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The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves [Hardcover]

Curtis White
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Aug. 7 2003
  • What do George W. Bush, the Ivory Tower, Steven Spielberg, and Terri Gross have in common?
  • Does a political scandal make for good news copy?
  • Does network programming allow us to unwind from a day's work?
  • Does the art at the local museum make for pleasant cocktail conversation?

An unflinching and wry look at the dumbing down of the American imagination.

In this groundbreaking and incisive exploration, acclaimed social critic Curtis White describes an all-encompassing and little-noticed force taking over our culture and our lives. White calls this force the Middle Mind -- the current failure of the American imagination in the media, politics, education, art, technology, and religion.

The Middle Mind is pragmatic, plainspoken, populist, contemptuous of the right's narrowness, and incredulous before the left's convolutions. It wants to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and has bought an SUV with the intent of visiting it. It even understands in some indistinct way how that very SUV spells the Arctic's doom.

The Middle Mind is not about left or right, highbrow or lowbrow, academia or pop culture; in fact, it pervades society without discrimination. The danger is not in a specific point of view, but rather in how the Middle Mind thrives in the common ground of unquestioned mediocrity. All we seem to ask about the culture we experience is whether it's entertaining.

White argues that we have forgotten how to read, to watch, to think for ourselves. Because it is neutral, widespread, and easily digestible, the Middle Mind has lulled the American imagination to sleep. As we sit comfortably amused and distracted, just outside the door there is an immediate crisis of a nation blindly following the path of least resistance. Irreverent, provocative, and far-reaching, White presents a clear vision of this dangerous mindset that threatens America's intellectual and cultural freedoms, concluding with an imperative to reawaken and unleash the once powerful American imagination.

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Curtis White’s The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves--which grew from a 2002 Harper's article—examines 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 O’Kelley

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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One afternoon, about fifteen years ago, the artist Nicolas Alfricano and I were visiting a common friend, Bill Morgan, who was recovering from surgery in a hospital here in Normal, Illinois. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
Despite its flaws (which many other reviewers were quick to spot), I found The Middle Mind to be a refreshing look at the bland mediocrity of contemporary American culture. This book may be better appreciated as a collection of essays (which, to a large extent, it is: some of the material has already been published in Harper's) than a book with a unified theme. If you judge it by its title and expect a focused discussion of the middle mind you will be disappointed. If you take each chapter on its own merits, however, you can admire the style, scope and originality of Curtis White's writing.

