When Genius Fractured

fail financial crisis

It is hard not to sympathize with Alex’s complaint about Age of Fracture: Rodgers’ implicit avoidance of the question of why. Age of Fracture is not the place to turn to if you are looking for an explanation of America’s twenty-first century malaise. Age of Fracture is a diagnosis, and a second-order one at that – an analysis of failed analyses, neither a prescription nor a cure. But for students wondering at the their elders’ impotence in the face of economic austerity, financial collapse, long-term unemployment, deindustrialization, mass surveillance, and so on, it is the unavoidable place to start.

I read the book as a catalogue of elite failure. Each chapter is a series of logically integrated, persuasively argued description of intellectual dead-ends, short-circuits, and misfires. Brilliant analyses are twisted, readopted by the right or left almost at whim, as the categories and constants of social analysis – from academic analyses of race, gender and power to fundamental notions of past and present – are dissolved, fractured and neutered. Soon, as Rodgers describes beautifully, it was nearly impossible to ascertain whether an idea had originated on the left or right. Both were too busy stealing from each other, often unwittingly.

But as arguments proliferated their power to explain reality diminished. At first it didn’t seem to matter. Even in the aftermath of the 1970s, prosperity seemed inherent to American modernity. In the intellectual debates Rodgers describes, scholars searched for an ideal modernity, implicitly assuming that however it was arranged, material progress was more or less assured. Positions ranged from the instrumental to the idealistic, from John Rawls’s assumption that the rising tide of modernity would lift all leaving only the question of optimal distribution, to the libertarian right’s idealization of social justice as “whatever free markets made with the inputs given to them.”[1] The central question, as Joel points out, was who would this material progress accrue to? Would minorities be allowed a voice, or a place at the table? Would more people be excluded than included in the rising tide?

But then the tide stopped rising. More and more wealth converged in fewer and fewer hands. Productivity rose while wages stagnated. Corporate America found it easier and easier to cut Americans themselves out of American prosperity, justifying it with the same mix of microeconomics and libertarian tautology, or not bothering to justify it at all. Record profits could and did coexist with record long-term unemployment and broad economic stasis. Joel is quite right that Rodgers registers moral ambivalence on the issue of fracture, but he is unrestrained in condemning the “thin and pliable” categories of analysis left in a fractured world. “The constraining power of structures and institutions was hard now to hold in focus,” Rodgers writes of elite responses to the 2008 financial crisis. And, other problems were just as insoluble, for similar reasons. From economic collapse to the war on Iraq, fracture has left our leaders with little to work with. The “structural dimensions of poverty, sickness, and inequality had receded almost into invisibility” helped by “microeconomic models” and “a radical foreshortening of time” by an elite who saw “history as thin” and “institutions as pliable,” and relied “on the ability of universal human incentives to kick in surely and quickly.”[2] America is a more just place than it was 40 years ago, but it is also a country with deep, intractable problems that no one in a position to solve them seems to even understand.

Rodgers implicit prescription is a return to history, a return to structure, though, as Alex notes, he is as loathe to give his readers advice as he is to posit a vast causal force behind the fracturing. His Age of Fracture is overdetermined, as, perhaps, it must be to justify Age of Fracture’s cultural frame. But I think he’s right to avoid direct causality. In a way, he is saying that it is less important to figure out how we got into this mess than it is to understand how we seem to have so few conceptual tools to clear it up.

Rodgers’ Fracture is a sweeping account of a convergent phenomenon: the atomization of elite culture on the left and right, its valorizations and mystifications, its theorists and its champions, from Peggy Noonan to Michel Foucault. It shows how this “fracture” happened, how it emerged out of the 1970s to spread so evenly over Western culture as to easily be mistaken for the substance of the culture itself. It is a what book, not a why book. As such, it has certain unmistakable explanatory limitations, bound up, seemingly in the metaphor of fracture itself. How might a historian describe a cultural and intellectual malady when the disease itself is as variegated as its symptoms? A what book like Fracture matches its structure to its subject matter, diagnosing the multiple cultural failures and fractures of American elite over the past thirty years, by fracturing and fissuring right along with them. Rodgers’s account is a magnificent effort to give this anomie its history, and I think he succeeds.

Andrew Edwards is a graduate student at Princeton University. He graduated from Columbia University in 2011 after a decade spent as a reporter in California, Asia and New York. His research focuses on money and power in the age of revolution.

Other posts in the series:

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

[1] Rodgers, pp. 198, 188

[2] Rodgers, 266-267.