Lack of Imagination and the Middle Mind
Curmudgeon Curtis White May Be Right About ‘Merica
Two friends sat with another friend in a hospital room.
With their friend plugged into monitors and IVs, with frequent interruptions by staff and generally surrounded by unyielding clinical protocols—the best conversation these two friends could muster was…silence.
What to say with someone so needy and so plugged in? How to name the thing their friend was experiencing? Could they talk about his condition and/or prognosis, or was it better to talk about something different entirely?
One friend, the artist Nicolas Africano,
pointed to a length of clear plastic tubing suspended above us, “That amber light is beautiful.”
The other friend, Curtis White responded:
And there in fact was a tiny amber light in the middle of the tubing, a little light I hadn’t noticed at all. It was bright like an isolated star. It triangulated us. Suddenly, the situation changed for me into something completely other than it had been the moment before. We’d been translated. Reordered. Nicholas’s comment reconstellated us. I had a powerful feeling that everything has just been changed utterly and made—what other word was there for it?—beautiful. I smiled, suddenly happy. I looked at Nicholas in awe. And I thought: “You can do that?!”
This is the framing story for Curtis White’s The Middle Mind (NY: HarperCollins, 2003), which is not an easy book.
It was hard for me to stick with it right up until it became hard for me to put down. White comes across as an elitist, academic know-it-all who seems to enjoy pointing out the dark side of everything I hold dear (Terry Gross a proprietor of the middle mind? Really?). Although he insists he is not interested in “high/low culture distinction,” it wasn’t until my second time through the book that I began to understand how his framing story (the amber light in the hospital tubing) is a call to use imagination to see things differently.
White’s “middle mind” is a form of management, a strategy used by leaders in entertainment, academic orthodoxy and political ideology that prevents people from finding their own way. The middle mind management strategy offers up a set of topics that look and smell like genuine thinking, but in fact, are designed to keep an audience from stepping outside the boundaries. Perhaps White’s notion of the middle mind is something like how we get our kids to go to sleep at night: “Would you like to brush your teeth before or after you put on your pajamas?” (See what I did there? Putting on pajamas and going to bed was not one of the choices. Sneaky.)
White indicts everyone from journalists to entertainment to business. He castigates the American public for lack of imagination to see outside the news cycles and ridiculous sound bites and a two-party political system. The book is more than ten years old, so was written back when the drums of war we being beaten with particular urgency (then again, when is that not happening?). Ten years on, there are legion more opportunities for middle mind observations. Facebook and “following” and Twitter and, our celebrity worship—there is no end of examples.
There is much to disagree with in Mr. White’s book (for instance, his sweeping dismissal of faith). But his underlying notion that we need to get back to the work of using our imagination to interact with our institutions and work and leisure is a valid call to action and worth considering.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston