The Middle Mind – Curtis White (2003)

I saw an interview with novelist Curtis White recently, which got me interested in his book The Middle Mind, a non-fiction book from 2003. The book is subtitled “Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves,” and while I’m not sure he answers that question, he does lay out a case for art and the imagination as a way out of the pretty barren wasteland we face today. Some notes on a few things that I found interesting….

1. White is correct that any future vision must be ‘imagined’ – a story about what is possible. He is especially cutting about an episode of Nova entitled “Beyond Human,” and he includes the intro narrative from the show as an example of the ‘techno’ vision of the future:

“A strange new era is dawning. An era of revolutionary experiments. Wired torsos. Chip implanted brains. Creatures of silicon and steel. Welcome to the age of cyborgs and androids. As humans become more machine-like, and machines more human, the line between biology and technology is starting to blur. And in the process we may just be reinventing the future of our species.”

As White puts it, “just what or who is this ‘we’ that the narration assumes. The fiction of a united humanity?” It’s important to read into these narratives, to figure out what assumptions are made, what critical information is simply assumed into being true (for all of us).
I was just reading a story about Monsanto now attempting to patent their process for producing pigs, in essence about patenting a form of life. Is this what we want – corporate control of species? If not, can we imagine a story that makes the absurdity so clear that the future works out in a different way?

2. Early in the book, he discusses the ‘imagination prosthetic’ of the creative industries.

“Insofar as your high-end audio equipment means you won’t produce any music yourself, won’t even listen to live music, won’t know what it feels like to capture the rhythms and textures of music in your own hands and lungs, how playing music changes your relationship to music and changes music’s relationship to the world, your stereo system is a musical wooden leg. It is literally a dis-ability.”

And in what I found to be a very apt & funny footnote to this passage, he goes on:

“Stereophile magazine regularly runs interviews with musicians and is regularly dismayed at what crummy audio rigs they have. The indifference of musicians to the high-tech world of the audiophile is the source of considerable wonderment and pain to the editors of Stereophile.” (p. 10)

3. So in the end White encourages active, open-ended imagination and creativity that does not simply re-iterate corporate goals and social conventions. And he recognizes that this is ‘dangerous’:

“When we have succeeded in reviving the social imagination we will know it by the reaction of those who have most to fear from it.”

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