Review Of Curtis
White’s The Middle Mind
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/8/05
In a word, Curtis White’s 2003 HarperCollins book The Middle Mind, which is an extrapolation upon a Harper’s article of the same name published a year earlier, is bad. But, the attempted discursions in the book, while bad, are not nearly as bad as the book’s biggest detractors would have you believe. That’s because both the book and its detractors are part of what White, himself, terms ‘The Middle Mind’- or the de facto bourgeois mindset that most people in modern America use in discourse. The problem is that White’s very definitions and remedies are so convoluted that he often contradicts himself. Where to begin? How about his very definition of the Middle Mind. White sees it as a sort of limousine liberal mindset admixed with a few plebeian pleasures, wanting ‘to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and has bought an SUV with every intent of visiting it.’ In fact it is decidedly blue collar, working- or lower middle- class, with a disdain for eggheads as White seems to be, as vividly displayed within the text of his own book. Perhaps his definition rings true in White’s world, where bland pop bands like Radiohead are the standard for cultural genius. But in the real world the Middle Mind, both in the average and median way, is not affiliated with either political party, is too worried with bills to care about Terri Schiavo or the greenhouse effect, and most certainly cannot afford an SUV- even a used one. They do not go to Starbuck’s, unless to work, and they couldn’t find their local National Public Radio station if you paid them.
Yet, this critical misreading, at the book’s central thesis, is typical of the book as a whole. Another misreading comes when White rips into Ken Burns’ PBS documentaries, declaring them ‘interesting’, but sentimental and ‘blandly informative’. Now, there is no doubt that Burns has his detractors, and his acumen as a historian is well-disputed (see Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Historians Respond, edited by Robert Brent Toplin), but the very fact that Burns has almost singlehandedly revived the documentary as a historical tool and pop cultural event far outweighs his flaws, for even Burns has always declared his films are art first, and history second. The very indulgent and sentimental waxing, often accompanied by the ‘banjos playing or Coplandish strings sighing’ is why there is an interest in history in the private sector these days, vis-ŕ-vis the pre-Burnsian 1980s. To equate his minor historical flaws (admixed with great filmic and artistic skill)- or his artistic shortcomings (which White seems to find more damning) with, say, the PC dreck foisted upon literature in the first wave of schlock tv host Oprah Winfrey’s noxious book club is ridiculous. The books she pushed had no cultural nor artistic value, and were pushed for purely financial gain, since everyone knows Oprah’s fat, middle class hausfrau fan base is unable to comprehend real literature. The same motives cannot be ascribed to Burns, even by his worst detractors. Yet, this sort of misconstruing of a person’s or thing’s essence or value is all too typical of White’s work.
Worse than mere misconstrual is when White is flat-out wrong on a subject, and worse still, when he’s wrong, yet doesn’t even understand that he is in concert with those he deems wrong. For example, White correctly winces when he speaks of black social activist Cornel West’s foolish equation of the artist with the political activist, yet he misses the reality of why contemporary culture lacks critical acumen in his take on Academic criticism, when he states, ‘The fundamental lack in the approach taken by American Cultural Studies is that it looks at culture only as a critic, as a member of the faith of criticism, and it can’t imagine what it might mean to look at texts from the perspective of artists….For an artist, difference is everything.’ This is one hundred percent wrong. The very problem today, and the reason for the literature of White’s Middle Mind is precisely because too few critics or reviewers of works are independent. They are almost all wannabe or failed writers, who dare not criticize too deftly nor deeply- assuming any are capable of doing so, so neuter their opinions, lest find themselves excoriated by their criticized colleagues who could kybosh their own publications, or refuse them grant money, out of puerile revenge. More independence is exactly what is needed. The Roger Eberts and Kenneth Turans of film criticism are not aspiring filmmakers themselves. Criticism is a demanding field, and a minor art in itself. Few, such as my self, can be both a great artist and great critic, for criticism comes from the didactic impulse, which is a hundred and eighty degrees from the creative impulse. And White’s last sentence’s wording further defines a problem in art, today, which he is oblivious to- and that is the very all or nothing faux melodrama that most bad and/or pop artists infuse their sterile and banal work with to hide their lack of intellectual depth. Only the perpetually callow resort to gross imperatives, as White and the artists and critics he dissects do. Yet, as I said, White is even worse when wrong and oblivious to the fact that he actually is in league with those he criticizes. When he flays West’s opinion on art as social service, White does not even give a proper definition of art- which is that ‘it is the conveyance of ideas and emotions, not the ideas and emotions, themselves.’ Instead, he tacitly agrees with West’s opinion by stating, ‘I don’t think West understands how art functions and how it has its social impact.’ In other words, White believes art occupies the same social niche as West does. He just disagrees with the details.
