inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #0 of 114: guy who is starting the topic (bumbaugh) Wed 10 Dec 03 09:08
    
Inkwell is pleased to welcome Curtis White.
 
 Curtis White was born in 1951 in San Lorenzo, California.  San
Lorenzo was a "vet-village" of pre-fab stucco homes for the otherwise
homeless veterans of WWII.  He attended public schools in the East Bay
and then the University of San Francisco (1969-73) where he majored in
English and Philosophy.  He liked the Jesuits because they made him
read Aristotle and Heidegger.  He completed graduate degrees in writing
(Johns Hopkins) and English literature (University of Iowa) before
settling in Normal, Illinois, where (for the last 24 years) he has
taught at Illinois State University.  He is the author of short story
collections and novels (most recently Requiem), and he has written two
books of non-fiction, Monstrous Possibility: an Invitation to Literary
Politics and, in the fall of 2003, The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't
Think for Themselves.
 
Leading the conversation, we're pleased to have our own Clare Eder. 
Clare, ceder, has been an applications programmer/systems
analyst/designer with a degree in religious studies and nearly a minor
in cities, utopias, and environments: designs for living from SUNY
Stony Brook.  She has been on the precipice of (a) career change.  
 
Her Pseudonym, Teleological dyslexic, reflects her sense of all (awe),
she considers the confluence of contradictions and it embodies her
humor and sense of irony.

What's up, y'all?
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #1 of 114: Curtis White (curtiswhite) Wed 10 Dec 03 10:04
    
The Middle Mind is a sort of all-over-the-place book on
topics usually reserved for experts.  It is written by a person who is
of that oldest school of professional non-experts (dilletantes): a
novelist.  My primary interest is in what I call the "social
imagination."  I define it as a capacity for critiquing what exists
and a capacity for inventing something other than what exists and
projecting it propositionally into the future.  I argue that the
social imagination cannot be forbidden by the notorious Powers-that-be
(whoever they are), but it can be managed.  This is very much a book
about social management.  The managing forces arrayed against the
imagination are the Middle Mind (whose world is the world of the media
and entertainment), academic orthodoxy, and political ideology
(including something I call the the technological imagination).
There's a lot more I could say, but I fear I'd just be rewriting the
book. 
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #2 of 114: Teleologically dyslexic (ceder) Wed 10 Dec 03 15:31
    
Welcome, WELL and Web readers.  

It is my privilege to welcome Curtis White, greetings!  

This book, The Middle Mind, stokes the embers of today's developing
quagmire of inter-social-political transgressions and lays
responsibility at the feet of everyone who has done nothing.  You,
me--not just those reaping the harvest; but all of us who smile and
say, "Such a grand costume!"  Alternatively, avert our eyes demurely.  

My first question Curtis is: You admit, besides pointing to other
tools, "This book...has been an attempt to fashion a tool", have
readers of your book told you about their vision(s) of the resulting
world or changes?
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #3 of 114: Curtis White (curtiswhite) Thu 11 Dec 03 07:57
    
Two things, one of which has been quite happy-making the other more
bemusing.  First, I've received many thank yous in the form of presents
from artists.  Drawings, music, theater, books.  I even got a request
to lend words to be used as lyrics in a punk band.  So these people
have been very upfront in showing what they're doing.  The second
bemusing thing is that, and this has been especially true at readings,
people ask me, "Is there hope?" and "What should we do?"  I really
don't fancy myself the Nostradamus type and I think that people who
KNOW what we should do are dangerous.  (Whenever Chomskyites talk about
forming an "authenitic participatory democracy" I have to cringe and
worry a little.)  But I have been pushed in this way so often that I
have come up with at least something to say.  I say, "Well, I can tell
you what I tried to do and maybe that will help.  I set out to do three
things.  Make something beautiful (a book as beautiful as I imagine my
novels to be), misbehave (talk about things I'm not supposed to have
the expertise to talk about) and win (that is, be persuasive with the
intent of creating change)."  
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #4 of 114: Alan L. Chamberlain (axon) Fri 12 Dec 03 10:33
    

Reuters "called", they "want" their "scare" quotes "back".

