Sunday, January 11, 2004

Mired in Mediocrity

Curtis White in The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves has a lot to complain about. The American imagination has been highjacked by the military, capitalism and the media. We have become a culture where how entertaining something is determines whether or not it is worthwhile. We have become a country that allows our institutions to do our thinking for us and those institutions don't have our best interests in mind. We have become a people of the status quo, mired in mediocrity, comfortable with the Middle Mind. According to White you can see the Middle Mind at work everywhere. The Middle Mind wants to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and buys an SUV in order to drive there and see it. The Middle Mind even vaguely understands the contradiction in this thinking. The Middle Mind is also at work in Terry Gross' NPR show, Fresh Air. White says that interviewing classical musicians and "banal pop musicians" like Barry Manilow and "novelistic innovators" and "hack realists" and treating them all as if they were of equal cultural importance and value is a Middle Mind strategy. And while interviewing those individuals focusing on questions about their personal life and not their work "purveys entertainment as art and thought." The Middle Mind encourages creativity but it is a creativity in service to capitalism and corporations. It is creativity as commodity and as such it is without bite. It is a creativity that encourages scientists to find new ways of killing people for the military machine but disconnects it from all ethical and moral discussion. It's your job and it has nothing to do with your life outside of work. For the Middle Mind, creativity reinforces the status quo. Art does not question and critique social structures, does not disturb our thinking, but is meant to be consumed and enjoyed as entertainment. With other people doing the thinking and imagining for us, we become passive consumers unable to imagine and think for ourselves; unable to imagine and think of anything different than the life, culture and society that we have. This may sound like a vast conspiracy but it isn't; it is something that has crept up on us. For White the 1960s was the pinnacle of imagination and the beginning of the failure of the imagination. I think White is right about some things: there is a distinct lack of social imagination in mainstream America and people don't think in depth about much these days. Unfortunately, he doesn't take the time to examine what the underlying political and economic causes of Middle Mind thinking might be. Issues like class and race have no place in White's imagination. I can't say that I blame people for not thinking. I mean, it's kind of hard to spend 8-12 hours a day at work and come home and pay the bills and take care of the kids and then turn your imagination and thoughts to how to change the world. Maybe if we weren't all so tired from making ends meet, we'd be less likely to sit down and turn on the latest Fox Reality show. As a solution to the Middle Mind White calls for a new kind of rationalism; Aristotle and Kant tempered with Hegel, Derrida and Adorno. White likes clear cut distinctions and dualistic thinking. But as a socialist feminist who thinks poststructuralism has some really interesting things to say, I see nothing wrong with a lack of clear distinctions and fluid boundaries. And, I see a lot wrong with dualistic thinking. White, an English professor at Illinois State University, spends a chapter of energy on the academy, the humanities, English departments, Cultural Studies and Feminism. I was tickled when he ripped apart the pompous ass, Harold Bloom and the whole idea of a literary canon. I wasn't so tickled when he accused Feminism and Cultural Studies as failures that have led to identity politics and a stultifying "Political Correctness." I see nothing wrong with thoughtful political correctness or thoughtful identity politics. I think until we have a just and egalitarian society such things are necessary. When PC and identity politics become rigid and an end instead of the means to an end, that's when I have a problem. And yes, this rigidity has happened in some instances, but I see no sense in throwing out the baby with the bathwater and calling the whole thing a failure. White is witty and often scathingly sarcastic and funny. I enjoyed reading him even though I disagreed with him half the time. Still, I was left with a vague feeling at the end that White is sexist. All but about one, maybe two, of his examples of imaginative thinkers are men. After his criticism of Cultural Studies and Feminism I shouldn't be surprised. But I can't help thinking that White, having left out more than half the human race, suffers from a lack of imagination himself. If you want to read a published critique of White and his idea of the Middle Mind, visit The Village Voice and read Howard Hampton's recent essay. Hampton doesn't much like White. And read the Middle Mind too. Even if you disagree with everything White says, it will make you think. And that, in the end, is the point.