Studying the Fault Lines

Studying the Fault Lines

Age of Fracture
by Daniel T. Rodgers,
Harvard University Press, 2011, 352 pp.

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?”

Rodgers’s important and well-written book leaves a number of tantalizing questions, not least why it might matter to conceive of this latest episode together with the unraveling of the social as a long-term difficulty or cyclical occurrence. But the book does show that the latest rending of the social fabric is new in its forms, which may go beyond the mere individualization of yesteryear and undermine the very endeavor of fixed social categorization. It’s also distinctive in the domains in which Rodgers charts it, for instance in thinking about race and gender. And, at the very least, Age of Fracture helps us understand how the recent past set the terms for our current attempts to see society whole and conceive of an agenda for its future.

Rodgers, a longtime historian at Princeton University, is known for his sparkling essays in intellectual history as well as for Atlantic Crossings (1998), a major study of the connections between American and European reformers in the Progressive Era. He is a master of his craft; and this book, in which he takes history into the near present, shows what this mastery looks like in practice.

Rodgers says that the deepest way our perceptions have changed is at the level of conceptions of the social world—conceptions that connect intellectuals to the practical world of presidents, policym...

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