The Middle Mind (Discussion)

by Curtis White

Synopsis:

This is a book about the dumbing down of America. White specifically focusses on the loss of imagination (White’s definition to be discussed later). Indeed, I think the book should have been titled or sub-titled, “The Loss of Imagination” or something to that effect. White chooses three different aspects of American life: academia, the arts and politics to show the way in which imagination has diminished.

There’s a lot of discuss from this book, so, Tony, I hope you’re up for it.

I think this book is good to read with Zizek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real because there is some overlap in the issues both authors explore. Both authors also like to analyze pop cultural from using literary critique methodology.

Here are some questions to start the discussion:

What does White mean by the Middle Mind?

What does he mean by imagination?

21 Responses to “The Middle Mind (Discussion)”


  1. Reid

    Some other thoughts.

    The book got me to think about different issues, so that’s a big plus. I liked the discussions about art and its function in society.

    I also liked the discussion about way the military influences are culture.

    The book actually got me wanting to read the books that White referred to when discussing these issues.

    The sub-title of The Middle-Mind is Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves. That’s a really ambitious goal for the book, and I don’t think White pulls it off. I mean, he suggest possible reasons for this, but…actually, I’m not really sure what his complete answer is for this question. What do you think, Tony?

  2. Tony

    I think White’s definition of imagination is pretty utilitarian but also makes some sense. He also seems to define it in negative terms. Imagination is what the free individual creates that can be used as a critique of the contemporary culture. It is creation (relatively) unfettered by the demands and expectations of the defining culture. Unfortunately, much imaginative art is in some form or another a revolution against the contemporary culture, so I’m not sure how it is ultimately free from its influence. White is interested in “the imagination as a social force that allows for both critique and reinvention.” He goes on to say that the culture of the day makes it difficult for imagination “to do what it must do: create an outside, create distance, create possibility.” (14)

    I think he views the Middle Mind as the “system” proliferated by mass media and the decentralization of community (thanks to things like globalization) that frees us to consume the creations of others (usually corporately sponsored) that makes us think that we’re thinking when all we’re really doing is digesting and (at best) regurgitating. He uses the word “monolithic” some. The Middle Mind is monolithic. It is the Great Influence, it is the cultural Matrix. It is the spawn of a culture and community of people that have stopped thinking and have given that right and responsibility who would love to do those things for us.

  3. Reid

    I think I understand White’s use of imagination in the same way you do. I specifically like how White talks about imagination in terms of the ability to critique and reinvent society.

    You said,

    Unfortunately, much imaginative art is in some form or another a revolution against the contemporary culture, so I’m not sure how it is ultimately free from its influence.

    I don’t think imaginative or good art is independent of previous influences. Good art operates within existing structures and forms, but does something new and different within those forms. I’ll try to find the quote I’m thinking of.

    I’m a lot fuzzier on the concept of the “middle-mind.” A part of me feels like this is just a fancy way of saying that a lot of people don’t think critically; that people often prefer other people to think for them.

    I’m assuming that the middle-mind is something different and something new (or else why write a book about it?).

    What’s the root cause of the middle mind? Is that root cause different from dumbing down that comes from our highly commercial and consumer society?

    Did you get the impression that he doesn’t spend enough time talking about the middle-mind concept? I’m interested in the concept, but I don’t feel like he gives me much to think about. After the introduction and first chapter, he almost doesn’t mention the concept. I’d be interested in any light you could shed on the matter.

  4. Tony

    I think you’re right in the Middle Ming being another term for a culture that doesn’t think critically. And most of what anyone does in this culture tends to end up dumbed down in some form or another.

    I understand what you’re saying about my mention of art that is rooted in what has gone before. I suppose there is nothing new under the sun and that everything is influenced by something. I guess that’s part of what can make it good art. Still, I think White might promote an art free of the influence of the middle mind (if that is even possible).

  5. Reid

    The middle-mind also seems to be a thought where the distinctions between substantive intellectual content and superficial content is blurred or eliminated. So it’s not just people who don’t think critically, but the middle-mind doesn’t see these distinctions. White is particuarly up in arms when people think they’re getting something intellectually substantive when they’re actually not.

