For the past few weeks I’ve been struggling with something Chip Conley said at Burning Man’s Global Leadership Conference. (You can read my thoughts about his entire presentation here.)
“The more digital we get,” he said, “the more ritual we need.”
I jumped those words. My heart pounded. “Yeah!” I remember thinking, with an exclamation point and everything. I wrote it down in my notebook and put a little star next to it – my shorthand for “this is worth a whole article on its own.”
Larry Harvey has been talking about just this kind of thing for years. He even insisted that the following line be inserted in to Burning Man’s charter: the organization places “embodied ritual before symbolism.”
Which is awesome, to the extent it makes any sense at all.
But getting excited by something like that is a lot easier than explaining what it means, or why it’s true.
Or if it’s true.
The most prominent counter-argument against what Conley and Harvey may be getting at was probably written by … well … me, in a 2011 post called “Burning Man Doesn’t Do ‘Ritual,’ and probably never will.”
So obviously I might not be 100 percent on board with this concept that so excites me.
I stand by what I wrote in that post. But I also think Conley has hit on something vitally important, that needs to be explored – and that Burning Man may be the most advanced form of that “something important” we have.
We are becoming increasingly disembodied as we live out more and more of our lives in virtual mediums. The end result, according to the mad prophets of the digital age, will be the uploading of consciousness into virtual environments. We will – if you believe them – arguably cease to be human. Even if you don’t believe them, the combination of a culture of instant gratification with an ever-expanding digital universe is pushing our humanity towards a cliff while screaming that we can fly.
The more we try to walk away from our humanity, the closer we get to a heart attack. Rates of depression are up, up, up. Rates of other mental illnesses – skyrocketing. We increasingly take pills in order to get through the normal anxieties of living, many of us are terrified of going anywhere without our cell phones, and suicide rates appear to be spiking.
Now maybe all this is just separation anxiety. Maybe as we enter a world where even more people spend even more of their time behind screens, all this existential terror we’re feeling will fall away and the cool, smooth, nirvana of the singularity will wash over us. It could be just like a beer commercial.
But historically the more we’ve tried to change human nature, the more dearly we’ve paid for it. Life, it turns out, is nothing like an advertisement. The move from hunter-gathering societies to agriculture certainly had its advantages, but it’s created issues that are still with us 10,000 years later. The move from agriculture to industrialization absolutely had its upside … I’m a fan … but it has created massive complications that we’re still living with.
The move into a truly digital world has a great deal to recommend it, even if uploading our consciousnesses into the cloud is just a pipe dream, but it will also carry with it serious side-effects. The harder we push, the stronger they’ll be.
One obvious side effect: we are more and more separated by the technologies that connect us. As MIT professor Sherry Turkle has written:
“Human relationships are rich and they’re messy and they’re demanding. And we clean them up with technology. And when we do, one of the things that can happen is that we sacrifice conversation for mere connection. We short-change ourselves. And over time, we seem to forget this, or we seem to stop caring.”
Ritual, Chip Conley and Larry Harvey tell us, is a solution. A way to stop short-changing ourselves in the digital age.
But the specifics are vague.
So … what … we should all spend more time in church? Salute the flag? Eat together on the Sabbath?
As individuals? Sure, if you like. But as a burner culture? That’s not us. We’re never going to all hold hands and sing “Larry loves me this I know,” and anyone who suggests we should can actually give it a try for as long as they like while the rest of us go to Burning Man.
As I wrote two years ago (and stand by): both sublimation and anti-authoritarianism are key elements of the Burner psyche. We gladly shackle ourselves to art and whimsy: we spend hundreds of hours and buckets of sweat and thousands of dollars on an art car or a camp or an art installation, for no reward except the opportunity to share it with the community. Over and over again.
But anyone who tries to make sense of it all for the rest of us – who claims they have the authority to stand up and tell Burners what their sacrifice means – is going to get verbally thrashed within an inch of his rhetorical life. Probably for years. It’s not so much that we’d object to the idea of a common meaning as we’d object to any authority able to provide one. One could easily see Burning Man as a congregation of pre-splintered groups.
Put this together and it shows that Burner culture will never have common rituals in the sense that they are generally understood: shared activities with a shared meaning that we all submit to. We’ll submit to art and culture and whimsy … but not to a shared meaning with any authority capable of interpreting it. We may come to the desert to lose ourselves, but we’re never surrendering our ability to make our own meaning.
So there’s a kind of ritual Burning Man can’t offer. But clearly there’s a kind of ritual that we can. I mean … a big wooden man burns every year. A temple burns every year. 50,000 people make a pilgrimage to the desert that has taken on a surprisingly spiritual dimension. That’s not nothing.
The question then is: what effect does ritual have left when you take the sense of shared meaning away? What does it offer?
The disadvantages arise quickly: one of the reasons it’s so hard to talk about Burning Man is that there’s no elevator pitch. We can’t say “Well, it’s about (INSERT MEANING HERE) and that’s why we burn a man in the desert after riding around art cars for a week naked. Which now makes perfect sense to you.”
There are, instead, 50,000 reasons – and counting – only a few of which are really convincing.
The lack of a shared meaning will also make Burner culture impossible to codify – which can be a downside for a movement intent on changing the world. No set of laws or rules that can be fairly applied can be made from a culture that can’t be codified. There will never be a “Burning Man” jurisprudence, or even rules for tipping a stripper. What it means to be a Burner, let alone a “good Burner” (if that’s even a category) will always have to be decided in the moment, rather than sketched out in advance.
But … isn’t that what we want?
Without a shared meaning all you’re left with is the experience as it is in the moment – and that offers an entirely different kind of opportunity. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, for example, has argued forcefully for an appreciation of poetry that never asks “what does the poem mean.”
In fact, if I may quote him at length (and, hopefully, not violate copyright), I think his poem “Introduction to Poetry” makes a salient point here:
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
A shared meaning may be crucial if you want a ritual to lead to a universal, codify-able, culture – but if you want the strongest possible aesthetic experience, meaning can be goddamn over-rated.
It’s true for aesthetics – it may be true for community as well. Ritual without shared meaning cannot lead to a community with clearly understood rules and boundaries: but it can lead to extraordinary shared experiences.
If we’re looking for a chance to get out from behind the technology that we connect with all day and have human moments with one another, right here, right now, in this moment, in this place … Burning Man ritual can offer that.
If we’re looking for a chance to express ourselves in unconventional ways to other human beings in an environment where we won’t be condemned for taking a risk … that’s the kind of ritual Burning Man can offer.
In a time when we are increasingly digital, the rituals of Burner culture offer us a way to be more human – and to do it without having to agree to a set of political positions or social conventions.
As long as Burning Man remains immediate, participatory, and radically inclusive – as long as there’s no loyalty oath to any position taken at the door – the rituals that Burner culture develops may very well serve as a welcome antidote to a culture that tries to turn us into social network profiles and shopping preferences.
Whoever you are, your humanity is welcome here. We’ll leave defining it to you.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com.