(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.
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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