Seriously, stylistics aside, and taking the long view of history and
culture both globally and domestically, it's difficult for me to concur
with your dour alarmism (admittedly, the meat and drink of social
criticism, but still).  Notwithstanding my disagreement with some of
your specific critiques, I can't help but conclude that the trend
towards greater invention, variation, and nuanced message is
encouraging.

The mediocrity you bemoan has always been the norm for the vast
majority in *any* society.  The sad, inescapable fact is that most
people are, by definition, average.  It seems like rather a cheap trick
to deconstruct the dog food that the dull normals suck up; they've
never been able to make enough of that shit.

Dull normals dominate the populations of every class, ethnic identity,
affinity group, and faith.  Over half the members of MENSA are just
stuffy bores.  Why should you now become so exercised over a reality
that has not changed in 10,000 years of human history?
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #5 of 114: Teleologically dyslexic (ceder) Fri 12 Dec 03 11:31
    
Thought provoking, your book provokes action in me, too.  

BTW (My quote above is from page 202 of "The Middle Mind".)

Slowly, I comtemplate: "These works of the concrete sublime are
antagonistic to the status quo in entertainment, intellectual
orthodoxy, and political ideology."(24)  Today, a banner ad on my
computer announced a change in delivery of media implying it will be in
your face in the manner, I speculate, of pop-up ads.  Do you imagine
that "works of the concrete sublime" will evolve to parallel the
development of their adversary?
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #6 of 114: Curtis White (curtiswhite) Fri 12 Dec 03 12:09
    
Mr. Chamberlain:  What's scare quotes got to do with anything?  Where
am I alarmist?  When do I write about mediocrity?  (That I can recall,
I use the word once in order to dismiss it as a useful term and move on
to a more powerful explanatory: management.)  How is "dull normals"
anything other than an elitist way of dismissing the truly apalling
fact that the public has been systematically impoverished even in these
golden United States for all of that time you contemptuously skate
over with your "never been able"?  And of course your appeal to
"invention, variation, nuanced message" is entirely lacking in any
content whatsoever.  What are we talkin' here?  Microsoft?  Hannity and
Colmes?  Superficial won't cut it in this conversation, not if I'm
obliged to take part in it for two weeks, as apparently I am.  The
reality I'm concerned with has nothing to do with 10,000 years.  It is
quite specific to our here and now.  That's why I bother to be
specific, to read particular texts rather than your grey on grey
cosmos.  
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #7 of 114: Alan L. Chamberlain (axon) Fri 12 Dec 03 13:34
    

Call me Axon, everyone does, although they sometimes prepend
Loathsome.  It's a sobriquet.

>What's scare quotes got to do with anything?

It's a style thing.  It's a lazy shorthand, and as the reader, I found
its overuse both distracting and insulting.  Distracting because the
subtext intrudes upon the text, like a footnote to a blank field, and
insulting because it presumes the reader shares the contempt you convey
for the cited source.

>How is "dull normals" anything other than an elitist way of 

Here's an excellent example of what I mean about your abuse of scare
quotes.  And you must have balls as big as church bells to describe
anyone else as elitist, considering the book under discussion.

>the truly apalling fact 

You're assuming facts not in evidence.  This is an opinion, one you
fail to adequately substantiate in your text, which is rife with more
of the same.  You're entitled to your opinion, but it is not widely
shared, which was, I thought, the fulcrum of your argument.

>that the public has been systematically impoverished 

Assuming you mean cultural poverty, I disagree that the public, as a
class, is impoverished.  Indeed, it is richer now, in terms of
alternatives, novelty, challenge, and subtlety, than any time in
history.  The thing that bugs you is that most people just keep pulling
the trigger for the mass media junk food pellets instead of availing
themselves of the creative smorgasbord right in front of them, more
accessible and affordable than ever.

