Age of Fracture
Daniel T. Rodgers
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011
360 pp., $29.95
Age of Fracture
To stop inquiry at the revelation of the ironic is to stop too soon. That is the conclusion that emerges from a reading of Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers' potent new interpretation of late-20th century American intellectual life, Age of Fracture. It's a book that captures vast swaths of consequential debate and that will certainly stimulate more of it—as the opening sentence above attests.
Rodgers' understanding of both our age of fracture and his discipline, intellectual history, centers on the centrality of metaphor. "What matters," he writes at the outset, "are 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." It is thus not issues or policies or political figures that he sees Americans most momentously battling over but rather a "contagion of metaphors." This premise makes his own selection of a defining metaphor for the book and historical period particularly salient. Why choose fracture? Why have we fractured?
Ronald Reagan, counterintuitively, is the figure to whom Rodgers turns to help the reader into this thicket of language, meaning, and action. Often depicted as the catalyst of a new era of national unity, Reagan turns out to be in Rodgers' reading an agent of fracture—and this ironic turn prepares the reader for what is, chapter by chapter, to come. In the decades following World War II, Rodgers argues, American social thought was thickly social: freedom implied duty, and historically rooted institutions were central to securing it. But for all the mystique of solidarity and historical continuity Reagan aimed to create, in his actual speeches and policies, contends Rodgers, we witness "the eclipse of words thick with a sense of society, history, and responsibility by the new rhetoric of psychic optimism." Reagan's idealized American seemed free from inherited social forms of any kind and released from the pleasures and burdens of "common action"—evidence, among other things, of "the new, oddly unconservative American conservatism."
Crucially, the "disaggregating"—a keyword in this narrative—that was occurring in and through Reagan's politics was also present in everyone else's. "The fracture of the social," Rodgers claims, "was, in the end, as much a product of left-leaning intellectuals as it was of the new intellectual right." Academic leftists, for instance, on a determined quest to understand and unmask power, ended up elaborating notions of power that were strangely immaterial and individualistic, harbored not in institutions but language, "in meaning itself, in the very tremulous stuff of culture"—and thus very difficult to counter, politically or personally. Feminist intellectuals, convinced of the possibility of a more dignifying solidarity, actually devoted themselves to theories that left "every gender certainty shaken" and the notion of a coherent self itself incoherent. Unexpectedly, "hybridity and contradiction" became something like a social ideal: Lady GaGa unleashed. Even communitarian champions of civil society, so visible in the 1990s, rarely imagined a "social citizenship as extensive as the nation itself." In the end, Rodgers poses as an altogether sensible question: "With all larger categories reduced to fragments, was there anything left but individualistic politics?"
Apart from his assumption that the battle over controlling metaphors in large part yields the history of the age, master theories of any kind are absent in Rodgers' own social imaginary. The closest he comes to suggesting a deep reason for this propulsion toward fracture is his foregrounding of the dominance of the market both as an economic presence and (what I can only call) a spiritual hope. What we have experienced, he believes, is "a culture reshaped in the choices and present moment preoccupations of a market-saturated society"—something mighty enough to have "transposed the frame of argument" across discourses, disciplines, and arenas.
Rodgers' narrative of this transposition is utterly compelling, a true tour de force. In his telling, an unprecedented convergence of economic, political, and legal thought created a dauntingly strong intellectual vortex, as sophisticated theorists touting "highly idealized markets" stepped forward to provide the procedural norms for an expansive technocracy desperate to move forward amidst great national instability and diminishing cultural coherence. The new thinking about markets became (in the face of any number of institutional and social difficulties) a "compelling instrument of simplification" and, inevitably, turned the market itself into "a metaphor for society as a whole." Rodgers' quotation from Stephen Breyer in the early 1980s strikingly reveals the spread of this economic conception of reality into the sphere of law. "The body of economic principle," Breyer opined, "offers objectivity—terra firma—upon which we can make decisions"—a telling formulation. Breyer and his ilk may have achieved a sense of solidity in their field, but Rodgers contends that Americans themselves, under the aegis of market-think, were reduced to an "array of consenting, voluntarily acting individual pieces."
