U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Middling Mind of Terry Gross

stories-we-tell---sp-with-super8cam-flatscreenI’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.

37 Thoughts on this Post

  1. The perpetually frustrating thing about co-called middling/middlebrow culture is that it is both needed *and* demanded in the American context. That middling culture is a necessary product of capitalist culture that frustrates our attempts at sustained engagement with complexity. It fills a translational role for those (all of us, at some point or another) in need of faster, shallower summaries of the ever-changing “creative destruction” that takes place around us.

    So while I understand Curtis White’s frustrations, his very lament is almost another product of the middle mind—a shallow-ish lament/attempt to understand why so many of us tread water in a culture that itself treads water. – TL

    • “attempts at sustained complexity”
      For the last two years I have attempted a written conversation with a highly educated, specialized professional over a variety of subjects, but all centering within a scientific reductionist frame. Frank, was a neuroscientist working in domestic and foreign countries , spending a good deal of time training medical doctors on the anatomy of the brain. I have a degree in sociology.
      The conversation represents the effort at the level of intellectually sustained complexity.
      Both of us are retired. My point is that such efforts are typically not available to working people. I won’t deny that the internet makes gathering data easy, but trying to bridge the intellectual/experiential gap that our lives have produced takes remarkable effort to even approach understanding. I, personally, find most critics fail to recognize basic built-in difficulty of communication let alone the complexity of an identification of rational meaning in the materials they review.

  2. Maybe the Middle Mind is simply a construct of academics or intellectuals who are self-conscious about their class origins (working class and/or bourgeoisie) and who would like something to feel contemptuous about from a “pure” aesthetic/intellectual p.o.v. that cannot be tied to the class of which they are not-so-secretly ashamed.

    I mean, the excerpts of White that you’ve reproduced here read like one of Malcolm Macdonald’s sneers — as if Macdonald represented some kind of elite nobility of thought. But Harold Rosenberg deftly smacked Macdonald down as a middlebrow critic of the middlebrow, playing the aesthetic snobbery trump card in the process. And Rosenberg’s aestheticism was itself a great way of getting beyond his own “outsider” origins.

    Who listens to NPR anyhow? How is it any different from a podcast of Reader’s Digest for the educated upper-middle class? God, life is too short to listen to a bunch of whispery, mealy-mouthed murmurers just because that’s what all the educated liberals do.

    Maybe that’s the educated liberals’ problem: too much NPR and vapid breathy daydreams about how lovely the world would be if everyone were cultured and thoughtful enough to listen to NPR. We few, we happy few…

    And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with Reader’s Digest, or Book-of-the-Month Club, or the Encyclopedia Britannica, or even Mortimer Adler’s Great Books. People who sneer at “what passes for culture” among those who weren’t born to it are the butt of the joke — so status-conscious that they can’t just enjoy life without worrying about distinguishing themselves from the hoi polloi.

    Which reminds me…

    I wish I could have known Lawrence Levine. It just warms my heart to read his work — so filled with laughter, mirth, good humor, generosity, and a hearty joy in the manifold vagaries of the great human comedy of life. There’s just not enough unpretentious laughter in academe.

    Geez, I am never going to get a job.

    • L.D. Burnett said much of what I wanted to say and said it far better than I would have.

      The problem with ripping apart banal, self-congratulatory, status-seeking intellectual puffery is that the method turns in upon itself. If NPR listening is a form of professional-class liberal self-congratulation, then NPR-bashing is a form of intellectual-class leftist self-congratulation. If there’s an irritating smugness to work of the “young wonk” journalists (Klein, Yglesias, etc.), there’s also an irritating smugness to the takedowns of them published in Jacobin.

      If this comment sounds self-righteous or smug, perhaps that too can tell us something.

  3. I’ll never forget a professor of mine a few years ago in a graduate seminar making a joke about the stereotypical liberal listening to NPR. Of course, since I listen to NPR, I think I was slightly embarrassed, heh.

    But on to Middlebrow culture, I think the author here may be on to something. Sometimes, though, I wonder if these divisions are heavily artificial. No one is all highbrow all the time, at least I doubt it. It’s all about the frequency of how often to enter low, middle, and highbrow culture. For example, sports can fit any of these. You can watch them (which I guess is low brow) but if you study them as an academic (such as sports history, to give an example) that’s taking what can look lowbrow on the surface and take it somewhere else.

