The “Splendidly Cranky” Utopian: An Interview with Curtis White


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Curtis White first came to public attention as a culture critic with his best-selling The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves (2003). Dubbed “splendidly cranky” by Molly Ivins and “absolutely indispensible” by Slavoj Zizek, The Middle Mind showed White’s ability to speak to a broad readership about the themes that run through all of his books—cultural skepticism, intellectual freedom, and the utopian function of the imagination. White’s “imagination” is the kind with an adjective in front of it: the political imagination, the social imagination, the scientific imagination. To say the political imagination rather than simply politics is to take the conceptual leap that White’s work insists upon, whereby we are reminded not only that we invent the rules of “politics” but that we reinvent and reaffirm them every day.

White grew up in postwar suburban California. He studied literature with John Barth and philosophy with Gayatri Spivak and spent his entire professional career at Illinois State University in Normal, where he eventually became a Distinguished Professor, before retiring in 2009. He now spends his time training for triathlons and writing books, most recently The Science Delusion (2013) and We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data, which was published last month.

I corresponded by e-mail with White over a few weeks last summer about Reason, Romanticism, and the benefit of heartbreak.

We, Robots strikes me as a companion volume to The Science Delusion—two complementary ways of approaching the same problem. What do you see as the books’ common ground?

Amused indignation? All of my recent nonfictions, going back to The Middle Mind, are, finally, ideology critiques. The last two aren’t so much about science and robots as they are about the stories we’re told about science and the dawning age of “intelligent machines.” As with all ideology, we’re told these stories in order to gain our consent to a social reality that is unjust, unequal, and—here’s where I come in—dishonest. I’m indignant about the dishonesty of “science communicators” like Richard Dawkins or the economist Tyler Cowen. Dawkins and his cohort Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens speak as if science were the only legitimate source of “truth,” while the humanities, art, and religion are disciplines for the undisciplined. Cowen is a machine-age entrepreneur who glosses over the most egregious social consequences of living through machines, wholly lacking the imagination to understand how others might look at his robot utopia. For him, this future is inevitable anyway, and criticism of it is merely “standing in the way of progress.”

These are very narrow, bigoted men. They have no respect for anything other than their own empirical, technological dogmas. The worrisome thing is that we don’t see more prominent objections to their thinking, other than a few heroic figures like Chris Hedges. But I may have answered my own question there—if you have strong objections to what is inevitable, you will not be “prominent.” You will not be taken seriously. As much as possible, you will not be seen.

But I’m also perversely amused that their stories are so flimsy and illogical. And all in the name of Reason. That’s both rich comedy and self-evident hypocrisy, depending on my mood. Cowen’s Average Is Over is both laughably wrong and frighteningly destructive. And yet the media speaks of it as if it were the soothsaying of Nostradamus. But how much of a seer do you need to be to see what’s already here?

I’ve always tried to participate in a tradition of cultural critique that goes back to the Romantics. That tradition, beginning with William Blake and proceeding through Roland Barthes, has opposed the tendency of science to produce “instrumental rationality” not only within its own work but in the world you and I have no choice but to live in. Both my fiction and my criticism have tried to keep alive a tradition of dissent, drift, and love for the random that is the truest meaning of counterculture. Counterculture is an act of the arts leading away from the administered life, the life that doesn’t live—the life we have at present.

Key to your vision of the counterculture is the role of creativity in human experience, and central to your critique of the tech gurus and popular scientists is their appropriation of creativity in support of their own ideological positions.

Scientists like Dawkins and Hawking don’t actually discuss creativity as such. That’s more the neuroscientist’s issue. But that doesn’t stop Dawkins from claiming the mantle of the beautiful, although what he means by the word is unclear. It seems to have something to do with elegance or efficiency or simplicity. As he says, science is not only true, it’s beautiful. This would appear to be, for him, a more important form of beauty than anything the arts have to offer. He reduces the arts to a “valued heritage” or something like that. I assume he’s thinking of ritual gatherings of the “right sort” before Shakespeare, the Sistine Chapel, and Beethoven’s Fifth. 

And of course the high-tech industries are infamous for appropriating creativity, thus the “creative economy.” This has served to reduce the idea of creativity to the invention of computer gadgets and their apps. For the past two centuries, art’s importance has come from its power to dissent, to make the habitual strange, to play, and to open up the possibility for alternative social orders. The real question, the essential question, is Why does our unhappiness with the world as it stands lead us to make art, and just what do we hope art can do? My assumption is that art is the vehicle for Western culture’s conversation with itself about the meaning of freedom.

That assumption is what leads you to counter the ideological stance of technology and science not just with art in general but specifically with Romanticism. What is your vision of Romanticism? I think your timeline, from Blake through Barthes, would surprise a lot of Romanticists. 

