Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves

Overview

Acclaimed social critic Curtis White describes an all-encompassing and little-noticed force taking over our culture and our lives that he calls the Middle Mind: the current failure of the American imagination in the media, politics, education, art, technology, and religion. Irreverent, provocative, and far-reaching, White presents a clear vision of this dangerous mindset that threatens America's intellectual and cultural freedoms, concluding with an imperative to reawaken and ...

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Overview

Acclaimed social critic Curtis White describes an all-encompassing and little-noticed force taking over our culture and our lives that he calls the Middle Mind: the current failure of the American imagination in the media, politics, education, art, technology, and religion. Irreverent, provocative, and far-reaching, White presents a clear vision of this dangerous mindset that threatens America's intellectual and cultural freedoms, concluding with an imperative to reawaken and unleash the once powerful American imagination.

The Middle Mind is pragmatic, plainspoken, populist, contemptuous of the Right's narrowness, and incredulous before the Left's convolutions. It wants to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and has bought an SUV with the intent of visiting it. It even understands in some indistinct way how that very SUV spells the Arctic's doom.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In a work of scathing cultural criticism, Curtis White examines the middlebrow mind-set that has overtaken American thought -- paralyzing imagination, resisting intellectual challenge, and embracing mediocrity in every area of life.
Elle
“The most inspiringly wicked social critic of the moment. “
Rolling Stone
“Hot diatribe.”
Molly Ivins
“A splendidly cranky academic.”
John Barth
“The Middle Mind is a strong, knowledgeable, entertaining (and imaginative!) argument”
David Foster Wallace
“Cogent, acute, beautiful, merciless, and true.”
Greg Palast
“Curt White gives name to an ugly soul-killer already in our midst.”
John de Graaf
“A sharp, erudite and witty text that... could help set our country on a path to a saner future.”
Andrei Codrescu
“The trouble with “Middle Mind” is that it neutralizes genuinely useful insights that don’t look like anything instantly recognizable.”
Elle
“The most inspiringly wicked social critic of the moment. “
Publishers Weekly
In March 2002 Harper's ran White's controversial essay attacking Fresh Air radio host Terry Gross (a "schlock jock"). The article sparked outrage at the author's choice of sacred cow to savage. White (Memories of My Father Watching TV) fleshes out that piece into a book-length attack on the pseudo-intellectual tendencies of mainstream America. "The middle mind" describes the large segment of folks who claim to be interested in art and ideas, but who would never permit those influences to budge their complacent assumptions about postindustrial life. White investigates the role of the middle mind in the arenas of "entertainment, intellectual orthodoxy, and political ideology." The middle mind "offers us an art and a cultural commentary that is really just more commercial product." White's writing is undisciplined, frightfully (and unabashedly) elitist, self-satisfied, jokey yet rather entertaining. He is given to outlandish, often unsubstantiated claims about the terrors of modern life; he fares far better when concentrating on a specific text, whether it be Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan or Radiohead's album Kid A. White finds the rise in aesthetic and cultural interest on the part of ordinary people over the last few decades disagreeable, which will disturb some readers. One thing can be said for White, however: there's no arguing with his sincerity. (Sept.) Forecast: This kind of book might ruffle enough feathers to become much-discussed among the chattering classes. The question is whether it is good enough to sustain extended scrutiny. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
According to White (English, Illinois State Univ.; Memories of My Father Watching TV), failure of imagination has led Americans to accept mediocrity in the arts, education, media, and politics. He calls this failure the "middle mind" and further argues that in its efforts to negotiate the culture wars, it has nearly eliminated creativity from American life. In five chapters expanded from his controversial March 2002 essay in Harper's, White explores the middle mind in detail, from Charlie Rose and The Accidental Buddhist to Dinesh D'Souza and George W. Bush. Wherever poverty of imagination represses creativity, White is there to point an often savagely funny finger, accusing both the Left ("cultural studies") and the Right (the "traditional canon") with equal vigor and gleefully biting the academic hand that feeds him. For every suspect, however, White offers heroes like Wallace Stevens, Theodore Adorno, Jacques Derrida, Radiohead, and David Lynch. He also offers cautious hope, amid impassioned exhortations to "think change." Despite a relaxed style, this original title is a serious effort (supported by meticulous research) to understand a serious problem and should find a prominent place in every American library.-M.C. Duhig, Carnegie Lib. of Pittsburgh Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060730598
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/5/2004
  • Edition description: 1st HarperCollins Paperback Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 961,872
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Curtis White is the author of the novels Memories of My Father Watching TV and Requiem. A widely acclaimed essayist, his work appears regularly in Context and Harper's. He is an English professor at Illinois State University and the current president of the Center for Book Culture/Dalkey Archive Press

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Read an Excerpt

The Middle Mind

Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves
By Curtis White

Harper Collins Publishers

Copyright © 2003 Curtis White All right reserved. ISBN: 0060524367

Chapter One

The Middle Mind

Having adapted Beethoven's Sixth Symphony for Fantasia, Walt Disney commented: "Gee! This'll make Beethoven." - Marshall McLuhan

1.

