In Age of Fracture, Daniel T. Rodgers traces the fragmentation of American society in the last quarter of the twentieth century. In this tumultuous age, “intellectual assumptions that had defined the common sense of public intellectual life since the Second World War were challenged, dismantled, and formulated anew,” (2). It was “an era of disaggregation, a great age of fracture” in which “struggles of books and mind changed the ways in which social reality itself would be imagined,” (2-3). Age of Fracture is about a modal shift of emphasis from the one to the many. Holistic language yielded to particularized notions of “individuals, contingency, and choice,” (5). Ideas about economics, identity, and power became highly pluralized as the nation experienced a “historic intellectual shift,” (11). Rodgers’ task is not an easy one. As Tony Judt noted in Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (we read the intro for week one), “the recent past is the hardest to know and understand,” (Judt, 2). Rodgers acknowledges his temporal proximity to the late twentieth century (14), but plunges forward to explore “how it was that a vocabulary of social thought unexpectedly became outmoded and passé, and another way of thinking, for an era, made claim to its place,” (14). In my own humble opinion, Rodgers succeeds with flying colors.
Rodgers acknowledges two key limitations in his method. First, Age of Fracture is not a complete history of American fragmentation, but, rather, only a part. Rodgers focuses on “the fields where the heaviest public intellectual ammunition of the era was mobilized, where academic thought and public policy met with the sharpest implications for each other,” (13). Second, Rodgers pays “scant attention to the parallel debates that swept across the world outside the United States,” (13). These limitations are certainly understandable, given the enormity, if not impossibility, of writing a comprehensive history of late twentieth-century fragmentation and disaggregation.
Age of Fracture is a complex work that transcends simple categorization. One could simultaneously label the book as a work of intellectual, cultural, political, or economic history, without any contradiction of terms. Rodgers addresses a different theme in each chapter. In “Losing the Words of the Cold War,” he examines the changing rhetoric in presidential speeches. More than any other president, Reagan changed the language of American politics, as he abandoned conceptual, combative structures in favor of a personalized, conversational approach. In chapter two, Rodgers discusses the economic fragmentation of the age, in which the free market emerged into a “socially detached array of economic actors, free to choose and optimize, unconstrained by power or inequalities, governed not by their common deliberative action but only by the impersonal laws of the market,” (76).
Chapter three details the ways in which power “fragmented and diffused,” as its vocabulary became “less graspable, less easy to employ,” (110). In chapter four, Rodgers explains the complexity of racial issues in the United States that led to its fragmentation. In the post-Civil Rights era, varying attitudes about its implications emerged, which resulted in a “certain amnesia” about racial history (137). Chapter five is devoted to the fragmentation of gender and sexuality in relation to the culture wars of the late twentieth century. In chapter six, Rodgers shows the ways in which political theorists began to favor and emphasize localized, fragmented communities. These theorists imagined society as smaller, more voluntaristic, fractured, easier to exit, and more guarded from others,” (220). Chapter seven is a fascinating examination of changing conceptions of time and history. Competing versions of American history emerged in the late twentieth century, resulting in fragmented interpretations and understandings of the Constitution’s meaning and applicability. The age of fracture made it possible for one to conceive of time and history in more privatized ways. Liberals and conservatives alike framed American history within their own respective eschatological mentalities concerning the origin and destiny of the nation.
In the epilogue, Rodgers explores the implications of the age of fracture for twenty-first century America. He argues that although American society has resembled the Cold War period in the post-9/11 era, the disaggregation of the last quarter of the twentieth century fundamentally and permanently altered the nation. In the understatement of the century, Rodgers suggests that President George W. Bush was not a gifted orator (262). Nonetheless, President Bush, with the help of his talented speechwriting staff, called for a “new civic culture,” that emphasized service and community (264). While this rhetoric resembled the language of the Cold War, Rodgers assures us that it would be economically impossible for such a culture to emerge in a fractured society in which “markets and politics” had “become radically intertwined,” (265). Furthermore, the changes that emerged in the age of fracture became imbedded in the U.S. foreign policy and power structures. Rodgers makes this point more eloquently on the last page, stating, “Pieces of old and new social paradigms filled the air, full of promise and full of danger. They formed fragments out of which the new century’s debates would be constructed…The age of fracture had permanently altered the play of argument and ideas,” (271). Thus, fracture still persisted, even if it hid behind a veil of rhetoric.
Also, here is an interesting interview with the man himself, Daniel Rodgers, about Age of Fracture.
1.) As the title suggests, Age of Fracture explores the disaggregation of many components in American society (e.g. race, power, sex, economics, conceptions of time). In what ways were their fragmentations intertwined? For example, how did the fracturing conceptions of power intersect with the changing notions of gender and sexuality?
2.) In chapter two, “The Rediscovery of the Market,” Rodgers attributes the appeal of supply-side economics in the early 1980s to its simplicity. He argues that the “supply-siders spoke to a widespread public weariness with being hectored with hard choices and uncertain forecasts,” (73). Supply-side economics accounted for “the hunger for self-administering economic rules, and the rising stock of simple ideas,” (73). However, Rodgers’ evidence appears to be relatively thin, as he does not expand upon this idea for the remainder of the chapter. Do you believe that Rodgers is correct in his claim that supply-side economics won support, in whole or in part, because of its simplicity? Are Americans in 2013 attracted to simplicity in seeking answers for complicated issues?
3.) According to Rodgers, as power “fragmented and diffused” in the 1980s (110), it was viewed with skepticism in the academy and with optimism by the masses. Has this trend endured into the twenty-first century?
4.) In the great age of fracture, Americans struggled to make sense of the language and meaning of race. Conservatives disliked strategies, such as Affirmative Action, that showed preferential treatment based on race. Instead, they preferred a “colorblind” approach that, theoretically, evaluated people, regardless of race, within the same set of qualitative criteria (129). Do you believe the push for a “colorblind” America is an example of racecraft? Would Barbara and Karen Fields view it as such?
5.) Rodgers devotes a significant amount of space to Presidential rhetoric, detailing the manner in which America lost the language of the Cold War, only to gain the language of the War on Terror in 2001. Do you believe this ebb and flow of national language is a continuing trend in American history or is it unique to the age of fracture, existing parenthetically between two wars (one cold and one quite hot)?