U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Moyn on Age of Fracture

Here’s another review of Age of Fracture from Samuel Moyn in Dissent (subscription required). From the abstract:

The very notion of “society” originated as part of a highly optimistic scenario: according to Enlightenment belief, human bonds were evolving in the eighteenth century beyond the need for any social anchor in the transcendent divine, the monarchical ruler, or even the aristocratic upper crust—and the liberation from those old foundations might allow for a stronger social integration than ever before. But then—and almost immediately—a gnawing fear of perilous dissolution set in. “Society” began to seem recognizable only in and through its fissuring. Soon after the French Revolution stories of the collapse of a prior organic whole became popular. If society now existed at all, it was only as a way of thinking about the aggregate effects of a more fundamental individualism: “a word recently coined,” Alexis de Tocqueville mordantly remarked, “to express a new idea (our fathers knew only about egoism).” Later in the nineteenth century, sociology proper emerged out of the wary perception that communal Gemeinschaft had now slid into particulate Gesellschaft. And the claim of social fragmentation has been repeated endlessly in the twentieth century. Modernity, in short, is the “age of fracture.” So if Daniel T. Rodgers’s new overview of the evolution of American social thought in the last few decades says, once again, that the pervasive trademark of our intellectual world is disaggregation, it is tempting to ask, “What else is new?”
UPDATE: The full text can be found without subscription here.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. David,

    Thanks a million for excerpting and for generally making the USIH community aware of this review. I see in this excerpt a better articulation of something I presented in one of Andrew’s posts: my view is that the culture wars have longer antecedents in twentieth-century U.S. history. I wouldn’t go as far as to say “What else is new?” since every age has peculiarities worthy of intellectual inquiry. And I wouldn’t go as far as to attribute today’s fragmentation to early modernity, or even 18th and early 19th century modernity. There’s a quickening of life that has occurred since the advent of industrialization (the annihilation of space and time) that has increased the probability of misunderstandings and wars (about whatever).

    In addition, not all of what we call the culture wars can be reduced or equated with social fragmentation. There is something to be said about the idea that expectations of unity increase, and therefore arguments about disunity, when reality existing unity and conformity are high. So the culture wars are paradoxically enabled, to me, by higher degrees of social unity. This goes to the offering that both Democrats and Republicans today (excepting extreme libertarian Tea Partiers) are actually arguing about liberalism itself—the long arc of that idea’s development.

    – TL

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