Daniel T. Rodgers

 

On his book Age of Fracture

Cover Interview of March 30, 2011

In a nutshell

Age of Fracture is a book about the ideas and arguments that now shape our times.  It is about the ways in which conceptions of society and selves that were a commonplace in the middle years of the twentieth century broke into bits and fragments.  It is about how we got the tools for thinking about society that we have now, and what it means to live with them.

I mean Age of Fracture in part as a guide to those perplexed by the debates of modern times.  Across a broad terrain of concepts—markets, society, power, identity, gender, race, and time—I have tried to track the ways in which ideas and arguments that were common a generation ago were repudiated and remade.  Keynesian ideas of the macroeconomy were elbowed out in the 1970s by ideas of flexible, self-correcting markets. Postmodernism swept through the English departments.  Libertarian ideas penetrated both liberal and conservative circles.  Identities multiplied.  Ideas of social obligation shrank into smaller circles.  Equality disappeared as an aspiration.  Talk of cultural consensus gave way to slogans of a “culture war.”

Age of Fracture focuses on the last quarter of the twentieth century, from the mid 1970s, when the great post-World War II economic boom began to falter, to the terrorist attacks of 2001.  An age of greed, many of its critics called it.  But it was also a time awash in books and arguments.  The academic disciplines were turned inside out.  Think tanks treated ideas with the seriousness of loaded weapons.  Age of Fracture is in part a guide to the era’s wars of ideas: to its most visible intellectual partisans, from Michel Foucault and Jeffrey Sachs to Charles Murray and Judith Butler, and, still more, to the arguments that spilled out across society, culture, and politics.

But Age of Fracture is not only a guide—it is also an argument.

As the last quarter of the twentieth century began, it was the sign of an up-to-date mind to know that society exerted immense pressures on human individuals, that history and institutions mattered, that the lives even of strangers were braided together by thick webs of interdependence.  By the end of the century, most of this was gone. It was the sign of an up-to-date mind to know that selves and identities were malleable, that society and history could be transcended, that flexible markets ruled the world. Choice, agency, performance, and desire were the new keywords.  Micro categories supplanted macro ones.  These were not mere abstractions in the mind.  Every bit of social policy showed the effects of the fracturing of social thought: from debates over school choice and safety nets for the poor to arguments over affirmative action and the war on terror.