Burning Man and the psychology of the “exotic”

And this represents ... what ... to the stranger?
And this represents … what … to the stranger?

Having reached the point where any development from Burning Man provokes a media storm (we’re just a few years away from “Larry Harvey sneezes, stock market slides”), I can’t help but wonder:  what is the Burning Man shaped hole in the western psyche?

That might not make any sense.  I apologize.  It’s dark out all the time now, which adds a lazy, self-indulgent, streak to my writing.  Like this paragraph.  Completely unnecessary.  Yet here we are.  I know better.  Ah well.  What’re ya gonna do?  To fix this I’d have to edit the first paragraph, and who has that kind of energy?

Let me explain, in a drawn-out, round-about, kind of way, what I’m asking.  Those of you who aren’t charmed by unnecessary digressions might want to skip to this article about sex in the U.S. Senate.  Salaciously speaking, that’s the high point of this post.  I’m not going to mention fellating a U.S. Senator again.

In his magisterial new book “Anti-Judiasm,” historian David Nirenberg traces … not exactly the “history” of anti-Semitism, but the various shapes it has taken over the last 3,000 years.  What he demonstrates is not just that a lot of people have hated Jews for a lot of stupid reasons, but that the justification for the hatred has often taken the shape of whatever was supposed to be wrong with Western culture at the time.

When medieval theologians wanted to condemn their rivals as being too literally minded, they said they were repeating the mistake of the Jews, whose problem was that they couldn’t see the truth behind the rules.  When both kings and rebels wanted to condemn their enemies as greedy and malicious, they said they were just like the Jews – whose problem wasn’t theological at all, just greed.  When Shakespeare wanted to critique capitalism, he made its ambassador a Jew, whose problem (like capitalism’s) is that he put all his considerable brilliance in the service of his lesser urges; yet  when the German idealists wanted to criticize their opponents, they “Judiazed” them, because the problem with the Jews had been their lack of critical reasoning skills.

As Anthony Grafton (reviewing Nirenberg) writes:

“(I)maginary Jews have served—and still serve—an extraordinary range of purposes.  Like the topics of ancient rhetoric or the harmony of the spheres, they have played a whole series of central roles in the drama of Western culture … Over the centuries, imaginary Jews have found their places, sometimes vital ones, in some of the loftiest intellectual edifices ever raised. Surprisingly often they have been the caryatids: the pillars on which everything else rests.”

The inescapable conclusion is that Jews have been the short-hand in the western psyche for whatever it is we see as pathological about our own culture.  Whenever we’ve wanted to point out what is rotten at our own core, someone has been ready to explain how the Jews exemplify it.  For whatever reasons, the shape they’ve historically occupied in the Western psyche is “the rot within” – whatever that may be.

Ugly.  Very ugly.  But a fascinating phenomenon, and not a singular occurrence.

In his extraordinary 1998 book “Prisoners of Shangri-La,” Donald Lopez – one of the Western world’s foremost authorities on Tibetan culture – made an argument very similar to Nirenberg’s, except that it swings in the other direction.

The West, Lopez demonstrates, has never been good at looking at Tibet for what it actually is.  Instead, we have, from century to century, seen Tibetans as holding whatever good qualities Western culture is lacking.  Whether it’s a “Tibetan Shaman’s Jacket” for $178 in a 1995 J. Peterman catalog or John Lennon telling his sound engineer to make his voice sound like “the Dalai Lama on a mountain top” when recording “Tomorrow Never Knows,” or Sherlock Holmes spending the years he was supposedly “dead” wandering through Tibet, or the Theosophical Society claiming that its doctrines were directly descended from ancient spiritual masters untouched by time in the Tibetan mountains … “Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism have long been objects of Western fantasy,” Lopez writes.

To some extent this is just run-of-the-mill “Orientalism.”  But because Tibet never was colonized by Western powers, Lopez suggests, much of the Western romanticism at one time attached to places like India and China settled on Tibet, where it remains to this day.  (The Chinese occupation having made it only more romantic.)

Anyone’s who’s actually read Lopez’s book will recognize that I’m oversimplifying his work (hey, it’s dark outside) … but a compelling case can be made that from environmental awareness to a rejection of materialism to a higher spiritual consciousness, we in the West have a strong habit of projecting onto Tibet the characteristics that we feel are lacking in our own culture.  Tibet, too, occupies a place in the Western psyche:  the missing virtue.

Okay, so, 700 words later we’re all caught up with my archaic musing about depth psychology.  Western cultural consciousness has a habit of grabbing on to “exotic” peoples and events and using them as a shorthand for what we think about ourselves:  in the case of Jews, it’s what we fear is destroying us, in the case of Tibetans, it’s what we wish we were more like.  I’m sure you can think of other cases where this happens.

Burning Man has always had a powerful impact on individuals who experience its particular brand of … oh, hell, let’s just say “magic.”  It affects us in deep places;  it has a deep psycho-spiritual impact.

But now the “Man” has also become the face that launched a thousand blogs.  As it firmly lodges in mass consciousness I’m wondering if Burning Man has come to occupy a particular niche in our collective psyche – one that is flexible in details (much as the justifications for antisemitism were inconsistent and the virtues of Tibet were ad hoc), but consistent in the mental “space” it occupies.

When people who know little about us look at us … have we reached the point where they will habitually see something?  If so, what?

It’s a question complicated by the fact that most Burners can’t agree on what Burning Man is in the first place.  I’m not at all convinced that the techno-utopians who come down from Silicon Valley see the same Burning Man as the Cacophonists, the old hippies, the ravers, or the New Age yoga enthusiasts.  And certainly the more personal familiarity with Burning Man someone has, the more they’re likely (though hardly certain) to appreciate its complexities and contradictions.