Yet, White is an equal opportunity mangler of people’s positions. He fails to understand guardians of the Right, as well the Left. When White tackles the intellectually repugnant Harold Bloom- whom I have critically lambasted; instead of nailing him on perhaps his greatest folly, the ridiculous anxiety of influence- which only a non-artist could have conceived of, or Bloom’s lack of true critical acumen- such as anomically lumping poets Maya Angelou, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath together as ‘Confessionalists’, White merely follows Bloom’s odious lead, and lumps him in with Conservative cultural and political charlatans like William Bennett, Dinesh D’Souza, and George Will. I never thought I’d be in the position of having to defend a brain-dead hack like Bloom, but this is just intellectual laze, as Bloom’s stated and implied positions on morals, philosophy, and politics often diverge wildly from the Three Stooges above mentioned. Worse, when he quotes Bloom as stating, ‘Poems, stories, novels, plays come into being as a response to prior poems, stories, novels and plays, and that response depends upon acts of reading and interpretation by the later writers, acts that are identical with the new works,’ all White can muster is an assent and bizarre Freudian extrapolation. While I’ve stated that I’ve never read White’s creative work, I can say that his assent to these ideas on art bespeaks that of a poseur, not a true artist, for art responds to the all of the cosmos. Any response to earlier art is minor, partial, and often merely incidental. It’s only the exceptions to that rule that cohere to Bloom’s and White’s ‘agon’. White’s lone bright spot in his assault on Bloom is his correctness in stating that reading is propelled by curiosity, not loneliness, as Bloom claims.
As for White? His biggest prior claims to fame were a couple of minor novels and his leading the online Center For Book Culture/Dalkey Archive Press. In short, he’s a typical academic yearning to be different in ways his actual art cannot accomplish. His book follows in a long tradition of people who are part of the problem of something complaining about the very problem to establish their outsider ‘cred’, all the while seeking to up their status on the ‘inside’. The last major literary brouhaha of this sort was in the summer of 2001, when a then unknown literary critic named B.R. Myers published a scattershot and self-contradictory essay in the Atlantic Monthly called A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack On The Growing Pretentiousness Of American Literary Prose. It was later expanded into a small book that really added nothing of significance to the original piece. As of this writing Myers has parlayed that piece into an editorship with the magazine, and who knows what other future literary stylings. Like Myers, White takes aim at some noted names inside and outside of publishing, as well as politics, business, pop culture, and philosophy- although he curiously leaves organized religion alone, even though the book’s subtitle is Why Americans Don’t Think For Themselves. Is there any greater evidence, in the increasingly secularized West, to explain the subtitle than America’s retrogressive embrace of fundamentalist Christianity?
Yet, there is some irony, for in the bulk of the book White shows that his own tastes are very suspect. The best example of this comes in the fact that some of the people he boosts as going against the grain of America’s general dumbing down are as, or more, responsible for it than those he attacks. For example, he attacks Terry Gross, of NPR’s Fresh Air as a ‘schlock jock’, which is surprisingly cogent, yet, in the same breath, extends that critique to include PBS’s Charlie Rose’s interviewing style as also contributing to this trend. Yet, he then turns around and lauds another PBS staple, Bill Moyers, as somehow being intellectually engaging, even though he makes Terry Gross seem like Edward R. Murrow by comparison. In response I can only ask, ‘What programs of both men has White actually watched?’ I recall a few years ago Rose interviewed actor/celebrity Sylvester Stallone for a full hour and revealed that the man behind the Rocky and Rambo personae was actually a highly cultured, well-educated, and very literate man. By contrast, there is no end to the topics that Moyers can dumb down to pabulum. He started this trend twenty years ago with his asininely stoop-kneed interviews with noted mythological charlatan Joseph Campbell, and hit his nadir in one of his ‘poetry specials’ where he literally asked doggerelist Naomi Shihab Nye if there were actual butterflies in her shoes when he referred to a line of her poetry with that metaphor. One can only feel that White’s boosting of Moyers is because they share a similarly Left Wing political view, whereas Rose tends to be an even-handed and fair interviewer, especially of political subjects.
