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Bored in the U.S.A.

Curtis White's The Middle Mind

America has fallen into a creative rut so pervasive we hardly even notice its existence. This is the thesis of Curtis White's The Middle Mind, a sprawling, book-length tirade on our contemporary cultural myopia that savages both the left and right.

Early on, White casts a broad net to define the shallowness of the Middle Mind and explain, as the book's subtitle proclaims, why Americans don't think for themselves. He tells us the Middle Mind is "pragmatic, plainspoken, populist, contemptuous of the right's narrowness, and incredulous before the left's convolutions. It general agreement with liberal political assumptions about race, gender, and class...and supports the local public broadcasting station. The Middle Mind's take on culture is well intended, but it is also deeply deluded."

Like the Blob from the 1950s horror flick, the terrifyingly soft and squishy Middle Mind is around every corner, assaulting America on three fronts: education, culture, and politics.

For all the anticipation built up around the book -- it grew from a 2002 article in Harper's Magazine that took to task National Public Radio's star interviewer Terry Gross and caused quite a commotion, at least among the overlapping subsets of Fresh Air listeners and Harper's readers -- White's analysis feels stale. It doesn't state much that's new. In his chapter on politics, White's tirade against the Bush presidency and the militarization of American society is nothing that Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and Howard Zinn haven't been saying for years.

Whether he's claiming that the rise in academia of Cultural Studies has crushed art into a meaningless muddle, or lamenting pop culture's ability to crowd out more inventive cultural expression, White's diagnosis of America's cultural miasma fails to transcend the maladies it laments.

Instead, The Middle Mind is yet another polemic against contemporary America, gussied up with its needlessly caustic tone and self-indulgent moments. Of Gross, he says, "She's on my side, but, God, she's so stupidly on my side that I hardly recognize my side as my side."

Of New Yorker writer John Seabrook's book Nobrow White jibes, "Even if we put aside the extreme likelihood that any book that can accurately capture its argument in a jacket blurb is not likely to be a good book, Nobrow provides other reasons...that it is crummy cultural criticism."

In one of many bizarre close readings and confusing digressions, White plunges into an examination of the movie Saving Private Ryan, spending a page on the size of the female characters' breasts. At times, the book shows true potential but abandons it for some crazed rant. Rather than a carefully paced argument, The Middle Mind becomes an insect caught in a spider web. Plenty of histrionics and flailing, but little to show for it.

White's remedy for the Middle Mind comes off as overly idealistic. "Art is most pragmatic," he writes, "and most consequential for the social, when it is most sublime, when it asserts its intuitions about what it means to be free, just, or creative. Art is most purposeful when it doesn't know exactly what it is about."

White is arguing that we should free art of constraint (financially and culturally), and allow it to follow its nose wherever it leads, thereby creating art that is most sublime, and thus most consequential for the rest of society. This may be sound reasoning, but offering this as a solution for stunted artistic growth is about as worthwhile as White's "solution" to pollution: "Design communities so that people are not obliged to get in cars and drive."

Easier said than done.

Perhaps the best thing about The Middle Mind is the breadth of sources White brings to bear. We hear from intellectuals like Derrida and Baudillard, chroniclers of contemporary society like Louis Menand and Richard Florida, activists like Chomsky, filmmakers like David Lynch and rock artists like Radiohead. In this way, the book's greatest strength turns into its biggest liability. With so many thinkers out there critiquing the Middle Mind and adding fresh vibrant discussion to contemporary America, how can the Middle Mind be as pervasive and destructive as White asserts?

The Middle Mind
by Curtis White
Harper SanFrancisco; ISBN: 0060524367
Hardcover: 224 pages (August 2003)

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