  4. And, as I should have made clear, there’s nothing wrong with listening to NPR either, if you enjoy it. But anybody who listens to NPR because one “should,” or because that’s what is expected of whatever crowd one wishes to identify with / belong to — anyone who does this while finding the experience itself unpleasant might want to take stock and perhaps rearrange priorities. Tick-tock goes the mortality clock — spend as much time as you can on what you love , and let the rest go.

    Of course, we all have things we pay attention to simply for the sheer pleasure of complaining about them. This is especially true in academe. I think Stanley Fish’s essay on the unbearable ugliness of Volvos should be required reading.

    • But isn’t Stanley Fish a huge sports car enthusiast? It would seem to me his criticism of Volvos would stem more from his delight in Ferraris than anything else.

  5. The “Middle Mind” description sounds just like David Brooks’s BOBOS. Can Gross be considered a BOBO mouthpiece, ascribing transcendent meaning to corporate driven and determined realities like Bradley Cooper’s upbringing?

  6. Thanks for the comments, all. Let me reiterate that I’m not invested in cultural distinctions like highbrow or Middle Mind or whatever. But my otherwise pleasant road trip across Missouri was disturbed by Gross’s inept interview of Sarah Polley, who was fascinating in spite of Gross. And this reminded me of White’s essay, which, upon re-reading, seemed like a spot-on critique of Fresh Air. But alas, I agree that, in sum, drawing cultural distinctions is about as gratifying as navel-gazing (which can sometimes be gratifying–admit it!)

    One more important point: I hope these excerpts don’t give anyone the wrong impression about Curtis White. I had the pleasure of working with Curt a bit before he retired a few years ago. I taught a general education humanities course as part of a larger program that he put together called The Humanities Project. Curt’s ultimate goal with this project is to bring the humanities to the larger public–teach courses offered to senior citizens, prisons, etc… I’m pretty sure such a goal reflects Curt’s working-class background and his self-reflections about what the humanities have done for him. So I think his Middle Mind construction, problematic though it may be, emerges from a good place. And that matters to me.

  7. Fair enough. I googled him a little bit ago and looked at his faculty profile, then followed the link to the Humanities Project, which looks like a promising (if slightly problematic — guess why!) attempt to bring undergrads an education that moves beyond utilitarian vocationalism. I didn’t see anything there about his work in the community, which sounds just as promising. But I am curious if he is bringing the humanities in an “Arnoldian” sense or in some other sense.

    In any case, the tone of the essay doesn’t seem to jibe with the aim of his pedagogy. It’s contemptuous and sneering towards Gross’s audience. But most of the sneering is directed at the host, and not a little of that sneering is gendered, it seems to me. (Some of the sneering at the audience is gendered too — why the invocation of SUVs and Bill Clinton, both in their own way symbols of misdirected masculine prowess?)

    It’s interesting that White wants to elaborate on the metaphor of the “pornographic” to describe Gross’s show. That word has a very peculiar valence that doesn’t seem to match the examples he cites, which might be better characterized as “sensationalist,” or perhaps “voyeuristic,” as he himself acknowledges.

    But “pornographic” is itself a sensationalist and titillating word to toss into a discussion of something as tame as NPR. He’s doing exactly what he accuses Gross of doing. Does his invocation of “pornography,” with all its associations with objectified bodies, somehow fit with his characterization of Gross as an “idiot” and as “stupidly” talking, a woman out of her element? Or is it more that her questions transgressive? Are her guests transgressive — not artists that the “real-deal” cultural elite would recognize, but “dirty” or degrading to the cause of Culture?

    But isn’t the point of Gross’s show to do exactly what White hopes to do by bringing “the humanities” to a wider audience? Aren’t her questions a way of inviting listeners to find a “personal” connection with an author / text?

    White’s contempt for what the Middle Mind “imagines” that it values suggests to me that he doesn’t take those people or their aspirations or values very seriously at all. He is part of the “theorized” elite; they are not, poor souls, and don’t know any better.

    In any case, White comes off in this essay sounding like a Progressive-era scold who wants to “improve” the misguided masses with a more muscular intellectuality than Gross is able or willing to offer.

    • LD: You may not have the time for this, being in the middle of exam prep and all. But, I have a question: What’s your view of an ‘Arnoldian sense’ in this context? I ask because I sense that you offer the phrase as if there is *one* sense to which we can all refer. – TL

    • Other than my question about Arnold, I agree with almost every word in this comment. …Just to make a point that my question is about a detail—not trying to undermine the thrust of your message.

