Burning Book Club – Chapter 2 (part 2) – Group Think and Aesthetics

Burning Books(We’re basing this discussion on Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God.” Read all the book club entries, including the previous post on Chapter 2.)

One thing that is clear from reading this chapter is that Burning Man (the entity) has avoided the fate of the German Idealists in no small part by not creating an aesthetic.  (Air Freshener made a similar point in the comments of the last entry).  Creating an aesthetic grounded in spirit to heal society was, ultimately, the whole point of German Idealism

Burning Man (the Organization) takes a lot of heat from its critics for being top-down rather than bottom-up, but in fact nowhere can its “hands off” approach to Burning Man (the event and culture) be better seen than in the area of aesthetics.

Burning Man is notable for its lack of aesthetic requirements.  There is no dress code (and clothes are even optional);  there is no limit to musical styles;  you can make as much or as little noise as you want.  While they curate and place the art that they sponsor, there is no censorship of any given camp’s art or theme.  No body shape is celebrated by the Org more than any other;  you don’t need to be this tall to ride the ride.  For all the carping about how many rules the Org has imposed since Burning Man went “official,” there are in fact fewer restriction on personal aesthetic choice at Burning Man than there are at any other cultural event on earth.

Which is not to say there isn’t a “Burning Man” aesthetic out there – even a dominant one.  But the point is that it’s bottom-up.  The People of Burning Man themselves have decided to make fuzzy boots and hair extensions a signature style;  to make techno music a dominant form;  to make blinky lights a staple.  Ironically the “group-think” that Burning Man is frequently accused of is actually a democratic aspect.

People come to Burning Man, where they have more freedom than anyplace else on Earth, and choose to imitate each other.  Or, if you prefer positive language, to be inspired by each other.

It is in this imitation, this style, this aesthetic, that much of the “burnier-than-thou” and “spiritual snobbery” actually comes into play.  Because the purpose of an aesthetic (as used in this context) is precisely to link the sacred and social orders through style.  To say “people who are part of our world think this is beautiful.”  Take that attitude far enough … as the German Idealists did … and you have an entire world view in the shape of a dress code.  One where the aesthetic sense connects everything you “know” to be true in the world with everything that is beautiful thereby, simultaneously appealing to reason and the senses.

And marking everyone outside of it not only as an outsider, but as someone who doesn’t understand the way the world is.

That absolutely exists at Burning Man … several times over and in multiple variations … but it is not an officially imposed or sanctioned process.  It is a populist one:  people attempting to use Burning Man as a crucible to do exactly what we’ve been talking about in this series – to make meaning that covers all their bases.

“Both projects – the new mythology and the aesthetic,” Eagleton writes, “try to reinvent the Janus-faced nature of religion, which looks to certain sublime truths on the one hand and to everyday existence on the other.”

We should not be surprised that people use the tools they are given to construct their own visions, but nor should we mistake that for an official demand.

The ironic thing about the development of populist aesthetics within Burning Man is that they actually render it more difficult for Burning Man to be what it is that appeals to people in the first place – an engine of possibility.  The more Burning Man serves as an aesthetic, the less inspirational power it has.  In this, Burning Man resembles a conception of culture that Eagleton notes has a great deal in common with a conception of God:  the font of all possibilities.

“For Schiller, culture is a realm brimful of all conceivable possibilities.  It harbors a plenitude of human powers, all of them awaiting their harmonious expression;  and as such it does not take kindly to being restricted to a determinate goal, any more than it looks favorably on sectarian points of view.  Culture is marked by an absence of determination, or, if one prefers, by a kind of unlimited determinability.  It is a fantasy of absolute freedom, a sort of nirvanic suspension of everything determinate (and thus finite).  Like the Almighty himself, it is both everything and nothing, transcendent of all particulars, the ground of all possibility.  As Nocolas Halmi remarks of the Romantic symbol, ‘it is supposed to be at once meaningful and incapable of being reduced to any particular meaning’”

This suggests, interestingly, that Burning Man can serve as a substitute for God, but not for a religion.  Burning Man can inspire limitless possibilities, but not discriminate between them.  Questions of dogma, like aesthetics, are outside its purview.

