U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Summarizing an Age of Fracture

This week I had the opportunity to lead my graduate seminar colleagues in a discussion of Daniel Rodgers’s Age of Fracture.  The seminar covers 20th century U.S. history, and most of our readings — which have been excellent — have come from social and cultural history.  Rodgers’s book is the only work of “straight” intellectual history we have read this semester, and I am the only self-identified intellectual historian in the seminar.  (Even if I didn’t self-identify, I’m afraid it would show anyhow, based on the number of times per hour I use the words “epistemology” or “sensibilities.”)  So it was my privilege and pleasure to take on the task of trying to frame Age of Fracture in a way that would help my colleagues think about how they  might make use of Rodgers’s book in their own work.

I thought I would share with our readers the summary I wrote for my classmates.  First, though, a caveat…

While I write like I speak, in a classroom setting I do not speak as I write — or, more precisely, as I have written.  In other words, when I am giving a lecture or a presentation, even if I have written out a complete argument, I do not read my text word for word.  Eyes would glaze over.

So what I am presenting here is the material from which I spoke, not a word-for-word transcript of what I said. I condensed and summarized my own summary where necessary, and added a question here and there or drew a specific connection with other matters we have discussed in the class — whatever I could do to make the material as engaging as possible.

In my Saturday post, I am going to explore this issue of reading verbatim versus ex tempore delivery as it relates to the norms of the historical profession.  I have a Theory about this tradition, and I’d be interested to know what others think.  So look for that on Saturday.  In the meantime, below is the material I used to launch what turned out to be a very fun and fruitful discussion of a book that none of my classmates had enjoyed reading, but that they were able to enjoy discussing.

Age of Fracture – summary

BASIC AIM / CHIEF ARGUMENT

The work that Rodgers does in Age of Fracture is “synthetic,” not in the usual sense of pulling together the research of several historians and constructing a coherent narrative out of that, but in the sense of pulling together seemingly disparate texts/ideas, often presumably unrelated, and just as often presumably sharply opposed, and making of them a coherent whole.  In the process, Rodgers has identified “the sensibility” of an age, he has found a unifying set of ideas underlying what the historical actors themselves perceived as a fundamental disunity in American cultural life.

This unifying set of ideas manifests itself through what Rodgers calls a “contagion of metaphors” (10). “Strong metaphors of society were supplanted by weaker ones.  Imagined collectivities shrank; notions of structure and power thinned out. Viewed by its acts of mind, the last quarter of the century was an era of disaggregation, a great age of fracture” (3).  Thus the chief object of Rodgers’s focus — and this is what makes his work intellectual history — is conceptual.  He is not looking at “social structures” or institutions in general — the church, the family, the university, political parties, though all these “characters” appear in his story. Instead, he is looking at how Americans thought about those institutions and about society as a whole, or a fractured whole.  In the process, Rodgers argues, out of the cacophony of competing visions of the social, the individual, the common good, the private good, the public sphere — out of all this conceptual fragmentation, and indeed behind all this conceptual fragmentation, stands a single governing metaphor that gives coherence to the seemingly contradictory conceptions of the era:  the metaphor of “the market.”

At its most basic, that is Rodgers’s argument.  Now I’d like to briefly consider how he goes about constructing it.

METHODOLOGY

In the prologue to the book, Rodgers discusses the wide range of possible sources available to the intellectual historian.  “The generation and circulation of ideas are radically open processes.  Ideas were made at every pore of our society….In every modern society there is a surfeit of ideas and claimants for primacy” (13). What people watched on TV, what they talked about in church, what they argued about in the bars — these are all fair game, Rodgers says.