Even worse is the fact that, within the book, White claims noted Postmodern hack writer David Foster Wallace is a ‘genuine novelistic innovator’ (when he’s really a classic imitator), and hack’s hack Andrei Codrescu (NPR drone and editor of the execrable pseudo-literary magazine The Exquisite Corpse) a writer of substance, something any critic worth their salt would chuckle over. And, as with Moyers, this claim rests largely on their ‘honest and combative work’. I.e.- White also subscribes to the naďve and fallacious Leftist idea that art is truth. And, ‘surprise, surprise’, both bad writers blurb for White’s book. In fact, they are the first two blurbs listed. Codrescu writes:
‘I’ve been at war with the Middle Mind ever since I thought I had one- around age ten. The trouble with the Middle Mind is that it’s a simulacrum for the Mind- as White amply demonstrates- that is to say, it absorbs and neutralizes the genuinely useful insights that don’t look anything instantly recognizable and smoothly homogenizable. Re-visioning the world takes brawling muscle and a sneer. Curtis White gots (sic) that.’
Remarkably, this poorly phrased and unwittingly self-damning piece of bilge from Codrescu (hack’s hack; remember) is only outdone by Wallace’s own bit of PC pabulum, of the very sort that White rails against within his book! Here’s the fake’s take:
‘Cogent, acute, beautiful, merciless, and true.’
Strained himself on that one, eh? Of course, anyone who’s read anything by Wallace knows this is about the deepest level of insight he can strain to before he has seizures. And his last word links up nicely with the fallacy he and White share about art and truth.
This is not to say that White does not have points to make. In the book’s foreword, for example, he presages the book’s demise, by making a good point- ‘When we accept the Middle Mind as our culture (or, worse yet, when we demand it as consumers), we are not merely being stupid or unsophisticated or ‘lowbrow’.’ This is true. But, instead of following up with the truth that the public is merely showing its true lowest common denominator stripes, he weakly continues with the de facto assertion that all people are creative, or intelligent. Quoth White: ‘We are vigorously conspiring against ourselves. we murder our own capacity for critique and invention as if we were children saying, ‘Can you do this for me?’
Note how White resorts to the very faux melodrama he criticizes, and persists on noxious political blogs, with the typical Left Wing flair that believes we’re all artists, or geniuses, or some other nonsense that divorces readers from the real. This level of criticism, however, is right in keeping with someone who believes astoundingly banal writers like Codrescu and Wallace represent the best of American contemporary literature. What’s worse is that less than a page later White argues, ‘The reign of ‘expert opinion’ and its bureaucracy (universities, talk shows, think tanks, corporate and government-sponsored research institutes) is just one of the many ways in which we as a people abdicate final responsibility for thought.’ Absolutely right. But I could add another one- when commentators use hyperbolic language such as ‘murder’ to describe the reign of ignorance merely keepin’ on. Again, White does not see that his sort of analysis is the very sort that he is correctly railing against. Were this played out on stage, in an internal monologue, it would be worthy of Beckett. Even more sadly funny is just a paragraph further down White lays out three things he wants his book to accomplish. The first is the strangest of them. He says he wants to ‘Make something beautiful. I wanted the book to have a certain novelistic force. I wanted it to have an architectural elegance of the kind I try to create in my novels.’
Refer back to his idea about all people having creativity. His idea that he is going to make a novel out of an attempted social treatise is doomed from the start because, even assuming his novels were any good (I’ve not read them), fiction and non-fiction treatises have wholly different aims and styles. Yet, I’m sure, White wants to free his own ‘inner genius’ in the process of writing this bad book. I hope his aim toward himself was achieved, for the readers are certainly wanting. And on page 4 he veritably screams this at the reader, stating, ‘We’re not much in the habit of poking at these dominant realities that are so much the ‘of course’ of out lives….We demur out of habit and fright over what not demurring might require of us.’ He also states that we are denied ‘intellectual experience’ by an unnamed other. This is classic doublespeak, and ironically part and parcel of the very techniques he damns Madison Avenue for.