But what Nirenberg and Lopez’s work suggests to me is that there is a scenario in which the exact details of what many people see doesn’t matter because the pattern can be the same:  it doesn’t matter exactly what John Lennon thought Tibetan Buddhism is or the 19th century English author Cyril Hoskins (who probably wins the award for most amazing fabrication of Tibetan culture to a mass audience) thought it was, if they are projecting the same psychological “structure” onto Tibet.

Just so, the specifics of what people think Burning Man is and does may be a secondary concern if Burning Man comes to fill a certain “space” in our cultural psychology.

What do you think that would be?  To the extent we have a choice, what do we want it to be?

That’s a more complicated question that it once was.  Burning Man’s “media policy,” so I’m told, used to very much emphasize the quixotic nature of this whole affair:  our habit (I wasn’t there, but know people who were) was to fuck with the press and fuck with people seeking clear answers, and if they left as confused as they came, that was fine with us.

Now, however, Burning Man has a non-profit and is seeking donations and grant money;  it has a more pro-active public affairs arm.  It is seeking to shape opinion about Burning Man.

At the same time, Burning Man has hundreds of regional events, each with their own identity and agenda.  Increasingly they all have a say.  Burning Man is simultaneously more and less able to shape consciousness of Burning Man than ever before.

Which again returns me to the question:  what space in the western psyche would we like to occupy?  Or do we already?

Aside from “big party/fun sexy time,” I suspect, personally, that Burning Man is in competition with “technology” as the source of possibility in 21st century western culture.  That when people who are not part of a traditional belief system ask themselves where all things are possible, they’ll think of Google, Apple, or Burning Man.  Or all of them – as Google’s Larry Page has actually said tech companies need an environment like Burning Man, where people can try new things.

But that’s just a guess.  What do you think?

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man haunts the Library of Congress from beyond the grave.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat grew up wanting to be a Russian novelist, but the closest he ever came was getting personally insulted by the first democratically elected president of Poland. Now the volunteer coordinator for Burning Man's Media Team (itself a volunteer position), Caveat has been messing with Burners for the last five years, and has a hard time believing some of the stuff they've let him get away with. He is a publisher at Omnibucket.com, served as editor of Chicken John’s philosophical autobiography “The Book of the Is,” and archives his publications and personal blogs at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

7 thoughts on “Burning Man and the psychology of the “exotic”

  • Hey,
    All I know is that last week “What is Burning Man?” was the answer in the category of “Seen from Space” showing BRC from the satellite on the TV show Jeopardy. How that ties into the space we fill in 21st century culture is now anybody’s guess.

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  • As you said, Burning Man means something different to each of us. Like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, ask ten burners what it means and you’ll get eleven different answers. Is there any reason why that wouldn’t extend to society at large or journalists in particular?

    So far as filling a space in our cultural psychology is concerned, I’m not sure we’re on enough people’s radar yet. Yeah, TTITD has launched a thousand blogs — out of how many millions in the blogosphere? Far, far more people are concerned only about this week’s football game.

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  • If BM were a fractal, which it most certainly is, it would take some time and finesse to fit it into a hole of itself so it could understand itself as well as having society understand it. Given its complexity should only prolong the time it would usually take for a culture to be placed into the psyche of a society. It’s quite possibly in our best interest to continue to be somewhat of a mystery. This should allow for the continual change thing to occur for regionals and for each passing years event.

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  • Wonderful, thought provoking piece. Thank you.

    As I read it and you asked the question, “What space in the western psyche would we like to occupy,” what came to my mind immediately was, “It’s the space of possibility for possibility itself.” To read down a few lines later you writing much the same thing was heartening.

    To my mind, Burning Man is the manifestation of a lot of the transformational work that began with Werner Erhard and EST in the 60’s and 70’s (without necessarily being tied or linked to that or any transformational work other than itself). The playa is the space of the manifestation of possibility; it is the result of inventing and creating possibilities and then enrolling people into participating so they can be turned into something real.

    Burning Man is something that for many of its participants has been a sign post to new possibilities for what it is to be a human being. As inspiring as that is to a huge percentage of its participants, it is also something that is rather confronting for a lot of people in the default world. The default world tends to kill those who invent and embody new possibilities: Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, John Lennon, Bobby Kennedy, Yitzhak Rabin. As Burning Man grows, you can bet that the resistance to the possibility it embodies will grow as well…using language much like the “anti-Judiasm” you site.

    But shit, it’s a fun game worth playing, and one where the stakes are high enough to make it interesting. I’ve definitely got my seat at the table.

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  • Burning Man is whatever it is not, or perhaps it’s everything.

    Or maybe nothing.

    I don’t know. It’s dark out and unseasonably chilly and windy here and I was trying to read the blog while listening to BMIR, neither of which is typically easy alone.

    Lots of people are very concerned with ways to quantify Burning Man and their perception of it, often unaware of the zillions of other perceptions. Or, one can look at the always amusing conspiracy theorists and their denial of reality.

    (Since Burning Man is a for-profit corporation like Walmart, bent on ruining their specific burn in exchange for greed-based commodification and capitalism … or how the Borg sold out to the government, man, and is ruining everyone’s burn by allowing police to terrorize burners).

    Burning Man is that older cousin who looked like the symbol of coolness through the awe-struck eyes of an 8-year-old, but who is really an immature loser when viewed through the eyes of a grown-up.

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