New Book Discussion: Age of Fracture
Author: Daniel Rodgers, Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, and Director, Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies, Princeton University; commentators: John Judis, Senior Editor, The New Republic; Michael Kimmage, Associate Professor of History, Catholic University
Daniel Rodgers' book Age of Fracture presents a new view of American intellectual history in the years since 1974, exploring changes in several distinct "regions of thought" during the era. Rodgers began his presentation by defining the time period of his focus. Decades, he said, "are rarely the right container for history," and as such, the age of fracture is defined by larger trends in society, not calendar years or presidential administrations. He urged the audience to "think about the twentieth century ending with a much longer period" than scholars have previously considered. Key factors in defining the period of fracture include what social theorist David Harvey has called "post-Fordism"--the end of the manufacturing-based economy in America, and the "divided and highly volatile politics" that have emerged over the past three or four decades.
The goal of the work, Rodgers noted, is to think broadly about changing ideas and conceptions during the late twentieth century and show how these changes reshaped the sense of "normal" in American society. The book therefore examines the "fracturing of the strong readings of society that have dominated the [20th] century." Focusing closely on the language of social change, Rodgers highlighted three key words that defined the transition from the collective social norms of the post-World War II era to the more individualistic decades of the 1980s and 90s: agency, contingency, and choice.
For Rodgers, the age of fracture occurred within three distinct "regions of thought": the economy, power dynamics, and social fragmentation. The economic crisis of the 1970s exposed the inadequacies of the macroeconomic models that predominated at that time. No longer able to predict the actions of the market, economists began to look at micro-level analysis as an alternative. This action literally reordered the way in which economics was taught to subsequent generations, with microeconomics now being placed first in textbooks. As an example of social fragmentation, Rodgers cited the 1960s and growing disagreement within minority and women's groups over race and gender, which they began to see as artificial social constructs. "Without a stronger sense of the webs of interdependence and the mutual entanglement of our lives and of the public good," Rodgers said, "we lose any serious connection with the world in which we live."
In his remarks, commentator John Judis praised Rodgers' detailed analysis of how we see our own nation. He then went on to propose that the age of fracture is simply part of a recurring pattern in American history, one in which individualism is the default state, with communalism taking hold only in the presence of an outside threat. For him, the unique aspect of the shift Rodgers discusses is the fact that it occurred before the end of the Cold War, the point where many have defined the beginning of the late twentieth century. Judis cited the Vietnam War and the end of the draft as the true beginning of this shift in American society.
Commentator Michael Kimmage also commended Rodgers' book, calling it "boldly synthetic history" for its ability to connect historical events with intellectual theory. He also praised the book's focus on language and its even-handed treatment of both left- and right-wing perspectives. Kimmage did, however, make two critical points. First, he questioned whether or not fracture was as significant as Rodgers and others have claimed,,citing Ronald Reagan's brand of nationalism late in the Cold War as an anomaly within what they have portrayed as an individualistic age. Second, he asked about causality in the age of fracture, highlighting influences such as the media revolution and globalization as new variables that might also account for the dramatic changes that have occurred in American society.
By: Andrew Bedell, Program Intern
Sonya Michel, Director, United States Studies