I've suspected for some time that there's something missing in the way we usually construct the Culture Wars. Bennett, Cheney, D'Souza, Kimball, etc., on one side. Fish, Graff, Bérubé, Mapplethorpe, etc., on the other. I've been as involved and absorbed in this faux drama as anyone, but at the same time, dimly, I have wondered: Do these characters really stand for things people care about? I mean, in places other than the Chronicle for Higher Education and the National Review?

And then at last it occurred to me that this titanic agon was just a diversion from the real action. There is another cultural politics in our midst, perhaps even more organic than the academic left or ideological right. It is moving, making its way, accumulating its forces, winning while putative conservatives and tenured radicals beat the bloody hell out of each other to no end at all. This third force I call our Middle Mind. It is a vast mind, my friends, and I fear it is already something towering and permanenton our national horizon.

The Middle Mind attempts to find a middle way between the ideological hacks of the right and of the theorized left. Unlike Middlebrow, the Middle Mind does not locate itself between high and low culture. Rather, it asserts its right to speak for high culture indifferent to both the traditionalist right and the academic left.

The Middle Mind is pragmatic, plainspoken, populist, contemptuous of the right's narrowness, and incredulous before the left's convolutions. It is adventuresome, eclectic, spiritual, and in general agreement with liberal political assumptions about race, gender, and class. The Middle Mind really rather liked Bill Clinton, thoroughly supported his policies, but wished that the children didn't have to know so much about his personal life. The Middle Mind is liberal. It wants to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and has bought an SUV with the intent of visiting it. It even understands in some indistinct way that that very SUV spells the Arctic's doom. Most important, the Middle Mind imagines that it honors the highest culture and that it lives through the arts. It supports the local public broadcasting station, supports the symphony, attends summer Shakespeare festivals, and writes letters to state representatives encouraging support for the state arts council. The Middle Mind's take on culture is well intended, but it is also deeply deluded.

One way or the other, what I'm here to tell you is that the Middle Mind is winning. That is, it has the most plausible claim to being the true representative of the public's opinion. Now, you might say, given the mostly liberal markers I have described above, that worse things could happen. That's true enough. We could be returned to William Bennett's puritanical world of culture as quasi-religious credo. Our "legacy," indistinguishable from our manacles. But however liberal its methods, the Middle Mind is still a form of management, and its final purpose, even if it's not a purpose it's aware of, is to assure that the imagination is not abroad, not out and about, and certainly not doing its own powerful thing.

I'd like to review a few recent exfoliations of the Middle Mind that have drifted by me. It's not always easy to know when one is in the presence of the Middle Mind. It generally flies below critique's radar, because it has the advantage of not being associated with a particular political camp. It feels "natural," which is how we can be pretty sure it's winning. It has its effect and passes notice. A neat trick in Kulturkampf.

The Middle Mind is very well connected. It doesn't need bags of money from conservative foundations and think tanks to create its presence. The Middle Mind is present effortlessly. It comes to us with the convincing and implicit claim, "You've been curious about this, you've been waiting for it, and wondering about it, and here it is." The Middle Mind is frequently on public TV (Charlie Rose), in city weeklies, and in book review sections of slick magazines (Spin and GQ). It is everywhere on National Public Radio, even shows like Whad'Ya Know? but our collective nose is rubbed in it on Terry Gross's Fresh Air. Fresh Air is not merely a promotional vehicle for the Middle Mind, it is itself a prime example of the Middle Mind in all its charm and banality.

Let's think about Terry Gross and Fresh Air with particular regard for her cultural programming. (I will have nothing to say here about her efforts in public affairs.) Here is an interview program that claims quite earnestly to be for intelligence, for the fresh and new, for something other than regular stale network culture, for the arts and for artists. But anyone who listens much to the show knows (I certainly hope that I'm not the only one who has noticed) that: a) Terry Gross has no capacity for even the grossest distinctions between artists and utter poseurs. (Many of the "writers" she has interviewed recently have been writers for TV series and movies. People who can with a straight face say, "Seinfeld is a great show because of the brilliant scriptwriting" love Fresh Air. Now, Seinfeld may be a cut above the average sitcom, but it's a sitcom!) b) The show is a pornographic farce.

Let me develop this last idea about the pornographic. Terry Gross's interest in books and writers is too often morbid, perverse, and voyeuristic. Two quick examples: in 2001 she interviewed Alan Ball, the writer of the HBO series Six Feet Under ...

(Continues...)


Excerpted from The Middle Mind by Curtis White
Copyright © 2003 by Curtis White
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Foreword : first a brain wash
Ch. 1 The middle mind 25
Ch. 2 Such an awesome site of resistance 61
Ch. 3 The great American disaster machine 90
Ch. 4 The highway of despair leads to a world in love 147
Ch. 5 Notes toward the next American sublime 187
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First Chapter

Chapter One

The Middle Mind

Having adapted Beethoven's Sixth Symphony for Fantasia, Walt Disney commented: "Gee! This'll make Beethoven."
-- Marshall McLuhan

1.