>What are we talkin' here?

My own personal favorite list, today, is Kurt Elling, Tony Kushner,
Celia Sandys, and Tom Friedman.  The buffet changes daily, but it's all
you can eat.
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #8 of 114: Angie (coiro) Fri 12 Dec 03 13:37
    
Curtis, it's good to have you here. Thanks for making yourself
available.

 (slippage from axon)


To an extent this plays on <axon>'s point - there is a certain
historical familiarity to this, yes? I'm thinking of Orwell's 1984, and
his discussion of the "proles". The protagonist saw the role of the
govenment and fought against it. But the proles themselves were
portrayed as happily ignorant, waiting for the next cool song to be
played endlessly on government-run radio.

I've spent most of my life in public broadcasting. Granted, my life
covers less timespan than you're concerned with (I'm partway through
the book); but in the nearly three decades of my exposure to it, no one
in the business has ever fooled themselves that higher-quality
education, entertainment, or other programming would appeal to any but
a smallish portion of the populace. We try to keep available, alive,
and uncommodified the best of what we are. Can't win the biggest
ratings that way, though.

Third point in pursuit of the same end: about 15 years ago, I was in a
near-deserted laundromat at dusk. Maggie Smith was just coming on with
her award-winning performance in Lettuce and Lovage. About three
minutes into her opening monologue, a quiet, despairing older man asked
if we could please turn it off. Of course, he settled on an insipid,
forgetable sitcom immediately.

I realize I'm focussing on pop culture, while your book goes far
beyond that. As axon points out, though, there's been a mass appetite
for pablum-sucking throughout the history of Western culture. 

Can you talk about how you feel that truth is different for this
generation?

(Hidden below is a petty, comical point that I need to get off my
chest, that needn't be taken as a key part of our conversation.)
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #9 of 114: Angie Coiro (coiro) Fri 12 Dec 03 13:39
    <hidden>
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #10 of 114: William H. Dailey (whdailey) Sat 13 Dec 03 00:48
    
We suffer a mental disconnect when we become polititions.
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #11 of 114: Curtis White (curtiswhite) Sat 13 Dec 03 09:33
    
Before Axon and I come to blows (I suspect you and I could talk all
day and never have a thing to say to each other), I will say that it is
not scare quotes to use quotes to quote, as I did you in saying "dull
normals."  Having to prove facts such as the "appalling impoverishment
of the public" is for me on a par with having to prove the holocaust
happened.  If I have to prove that to you, there's hardly a point in
talking at all.  (Although I could give you a blow by blow description
of how public education is funded in the state of Illinois to prove the
point: the poorest people in the state pay for the education of the
wealthiest; it's called a regressive tax structure and its real
function is to keep the poor poor and as ill-educated as possible.)  As
for my balls...I think it has more to do with logic.  An argument that
assumes a poor and dumb who are always with us while you feast at an
ever changing banquet, that's elitist.  I'd like to think that my
argument, like Adorno's, is just the opposite.  I assume that there is
the possiblity within the majority that must look like genius when
compared to what capitalism has historically allowed.  Call me a naive
descendant of the enlightenment.
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #12 of 114: Curtis White (curtiswhite) Sat 13 Dec 03 09:42
    
Cairo:  As I said to Axon, it is a fundamental of my thinking that
there is nothing historically inevitable about mass interests.  As a
child of a lower middle class family in which there were next to no
books, no music, and a whole lotta tv, I think I have a sort of
biographical authenticity on this matter.  I know what the culture
expected of me.  I was fortunate to find tools with which to resent and
resist.  But I ain't going to get into blaming the victims.  
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #13 of 114: Angie Coiro (coiro) Sat 13 Dec 03 09:59
    
Wouldn't that be extrapolating one case to the whole culture, though?
Could one not just as easily take the case of a single person with
access to books, education, and art, who'd rather sit home eating Oreos
and watching Hee Haw on TVLand, and say that  there's an element of
choice?

