Debating Dan Rodgers’s Age of Fracture

I’ll never forget the moment I ran into a graduate student whose confidence oozed out of his pores. There I was, fresh out of college, excited about a book I had just purchased that I believed would tell me all I needed to know about the decision to go to war in Vietnam. The confident graduate student snatched the book from my hands, quickly glanced at the blurbs on the back cover, and then proceeded to skim the endnotes and bibliography. In less than two minutes, he handed it back to me, declaring “there’s absolutely nothing new in this book. Don’t waste your time.” Well, okay…It’s easy now for me to see what he was doing, and, despite the arresting ridiculousness of such a know-it-all performance, I suppose I could derive some sort of lesson about how books work (or, more importantly, how some graduate students work).

I offer this digressive anecdote to emphasize the peculiar nature of Daniel Rodgers’s latest book, Age of Fracture. I’m not sure if even said transcendently wise graduate student would know what to make of Age of Fracture had he given it the Vietnam book treatment. He would see 2 Live Crew paired up alongside Ronald Coase and Ronald Reagan. This superior graduate student would have undoubtedly wondered what the hell was going on when he saw Maya Angelou hanging out with Leo Strauss and E.P. Thompson in the index. This is not the book you go to in search of new archival treasures. Calling it a synthesis does not quite work either. Rather, Age of Fracture is an ambitious attempt to tell a history of “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.” In short, this book is “a history of these acts of mind and imagination and the ways in which they changed America in the late twentieth century.” (pp. 9-10)

The thesis is fairly straightforward. The latter half of the twentieth century saw intellectual debates, battles over ideas and assumptions that, through a “contagion of metaphors,” resulted in a move towards disaggregation, towards fracture. “Across the multiple fronts of ideational battle, from the speeches of presidents to books of social and cultural theory,” Rodgers asserts, “conceptions of human nature that in the post-World War II era had been thick with context, social circumstance, institutions, and history gave way to conceptions of human nature that stressed choice, agency, performance, and desire.” (p. 3) Although Rodgers gives new scholarship emphasizing the magnitude of the economic structural changes of the 1970s its fair hearing, he insists that the transformation of the mental frameworks with which Americans comprehended their experience profoundly shaped disparate fields of play beyond material circumstance, making the structural-economic explanation an inadequate one. Can the oil crisis precipitated by the 1973 Arab-Israeli War really be the offsetting causal change to the reimagining of gender as performative and race as an identity characterized by fluidity and hybridity? Does the shift from manufacturing to finance tell us much about why, despite the distinct (re)conceptualizations of power offered by game theory and microeconomics, by Foucault and Geertz, ideas about power were predominantly articulated in frameworks privileging culture and the individual rather than structure and class? “Power,” Rodgers observes, “fragmented and diffused; as its means became more subtle, its social dimensions grew thinner and more difficult to define.” (p. 110)

It would be a mistake to classify Age of Fracture a declensionist narrative. Rodgers registers ambivalence about the moral status of fracture throughout the text. This is not, to be sure, to say that Rodgers claims fidelity to a lofty standard of detached objectivity (whatever that means). In fact, ever so often his authorial voice interjects, at times delivering devastating critiques of the various interlocutors of the late twentieth century. (Charles Murray is on the receiving end of one of these takedowns.) The tone, however, is always analytical rather than polemical, which reveals the nature and intent of Rodgers’s book. He does not appear to be all that interested in pinpointing the exact starting point of fracture or whether this move towards disaggregation is “good” or “bad.” At times fracture proves fruitful (rendering Black women legible, for example, or denaturalizing patriarchic conceptions of gender), some times it frustrates efforts to forge and maintain solidarity with those in desperate need of it. What’s more interesting to Rodgers, what fascinates him, is seeing ideas, assumptions, and metaphors in motion, seeing established frameworks and paradigms crumble and made anew, observing ideational cross-pollination in action.

At first glance, all this appears to be orbiting in theoretical space, detached from actual lived experience and real political battles. Yet Rodgers purposefully choses intellectual debates and transformations that rub up against the political asphalt of late twentieth century United States. Consider the rational actor models that were constitutive of rational choice theory and game theory within political science and the market based reasoning that underpinned the law and economics movement coming out of the University of Chicago. The frameworks that these intellectual movements drew from legitimated the free and voluntary association of individuals in the marketplace as the most efficient, and hence most just, social order. Undergirding all this is “the egoistic, calculating, preference-optimizing, rational-actor” that moved from economics departments to political science departments, and finally to America’s judicial system and the mobilizing rhetoric of American political campaigns. (p. 89) Lest one think the ascendance of the individual in political thought was the domain of the political right, Rodgers shrewdly forces one to consider carefully the operative logic of the foremost liberal theory of the second half of the twentieth century. Who lurks behind John Rawls’s veil of ignorance in the original position but the rational individual calculating what the most optimal social arrangement would be were s/he to wind up born unlucky. The stakes were obvious: competing visions of the good life. Rodgers’s interest lies in the subtler task of locating and grappling with the contagion of metaphors that, around the 1970s, did something to American social and political thought. Ideationally, society was becoming atomized; ideas began to disaggregate, to fracture, creating “little platoons of society.”

Neoliberalism stole my lunch money

In a book that runs the gamut from Ronald Reagan’s political rhetoric and the ontological status of race within Black intellectual life to Lacanian psychoanalysis and the Catholic critique of capitalism, one word is conspicuously absent: neoliberalism. This perhaps shouldn’t be all that surprising. Rodgers made a good career out of picking apart academic fads that took the form of an ism. His 1982 article “In Search of Progressivism” reminded scholars of the muddied and indeterminate nature of the term progressivism. A decade later, Rodgers applied Robert Kuhn’s theory of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to view republicanism as an explanatory paradigm that was born of interpretive needs, not logical or evidential ones. Rodgers’s omission of neoliberalism as an explanation for fracture is certainly not a case of oversight but an intentional silence. Although Age of Fracture offers an alternative to the “neoliberalism ruined everything” argument, we are left wondering what exactly he has to say about it beyond the obvious critiques (it is ill-defined, it offers a totalizing theory for why everything sucks since the 1970s, and so on).

I’ve never led a roundtable discussion, so I’ll stop here before getting too speculative about Rodgers’s intentions. I do hope to leave the other discussants with a few questions they can address (or ignore). What does one make of the privileging of ideas and discourse over material and capital-P-political processes and changes to explain the fracture of the late twentieth century? How does Age of Fracture revise the traditional “rise and fall of ___” narratives of the second half of the twentieth century? Is the Age of Fracture over? Politically, what kind of politics and forms of solidarity does the Age of Fracture demand?

I’m looking forward to seeing all of your thoughts.

The posts:

1. Joel Suarez, Debating Dan Rodgers’s Age of Fracture

2. Alex Sayf Cummings, Why Fracture? The Problem of Causation in Rodgers’s Book

3. Andrew David Edwards, When Genius Fractured

4. Mark Sholdice, Some Fractured Thoughts

5. Brian Ingrassia, After the Fracture: An Age of Disaggregation and Reaggregation

6. Ryan Reft, Fracturing Catholics: Big Idea Books, Daniel Rodgers, and the Fragmenting Catholic Church

7. Jude Webre, Thin Is In: Rethinking 40 Years of Intellectual History in the Age of Fracture