Burning Book Club – Chapter 5: Sweeping the corpse of God under the rug and pretending it never happened

Book-Burning(This post is part of our continuing “Book Club” reading of Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God.” Read all the book club entries)

Many of the kinds of people who would ever bother to wonder “who was the first real atheist?” think that the answer is Nietzsche.

History’s highlight reel would tend to confirm the call: the very words “God is dead” are captioned “Friedrich Nietzsche.” He kind of owns the franchise.

But in the first chapter of “Culture and the Death of God” to really approach modernity, Eagleton has his doubts. These doubts reveal just how difficult it is to live in a world free of religion, given just how conditioned the culture we live in is by its assumptions and epistemology.

Nietzsche himself understood these difficulties better than most. “Nietzsche sees that civilization is in the process of ditching divinity while still clinging to religious values, and that this egregious act of bad faith must not go uncontested,” Eagleton writes. “You cannot kick away the foundations and expect the building still to stand.”

You can’t base morality on something you believe to be false without living in a constant state of hypocrisy. But no one has convincingly rethought moral principles from first-principles … or even agreed on what those would be.

It’s like saying: “we want to live in a world free of air.” That’s all well and good, but how exactly would we breathe? Assuming it can be done, that Man does not breathe by air alone, it would be a radically different world. (more…)

Burning Man as a Maker Movement for Jungian Archetypes – the return of book club!

Burning BooksHi Everybody:

Last year I started reading literary scholar Terry Eagleton’s book “Culture and the Death of God,” and I was so struck by what I saw as its relevance to Burning Man’s place in the modern world that I said “I’ll start a book club on the Burning Blog so anyone interested can read it with me!”

It was a terrible idea.  Just terrible.  And then Burning Man happened, and I was so busy that I stopped reading the book for a while and … just terrible.

It’s 2015 now, and I’d really like to finish the book, and as long as I’m reading it, I might as well finish the book club thing to.  Why?  Because my parents always said “Eat everything on your plate, young man,” and that’s why I have high blood pressure today. 

Going over old book club entries, I also continue to be impressed by what I see as a connection between the long-standing cultural movements that Eagleton is incisively presenting and the potential place for Burning Man in contemporary culture.  So .. what the hell.

The next book club entry, on Chapter 5 (“The Death of God”) will appear in about two weeks.  In the meantime, if you don’t want to read (or re-read) all the previous entries, here’s an “our story so far” summary – not, strictly speaking, what Eagleton is saying about history and culture so much as my gloss on what the subjects covered all suggest.  (more…)

The therapeutic power of Radical Self-Expression

Embrace by The Pier GroupChip Conley, a member of Burning Man’s board, frequently likes to say:  “The more digital we get, the more ritual we need.”

I thought of that when I read about a new strategy for fighting depression – one that involves no pills, no brain scans … virtually no technology of any kind – and is incredibly affective.  In some studies, 94% of patients report an end to depression in six months or less.  In other studies, 97%.

What is this miraculous new cure?  This brain-hacking innovation?  It’s getting people to talk with each other.  Essentially peer lead group therapy.

The research is being conducted in the developing world, in areas where mental health treatment options are extremely scarce … and so far it’s focusing on women, because it’s possible to circumvent the cultural proscriptions against seeking mental health treatment by telling them that having their symptoms addressed is good for their children.  So the sample group is limited.  But the staggeringly good results strongly suggest that it is our approach to mental health in the first world … our privatizing organic “social networks” and replacing them with network of insurance providers dictating terms to health care professionals who emphasize the pill popping for mood adjustment at the expense of actually talking to people … that gets it all wrong.

With depression rates rising significantly in much of the modern world – even as more and more mood altering drugs are prescribed – it may be that it is modern culture itself which has so degraded our ability to have routine, deep, in person connections with one another, and that this is creating a crisis in mental health.

