Several months ago Theric asked me to define the radical middle — this term that I and others at AMV have been throwing around. More recently, Association for Mormon Letters President Boyd Petersen invoked the same phrase in his inaugural post on The Dawning of a Brighter Day. I’m hesitant to write manifestos or get in to long drawn out debates over what counts or doesn’t (c.f. the what-counts-as-indie debates of the ’80s and ’90s), but if we’re going to use a label we should be willing to engage it and so I’m going to do just that in three posts over three days: origins, the middle and the radical.
It all starts with Eugene England
As far as I know, the first use of the term radical middle in relation to Mormon narrative art is in Eugene England’s Dialogue essay/review “Danger on the Right! Danger on the Left! The Ethics of Recent Mormon Fiction,” which was published in Fall 1999.
In the essay, England challenges two anthologies of short Mormon fiction that had been published in the late ’90s (and, of course, champions his own anthology that had been published in the early ’90s). On page 30 he laments the fact Doug Thayer was not included in either the “right” or “left” anthology even though in England’s opinion his work would be a comfortable fit with both. He writes: “We are suffering, I fear, from a version of the old logical fallacy of the excluded middle, ripping Mormon literature apart to the remarkably similar extremes of right-wing and left-wing piety and cultural correctness and mutual exclusion.” Further down the page he adds: “…too many writers in what might be called the radical middle, who have no simplistic pro-Mormon or anti-Mormon agenda, but try to practice their craft with careful esthetic* skill and ethical insight, can’t seem to get themselves published to a Mormon audience. It’s a shame. I might even say, if I were an extremist, it’s a damn shame.”
An appropriation of a political term
I think it’s clear that England’s use of the term is meant to bring its political meaning in to the realm of Mormon letters — his use of right-wing and left-wing in the essay reinforces this. I don’t know if he further developed what he meant by using this term, although I think the essay itself as well as much of the rest of his oeuvre wonderfully illustrate (more or less) what it means to be in the middle in a radical way when it comes to Mormonism. I believe he also had radical center/radical middle political leanings as well. The radical middle (see the link to the Wikipedia in the previous sentence for a quick summary) has an interesting history in U.S. politics. It’s not necessarily something I subscribe to (although the term is squishy enough that it probably captures some of my admittedly waffling political beliefs), but I think that it’s important to understand not so much what it means, or what policies and political philosophies it encompasses, as why it is specifically deployed in order to understand it’s appeal to Eugene England and his descendants in Mormon letters.
Ross Perot’s Reform Party (at least its early years) and 1996 presidential run is an example of an eruption of the radical middle in to mainstream electoral politics. This is not to say that Ross Perot’s presidential platform equates the radical center in U.S. politics. It can be a difficult thing to define — see for example this list of political thinkers grappling with the idea of centrism/radical center/radical middle. But at its core is a sense of being in between, but in a way that’s energetic.
The radical middle, then, is most often an expression of frustration with two dominant parties/ways/philosophies. It is reactive (which brings with it the weaknesses of reactivity); it is amorphous; it is rather self-conscious and self-important. It is in flux and changes in relation to the two parties that it reacts against. It is always in danger of crystallizing its own orthodoxies and pieties. It is an often uneasy mix of populism and elitism and self-righteousness. It is accused of being wishy-washy and over-optimistic and idealistic by the left- and right-wing. It is anti-authoritarian and anti-Utopian.
All this may or may not transfer over when used in relation to the field of Mormon letters, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the political roots of the term. And as a sidenote, a sector of British Islam uses the term — see The Radical Middle Way — to articulate a fascinating form of modern-day cultural, theological and intellectual form of moderate Islam. The adjectives used on the page I link to — revolutionary, dynamic, proactive, relevant, young, open, creative, positive, inclusive — show, I think, the appeal of this way of defining a movement (we’ll get more in to this with my next two posts).
Irreantum and appropriateness
I can’t find any use of the term “radical middle” since England’s essay until the AMVers took it up, but I do want to point out another attempt to articulate that middle way that has been influential. When Chris Bigelow and Benson Parkinson first launched Irreantum in 2001, Parkinson posted an essay to the AML Website that he had previously written for the AML-List back in 1997 (which predates England’s radical middle essay). Titled the “Three Kinds of Appropriateness,” it briefly defines the qualities of over-safe, didactic fiction and angry, anti-institutional Church and pushing-the-content-envelope fiction (and labels them respectively as “completely appropriate” and “shockingly appropriate”) and charts a course between those two that without much exception defines fairly well the course that Irreantum (Ben is a co-founder of the magazine and influenced its original tone and parameters) has taken over its history as well as radical middle publishers like Zarahemla Books and Parables Publishing. It also influences the approach we take here at A Motley Vision and works that navigate it well are those that are most celebrated here (and by the Association for Mormon Letters). There are, of course, exceptions, but anything that gets too didactic (on either side of the spectrum) and that either elides reality too much or on the other hand gets too explicit or touches certain taboos (e.g. offensive stuff about the temple or general authorities) tends to be spurned or simply ignored.
As with any ideological space there are fluctuations in the boundaries over time and differences in opinion among individuals, but, generally, when it comes to the world of Mormon letters this middle way — which Ben Parkinson terms the the broadly appropriate — has been the aim of those working to legitimize Mormon narrative art.
The radical middle at present
I can’t speak for why Boyd chose to invoke the term radical middle in his post kicking off the new AML blog, but it also has had some currency here at AMV, and while I think it’s somewhat obvious why that’s the case, I’m going to explore the middle and the radical of the radical middle in the next two posts in the hopes that forcing me to articulate it and you all to discuss it will further the concept. More tomorrow.
* I’m not sure why England prefers esthetic over aesthetic.