This approach is not universally accepted among intellectual historians; indeed, in some circles it is viewed as somewhat contrarian.  But it happens to be the view shared by our resident American intellectual and cultural historian, Dan Wickberg, who wrote a wonderful piece way back in 2001 that I would commend to anybody who is trying to get a handle on what intellectual history is or what it can be.  Near the conclusion of this article, “Intellectual History vs. the Social History of Intellectuals,” Wickberg writes, “If the history of thought is to be successful, it must abandon once and for all the notion that a fixed body of texts and thinkers — a canon — is its proper subject matter, and must seek thought wherever it can find it — which is everywhere….Every document is a source for intellectual history.  I am not saying that historians of thought should stop reading William James, for instance, but…[that] James should be read in concert with hack journalism of the 1890s, joke books from that era, estate inventories and accounting records, without an a priori notion that one of those texts is more important or significant than the others….The focus should not be on intellectuals, nor on ‘important’ texts, but on ideas.  Thought is to be found everywhere; ideas are the environment in which people live” (Wickberg 392-393).

In this sense, Rodgers’s Age of Fracture is an environmental study; Rodgers seeks to reconstruct the ideational environment — the shared cultural imaginary — that gave rise to this particular, and particularly important, way of understanding the world as governed completely by the logic of “the market.”  However, Daniel Rodgers is also a very traditional intellectual historian.  Despite a nod here and there to television shows and pop-culture flash-in-the-pan bestellers, Rodgers focuses on what we might term “public intellectuals,” inside and outside the academy, as a way of getting at the thought of an age.  Nevertheless, Rodgers has a very broad understanding of who might count as a “public intellectual.”  For example, Peggy Noonan, one of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriters, makes the cut,  as does Reagan himself.

Rodgers’s first chapter, on Reagan’s presidential rhetoric, stands as a sort of summation by synecdoche for his entire argument.  Taking Ronald Reagan as the emblematic figure of the era — a move that is surely meant to demonstrate how intellectual history both overlays and supersedes more conventional approaches to American history as a narrative of political conflict — Rodgers shows how Reagan is also symptomatic of the era.  The language of Reagan’s presidential speeches — his imagery, his invocation of a particular idea of Americanness, his championing of the individual’s search for self-fulfillment — these phenomena point toward larger shifts in how Americans imagined their society and their selves, and these shifts had (and have) practical consequences for how society is structured and how it functions in their wake.

I want to call your attention to one brief passage in which Rodgers sums up the symbolic significance of Reagan’s rhetoric.  On page 39, Rodgers writes, ” The academic debates of the day were for him largely a foreign country…And yet in the enchanted, disembedded, psychically involute sense of freedom that slipped into Reagan’s speeches, in the disaggregation of ‘We the people’ into balconies of individual heroes, in the celebration of the limitless possibilities of self and change, there were more parallels with the intellectual dynamics of the age than many observers recognized at the time” (39).

From this passage, I glean three important points that are crucial to understanding Rodgers’s text as a whole:

1.  “Intellectual history” or “the history of ideas” not only can, but must, look beyond the writings and lives of those who considered themselves to be intellectuals, or who were considered as such by others.  Ronald Reagan, an actor-turned-politician, and Peggy Noonan, a political hack writer, are just as important to understanding American thought as Noam Chomsky or Judith Butler.

2.  Intellectual history has to be able to do two things at once:  to understand from the inside the terms and concepts that were significant for a past era while at the same time not allowing the thinking of a past era to set the terms for our own historical understanding.  One of the problems with the historiography of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s is that historians often frame that past in its own terms.  For example, I have a colleague who is writing a history of the 1980s within the conceptual framework of “the Culture Wars.”  Furthermore, he sees current events as a continuation of “the culture wars.”  I find this collapsing of distance — this wrinkle in time — problematic, and it seems to me that Rodgers might as well.  Collapsing the historical distance between this very recent past and our present is exactly what Rodgers wishes to avoid.

3.  Rodgers’s characterization of Reagan’s speech here — with Reagan as a booster for “the limitless possibilities of self and change” — situates Reagan’s rhetoric within the longer historical arc of the twentieth century, an arc whose trajectory we have been following throughout the semester.  “Limitless possibilities” — that’s an idea right out of Leach’s department store moguls, right out of L. Frank Baum’s fantasies of escape.  What we see in the last quarter of the twentieth century, for better or for worse, is the liberation theology of consumerism as enshrined in the metaphor of the market.