    Re: Art

    White would definitely support art that’s free from the middle mind, and it doesn’t sound like he’s gotten to the point where he doesn’t think it’s possible.

    Btw, just because a piece of art is influenced by the past doesn’t mean that that particular piece can’t be new. White seems to be saying that the great artists take the past and make something really fresh and suprising from what is in the past.

    Music examples are the ones that come to mind for me. Jimi Hendrix plays the blues, but in a way that’s radically different from anything that came before him. Ditto Charlie Parker. You can hear the connection, but also hear how they’re different. I want to explore this topic of how art changes culture. I like and believe in this notion that art can change our perceptions and understanding of culture and society, but it’s not easy to think of many examples.

    Btw, if this sort of thing interests you, I would recommend both Amusing Ourselves to and Technopoly. In the former, Postman argues that when TV becomes the nt media an erosion of public discourse occurs. The medium of TV makes serious information and discourse about politics and religion virtually impossible. I see this as a kind of root cause of the middle-mind.

    Technopoly would be a good companion to White’s chapter on technology and the military. Postman goes into greater depth as to how technology affects our culture and how we’ve moved to a point where we blindly accept technological innovation as a good.

  6. kevin

    I’ll comment more on White’s particular stance on art later, but for now further discussion material via a frenzied review (surpassing the aggro of White’s tone) can be found below by Howard Hampton, titled “The Magical Mediocrity Tour”:

    The Magical Mediocrity Tour

    See also under “Letters”, White’s response, and Hampton’s clearer & more succinct rebuttal. While I think it’s a good book & mostly agree with White’s book points, something about Hampton’s article made me clip it out back then, particularly what I find to be the flaws & hypocrisy of White’s position. Admittedly Hampton’s a bit over-the-top, but there’s also much in White’s book tone that irritates me also, maybe his sardonic self-righteousness. Perhaps the best thing about a critically-thinking public is that even the critics are not above criticism.

  7. Reid

    Admittedly Hampton’s a bit over-the-top…

    I think it’s safe to take out the “a bit” part of that sentence.

    I really don’t care for the kind of writing in Hampton’s article. It’s so full of itself; it’s written with very little consideration for the reader (Well, this reader anyway.).

    I share Kevin’s same criticisms of White’s writing. I don’t know if I would call him hypocritical (interested in hearing your take on that, Kevin), though. I don’t care for the cavalier and trying-to-be-hip quality of his writing. Toning this down a bit would have worked better for me.

    I look forward to reading your comments about art.

    Thanks for the link, btw.

  8. Reid

    I’ve been re-reading portions of the book. Here’s is a passage that gets to White’s definition of the Middle Mind:

    “The Middle Mind attempts to find a middle way between the ideological of the right and of the theorized left. Unlike Middle-brow, the Middle Mind does not locate itself between high and low culture. Rather, it asserts its right to speak for high culture indifferent to both traditionalist right and the academic left.

    The Middle Mind is pragmatic, plainspoken, populist, contemptuous of the right’s narrowness, and incredulous before the left’s convolutions. It is adventuresome, eclectic, spiritual, and in general agreement with liberal political assumptions about race, gender, and class. The Middle Mind really rather liked Bill Clinton, thoroughly supported his policies, but wished that the children didn’t have to know so much about his personal life. The Middle Mind is liberal. It wants to protect the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, and has brought an SUV with the intent of visiting it. It even understands in some indistinct way that the very SUV spells the Artic’s doom. Most important is that it imagines that it honors the highest culture and that it lives through the arts. It supports the local public broadcasting station, supports symphony, attends summer Shakespeare festivals, and writes letters to state representatives encouraging support for state arts council. The Middle Mind’s take on culture is well-intended, but it’s also deeply deluded.” p.25-26

    White also talks about how the MM is not associated with any political camp, so it remains below the radar.

    It sounds like he’s talking about cultural-intellectual wannabes. The people who are educated, but still significantly shallow. (One of the difficulties I have with White’s concept is that it is a frame of mind, or system, but it sounds like a way of thinking that is associated with a group of people.)