Is the sweeping presence of market metaphors in the American imagination enough to explain the regnant fracturing Rodgers' narrative unveils? He doesn't exactly claim that it does. But neither does he provide much explanation of what else may have led us, against our best intentions, in this radically atomizing direction. The irony of community-building leading to community-fracturing certainly figures centrally in the story we are living out today. But there's more to tell, and to get at that we might consider the hope for objectivity Breyer expressed. If market logic has actually produced not terra firme but social earthquake, might the notion of objectivity upon which such thought is grounded have a part to play?
By seeking "objectivity," Breyer, understandably, hoped for a vantage that would aid the realization of our bedrock ideals: justice, equality, freedom, opportunity, community. But the particular notion of objectivity Breyer (reflecting an overwhelming mainstream consensus) turned to—empiricist, materialist, nominalist—far from yielding such insight and experience has arguably defeated it. This at least is what a certain line of Christian inquiry (among others) has contended. The modern notion of objectivity, on this view, has actually abetted fracturing at all levels, having emerged within a straitened conception of reality that sanctions the breaking of reality into its component parts without an adequate notion of the whole of which it is a part and on which it is working—a costly case of a misguided metaphor, as it were, the cosmos reduced to "natural resources." Clearly we have achieved a stunning kind of material success by disassembling and then refashioning the disaggregated material into forms believed to be more useful, pleasing, or profitable. Still, it is also clear that it is the disaggregating we do best. Even our enormous mechanical and technological successes are now darkly shadowed by consequent material fracturing, and on a panoramic scale.
It was the great conviction of 19th-century students of human affairs that the epistemology and methods that seemed so spectacularly effective in transforming the material world would have the same effects in the social world. Finally, thanks to objective, empirical methods, we would dispense with metaphysics and come to know ourselves. Proceeding on such terms, for more than a century "social scientists" have unstintingly sought to describe us and our worlds with intricate nominalist conceptions of reality, introducing vocabularies that we now speak easily and that we tend to assume give us a good idea of what is happening to us. Rodgers' use of terms like "disaggregation," and his (seemingly) neutral judgments about such things as "agencies of socialization" emerge from this argot; his confidence in it reflects our common belief that such vocabularies afford us the possibility of new forms of union: that by them we might summon the will to re-aggregate (?), if we can only find, perhaps, better metaphors, metaphors that make possible keener collective vision.
There is certainly something to this belief in the centrality of metaphor in the fulfillment of our deepest hopes. But only, as Christians see it, if our language itself is reconceived as (always already) metaphysical and moral expression—and thus answerable to a reality beyond itself. Rodgers approvingly cites Richard Rorty's famed dismissal of the notion of an "ur-language" to which all human beings have access. "Solidarity," Rorty insisted, "has to be constructed out of little pieces, rather than found already waiting, in the form of an ur-language which all of us recognize when we hear it." Yet absent such a conception of language, is there good evidence that we have the capacity to transcend linguistic and material fragmentation, and, as Rorty (following James Baldwin) hoped, "achieve our country"? What might it take to get Rorty's "little pieces" to cohere? Is the ur-method of pragmatism really enough to replace the ur-language that humans have otherwise spent millennia believing it to be the soul of wisdom to learn?
There's not much hope emerging from Rodgers' story for achieving our country. Ironic disjuncture, with little possibility for resolution, is the last word. One admires his honesty. It's worth noting that Rodgers scants two intellectual currents that have in the post-Sixties world experienced impressive unifying, aggregating success: green thought and Christian theology. Perhaps because each tends to see the nation-state as at best inadequate to establish and promote its central concerns, Rodgers places them beyond the pale of his inquiry and interest. But both green thought and Christian theology are premised on a notion of wholeness that calls into question, with varying degrees of skepticism, the value of scientistic conceptions of reality, seeing them as Rodgers himself depicts monetarism: "a bulldozer that could raze a building but not erect one."
Christians believe that coherence and cohesion are found in the divine logos, the living Word of God, and that to speak against this Word is to inevitably fracture all other words and worlds. By offering us bread and wine, the incarnate Word signaled the final solidarity of all created reality, visible and invisible. Like all true solidarities, it offers an experience of freedom rooted in submission. That's one irony that won't go away.
Eric Miller, professor of history at Geneva College, is the author of Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch (Eerdmans).
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