Guest Post: David Thomson on Curtis White’s "Middle Mind"

by Anna Blanch on July 31, 2009

Today I bring you another, as promised, guest posts. This time I welcome David Thomson, Doctoral student in Educational Psychology at Baylor University, with a review of Curtis White’s Middle Mind. Published by Harper Collins you can take a peek at the book here. You can find out more about David on his Contributor profile. You can take a look at some of the other recent contributors and their profiles here.

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The Middle Mind and Meltdown of Social Imagination


Novelist and social critic Curtis White defines The Middle Mind as the resignation of the imagination to an entertainment superstructure that at once manages us and compromises our critical faculty. A self-confessed professional dilettante, White also belongs to the tribe of men of letters gone prophetic. His artistic lineage would certainly include the Wordsworth and Coleridge of Lyrical Ballads for his unapologetic romanticism and the T.S. Eliot of “Tradition and the Individual Talent” for his positioning of the artist as a sort of priest for a ruptured culture. His most immediate contemporaries are the Noam Chomsky of “The Manufacture of Consent” and the Michele Foucault of Discipline andPunish. In resonance with Foucault’s observation that “disciplinary power doesn’t have to be imposed” (ix), for we can effectively police ourselves, White finds Iraqis and Americans both managed populations. He notes that while Iraqis may have free elections, they are not free to elect an Arab nationalist, socialist or Muslim fundamentalist. While we are seemingly free to enjoy any combination of our entertainment products, we are essentially infantilized by them.

His primary point is this: if the imagination is to have social force, it must critique and reinvent. He finds the imagination inherently destabilizing. If we accept the Middle Mind as our culture, or worse insist on it, then we passively acquiesce to “the imagination prosthetic” (9) of programming in movies, television, computers and stereos. While we may seemingly be free to choose what Middle Mind media will entertain us, Middle Mind music enthusiasts “won’t know what it feels like to capture the rhythms and textures of music in your own hands and lungs, how playing music changes your relationship to music and changes music’s relationship to the world” (9). If one does have such an intimate, maker’s relationship to music, then by implication one cannot be of the Middle Mind.

But what precisely is this Middle Mind condition?

It is the impoverishment of the imagination realized through entertainment culture. We must all work and work hard in order to play. But what are we left with at the end of the day? Five hundred channels of reruns, reality shows and news broadcasts? Clear Channel radio that is oblivious to local musicians? Another single-shooter or driving game? Movies we mainly know by the video store genres? The irony is this, White observes: “Our culture provides entertainment as a compensation for and an inducement to work” (7). The cycle is never ending. Worse, because we work to play, there is no time to learn to make one’s own music or write one’s own novel. Worse still, this cycle is necessary if workers are to also be consumers of the United States’ primary export commodity: entertainment. Creativity, by contrast, “is a messy plurality of human possibilities not conducive to economic efficiency” (8). Our fundamental tension is that between our need to work and to create the world around us to best meet our needs. The Middle Mind, White argues, incapacitates us.

In its culture creating capacity, the Middle Mind flattens distinctions. On Fresh Air, for instance, classical musician Christopher Eschenbach and Barry Manilow have equal billing, as do film auteur Jim Jarmusch and “TV drudge” Judd Apatow, as do novelist David Foster Wallace and whatever unnamed realist hack White has in mind. In a Middle Mind culture, there is no incongruity. Such programming obliviously encourages us all to sing “Kumbaya,” rather than encounter and be changed by defamiliarizing art.

That phrase summons yet another of White’s artist-prophets, Victor Shklovsky, who believed that the purpose of art is to make us see the world anew. In order to do so, the artist defamiliarizes the world. White’s exemplar of the defamiliar is Wallace Stevens, who in his Necessary Angel (1951) writes that our daily reality is nothing but imagination that has become naturalized through sheer repetition. The artist’s work, then, is to bring us again into wondering at and with the world. In this charge, he allies himself to Mallarmé, who charged poets to renew the language of the tribe. He is also close to the post-war art critic Heidegger who praised poetry for its ability to speak man. His emphasis on the current imaginal event is the crucial counterpoint to what White describes as “the Reign of the Dictatorship of the Present” (65).

