Some Fractured Thoughts

broken mirror

Let me begin by introducing my acquaintance with Daniel Rodgers’s work.  As I have been mostly trained in Canadian history at Canadian universities, I initially saw my dissertation as a re-telling of the history of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario.  Thanks to prodding by my advisor and a chance discovery of Rodgers’s Atlantic Crossings, I have broadened my research to focus on the profound transnational influence of this Canadian publically-owned utility on American Progressives seeking to reform the electric sector in the United States.  Rodgers provided the bridge for my encounter with American history.

Age of Fracture, I believe, can be similarly important in broadening historical work on the late-twentieth-century world.  I think Alex and Joel have offered far more profound observations on this work than I am capable of, so instead I will describe some parts of the book which I think offer helpful jumping-off points for further inquiry.

Some of these insights are presented as passing thoughts.  For instance, Rodgers’s suggestion that the obscurantism of critical theory was an attempt to build a more secure form of intellectual and social capital in an increasingly competitive environment (p. 159) is an observation which could launch helpful research into the historical sociology of knowledge.  The idea that Americans adopted the term “multiculturalism” in the 1990s directly from Canadian cultural policy debates (pp. 210-211) is fascinating, and does not seem to have been noted in any of the Canadian historiography.  I think chapter two, on ideas about the market, and chapter six, on social and political theory, lend themselves particularly well to new studies in these areas.  The ease with which Rodgers interweaves transnational currents within his narrative (e.g. the influence of French poststructuralism) is perhaps a useful alternative to other monographs which emphasize the internal economic and political reasons for disintegration in the late-twentieth-century United States.

Overall, I think the most important intervention of Rodgers in Atlantic Crossings is his emphasis on the importance of ideas in political debates.  Ideas do indeed have consequences, but these consequences are far from clear.  This is an antidote to discursive theorizing which would present ideas as genetically-coded and immutable.  His story of the cross-pollination between the New Left and the roots of neoliberalism is deliberately provocative and deserves closer attention.  Although this theme is present in the work of a range of other writers, from Tony Judt to Michel Houellebecq, Rodgers has written what is perhaps the most definitive account of the phenomenon to date.  The latter, although obviously sympathetic to the left, points beyond the partisan or sectarian limitations which have burdened other narratives of the period.

To answer one of Joel’s questions, Age of Fracture seems to call for a new form of politics coming out of a re-conception of the public good.  We must endeavor to re-aggregate people and ideas if we are to overcome the profound limitations of neoliberalism.  But this comes with an implicit warning to be careful with such ideas.

Mark Sholdice is a PhD candidate at the Department of History, University of Guelph (Canada), which forms the Tri-University Program in History with Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier universities.  His dissertation research focuses on the influence of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario on Progressives in the early-twentieth-century United States.  He spent the 2012-2013 academic year as a visiting student at Princeton University.

Previously on LOST:

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