The middle mind is that superficial, politically correct, nonthreatening cultural terrain that is all around us today. It is, as White tells us, prevalent in the media (especially the supposedly liberal media such as NPR), academia and politics. To the right of the middle mind are the cultural conservatives who want to turn back the clock to a mythic America of the past; to the left are the "tenured radicals" whose criticism of society seldom reaches beyond the university. Steven Spielberg (whose Saving Private Ryan is methodically criticized; White does a good job in exposing it as a simplistic, anachronistic piece of pro-war propaganda), Charlie Rose and NPR's Terry Gross are given as examples of the middle mind in action. I am not familiar with the latter two, but White portrays them as pseudo-serious talk shows full of celebrity gossip.
There are a couple of problems with this book. One is the insufficient attention given to the central topic of the middle mind itself. White gives some good examples of it, but never really pins down the middle mind and its relationship to the extremes.
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4.0 out of 5 stars The Joy of "Reading" June 29 2004
As other readers have commented, White does a poor job of giving a precise meaning to "the middle mind," and he actually fails to tell us why Americans don't think for themselves. He gives plenty of examples of Americans not thinking for themselves, but provides little in the way of explanation.
Nonetheless, a prescription, and a valuable one, can be abstracted from this rather scattered and wide-ranging work of social criticism: let us critically examine our cultural, political, aesthetic and social worlds with an eye to the possible alternatives and open possibilities. White performs evocative readings of disparate social artifacts, ranging from Saving Private Ryan, The Accidental Buddhist, and Radiohead's music to political efforts co-opt "stupid smart" gen-Xers for business revitalization. Some of these readings miss the mark while others are quite perceptive; I suspect every reader will find occasion to agree and to disagree. I would suggest that far from attempting to feed us "correct" opinions, White is telegraphing a critical stance to the world whose absence he rightly deplores. By analogy, if this book were about the state of the culinary arts, it would not be a cookbook of tried-and-true recipes, but a call that we should challenge ourselves to discover the joy of cooking, with all the risk and mess it entails. Who knows what new culinary creations might come of it?
This is an extremely ambitious short work -- a book that ultimately points to a world of thought and engagement far beyond its own pages. Highly recommended.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Now, what was the Middle Mind again? June 18 2004
The best thing about Curtis White's The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves is the title. This is a disappointing book-a dizzying hodgepodge of discursive cultural criticism interspersed with long stretches of pretentious nonsense. Despite the book's title, there emerges no coherent description of the "Middle Mind," much less an analysis of why Americans don't think for themselves. Indeed, White's Middle Mind idea is so poorly developed that it almost seems to have been inserted after the book was written when his publisher told him that he needed to have a point. The one clear, unifying element in the book is White's disdain for those he considers his intellectual inferiors, which seems to include just about everyone except for Wallace Stevens and Jacques Derrida. What is White's solution for the "poverty of imagination" which now cripples American thought? I'm not sure, but it seems to be poetry (preferably that of Wallace Stevens, whom he quotes ad nausaem). Many of White's complaints are quite apt, such as the recent "postmodern" tendency to turn art into sociology. However, he throws much of his credibility to the wind because of his tendency to judge everything according to whether or not it sufficiently subverts the status quo-which is the first step in thinking about art in strictly sociological terms! All of this culminates in a crescendo of gibberish in the final chapter, entitled "Notes Toward the Next American Sublime," which reads like a series of randomly selected excerpts from research papers of undergraduate film students.
Despite the book's flaws, it is a worthwhile read-not least for his delightful analysis of the opening scene of the film Saving Private Ryan.
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Most recent customer reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars The Middle Mind in Action
I was amused at his criticism of Terry Gross, Ken Burns and other PBS/NPR intellectual posers and am sympathetic to many of his issues with American materialist culture. Read more
Published on June 11 2004 by James B. Williams
2.0 out of 5 stars Rule #1 of criticizing mediocrity in American culture...
...don't contribute to it yourself. I wasn't at all surprised to see that this book had more three-star reviews than just about any other book that I've seen reviewed on... Read more
Published on June 11 2004
3.0 out of 5 stars Worthwhile but mixed bag
Many arguements here need to be made, heard widely, and considered deeply. The cultural criticism and telling 'take' on various writers is thought provoking even if the style is... Read more
Published on June 2 2004 by L. F Sherman
3.0 out of 5 stars Blatantly Flawed, but the Topic is Important
The harshest reviewer of this book would probably be White himself. Clearly he's no fan of "art as commodity," so the most strinking feature of his book, therefore, is... Read more
Published on May 31 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars the middle mind
as we gasp for air, as we struggle to make sense of the inanity that is the colossus we call america, let us give thanks that out of the fertile loins that is the american critical... Read more
Published on May 17 2004 by leonie walker
3.0 out of 5 stars A great opportunity squandered
Reading "The Middle Mind" reminds me a bit of when I lived near a Univeristy of California campus and hung out with mostly PhD candidates. Read more
Published on April 9 2004 by Traveler
5.0 out of 5 stars "A socialized imagination requires justice"
This book is about the social function of art, creativity, the imagination, esthetics, the sublime, or more accurately a concept of the author's own which those ideas merely point... Read more
Published on March 15 2004 by Miles Jacob
5.0 out of 5 stars So intelligent and sharp that most people wouldn't get it!
Finally, someone dare say it! Why nobody wants to discuss anything deep and meaningful - because they don't know how (plus 'what, where, when, how and why'). Read more
Published on March 3 2004
1.0 out of 5 stars It sounded better on CSpan 2.
I saw White talking about the book on Book TV on CSpan and found the supposed premise , that Americans let their real imaginations languish, to be interesting. Read more
Published on Feb. 29 2004 by W. Graney
2.0 out of 5 stars The Author is a Genius... in his Own Eyes.
The author's thesis in this book is simple: Americans cannot appreciate the aesthetical qualities of art and poetry. Read more
Published on Feb. 27 2004 by Amazon Customer
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