- Hardcover: 224 pages
- Publisher: HarperOne; 1 edition (August 19, 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0060524367
- ISBN-13: 978-0060524364
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,164,877 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves Hardcover – August 14, 2003
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Curtis Whites The Middle Mind: Why Americans Dont Think for Themselves--which grew from a 2002 Harper's articleexamines as its titular object the dominant American liberal, pseudo-intellectual consciousness. "The Middle Mind" disdains hard thinking and true examination of corporate and political forces that act upon it. In the book, White dilates on his notion of an American Middle Mind to imagine a world beyond it, but he frequently gets lost on his journey. He finds three sources for this American malaise: the entertainment industry, academic orthodoxy, and political ideology. But, as in the original magazine piece, the figures he picks to condemn within this triumvirate are a bit surprising, even while his attacks are unremitting. NPR's Terry Gross, for example, is characterized as one whose work is "useless for the purposes of intelligence," and her show is dismissed as a "pornographic farce." In his critiques, White claims to be resisting the classic high-brow/low-brow cultural distinctions; or, rather, he sees the Middle Mind as having absorbed them. But his frequent allusions to Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and high Modernism long for a world that never was, a world of art and political resistance that was somehow accessible in its full complexity to all of America. While White wants a creative, intelligent, politically engaged American mass culture, his exemplars look remarkably like high culture icons and few modern intellectuals are left standing (notably Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Bill Moyers). By the end, his call for a "pragmatic sublime" diffuses into vague, postmodern-theory-laden discussion of artistic formalism and a celebration of David Lynch's film Blue Velvet as a model for resistance. In this context of exclusivity, Terry Gross's inclusive "Middle Mind" seems the more open space for true discourse. --Patrick OKelley
From Publishers Weekly
In March 2002 Harper's ran White's controversial essay attacking Fresh Air radio host Terry Gross (a "schlock jock"). The article sparked outrage at the author's choice of sacred cow to savage. White (Memories of My Father Watching TV) fleshes out that piece into a book-length attack on the pseudo-intellectual tendencies of mainstream America. "The middle mind" describes the large segment of folks who claim to be interested in art and ideas, but who would never permit those influences to budge their complacent assumptions about postindustrial life. White investigates the role of the middle mind in the arenas of "entertainment, intellectual orthodoxy, and political ideology." The middle mind "offers us an art and a cultural commentary that is really just more commercial product." White's writing is undisciplined, frightfully (and unabashedly) elitist, self-satisfied, jokey yet rather entertaining. He is given to outlandish, often unsubstantiated claims about the terrors of modern life; he fares far better when concentrating on a specific text, whether it be Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan or Radiohead's album Kid A. White finds the rise in aesthetic and cultural interest on the part of ordinary people over the last few decades disagreeable, which will disturb some readers. One thing can be said for White, however: there's no arguing with his sincerity.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
There are discussions about books and films the author likes and dislikes, culminating in the dubious conclusion that Blue Velvet by David Lynch is a masterpiece and that American pragmatism is the way to go -- artistically!
Some of the close reading of texts in the chapter, "The Great American Disaster Machine" is diverting matter, but certainly not enough to buy this book for.
And enough already about Wallace Stevens, Jacques Derrida and Theodore Adorno. If anything, I'll read their ideas myself.
The author cites numerous examples from the entertainment industry that to him represent the workings of the middle mind. A somewhat controversial inclusion is NPR's "Fresh Air" program, hosted by Terry Gross, described as "charming and banal." The "Antiques Road Show" of PBS "has turned arts and antiquities into crude commodity fetishism." Ken Burns' PBS documentaries meet the middle mind's requirement that art be "entertaining, fun, and interesting," irrespective of any intellectual content, which is highly limited in Burns' productions. Steven Speilberg's film, "Saving Private Ryan," is subjected to a withering analysis by the author for its failures to contest the premises and conduct of war. The author notes that a primary function of entertainment is to "stabilize the inevitability and naturalness of the present disposition of things."
In the author's estimation, academia, especially in the area of the humanities, has become "unwitting allies of the Middle Mind" by assailing unfettered imagination. With the rise of Cultural Studies programs, art and literature are "read" with the political and social agenda of the critic being the foremost criterion of the analysis. Art is not permitted to stand on its own, but must make a congenial social statement. Furthermore, the artist is expected to purge any historically incorrect thinking from his or her work.
The author devotes a not insignificant part of the book to multi-page, biting criticisms of other cultural critics and commentators. In one case the author of a "no-brow" social critique is subjected to the author's disdain. Finding fault in the subtleties of argument may be a reason for academics to declare victory, but a large dose of that is not necessarily all that appealing to the general reader who is not even aware of the various targeted critics' work.
Moving beyond the realm of entertainment and cultural criticism, the author recognizes that politics, militarism, and business have immense effects on the imagination. Scientific and technological thinking dominate the world of business and the military and have thoroughly penetrated and narrowed the American imagination. A "reverence" for technological thinking squeezes out a broader social imagination. The author castigates a view that holds that this is an age for creative "geeks." He maintains that capitalism co-opts creativity into "vocationalism" or into a narrow job focus. The "creative economy" does not require artists, but only those that are "stupid-smart."
The rise of the middle mind may seem at first glance to be innocuous enough. Who cares if the ability to interpret and appreciate art is in short supply? But all is not so benign. Entertainment and the media, in accordance with a middle mind mentality, obfuscate the "inescapable" contradictions of capitalism. This is done primarily by flooding cultural space with a "frenzy of communication and information." The difficulty of penetrating this communication deluge is not be minimized. For instance, there is the "truth" of technical progress that is accepted without question in the US. The fact that most of our advanced technologies are accident-prone is concealed beneath layers of misleading statistics.
The political system is a full partner with global capital in bypassing the nation-state as the location of political and economic power. NAFTA, IMF, WTO, and EEU all transcend nations with profound effects. The author contends that we have as a nation adopted a form of unconsciousness regarding the true nature of globalization. At some level, we know that "our lifestyle has for the last half-century been the equivalent of a state of war between ourselves and those folks who will provide us cheap, cheap natural resources and, more recently, cheap, cheap consumer goods." But politicians and the media are skilled at wringing "sentimental patriotism" from the public in support of military actions to maintain a world order that supports our extravagances.
Surely the author is not wrong to emphasize the fact that imagination and thought are essential to any sort of progressive, rational, and just society. The essentiality of art is perhaps less obvious. A failure to interpret or appreciate a work of art with the same degree of expertise as the author is not properly an indictment of the overall intellectual capacity of an individual.
The book is not especially well organized - it seems patched together at times. Its message is not clear. Incompetent artistic appreciation is unsatisfactorily intermixed with the propagandistic efforts of large institutions. The commentary on inadequate artistic vision often seems quarrelsome and petty. The large institutions, like the military and corporations, are not analyzed in any systematic manner for their effects on imagination. Political parties, public education, and the labor movement do not appear in the book. The working class is non existent. It's not certain that, in the end, the "why" of not thinking is adequately addressed. And the book has no index, which is important because of the myriad of names mentioned.
I would say this is a niche book. For general commentary on the impact of powerful institutions on society, better books could be found. Insiders of cultural and artistic criticism may find something here to like or contest.