The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves

The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves

by Curtis White

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Overview

What do George W. Bush, the Ivory Tower, Steven Spielberg, and Terri Gross have in common? Does a political scandal make for good news copy? Does network programming allow us to unwind from a day's work? Does the art at the local museum make for pleasant cocktail conversation?

In this groundbreaking and incisive exploration, acclaimed social critic Curtis White describes an all-encompassing and little-noticed force taking over our culture and our lives. White calls this force the Middle Mind—the current failure of the American imagination in the media, politics, education, art, technology, and religion.

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.

The Middle Mind is not about left or right, highbrow or lowbrow, academia or pop culture; in fact, it pervades society without discrimination. The danger is not in a specific point of view, but rather in how the Middle Mind thrives in the common ground of unquestioned mediocrity. All we seem to ask about the culture we experience is whether it's entertaining.

White argues that we have forgotten how to read, to watch, to think for ourselves. Because it is neutral, widespread, and easily digestible, the Middle Mind has lulled the American imagination to sleep. As we sit comfortably amused and distracted, just outside the door there is an immediate crisis of a nation blindly following the path of least resistance. 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060730598
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/05/2004
Edition description: 1st HarperCollins Paperback Edition
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About 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

Read an Excerpt

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.

Table of Contents

Foreword: First a Brain Washv
Introduction1
Chapter 1The Middle Mind25
Chapter 2Such an Awesome Site of Resistance61
Chapter 3The Great American Disaster Machine90
Chapter 4The Highway of Despair Leads to a World in Love147
Chapter 5Notes Toward the Next American Sublime187
Bibliography203
Acknowledgments207
About the Author209

What People are Saying About This

David Foster Wallace

Cogent, acute, beautiful, merciless, and true.
— David Foster Wallace author of Infinite Jest

Molly Ivins

“A splendidly cranky academic.”

Greg Palast

Curt White gives name to an ugly soul-killer already in our midst.
— Greg Palast, NYTimes best-selling author of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy

Andrei Codrescu

The trouble with Middle Mind is that it neutralizes genuinely useful insights that don't look like anything instantly recognizable.
— Andrei Codrescu author of The Disappearance of the Outside

John Barth

“The Middle Mind is a strong, knowledgeable, entertaining (and imaginative!) argument”

John de Graaf

A sharp, erudite and witty text that ... could help set our country on a path to a saner future.
— John de Graaf, co-author, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic

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