Title: Age of Fracture
Author: Daniel Rodgers
Categories: Intellectual History, Late Twentieth Century
Place: United States
Time Period: 1970-2003
Daniel Rodgers writes an intellectual history of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Rodgers argues that the final decades of the century witnessed the rise of a new intellectual paradigm to replace the mid-century consensus school of thought that subsumed human nature within broader concepts of society, history, and power. The new paradigm stressed choice, agency, contingency, and individuality, and in doing so ushered in an intellectual "age of fracture." For Rodgers, this intellectual paradigm took place in the realm of language, as older metaphors and keywords lost their coherence and explanatory value and gave way to new ones that became naturalized: the decline of "power," for instance, and the rise of "markets." These ideas engaged in a dialectical relationship with the "reality" of society, economy, and politics, but Rodgers argues that ideas of disassociation, fragmentation, and individualism played a direct role in shaping these forces. Rodgers argues that, rather than the paradigm of conservative vs. liberal ideological struggles during the latter 20th century, these ideas percolated and were co-opted by both sides of the political spectrum (for example, multiculturalism emphasized atomized diversity, while "color-blind" conservatives emphasized individual actors being freed from the burdens of history).
Rodgers examines several areas in which this intellectual transformation took place. Perhaps the most important was that of economics and the "rational choice" paradigm. Rodgers argues that broader, macroeconomic theories of mid-century gave way to the primacy of a free market made up of individual actors making rational choices. Rodgers points out how the language of the market and economists, of game theory and supply-side economics, seeped into other realms - sociology, law, political science, and even common parlance. In Rodgers' words, "To imagine the market now was to imagine 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." Rodgers goes on to note how a language of fracture permeated intellectual debates over power (epitomized by the writings of Michel Foucault that saw power as hidden and insidious) and identity - most notably in the rise of a "post-essentialist" conception of race and splintering of the feminist movement beyond an older ideal of "sisterhood." Rodgers also describes how ideas over social obligations changed by the 1990s, as welfare became demonized and intellectuals from both sides emphasized a more atomized society of individuals, bolstered if at all by voluntary associations, churches, and family groups rather than the welfare state.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Shift from mid-century privileging of society's power to late-century privileging of individual
- Rational Choice paradigm (based on individualism)
- Language: from "power, society, history" to "markets, choices, identities, rights" - some words become more naturalized than others
- Dialectical relationship between ideas and other forces - causality on both sides
- Debates over: economics, power, racial identity, gender identity, society, and history
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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