Monday, 13 February 2012

Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracture

Daniel Rodger, The Age of Fracture

It’s pretty hard to ‘get’ the recent past. I mean ‘get’ in the sense of understanding how different kinds of things – the real messy, complexity of life – fit together. We tend to think of this as coming with hindsight, with careful thought and study, the passage of years, the gaining of insight about how things turned out that weren’t known at the time. Yet every once in a while someone does truly make sense of the recent past.

I was thinking of this recently when reading Age of Fracture by Daniel T Rodgers, the American cultural historian. Rodgers has written a brilliant book that makes sense of the period from the 1970s through to the 1990s in America. It’s hard to do. So many of the different ways of getting at the era are ideologically riven. Should we talk about the rise of neoliberalism? Or should we speak of the progressive attacks on racism, sexism and homophobia? Was it an era of the ‘Me-decade’ (the supposed selfish culture of the 1970s)  and its aftermath or did it see a conservative backlash against feminism and the rise of a family values conservatism?

Rodgers cuts right through this by talking about the last quarter of the 20th century as one in which there was a war of ideas. This was, as the title suggest, an age of fracture: ‘… conceptions of human nature that in the post-World War II era had been thick with context, social circumstance, institutions, and history gave way to conceptions of human nature that stressed choice, agency, performance, and desire. Strong metaphors of society were supplanted by weaker ones. Imagined collectivities shrank; notions of structure and power thinned out. Viewed by its acts of mind, the last quarter of the century was an era of disaggregation, a great age of fracture.’ (3)

His line for the way ideas spread between one context and another – between economics departments and feminist organizations, boardrooms and policy conferences is to talk about the process whereby certain ideas like ‘choice’ and certain readings of ‘freedom’ came to take on new, privileged meaning as a ‘contagion of metaphors.’

I love this idea of metaphors as disease – a sticky, viral ickiness that spreads from mouth to mouth, brain to book to television show – unstoppable because of the sheer, incessant repetition and its seeming usefulness. It’s a nice description of ideas in embryo – in the midst of the excitement of their creation and enthusiasm, when cliché still seems fresh, on the way to, but not yet at, its ‘best before’ date.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful commentary on Rodger's new book. I loved his earlier _Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age_, the best book yet on the transatlantic politics of social reform at the turn of the 19th century. I've now placed my order for The Age of Fracture which sounds equally compelling.