Stale Air and Dearest Freshness

Eugene McCarraher

Four decades ago, Dwight Macdonald rued the impending triumph of “Midcult,” an “agreeable ooze” of denatured high culture produced for the college-educated. Curtis White’s The Middle Mind surpasses Macdonald’s work. Where Macdonald thought Midcult a merely insipid affair, White contends that the Middle Mind is ardently imperial in its militarization of irony and mediocrity. And if Macdonald longed for a new modernist vanguard, White envisions a complete reconstruction of our aesthetic and moral imagination.

A novelist and professor of English at Illinois State University in Normal-Bloomington, White seeks to rekindle a “spirit of refusal” that has animated other writers: Theodore Roszak, Herbert Marcuse and Paul Goodman. And like the romantic and artisanal tradition—John Ruskin, William Morris, Randolph Bourne and Lewis Mumford—White traces our cultural maladies to the dullness of our daily labors, upholds the artist’s devotion to craft as a cure for our spiritual sickness, and recoils from cant, however “progressive.” And, also like them, he’s a pleasure to read.

White provides an account of how the Middle Mind paralyses the creative imagination through “entertainment, orthodoxy, and ideology”; how it leavens what we might refer to as the National Banality State, a jejune, complacent and belligerent behemoth that embraces the media, the government, the military, the academy and religion; and how it extends the dominion of mediocrity to every corner of the globe, reducing to niceness every pocket of resistance to its artillery of bombs and blandness.

Like many a demon, the Middle Mind wears a friendly face. It enjoins a soccer-parent centrism that opposes “discrimination” and embraces “inclusiveness” and “tolerance.” Lacking any substantive political convictions other than a commitment to “choice”—reproductive rights, consumer sovereignty and capital accumulation—Middle Minders cultivate no abiding connections to any political party. Spoonfed on irony, they’re too facetious to reconcile moral contradictions, of which they’re vaguely aware. As White encapsulates it, the Middle Mind “wants to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” having “bought an SUV with the intent of visiting it.”

Nonpartisan in politics, Middle Minders are “spiritual” rather than “religious,” put off by doctrine and inclined to assert that “all religions really believe the same thing.” They are “curious” and “well-informed,” and “appreciate” the arts and letters. They attend “cultural events,” pledge money to PBS, purchase hardcover books and avoid fast food. In pop sociology and cultural criticism, they are the “creative class,” as Richard Florida christens them, or the suburban Bobos of David Brooks.

Yet underneath the health-conscious coating is a poison for culture and politics. Despite its “good-faith effort,” the Middle Mind’s aversion to complexity and talent marks it as “a form of management,” an effort to orchestrate anything potentially unruly. Fearful of the discipline required for genuine creativity, Middle Minders turn culture into a “lifestyle amenity,” an item in the gourmet ensemble of upscale consumers. The arts and letters must be as readily consumable and as agreeably exotic as the selections at Starbucks. They must be smart but not demanding, intriguing but not disturbing. As White observes, the Middle Mind prefers the moral and aesthetic fraudulence of American Beauty’s “accommodation of all political positions” to Blue Velvet’s discomforting “refusal to condemn or condone” the violence of Frank Booth.

Beholden to “civility,” Middle Minders prefer the comfort of consensus to the excitement of genuine conflict in art, religion, or politics. Their fretful righteousness about “discrimination” postpones necessary aesthetic, moral or political distinctions, while their distaste for “militancy” hides fanatical devotion to their own possessive individualism. This Middle Minder’s Pavlovian reflex to flatten distinctions derives, White suspects, from the need to abort all serious challenges to the established order. Thus, Middle Mind irony gives us “a world without honor or truthfulness,” while its “charm and banality” supplant the insolence and stringency of lively imagination, promoting “a culture of mediocrity that forbids real intelligence.”

The nation about nothing

White’s real intelligence dispels the charm of many a Middle Mind eminence. It’s an unguilty pleasure to see Terry Gross receive overdue and merited derision, as White gleefully savages the incompetence and voyeurism of a show that should be titled Stale Air. After all the celebration of “Seinfeld” as “the show about nothing,” many might applaud White’s dismissal of people like Gross “who can say with a straight face that ‘Seinfeld’ was a great show because of the brilliant scriptwriting.’” And White’s reading of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan as “a crypto-fascist work of historical revision” is a small masterpiece of film criticism.

