Dwight Cruikshank (dwightberg) Mon 15 Dec 03 08:39
Curtis, I wanted to let you know that I too graduated from the writing seminars at Hopkins, just two years ago. I also grew up in Iowa City, where you must have spent a few years. It's always nice to see Hopkins folks who have been able to make a living by writing. I'd love to talk with you about writer stuff, but unfortunately the hosts of this conference have a preference for non-fiction, despite the plethora of creative writers on here. In discussing a non-fiction work that takes a real stand on contemporary issues, there's bound to be more discussion, but there's also going to be a lot of contention. Thanks for sticking with this, despite it all.
Alan L. Chamberlain (axon) Mon 15 Dec 03 08:49
It takes more than showing up to earn respect, although I'm grateful for the opportunity to challenge the work under discussion. >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" Okay, why the scare quotes? Are they not really educated? Are they not truly bourgeois? Why the insinuation that the class you are criticizing is pretending to something other than what it manifestly is? Or if it isn't, can you not find a more apposite descriptor? >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. As I argued earlier, mediocrity infects every class. It is not a novel idea that most educated people have no more meaningful training then how to game the system, obtain a credential, and pass themselves off as qualified. As an educator, surely you have firsthand knowledge of this phenomenon. It may also be argued that relative affluence is no measure of merit, either inasmuch as so much of it accrues to people who come from affluent families, or enjoy good fortune out of proportion to their contribution. Finally, profession of liberal convictions is, in itself, nearly meaningless. The label itself subsumes a multitude of sins, and has been a moving target for over a century. At the end of the day, these people *are*, for the most part, mediocrities, and the cultural and cognitive artifacts they consume are calculated to appeal to mediocre tastes. Analysis of this segment's preferences in creative content is indeed deconstructing dogfood, although I'll concede it is not a comprehensive evaluation of the entire pet nutrition industry. >I suppose in a word I argue that that culture is a sort of >fraud, and a dangerous fraud at that. And yet your book gives no clue as to who is perpetrating this fraud, nor what their reward for doing so is? You indict capitalism as if this were a willful, malevolent force, and its practicioners helpless victims of a hideous compulsion. Later in your book, you invoke mysticism as an antidote. Are you arguing that an economic system is Satan? It's difficult to tell; you never pull the curtain back and charge "j'accuse!" >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). This is, in my judgment, the weakest joist in your platform. Your deconstructions of SPR, Fresh Air, and, of all things, MTV, are frankly laughable. They reek of projection and show the stitches of clumsy rhetorical surgery. You're certainly entitled to your observations, but I am also entitled to enjoy a great deal of unintended mirth at your convolutions. That you should presume to ridicule these artifacts after making such a paltry case for their absurdity betrays an intellectual immaturity that provokes as much pity as revulsion. >It's not that the argument is fiendishly subtle Ever the master of understatement, eh White?
Angie Coiro (coiro) Mon 15 Dec 03 08:57
For the record, I didn't intend my post to be confrontational in the least, and I apologize, Curtis, if it seemed to be. I was sincere in my thanking you for being here.
Gail Williams (gail) Mon 15 Dec 03 09:56
Alan, a side observation: Perhaps >scare quotes is a little bit off-point in the back and forth within a topic, since you do a very similar thing using the ascii text convention of the greater- than sign and full sentances to do something similar in your own response. Just want to encourage you not to get sucked into grammarian trivia and jabbing rather than expressing a more interesting core argument, whatever that turns out to be. (Aw, sheesh, now I'm posting about completely meaningless variations in quotation conventions, too. How'd that happen?)
Alan L. Chamberlain (axon) Mon 15 Dec 03 10:12
It just bugs me. It's a stylistic shorthand for "what bullshit". It annoys me when Reuters (a repeat offender) does it, and it annoys me when White does it. I'm not really quarreling with the semiotic indolence so much as I want to challenge the underlying inference that the referent is bullshit. In any event, it's a tangential objection, but one that asserted itself early in the reading and persisted throughout the volume. I'm just saying that if you want to convince a skeptical reader, insulting his intelligence is a poor enticement.