I think my books raise the eyebrows of all sorts of experts—literary scholars, philosophers, scientists, and sundry others. My take on Romanticism is heavily dependent on the work of Morse Peckham. It is a rare intellectual joy to read his work. For Peckham, Romanticism is human history’s “second chapter,” the first being the founding of cities. Romanticism is ongoing, even young. Its founding principle is alienation, the feeling that you don’t have a place in the world. Its second moment is a refusal of that world and the beginning of the process of self-creation through art. Of course, cultural history is full of Romantic refuseniks, from the Wagnerians, the Symbolists, modernists of every stripe, beatniks, hippies. A large part of my purpose is to show the refuseniks of the present their own lineage. Romanticism lives.

In some ways, the vision you give us of American culture is as bleak as any I know. And yet in other ways, you are an optimist who writes things like, “At least I can say that I live consciously at the cusp of my contradictions. I have maintained the sanity of difference. This is my child. These are our problems. The world is not an elaborate hoax perpetrated by those who do not love us. Therefore, we may be happy yet. I have hope for it.” The bleak aspect of your writing seems understandable enough, a result of how closely you scrutinize the social, political, and environmental problems we’ve created for ourselves. But what is the nature of your hope?

At heart, I’m a Nietzschean. The world either does contribute to our capacity for being strong, healthy, self-creative human animals, or it doesn’t. Mostly it doesn’t. Mostly we live under one thumb or another, almost always multiple thumbs. Nietzsche’s attitude toward the thumb was honesty. My attitude toward capitalism is, Perhaps it is the best possible economic system, as you say Mr. Capitalist, but can we please stop being dishonest about it? Can we please stop telling all of the anxious lies we tell about how it is the apex of freedom? Can we please at least tell the truth about its human effects and its effects on nature?

As for hope, the philosopher Santayana talked about “animal faith.” Beyond religion, we have the faith of animals who enjoy the incredible privilege of being alive and conscious of the fact. I know that faith, and I try to be loyal to it. So working toward a condition where people know that this Nietzschean joy is their true “vocation” is important. As Fichte put it, You are free, so act like it. Hope is all in the act. 

The style of your critical writing is not, I think, a style as widely practiced as perhaps it once was. There’s a quality of invective, but also a lightness and clarity. It’s neither academic nor populist. What is the critical tradition you see yourself working in? 

That’s a question I’ve never been asked. My earliest influences in criticism were the popular commentaries on the war in Vietnam or on the hypocrisies of American politics and culture in hippy weeklies like the San Francisco Oracle and the Berkeley Barb or whatever came out of John Lennon’s mouth. I loved the surreal, disdainful, sometimes angry, but always honest things that Lennon would say. He was indignant about dishonesty but often surreal or satirical in the way he expressed his indignation. Remember his famous quip when the lads appeared at the Royal Variety Performance in the midsixties? “Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.” That pose was deeply appealing to me. It still is. The revenge of the oppressed—laughter.

What I do that is unique is I somehow blend together different kinds of writing—social analysis with vernacular touches, German philosophy with Irish satire. It is an odd personal quirk that German philosophy and Irish satire are so central to my work, but I have a fondness for incongruity. I lean hard on the analytic power of philosophy, but my ultimate weapon is laughter. Laugh ’em to death, I’ve always thought. That’s what scandalized people about my treatment of Terry Gross in The Middle Mind—it was funny. People were laughing about her, a novel experience for one of America’s sweethearts. In any event, I’m with Blake—“the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God.” 

And God, as you should know, is a great joker.

You started as a fiction writer, and fiction still makes up roughly half of your books. It also strikes me as being fundamental to your critical work. Why did you want to be a fiction writer in the first place? 

When I was in fifth grade, I was asked to write a story. I wrote some little Civil War scene with men in a log cabin fighting off the rebels. I used the word miniball, the bullet they packed in muzzle-loading rifles. I loved that word. Miniball. Always reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s reason for loving the English language—“oaken barrel.” Nice Anglo-Saxon words. Perhaps just as important, my teacher smiled on me with approval and affection. I liked that.

I think writing was also my way of participating in the spirit of the sixties. I wasn’t prepared to be a musician or a painter or an actor, but public schooling had at least done a decent job of teaching me to write. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the cover of the paperback edition of Donald Barthelme’s Snow White. Such a silly book, but at the time it spoke to me before I’d even read it. Then I started reading more widely in the American postmodernists—Borges, Nabokov, Italo Svevo, Calvino. I loved John Hawkes’s The Blood Oranges. So musical. And at the time really liberating. I always imagined that being a writer and reading literature was a way of participating in the social revolution that was all around me in the San Francisco area.

And then there was the mental catastrophe of depression around age twenty-one. Fiction began to seem like the only way to explain my pain, because I really had no idea what was happening to me except that I felt “uniquely flawed.”

