Poles of Attraction

A pole of attraction is some collection of similar things to each other, and it is a local winner-take-all phenomenon. For example, the primordial dust around a star, even if initially uniformly distributed, will, over the course of eons, tend to form clumps. Matter attracts matter, and the biggest clumps attract the most matter, eventually forming planets. Planets are poles of attraction for matter.

A human population, even if uniformly spread across the countryside, will tend to aggregate in cities. Uniformly-spread dialects clump into discrete languages.

Similarly, there is no uniform distribution of animal characteristics. There are species. There are some groupings of characteristics which are highly successful; all animals in a given niche either tend toward those poles, or are displaced by one.

What it means to be a pole of attraction is that the center is celebrated and the periphery nurtured in the image of the center. Parents are obeyed and children are taught. Saints are revered and church members worship. The rich and famous are celebrated, and the poor work to enable the possibility of wealth and fame.

The reason to talk about poles of attraction is that they uncontroversially exist, and some describe human phenomena. There might be cases of human phenomena that are better understood as poles of attraction than with other narratives.

Conceptual Poles of Attraction

Western civilization is a conceptual pole of attraction. Civilization is arguably not its infrastructure, but the shared beliefs that its members hold. Ideas from across the planet and across history arrive here and are integrated, to the extent that they can be.

Western civilization can be thought of as a meta-pole; it contains other poles, like capitalism and science. All new ideas must make sense in one of the Western poles, or else they are invisible.

Here, it is important to point out what is not a conceptual pole of attraction: an anti-pole. An anti-pole is not the opposite of a pole. It is merely a satellite of a pole. This counter-intuitive idea requires some discussion.

It might be said that anti-fascism is ‘attractive’ because many people have participated in it and have been willing to fight for it. But this is the use of ‘attraction’ in a remarkable way, namely, a shared repulsion. If repulsion is attraction, then attraction has no meaning.

Anti-fascists arguably won the European war in 1945, but they did not replace fascism. Anti-fascists who fought in the war went on to work in political parties that had policy platforms unrelated to fascism. The reason is that anti-fascism isn’t for anything and is therefore not a pole of attraction.

Another example is that of anti-pesticide foods. While the concept predated hippies, it was hippies who popularized the idea and who also did the practical work of making organic produce commercially available. They did not campaign against supermarkets selling pesticide-laced food. They simply worked on what they wanted: organic produce and its promotion. At the outset, this was seen as kooky and fey, but fifty years later, their success is beyond controversy: organic produce is available in even the largest of supermarket chains. They did not fight capitalism, and they did not have to.

The Periphery of a Pole of Attraction

On the periphery of every pole of attraction is everything distantly related, but poorly integrated.

This could mean a new style of art or a cooperative grocery developed in a low-income neighborhood. It could be a new religion recognized only in the founder’s living room. The periphery is where something new may develop without threat of being assimilated or cannibalized by the old. The new thing needn’t appeal to existing paradigms to be understood.

Apple Computer company is famous for having been started in the shadow of Silicon Valley computer giants, namely in a garage. Albert Einstein, who was unable to find employment in a university, wrote his seminal papers in physics while working as a patent clerk. None of the early Greek philosophers had any institutional credentials; they taught in city parks, such at the Academy and the Lyceum.

The periphery of a pole of attraction is paradoxically a critical part of the pole. It is how the pole renews itself and how it evolves.

Too Close to the Sun

When an alternative movement begins close to the center, it risks assimilation. An example is the goth scene of the nineties. Initially, it was an underground subculture, visible only after hours, and primarily in underground nightclubs, record stores, and bedrooms. Its fledgling moments as a movement, however, occurred on national television, with enthusiastic support by record labels.

To outside observers, the scene looked like a self-regenerating Halloween party, and that was how it was reported in the press. A self-fulfilling prophecy was created, in which reports of silliness attracted silly people, and those people attracted more like them. Whatever was truly outside the mainstream was evacuated.

Avant-garde

Highly-integrated people cannot make sense of the avant-garde, and the evidence is that much of what is commercialized as avant-garde makes sense to no one.

Jackson Pollock was an American painter who acquired notoriety for literally throwing paint on canvas. One of his paintings had a selling price of $200 million.

It might seem disheartening to realise how incomprehensible adoption criteria are, but it means that the game is not predictable and chances are still to be had.

Meaninglessness

Interstitial Spaces

Beyond the periphery are the interstitial spaces between poles. Desert between settlements. An unpublished writer typing away in his bedroom. These are zones of complete freedom — and complete meaninglessness: what happens there is not related to what happens elsewhere.

Deep Integration

It’s worth pointing out what most people experience as meaninglessness: living inside a pole of attraction, and being so highly integrated, that one is simply filling a pre-existing slot, reciting received beliefs, performing prescribed duties. When one cannot contribute in any unique way, one feels like a soulless cog in a soulless machine.

Independence and Meaning

The conclusion is singular: Anyone who wants both independence and meaning must create his own pole of attraction. This is a logical and unavoidable conclusion of order — not of history, and not even of civilization.

In order to create one’s own pole of attraction, one must have something attractive to offer. Saying ‘no’ to something means one is to be in orbit around that thing. Saying ‘no’ is not an alternative. ‘No’ is not a new order of anything.

A pole of attraction entails management of similarity.

The acquisition of one’s native language is a case in point. Children begin by communicating with nonverbal vocalizations. The parents respond to the communicative attempts with language. The child is not punished for the vocalizations. The child naturally begins to use words. What is interesting is that toddlers ignore attempts by adults to correct their speech. They converge quite naturally on the adult language without intention. The adult speakers are taken to be the models and the peripheral speakers are nurtured.

This seems obvious enough, but note that similarity is not universally managed with the celebration of the core and the nurturing of the periphery. Catholic nuns beat Catholic children. Here, the method of nurture is baffling, but a religion encourages the beating of children, shouldn’t the children be from a hostile religion?

Punks criticize each other for not being punk enough. Ideological purity is a theme where the results of a positive project are not.

Progressives often suffer from in-fighting, precisely on the eve of success.

This is simply not how to manage a pole of attraction. Members must support each other and they must campaign for their common goals. The only other project to work on is dependence and/or meaninglessness. This choice is unavoidable.

We often complain that there is nothing we can do to change the world. Logic tells us that there is basically only one (non-revolutionary) way to change the world, and that we must do it.

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