In that, it is very much like a notion of the “political aesthetic” that was, Eagleton writes, common among many of the German Idealists:

“One way of squaring this circle is to find in the very autonomy of the aesthetic, its disdain for programs and practical measures, the foretaste of a future in which men and women might themselves be autonomous – might become, in fact, as freely self-determining as the work of art is thought to be at the present.  Where art was, there shall humanity be.  By virtue of political transformation, we, too, shall eventually be able to flourish as ends in ourselves, not for any determinate goal.  An aesthetic rationality is an anti-instrumental one, withdrawing the self from the sphere of exchange-value and utility.  The anti-pragmatic nature of the aesthetic thus becomes a politics in itself, as the writings of Shelley, Marx, Morris and Wilde all testify.  In an ingenious irony, the pointlessness of present-day art, it socially dysfunctional stature, can be alchemised into a sign of utopia.  Indeed, Friedrich Schlegel holds that the playfulness of art imitates the pointless play of the world, and is thus referential in its very autonomy.”

This idea that Buring Man is anti-instrumental is not new – Will Chase wrote about it recently – but is here seen as being central to the entire enterprise.  To the extent that Burning Man saves the world it will be a side effect of inspiring people to pursue their … what?  Symbolic resources?  Maybe.  But it will not be because it endorsed a ballot measure or candidate.  To do that is to collapse the engine of possibility.

So while individuals and groups can indeed come to Burning Man and create an aesthetic (world saving or just dance-centric) that includes Burning Man, the culture and organization itself cannot create or support an aesthetic if they want to stay functional:  they require the openness to primal possibility that a determined aesthetic cannot tolerate.  (And thus, ironically, they have achieved a perfectly aestheticized approach to politics.)

Does all this mean that Burning Man could hypothetically create a culture that saves the world, but cannot be a culture that saves the world?  That’s a little “can God create a boulder too heavy for him to lift?” for my taste.  But that’s what I’m leaning towards at the moment.

Burning Man provides symbolic resources, but outside of some very general confines (“Leave No Trace,” “Decommodification,” “Community,”) doesn’t dictate the content of them.  They’re your symbols.

The German Idealists demanded more, and therefore got less.

Everyone is welcome to comment in this space, though only comments germane to the topic at hand will be kept.  To join the Burning Book Club, just say you want to join in the comments section and leave an accurate email in the “email” field.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. 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.

13 thoughts on “Burning Book Club – Chapter 2 (part 2) – Group Think and Aesthetics

  • >There is no dress code (and clothes are even optional);
    If you’re not dressed-up, people will question why you’re not wearing a costume. The ‘costume police’ abound – “Hey man, jeans are not a costume.” I hear this several times a year. So while there may be no official dress code, you will get people to harsh your vibe if you don’t meet their subjective dress-code standards.

    >…you can make as much or as little noise as you want.
    You might not get kicked out of BRC for making noise, but people do cut generator cords and amp cords if they think you’re being too loud.

    >there is no censorship of any given camp’s art or theme.
    2 words: Jiffy Lube.

    >No body shape is celebrated by the Org more than any other
    Single middle-aged men walking around wearing only a t-shirt, are frequently shamed. Again, not officially, but amongst the participants. You will also see signs at the entrance to parties saying, ‘No single men allowed”..

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  • @bigT

    That’s exactly – literally – the point I was making. There are absolutely various group-thinks at Burning Man. The point is, they’re a bottom-up not top-down phenomenon. When you put people seeking their true selves together, they tend to imitate one another.

    If we want to be charitable, we can call that inspiration at work. If we want to be cynical, we can call it democracy in action. Either way, it leads to very different outcomes from a top-down approach.

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  • I have been kicked out of Burning Man for making too much noise, at 11am on the Monday AFTER THE BURN, with only one speaker going from my portable $3000 sound system.

    The idea that anyone can wear anything is patently false. Logos are banned – and this has come from the top down. It’s one of Ten Principles they dictate, called Decommodification. Have a look around your average American city, and see how many people you see wearing clothes with some sort of logo or sports team on them. Then try wearing something like that to Burning Man and see what the reaction is. The “Top” might SAY “you can wear anything” (except feathers), but then they dictate these principles and socially engineer the culture around them. Sure, the culture enforcement comes from unpaid Burnier-than-thou volunteers who think they’re in the service of BMOrg, but the principles originated from one place – the very top of the pyramid.

    Implicit in your post is the idea that groupthink somehow spontaneously emerged from this culture, where it hasn’t from any other EDM festival. I find that hard to believe. The founders boast “we consider ourselves social engineers”, go on and on about “Burning Man is a petri dish”, team up with “game theorists” and DOZENS of universities for all manner of studies, and selectively publish all kinds of cultural analyses (like yours) on their blog – these are all designed to encourage the culture to develop in ways aligned to the objectives of the rulers.