THE ARGUMENT

In his second chapter, Rodgers calls “the market” the “dominant social metaphor of the age” (44).  And he points out a key irony: faith in “the market” as a mechanism to resolve all sorts of social dilemmas, a mechanism based on transhistorical laws and abstracted principles, did not emerge in the boom years of the late 1980s, but during the bust years of the 1970s.  It was precisely when markets were falling apart — the energy market, the job market — that the idea of “the market” came together.  Thus the metaphor of “the market” — a metaphor that is quite literally instrumental in effecting social changes in this “age of fracture” — does its work by pulling together, by aggregating, a previously pluralistic understanding of economics.  The labor market, the commodities market, the agricultural market, the macroeconomy, the microeconomy, each with its own particular logic and laws — all of these were subsumed beneath the single metaphor of a single all-encompassing market.

So in chapter two, as well as in the chapters that follow, Rodgers shows how this idea of “the market” clears space for other ideas that depend upon the same logic of fragmentation, atomization, individualization, separation.  As people became accustomed to the idea of viewing everything as part of “the market,” it was the metaphor — not “the market” — that did the work of breaking down long-standing distinctions and making everything “alike” in the sense that everything that was once fixed was now up for grabs, up for sale.

And each chapter follows a  similar structure —  Rodgers begins by looking at ideas that are circulating in public policy debates and then shows how those popular and popularized ideas influence and are influenced by intellectual debates within the academy.  In tracing the broad contours of American social thought during this period, Rodgers does not follow a highbrow/lowbrow distinction so much as an academic/popular distinction.   Furthermore, Rodgers shows how ideas, concepts, metaphors move effortlessly across this supposed divide — aided, to be sure, by some “bridge institutions,” including not just think tanks but also institutionally young universities, especially the university of Chicago and, in chapter six, Stanford University.

So, if you all don’t mind, I would like to spend a few moments taking a closer look at chapter 6, where Rodgers discusses developments at Stanford University.  In one paragraph, on page 210, Rodgers alludes to what promises to be a dissertation’s worth of institutional and intellectual history.  The chapter, called, “The Little Platoons of Society,” explores Americans’ anxieties about what they perceived as the fracturing of society, the loss of any sense of a “common American culture.”  Rodgers writes:

The controversy focused most sharply on the schools and colleges — the institutions where, if anywhere, as the braod media audiences of the post-World War II years were split into targeted market shares, a common culture was to be forged.

Now, let me stop there for just a minute to point out what Rodgers is doing here.  He is showing that “fracture” did not begin happen in the 1970s or 1980s.  Fracture — the conception of America not as a social whole but as an agglomeration of social segments — began when advertisers and media outlets identified and targeted “markets” within the American populace (Think Thomas Frank’s Conquest of Cool.)  So, back to Rodgers and the cultural work of the American univeristy:

Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind in 1987 had included a plea for a common Great Books curriculum in the colleges as a breakwater against the rising tide of cultural relativism.  That same year, the University of Virginia English professor E.D. Hirsch, Jr., tapped many of the same readers with an argument that basic literacy required not only grammatical skills but also recognition of a nationl’s core cultural vocabulary….Hirsh, a Democrat, resisted the pairing of his project with Bloom’s classics-focused elitism, but together their emphasis on the contents of a common education helped intensify the spotlight on curricular politics.  When in 1988 the Stanford University faculty, one of the few to require a common introductory college course of any sort, voted to modify its existing “Western Culture” options to accommodate more texts by women and persons of color, the war over the “canon” suddenly went national.  Secretary of Education William Bennett appeared on campus to defend a common European-centered core; Jesse Jackson joined the Black Student Union’s rallies seeking to abolish the course altogether.

This particular moment in the 1980s is the focus of my dissertation.  What makes this particular moment stand out to me as an interesting subject of inquiry is …

[At this point I discussed some of my research findings and some methodological challenges of writing intellectual history about the university from within the university.  That’s all I’m gonna say for now.]

So, as historians, all of us are writing about time even as we are caught up in its flow.

