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Open Letter to – or, about – Curtis White

 upon his publication of
The Spirit of Disobedience:
Resisting the Charms of Fake Politics,
Mindless Consumption, and the Culture of Total Work

(PoliPointPress, 2007)

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 Bloomington/Normal Illinois.)

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."

White's 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."

Rationality 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."

In all 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."

White 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."

After 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 . . .."

Maybe 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.

But White 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.

Then things got even better.

A few 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.

White 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
movements can hardly imagine.  That is because most social reform movements
are rational (change this law, protect these people, call in the feds) and not finally

Ang Lee, 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.

Such 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.

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