Organization vs. Creativity
How the edge becomes the center and the center becomes the edge in marginal and mainstream culture
The Ekman spiral is a pattern repeated over and over in nature. One example is the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb. It can also be found in the whorls of water passing by rocks in a stream, or wind as it flows over a line of trees. As something compressed expands into an umbrella shape, the outer billows are pulled back into the central column.
I am starting to see a parallel in society. I live in what sociologists might call marginal groups of society. Nomadic hippies, New Age spiritualists, and neo-tribal Burners have all rejected at least some of the traditional mainstream lifestyle. Perhaps their religion is different, or the way they make money, or how much money they make, or how they dress. Sometimes they are trustafarians, dressing in dirty clothes and hitchhiking even though they come from a wealthy family. They live on the edges of society rather than in the center, energetically and sometimes physically, finding niches where they are allowed to express themselves the way they want.
After living in these sub-cultures for the last fifteen years or so, what I’m starting to see is how what used to be on the edge is slowly becoming mainstream. Music that seven years ago was underground and edgy can now be heard in airports and on TV commercials. People with piercings and tattoos have far more options in finding work than they did thirty years ago. Marijuana is becoming legal in more and more states, and culturally acceptable in even more places. Eventually elements of our edge culture make their way into TV and movies, often skewed, yet still becoming acknowledged as part of the fabric of society.
Power often comes from the marginal edges. Two classic examples are Jesus’ first followers and just about every wave of immigrants that came to the U.S.. Like in the Ekman spiral, there is a constant shift of power following the birth-death-rebirth cycle. As that which was marginal becomes mainstream, new marginal groups are formed, who are the seeds of tomorrow’s mainstream.
I wonder why this is. I suspect it has something to do with the calcification of structure in the mainstream. When things are accepted, with years or decades or centuries of history, they tend to ossify. I think size matters, too- organizing millions of people takes more organization and more structure than organizing thousands. This structure and organization, like a fine, strong skeleton, does a good job of supporting society and allowing large numbers of people to survive. Structure and organization, however, are not always the best environments for creativity.
Creativity is something new pulled out of the void of chaos. It makes sense to me that marginalized groups, with fewer numbers, have more access to creativity than larger groups. I have witnessed how Burning Man has been affected by its success- as more and more people want to come participate, Black Rock City must become more and more controlled, with more rules, more traffic laws, more committees, and more meetings. The very freedom to be endlessly creative and expressive is being curbed by its own popularity. Already, many of the old-school Burners have moved on, chafing against the changes and the restraints, finding the new place where they can be creative and express themselves in the way they desire, perhaps forming the seed of what will grow in popularity and become mainstream ten or twenty years from now.
The polarity between mainstream and marginal reminds me of the relationship between lions and antelope. On the surface, they seem antagonistic. I’ve heard plenty of mockery and lack of respect and dissonance between members of mainstream and marginal cultures. They seem like enemies because of their differences. Lions and antelope seem like enemies because the lions kill the antelope to live. Truthfully, though, the antelope population benefits from the lions killing off some of the herd, and if all the lions were killed off, the whole ecosystem would suffer from over-grazing.
Similarly, the surface enmity between mainstream and marginal groups masks a deeper symbiotic relationship. Mainstream groups need the marginal groups to be creative and bring new things into the world. The marginal groups, even if they are living off of the equivalent of the crumbs and table scraps of the mainstream, would have an even harder time surviving in nature without even those few crumbs that civilization provides. Rather than being able to focus their time and energy on creating the next new thing, their time would either be taken up by basic survival, if the mainstream didn’t exist at all, or by rule-making and organization, if they were the mainstream.
As the edge becomes the middle, the middle becomes the edge, endless swirls and whorls repeating themselves over and over. I recommend checking it out next time you see water flowing past a stationary object. It’s endlessly fascinating.