Thin Is In: Rethinking 40 Years of Intellectual History in the Age of Fracture

friedman foucault butler gates

But let us honestly state the facts. Our America has a bad name for superficialness. Great men, great nations, have not been boasters and buffoons, but perceivers of the terror of life, and have manned themselves to face it.

The quote is by Ralph Waldo Emerson from “Fate,” the first essay in his 1859 collection, The Conduct of Life – a somber, more dialectical late-career work in light of his reputation as an irrepressible optimist. In the essay, Emerson describes at metaphorical length the necessary tension – a fistfight even, like “two boys pushing each other on the curbstone of the pavement” – between Fate and Power (or at another point Nature and Thought). If America is to achieve its proper place among great nations, Emerson argues, its people, both individually and collectively, will have to grapple with this tension, in particular the limitations of Fate, which include the inequalities of history based on class, sex, and, most ominously on the eve of Civil War, race: “How shall a man escape from his ancestors, or draw off from his veins the black drop which he drew from his father’s or his mother’s life?” As Cornel West has incisively observed, for Emerson and the tradition of American thought that his influence launched, race has been the quintessentially American mark of Fate.

I bring up Emerson in the context of the Age of Fracture roundtable because in my reading, this Emersonian strain haunts Daniel Rodgers’s elegantly readable and analytically messy synthesis of the last 40 years of American “intellectual history.” To use that term is of course to stir up an uncomfortable discussion among American historians these days. Hadn’t we rid ourselves of elitist, armchair ruminations on ideas, which are clearly epiphenomenal at best and at worst potentially repressive? Beyond the clarification of ideological terms, shouldn’t the focus be on structural formations, institutions, and power? If the field of U.S. Intellectual History has a dean, however, Rodgers would surely be on the short list, and the admirable trajectory of his career – from his early work of cultural labor history, through the seminal historiographical essays in the 1980s that Joel mentioned, to his exhaustive transnational revision of Progressivism, Atlantic Crossings – has been, in one telling, an effort to infuse the relatively conservative precincts of American historiography with the radical spirit of post-structuralism and the linguistic turn which swept other academic disciplines in the 1980s. As much as I admire Rodgers’s books, I have always found his attempt to be too cautious – more Lakoff, as Alex noted, than Derrida or even Raymond Williams. This seems to be in part temperamental but also reflective of his almost Burkean sensitivity to the obligations of collective consensus among academic researchers.

What made Age of Fracture fascinating to me, among other things, is Rodgers’s effort to come to terms with a wide range of intellectual production – from presidential speechwriting to public-school textbooks; from high economic theory to simplistic panaceas; from queer theory to tendentious bestsellers on moral values; from Frederic Jameson to Tim LaHaye – treated with equanimity and without partisan rancor, although some readings are certainly more pointed than others.  One of the great virtues of the book, and what will make it an invaluable starting point for future research, is that he brings everybody together from across the political and theoretical spectrum. If one wants to tell a national story, and Rodgers most certainly does, then Judith Butler has to be part of the story just as much as Milton Friedman or Jesse Jackson.

But this inclusiveness is not just descriptive but also analytical. As Joel pointed out, Rodgers is interested in “ideational cross-pollination,” the slippage if you will of metaphors and signifiers from left to right and back again, which shows at the least analogical parallels between left and right political discourse over the last three decades. Glenn Beck’s frenetic chalkboard mash-up of historical categories is the opera buffa of the genre, and regular viewing of cable punditry makes this argument intuitively persuasive. But Rodgers’s use of this method bears mixed results. At its best, he powerfully connects the movement of the phrase “color-blind society” from Justice Harlan’s Plessy dissent to its use as a post-Brown v. Board ideological prop in the long-term movement to subvert practical remedies for historical discrimination. But at several points, his analogies are too clever, crucially underdeveloped if appealing in their symmetries, for example the shared ahistoricism of postmodern aesthetics and End Times millenarian movements.

