I recently read Mical Raz’s excellent new book, What’s Wrong with the Poor?, which Trevor Burrows reviewed at this blog a few months ago. One of the many aspects of Raz’s book that strikes me as especially impressive is the way she meticulously details what Daniel Rodgers refers to as a “contagion of metaphors.” In nearly every field that touched on poverty – from linguists to social work to psychology – the trope of “deprivation” structured how experts understood the poor. Thus, social scientists and policy makers viewed poverty in terms of what the poor lacked, focusing their energies on treating the individuals suffering from this “condition” rather than attacking the structural inequalities that produced poverty in the first place. The experts working on poverty, moreover, imported this model of deprivation with almost no critical examination of the model itself, or whether it always applied to their particular research concern. Consequently, the framework of deprivation spread from field to field with seemingly no exception, only receiving serious pushback by the 1970s.
I found Raz’s account of the promiscuity of the meme of deprivation particularly useful because it seemed clearly anchored, in her narrative, to the political goals and agendas of those who embraced it. It makes sense, in other words, that the concept of deprivation proved so virulent – it offered the perfect solution to post-war liberals concerned about poverty but either unable or unwilling to look its roots in the face. Such a grounding pushes Raz’s book past a nearly documentary project – a report of her findings – and towards at least the start of an explanatory answer, or an argument about those findings. A former professor in my department once made this distinction in a conference, and I’ve never stopped appreciating how he gave me a clear way of articulating my discontent with historical studies that seem to conflate the two.
For in Rodgers, we have the meticulous tracking of the metaphor of “fracture,” but he prefers to remain ambiguous about the question of “whence it came.” As Andrew Hartman and Corey Robin pointed out at the time, this seems unsatisfactory, and moreover (particularly in Robin’s review) unnecessary; there is a way to tether the metaphor of fracture to observable political and historical events that shed quite a lot of light on why it spread so far and wide. However, if one isn’t convinced of any interpretation that favors an “original cause” over other interacting dynamics then neither I, nor anyone else, can somehow insist that they pick one. Yet it does seem to me that a possible consequence of this reluctance is that the task of historical explanation remains unfinished. The metaphor of fracture became so powerful in the post-war period because – well, because it did. Or, there are many reasons we can list for this (as Rodgers does) but somehow the metaphor also took on a life of its own. But why is that? Did it have something to do with the particular historical moment or is that just something that metaphors sometimes do? I can’t help but wanting to press on this question further, although I am aware that at moments like these I might come across as the obnoxious kid that can’t simply accept that we’ve reached the end of the knowable.
Of course, these particular questions of why (and how intense your desire is to answer them confidently) in both Rodgers’ and Raz’s book are linked rather clearly to interpretations that deal directly with the political. However much Rodgers did not view himself as engaging in social critique (see Andrew’s review again for a discussion on this, especially in the comments) he obviously would not deny that in his book he discusses ideas with great political consequence. So one (including myself) might be tempted to interpret my own insistence on this point as a byproduct of my own compulsively political self, and certainly it is at least that. However there are multiple directions we could go with this issue – this question of why I so badly want the why questions answered! Yet as I intended this to be a short post, I’ll leave you hanging with those possibilities.
I will close, however, by gesturing towards an argument of my own. Whatever my predilections and biases – and of course, they are legion – I do think that distinguishing our findings from our arguments is an important skill for historians (and especially graduate students, who tend to hide behind the safety of documentation) to develop. For ultimately, we all agree that even the most intensely researched and expertly written accounts of what happened are so valued because they make it more possible for the rest of us, and future historians, to grapple with the why it happened. Otherwise, we declare ourselves antiquarians, rather than historians. Yet this is a distinction we often allow to become too fuzzy, and this has a whole host of consequences to the direction and purpose of the profession itself. But, like I said, I’ll have to pop open that can of worms and simply let them crawl about for awhile, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about their implications.
 Daniel Rodgers, The Age of Fracture, (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2011), 10.
 Another example of where I think this is a problem is in Jennifer Rosen-Rathagen’s American Nietzsche. As good as that book is, she does appear, to me, to conflate her findings with her argument. Her argument, as she describes it, “that confrontations with Nietzsche laid bare a fundamental concern driving modern American thought: namely, the question of the grounds, or foundations, for modern American thought and culture itself,” is clearly well supported. But as far as I can tell, this is her describing her findings, and is not, in and of itself, an argument about those findings. [Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 23.]