Anyone who writes about recent US history, particularly recent US intellectual history, must grapple with Daniel Rodgers’s award-winning book, Age of Fracture. Longtime readers of this blog are well aware that we’ve been wrestling with Age of Fracture ever since its 2011 publication date, a reckoning that includes a roundtable I organized for the 2011 S-USIH Conference that was published at the blog.
In this post I would like to briefly address how my new book, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, is implicitly grounded in an historical theory for recent US history that differs from that which shapes Age of Fracture. I say implicitly because I left this historiographical debate out of the book for fear that it would seem like too much “inside baseball” to the prized “generally educated reader” for whom I ostensibly wrote the book. But the USIH Blog is all about insider baseball!
In attaching anxieties about ethical chaos—anxieties about the fracturing of American culture—to the specific political concerns of conservative Americans, A War for the Soul of America argues against a growing trend in US intellectual history that downplays the political distinctions of left and right. Age of Fracture, a history of American thought since the 1970s, contends that the politics of left and right had very little to do with the era’s key intellectual shifts. Rather, Rodgers argues that everyone, from left-wing feminists to Christian Right activists, had to grapple with new vocabularies that revolutionized American political sensibilities. As Americans organized their thought patterns into smaller and smaller units—as they increasingly thought about individuals instead of society, decentralized markets instead of centralized states—a cohesive sense of the nation became less legible. Fracture was the sign of the times. America was no longer whole.
As I think almost every USIH reader agrees, Age of Fracture is an exciting reinterpretation of recent intellectual history, particularly in showing how people enmeshed in seemingly incongruent conversations were using the same new words. Rodgers argues that a contagion of metaphors, including “fracture,” reshaped our sense of self and society.
I’m not so sure. By deemphasizing the political sources of fragmentation, Rodgers’s book fails to capture the actual sources of recent historical transformations. Although I’m no fan of militarized metaphors in general—“war on poverty,” “war on drugs,” blah, blah, blah—the “culture wars” metaphor has the merit of being attuned to the national polarization that reshaped American political culture in the sixties.
By downplaying political difference, Rodgers downplays the sixties. The “fracture” metaphor grafts onto neoliberal market logic that deemphasizes power and demystifies politics. As Corey Robin argues in what I think stands as the best review of Age of Fracture, fracture is always symptom of political reaction. We can’t think about fracture without thinking about the sixties liberation movements and the reactionaries who arose in opposition.
Interestingly, unlike Rodgers who emphasizes the market logic that slipped into the mainstream in the 1970s as the engine of historical change, many American intellectual historians argue that the forces of modernity had altered the landscape of American culture well before the 60s and 70s.
For many, the sixties are now best understood not as a rupture, but as one point along a more protracted trajectory. Dan Wickberg consents to this historiographical turn in a recent review essay he wrote for Modern Intellectual History. “Mid-twentieth century American intellectual history is in the midst of a boom,” he writes. “A younger generation of historians, now half a century distant from the era, and less inclined than their immediate forerunners to be committed to a vision of the 1960s as a critical turning point in modern culture, is reshaping what has been an underdeveloped field.” Wickberg argues “that there is a great deal more continuity than an image of the 1960s as cultural watershed would allow.” How so? “Questions of the contingency of all knowledge and values, critique of the claims of all authority, a sense of both the liberating intellectual freedom and the moral danger of a world unmoored from tradition: these characteristically ‘modernist’ concerns came to be articulated in their fullest way in the United States in the decades before and after World War II.” In short, fracture is old.
This historiographical correction is necessary insofar as the epistemological orientation of so-called postmodernity is not far removed from that of modernity proper. Foucault was said to have revolutionized American intellectual life with claims such that “knowledge is not for knowing, knowledge is for cutting.” But by then it had been over a half-century since William James’s antifoundationalist position that “‘the truth’ is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‘the right’ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving.” More to the point, perhaps: In the 1940s, all Harvard students were assigned to read Margaret Mead, who did much to popularize the relativistic notion that what we might think is “natural” is actually cultural, an indication that perhaps part of American political culture had fractured well before the sixties.
But as I argue in The War for the Soul of America, the sixties universalized fracture. Many Americans prior to the sixties, particularly white, middle-class Americans, were largely sheltered from the “acids of modernity,” those modern ways of thinking that subjected seemingly timeless truths, including truths about America, to the lens of suspicion. Put another way, prior to the sixties, many Americans did not yet recognize the hazards of a world freed from tradition. They did not yet realize their sacred cows were being butchered. Many Americans only felt their worlds coming apart once they experienced such chaos as a political force, as a movement of peoples previously excluded from the American mainstream. They only grew wary of “an assault on Western civilization” after the barbarians had crashed the gates. The radical political mobilizations of the sixties—civil rights, Black and Chicano Power, feminism, gay liberation, the antiwar movement, the legal push for secularization—destabilized the America that millions knew. It was only after the sixties that many, particularly conservatives, recognize the threat to their once great nation.
In sum, the culture wars works as a better metaphor because it reflect the post-sixties power struggle.