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The Middle Mind: Why Consumer Culture Is Turning Us Into The Living Dead

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  • The Middle Mind: Why Consumer Culture Is Turning Us Into The Living Dead; White, Curtis

The Middle Mind: Why Consumer Culture Is Turning Us Into The Living Dead

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For anyone who thinks culture should be a force for change, not just something to acquire and consume; who wants to reclaim the destabilizing power of the imagination - and start thinking for themselves.

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`A master of bewitchments, parodies and dazzling tropes` - Paul Auster

Creeping into art, literature, politics and the media, sliding into living rooms and coming soon to a cinema near you ... the Middle Mind has arrived. Join Curtis White on a crusade against tedium as he takes on this bland, no-thinking-required `product` that passes for culture in America - and that we`ve signed up and paid for in full too. It`s not about high- or low-brow, it`s about a mainstream consensus that pleases everyone but moves, challenges or shocks no one: from the Hollywood machine to cultural theory equating Madonna with Milton, from free market ideology to TV arts programmes, New Age self-help and Oprah`s Book Club.

This is a book for anyone who thinks culture should be a force for change, not just something to acquire and consume; who wants to reclaim the destabilizing power of the imagination - and start thinking for themselves.

In the thoroughly managed and self-surveilling world of the Middle Mind, how, we ought to ask, is it ever possible to create real art? How does anyone manage to elude its charming devices? Or how, as the great social theorist Theodor Adorno put it, can an autonomous or free art be produced in a context of enduring societal unfreedom? Spielberg`s films are not `free.` They unroll under heavy ideological and aesthetic obligations (even if Spielberg is perfectly happy to acknowledge and live by these obligations). The question before us is how others might elude Spielberg`s fate. Adorno`s ideas on art can help.

Adorno`s notorious Dialectic of Enlightenment consists substantially of the movement between the universal and the particular. In art, the universal is the law of genre, a `collective bindingness.` And so, for example, if Mr. Spielberg is to make a war movie, he feels bound by the law of genre to have rippling flags, heroes, and gut-wrenching spasms of patriotism. On the other side, the particular (or the individual and subjective) represents the theoretically boundless world of human possibility and play (which Adorno attempts to capture through the word spontaneity). The flag and so much more in Saving Private Ryan are not playful or spontaneous; they are abject. They are bent beneath the burden of what is expected and tolerated (even if richly rewarded).

Art is most itself, is `true` art, when it makes itself not through the conventions of the universal (genre: the rules for the proper construction of sonata or sonnet, or, as with Saving Private Ryan, the rote fulfilment of generic expectation) but, as Adorno thought, `by virtue of its own elaborations, through its own immanent process.` (205) Laurence Sterne understood this in the eighteenth century as the only true law of the novel: the novel is the `art of digression.` To be sure, these elaborations can deploy themselves only in a context made available by historical conventions; nonetheless, when an artwork is successful, it is in spite of the presence of convention and not because of it. This is why, ultimately, craft has little to do with whether or not a work is a successful piece of art.

The most powerful and sinister gambit of what Adorno calls `administered society` is to promise the freedom of individuality while simultaneously prohibiting it. For example, consumers have been promised the `freedom of the open road` by auto-makers for the last half-century, but with each passing year the realization of that freedom becomes more unlikely for all the familiar reasons (not least of which is the perverse insistence of other individuals to use the same roads promised for your freedom). Or, more to our point, the Middle Mind offers us an art and a cultural commentary that is really just more commercial product. The promise of art becomes its betrayal.

Art is a response to this repression. The exemplary works of artistic autonomy were, for Adorno, the `experimental` works of modernism, especially the music of Arnold Schoenberg and the anti-novels of Samuel Beckett. For us, however, the failure of—or, we might say, the passing of—the opportunity for modernism leaves us in a situation that can still be thought through in Adorno`s terms but not with his examples.

The one area in contemporary culture in which the administered universal and the particular (with its impulse to freedom) continue a consequential and sometimes deadly engagement is in the theatre provided by `rock.` In an otherwise domesticated art world, rock still has the potential for what Adorno called `social explosiveness.` This is not news that he would have been happy to hear. For Adorno, the idea that the struggle for the virtue of `spontaneity` was being waged within pop culture would have been the assurance of its failure.

I wouldn`t contend otherwise. I would contend only that the Music Industry, this profitable and well-managed sector of the Culture Industry, is also the place where the question of authenticity (understood as the freedom to wander from convention) is most broadly and dramatically engaged. It is here, and not in the experimental novel or in poetry, that artists can still have broad social consequence, as the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, the Sex Pistols, and now perhaps Radiohead can testify. But the fact that the dialectic of the universal and particular, the Dialectic of Enlightenment, is still forcefully and fatefully alive in popular music does not mean that it is not also doomed, and well in advance. For rock music, too, must seize its possibility in the context of its impossibility.

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Author White, Curtis
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