The Middle Mind’s facile reverence toward Saving Private Ryan demonstrates to White that Americans, having “internalized the military and its imperatives,” now play in the theater of what Paul Virilio has termed “Pure War,” the condition in which the boundary between peace and war is erased. (The war in Iraq, for instance, began in 1991 and ended ….) Basking in the resplendence of mediocrity, Middle Minders are addicted to security, a missionary drive that is inseparable from their determination to impose everywhere their tony, mercantile niceness. (Thomas Friedman could be the exemplary Middle Mind imperialist.)

On this score, many readers will dispute one of White’s sharpest contentions: “The idea that Americans do not know about the nefariousness of the powerful is finally not credible.” Impatient with leftish populism, White rejects Noam Chomsky’s notion of a “manufacture of consent” and posits “the New Censorship,” in which the powerful rule by “making everything known and naked.” Relying on the cheerfully mendacious nihilism of Middle Mind America, the military-entertainment complex allows a “perverse transparency” that turns “betrayed trust” into a “yummy fetish.” Is our government a den of avaricious and brutal thieves? Yes, and “there’s hardly a soul on these shores who doesn’t know it.”

So the problem is not, in White’s account, that Americans don’t know the truth. They don’t care about the truth, and they don’t so much trust the system as “suspect in some dim way that, bad as it surely is, it is working in our interests in the long run.” And so, in the end, our Middle Mind culture is neither conformist nor subversive; rather, it is “corrupt, cynical and cruel.” We are soft-headed and cold-hearted ironists shopping at the end of history. Lies, venality, violence, death—“whatever.” “Seinfeld” is the perfect show for the nation about nothing.

So how does one cure what Mark Crispin Miller once called “the hipness unto death”? Not, for one thing, by following New Age, with its Middle Mind aversion to discrimination (“All is One”) and its prescriptions for “making ourselves individually well.” Why start a revolution when you have Feng Shui? And in academia, “Cultural Studies” radicalism exhibits the “abstract, rationalist” jargon that marks it as a form of “resistance” tailor-made for the corporate university.

White turns instead to the promise of “imagination” and its moments in art, philosophy and religion. Drawing on the Russian Formalism of the 1920s, White maintains that “greatness” in art depends on “estrangement,” a perception from unfamiliar vantages that then tells us something “truer and more complete” about the world. And to estrange fruitfully, we must summon Wallace Stevens’ “necessary angel” of imagination, who throws a searchlight on the possibilities inherent in reality. “The imagination makes the world bloom through the moment of estrangement,” White declares.

Sure that, quoting Stevens, “the imagination has the strength of reality, or none at all,” White directs attention to metaphysics. Calling for a renewal of aspiration toward “the sublime”—the knowledge of totality that attracts and eludes our love—White beckons toward a “pragmatic sublime” informed by American pragmatism.

By embracing pragmatism, White joins a generation of American philosophers and intellectual historians eager (desperate?) to set progressive politics on a philosophical foundation. But it’s at least arguable that pragmatism’s anti-metaphysical character explains its easy enlistment for state and corporate purposes. As Bourne once pointed out, pragmatism’s “unhappy ambiguity” as to “just how values are created” lay behind John Dewey’s support for American entry into World War I.

Before embracing pragmatism, White flirts with religion. He makes the (I think indisputable) assertion that the modern separation of sacred and secular enables “certain, mostly unfortunate, acts in the name of politics and the state.” Believers abound among his heroes of imagination: Aquinas, Dante, Kierkegaard, Hopkins. But like a good Middle Minder, White eschews theological disputation, retreating to Blake’s New Agey aphorism that “a man must invent his own religion.”

Deep down things

Thus, White ignores the metaphysical concerns of so many of his imaginative heroes. Asserting that the poems of Dante and Hopkins were “first profoundly consonant works of imagination,” he forgets that they were first profoundly consonant works of faith whose theological content was their very marrow. When Hopkins, for instance, wrote “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things,” he was celebrating the world as a sacramental portal onto divinity. It was on that basis that he lamented a world “bleared, smeared with toil.”

White rightly fears the sway of a Middle Mind similarly bleared and smeared. But for all his critical and prescriptive audacity, he can’t fully acknowledge and embrace the critical power, intellectual versatility and political intelligence contained in theology. If, as White muses, some “spiritual turn” may be our only hope for “the internal dissolution of the empire,” might the strongest solvent of the Middle Mind order be “the dearest freshness deep down things?

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Eugene McCarraher teaches humanities at Villanova University. He is working on The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.
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