Age of Fracture

March 10, 2011

In the early 1990s, the hottest (or coolest) of the new African-American intellectuals, Cornel West, was asked to compare his reading of race with that of the architect of Afrocentrism, Molefi Kete Asante.

They were agreed on their critique of white supremacy and their emphasis on the importance of self-respect among people of African descent, West replied, but then they parted company. "For him, notions of a solid and centred identity are positive," he continued. "I revel in fluidity, in improvisation, in the highly complicated and paradoxical...I begin with radical cultural hybridity, an improvisational New World sensibility...I'm not for solid anything."

For Daniel Rodgers, this jive surfs the zeitgeist. "Choice, provisionality, and impermanence; a sense of the diffuse and penetrating yet unstable powers of culture; an impatience with the backward pull of history - these were the emergent intellectual themes of the age." Rodgers calls it the "age of fracture". The epithet is designed to capture the multiple transformations he identifies in ways of thinking, imagining and metaphoring in the US in the final quarter of the 20th century. This means an anatomy of the "culture wars" (the catchy title of a 1991 book by James Davison Hunter); an enquiry into styles of social thought broadly conceived; a history of intellectual research and development and theoretical entrepreneurship; and a glossary of "a contagion of metaphors" - a dictionary of received ideas, à la Flaubert, without the coruscating wit.

Metaphors loom large in this account, in particular metaphors that migrate from one domain to another, colonising new territories of intellectual enquiry and public policy, a little like the conquistadors of old.

Microeconomics has a lot to answer for in this regard, as Rodgers points out. The very idea of "choice", now so ubiquitous and multifarious ("pro-choice"), leached into the cultural consciousness by way of microeconomic models ("rational choice"), inflecting and infecting vast areas of the social sciences in the process ("rational-choice political science", a double metaphorical remove from reality). The rational actor stalks the land, counting not his blessings but his expectations. Utility maximisers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your gains.

For Rodgers, the triumph of micro- over macroeconomic modes of thought is symptomatic. His book is a survey of what he sees as the disaggregating tendencies of the age; a mosaic of the fragments, the tesserae, the pieces of paradigms old and new. "Since the middle years of the twentieth century, much had broken up and much had been liberated," he writes in conclusion. "Identities were more openly imagined now: more fluid and multiple, less tightly packaged by gender and social-role theory, less quickly read as the expression of social norms and structures. Despite the backlash of the culture wars, a broader range of being human was tolerated than before ... The era's emphasis on choice, the most contagious of the age's metaphors, was not merely a simplification of ideas of human nature under the influence of the economic model makers. There were more choices than before - not just more consumer goods but more worlds of ideas and selves and aspirations from which to choose."

In other words, the lonely crowd dispersed into the little platoon. Rodgers has a riff on the reference. "In a phrase drawn from Edmund Burke that became ubiquitous in early-1990s conservative writings, the 'little platoons' of society were the sites where civic life and obligations were most surely grounded. That reading was not, perhaps, one that Burke himself might have recognized. 'To love the little platoon we belong to in society,' Burke had written in criticizing the ferocious self-interest of the third estate in Revolutionary France, 'is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.' Now, in the extracted phrase, as country and mankind were cropped out, the series of affections faltered. The little became, as in (Michael) Walzer's left pluralistic vision of justice, the tacit substitution for the whole."

This is a characteristic miniature: a blend of commentary and contextualisation, admirably judicious. Rodgers is an excellent anatomist. His forte is clarity. Once in a while, he delivers himself of an opinion that seems positively clairvoyant. Of the interpretive language of "deconstruction" according to Derrida, he observes: "The very difficulty of the new interpretive readings added to the status of those who acquired the codes and facility. In a university system that was moving towards more entrepreneurial and market forms, where administrators competed more and more heavily to be on the cutting edge of market trends, 'theory' was a powerful commodity for the department and the academic entrepreneurs who could lay claim to it." After culture war, status anxiety? After fracture, lucre?

Age of Fracture

By Daniel T. Rodgers. Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 360pp, £22.95. ISBN 9780674057449. Published January 2011

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