The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves Hardcover – Sep 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.
Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
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.
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.
Most recent customer reviews
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 morePublished on June 11 2004 by James B. Williams
...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 morePublished on June 11 2004
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 morePublished on June 2 2004 by L. F Sherman
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 morePublished on May 31 2004
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 morePublished on May 17 2004 by leonie walker
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 morePublished on April 9 2004 by Traveler
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 morePublished on March 15 2004 by Miles Jacob
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 morePublished on March 3 2004
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 morePublished on Feb. 29 2004 by W. Graney
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