After the Fracture: An Age of Disaggregation and Reaggregation

goldwater reagan and nixon

In recent years, I have taken to calling the Sixties lecture in my U.S. history survey “The Age of Fracture.”  Of course, I start by telling my students that I borrow the title from a famous historian at Princeton, but then I explain that I beg to differ with his periodization and nomenclature. Here I will propose that the last quarter of the twentieth century mostly occurred after the fracture, and that the period Daniel T. Rodgers examines so masterfully in Age of Fracture might be better understood (using his own terms) as a transitional time of disaggregation and reaggregation.

First of all, let me give credit where credit is due. Age of Fracture is a marvelous and thought-provoking book, doing for the postmodern mind approximately what Carl Schorske’s classic Fin de Siècle Vienna did for the modern mind.  However, it can be a somewhat unsatisfying book for those of us who want to base our understandings of ideas, rhetoric, and culture at least partly in material reality. Previous commentators—including myself, in a 2011 post on the U.S. Intellectual History blog—have asked what fractured, and why?  Perhaps this question is beyond the scope of the book, but it is nevertheless worth asking. Without trying to oversimplify Rodgers’s multifaceted argument, perhaps we could say that at the most basic level what fractured was the nation-state and traditional social structures. Alongside this most basic fracture was a weakening of identities and mental topographies—such as economic models that assumed nationally regulated market activity—associated with nations or nationalism.

But if this is the case, then the fracturing began well before 1970.  For example: Ronald Reagan and his words did not simply burst into the scene in 1980. (To me, this is one reason why the presidential rhetoric chapter feels so “thin,” as Alex astutely puts it.) Recall that Reagan became a significant national political figure in 1964, when he promoted the ill-fated candidacy of Barry Goldwater—and critiqued civil rights legislation for pushing federal control too far into the private lives of Americans. Subsequently, Reagan led a conservative movement to replace the public sphere with a de-regulated, privatized society. In other words, the “Great Communicator” was one of a number of Americans who started deconstructing national and public obligations in the turbulent 1960s, nearly two decades before his own presidential rhetoric.

Why did the nation-state and traditional social structures fracture?  This is a tough question, yet we might venture a guess or two.  In the post-1945 era, the rise or advance of a wide array of new technologies and infrastructures—computers, telecommunications, jet aircraft, and interstate highways, just to name a few—broke down spatial, temporal, social, and intellectual boundaries.  Local and national boundaries became more porous and de-colonization movements challenged imperial hegemonies around the world. Once again, the civil rights movement is informative: Martin Luther King, Jr., invoked both de-colonization and the desire to travel on America’s interstate highway system when he challenged Jim Crow segregation. Activists such as King were successful in integrating a public sphere that had been coded white since at least the 1890s, but in the process they inspired the aforementioned conservative backlash.

If the fracture started after World War II and was well under way by the 1960s, it seems odd to begin in the 1970s. Age of Fracture has an in media res quality about it, insofar as the reader seems to be jumping in just after something really big happened. Admittedly, Rodgers does mention the 1960s several times throughout the book, but only in passing. This is not to say that Rodgers should have written a book about the Sixties instead of breaking new ground on a later period—rather, it is to say that perhaps what remains vexing about the book is that its dominant paradigm is one of “fracture,” which might be more accurately applied to an earlier era.

This is where I would borrow Rodgers’s own terminology to say that the 1970s-1990s might better be understood as an age of disaggregation and reaggregation. It was a time when control was lost, old aggregates broke down, and new ones started forming from the debris.

Disaggregation is an important term that emerges repeatedly throughout Age of Fracture (although unfortunately it does not have its own index entry).   Rodgers successfully shows how once-coherent wholes visibly split apart and were replaced by individual choices and identities.  It was a time of fluidity. As the nation and social structures disaggregated, individuals reaggregated into what Rodgers calls “Little Platoons of Society.” As nations relaxed barriers and regulations, economists invented an abstract marketplace where individuals made rational choices and magically created an economic order that required virtually no planning. As society relaxed traditional mores and structures, social scientists and humanists saw power percolating from numerous directions—not just from the top down. As legal racial and gender barriers fell (thus disintegrating a public sphere long premised on patriarchy and white supremacy) consciousness of racial and gender identity grew in importance. Society was disaggregating, but it was also reaggregating.  Something old had fractured, but something new was being formed.

To fracture is to take a whole and to split it into multiple parts. Rodgers’s story, though, is more complex and transitional than this term implies—it is a story of control being lost, sought after, and reformulated. When economic control was lost, markets became fluid and abstract; when political control was lost, power was everywhere. When post-1945 society fractured and longstanding political, economic, and social controls disappeared, late-1900s thinkers floundered about for new rhetorical or intellectual frameworks that would explain the new order.

In 2013, we may be in a transitional moment when society is still reaggregating. If so, then this realization might explain why Age of Fracture is so exhilarating yet ultimately incomplete.  Of course, historians should not dabble in predictions, but I would not be surprised if there comes a day when historians read this book mostly as a primary source—as one of the first attempts to come to grips with our own 21st-century “search for order,” to invoke Robert Wiebe’s well-known characterization of America’s turn-of-the-century Progressive Era.

Even though Age of Fracture is a perceptive, whirlwind tour of the late-twentieth-century American mind, perhaps we can quibble with Rodgers’s dominant paradigm and say that the book is as much about what started to happen after the fracture as it is about the fracture itself. In any case, the book will be a wonderful starting point for forthcoming analyses of late-twentieth-century culture and intellect, even if it is not the final word on that subject.

Brian M. Ingrassia is an assistant professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University and author of The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football, which was published by the University of Kansas Press in 2012.  He is the series editor of the Sport and Popular Culture Series at the University of Tennessee Press and a contributor to the US Intellectual History Blog, where he previously commented on Age of Fracture here.

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