  8. I basically agree with LD’s comments above. I’m far from a huge Terry Gross fan (I listened regularly to Fresh Air two decades ago, but now catch it once a month, if that), but Curtis White’s essay annoyed me when I read it years ago and has annoyed me again reading excerpts from it today. This, incidentally, seems like a “tell” to me: “Many of the ‘writers’ she has interviewed recently have been writers for tv series and movies.” I’d expect to find a sentence like this, so casually disrepectful of these media that it can take its readership’s agreement for granted, in one of the less respectable pieces published a quarter century ago in The New Criterion.

    • Agreed Ben. Professor White has many other virtues, I’m sure. But this particular essay struck me as a neo-Macdonaldian piece (i.e. lash out at cultural degradation and ignore the deeper structural issues).

  9. Tim, in reply to your question re: “an Arnoldian sense”?

    Lawrence Levine is helpful here too:

    “The Arnold important to America was not Arnold the critic, Arnold the poet, Arnold the religious thinker, but Arnold the Apostle of Culture.” (Highbrow/Lowbrow 233)

    While it’s somewhat artificial to divvy up these “Arnolds,” Levine’s point is that what most Americans who (knowingly or unkowingly) deploy Arnoldian or neo-Arnoldian thought are drawing upon is the idea that Culture with a capital C does/should represent the best that has been thought and said, etc.

    Levine’s final title for Arnold, ironically capitalized, gets at one of Guillory’s arguments in Cultural Capital, an argument which in a way validates Arnold’s project: Culture as a replacement for Faith.

    • Thanks. But even ‘Arnold the Apostle of Culture’ is more sophisticated than people realize. As a bit of contrary evidence (you know I’m a revisionist on Arnold, right?—contra Levine, Rubin and many others), here’s the rest of the passage, from the preface of *Culture and Anarchy*, from which the “best that has been thought and said” quote is pulled:

      “The whole scope of the essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and through
      this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically… .If a man without books or reading, or reading nothing but his letters and the newspapers, gets nevertheless a fresh and free play of
      the best thought upon his stock notions and habits, he has got culture.”

      Notice that last sentence. This shows something more sophisticated than Arnold recommending only high culture. He’s challenging his readers and followers to find and utilize excellence from *wherever* it was produced (i.e. Arnold’s a bit more democratic than is normally recognized).

      My revisionism is based on the scholarship of Linda Ray Pratt (*Matthew Arnold Revisited*, 2000). And I’ve read John Henry Raleigh’s *Matthew Arnold and American Culture* (1957)—the book Levine used to build *his* Arnold. In sum, Levine’s portrait wasn’t as sophisticated as it should’ve been, whatever the other merits of *Highbrow/Lowbrow*. But I’ll stop now. I explained all of this in an Oct. 2008 JGAPE essay (vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 403-407).

      So even Arnold is more nuanced and sophisticated than the Curtis White (at least as White presented himself in this essay! – TL

    • I’m sorry to come off as didactic here rather than conversational. I just have a thing about the use and potential abuses of Arnold. So none of this is personal in any way.

  10. Nice to see that the Middle Mind still pisses people off. Of course, y’all are trying to discuss something that as presented is a fragment of a fragment. It’s one of the liabilities of blog sites that folks succumb to the temptation to come to judgment based upon so little. I’ll stand by the book.

    Anyway, my point was and is that since Romanticism art has been opposed to what Schiller called the “misery of culture.” Art is not about high or low or middle. It is about becoming something that can, in Wallace Stevens’s words, “kill a man.” The problem with the Middle Mind, and Gross is just one example of this in the book, is that it seeks to say, “yes, we have culture, we have art” but what it presents is “weak shit.” Harmless. If art is not dissident, if it is not trying to create alternative worlds, it is not art. What Gross and others present “passes” as art made safe for the status quo. I develop this idea best, I think, in the section that deals with the aesthetic of Theodor Adorno and Radiohead’s Kid A. Far from an Arnoldian, I am perhaps an Adornian, but then Adorno was in his own way a Romantic.

    I try again to make vital my understanding of the force of art for Life, as Nietzsche might say, in a new book titled The Science Delusion due out June. My fondest hope is that it too will piss off readers of blogs. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

    • Dear Curtis,

      Thanks for the intervention. A couple of things:

      (1) Was the essay meant to stand alone? I was under the impression that, originally, it was, and then was later expanded into a book.

      (2) As a Radiohead fan, I’d love to read your chapter on Kid A. I’d probably get more irritated!

