Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Westbrook reviews Rodgers, "The Age of Fracture"

Earlier Dan posted this announcement, about an upcoming (January 12) Book Discussion on The Age of Fracture (Harvard University Press, 2011). It features author Daniel T. Rodgers (Princeton University) and commentators John Judis (The New Republic) and Michael Kimmage (Catholic University).

Now we have this review, by historian Robert Westbrook (University of Rochester). Here are the opening paragraphs:
In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels offered one of history's best-known characterizations of modernity. In the "bourgeois epoch," they said, "all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned."

This formulation was an exaggeration—it appeared in a manifesto, after all. But unlike Marx and Engels's hope for a communist future, their insights into modernity remain perspicacious. Capitalism is still very much with us, communist prospects have never been dimmer, but the ground of modernity continues as it did in 1848 to shift and shake under our feet.

Since Marx's day, artists and intellectuals have sought to meet the challenge of modernity by remaking our conceptual categories so that they might better capture and embrace—or resist—this fluidity, this profane melting of shared experience. And at times, this project has taken on an accelerated pace and urgency. The last generation has proved one of those times, not least in the United States.

That, at any rate, is the claim of Princeton University historian Daniel T. Rodgers in Age of Fracture, and he makes a compelling case for it. . . . .
Westbrook goes on to describe Rodgers's "series of penetrating soundings into the social thought of the end of the twentieth century." He also gives us a sense of some of the "big books" that are Rodgers's fodder:
Alvin Toffler's Future Shock (1970), John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (1971), Clifford Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish (1977), William Julius Wilson's The Declining Significance of Race (1978), George Gilder's Wealth and Poverty (1981), Michael Walzer's Spheres of Justice (1983), Charles Murray's Losing Ground (1984), Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (1990), and Francis Fukuyama's The End of History (1992).
Westbrook concludes the review by comparing Rodgers's outlook to that of Rutgers historian James Livingston (author of The World Turned Inside Out (2009)). Whereas Livingston regards "the age of fracture" with "exhilarati[on]," Westbrook opines, Rodgers appears "unsettled."

Read the full review here.
(Hat tip: Bookforum)

UPDATE: Rodgers also talked about the book during a recent panel at the AHA. The panel, which also featured historians Doug Rossinow and Kim Phillips-Fein, was about how to make sense of the 1980s as a historical period.
Jeremi Suri moderated; Michael Kazin commented. You can view C-SPAN's recording of the conversation here. (Hat tip: LHB reader Adam G.)