The concluding chapter and the epilogue of Rodgers’s book call our attention to the flow of time.  What made “the market” such an appealing metaphor, Rodgers seems to say, was the illusion of timelessness that it conveyed.  “The market” stood above particular circumstance and conditions; it operated on abstract principles and simple economic laws.  “The market” seemed to have no history — it had become “natural,” the lens through which people viewed the world — and it seemed to promise the ability to skip time.  Economic policy wonks were somehow going to bring the nations of the former Soviet bloc into capitalist productivity and prosperity in a matter of months, not decades.  “The market” disembedded and dislodged people, ideas, philosophies, political theories, national leaders, historical actors from their place within history and ranged them side by side as consumer goods, available for appropriation in any combination.  What would Jesus do? What would Ronald Reagan do?  What would the founding fathers do?  Because of “the market,” there are people who try to triangulate between those three questions to determine their present course of action.

Discussion question:

How does Rodgers view the relationship between “the market” and “the academy”?

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great reflections on this important book, LD! Your last paragraph seemed to suggest to me that “the market” was both divine (timeless and self-determined) and satanic (hell-bent on human destruction), simultaneously providential and providential. For Rodgers, is “the market” evil?

  2. Thanks for this, LD! I’m actually in the middle of putting together some short remarks for a conference at Princeton marking Dan Rodgers’s retirement that will take place next week. The presenters are his grad students and each of the panels in the conference (which Sarah Igo did a wonderful job organizing) is focused, at least nominally, on one of Dan’s books. I’m on the AGE OF FRACTURE panel (more specifically I’m trying to present about 12 minutes worth of stuff about Strauss, the Straussians and “Losing the Words of the Cold War”). I finally think I know where I’m going with this…and if it turns out well, I may put a version of it up on the blog a week from Monday.

  3. Well, nuts. I think I should have included a stronger caveat, or at least indicated in this post where my comments differed from what is written here. For instance, almost the whole paragraph quoting Dan Wickberg ended up on the cutting room floor. It was enough to say that Rodgers’s approach isn’t without controversy, but that it is one legitimate approach to intellectual history.

    More importantly — and I am glad to accept the S-USIH Jerk of the Year award for this burst of brilliance — I don’t know what I was thinking in reproducing here the passage about my colleague’s book on the culture wars. First, I don’t know how Andrew is situating his discussion of the culture wars in relation to the culture wars. I was really summarizing in shorthand a lot of friendly brawls we have had here on the blog, and that passage was a “note to self” to mention the general problem of writing history about the recent past and how some of us who are (or are supposed to be) doing it approach the problem. But, as God is my witness, I promise that I did not pronounce any judgments on Andrew’s argument (which I don’t know) or on his caliber as a historian (which seems fine to me!). I mostly just wanted to indicate that I am contrarian in this as well — as if anybody who knows me needs to be told such a thing. In any case, I owe Andrew an apology for what must seem like a one-sentence drive-by dismissal of a book that hasn’t even gone to press yet.

    On a brighter note, one thing that I did add in my remarks, but which is missing here (because the idea really came together for me in the few minutes before class!) is the, ahem, irony of the aggregative function of the market metaphor. I get into that a little bit in my discussion of Rodgers’s exploration of economic theory, but in our seminar discussion I was able to riff sensibly on the unifying, consolidating role that “market segmentation” played in the cultural imaginary.

  4. Fascinating post. But is pointing out continuities necessarily a collapsing of historical distance? I do not think so, one can trace undercurrents that interconnect so-called “eras,” and I think one can certainly trace them through the “metaphor” of the cultural wars and how it continues to reverberate in diverse ways. There are some slippages here too, between the notions of a “past era” and the “recent past,” and how they are distinct from the construction of “our present,”–as a temporality separated from the past. These slippages appear to follow a static conception of historical time, as if one could separate them as fixed, stable temporal categories.

