see the subjugation of women as just as deep as the oppressions committed in the name of whiteness, to see gays as standing in the same social space as a phalanx of other oppressed persons: the “movement” was built on likeness claims of this sort, and it fell into smaller pieces when the analogies could no longer sustain their weight.

In a parallel fashion, in what I have called an age of fracture, the metaphor which constructed the self as a choosing entity, as engaged in a kind of perpetual shopping and choice-making activity—raced through the academic disciplines and through politics alike, spilling across boundaries of academic discipline and social debate. It did so not as theory but as a claim of one context being “like” something else. This is the work of metaphor, and we should think about it more consciously and take it more seriously than we do.

Finally, a word about the mood of Age of Fracture. Some readers have found it mournful and nostalgic, though neither was my intent. I’m not as hopeful as Jim Livingston is in his new Against Thrift. I am not as convinced as he is that those aspects of social and economic change that he identifies as primitive disaccumulation are the only game in town. I am more worried by the forms of highly sophisticated accumulation going on at a terrific speed underneath us. But going back to the high Cold War era in social thought is not my aim.

Andrew Hartman worries that I take “a moral position neither for nor against our age,” but that, too, seems to me a false choice. What would it mean to be for an age, or against it? You live in the middle of the age you are in: arguing with it, shaped by it but hoping to shape it as well, inextricably part of it, struck by the beauty and courage you find in it, angry and distressed by its meanness and injustice. There is really no other place to stand than that.

I didn’t write Age of Fracture to pronounce a simple judgment on the last thirty years of American intellectual life. What I hoped to do, rather, was to take seriously the ways in which some Americans, placed where their ideas turned out to have very large consequences, talked and argued and thought their way from one set of assumptions about society and selves to another. I wanted to show that in the midst of that creative and productive ferment they let the language for some important dimensions of life fracture. I hoped that retracing those steps might help us find our way to something more adequate for our times, when our practical, collective interdependence strains against the choice-saturated language with which we try to grasp it.

Dan Rodgers

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. As the song says, At last…

    This comment thread is going to be crackling — can’t wait to read everybody’s take. For now, at a first quick pass before I finish this %$*! book review I’m writin, here’s mine:

    “…there is no recognizable picture of the world that doesn’t have a strong place for both structures and ideas.” Agreed.

    “…how are we to understand the ways in which so many of these debates seemed to echo each others’ terms and assumptions?….Through a ‘contagion of metaphors,’ I wrote, and in retrospect it is clear that I should have made it an argument not just a phrase.” This is an extraordinarily helpful admission and signpost, not just for gaining a coherent picture of Rodgers’s (implicit) argument, but also for constructing arguments of our own. He isn’t just talking here about the mechanism of change, but the mechanics of writing well about it, and I for one will take it to heart and (I hope) take it to the page.

    In terms of summarizing his argument, Rodgers seems to be claiming here that the metaphor of the age (or “an” age, to concede to his coy flirtation with articles and their uses) was not “fracture,” but “market.” Fracture was what was left in the wake of “that metaphor which constructed the self as a choosing entity, as engaged in a kind of perpetual shopping and choice-making activity.” So, if I understand him correctly here, as people became accustomed to the idea of viewing everything through the lens of the metaphor of market, the metaphor — not the market — did its work in breaking down long-standing distinctions and making everything “alike” in the sense that everything that was once fixed was now up for grabs/sale.

    Also sensible (and this shouldn’t surprise you, Andrew): “Andrew Hartman worries that I take ‘a moral position neither for nor against our age,’ but that, too, seems to me a false choice. What would it mean to be for an age, or against it?” I think it would mean that we’re writing something other than history. But that’s a debate for another thread.

    I will say this, with gratitude and delight: Rodgers’ comments are nothing along the lines of “Interesting conversation; keep talking.” Then again, why enjoin people to do what they’re gonna do anyhow?

  2. “This comment thread is going to be crackling — can’t wait to read everybody’s take.” Sorry LD, I expected as much as well. You never know what drives participation, or limits it. It could be that Rodgers’s responded so well that there is not much else to say. Or that people are burned out talking about Age of Fracture because it’s been the focus of conversation for a year. Or–most likely candidate–because people are so busy the Monday after Thanksgiving.

    On your take that Rodgers is sensible in not being for or against an age. I agree. But what does it mean to be alienated, if not against an age, or out of place? I ask out of genuine curiosity. I still find the concept of alienation useful, and in this I am extremely excited about David Steigerwald’s forthcoming book on “the rise and fall of alienation.”

  3. I was gonna say, LD, that you jinxed it! Probably the real reasons are those Andrew mentions, though, such as it being the Monday after Thanksgiving. And that maybe people are “Fractured out.” Not to mention, the roundtable is a lot to digest. It simply might take time for blog readers to go through them all and put together responses that cover everything.

    Viscerally, it seems correct that it makes no sense to be either for or against an age. What are you going to do, hop in a time machine in protest? That said, I am sympathetic to Andrew’s insistence that alienation is still a useful concept, and that it means being, if not hostile to an age, at least believing oneself out of place, or to be out of tune with its leading harmonies.

    Take Rousseau, for example. I wouldn’t necessarily describe him as “alienated” as it’s anachronistic. But you can certainly see in him the sense that there is something profoundly wrong with the times, and that he is out of place or out of tune with them. Lots of scholars consider him to be the founder of modernity because he made questioning modernity a characteristic feature of modern minds. That sense may not be as acute in the “postmodern age” as it was in the period of “high modernity,” but I don’t think it has gone away. It still persists, I’d say.

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