Online Edition: Fall 2003

The Middle Mind

Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves

Curtis White

Harper SanFrancisco ($23.95)

by Steve Healey

Destined to inspire numerous café debates and become the pop-intellectual scandal of the season, Curtis White's latest book is an enormously ambitious and wide-ranging polemic. Clamoring for more socially-engaged imagination in America, he especially scolds those who consume a kind of cultural mediocrity packaged as liberalism lite (aka the Middle Mind)--and, ironically, those who are most likely to read this book.

The secret skeletal system of White's too-small, 203 page opus is a daringly affirmative proposal to awaken in America a more sublime yet pragmatic creativity that's willing to challenge dominant ideologies. This discussion--beginning, ending, and emerging at crucial moments throughout the book--shows White at his most convincing, both tonally and intellectually. Calling on Stevens's notion of a constant interplay between reality and imagination, Kant's sublime that is evocative but indeterminate, and later, Derrida's metaphysics that keep moving and changing, White fashions a complex vision of an active and relevant imagination that has public consequences while avoiding the stagnation of a more managed, corporate creativity.

Art, of course, is the form this sublime force most often takes, and White even offers various contemporary examples of which he approves, including Radiohead's Kid A and David Lynch's Blue Velvet. Both of these works, he argues, achieve their socially-imaginative profundity by eschewing obvious political messages and easy moral conclusions, and letting their formal elements do the talking. "Art is most properly useful," White says, "when it doesn't know exactly what it is about," when it avoids "self-certain didacticism" and tries to "lead us away from communication as domination" through a certain "inarticulateness."

The rest of The Middle Mind addresses the disease for which the social imagination is the remedy, and this is where White spits the venomous vituperations that will no doubt offend many readers and become--another irony--the book's marketing force. The introduction neatly targets "the media, academia, and politics, the three areas of public life that provide the vehicles for the great antagonists of the imagination: entertainment, orthodoxy, and ideology." As promised, the book's core chapters slay these antagonists in short order, and while much of what White says is smart and necessary, he often puffs up his enemies with too much straw, strays into regions of "public life" he knows little about, makes unsupportable statements about broad groups of people and practices, and generally employs a blistering sarcastic tone that's meant to be funny but often comes across as contrived and sloppy.

Chapter 1 focuses on media entertainment, and this is primarily where he defines and attacks the Middle Mind, that diluted and consumer-oriented brand of social awareness and artfulness. Terry Gross's Fresh Air, Joe Queenan's Balsamic Dreams, and Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan are notable Middle Mind icons that White nails to his crosses. These potent culture-brokers certainly deserve criticism, but White's method is often dubious and haphazard. Among his favorite tricks, for example, is to fabricate exaggerated quotations and present them as if spoken by the objects of his ire, then slam these caricatures for having said something so vapid and corrupt.

It's unfortunate that White's critical mode is poorly executed at times, because his ideas have great potential salience and insight. It's vital that the Middle Mind be battled because--as White points out--it exists in denial of itself, and it's quickly becoming the major safety valve that allows liberal market democracy to expand its hypocrisies around the globe. Chapter 2--which rakes the academic left, especially those Cultural Studies-entrenched English departments--does well to point out that the "fundamental lack" of institutional critics is that they don't "look at texts from the perspective of artists," relying instead on a rationalist, abstract, and disembodied jargon. And Chapter 3--which takes on the massive beast of current politics--cogently spotlights "a New Censorship which functions by making everything known and naked to a paralyzing degree."

White doesn't analyze enough how these adversaries of the imagination work together to form the current American cultural machine, or what historical conditions have allowed them to dominate, and he largely disregards consumer and advertising culture (don't Mastercard's "priceless" commercials, for example, exploit contradictions at least as damagingly as Terry Gross does?). Although The Middle Mind begins a much-needed exploration of our deceptively muddled culture, it sometimes reads like a rough draft of what could be a watershed work of criticism. I eagerly await the revised and expanded edition.


Fall 2003 Table of Contents