    Here’s an analogy to your argument. I’m the king, and there are two warring factions in my realm. So I set aside some land, and put a whole bunch of weapons there lying on the ground. The armies enter the land, grab the weapons, then kill each other. In your argument “the people spontaneously attacked each other, it was nothing to do with the king. A grass roots revolution!”

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  • Forgive me – I should have explicitly stated that “within the loose framework of the 10 Principles,” there is no top-down aesthetic at Burning Man.

    Although the question of just how “top down” the 10 Principles are is an interesting question, given that they were created at the behest of the Regionals, and that there is actually no official arbiter of them. When I hear someone say that “they” decide what does and doesn’t fly, I scratch my head. There is no office for the interpretation of doctrine at Burning Man. In fact, so far as I can tell, Burning Man the organization is trying like hell to keep up with Burning Man the culture. Far from shaping it, the Org reacts to it – in part by deliberately creating spaces in which they can’t possibly predict what’s going to happen next.

    That’s the precise opposite of social control.

    All the same, yes, there is a larger philosophical infrastructure here at work: but come on, to suggest that out of all the opportunities for free expression it creates, the lack of commercial logos on t-shirts is a significant enough loss to render the culture restrictive?

    Really?

    I just don’t buy it.

    But even so, I can say emphatically that I have never seen the Org create a “group think” that has extended any farther than the break room, while I have seen a flourishing series of group-thinks emerge from camps and tribes and groups-of-friends. It is the people at Burning Man, not the Org, who love fuzzy boots and feathers, harnesses and techno, shirt-cocking and all the rest.

    There was one year, good Lord, when the people I was camping with would not shut up about “The Secret.” But that wasn’t the Org’s fault.

    I’m not, then, saying that “groupthink somehow spontaneously emerged from this culture, where it hasn’t from any other EDM festival.” Rather, I’m saying that many group-thinks and social movements have emerged out of Burning Man, in no small part because it is NOT an EDM festival. There is so much EDM at Burning Man because a bunch of participants decided to build giant sound camps … and nobody stopped them. They brought their own group think.

    “EDM festivals,” by contrast, have their group-think already baked in – “hey people, we’re an EDM festival!” – and by definition it is from the top down.

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  • The principles didn’t come from the Regionals, they were written FOR them. Larry went away to Mexico and wrote them on his laptop. He came up with 9 principles, and presented them to the BMOrg committee. Somebody said “there should be 10″ so he went home and wrote the 10th principle.

    Doesn’t get much more top-down than that.

    You can hear Larry telling this story himself from about 18:00 in this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufQncdmuHlw

    Likewise, the Art Honoraria and approval of art cars and theme camps are a top-down way of influencing a particular aesthetic. It’s different from dictating them, in the sense that a single person in the architect of the entire aesthetic; but it’s also different from spontaneous emergence, where with or without BMOrg’s decisions the aesthetic of Burning Man would be the same.

    Someone is encouraging the “burnier-than-thous” to behave the way they do, it’s not with money so the most likely impetus is cultural reinforcement.

    I would love to see more art at Burning Man that is subversive to the so-called principles of the culture, rather than conforming to it – dissonance over deference. “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – George Bernard Shaw

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  • Nobody censored ‘nuthin. I disagreed with, and wrote a response.

    The entirety of your comments that we received have been posted here, unaltered.

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  • Hmmm this makes me want to sew a bunch of nike swooshes on a shirt designed so that under black light it says “I made this shirt not Nike, cool your jets” or something along those lines to show anybody that freaks out because I have a “logo” on my body. Perhaps it could start a movement of designing cool clothes that LOOK like they’re branded. (Doubtful!) It’s a good thing the basic triangle hasn’t been purposed as a major logo or else my main costume would get hated on before they realized the hidden power it beholds!

    Also, great post! Looking forward to my first experience as a burner this year.

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  • Sorry Caveat, I like your writing even if I don’t agree with some of your perspectives, but what you are saying about censoring my comments is not true. YOU might not have done it, but someone in the nebulous organization that is BMOrg did. It’s been more than 48 hours now, and still not up. Lucky for me I saved it. I will try again, without the link to the YouTube video of Larry Harvey that I referenced.