I'm on the Chet Atkins Diet. Pass the BBQ, please. (rik) Mon 15 Dec 03 11:12
Point taken. Now, about the content......
Life Is Easy When Considered From Another Point Of View (dam) Mon 15 Dec 03 12:26
good pseud rik! <sorry for the topic drift>
Curtis White (curtiswhite) Mon 15 Dec 03 13:47
Terry: I think that I mean what Homer Simpson means when he says, "Doh, can't somebody else do it?" I mean that we are too content to live lives provided for us by corporations. In a world in which you can't go anywhere in the US without feeling that you're in the same place (this applies mostly to mid-sized cities) because every Main St. is the same and every strip mall lining the route into town has the same eateries etc. and the radio channels are all owned by Clear Channel and the media is all owned by the same six megacorps the food is all grown by the same farm industries in the same depleted soil etc. We have insufficient ownership of our sense of place, being, and in a word World. We live in a corporate life world rather than one that we can be said to have participated in the construction of. It was done for us. Axon of course will object that I've not proven this point, that I'm only making a claim. But he's wrong to think that that's how thinking proceeds. I locate my argument within a tradition of critique going back to Hegel, including Marx but insistently assuming the work of the Frankfurt school, esp. Adorno. I broaden the context a bit in including Schlovsky, Paul Ricoeur and a few others but I don't hide my intellectual tradition. To buy my argument it is necessary to think that the earlier critical work of those thinkers is legitimate. My purpose is not to persuade conservatives that they ought to be revolutionaries. My purpose is to provide self-understanding and potential strategies for people who see the legitimacy of the tradition of Western Marxist critique. You don't have to be a Marxist to participate in this tradition; anyone who has an issue with capitalism especially in its corporate and international mode is working in this tradition of thought whether they know it or not. Of course, that will never satisfy Axon and his ilk who will jump on your use of "scare quotes" on the one hand and then ask you to prove that anyone anywhere is impoverished. "Why, they just are too dumb to find their way to my glorious banquet where Kurt Elling is at the piano bar and the brie is double cream." Like I said, Axon, you and I have nothing finally to say to each other. We're antagonists. Coiro: I didn't at all read your post as confrontational. Actually, I don't have a problem with confrontation. I'd just like it to be related to the book and what I actually was interested in arguing. Pineflint: I think I do occasionally create scenarios that are a bit black and white. I think it's important to do fundamental sorting of who you imagine is on your side (whatever that means) and who not. Pity the fool who imagines that this sorting of sides is just too inexact and impure to bother with. We should try to think our world or our world is plenty ready to think us (that's my point). That means that Seabrook gets sorted into the "he pretends to be doing critique while in fact he's really capitulating and happy" camp of collaborators. My book's particularity comes in the close readings, which (pace Axon) provide support for the broader contentions. I think what I do is a sort of popular deconstruction with Seabrook. He would seem to stand outside of consumer culture, but he is in fact part of its motor. I deconstruct the opposition and show the two to be one. At that point I feel free to have fun at his expense in the best tradition of 18th century "word slaying" (actually, Axon, putting words in quotes like that means "as it is said" or "as they said," in this case Pope, Swift, Dryden etc.). I ridicule the absurd. Some people are troubled by that aspect of the book. Others find the humor tonic. Slavoj Zizek has referred to my "malevolent irony." He approves. I think I agree with you about academics. I've been an academic for 25 years (and that doesn't count graduate school) and I have to say that they're some of the least interesting and certainly the least curious people I know of. Not universally but... This book is not written for academics. Its readers and "fans" (now the quotes mean something like "I use that word self-consciously") are smart, curious, serious people in all sorts of places. One of the things that I'm happy about in this book process is the really surprising number of people who have emailed me and sent books they've written, art works, cds etc. It's been very heartening to find that so many people were looking for a rhetoric of refusal like I have tried to provide. (You know, Axon, you make me