    If my assessment is accurate, I don’t think the Middle Mind tes our culture now. I would give that ignominious distinction to the “Low Mind.” This type of thinking that makes no pretense about liking high culture, but pronounces their love for popular culture without reservation.

    Perhaps White’s concern for the presence of the Middle Mind is worth talking about. I think I can have that kind of thinking. For example, I may have this inflated perception of my sophistication, taste and understanding in culture and intellectual matters. This is what White seems to be getting at–although his analysis seems shoddy and of the Middle Mind, if you pardon the remark.

    To me the bigger concern is the absence of critical thought and thoughful reflection about social issues and policies in general–whether it’s from the Middle Mind or the “Low Mind.”

    I wish White would get to the root of the problem and talk more clearly about possible solutions to it.

    For example, he suggests that art has the potential to get more people to think critically about society and then think of ways to make it better. (This is how I interpret his phrase, “socializing imagination.”) But how can art do that if the Middle Mind tes the cultural landscape (not to mention the Low Mind)?

    And is the influence of art not a chicken-and-egg question? Is a particular socio-intellectual millieu necessary for the creation the kind of art he espouses? Or does the art create that kind of environment? I don’t think his book does a really good job of touching on this issue.

    But again, I liked the fact that the book got me to think about certain issues.

    One of those things has to do with this idea that most of us–including the intelligent, educated people (the Middle Minded ones; I include myself in this bunch) are sleepwalking through life.

    I am thinking specifically of our foreign policy and imperialistic tendencies. This is where Zizek’s ideas also come into play. I’ll talk more about this later.

  9. kevin

    2 really quick comments (it’s past my bedtime):

    1. Reid, your above comment gets at something that bothers me about White’s book: specifically, the assertion of the Middle Mind as some third position “non-critical” intermediate ground flattens the infinite number of positions, combinations, & paradoxes of gradient development (spiritual, intellectual, & otherwise) towards a more self-aware and world-aware critical position. In doing so, it sets up (to me, anyway) a paradigm of thinking that’s just as problematic as the High/Low opposition. I also think it’s a very Western way of looking at the split.

    2. There seems to be something somewhat anachronistic ( I don’t mean this in a perjorative sense, but in a Wendell Berry way) about bemoaning the loss of a specific type of cultural literacy (i.e, visual, literary, poetic) for cultural forms that were developed and refined prior to mass media and technology. It feels like he’s committed to playing chamber music on deck while the ship slowly sinks into the water. While I believe strongly in developing critical thinking via those other older forms (the novel, the painting, the poem) I don’t think it’ll ever hold a candle again to more immediate and distractive forms of mass communication.

    What I liked about the Hampton article is it poked fun of White’s lack of self-aware irony in his juxtaposition of Adorno and Radiohead, as if this hasn’t been done by countless other graduate students in midterm essays across the country. This doesn’t seem to me as a very original example; what would might be to propose types/strains of sophisiticated cultural resistance within the newer forms of developing media that might infiltrate and hence change (or mutate) from within the worst values of technology. Sorta like how photography evolved from 1850-1950. White’s paradigm of change seems to still feel “20th century”, like culture as the object of a exterior, critical force. I think we might need a different paradigm, one more “21st century” like a virus, or a pill – seeing culture as a “subject” and internalized, and is changed (or healed) radically and infectiously from within, surreptitiously below the radar of the “Middle Mind.” Ironically, Al Queda provides a plausible model (not in its violence, but in its marginalization being its best protection) for such types of resistance against a behemoth as dumbed- down-mass culture. This might be the only way to incubate the “chicken & egg” of culture.

    3. OK, one more: his literary criticism models (Adorno, Derrida, Schlovsky) seem suspiciously “canonical” to me, like he downloaded the Post-structuralist/Decon reader and applied it as an update patch to his New Criticism software. I can’t help but cynically apply the social history mirror back on White, whose role as a career academic relies on reinventing new ways of dissecting cultural history.

    I’m not saying his position’s not great; it clearly is, but it may be just too specific, and not nimble enough for the 21st century. His argument is a very intimidating one to articulate a plausible rebuttal against as to why it might be too narrow. That, and my brain is too slow.