  5. Mark and Kahlil, thanks for the comments.

    Mark, this text seems to me to be neither a celebration of possibility nor a narrative of declension. There is a hopefulness in history, though, and Rodgers rings the changes on that theme at a few places where he deftly points out that economics takes particular events/circumstances and (foolishly) extrapolates general laws/principles. The hopefulness of history as Rodgers writes it seems to be that the future is open. The one transhistorical claim he gestures toward that rally stuck out to me is hardly controversial, but is probably telling. In the prologue, he writes, “…if struggles over the intellectual construction of reality are inherent in all human societies, …” (2). He is partly summarizing the thought of Irving Kristol there, but the reader might be forgiven for wondering whether Rodgers thinks so as well. As I said, it’s hardly a jarring idea, and I’m not even sure that Rodgers takes it as a sign of fallibility. But he’s not a Pelagian optimist either.

    Kahlil,

    You are correct about the slippage on my discussion of time. Part of that has to do with the section I omitted here — I had some transitional stuff between talking about the details of my dissertation and drawing a theoretical connection to Rodgers that I thought it best to leave out. But you’re right — what I’ve left in shows a tendency to try to draw a sharper line between “past” and “present” than is ever possible. The line between “continuity” and “change” is not the same, but poses cognate challenges, I think.

  6. Dear LD: I’m happy to be drawn into a discussion of AGE OF FRACTURE, even if you use me as an example of what not to do! (Seriously, no harm done.)

    You write: “I have a colleague who is writing a history of the 1980s within the conceptual framework of ‘the Culture Wars.’ Furthermore, he sees current events as a continuation of ‘the culture wars.’ I find this collapsing of distance — this wrinkle in time — problematic, and it seems to me that Rodgers might as well. Collapsing the historical distance between this very recent past and our present is exactly what Rodgers wishes to avoid.”

    You make clear in your apology / comment that this could possibly be a mis-characterization of my argument. It is, and it isn’t. I think we are still living with the legacy of the culture wars, which in themselves are the legacy of the transformations of the sixties. That said, things have changed. But it’s a matter of degree. In a sense, aren’t we as historians in the business of analyzing degrees of change and continuity? Often, the change-continuity spectrum becomes the focus of historiographical debate. I argue, for example, contra many historians, that the sixties were transformative, thus I accentuate change in that particular periodizing debate. But I think there’s been much more continuity than change since the sixties, thus, the culture wars are still with us, even if they are different now than they were during the 1980s and 1990s (the decades that form the bulk of my book).

    But the debate about change versus continuity is not where I disagree with Rodgers. Rather, I think Rodgers overstates the case for a common sensibility. There were plenty of thinkers–highbrow and lowbrow, academic and popular–who organized their thoughts with more attention to deeply rooted structures than he allows for with his market-metaphor argument.

    In general, this is my problem with the history of sensibilities. It obliterates political, ideological, and epistemological difference. Just because colonial Americans had more in common with their political enemies than with 21st century Americans does not negate the importance of their political differences. To me, the interesting parts of history, the difficult parts of history, are in those differences.

    None of which is to deny that the history of sensibilities has enhanced our field. It has. I also don’t make the, ahem, neo-Arnolidan argument that we should distinguish our sources with regards to aesthetic or intellectual merit. Dan Wickberg is absolutely correct in the passage you quote.

    Disagreements aside, I love Rodgers’s book. It has compelled me to spill more ink at this blog than any other book. Now, off to teach AGE OF FRACTURE to my graduate students.

  7. Andrew, you are a good sport. Indeed, I was spitballing a summary of your thinking on the CW based on the great amount of ink you’ve spilled here, but even if my “preview” is partly right, doing it that way is all wrong. I am aghast.

    However, I’m not so overwhelmed with an outsized sense of guilt that I’m entirely ready to concede the (slightly ill-gotten) ground.

    How in the world does the history of sensibilities obliterate “political, ideological, and epistemological difference”? It is only in light of such differences that any argument for an underlying likeness can be made, or is much worth making.

    As to neo-Arnoldians, I do sympathize with them, but I have chosen to take a different road, sensibilities be damned. The neo-Arnoldians will never miss me, and I’ll never miss them. But five’ll get you ten I have more fun along the way.

  8. “I have a colleague who is writing a history of the 1980s within the conceptual framework of ‘the Culture Wars.’ Furthermore, he sees current events as a continuation of ‘the culture wars.’ I find this collapsing of distance — this wrinkle in time — problematic, and it seems to me that Rodgers might as well. Collapsing the historical distance between this very recent past and our present is exactly what Rodgers wishes to avoid.”

