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Curtis White

     ... critic, essayist, novelist. The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves is a full length inquiry growing from an essay in “Harper’s,” where Dr. White is a regular contributor. He has published three novels, is an English professor at Illinois State University, in Normal, Illinois, and is president of the Center for Book Culture/Dalkey Archive Press.


Bold imagination should drive America, not paralyzing fear, says cultural observer Curtis White. He is highly critical of what he calls America’s "middle mind." What's that? It's the market-driven media and institutions now defining what's serious in America -- movies that do not confess their politics; revolutionary images trivialized on umbrellas; art museums and concert halls where the radical is entombed instead of experienced; universities substituting problem solving for critical thinking; and pseudo-serious broadcast programs which consistently fail to distinguish the distinguished from the hack.

Americans have yielded to the driving force of managed entertainment, Dr. White says, accept the packaged instead of demanding the authentic. The "middle mind" -- on the airwaves and the newsstand, in universities, concert halls, museums -- is a fraud, Curtis White says. In fact, he believes, the society's ubiquitous "middle mind" is why Americans no longer think for themselves.

How did this "middle mind" get its grip? Dr. White believes it filled a vacuum created while the Left and Right were consumed by their "culture wars," fighting over what got into and was left out of the academic canon. The middle was empty, he says, so the "middle mind" flooded in to fill the gap. It did it with entertainment that turned the arts and the imagination into products, displaced individual critical thinking and discrimination with commodities. We were busy. And yielded to the temptation to be passive, he says.

Curtis White targets all of today's institutions -- educational, social and cultural -- for being painfully successful in taming our social, technological and artistic imaginations, defending the status quo at the expense of change. That's a problem, says Dr. White: When we stop changing, we're dead, he says, speaking both for individuals and for cultures. He wants us to start over. Refuse to yield to anyone, Left, Right or Middle. It's time to think hard about exactly what it is that American culture needs in order to do it's most serious thinking, he says. Reclaim our imaginations. Reclaim the sense that the future is open to possibility and that we are all welcome participants in that future. We’ve done it before, he says. It was called "The Sixties."

To be alive, Dr. White maintains, we must engage with every aspect of the culture, "read" all media critically. He's convinced that today's "middle mind" leaves us empty, distracted by distractions, spectators to a static, frightened, unhealthy culture whose differences are papered over. America is not one culture, Curtis White insists, it is many cultures and the differences are America's strengths.

How much better, Dr. White urges, to be active participants in creation. Slough off the role of spectator. Re-engage. "Read" what is really being said. Be discriminating. Don’t take someone's word for what is "beautiful," or "good" or "worthy." Sort things out so you know where you are in the culture. Curtis White's prescription for the antidote to the "middle mind"? Make something beautiful; misbehave; and try to win. Then see what happens.

[This Program was recorded December 9, 2003, in Normal, Illinois, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Curtis White tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell the advantages of avoiding television. He compares the life American culture had planned for him to the one he created for himself.

Conversation 1 RealAudio5:55

Conversation 2

Dr. White compares his 1960’s university experience to today, distressed that critical thinking has given way to problem solving. He combines a Romantic “sublime” with the Pragmatists’ “pragmatic” as a prod for creative dissatisfaction with the present, objecting to processes that manage the social imagination. What is unhealthy in the American culture, Dr. White says, is the myth that we ARE a culture, urging Americans to take responsibility for the ways in which America is divided. He describes a new kind of censorship.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:02

Conversation 3

“Culture wars” are about what is serious in our society, Dr. White says. He outlines positions held by both political extremes, declares them both irrelevant, and defines the gap they leave as America’s “middle mind.” This middle mind is fraudulent and a disservice to critical thinking, he says, proposing we start over -- think about what exactly the culture needs in order to do serious thinking. The imagination is powerful, destabilizing and required for a healthy culture, Dr. White says, distressed that art is now “managed,” institutionalized and irrelevant. Fear, not the imagination, is the most powerful driving force in American culture today, he observes and gives examples.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:44

Conversation 4

Reflecting on academic woes, Dr. White says ANY “canon” violates the fundamental function of art in a culture. Today’s practice of turning art into commodities is terrible, he believes, and gives examples. He expresses concern that the “middle mind” is about marketing instead of risky thought, is killing people’s ability to discriminate good from bad. He argues that what we need is to feel full and that mere entertainment leaves us empty. Make a work of art confess its politics, he urges, with examples. When we do not have time to think, we are oppressed, he says, and links that oppression to an impoverished culture.

Conversation 1 RealAudio12:30

 Conversation 5

“Freedom” is irrelevant if we are not moving toward it by critiquing our culture, says Dr. White. Championing change, he considers connections between context and beauty. He compares political perspectives on the role of art, convinced both Left and Right are deadening the social imagination. Describing the “human project,” Dr. White compares good and bad elements of the Western Enlightenment. He urges people to create better stories for the technological imagination, as well as better platforms for telling them. He describes television as the biggest undeclared social experiment of all time.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:25

Conversation 6

Curtis White’s trinity for being alive and authentic is 1.) make something beautiful, 2.) misbehave and 3.) try to win. That, he says, is how we regain a sense that the future is open to possibility and we are welcome participants in it.

Conversation 1 RealAudio3:16


Curtis White, Georganne Rundblad, a splendid array of winged persons and a blazing hearth all welcomed us warmly to a singularly handsome historic H/home on a blustery December day in Normal, Illinois. We thank them each and all.

Laina Adler at Harper Collins was exemplary in connecting us, books and author under challenging circumstances. We noticed. And thank her.

Additional Links:

The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves is published by HarperCollins.

Among Curtis White’s other works, both Requiem and Memories of My Father Watching TV are published by Dalkey Archive Press, part of the Center for Book Culture.

Neal Gabler has thoughtfully examined the effects of movies and television on how Americans see themselves and live their lives.

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