want to put quotes around everything.) nukem777 (Geez that's a scary pseudonym. Is that the apocalypse that comes after the devil's?) I'd prefer to define the "social imagination". It is not limited to the arts. It is all of the ways in which human invention contributes to the construction of the human world. it is also the critical engagement with the human world as it exists (here in these theoretically united states). I use Wittgenstein's metaphor of a fly in a bottle wanting to know what the bottle looks like to explain the critical (and utopic) function of the imagination. The fly must imagine a place outside of the bottle from which he can speculate on the bottle. This is a utopic and critical place. it is the place from which we judge the culture. I suppose it is also the place where we can propose a different bottle. Dwight: Dear old JHU. I'd be happy to chat elsewhere. I'm at email@example.com. Axon: As for my "intellectual immaturity" provoking "pity and revulsion" (this time the quote means that I'm quoting you). I know guys like you. They're the guys that have spent their lives getting good at something like chess and when you play chess with them they kick your ass and you hate them for beating you and you hate the halitosis coming from their side of the table but it's finally all sort of a bad John Houseman imitation. "We earned our smug superiority the hard way. We just assumed it." But you roll back the thin veneer of their claim ("I can beat you at chess!") and they're just Hollow Men.
Alan L. Chamberlain (axon) Mon 15 Dec 03 14:46
>you and I have nothing finally to say to each other. We're >antagonists. Not quite. I am an agonist, you are an antagonist (or, if you like, vice versa). In the end, you and I *must* speak to each other, else it's just choir practice. >"Why, they just are too dumb I think this mischaracterizes my argument. I don't think they're dumb so much as I think they are incurious. They *are* content with their corporate existence, in large part because it is a reasonably satisfying one if you are not overburdened by curiosity. My principal quarrel is with your claim that the people in this society are denied any choice in the matter. In fact there is more diversity, invention, dissent, novelty, and creative risk-taking in general circulation than ever before, and it continues to be increasingly accessible and affordable. The examples you cite, such as Saving Private Ryan and Fresh Air, are just a couple of items from a very long menu of content options available. I suspect there are people for whom SPR is sort of cultural slumming; entertaining but not very meaningful. Popcult eye candy with few troubling moral ambiguities to sort out. In short, cinematic dogfood. At the same time, there are folks out there for whom FA is challenging, slightly over their heads, but probably worth their time to expose themselves to writers and musicians and filmmakers they've no knowledge of. Your criticism of SPR is that Spielberg is brainwashing people into accepting killing as the only safe strategy in a threatening world. This presumes that no one, except possibly Curtis White, can examine this narrative, recognize the ethical dilemmas, and sort them out for themselves. Spielberg may be advocating a particular philosophy, or he may merely be cranking the handle on the dog food grinder, because the audience just eats it up. Fresh Air, OTOH, you slam because the producers do not scruple to book only those artists whose semiotic payloads conform to your moral imperatives. That's why there's an off switch on your radio. You don't like it (and sometimes I really don't care for the guest), *turn it off*. But I have to tell you that the assertion that Gross' interviews are cultural backwash because she includes trivial and banal subjects is insulting to anyone who has figured out how to operate a tuning knob. Corporate culture is not the only content on the shelves. In every class and at every level of educational attainment and critical discrimination, though, it has the benefit of being predictably satisfying, cost-effective, and conveniently obtained. You turn on the teevee and you getcher HBO. You turn on the radio and you get the poptart of the month. Browse Barnes & Noble and get the New York Times Bestseller list, marked down 30%. It can certainly *seem* as though the culture as a whole has become a shallow, homogenized, default, commercial sludge. But it does not take that much more effort to find all sorts of interesting, challenging, risk-indulgent, frankly *scary* work. Far more than a decade ago, and much of it a google and three mouseclicks away. You do not let this burgeoning trend intrude upon your anticorporate tantrum, and that seems, if not dishonest, at least negligent.