    Indeed. There is a conceit among historians that that expertise necessarily makes them “public intellectuals.” But understanding the past is no guarantee you could find your ass with both hands in the present.

    http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-04-19/opinions/38672511_1_bush-presidency-magna-carta-worst-president

    “…not just fringe elements of the academy, such as Ward Churchill or Howard Zinn, but also scholars from the nation’s most prestigious universities. In April 2006, Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz published an essay in Rolling Stone titled “The Worst President in History?” Wilentz argued that “George W. Bush’s presidency appears headed for colossal historical disgrace” in part because he had “demonized the Democrats,” hurting the nation’s ability to wage war. No other U.S. president “failed to embrace the opposing political party” in wartime, Wilentz claimed, despite numerous examples to the contrary, such as when Franklin D. Roosevelt compared his Republican opponents to fascists in 1944.

    Not to be outdone, in December of that year Columbia history professor Eric Foner proclaimed Bush “the worst president in U.S. history” and argued that Bush sought to “strip people accused of crimes of rights that date as far back as the Magna Carta.” According to Foner, Warren Harding of Teapot Dome fame was something of a paragon of virtue next to Bush, whose administration was characterized by “even worse cronyism, corruption, and pro-business bias.”

    In 2007, historian Robert Dallek was so appalled by the Bush presidency that he proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow for the “recall” of a sitting president: After securing passage of a 60 percent majority in both houses of Congress, the public would vote yes or no on removing the president and vice president from office. Historian Douglas Brinkley, author of a flattering election-year biography of 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry, declared in 2006 that “it’s safe to bet that Bush will be forever handcuffed to the bottom rungs of the presidential ladder” and that Bush purposely tried to “brutalize his opponents.”

    “A 2010 Siena College Research Institute survey of 238 presidential scholars ranked Bush 39th out of 43, in the esteemed company of Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce and Harding.”

    Although 2013 is still too soon to discuss any of this. ;-P

  9. Andrew: Sounds like your book will add to the growing lit. on the “long 1960s?” See Simon Hall, American Patriotism, American Protest.

    LD and Andrew: Can a “history of sensibilities” be written from the bottom-up? That’s at least what I see Linebaugh and Rediker implicitly doing in the Hydra book. Sorry to keep referencing this work so much, but it’s our base text in the American Revolution class this semester. Building on Hydra, an argument could be made that the sensibility of the AR was “anti-slavery.” Of course, the word slavery itself was to put to so many uses and justified so many competing actions. Such a history would have to account as well for how anti-slavery sentiments could be used to bolster the institution of African American slavery.

    Are there histories of sensibility from the bottom-up?

  10. Mark, that’s an interesting question about the “directional” metaphors that might apply to history of sensibilities. In some ways it is a “leveling” approach, though Andrew, I think, is suggesting that it levels too many things, or does so too indiscriminately. But we both agree that leveling that neo-Arnoldian high/low distinction gets intellectual history out of the tunnel vision of looking only at elites.

    I think Vincent Brown’s The Reaper’s Garden would be a fine example of a work that looks at the conceptual underpinnings of a whole society and system “from the bottom up.” It is a riveting read, and would be especially good paired with The Many-Headed Hydra (I read them back to back for my Transatlantic history list).

    As I was reading MHH, I wondered from time to time, “Are these authors making too much of this metaphor? Surely there were other equally important images or ideas that those in power used to frame the problematic proletariat.” Some of the same concerns arise in critiques of Rodgers’s book, as Andrew has demonstrated above. But I think in both cases the focus on a single and widely dispersed metaphorical conception — a metaphor that could “stand” via synecdoche for a whole era — is precisely what allows for the exploration of difference in the past and difference between past and present.

    Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering is also a cross-sectional account of a significant shift in sensibilities, marking out a time when ideas of the timeless changed. Interesting that both this work and Brown’s work, and Many-Headed Hydra too, give death, the great leveler, its due. I think it’s awfully hard to write good history without hearing that tolling bell, even if you never name it on the page.

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