(The other option – that we have not lost the capacity to have deep, in person, connections with one another in the developed world, but that life here is so toxic that the only way masses of people can tolerate existence in the industrialized world is through medication – actually scares me much more.  But while possible (brrrr) I think that stretches past what the research so far is telling us.  Still, makes you wonder.)

Thinking of this, I am reminded of the way so many people believe that Burning Man … a camping trip that costs excess money and includes a higher chance of being run over by a mechanical octopus … is a crucial part of their mental health regimen.    Kinda ridiculous –  but people swear by the therapeutic power of Burning Man so much that I’ve had to write entire screeds reminding people that Burning Man is not “therapy Disneyland” and that it’s okay to be unhappy when you’re here.

Yet it may very well be … humanistic psychology has often said so … that what we call “radical self-expression” is in fact a vital component of mental health.  While the public perception of creative genius ties it to madness and mental illness, research actually suggests that it is human beings who lack an outlet for their creativity – in whatever form is meaningful to them – who are at a higher risk of depression and mental illness. (more…)

Margaret left a trace

DumpsterWe always think of the principle of “Leave No Trace” as applying to things. To garbage. To left over zip ties. To empty cans on the ground.

But does it apply to people?

Do we want it to?

I was struck, this week, by an email that “This is Burning Man” author Brian Doherty sent out encouraging people in the Bay Area to see a show produced in large part by burners this Friday at the Castro Theatre.

The show is about a woman of whom there was no trace. Whose life was, literally, thrown in the garbage.

While hunting for a place to illegally dump some trash at three in the morning, an old-time Burner (Chicken John) found a magnificent leather scrap book at the bottom of a dumpster. It was, all but literally, the life of a woman named Margaret Rucker. It had her birth certificate, pictures of her life, clippings from news articles about tragic things that befell her, and excerpts from poetry magazines of verse she’d had published. It ended with her death certificate.

It was all there. At the bottom of a dumpster. If he hadn’t found it, it would have been destroyed.

What happened? He had no idea. Nobody knew. For maybe 15 years he carried this scrapbook around with him, read from it, shared it with people – put on shows devoted to Margaret’s poetry and the mystery of her life.

No answers. Except insofar as we all know, deep down, that people are disposable. That at some point all we are will be left in a trash bin. That no trace will be left. (more…)

Why am I making fun of Burners (including you, yes you, personally) and an issue you’re really passionate about?

The Joker (Ceasar Romero)This is a response to the feedback on my list “12 Shocking Revelations about ultra-rich Burning Man plug-and-play camps!

Before I answer the headline, let me clear three things up:

1)      I don’t speak for Burning Man, I’m not part of the Org, I’m not on their payroll, and they had no idea that this post was coming. They don’t edit my stuff and there’s no approval process, so: they found out I’d written this when you did. Nothing I say represents them, or is a statement of what they believe on any issue.

2)      Do I care about the problems caused by commodification camps? Absolutely. In fact, one of my first posts for this blog called for the creation of “Art Vikings” to stop plug-n-play camps. I wrote:

Camp Art Vikings will send our Viking scouts across the playa to find package tour camps and paid labor.  Then we will send our war parties, on Art Longboats, across the dust to Art Raid them.  We will take their meat and their women and their best alcohol, deliver them to a random camp, and celebrate together.

So I’m probably more radical on this issue than you are.

 

3)      Do I think the ORG should be more transparent. Yes. Stop. End quote.

 

So why am I making fun of terribly sincere burners with a legitimate grip whose issue I basically agree with?

Because people are demanding that the Org come up with an immediate solution to what is at heart an intractable societal problem: the gentrification caused by income inequality.  (more…)

12 Shocking Revelations about ultra-rich Burning Man plug-and-play camps!

Dollar sign (reflective_metallic)[Note:   I have responded to the comments below with a new post, which can be found here.  Also a reminder that I do not, and never have, spoken for the Org.]

I am as shocked as anyone that rich people came to Burning Man and behaved like rich people.