Accordingly, Middle Mind has political implications. Not only is Middle Mind culture impoverishing in its uncritical embrace of entertainment for entertainment’s sake, it also turns those who could possibly creatively change the world into consumers. By extension, then, the so called Culture Wars fought by William Bennet and Dick Cheney on one side, and Stanley Fish and Robert Mapplethorpe on the other White calls a faux drama, because ultimately the fight disables action. The Middle Mind, as White describes it, finds “a middle way between the ideological hacks of the right and of the theorized left” (25). It need not make any distinction between high and low culture because it is “pragmatic, plainspoken, populist” (26). It fights for the protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but drives an SUV en route to organizing for America’s last pristine wilderness area. One day, White sports, it intends to drive that SUV 40 miles off the only road to the Arctic coast to visit the refuge. The Middle Mind functions, in short, to “assure that imagination is not abroad, not out and about, and certainly not doing its own powerful thing” (26).

Bitterly, White finds one of its primary agents in cultural studies, or the theorized left. If, indeed, our cultural impoverishment is in some part due to an impoverished reading experience, then some of the culprits we know as deconstructionists—although White does not believe that is the purpose of the philosophy. Critical reading should be creative. However, on the left, if reading is merely an exercise of “searching the text for symptoms supporting the sociopolitical or theoretical template of the critic,” then reading is essentially filtering. Such reading, White contends, “destroys all difference” (64). Literature, by consequence, becomes only another performing discourse among others. The right’s allegiance to canon formation is equally suspect because if art is kept in its place, as a static force, as the museum’s permanent collection, then “the canon is a strategy for managing potentially radical energy” (73). Even when the left argues for greater inclusion of women, writers of color and colonial subjects, it is essentially capitulating to the deadening presence of the canon.

The word canon, White observes, has escaped the original sense of kanon. In its Greek sense, kanon means not what is included, but the principles for inclusion. Thus, as White observes, inclusion in a canon without a grounding sense of kanon is a meaningless victory. The primary measure of inclusion for White is craft. But of course craft is only valued as it should be in a world in which imagination guides the making. Rather than rely on craft to show us the transcendental and timeless aspects of the human condition, it is more likely to show how provisional is any making. The most important standard of kanon consideration is what should the world be. The crucial question we should ask of any book considered either canonical or vying for inclusion is simply this: “Of what does the greatness of the great book consist?” (79).

Part of the answer surely comes in White’s reflections of his own reading habits—always one to five at any given moment. He writes he did so for the same reason he listened to music; reading was interesting and pleasurable. It enabled him to feel he was becoming more fully human. Seconding the alternative world of the imagination that developmental theorist Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902-1980) posited is just as real as the concrete, quotidian world of our daily experience is White’s remark that reading enables us to “internalize the world, to prepare to judge the world, and even to be able to participate in the future construction of that world” (82).

While the cultural studies deadlock and the entertainment superstructure that White identify deaden the imagination, and thus disable any truly creative social action, he finds in our political narratives the more serious agents of Middle Mind thinking. We alternate, he claims, between being the United Crisis States of America and the United Security States of America. Equally insufficient are the “war on terror” coverage following the attacks of September and the analysis of the current tensions resulting from 19th century colonialism.

Despite a Middle Mind culture in which one can say anything as long as nothing changes, White dares in the final chapter to suggest an alternative. Here, he shows himself at once to be a Romantic, Dewey-styled pragmatist and artist. He wants nothing less to recover an American sublimity. What that would be is, of course, difficult to say, for the sublime is always that which evades precise definition. However, he suggests that it will approximate Kant’s sense of it holding both pleasure and pain. It goes on to write that it will surely possess a restless character, beckoning us beyond what we presently know. It will be pragmatic because it will be based on concrete social relations and spring out of a desire for that beyond our immediate grasp: freedom, justice and creativity. Art will guide that search, for art is “most consequential for the social, when it is most sublime, when it asserts its intuitions about what it means to be free, just, or creative” (190). Like the Tao, this American sublime escapes precise quantification, but if it must be named look for it in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet or Federico Fellini’s Amarcord. In either case, it will offer neither consolation nor explanation for the status quo, but a vision of what may lie beyond. He contends we will know we have said, written or done something moved by the sublime and so revived a social imagination by the reaction of those who most fear change.

Shklovsky, V. (2002). The Third Factory (Trans. Richard Sheldon). Chicago: Normal.

Stevens, W. (1951). The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination. New York: Vintage.

White, C. (2004). The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

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