Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Daniel T. Rodgers' "Age of Fracture"

Daniel T. Rodgers is Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Princeton University.His books include: The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920 (1978), winner of the Frederick Jackson Turner Prize; Contested Truths: Keywords in American Politics (1987); and Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (1998), which won the American Historical Association’s Beer Prize and the Organization of American Historians’s Hawley Prize.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Age of Fracture, and reported the following:
Age of Fracture is a book about ideas and arguments. It is the first general history of the wars of ideas that were waged across the last quarter of the 20th century and the ways in which those battles reshaped some of the core concepts of our times: markets, race, gender, power, society, and time. Over the course of these years, notions of common purpose and interdependent fates gave way to smaller and more flexible ideas of human action. Solidarities fragmented. Structures of power came to seem less important than market choice and fluid selves. By the end of the century, some of the most important concepts that Americans had lived by in the 1950s and 1960s had begun to fracture, and the consequences were racing through debates over poverty, color-blindness, sisterhood, economic policy, and the nation itself.

The canvas of the book is broad and there are a lot of characters in it. On p. 99, I turn to one of them, the most important anthropologist of his generation, Clifford Geertz. We follow him to Bali as he tried to understand how power lay not in economic structures but in the “tremulous” stuff of words and meanings. Skip to p. 199 we’re with the philosopher John Rawls as he made what turned out to be the last great twentieth century argument for equality. On p. 249 we’re with Jeffrey Sachs, as he imagined bringing capitalism in one fantastic “big bang” into post-Communist Russia. On p. 29, we’re watching terms for difficulty, sacrifice, peril, and courage evaporate from Ronald Reagan’s speeches to make room for story telling and dreaming. Each, in its way, tells a story of fracture.

There are many other characters in the books: Jerry Falwell, Judith Butler, Charles Murray, Michel Foucault, Margaret Thatcher, Alvin Toffler, and more. There are partisan think tanks and academic intellectuals, social movements and dramatic shifts in the economy itself. The pattern is not simple. But what stands out, in the end, is the paradox that dominates our own time of contention and uncertainty: that as structures, power, and collective interdependence all intensified in the late 20th century, the concepts for comprehending them fragmented and diminished.

From page 99:
In contrast to the imperial pose of the structuralist social sciences, there was something compellingly modest in Geertz’s redescription of the work of anthropology. One guessed at meanings, knowing that one’s ‘most telling assertions are [the] most tremulously based,’ that the more deeply cultural analysis goes ‘the less complete it is.’ ... But as Geertz brushed by rival ways of reading societies—as systems of production and exchange, systems of authority and behavioral rules, systems of social differentiation and inequality, structures of cosmic belief and ideology—the audacity of Geertz’s ‘foundational critique’ of anthropology could not be missed. There were no structural foundations in Geertz’s system, nothing but a play of texts, meanings, and semiotics, all the way down.
Learn more about Age of Fracture at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue