So now that I’ve explored the origins of the term radical middle in relation to Mormon arts and culture, and teased out some of the issues related to the middle, it’s time to get radical. In the first post, I mentioned a radical movement in British Islam and noted the adjectives (creative, positive, revolutionary …) that were being used in describing this Radical Middle Way for Islam. What those adjectives indicate to me is that radical is meant to show that the middle is a dynamic place to be; it has energy; it’s in motion. It’s rising.
Now, radical is generally not the most welcome term among American Mormons. It smacks to much of the Left and/or of the political fringe. This is why it’s important to confine the term the radical middle to Mormon arts and culture and emphasize that there is room for artists, critics and readers with a multitude of political leanings (assuming, of course, that their politics isn’t the sole thing driving their artistic activity). Indeed, I think by pairing radical and middle and applying it to Mormon arts, England and anyone else who invokes the term is reinscribing its’ meaning, appropriating the adjective for our own use and changing it in the process. I’m a fan of such appropriation by an ethnic group/sub-culture. But what do we really mean by radical and how does it play out in Mormon arts and culture? The short answers are: nobody has really said much, and it doesn’t really. So unlike with the middle where I was able to explore it in depth in a descriptive way, I’m going to have to get speculative and prescriptive with the radical. But first…
Radical history and doctrine
Whatever our position in American society now (that is the tenuous semi-mainstreamed stability achieved through the embrace of the meritocracy and of alliance with conservative politics [allowing, of course, for the few liberals and crunchy cons and libertarians]), it must not be forgotten that we have radical roots. From the restorationist claims of Joseph Smith to the communitarian projects of Brigham Young, and, yes, the scandalousness of polygamy — whether you believe all that to be a concatenation of American (not forgetting the European streams of thought behind them) influences (with a touch of native genius) or the opening of the heavens and streaming of restored truths, the radical, as in the challenge to the status quo, roots of Mormonism run deep. And are the wellspring of latter-day Mormon art.
So radical, in fact, that our literal and/or spiritual forefathers and mothers were cast out from society, pushed from their city on a hill, the city they had in their American spirit had raised out of a swamp, pushed to the edge of the map to leave a trail of graves until they reached their refuge in the desert, their State of Deseret, which was then (before the people could truly become an ethnies) reabsorbed in to the body politic (and economic, which is what fundamentally it’s almost always about). Yes, I know that this is a florid way of putting it and that there was a complex web of motives behind the mobs and that the Saints were not without fault either. But the point is: radical (perhaps even free radicals — and perhaps that was part of the problem). Although the way of life and even prevailing attitudes of most Mormons has now become thoroughly middle class suburban America, and even with the institutionalizing and the correlating, the doctrines and history of Mormonism challenged and sometimes still challenges the status quo. Which means that invoking of the radical in radical middle kinda actual means something and can be claimed a native part of Mormon identity. In fact, in linguistics, radical refers to the root form of a word, and indeed the origins of the word are in a Latin word meaning “having roots.” Roots we have. The radical in the radical middle is a reminder of that.
But yes, of course, much of what we mean by radical is the desire for change, reform and even for pushing to the extreme or to the limits.
When used in connection to the creation and reception of art, then, radical suggests experimentation with forms and modes and genres. It means not settling for the current dominant ways of narrative expression. Or playing with them in such a way to critique or undermine or reconfigure them in a way that resonates with the radical middle audience.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that one blindly follows the avant-garde. Indeed, the avant-garde per se has been thoroughly co-opted by and entrenched with the elite and even more its modes of expression are quickly adopted and deployed the marketers, the cool hunters and brand managers. I mentioned the blog Hilobrow in my section on the middlebrow in the second post in this series. That blog celebrates both the avant-garde and the pop (from Bjork to Britney Spears). It seems to me that’s a peculiarly good way of playing the strengths and weaknesses of those two schools of art off of each other. On the other hand, I’m not calling for the repudiation of the middlebrow. Indeed, I think that it’s clear that certain Mormon values and ways of life are reactionary (although again, let’s not forget our radical roots and become thoroughly bourgeois). Of course, once you get post-post-modern, the reactionary may very well be the avant-garde. I could keep going but at some point it just ends up a circle (one eternal round?) so let me end with this: the radical middle should beg, borrow and steal from (and infect) everybody and be open to every form, mode and genre. We can’t afford to be snooty about anything, to turn away any idea (while, of course, demanding craftsmanship).
Pairing radical with middle is, as I mention above, an attempt to bring energy to the middle. So often the energy is on the poles. This is a problem any movement haves, the energized are often those on the extreme. There is a danger to radical energy. Thus when finding the energy in the radical, we should find simply movement and activity and passion — not zeal and rabidness.
Another danger of the radical is, the danger of inauthenticity, of radical as vogue, as fashion. See for example radical chic. If you are going to, for example, challenge the status quo with the forms of your art then it has to happen out of genuine passion, out of authenticity, rather than as a pose. Now one man’s pose, is another’s whole life. And in this day and age authenticity is almost a false concept, a pose in and of itself (c.f. The Believer) . I say almost. One of the advantages of Mormonism is we have some touchstones to keep us real (our history, our doctrine, our audiences). We also have commandments about charity and humility and consecration. Realistically, not every move made by the radical middle is going to appear authentic to every member of the middle or the right or the left or what have you. But the beauty of discipleship is that it requires energy and authenticity, and I would argue, it also requires a deep engagement with change (which is why we can’t ignore the radical forms/modes piece of the radical).
Movements are always organizing. In some cases (in all cases, really), the organization becomes an impediment to the work. Mormonism has a history of radical organization. And I’m not just talking about the attempts at instituting the United Order. I think that the grand failures there often blinds us to all the other very successful cooperative efforts by Mormons. And not just economic activity (ZCMI, Zion’s Bank) — from Brigham Young’s sending members on art missions to Susa Gates Young and the Young Woman’s Journal, the early history of Mormon narrative art is one of cooperative effort and literary cliques.
In general, the activity of Mormon narrative art tends to follow models found elsewhere (from regional literary journals to indie filmmaking to Christian bookstores and publishers) with varying levels of success. I think that’s fine in terms of creating a certain base level of competency. I also think that there’s room for experimentation with more radical attempts at organization and even types of authoring. How do you accomplish something truly radical middle if your modes of production are not only not cutting edge, but generally behind everybody else? Whether its avant garde or retrograde, I think this is an area where’s there room for some experimentation. I may be completely wrong here. But the unique properties of Mormonism holds out some tantalizing possibilities. One of my first posts to the AML-List many years ago was on the possibility for collaborative writing, and this is an area I’ve continued to explore here at AMV. I don’t have any brilliant solutions, but I do want to keep this as an open topic for discussion.
One other comment here: it may seem flip of me to go off on radical organization, when many of the main radical middle entities are struggling just to reach sustainability. But that’s exactly why this is an important component of the radical middle. Indeed, it seems to me that what’s most healthy in the radical middle right now is a network of individuals who believe in the cause. What is most needed is ways of maximizing the energies and collaborations and output of this network and fostering the development of new voices and talent and incorporating them in to the web of radical middle efforts. I’ve told several of my co-bloggers this, but I will kill off the AMV brand (but not the archives — don’t fear in that regard) if we reach a point where it’s just no fun or not worthwhile anymore and/or there’s a project or projects that fill the same space AMV does, but better. Which is simply to say: it’s about the people and what they create and about the optimal use of resources. It’s not about the sales or the number of unique hits or the media mentions or the awards or the literary respectability. Which is not to say that any of those things are bad, per se. I’m still going to submit to the Irreantum fiction contest and talk about the Whitney Awards here at AMV, etc. etc. But for the middle to truly be radical, it needs to resist inertia and chasing after fleeting approbations.
As I mention above, the radical challenges the status quo. As Eugene England models in the essay that brought this series of posts about, it engages with and critiques the poles. Theoretically, by virtue of its position in the middle, the radical middle should be well-equipped able to provide informed, radical — as in reformist/energetic/thoroughgoing — criticism of all the surrounding discourses. But it can’t really do so without engagement with those discourses, without some knowledge of them. Otherwise it’s the lazy, inflated rhetoric, the tired tropes and stereotypes that Mormons of all stripes know so well.
In addition, I firmly believe that the radical middle is strongly positioned to not only do what England does and point out the danger on the left and the right of Mormon culture, but also to provide unique, trenchant criticism of American culture (and others as well).
The radical middle
The devil is always in the details (and as England reminds us that B.H. Roberts kicked off Mormon literature with the fact that the Devil must be given his due), and no blog post can accurately capture all the issues and activities and creative works involved in the radical middle, faithful realism, broadly appropriate wing of Mormon art. I also don’t intend for this series of posts to be the only or final word on the radical middle. I do hope, however, that some of you have found this exercise helpful. Again: this is no manifesto. I reserve the right to change my opinion and even distance myself from the term. But for now, I think if any label represents what I am trying to do and what I value in Mormon art, this is it. This radical middle.