      (3) I was put off by the tone of the essay, not its substance. As an *intense* admirer of Critical Theory, I’m all for art that turns on itself—art that challenges us and itself. But sometimes that kind of art requires an informed intervention for those who don’t get it. That kind of intervention, which Terry Gross or someone like her could/can perform, might lead someone to the heightened state of consciousness (i.e. consciousness-raising) that you desire. But to sweep up those efforts into a generalization like “the middling mind” undercuts the complex effort to create higher consciousness in our culture. As I said in my first comment, our Capitalist framework often undercuts our time and energy, removing us from contact with the kinds of art that might help us get out of the hamster wheel.

      Thanks, Tim

      • Tim, the essay was originally part of a series of essays originally published in Context (a publication of Dalkey Archive Press). The other essays concerned Radiohead and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Harper’s excerpted a part of the Fresh Air essay. The three were joined in the book with new material on Joe Queenan and Dinty Moore.

        As for Radiohead, you needn’t fear, it is a defense of their work from a review by Nick Hornby. For me, Radiohead’s music is the most vital force in art at present, along with work by other Indy notables like the Knife, Sufjan Stevens, 31 Knots. It’s one of the points I make in MM: most art has been middle minded, but Indy music somehow still manages to stay more or less free, vital, inspiring to people who would really rather not just go along with the habitual.

        I’m not sure that anything can be done with “culture” as such or the raising of consciousness. It’s all lost. What I advocate is as Deleuze and Guattari used to urge, rhizomatic wandering across the grid in the creation of art-inspired countercultures. It is the lesson of that second great chapter in human history Romanticism. (I develop this at great length in the new book.)

        As for my tone, has anyone read Nietzsche lately? A little finely focused disdain/contempt is just what mass culture deserves. Blake: “Honest indignation is the voice of God.” Yes, Chris Breu is right, I have little patience for Cultural Studies’s attempt to find resistance in an episode of Star Trek. John Guillory was quite right about that. Stuart Hall and the Birmingham Cult Studs were incredulous with what American academia did with their ideas. “I am completely dumbfounded by it,” said Hall.

    • (4) Also, Gross interviews lots of people—all year long. Would it not be possible to find contrary examples? Could we not find points, perhaps comprising 50-70 percent of her shows, where she relays some degree complexity in the art discussed? Might we not find some shows where she discusses art that isn’t “safe”—that challenges norms and isn’t “weak shit”?

    • So if it ain’t avant-grade it ain’t art? (Is tht a fair reading of your “dissident” point?) Seems pretty hard to make that case in a post-Situationist era. Epater le bourgeoisie as the definition of art seems pretty narrow, especially if it is merlys a necessary and not even a sufficient condition.

      It also begs the question of dissident TO WHAT? To class power? To artistic convention? To political authority? What if it is dissident to ne but conventional to others? (I think here, for example, of Velazquez.) Can anything intensed to make money really de considered “dissident”?

  11. Curtis, while it’s fine for you to stand by your book, your book is not what is under discussion here — what’s under discussion is a small excerpt from a chapter of your book, and an even smaller piece of evidentiary data that, in Andrew’s judgment, seemed to affirm the basic soundness of your critique of Terry Gross. You’re well within your rights to complain that it would be unfair to extract your Unified Theory of Everything from this scant passage. But nobody has done that, except maybe Andrew, who would like this part to stand for the whole of your argument about Gross and “the middle mind.”

    From the small excerpt of your writing quoted in this blog post, I can reasonably argue — I have reasonably argued — that your tone is contemptuous and that there is a sexist undertone running through this passage, as well as (or as evidence of?) a desire to shock/titillate the reader.

    Judging from your response here, I’d say my reading of your shock-jock tone was spot-on. In any case, Andrew thought such a reading was credible enough that he had to do some damage control and reassure us that, whatever the text he’s adducing might suggest, in real life you’re a very nice guy and your critique comes from a good place.

    But perhaps that spot is already taken. I suggested that this passage reads like a poor imitation of Macdonald (though how I swapped Malcolm for Dwight I don’t quite know), while Ben had in mind something from The New Criterion of about 25 years ago. However, your own chiastic comment above situates you in a different textual tradition: blog troll.

    Take a number.