  10. mitchell

    Kevin said:

    OK, one more: his literary criticism models (Adorno, Derrida, Schlovsky) seem suspiciously “canonical” to me, like he downloaded the Post-structuralist/Decon reader and applied it as an update patch to his New Criticism software. I can’t help but cynically apply the social history mirror back on White, whose role as a career academic relies on reinventing new ways of dissecting cultural history.

    It is my new goal in life to be smart enough to write a sentence like this.

  11. Reid

    Kevin said,

    While I believe strongly in developing critical thinking via those other older forms (the novel, the painting, the poem) I don’t think it’ll ever hold a candle again to more immediate and distractive forms of mass communication.

    It depends what you mean by “hold a candle.” If you mean, that the older forms won’t have the impact that the newer forms will, you’re probably right. But if you mean, the newer forms will somehow be superior than I’m not sure I agree with that. I’m not sure the newer forms will produce equally good art.

    I find this question/issue interesting, partly because I haven’t given it much thought. Personally, I’m a bit biased against “art” that appears in newer forms. Are there TV programs, internet creations that we would consider great art? Can we say that these newer forms produced comparable levels of sophistication, depth and power? These questions are not meant to be rhetorical.

    And what do we mean by “newer forms.” Are you thinking of something that utlilizes contemporary technology like the internet, wireless forms of technology, etc.? I have a general sense of what you mean, but it’s all pretty vague.

    You kind of lost of me on the notion of culture as exterior force versus something subjective and “interior;” and even moreso from the leap to “incubating the chicken-and-egg of culture.”

    As for your comment about being “too slow,” I think his writing is not very clear. Do you fully understand his points? I ask because if you do, maybe I’m just not sophisticated enough to understand his ideas.

  12. kevin

    Sorry, Reid, I’ll get to those questions someday. In the meantime, White has a short essay titled “Faith Off” (ha ha) in the recent week of Village Voice on the Da Vinci Code phenomena and how problematic it is as an obstacle of investigating faith matters. Comments invited.

    http://www.villagevoice.com/vls/182/white.shtml

  13. Reid

    Will the review ruin the book for those that have not read the book, yet?

  14. Tony

    I agree with White’s comment that it’s the nature of what becomes “popular culture” to become irrelevant in its relevance. I thought he decontructed the values of the story well, especially in assigning to Mary Magdelene our desire for an unorthodox orthodoxy (not that that is what I want personally). Ironically, he seems to decontruct his own article with the last sentence or two.

    I think the best critique of all things cultural (and even religious) is still the cross. Granted, the “popular evangelical” church has appropriated it and made it their symbol, which (along with 2,000 years of familiarity) has lessened some of its impact.

  15. Reid

    I think the best critique of all things cultural (and even religious) is still the cross.

    C’mon, you can’t just throw that comment out there without further comment. 🙂

  16. Reid

    I think the best critique of all things cultural (and even religious) is still the cross.

    C’mon, you can’t just throw that comment out there without further comment. 🙂

  17. Reid

    I think the best critique of all things cultural (and even religious) is still the cross.

    C’mon, you can’t just throw that comment out there without further comment. 🙂

  18. Tony

    And here I thought it was self-explanatory!! Heh heh. The Man bids us come and die. COME AND DIE! In that dying we are born again and enter a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Granted, it cannot be seen very well either, but I believe that it is there. And that kingdom becomes an extension…perhaps even the expresion of the Cross’ critique. Which is why “religious institutions” should critic contemporary culture but often have to buy into it instead.

  19. Reid

    The critique, in this case, is that culture and worldly society are without substance compared to the Kingdom of God?

  20. Tony

    Perhaps “without substance” is too strong. “Lacking” might work better. Or “misguided.” I think there is much substance in the world, and I spend quite a bit of time tempted by it. I guess the substance of the world is not transcendant, which I believe the human heart ultimately longs for and can be fulfilled in and through the cross.

  21. Reid

    OK, thanks. I have a better idea of what you’re saying.

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