Dan Mitchell (mitchell) Mon 15 Dec 03 19:56
>Do you find Normal conducive to creative work? Ha! (well, there was the guy who put the "Aids Kills Fags Dead" sign in his dorm window about 15 years ago, eh Prof. White? He created havoc, if nothing else.)
David Gans (tnf) Tue 16 Dec 03 09:16
> "We earned our smug superiority the hard way. We just assumed it." That made me laugh. Thanks, Curtis, and hang in there!
David Gans (tnf) Tue 16 Dec 03 09:18
> My principal quarrel is with your claim that the people in this society are > denied any choice in the matter. In fact there is more diversity, inven- > tion, dissent, novelty, and creative risk-taking in general circulation > than ever before, and it continues to be increasingly accessible and affor- > dable. That may be true, but I think it is also true that the mainstream culture grows and dominates, and the mainstream corporate providers of culture like it that way. Greil Marcus said years ago that the music business would be happy to put out just one record a year if everybody in the country bought it. There's great stuff out there for those who seek it. But it is equally true that our great corporate cultural exports tend not to be the great stuff.
Alan L. Chamberlain (axon) Tue 16 Dec 03 10:05
>it is equally true that our great corporate cultural exports tend not >to be the great stuff. True enough; mediocrity on the supply side mirrors the same on the demand side. White argues that the market for art has been brainwashed and manipulated by a corporate media conspiracy to accept, even demand, banal, formulaic, consistently conformist content, whereas my observation is that as some content consumers have avidly sought more challenging, subversive, inventive material, the marketplace has responded by furnishing it, while pioneering new models for collaboration, distribution, production, promotion, and compensation in the process. I think White's quarrel is not with the Middle Mind, which he argues is contrived by a corporatist agenda for its own convenience, but rather with the Middle Class, which, despite its having acquired a portfolio of appropriately liberal social values, is best suited to accepting and defending a status quo in which it enjoys comfortable privileges. It listens to NPR, e.g., because it is safely to the left of center, and resonates with the liberal impulses of the graying boomers, but not so far as to actually disrupt the Middle Class cocoon of paid medical benefits, equity appreciation, 401k/IRA retirement plans, or a criminal justice system that gives them a false but credible sense of personal safety. In this I agree with White; the vast majority of media/content consumers in this country, even among the well-educated and affluent, are uncritical, and are vulnerable to sophisticated semiotic influence. But this is not new, nor news, and thus the crisis, or state of alarm he so breathlessly reports, has no urgency. Not only is the sky not falling, but we've known it for awhile. In fact, alternatives (to what might be described as centralized content) are emerging organically, not in response to clarion calls and alarmist rhetoric, but as a natural consequence of the creative and innovative impulse amplified by inquisitive (as contrasted to acquisitive) demand. One of the most encouraging trends in the migration to digital production/distribution/exhibition models is the emphasis on meaning over artifact. The force animating this transformation is not a desire to own the physical form factor, but merely to appreciate -- enjoy, critique, even modify -- the content itself. The presages an evolution, not in consciousness, but rather of economics.
Dan Mitchell (mitchell) Tue 16 Dec 03 10:07
And crucially, great stuff is often pushed out by crap, thanks to technology, the consolidation of corporate power, and economies of scale. Need I point to Wal-Mart? Need I point to Clear Channel? The degradation of civic culture is demonstrably shown every time an independent merchant is put out of business. There are demonstrably fewer independent radio stations. Choices are fewer, and what's left to choose among is, demonstrably, crappier all the time. And even if there were good choices for the discerning among us, I think it's a fair complaint that the culture as a whole suffers from the proliferation of crap. This is why I don't understand the "let the 'dull normals' have their shiny things, I've got plenty for my own" mindset. Don't you want more choice in radio stations, don't you want nicer buildings, better retail service, less expansive parking lots, a thriving, livable downtown? These things are yours as much as anybody's.