  12. Hi folks, I am a colleague of Andrew’s and Curt’s at ISU and I also am an English department member (along with Curt), so my thoughts on this topic probably come from that institutional position. Unlike Curt (and I hope this is fair, Curt), however, I am much more an admirer of cultural studies than he is and I think the Frankfurt School needs to be leavened with cultural studies and vice versa. I’m also perhaps more materialist in my orientation (for example: I never know what to do with the category of the imagination). The problem with arguments like this one is that it is hard to take any positive position that doesn’t reproduce the dangers of snobbery and elitism (or class-based contempt) on the one side and populism and anti-intellecutalism (or ressentiment) on the other. Put more positively, if still dialectically, I recognize the importance of attending to aesthetic complexity and the challenge to commodification on one side and the necessity of affirming more democratic and working-class shaped modes of address on the other.
    Which is all to say that I don’t think there is an easy solution to these debates (as Bourdieu, who is often misread, indicates as well). A few observations on the idea of The Middle Mind and the related concept of the “middle brow”: 1) Despite Curt’s desire to disentangle the one from the other, I think the middle brow as a category, because of its historical weight as an aesthetic distinction, tends to be carried along with it. I also think the Middle Mind as a category tends to do much the same work as middle brow, as does the related concept of (aesthetic) humanism (which is one of my own bugbears). 2) I’m always struck (even as I reproduce in my own tastes) by the fact that snobbery toward the middle brow is the last form of acceptable snobbery for cultural studies-informed intellectuals. We have the kind of contempt for it that we criticize in other intellectuals’ treatments of the popular or the “low-brow.” 3) NPR definitely reproduces a class address, as a couple of people noted above. It is the class address that is shared by institutions like the New York Times and is related to the model of the non-academic (and often journalistic) intellectual, so on one level this is a war for cultural authority between different class fractions. 4) I agree with Curt’s basic assessment of the ideology of Fresh Air and NPR (and would add that you can hear their own class position dripping in their voices, as I’m sure you can hear our own in our voices as well), but I’m not sure this kind of debate and critique (see Bruno Latour’s ambiguous piece on critique “running out of steam” in Critical Inquiry a while back) really gets us anywhere new or productive. It tends to mean that both class fractions dig in their heels. 5) Perhaps the place to look for the most interesting work that pushes past these limitations is work that creatively bisects or intersects or traverses these distinctions–for example: the Science Fiction of Samuel Delany, Ursula Le Guin, and China Mieville, the experimental yet popular-culture informed prose of Karen Yamashita or Dodie Bellamy, the pulp negativity of a Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, Natsuo Kirino, or a Jim Thompson; the way in which distinctions between genres (classical, jazz, rock, electronic) are blurred in less mainstream contemporary musical production. The way in which the Blogosphere can produce interactions among intellectuals from different class positions and professional positions (without erasing the very specific issues of access and comfort that attaches to electronic communication). 6) Which is all to say that perhaps instead of the bad middle (which NPR at its worst can represent) let’s look for good middles. But perhaps these are just more class-based dreams of a new avant-garde…

  13. Very nice, Christopher.

    This makes me wonder whether the republic is better off for giving NPR a relevant pittance to keep it unthreateningly liberal-middlebrow.

    “National Public Radio is considered the … outer limits of the left in the United States. …and they’re the ones with the sharpest restrictions by far. I mean, they won’t allow a millimeter of deviation from the party line.””—Noam Chomsky

    See, I’d like NPR to go for it too. For my own reasons, mind you.

  14. Was the “Middle Mind” piece excerpted in “Harper’s” or something? I remember reading it many years ago, and it made a huge impression on me. I remember being unimpressed with the idea of the Middle Mind, which struck me as both condescending and lacking in analytic value.

    But the critique of Fresh Air is what made the biggest impression on me. I found it was penetratingly insightful, but I also had difficulty matching the writer’s tone with his comments. In other words, I immediately agreed that what he said about Terry Gross’s approach was true, but didn’t understand why he thought it was bad. People can have an approach that brings out different aspects of people’s work or their relationship to it. Still, every single time I listed to the show, I marvel at how insightful that article was.

  15. It seems to me that the value of the middlebrow/middle mind category as presented here is that it marks aspirational identification: those who strive to appreciate a certain kind of culture (perhaps for status reasons, more generally because they “ought to”), but fail to do so effectively or genuinely. This can happen “up” or “down,” however–fantasies of the primitive are as much a part of aspirational identification as facile readings of capital-L “Literature.” The analytic question is whether the middle classes of postindustrial society adopt such a stance characteristically. I imagine the answer is no, but I have nothing like the empirical data required to substantiate that claim.

    In any case, all reflective people, from all classes, do this at times, and it often comes from good intentions (as does White’s critique of it). In sum, I do agree with the general pushback on snobbish critiques of the middlebrow, but based solely on what I’ve seen here, Gross’s interview fits perfectly well within the category even when we take the snobbish elements out. Is someone willing to defend her interview style as aesthetically meaningful rather than voyeuristic? As an example of Christopher’s “good middle,” perhaps?

