upon his publication of
The Spirit of Disobedience:
Resisting the Charms of Fake Politics,
Mindless Consumption, and the Culture of Total Work
When I saw Curtis White's new book out recently, I eagerly anticipated
reading it, following his previous book, The Middle Mind: Why
Americans Don't Think for Themselves. I liked how he'd argued
in this latter that we Americans too easily fall into patterns set for
us by our primary institutions. I agreed, flummoxed as I've long
been by the orthodoxies throughout our institutions of higher education.
As I began the newest Curtis White, I felt elated. He was going
exactly where I'd hoped – where no academics otherwise go. (White
has tenure in the English department of Illinois State University, in
Right off, in his introduction, White sets the
"spirit" in his title
as, ideally, the key element in everybody's humanity, and key to the
best of educations any might get. Opposed to "spirit" he sets
the ways our economic system defines and uses us "only as the purely
contractual offer of [our] labor capacity." Even as this happens,
he says – even while corporate culture reduces us "essentially" – while
it reduces us "as labor commodities" – he sees acquiescence even from
his own good colleagues. Issues of the "spirit" annoy them.
They squirm, he says, at efforts to "essentialize" people, preferring
instead to put the "spirit" in another departmental niche, to relegate
it to institutional religion, to "leave talking about the einestimable
value of human life' to the pope."
colleagues in corporate academe have not totally dumped mysteries such
as "the ethics of Christian revelation," but have, he says, replaced
it all "with something not a lot less mysterious." They have replaced
it with Reason. White recounts the logic of Immanuel Kant, the
first great Enlightenment philosopher who saw the new embrace of "technical
rationality, economic rationality, and the cult of science." Reason
assumed the status of religion, also taking on its elusive aura.
It became "for Kant what he himself calls a eprejudice,' a premise
that is clung to without sufficient reason."
won out. All the "universalized abstractions" took their places
firmly within our new "rationalized divinity." In becoming "the
Enlightenment's strange polytheism" (with all its scientific
departments), White concludes "the strangest consequence of the cult
of Reason is in the effect it has had on public education."
our schools, he says, the teaching of morality disappeared, in favor
of the very different ethics of the technologies, sciences, and systems
we have had ever since. The modern polytheism has been based on
reason, rationality, linearity, and arithmetic, data-obsessed chronologies.
The new specializations, he notes, didn't exactly replace priesthoods,
but introduced even stricter, more venerable classes, and "the strictest
sort of respect for authority." If what had been imagined as "free
thinking" now had to defer to modern schools of thought, and if the
old moralities also had to defer, one new and massive hegemony remained:
"the morality of obedience to authority whose first model for
our children is the teacher and later the boss and the mass media."
describes how deference to authority – to specialist, rationalized,
corporate authority – means "commitment to obedience and success."
I requires learning to function "within this system as it stands."
Its calculus reduces everyone and everything to one, uniform bottom-line:
to love of money. He says we have thus become "more like the ancient
Romans than we know." With apparent thought for the new wars we
Americans have launched – our new militarism in Iraq, and our other
military bases even more expensively in more than a hundred other countries
– we're not only "like the Roman aristocracy measuring our virtue by
our wealth, " but, too, he says, "We're pagans rooting for empire."
his discussion of our conformist and money-based system (our militarism
never far off), White returns to the role of "spirit." He claims
(largely on his readings of St. Paul) that Jesus's main revolutionary
effect was to sanction the overthrow not only of the old system of Judaic
thinking, but also of its Ten Commandments. Everything that Jesus
stood for, says White, opposed that Old Testament system as encoded
in its Law and its priests. This overthrow aimed at primal return
– to being able to see and love the individual. In White's stress
on the embrace of the personal relations that we might have, he sounds
like Juan Santos, whom I quoted in my last (February '07) Proprietor's
Column. As Santos urged our seeing nature all around us and in
us, and seeing all peoples as our brothers and sisters, so White
says, "The human beings standing before you are not commodities even
if they do sign contracts. They are not just abstract labor
power. They are your brothers and sisters . . .."
this is the point in White – my delight peaking at his anti-institutional
voice – where I ought to have sobered up. "Brothers and sisters"
talk, from Santos, White, or anybody, may all-too-easily usher in further
euphemism, sentimentality, and kindred linguistic banalities.
Such language may slide us past the facts of actual families whose brothers
and sisters may figure very other than cheery rhetorical scrim.
had me. The momentum of his anti-corporate, pro-personal "spirit"
hooked me so that, even as I worried his "brothers and sisters" talk
might sink into more cliché, he avoided that and did something even
truer to his championing of "spirit." About to analyze a recent
movie, Office Space, he prefaced this by referral to an actual
student. He referred to a young woman who, in an office visit,
asked him if he'd seen this film. White doesn't give her a name
– not even a pseudonym – but he does refer to her. He
does implement his own suggestion that there's life outside us
– "spirit" all around us – by recognizing it in an actual person who
is a living, struggling part of his actual, daily, institutional life.
By beginning his discussion of the film by reference to her, and by
a few words about her situation, he validates his own argument about
the benefits of being pro-personal in addition to doing something else.