Later in the same chapter, White names a mish-mash of artists that he claims are brilliant, including bland pop singers Beck and Elvis Costello, and mediocre graffitist Keith Haring. Middle Mind, indeed! Yet, as out of touch as White is with modern pop culture he’s even worse when handling politics. He shows these two tendencies by first claiming genius for the pop band Radiohead, comparing them to Nirvana, thus continuing the Middle Mind myth that Kurt Cobain was somehow above commercialization; even though he was a drug-addled, suicidal, wife abusing rock star with millions in the bank before thirty- oh, the pain he felt, and how White suffers with him, then he goes to obscene lengths deconstructing one of their banal albums, which only invalidates his initial claim with his misreadings. If this sort of junk hermeneusis isn’t the dumbed down Middle Mind White fears then nothing is.
He then rips into a New Yorker writer named John Seabrook for a book he published, Nobrow: The Culture Of Marketing, The Marketing Of Culture, that White says tries to deal with many of the same things his book does. What is really incredible in White’s hit and miss assessment of the book (which I’ve not read) is on page 37 he states: ‘Seabrook has the annoying habit of being sycophantic to the very people he ought to be judging critically. Tina Brown made the New Yorker Nobrow, but she’s ‘brilliant’ anyway. David Geffen is a man of ‘exquisite sensitivity to pop-cultural fads’ (for Seabrook, that’s a good thing), George Lucas’s Star Wars is ‘our classic.’ Nobrow is a book by an insider taking an intellectual vacation on the outside but being very careful not to burn bridges because he’s going back.’ Yet, this quip nails White’s own book’s essence. Look at the lack of critical acumen and sycophancy he affords the writers Codrescu and Wallace, who naturally, and sycophantically, blurbed for White’s book. Where was the publisher in making sure this obvious conflict of interest was avoided, at least publicly? Did they really think the critics would miss that? Apparently, since I’m the first critic to have pointed this out! Granted, most critics are not in my league, but still….The same lack of acumen is true of his shot against Lucas. It has no intellectual heft because, while the Star Wars maven shares a good deal of blame for dumbing down culture, it was Lucas’ guru- the mythological charlatan Joseph Campbell, who inspired Lucas’s decades-long crapfest in the first place. And Campbell’s own latter-day fame was secured in a series of 1980s interviews by the fawning, and saline-lipped, pseudo-journalist and faux naďf Bill Moyers- a man White considers one of our top intellectuals!
Yet, perhaps the most bizarre and commented upon feature of the book, in published reviews, is White’s own obsession with the teenaged breasts of the old Private Ryan’s granddaughters in his opening description and vivisection of Steven Spielberg’s schlocksterpiece Saving Private Ryan. Unlike many others, who feel that White devastates Spielberg, this is White’s weakest performance in the book, save for his silly puffery of Radiohead. First, his breastly descriptions and obsessions reveal far more of White than of any intent by the artistically clueless Spielberg, who wouldn’t know nor understand social theory were he sodomized with a thesis. But, his descriptions of the opening battle scenes again reinforce the false notion that almost all film critics bought into upon the film’s release- that it was somehow ‘realistic’. As someone who has seen people shot at close range I can tell you this is categorically not true, gruesome as the depictions were. The most notable examples, to me, were the scenes of soldiers shot through the head, and having only red pinpricks show as bullet holes shot from machine guns. Even guns with lesser power can have their bullets pulp and mush the top of a head- recall what the coroners said of the back of President Kennedy’s skull after his assassination. The fact that White’s analysis is stuck in political grandstanding rather than the artistic failures of the script, editing, and ‘realism’, bares his toothlessness as a real critic. After that the critique pretty much dissolves into a wet Freudian mish-mash that returns to the All American breasts of Private Ryan’s granddaughters. Wonderful! If this isn’t Middle Mind criticism- oh, you fill in the rest!