But now I’m just the Nietzschean soul that wants to escape the “malignant dwarves” that get to run this place in order to be the vital human animal that we all are at a fundamental level. Or you can think of it in Buddhist terms. To be enlightened means to be aware—awake—and responsive. Unhappily, our culture requires us to be deluded and robotic. Think what those around you think, or else. Do what we need you to do, or else. That’s our secular fundamentalism. My writing tries to push back hard against that.

There is also, in your writing, a deep commitment to beauty and to what you have called “the sublime.” I am thinking in particular of the introduction to The Middle Mind, where you tell the story of visiting a very sick friend in the hospital and having an aesthetic experience. You noticed the amber light in some plastic tubing and observed how “the situation changed for me suddenly into something completely other than it had been the moment before.” What do these words—beauty, sublime—mean to you as a fiction writer? 

Art is by definition the breaking of rules. And yet artists honor rules because they honor art’s traditions, they honor the lineage of artists who made their own work possible. But there are two kinds of rules. The rules made by past rule breakers—those are worthy of honor—and the rules made by the master culture—in other words, ideology masquerading as art. Art is “rule-governed deformation,” as the philosopher Paul Ricoeur put it.

The sublime is that thing toward which we try to move through our various “deformations” without really knowing what this thing is. Artists try to go somewhere, but they don’t really know what to call that somewhere. Call it utopia. This destination is forever deferred, which makes it delicious, erotic, and makes each new attempt that much more sublime. Failure must be art’s constant assumption, but such a sweet failure it is. What we’re moving toward is always, as T. S. Eliot put it, a “paraphrasis.” Hard as we try, we’re forever writing around it or painting around it or singing around it, without its ever becoming less precious. To be an artist is to be undeterred.

My friend, the artist Nicolas Africano, once went to a Puccini opera. When he was leaving he said, That’s what I want to do in my art. I want to break some fucker’s heart. He didn’t mean this in a sentimental way, although his art always risks the sentimental. What I think he meant was something more like, “create an emotional and intellectual experience so powerful that the fucker is transformed.” I’ve always felt much the same way. That’s why I never really had an argument with David Wallace’s idea that the novel had to be something more than smart. I want to break some fucker’s heart, too, and thus restore her to life. Restore her to the human process of art.

It makes me think of Donald Barthelme’s definition of literature, which appears in a very early story, “Florence Green is 81.” “ ‘The aim of literature,’ Baskerville replied grandly, ‘is the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart.’ ” The line is based on something Barthelme saw in a museum once, an egg-shaped sculpture covered in fur that broke his heart. 

These are all variations on Viktor Shklovsky’s idea of estrangement, the single essential aesthetic principle of the last two centuries. Ideology and habit make the world a dead shell. Art restores the world, makes the stone stony once again. Art’s only real function is to show us the way to life, to the feeling of being alive in spite of the fact that the world we live in is dead. Without that, art has no purpose.

To bring this conversation back around—in both The Science Delusion and We, Robots, you write about the problems facing an art world that needs to justify itself in a capitalist system. You write, “Who knows how to defend art in itself?” In some ways, that nonscientific question would seem to be the essence of your project. So why doesn’t anyone know how to defend art? 

There are some things that can only be explained through zeitgeist speculation. How did the amazing artistic energy of the sixties exhaust itself so quickly? To a degree, of course, we still have it, as I’ve said often, in indie-music scenes and so on, but, with that exception, art is well defeated for the moment. Suppressed may not be too strong a word. The sixties were an instance of the “Romantic dialectic.” We experienced complete alienation from a dishonest dominant culture that seemed to want to either kill people or seal them into the life of worker drones or, now, data drones. The vehicle for fleeing this monstrosity was art, just as it was for the Romantics. Maybe we needed that gun to the head that was Vietnam, but in that moment it really felt like anything was possible. The Beatles, psychedelia, and Hendrix were revolutions of perception. Bands like Radiohead and Swans still provide that service today. That’s the feeling art should give us. The possibility of freedom expressed through some form of artistic dissidence/dissonance. Period.

But now, even for those who claim to support the arts, the best way to find out about it is by getting an art app for your iPad. You know it’s art because … it’s on your art app, dummy! You can have any wild art you want so long as you have it alone in your house or on the solipsistic paradise of your iPad. We consume art in the same way we consume pornography—behind locked doors. At best it’s “Oh look, Jonah Lehrer has curated a show featuring the history of protest music and kitchen mops at MoMA. It says here that they have Woody Guthrie’s old straw broom that he used to sweep the Dust Bowl off his front porch. Let’s go! We can do lunch at Five Points after.”

Personally, I have faith that the Romantic is still with us, slumbering perhaps, waiting for its next opportunity. And it will have opportunities. We can count on the malignant dwarves that run things to provide those.

Martin Riker has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the London Review of Books, and elsewhere. He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.