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  • When I post a new comment, I get to see my old comment again “your comment is awaiting moderation”. Perhaps the moderators are busy with all the other comments.

    Let’s try this again:

    The principles didn’t come from the Regionals, they were written FOR them. Larry went away to Mexico and wrote them on his laptop. He came up with 9 principles, and presented them to the BMOrg committee. Somebody said “there should be 10″ so he went home and wrote the 10th principle.

    Doesn’t get much more top-down than that.

    You can hear Larry telling this story himself from about 18:00 in this video [search YouTube for Larry Harvey – Founder Burning Man & Executive Director, Black Rock City – LeWeb London 2013]

    Likewise, the Art Honoraria and approval of art cars and theme camps are a top-down way of influencing a particular aesthetic. It’s different from dictating them, in the sense that a single person in the architect of the entire aesthetic; but it’s also different from spontaneous emergence, where with or without BMOrg’s decisions the aesthetic of Burning Man would be the same.

    Someone is encouraging the “burnier-than-thous” to behave the way they do, it’s not with money so the most likely impetus is cultural reinforcement.

    I would love to see more art at Burning Man that is subversive to the so-called principles of the culture, rather than conforming to it – dissonance over deference. “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – George Bernard Shaw

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  • “Does all this mean that Burning Man could hypothetically create a culture that saves the world, but cannot be a culture that saves the world.”

    I’ve been leaning towards this idea myself, although you put it far more succinctly than my brain did. There seems to be something people bring back from Burning Man with them…little pieces that domino into the default world. We are so inundated with Media and Advertising and sometimes when one goes to the burn and steps away from all of that it’s a cleansing experience and one goes back and feels like they can take on the world again, care about people a little more, connect in more than just a work-a-day online manner. Decommodification is and always will be my favorite principal because I feel like in this country we live our lives being forcibly commodified in a very 1984 esq style from the time we begin public school. Or perhaps now as soon as one starts using the internet. Burning Man gives people a break from all of that. However, when you step away from it and get back out into the “real world” everyone is still trying to sell you something. That part won’t go away. We were raised capitalists and we can gift all we want but it sure ain’t going away any time soon. And *many* people don’t want it to. Walk up to a burner and tell them they have the choice between being able to attend burning man for free for the rest of their lives, or one million dollars cash now….but they can never go to burning man again….what do you think they will choose? Maybe I’ll try asking people this year….I’ll carry around one of those giant checks.

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  • That lack of a forced aesthetic leaves conscious evolution seemingly to be the common denominator. With no rules or laws to follow it makes focusing on you and your fellow people thru burning more of a want, on and off the playa. I feel it happens to you out there whether your looking for it or not. Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow but soon and for the rest of our lives we need this to grow. To grow in different ways. Whatever negative and false beliefs we hold must be relinquished for true and positive ones. Whatever they may be. ‘Purpose’ is of course different in different situations. People are at different levels of conscious evolution. Everyone is going thru some great ordeal. Your choosing to work it out this way while others are choosing to work it out that way. This needs to done together again and again and over and over. )'( is the perf stage for these types of experiences and growth. It’s because there’s no real definitive way you have to be. Nothing to follow. The principles don’t seem so much like laws or rules really. We are all a part of a whole, individual souls connected to some infinite source. On the Rumsfeld level this is a known known. Transcending the levels of consciousness is simply a matter of giving up negative energy for positive energy. There was way more laid out on that land besides just weapons. No one in is making you kill someone or making you love someone. Pick your own device. Out there with everyone feeling good, giving and with high vibrations things flow and knowns can become knowns. Your visit to the desert could over all be painful, but just what was needed. With insight we realize that whatever level of consciousness we are at our purpose is to rise to a higher one. If it starts with building stuff together and then blowing it up and burning it down, so be it. And as Caveat said ‘It’s because no one stopped them…’ The ‘freedom’ is the religious spirituality. The freedom to go thru this process, thru a build/participation and then burn it down and start a new helps us grow together and individually iin different ways. This is a known. And now, a necessary known.

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  • @ burnersxxx
    I have had one comment censored here, (a few years back) and my only guess is it was because I posted a link to an image of some one on the Burning Man website itself, to illustrate my point that Virgins can be very savvy burners indeed. It was an entirely unoffensive comment to my mind anyway, and its censure was, and still is puzzling.
    I get the feeling posting links puts a comment under additional scrutiny.

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