Which brings us back to Emerson. Rodgers never articulates it in explicit terms, but for me the central substrate of his narrative rests on the Emersonian polarities of freedom and fate. Although I agree with other respondents about the thinness of the chapter on the presidential speechmaking, Rodgers offers an important insight there that Reagan’s departure from Cold War rhetoric of civic obligation for a revitalized expansive individualism reflected the influence on the Reagan persona of the self-actualization psychology of Norman Vincent Peale and others, which in turn had its roots in the bleached Emersonianism of the late-19th century mind-cure movement. But one could likewise argue that the phenomenon of “anarchic self-fashioning” on the Left inspired by the post-structuralist tide of the early ‘80s, whether Henry Louis Gates’s signifyin’ strategic identity or Butler’s trangressive performativism, have a crucial debt to the Nietzschean elaboration of Emerson – “creative nihilism” unburdening itself of historical weight. At another point, Rodgers figures post-1970s political debates over gender, among both feminists and traditionalists, as a question of flux vs. certainty – a clear echo of the pragmatist terms of William James and John Dewey. In this reading, the transformative potential of African-American modernism and queer theory in American culture falls in the lineage of Jamesean pragmatists such as W. E. B. DuBois and Gertrude Stein. But as his sympathetic invocation of the neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty suggests, Rodgers is as concerned with the Deweyan question of situating individual freedom as much as unleashing it.

For me, the most powerful chapter in the book is the one on “Race and Social Memory.” Following an entire chapter on how power is conceptualized in a post-structuralist world, including among academic historians, Rodgers begins the following chapter with a simple but crucial statement: “To be born into a society marked by race was to be born into a system saturated with power.” In a sense, he renders the debates he just described merely “academic” and takes up the consequential policy debates of the post-Civil Rights era over desegregation, affirmative action, and persistent inequality. In the balance against the effervescent potential of the signifying self, just as much as the rational actor model or the Reaganite dreamer, Rodgers puts the weight of history – whether intractable poverty, macroeconomic cycles, or post-Soviet institutional collapse. I think Joel is quite shrewd to point out that “neoliberalism” is the name that shall not be spoke in Age of Fracture, but this does not mean that Rodgers is not making a philosophical and political critique of its corrosive effects in our problem-solving capacities, to corroborate Andrew’s thesis. For Rodgers, a resurgent ahistoricism is the common thread between the Right and Left during the Age of Fracture, an effort to transcend historical circumstances through thought, signification, and invocations of freedom without due concern for the intractability and inertia of historical formations. The neoliberal individual is regnant ideologically without the historical and sociological imagination of the previous era to chasten its illusions or excesses.

I could not agree more with Alex that the great shortcoming of Age of Fracture is its methodological opacity. I could accept that Rodgers is not focused on showing causality for the shift from aggregation to disaggregation – that this is a “what” book and not a “why” book as Andrew puts it. But for an intellectual historian of Rodgers’s stature to leave his methodology under-theorized is to leave open many questions about the place of ideas within the very historical processes that are the focus of this book. Perhaps this is the privilege afforded by a late-career synthesis that is comprehensive, continually thought-provoking, if theoretically unmoored. In this respect, Rodgers has great company in syntheses of an earlier era: Robert Wiebe’s The Search for Order and H. Stuart Hughes’s Consciousness and Society. But for someone who lived through the theoretical debates of the linguistic turn and has obviously spent a good deal of time thinking about them, it seems odd not to take a stronger position.

In that sense, I am left feeling that Age of Fracture is an ambivalent and indeed rueful reflection on Rodgers’s own position in the narrative he tells. The book’s epilogue, a brief summation of the post-9/11 political landscape, is oddly plaintive to my mind. In as charitable a reading of George W. Bush as you’re likely to see from a liberal historian, Rodgers praises W.’s efforts to unify the nation, at least rhetorically, around collective obligation and sacrifice, only to see those efforts undermined by the fractured ideologies and policies of his own party. Likewise, the yearning for collective meaning in Obama’s “Yes, we can” campaign belied the splintered movement cultures of the left. What was lost in the Age of Fracture, Rodgers seems to suggest, was not only the collective will to tackle momentous problems, but also an effective analysis of structure and power, of historical formations, that would allow us to properly conceptualize those problems. But in that respect, I concur with Alex in asking what more does Rodgers’s analysis get us than David Harvey’s more robust theory of postmodernism, other than historical specificity?

One can also question whether national unity was ever an effective vessel for collective problem solving or only a rhetorical fiction increasingly irrelevant in a global age. But as the Supreme Court’s decision yesterday to neutralize the Voting Rights Act proves, we are still yoked together as a society and a nation, and the weight of history is as stubborn as ever. Age of Fracture offers an important reminder that achieving social change requires a thorough understanding of historical processes as well as a collective basis. But whether national unity is possible, or ever was, is the somber takeaway of this impressively comprehensive view of our fractured politics.

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