And after this piss-poor performance, the remainder of the book bogs down in quasi-Leftist, pseudo-Marxist philosophy, ‘We must free ourselves of the illusion that we are free,’ and politics of Noam Chomsky, Jacques Derrida- whose critical anomy and self-contradictions White seems to emulate, and Theodor Adorno- of the infamously intellectually inert bon mot, ‘Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ If ever anyone was consciously auditioning for a place in Bartlett’s it was that poseur, yet another genius and hero, of the likes of Codrescu and Radiohead, to White. Yet, even in this predictable trope White manages to be self-contradictory. On page 147, he states, ‘Capitalism alienates workers from their true capacity as humans.’ While I am certainly not one to deny the historical atrocities and abuses of Big Capital, the implicit assumption of this statement is the banal Leftist idea that all people are potential artists, potential creators- i.e.- the same, therefore not special, logically, yet somehow being spiritually killed by having to contribute to a larger society. The Right, incidentally, also buys into this nonsense in its anti-abortion argument, when they rail that all fetuses could be an Einstein or Churchill, rather than the statistical probability that the fetus will be another fat plumber with hygiene issues, and an ass crack that manifests itself as he bends under your kitchen sink. Yet on the very next page he criticizes Julia Cameron, of The Artist’s Way books (a version of the Chicken Soup For The Soul mentality- or, as White declares it, akin to the noxious Twelve Step Method) for capitalizing on the very trite ideals he assents to. The only possible reason for this criticism of her would seem to be that she has found a way to get rich on the hackneyed assumptions White endorses, while he has to settle for merely being an artistic apparatchik. The unfortunate truth is that White unfortunately goes after too many easy targets, like Cameron, that no one takes intellectually seriously, even as he bizarrely upholds the artistic virtues of the Wallaces, Codrescus, and Radioheads of the world. In literature, particularly, the dumbing down is not caused by Chick Lit writers nor the John Grishams nor Dan Browns, genial millionaires with no guile nor pretension to literary aims, but the bilious frauds like Wallace or take your pick of any mediocre tenured professor who’s been published by a friend or ex-lover, and/or is living off public largess. In short, it is the Dave Eggerses that have maimed serious literature, not the Tom Clancys!
And in this overall lack of recognition White utterly fails to address his book’s subtitle, Why Americans Don’t Think For Themselves, the very title of which blames and exculpates the American public, even as he recapitulates its statement in his own writing. Had he any genuine insight White might have actually concluded that the answer lies in the fact that Academics, such as himself, can waste over 200 pages without articulating a concise, cogent, and clarified argument in favor of the propositions they present, while they continue to cash paychecks from many public institutions, while teaching dubious courses in subjects they are clueless of, as they indoctrinate and dumb down the very young minds they later excoriate for not exercising what they’ve spent their careers seeking to eradicate within those minds. Then, to top it off, they get easy publication of their ill-conceived and iller-wrought works by major commercial presses! And while I’ve focused mainly on the ridiculous dialectic of the book, it is not well-written at all. White cannot decide whether this is a serious work, nor a colloquial one, and utterly fails on the first of his three stated goals, to make the book beautiful- as well the others. Too often he gets snarky- to show that a fiftysomething can be hip, or sets up an argument, only to abandon it for a digression and leave it hanging, or tries to tell little in jokes that go nowhere. As I have lamented before, where was even a competent editor for this sludge?
In short: been there, done that. The battle against the deliteracy of America, which is not the intellectual inability to actually read, but the willfully ignorant choice to not read and promote good and great literature, is a neverending one, and one which I have waged and will continue to wage against those who would destroy it, from Left or Right, above or below, willfully or not. I’m just saddened to have to conclude that, despite his stated desires to the contrary, Curtis White is one of the destroyers, not saviors, of what he claims to love. This is most aptly demonstrated by his monumentally flawed readings of the great poet Wallace Stevens’ sparse criticism, and worse, his great verse. Yet, although this point angered me most of all in the book, and pointed most aptly to White’s ignorance of his subject matter, I dare not get into it, lest push this in depth review near ten thousand words, thereby recapitulating its subject’s flaws. I know what White does not, and now prove it!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 11/05 Hackwriters website.]
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