(it's "Coiro", btw)
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #14 of 114: Get Shorty (esau) Sat 13 Dec 03 10:28
    
There is art in creating the goods that appeal to mass culture.

I see beauty in the system that combines and packages a series of
natural ingredients and chemicals and delivers tasty, consistent Oreos
to stores all over the world, where they are gobbled up by people who
do like better things on occasion. I see genius behind Hee Haw, in the
template that combined music and comedy and many, many people derived
pleasure from every week, the deluded fools.
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #15 of 114: Alan L. Chamberlain (axon) Sat 13 Dec 03 10:30
    
>Call me a naive descendant of the enlightenment.

I don't think unflattering characterization would be helpful to this
dialog.

>An argument that assumes a poor and dumb who are always with us 
>while you feast at an ever changing banquet, that's elitist.

The buffet is *open*.  Cost is not a significant barrier to access to
superlative art.  The poor and dumb are welcome at the table, too,
they're just not hungry for what is being served.

>I assume that there is the possiblity within the majority that 
>must look like genius when compared to what capitalism has 
>historically allowed.

The spark of the sublime lives in everyone.  Each person contains the
capacity for joy, awe, wonder, etc.  But genius?  Lamentably, no. 
Capitalism allows pretty much anything, sometimes to its disgrace.  And
it does not always reward merit.  But just because an artist can't
sell his work doesn't mean it isn't allowed.  It is expressly allowed
in the constitution, and despite the efforts of prigs, censors, and
other busybodies, the permissible range of expression in this country
has, with occasional stutters, persistently expanded.  This is largely
due to market forces that drive content providers to challenge
boundaries, sometimes to their discredit.

With a retarded discrimination, there's almost no chance that the
average culture consumer out there can be expected to select art
instead of entertainment, profiteroles instead of dog biscuits.  You
can try to teach to a higher standard of appreciation, and you may be
able to coax some reluctant minds out of the murk that passes for mass
media, and that's a noble mission.

But I disagree that you can indict capitalism or Western Civilization
or Cultural Studies or whatever for thr natural propensity among the
vast majority for incuriousity. 

>If I have to prove that to you,

Well, see, that's the thing that annoys me most about your book.  It
is loaded with this kind of stuff, all asserted without any
substantiation.  In effect, your book is only valid within a particular
shared worldview.  It is not, to be charitable, a universal paradigm. 
I know there's an enthusiastic community that receives this wisdom
uncritically, but if you hope to persuade or influence those outside
that community, you will indeed be held accountable for the truth.

>there's hardly a point in talking at all. 

You may be right.

I can agree that there are vast acres of American culture that are
vulgar, shallow, self-destructive, manipulative, deceptive and
prurient.  But I've done some traveling, and I've yet to encounter
*any* culture that does not have its share of the same.  The redline is
different (and always evolving towards greater license) in each, but
pedestrianism thrives in every corner of the planet.  Neither free
market forces nor central planning will ever change that, nor will the
mystical transformative revolution of immanent consciousness you
advocate in your book.

It's actually a quaint notion, an agreeable artifact from the
emancipatory movement of the baby boom generation, sometimes called the
Sixties.  But the shared illusion that such a thing was inevitable
became unsustainable; we grew up.

We haven't gotten over ourselves,of course, and the notion that our
generation, by virtue of its size, the everpresent threat of mass
annihilation hovering since before we apeared, our media-saturated
development, what you will, is somehow special, destined to a
magnificent destiny, is a durable one, but it's really just a
generational aftershock of the core American chauvinism that has
distinguished the dominant consciousness here since, well, the
Enlightenment.
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #16 of 114: virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Sat 13 Dec 03 12:34
    
(Those of you following along on the Web and not Well members can
participate by sending your questions or comments to inkwell-hosts@well.com
by e-mail.)
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #17 of 114: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Sat 13 Dec 03 15:28
    
Curtis, I haven't had an opportunity to read your book. Looks like you've
presented a viewpoint that's ... uh ... er ... maybe a bit controvertial?