While being an intellectual (criticking whatever canonical evidence),
he can also recognize at least one of his own students as having some
human issues analogously apt.
things got even better.
pages farther on and White is discussing yet another film, Brokeback
Mountain. He makes some effort to note that something is happening
in the film over and above its ostensible story of doomed love affair.
While its primary plot goes on, and White describes it, he urges us
to look past it, beyond the story in its obvious descent. If we
can do this – if we can see what else is happening – we may come away
from the film, he says, with more hope and joy than plot alone warrants.
This other dimension comes by aid of the camera. Even in the decline
of the characters, it continues also to look elsewhere, as if Heath
Ledger were himself further seeing outside of his own immediate circumstances,
as if his soul were even now best mature, fully able to travel outside
of windows at the scenes and signs of ever-vital, more resplendent nature
beyond. This one character, played by Ledger, may live in the
increasingly decrepit circumstances of his aging, and in his fall in
time away from the great love affair of his youth – but the camera,
or his own attention, also insists fairly joyously otherwise.
We also see as he sees, and can rejoice in, the seasons: the waters,
foliage, and clouds of his western mountain landscapes. The camera
does this in parallel to, or beyond, whatever else is happening to him,
says White, because such views affirm his inner qualities. These
landscapes move – as if "spirit" pervades all, animates all.
"We see this," says White, in the "brilliantly angled shots of sheep
flowing over mountains, water flowing over rocks, and horses climbing
among trees." Possessed of "spirit," nothing – not time, not ill
health, not poverty – can take away the strength from that earlier,
doomed affair, the gift that what one most loved may well, in odd ways,
and key wisdom, yet live.
goes further in his reading of this film, saying director Ang Lee's
"yea to life" is not just beauty, or beautiful, but is suffused with
the wisdom for countering everyday political nastiness and oppression
better than can any political movement. As he says:
Beauty is dangerous and a challenge to oppression, but in a way that social reform
can hardly imagine. That is because most social reform movements
(change this law, protect these people, call in the feds) and not finally
says White, is not so interested in the social themes that are key to
the story's plot, as he is "in creation, in the pleasure of making."
By "making" (his italics) we may go around the merely rational,
linear, and other such chronological steps that our careers, routines,
and other givens accumulate and arrange for us. We may thus have
access to "spirit," "creation," "the pleasure of "making."
With this, however, The Spirit of Disobedience dies. White
has succeeded brilliantly for its first 43 pages, but then never again
looks out any window, nor quotes any student. The rest of the
book has him in the posture of text-and-media-obsessed professor swimming
entirely in the canonical references orthodox to his profession.
White's references after page 43 sustain him in his indignations at
our larger culture, and I happen to agree with him, but I can't help
but sorrow at the way he reverts to the same impersonal mode and rationalized
momentum that he praises director Ang Lee for having escaped.
A total reliance on his profession's orthodoxies of reference and a
reversion to plainness of verbs like some demon force takes White over
and propels him entirely in impersonal mode, righteous rationality,
and socio-political preoccupation.
behavior hurts – especially when, prior to page 43, White has so beautifully
gone out of his way to thank director Ang Lee for showing wider skill
sets, wider humanity, wider "spirit." Where Ang Lee (or his cameraman,
or his actor, Heath Ledger) pointed the way to escaping black holes,
White falls into them – and not at all as charmingly as Cervantes dueling
with his such windmills. For the rest of the book White neither
sees nor credits a single student – not even pseudonymously. It's
as if, by such omission, he himself now exemplifies how human beings
have no validity in corporate academe. White's only demonstrable
validity comes by his references entirely from those of the television
set he clearly spends much time watching, or from those older orthodoxies
named Thoreau, Marx, Blake, and Emerson. Human "spirit" gives
way to rhetorical rationality. At book's end he appends a final
section comprised of interviews with three other intellectuals – each
also only dueling with "our reigning social reality."
In the final pages of The Spirit of Disobedience, prior to the
appended three other intellectuals, White descends to the atrophy of
language that normally arrives to those similarly having fit themselves
to corporate priorities, academic or otherwise. Nearly all his
primary verbs show him repeating the anemia of the "is," "was," "are,"
and "were" forms of the "to be" infinitive. If we don't stop and
realize the extents we may be talking this way, it lets us imagine ourselves
elevated experts, authorities, opinion-givers. Such grammar positions
us as labelers. It caresses with its feelings of entitlement,
like onramps spurring us even more to judge, generalize, abstract, categorize,
pigeon-hole, level, and speed on, reducing everybody, everything.
Its cartography, like that of sprawlville, discourages human references,
which enter rarely, if at all: Forget nature or landscape.
And never mind that the primary verbs of "is" and "are" may also have
great shows of grammatical densities clustered around them– in White's
case flauntings of gerundives as sentence subjects, abundances of relative
clauses tacked on, with hinges, too, of infinitive phrases, serried
participles, and more. But these open no windows. They allow
no actual people to enter
Language, as many have observed, tracks ethics – even film language
such as Ang Lee's camera pointing out the window, away from Heath Ledger's
old age. For any who want to show the life in others –
to see "spirit" – language may serve. Essaying Differences
says so, as corporate academe says no. Even Curtis White, tenured
though he may be, briefly showed possibility of escape, however the
habits of corporate academe returned him to its black hole gravity.