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?
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.
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?
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)."
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.)
Angie Coiro (coiro) Fri 12 Dec 03 13:39
William H. Dailey (whdailey) Sat 13 Dec 03 00:48
We suffer a mental disconnect when we become polititions.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Sat 13 Dec 03 12:34
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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?
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.
Paul Terry Walhus (terry) Sun 14 Dec 03 01:36
An overview would be great.
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?
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.
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?
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 ?
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.
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.
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