Impoverished imagination

There are not a lot of brand-new ideas in Curtis White’s latest cultural critique, The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves. Still, in light of Californians recently electing a politically inexperienced action hero to the office of governor, it seems clear that his subject of interest can not be revisited too often.

An English professor at Illinois State University, White sets out to explore America’s intellectual poverty as derived through the media, academia and politics—all “vehicles for the great antagonists of the imagination.”

Although a bit muddled in some spots and rabidly subjective in others, The Middle Mind challenges readers to evaluate rather than observe; to ask themselves not just what they think, but also why they think it; and to react to White’s compelling claim that “Americans are not speaking to their culture; they’re being spoken to by it.”

In part, White’s background is to blame for The Middle Mind‘s sometimes convoluted and often contradictory discourse. He entered the University of San Francisco in 1969 when New Criticism was the predominant mode for constructing arguments about literature, art and ideas. He was influenced, in turn, by deconstruction, post-structuralism, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Somewhere along the road, White came to his view that Americans had stopped looking beneath the surface and had discounted historical veracity—e.g., they afforded Madonna and Milton equal artistic validity.

This is when his concept of the middle mind emerged.

According to White, middle-mindedness is spread through corporate-oriented media that have “vocationalized” creativity and reduced the role of art in society. As middle-mindedness permeates our culture, our artistic and entertainment options and our political choices become more and more limited by programmed broadcasts, films and music. This programming, according to White, “functions as an imagination prosthetic. … [It] means you won’t produce any music yourself … won’t know what it feels like to capture the rhythms and textures of music in your own hands and lungs, how playing music changes your relationship to music and changes music’s relationship to the world; your stereo system is a musical wooden leg.”

According to White’s claims, middle-minded constructs of blended disciplines like cultural studies have critically impaired our ability to recognize gaps in logic. The middle mind “wants to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and has bought an SUV with the intent of visiting it.”

This deficit prevents us from flinching at what he calls “the New Censorship,” which “works through the obscenity of absolute openness.” If the spin doctors tell us to, we don’t recognize the Clinton administration’s bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical lab as an act of terrorism, but we do want him prosecuted for a blow job. Similarly, we can believe that although the Bush administration grudgingly acknowledges global warming, “there is nothing to be done about it.”

According to White, this like-it-or-lump-it approach to global politics is fostered in the new censorship’s ideals. That is, if we like the way “corporate culture, international capital, and the military class provide for us, we must be willing to accept … that a significant percentage of the rest of the world will see us as something ranging from Great Satan to imperialists.”

Without being intentionally ingenuous, and in spite of his misgivings about media influence, White supports his approach with pop-cultural references including an impressive deconstruction of Radiohead, a scathing examination of Steven Spielberg’s films and a doting affirmation of Beck.

Ironically, although White and others have been concerned about America’s impoverished imagination for a long time, it took a middle-minded media company like HarperCollins to support the writing of this book.