I've suspected for some time that there's something missing in the way we usually construct the Culture Wars. Bennett, Cheney, D'Souza, Kimball, etc., on one side. Fish, Graff, Bérubé, Mapplethorpe, etc., on the other. I've been as involved and absorbed in this faux drama as anyone, but at the same time, dimly, I have wondered: Do these characters really stand for things people care about? I mean, in places other than the Chronicle for Higher Education and the National Review?

And then at last it occurred to me that this titanic agon was just a diversion from the real action. There is another cultural politics in our midst, perhaps even more organic than the academic left or ideological right. It is moving, making its way, accumulating its forces, winning while putative conservatives and tenured radicals beat the bloody hell out of each other to no end at all. This third force I call our Middle Mind. It is a vast mind, my friends, and I fear it is already something towering and permanent on our national horizon.

The Middle Mind attempts to find a middle way between the ideological hacks of the right and of the theorized left. Unlike Middlebrow, the Middle Mind does not locate itself between high and low culture. Rather, it asserts its right to speak for high culture indifferent to both the traditionalist right and the academic left.

The Middle Mind is pragmatic, plainspoken, populist, contemptuous of the right's narrowness, and incredulous before the left's convolutions. It is adventuresome, eclectic, spiritual, and in general agreement with liberal political assumptions about race, gender, and class. The Middle Mind really rather liked Bill Clinton, thoroughly supported his policies, but wished that the children didn't have to know so much about his personal life. The Middle Mind is liberal. It wants to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and has bought an SUV with the intent of visiting it. It even understands in some indistinct way that that very SUV spells the Arctic's doom. Most important, the Middle Mind imagines that it honors the highest culture and that it lives through the arts. It supports the local public broadcasting station, supports the symphony, attends summer Shakespeare festivals, and writes letters to state representatives encouraging support for the state arts council. The Middle Mind's take on culture is well intended, but it is also deeply deluded.

One way or the other, what I'm here to tell you is that the Middle Mind is winning. That is, it has the most plausible claim to being the true representative of the public's opinion. Now, you might say, given the mostly liberal markers I have described above, that worse things could happen. That's true enough. We could be returned to William Bennett's puritanical world of culture as quasi-religious credo. Our "legacy," indistinguishable from our manacles. But however liberal its methods, the Middle Mind is still a form of management, and its final purpose, even if it's not a purpose it's aware of, is to assure that the imagination is not abroad, not out and about, and certainly not doing its own powerful thing.

I'd like to review a few recent exfoliations of the Middle Mind that have drifted by me. It's not always easy to know when one is in the presence of the Middle Mind. It generally flies below critique's radar, because it has the advantage of not being associated with a particular political camp. It feels "natural," which is how we can be pretty sure it's winning. It has its effect and passes notice. A neat trick in Kulturkampf.

The Middle Mind is very well connected. It doesn't need bags of money from conservative foundations and think tanks to create its presence. The Middle Mind is present effortlessly. It comes to us with the convincing and implicit claim, "You've been curious about this, you've been waiting for it, and wondering about it, and here it is." The Middle Mind is frequently on public TV (Charlie Rose), in city weeklies, and in book review sections of slick magazines (Spin and GQ). It is everywhere on National Public Radio, even shows like Whad'Ya Know? but our collective nose is rubbed in it on Terry Gross's Fresh Air. Fresh Air is not merely a promotional vehicle for the Middle Mind, it is itself a prime example of the Middle Mind in all its charm and banality.

Let's think about Terry Gross and Fresh Air with particular regard for her cultural programming. (I will have nothing to say here about her efforts in public affairs.) Here is an interview program that claims quite earnestly to be for intelligence, for the fresh and new, for something other than regular stale network culture, for the arts and for artists. But anyone who listens much to the show knows (I certainly hope that I'm not the only one who has noticed) that: a) Terry Gross has no capacity for even the grossest distinctions between artists and utter poseurs. (Many of the "writers" she has interviewed recently have been writers for TV series and movies. People who can with a straight face say, "Seinfeld is a great show because of the brilliant scriptwriting" love Fresh Air. Now, Seinfeld may be a cut above the average sitcom, but it's a sitcom!) b) The show is a pornographic farce.

Let me develop this last idea about the pornographic. Terry Gross's interest in books and writers is too often morbid, perverse, and voyeuristic. Two quick examples: in 2001 she interviewed Alan Ball, the writer of the HBO series Six Feet Under ...

The Middle Mind. Copyright © by Curtis White. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2004

    A read for everyone

    This is the greatest book that I have ever read. It explains what I have been thinking for awhile but could not figure out why or where it came from. I think this book should be read by everyone in high school. This is what an non-fiction book should be like. It educates and promotes action.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2007

    What a pompous windbag!

    Curtis White is a pompous windbag. This book is nothing but ramblings. Why should I listen to this guy? I shouldn't, and no one should. I had to read this book for a college course, and it was the worst experience of my life.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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