Dan Mitchell (mitchell) Tue 16 Dec 03 10:08
Alan L. Chamberlain (axon) Tue 16 Dec 03 10:24
>Don't you want more choice in radio stations, don't you >want nicer buildings, better retail service, less expansive >parking lots, a thriving, livable downtown? I'm not sure this taxonomy is comprehensive, but sure, of course. But I'm getting more choice in radio stations (lots of great new broadcasters on the net, the satellite, etc.) just to take one example. The problem is not that there isn't more choice, but that most people aren't interested in that choice. What has changed is that it is possible to sustain these alternatives *without* mass market acceptance. I enjoy a very livable downtown in my medium-sized college town, in large part because Wal-Mart and the rest of the big boxes have created a Massive Retail Hell in southeastern Chico that draws all the mindless consumers *away* from the village center, so we can have a thriving, inclusive, engaged market commons distinguished by few pattern vendors (in fact, the Chevy's downtown recently closed; the only chain in the whole downtown is one lonely Starbucks, and the other cafes are really beating its time), lots of independent businesses, arts and crafts stores, etc., and all of it overlaid by a growing resident artists' colony.
Curtis White (curtiswhite) Tue 16 Dec 03 12:46
All: I've been thinking about the politics of what I'm trying to do, having signaled a certain affinity to the enlightenment and debt to Hegel. One way to think this politics is in terms of the relation of the "universal" that preceeded the Enlightenment (we were all subjected to the universality of the feudal state and the church) and the subjectivity that we achieved through multiple fronts in the Enlightenment. The Englightenment created the idea of the subject as the focus of a kind of suffering and entitled to grievances and deserving of justice that we can find in Mozart as well as Kant. One way to think the problem with the corporate life world of the present is that its tendency is to return us to a new form of the old universality while claiming, of course, to be all about freedom of personal choice. (We can all choose a car that expresses our personality, but at the end of the day our delusion is clear: we choose among absurdly limited choices all made in advance by corporations. Which is why the art critic Dave Hickey likes what low riders in LA do to their cars. They detourn Detroit with lights, paint, and hydraulics in the chasis.) Another Hegelian thought here is the difference between being in itself and being for itself. In one way what we want is nothing other than what I call the Middle Mind if we understand that for Hegel redemption is in the fall. Until I called it the Middle Mind the Middle Mind existed "in itself." Once I'd called it the Middle Mind it was obliged, to a limited degree, to exist "for itself". Now that we understand through critique the thing we are unhappy with we don't need to posit something other and superio to that thing we critique (mass culture). The spirit of critique itself provides that something other and opens the field--now that we are conscious, functioning "for ourselves"--for what I call the imagination. So what I want instead of the Middle Mind is in a sense implicit in the book itself. The book performs its own idea of utopia. Simply naming the Middle Mind destroys its privileged existence "for itself" beneath the radar of critique. Critique is already an assertion of subjectivity against the universality of the corporate life world (in which we all vegetate to Clear Channel). Sorry to inject Hegel and not sorry. One of my contentions in the book is that one of our national dysfunctions is that certain ideas that we need most are unavailable to us because they are ghettoized in the academy. I don't think there's anything innately impossible to understand in the Hegelian thought I've just tried to provide. Unfamiliar, maybe. But that passes quickly for humans. That's to our credit. We need to do more with that capacity in ourselves if we are to survive the next century. What are the odds of that under the reign of the imagination of corporate capital in its international mode? What are the odds that we survive the next century without a major nuclear event? Thanks to all for the posts. Special shout out to Dan who recalls a good time in the ISU Senate. Things haven't been that interesting here in years.
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Tue 16 Dec 03 20:18
So, to go all practical in antithesis of your theoretical turn, how might it come about that ordinary people would succeed in naming The Middle Mind and thereby depriviliging it? And how does corporate culture prevent that? Is it by bombarding us, from early on, with so much . . . "content"? (Scare quotes to indicate irony, perhaps . . . :) emoticon just for the sheer hell of it. No. Enough meta.)