For those of us who don't really know what you've put forth in "The Middle
Mind," can you give us an overview?
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #18 of 114: I'm on the Chet Atkins Diet. Pass the BBQ, please. (rik) Sat 13 Dec 03 19:37
    
That would be nice, and I'd like to ask you to amplify a bit on:   " I
argue that the social imagination cannot be forbidden by the notorious
Powers-that-be (whoever they are), but it can be managed.  This is very
much a book about social management."

I think I agree, but I'd like you to say more about it.

And welcome to the Well.
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #19 of 114: Paul Terry Walhus (terry) Sun 14 Dec 03 01:36
    
An overview would be great.
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #20 of 114: John Ross (johnross) Sun 14 Dec 03 13:32
    
There has been a thread in American education (or perhaps a fringe movement)
that uses seminar/discussions based on "great books" as a way to develop the
critical and analytic skills that all educated men and women should have, in
addition to the specific body of specialized facts and skills that form
professional competance as an engineer or a sugeon or a carpenter or
whatever. Among otthers, and in differing forms, this approach has
influenced the courses of study at Columbia, at the University of Chicago,
and at St. John's College.

That said, let me ask two questions: first, are those critical and analytic
skills, or the absense of same, equal to the "social imagination" that you
say can be managed? Or are the people who have developed those skills less
susceptible to social management?
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #21 of 114: Curtis White (curtiswhite) Sun 14 Dec 03 14:28
    
All:  It has occurred to me that the conversation we've been having
really has precious little to do with the book I wrote.  I actually
didn't write a book about mediocrity, or the inevitability of the
undiscriminating, or the antagonism of high and low.  That is Dwight
McDonald.  I discuss the difference between the idea of the Middle Mind
and Middle Brow and try to make it clear why I'm not interested in the
problem McDonald critiqued.  The book I did write is actually about
what passes for high culture in this country.  Passes for serious
culture without being serious, without being different from consumer
culture, while providing a great service to the status quo: managing
the social imagination.  So I talk about the culture that an "educated
bourgeoisie" consumes in this country.  NPR, PBS, radical and
conservative academic culture, and the technological imagination. This
is not "deconstructing dog food" as my worthy nemesis Axon put it. My
interest is not in the sad spectacle of the lumpenconsumer, nor with
the evil of the Right (I leave that to Franken, God help us), but with
liberal, well-educated, rather affluent culture.  I suppose in a word I
argue that that culture is a sort of fraud, and a dangerous fraud at
that.  The book moves on two motors: close reading of texts (Saving
Private Ryan for example) and satirical ridicule directed at the absurd
(once the readings have revealed the absurdity). To be honest, I'm not
sure how we can discuss the book if we're depending on me to supply it
once again in these posts.  It's not that the argument is fiendishly
subtle, but it has many many parts (instances, if you will, that seek
to demonstrate my contentions).  In short, my assumption was that
reading the book was one of the givens of these exchanges.  Is that
naive of me?  I have to admit though that one of my frustrations even
with some people who have read the book is that for reasons that escape
me  some people insist on substituting familiar arguments (I'm
lamenting the low taste of the public) for what I'm actually interested
in (thinking strategically about what passes for high taste; what
function that work serves in the larger politics of the culture).  In
an even shorter version of my last in short, could somebody talk to me
or ask a question or make a comment or offer a critique about what I
actually wrote?

PS to John Ross, the Great Books program and the work of Adler is not
something I deal much with except as a sort of footnote on the Culture
Wars.  I do offer an extended analysis of the stakes in the Culture
Wars featuring a reading of the logic of Culture Studies, Harold
Bloom's recent books on the Great Tradition and How to Read, ending in 
an exposition of the work of Russian Formalist Viktor Schlovsky.  This
is the most academic chapter of the book and challenging for many, but
for those interested in the role academia is playing in cultural
politics, worth a look.
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #22 of 114: Paul Terry Walhus (terry) Sun 14 Dec 03 15:36
    
What do you mean when you say "we're a done-elsewhere-by-somebody-else-
culture?  Await your answer Curtis.