There’s only one explanation:  it’s a conspiracy, and it goes all the way to the top!  Yes!  The only way people with money could have possibly used that money to try and game the system is if Burning Man was directly involved!  In on it!  We all know it, but you don’t the half of it!

Here are the 5 biggest, most shocking, examples, of plug-and-play malfeasance – and the Burning Man organization’s complicity in it!

  • A group of prominent venture capitalists paid Larry Harvey $6 million to write them an extra-fun 11th principle that no-one else has.

What is it?  I don’t know!  You don’t know!  But it’s got to be amazing, and we’re not living by it!  Only they are!

  • The compound prepared for the Walton family, which owns Wall-Mart, actually paid its greeters

They brought out a bunch of senior citizens to tell everyone on the playa to have-a-nice-day!  They even hugged people!  And then were paid minimum wage!

  • Haliburton’s massive camp art project was really a derrick testing for oil under Black Rock City.

Sure it shot out flames, had a DJ, and Friday night’s Gushing Oil Party was awesome, but that’s not the point!

  • Billionaire Amazon.com owner Jeff Bezos’ theme camp never even came out in physical form, and instead was available only on Kindle.

Anyone who went is now under the terms and conditions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act!  On the plus side, there was no MOOP.

  • Warren Buffett slipped Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell $10 million to move Burning Man to Omaha, and fix it so nobody noticed.

That giant sculpture with the funky lights that everybody loved?  That was really the Nebraska statehouse.  We were so used!

(more…)

Experiments in Radical Gifting and Ticket Sales

PresentRight now a Bay Area group consisting of a number of past and present Burners is putting together an event so ambitious that I am thrilled to be part of it.

I can’t tell you anything about it. Not what it is, or where, or who else is involved. I can tell you when, but that’s only mostly true. We’re revealing so little, in fact, that we actually sent out a press release announcing that we’ve created the least informative Kickstarter in history.

But what I can tell you … and what makes this an interesting experiment with Burning Man principles … is that there’s only one way to get a ticket. And that’s to be given one by somebody else.

You can’t buy a ticket for yourself.

It might be possible to engage in round-robins where a group of people buy tickets for each other, but we’ll be watching out for that. (I can’t tell you how.) Because the hope, the ideal, is that it will make the experience of going to an arts event more like getting a surprise gift: you have no idea it’s coming, it’s a gesture of thoughtfulness and goodwill because somebody cared enough to think of you, and you honestly don’t know what’s going to be there when you open it up.

Will it have that affect? Will it be possible to actually fund a high-infrastructure event this way?

We’ll find out.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I was against the whole idea. (more…)

The 10 Principles are most potent when offered to Strangers

StrangerDangerLast year I brought an art project with me to the playa – my first. It was a piece of “oracular playa magic” in which I would offer someone a personal experience: we would combine the serendipitous power of the playa with the deep insights provided by art to discover the person’s destiny and true nature.

It did not go the way I expected. Instead of being a fun little gift I could offer people, more often than not it stopped their burn in its tracks. I had people burst into tears; people go into deep conversations about their lives; one guy literally ran away. Other people told me, long after Burning Man, that they were still thinking about what I had “shown” then.

That was not supposed to happen. You can read about the whole experience here.

A number of people who witnessed this last year or read the story asked me if I was going to bring the project back for the 2014 burn. After a great deal of thought, I did. Unchanged except for the addition of a couple of new stories tacked on to the end.

The “divination game” was an immediate hit this year, and in my first few days I had a lot of people ask to participate, or bring me friends or people from their camps who were having various kinds of problems and therefore “needed” a reading.

But it wasn’t like last year: the effect was completely different. Instead of being an experience that stopped people in their tracks, my art project was a fun art gift that people really enjoyed and recommended to their friends. Which is great – I’m not complaining – but it made me wonder: why was it so different? Why was the exact same project getting a 180 degree response from the year before?

Part of it, surely, is just that no two years are alike – a fact that I gratefully acknowledge. But was that all there is?

(more…)