I’m not typically one for categories of intellectual or aesthetic distinction—i.e., “lowbrow,” “highbrow,” etc. Lawrence Levine, among others, has shown how such distinction making is ineluctably embedded in class and other hierarchies of power. But, during a long road trip last week, I listened to an episode of Terry Gross’s NPR staple Fresh Air that confirmed my Illinois State University colleague Curtis White’s critique of it as quintessentially of the “Middle Mind.” This is how White defines the Middle Mind:
The Middle Mind attempts to find a middle way between the ideological hacks of the Right and the theorized Left. Unlike Middlebrow, the Middle Mind does not locate itself between high and low culture. Rather, it asserts its right to speak for high culture indifferent to both the traditionalist Right and the academic Left.
The Middle Mind is pragmatic, plainspoken, populist, contemptuous of the Right’s narrowness, and incredulous before the Left’s convolutions. It is adventuresome, eclectic, spiritual, and in general agreement with liberal political assumptions about race, gender and class. The Middle Mind really rather liked Bill Clinton, thoroughly supported his policies, but wished that the children didn’t have to know so much about his personal life. The Middle Mind is liberal. It wants to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and has even bought an SUV with the intent of visiting it. It even understands in some indistinct way that that very SUV spells the Arctic’s doom. Most importantly, the Middle Mind imagines that it honors the highest culture, and that it lives through the arts. From the perspective of the theorized Left academy (of which I confess myself an ineluctable member—with reservations), the Middle Mind’s take on culture is both well intended and deeply deluded.
If that definition of the Middle Mind is not clear enough, then an example will help. For White, Terry Gross is the personification of the Middle Mind. “Fresh Air is not merely a promotional vehicle for the Middle Mind, it is itself a prime example of the Middle Mind in all its charm and banality.” More:
Let’s think about Terry Gross and Fresh Air for just a moment. Here is an interview program that claims quite earnestly to be for intelligence, for the fresh and new, for something other than regular stale network culture, for the arts and for artists. But anyone who much listens to the show knows (I certainly hope that I’m not the only one who has noticed) that: 1) Terry rarely interviews an artist or intellectual that real-deal artists and intellectuals would recognize. 2) She has no capacity for even the grossest distinctions between artists and utter poseurs. Many of the “writers” she has interviewed recently have been writers for TV series and movies. People who can with a straight face say, “Seinfeld is a great show because of the brilliant script writing” love Fresh Air. Now, Seinfeld may be a cut above the average sit-com, but it’s a sit-com! 3) The show is a pornographic farce.
Let me develop this last idea about the pornographic a bit. Terry Gross’s interest in books and writers is too often morbid, perverse and voyeuristic. Two quick examples: she recently interviewed the main writer of the new HBO series Six Feet Under. The critical moment in the interview came when she asked him (I’m paraphrasing from memory), “What was it like when you were in that car accident and your sister was driving and she died but you didn’t?” Was she leading up to a telling psychological reading of the work in question? No. She wanted to know and I suspect her audience wanted to know what it was like to be in an auto accident in which his sister died! That’s it. Do we learn something about writing, or the arts, or culture? Do we learn anything? No, we learn that he was traumatized by the event.
As to what the folks who go on this show are thinking, knowing they’ll face this kind of personal inquisition, I won’t speculate. They’re probably thinking either, “Fresh Air! The big time!” Or “Good grief, that woman is an idiot. But my publicist will shoot me if I don’t do it.”
A week or so later there was a program in which Terry interviewed an author who had written a novel in which a woman says, “Drop dead,” to her husband and the next day he does drop dead. Before the novel was published, the author’s own real-life husband dropped dead on a tennis court. This was the point at which the book became interesting for Terry. If her poor husband hadn’t dropped dead, Terry would never have been interested in her or her book for this Show of Shows. “What did it feel like to suspect you’d killed your own husband with your art?” Fresh Air? How about Lurid Speculations? It’s like Dr. Laura for people with bachelor degrees. Car Talk has more intellectual content.
From the perspective of a person really interested in art and culture, one can only say, “Well, I think she’s on my side, but, God, she’s so stupidly on my side that I hardly recognize my side as my side.” Thus the Middle Mind.
I first read White’s essay (which became a book) about five years ago. At the time I thought it an exaggeration. I don’t listen to Fresh Air, so I had no sense of how right White was until I heard Gross interview actor and director Sarah Polley about her new documentary film, Stories We Tell. To apologize for Gross a bit: the film is about Polley’s life. The narrative device is about an enormous family secret and its unveiling. It would have been difficult to conduct an interview with Polley about the film without exploring her own personal history.
But Polley’s goal in making this film, far from merely telling an interesting story about her own life, is much more compelling. Polley wants the viewer to think about how people reconstruct the past. The film, then, is about historical thinking. (At least, this is my interpretation based on the interview—based on Polley’s emphases. I’ve yet to see the film.)
For context, I’ll briefly describe Polley’s personal story that Gross focuses on. The father who raised her was not her biological father. Polley was the child of her mother’s affair. But Polley did not discover this secret until she was an adult, long after her mother had died of cancer. The best part of the personal story is how her father—the man who raised her—handled learning the truth (it seems he was kept in the dark as well). He accepted the news with grace and love. He told his daughter that he loved her for who she was, and thus he was glad the affair happened.
I admit this is an interesting story. But the story alone does not compel me to want to see the movie. Polley’s theoretical construct, on the other hand, does.
Polley uses her interesting family story to analyze the complex ways in which people think about the past. At one point during the interview, Gross expresses amazement that Polley’s father and her biological father, both interviewed for the film, interpret the events surrounding the affair so differently. Polley responds that she counter-posed these two interviews precisely to ponder how people think about the past in such different ways. Her father thinks history is about perspective. If there is any truth to be discerned from the past, such truth is specific to each individual’s reconstruction of it. Her biological father, on the other hand, had a more certain view of the past. He had access to the one and only truth. These contrasting theories of the past were the aspect of the film that Polley seemed to want to discuss in her Fresh Air interview. But Gross never asked any follow-up questions and quickly changed the subject back to more lurid matters. She persisted in pressing Polley on how she felt about her experiences. She even suggested that perhaps her father was gay!
I was one frustrated listener. Which is why I returned to Curtis White’s Middle Mind.