Curtis White (curtiswhite) Wed 17 Dec 03 14:14
Boy, nothing like a little Hegel to dry up the old conversation! You gotta love the guy! Bumbaugh: In practical terms, we are habituated to a theater, a spectacle in which the opposition of the commercial and the non-commercial, the liberal and the conservative are paraded before us daily, routinely. (I've written on the Franken/Coulter theater recently, but it doesn't have a home yet.) So, without effective self-reflection, Terry Gross and Fresh Air can pass for something different from commercial fodder. But here's what Gross does: she flattens distinctions. She is part of the death of discrimination. Barry Manilow and Christoph Eschenbach are all the same to her. It's all good, as they say. But good for what? It's all good for commodity. Finally Fresh Air like any commercial program is about product and marketing. (In the book I add a critique on her tendency to turn to the personal in conversations with artists making her interest in the arts finally sensational. That's why she's a schlock jock.) Anyway, by creating this notion of the Middle Mind and finding Terry Gross part of it, you can't listen to her anymore in the same way. Many people have told me this after reading the essay or the book. "You've ruined the show for me!" Usually they're glad for that. So that in itself IS the change we ought to want. That spirit of critique that McLuhan spoke of in the Mechanical Bride. But there is more. Debunking Fresh Air's "otherness" (its difference from the commercial radio and TV interview programs; think Baba Wawa) opens the field to possibility. First, you start looking for the "real" interview program (I've found quite a few during the promotion of this book; check the Paula Gordon show in Atlanta; check Michael Silverblatt's Bookworm in Santa Monica); second, maybe someone actually creates their own show! (Like the David Byrne song "Found a Job" in which a family makes its own TV shows.) That's been Pacifica Radio's purpose for decades. So critique is the key and the treasure. But it also opens the field. What needs to happen is for that "for itself" consciousness to become broader and deeper socially. Right now its the same rather sad "core audience" (as my publisher puts it) of maybe a couple hundred thousand potential reader/thinker/actors. Just enough to lose every presidential election for the next century. I don't know what will increase that community. All I know is that I'll talk to anyone because for me that's part of what feeling alive is about. And I like feeling alive. We all should. Even if the rest of the culture feels like it's going into meltdown (someone recently called it "creeping fascism").
I'm on the Chet Atkins Diet. Pass the BBQ, please. (rik) Wed 17 Dec 03 14:41
Some people can take Hegel, and some, Kant.
David Gans (tnf) Wed 17 Dec 03 16:52
> here's what Gross does: she flattens distinctions. She is part of the > death of discrimination. Barry Manilow and Christoph Eschenbach are all > the same to her. Where does a notion like this come from, and how do you back it up? I'm sorry, but it makes no sense to me.
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Wed 17 Dec 03 18:02
(concurring slippage) When you say Fresh Air is "part of the death of discrimination" and "flattens distinctions", it sounds like you're advocating a system in which privileged critics tell listeners what they should like. Why is that Terri Gross's job? Shouldn't listeners be deciding that for themselves?
enquiring minds want to know (moki) Thu 18 Dec 03 00:37
the interrogative "what were you thinking?" comes to mind. the important questions go unasked and (more often) unanswered. why doesn't anyone in mainstream media with any power think that we should hold people accountable for their statements and actions? the oj prosecution comes to mind...
Paul Terry Walhus (terry) Thu 18 Dec 03 04:37
Terry Gross makes some great choices as to guests and she does good, probing questions. I think she's part of the solution, not part of the problem. I just don't see her as flat and undiscriminating. Isn't her treating Manilow and Eschenbach the same part of her journalistic objectivity?
I'm on the Chet Atkins Diet. Pass the BBQ, please. (rik) Thu 18 Dec 03 07:55
I could buy into the flattening of distinctions if she asked the same questions of each. But she doesn't.
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