Theater in a Crowded Fire

As the Burning Blog’s occasional religion and spirituality blogger, I would be remiss if I failed to mention a couple recent posts about Burning Man on other blogs and online mags. However, in this case, I must admit that my task also falls into the category of (cough) blatant self promotion, as I am the author of the interview and guest post in questions (and, coughs again, the book+dvd that inspired them).

The first interview was featured in an excellent online magazine called Religion Dispatches, which seeks to engage diverse, progressive, and academic perspectives on religion in an accessible public forum. My piece (which the editors titled Burning Man: Religious Event or Sheer Hedonism) set out to summarize some of the key ideas in my book–namely, why does Burning Man (sometimes) smell like religion? And, then what does that say about some of the directions that religion seems to be evolving these days? Broadly, I encourage folks to reconsider the concepts of “religion” and “spirituality” as defined less by matters of institution, doctrine, and belief and more by questions of ritual, practice, and experience. From this perspective, Burning Man can be seen as an exemplar of the extent to which spiritual feelings and desires often emerge in settings not traditionally defined as “religious,” and I argue that this should cause us to stop and think about what we mean by the terms “religion,” “ritual,” and “spirituality” in the first place. Cross-culturally speaking, I think the ideas and experiences which we attempt to describe with such language are much larger and more complicated than is popularly understood.

The other essay was a recent guest post on one of my favorite blogs, The Wild Hunt, which is widely considered to be among the best sources for news and commentary on contemporary Paganism. Here, I dig down a bit deeper on a related set of questions about the relationships between Burning Man and NeoPaganism. In this context, I like to distinguish between uppercase Paganism (as a specific family of religious traditions) and lowercase paganism (as an underlying, primal “root religion” that underlies all global religions and that also pops up in festive ritualistic events like Burning Man.)

Finally, I was also interviewed last week by writer and longtime Burner Erik Davis on his Expanding Mind podcast. Along with his co-host Maja D’Aoust, we had a delightful conversation about (you guessed it) Burning Man and its religious elements.

The book itself is the product of over 10 years of participating in and observing Burning Man and its surrounding culture–including numerous interviews and an online survey. (And who knows, maybe some readers here contributed to this research?) I wrote the book because I wanted to tell the story of Burning Man (or, at least, my version of that story), and because I think the event has something important to teach people about the nature of spiritual expression and experience in late modernity.

Finally, since I suspect some readers may wonder if I am abusing Burning Man’s anti-commodification ethos by linking to commercial websites and, well, pitching my project, please believe me when I state that academic publishing typically runs at a loss and academic authors make very little money. Since I’m a big nerd for religion and anthropology, I see this book (and DVD) as my particular art form and as my way of participating in this community. I’m honored to have the venue of this blog to tell folks about it. And should you want more info about me or my project, I’ve put together a simple page here.

Coming soon: a brief recap of other recently published books that cast scholarly eyes on Burning Man.

About the author: Lee Gilmore

Lee Gilmore blogs on her mainstay obsessions: culture, ritual, and spirituality. A Bay Area expat, she teaches Religion and Anthropology at California State University, Northridge and currently resides in LA. She is the author of Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man (forthcoming 2010) and co-editor (with Mark Van Proyen) of AfterBurn: Reflections on Burning Man (2005). While serving on the Media Team from 1997-2001, she met and married the father of her now 2-year old future Burner. She made her first pilgrimage to the playa in 1996 and hasn't been quite the same ever since.

6 thoughts on “Theater in a Crowded Fire

  • Hi Lee, thanks for the book recommendation – I am currently reading your PhD thesis (which I purchased online through COPAC for around 40 dollars – I hope you will have received some percentage for that?!). Your thesis is really interesting – and useful to me, because I’m writing a chapter on Burning Man for my own thesis which looks at the influence of Burning Man on Boutique festival culture in the UK. You may be aware that burns are happening with increasing frequency at UK festivals. These are not official regional burn events – some are open about their link to Burning Man (for example, the Secret Garden Party in Cambridgeshire). What is interesting is that these burns do not always take on a ritualistic form as they do in Black Rock City. David Best’s temple burn at Ireland’s Electric Picnic, for example, was a spectacular but certainly a profane experience. Though the UK crowd might not yet engage with these burns in a particularly spiritual way, there is some significance in the immediacy of the experience and the Burning Man influence seems to be spreading… Anyway, I will be buying your book, so I thank you in advance of another interesting read! Roxy :-)

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  • Hi there…I just wanted to suggest a different take on all of this with a newer book of inspiration. I recently happened across it, and I must say…it’s changing my life. “Being Ourself” by Ty Clement is so much more than just about being yourself, it’s about being one with all that is, what Clement calls “Ourself”. This book is inviting, stimulating, inspirational and awe inspiring…I’ve read all the others, and this one begins where they all leave off. Anyway, if your inclined, look for it on Amazon…it’s there, and it’s worth buying. For everyone you know. :o ) Peace!

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  • A Contribution and a Critique…

    As a long time citizen of Black Rock City (missed only 2 years from 1995 to 2010), I look forward to reading this book. I specifically tried to inject some more ritual into my activities relating to the festival while part of the “Man Crew”. I took scraps from the build of the Burning Man figure and had them branded. I called these talismans ‘builder’s blocks’ and suggested that the crew distribute them as special gifts with a specific set of instructions. The recipient should carry the block around with them during the even and after the actual burn, throw the block into the firey remains of the Man while uttering the following ‘incantation’ as it were “What came from the Man, I give back to the Man.”

    I’m not sure if those directions actually accompanied the blocks, or if they were actually followed, but it was a fun ‘performance art’ project none the less.

    Now the Critique…

    I’m sure the book will be an enjoyable read, but I’m surprised that in this day and age of total information overload, the picture on page 31 of the sample chapter fails to credit the artists responsible for the two vehicles. The Seattle theme camp Flight to Mars is well known on the Playa and a simple call out for the identity of the responsible parties would have turned up that info. http://www.flight2mars.com/

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