I went to school in Urbana not too far down the road from your location in
Illinois.  Do you find Normal conducive to creative work?
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #23 of 114: pineflint (pineflint) Sun 14 Dec 03 18:55
    
Mr. White:
I bought your book several weeks ago and am about halfway through it.
Now that you are here with us on the Well I shall try to finish it more
quickly.

Given that, for now I'd like to ask you about a specific point that
sticks in my mind thus far: your lambasting of John Seabrook's
"Nobrow." You called it "a critique of the middle mind written from
within the middle mind," or something similar. Now, I also see Seabrook
as rather vapid, and can sympathize with your intentions here to some
extent. However, I came away from that portion feeling as though you
considered Seabrook a kind of "traitor" to something that you didn't
quite define. In particular, there was a passage where you took issue
with Seabrook's admiration (or lack of condemnation, at least) of MTV's
habit of placing the "beautiful kids" in the front row of videos. You
seemed to suggest he "should"  be against this trend as "one of those
kids who liked to read when he was young" (to
paraphrase...unfortunately, I don't have a copy of your book in front
of me here).

At that point, I got the disturbing impression that you are still
fighting some sort of lonely ad hominem schoolyard battle as a
put-upon, bullied young junior-high outcast. Indeed, I catch a whiff of
"you are either with us or against us"  throughout what I have read of
your book, without "us" being really identified. Aren't you indulging
in a kind of Manichaean oversimplification here? A world populated by
"sensitive nerds" fending off the "jocks" and "cool kids?" 

I often feel academics lack a nuanced understanding of the variety of
personalities that society really does have to offer. In international
business I meet people with razor-sharp intelligence almost every day
who literally defy classification, while the academics (supposedly the
deep thinkers) seem to have such a flat, dry, simplistic idea of
contemporary human nature. With this black-and-white subtext popping up
from time to time in your book, do you fall into the trap here of
committing some of the crimes you accuse today's unimaginative "high
culture" of perpetrating ?
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #24 of 114: Theodore C Newcomb (nukem777) Mon 15 Dec 03 04:29
    
Curtis, would you please give us a working definition of culture and
how it lays out on a continuum of no,low,middle and high brow? I'm
having some difficulty differentiating between what is false and what
is real from your viewpoint. Thanks.
  
inkwell.vue.203 : Curtis White, THE MIDDLE MIND
permalink #25 of 114: Dwight Cruikshank (dwightberg) Mon 15 Dec 03 08:15
    
Geez, people.  MTV should be criticized for putting the beautiful
"cool" kids in the front row, as should the rest of the media for
presenting us with standards of beauty are made to seem normal but in
fact are very rare--this kind of lying injures kids psychologically. 
AS for academia being simplistic, I don't see that. I* see the company
men as having been suckered to some extent into status quo
expectations.  Much of American is extremely anti=intellectual and anti
art. Employers and people in general tend to distrust "intellectuals"
and "artists", preferring the good old boy who slaps you on people 
back and doesn't ask questions.  With art is reduced to the lowest
common denominator.  To say that it's elistist to question the taste of
masses just indicates to me that you've been idoctrinated into the
kinds of assumptions or superstructure that works to maintain the
status quo.  Pineflint's nerd vs cool kids oversimplification is really
insulting.  Mr. White has been kind enough to come here and discuss
his book, so let's show some respect. 
  

More...



Members: Enter the conference to participate

Subscribe to an RSS 2.0 feed of new responses in this topic RSS feed of new responses

   Join Us
Home | Learn About | Conferences | Member Pages | Mail | Store | Services & Help | Password | Join Us