Interview with Curtis White on the “Spirit of Disobedience”

Note: Curtis White generously agreed to answer a few questions that I posed about his book, The Spirit of Disobedience (2007), which my students are about to tackle. He responded to these questions via email on 23 Nov. 2007. — D. Voelker

DV: At the end of The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves (2003), you suggest that imagination and art have an important role to play in changing the world. Can you reiterate your point, briefly?

CW: My feeling about my life and the culture around it has always been that I am/we are vulnerable to the “automatic.” To stay alive is to want to reinvent yourself at every moment. In this sense I am nothing more than Nietzsche’s boy. This culture kills eros. Nietzsche’s Dionysus reasserts it not through “sex” but through the impulse to make your own world. Fascism is the fascination of the already thoroughly digested and automated. Being free from that is a spiritual, artistic and political act.

DV: Throughout this book, you draw on various intellectual, spiritual, and artistic traditions from the past. What role do you suppose that history might play in helping us to live good lives in the present?

CW: If nothing else, it allows you the reader/audience to immerse yourself in one of Nietzsche’s “free spirits.” When I listen to Beethoven (or Radiohead), I think, “This is alive in a way that we should all seek to be alive.” It allows for a depth of spirit and emotion that our “administered” reality does not. Consider Theodor Adorno’s maxim: “Life does not live.” The job of artists (who, after all, are nothing more than humanity’s proxy) is to live. That always also means resistance of the status quo.

DV: You’ve written favorably about Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club and the pragmatic tradition that he elucidates. Do you think that you drew on that pragmatic tradition for this book?

CW: What I like about the pragmatists is the Americanness of feeling that we get to make up our own world. A homemade world. A primitive world, perhaps, but richly alive. Our “cussedness.” Not a European world. But what has happened instead, beginning in the late 19th century, is that we got “incorporated.” Literally, taken within something that has essentially digested us. You can call it capitalism or corporations or fascism. It’s the administered life in education, work and church and even in our most private lives.

DV: It seems to me that disobedience is a deeply personal and potentially lonely stance. Is there some danger that disobedience can lead to misanthropy or despair?

CW: Yes. I accuse myself of both those things all the time. But it is the inevitable consequence of saying “I will not be dead in my own life” while no one else around you seems to think much about it (or so it seems) and every institution seems bent on a world of death (ranging from boredom to poverty to oppression to literal planetary destruction: all at work at present for anyone who refuses to be comforted by lies).

One thought on “Interview with Curtis White on the “Spirit of Disobedience””

  1. I like how White explains right away that he is going to disect the ideas that Americans have about ideas. He begins to pick apart the argument that there is no religion in Marxism, which I have always found hard to believe. It also picks at the Enlightenment idea that Reason explains everything and is the opposite of religion. Enlightenment ideas are very connected to religion, even though they claim not to be.
    I also like how White questions Marx’s criticism of capitalism. I have never heard anyone question the why of Marx’s argument. It’s a fresh way to look at old ideas.

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