    On a separate note: for anyone who finds this conversation interesting, I would highly recommend Alison Bechdel’s book Fun Home, which is (I kid you not) an autobiographical book about her father’s affair and subsequent suicide that contains lots of meditations on perspective and knowledge of the past. It crosses high/low distinctions as well! It’s a comic book, for one thing, about a similarly “voyeuristic” topic, that references Literature (Proust, Joyce, Woolf, et al) throughout. Readers may judge the height of its brow for themselves, of course.

  16. After reading all this it seems to me the worst crime Gross is guilty of is neither being nor thinking like an academic intellectual. Which of course is totally unforgivable. To the gulag/guillotine with her!

    Otherwise, I agree wholeheartedly with everything LD said, especially in her first comment, though I’d add more forcefully how pernicious and despicable the whole middlebrow and cultural slicing and dicing stuff is. Oh, and I’ll also side with Tim and argue that Arnold has much more democratic potential than he’s usually given credit for. I suspect Arnold would be no fan of Gross, though for entirely different reasons than those enumerated here. Which also raises another interesting question: perhaps what Gross is really guilty of is philistinism on the grounds that LD spells out in her first comment.

    I must add the proviso that I do not listen to NPR, let alone Terry Gross. I’d much rather listen to Radiohead. Though just how “indy” Thom Yorke and co. should be considered these days is a matter open to considerable debate. On another day!

  17. I haven’t read all these comments word for word, so apologies if I about to repeat someone’s point, which I think has been brought up to a certain extent —

    I think a huge part of the discussion that is being under appreciated here is that the Middle Mind and the many people who can be roughly described as contributing to it have very real, very unpleasant consequences. This is what was being hinted at with the point about Middle Mind folk buying an SUV to go visit Magical Spots in Nature. Yes, there is a pleasure to be taken in being irritated with the aesthetics of the content itself, and an even greater one in mocking them — so I agree that NPR bashing is also a form of Leftist self-congratulation, but then again, every time my father tells me that liberals “just want to feel good about themselves” I ask him if his political philosophy makes *him* feel good about himself, and he concedes the point.

    But whether or not we should strive to not so indulge ourselves, the most significant objection not to be lost sight of here — which is the one I think, although I do not know, White might have in mind — is that there are huge consequences to this type of thinking, and many of them are very, very bad. Many of them are cultural, which is more what he has focused on — but of course all of that bleeds into the political, and I can think of quite a few typical-NPR/Middle Mind political behaviors that make this world, and this country in particular,a much more difficult place for a lot of people to live. These are the sorts of people who give money to overseas charities (which is good) but balk at structuring their voting behavior around a demand for major redistributive policies that would help the poor in their own country (bad). These are people who recognize racism is still around (good) but go to see the movie Lincoln, think it is great, and then fail to challenge the speculations of their libertarian friend at a dinner party the next week that affirmative action or any policy to help black people is itself a lamentable form of racism. These are people who support gay marriage (good) but are so distracted by the crazies of the Right that they think the Democratic Party actually represents a respectable left, and they cheered when Bill Clinton signed that awful piece of legislation, TANF, and said nothing or even supported his escalation of the war on drugs.

    Programs like “Fresh Air,” are a key component of enabling this kind of disastrous bullshit to continue. It’s a validation program which enables those of the Middle Mind to think they are taking part in something critical and thoughtful when really, they’re not. Now, we all indulge in validation, and the Middle Mind hardly owns this. But that doesn’t detract from the more important consequences of this type of thinking — and those consequences aren’t pretty.

  18. I think Gross is a problem, along with her guest’s pathetic work on snobbery, for those commenting because her vapid, unearned high-mindedness holds up a mirror to their own, vapid, unearned high-mindedness.

    As an NPR listener who checks off none of the boxes your stereotypical *NPR listener* does outside of “white” and “comfortable” (ok, educated, too, but credentialism is more a leftist thing), it’s always amusing to see NPR types critique NPR. It’s entertaining, but always peppered with some self-congratulatory nonsense. It’s like the guy at the dinner party who says “I’m not racist, but….”

  19. I just googled who else thinks Terri Gross was an annoying idiot, who asks “How did it make you feel” questions with an avidness that borders on breathlessness.
    I’m delighted to see I’m not…..you never know I could be the only person who cringes when her show comes on. Shallow and fanish, she would make a great spectator for fatal car crashes.

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