Posts by Caveat Magister

June 16th, 2014  |  Filed under Burning Book Club

Burning Book Club – Chapter 2 – (Part 1) A Mythology Pro-Tip for Atheists

Book Burning(We’re basing this discussion on Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God.” Read all the book club entries)

My response to Chapter 2 – The German Idealists – was getting so long and convoluted that I decided to split it into a couple of short, convoluted, essays that I’ll post this week.  I should have known that no discussion involving the philosophy of Immanuel Kant could be kept to a sensible blog post.  This entire book club is a terrible idea.  I apologize.  

How many Burners are German Idealists and don’t even know it?

To find out, let’s read Terry Eagleton’s description of the German Idealist dream circa the 1800s, only replace the word I’ve bolded with “Burning Man.”

“The fractured bonds between citizens, as well as the threatened alliance between Nature and humanity, might be restored by a communality of image and belief.  Coterie ideas and common opinions, high theory and popular practice, would no longer be at daggers drawn.  Myth would serve as a mode of displaced religion, uniting the mystical and the mundane, priest (or philosopher) and laity (or common people) in a shared symbolic order.  The abyss opened up by the Enlightenment between a coterie who lived by the idea and a populace who lived by the image might accordingly be bridged.”

Convinced yet?  It goes on.  Replace “poet or philosopher” with “artist.”

“The poet or philosopher would be invested with the status of secular priest and art or mythology converted into a set of quasi-sacred rites.  The damage to the human spirit inflicted by individualism, as well as by a withered rationality for which Nature was so much dead matter, might thus be repaired.  A more organic ideology of everyday life would evolve, one which reunited the cognitive, ethical, and aesthetic domains.”

Admit it – you’ve heard a regional rep in a mesh body suit give this exact speech.  These are sentiments I’ve heard often (if less eloquently) from those Burners who believe Burning Man is more than a fantastic party, who see Burning Man as the next major step in the evolution of a sustainable global culture.

Which is a problem, because German Idealism didn’t really go anywhere.

Don’t get me wrong, it was HUGE in the 1830s, but it hasn’t appeared at any major festivals lately.  You only see it  popping up when somebody quotes Immanuel Kant in a high school debate tournament, or when somebody proposes a “science of history” to incorrectly predict what will inevitably happen next.

While the German Idealists’ critique of religion is every bit as trenchant as their critique of rationalism, as effectively as they identified “the problem,” their solutions ultimately satisfied no one and (if pressed too hard) tended to dissolve into mumbling about “spirit” with no substance.

To the extent Burners are closet German Idealists, we should take it as a warning sign to do better.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is that Burning Man is waaaay more fun than German Idealism ever was.  We’ve got that going for us.

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June 9th, 2014  |  Filed under Burning Book Club

Burning Book Club: what the hell is a “spiritual resource,” anyway?

Burning Books(Read all Burning Book Club entries here)

Since the book club’s taking an extra week to finish chapter 2 of Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God,” I thought I’d follow-up on a common line of questioning from last week’s entry.  Eagleton suggests near the end of chapter 1 that “Rationalized societies tend not only to impoverish their symbolic resources, but to pathologize them as well.”

A lot of people had questions about that.

I am going to try to address these questions, and to do so without mentioning Joseph Campbell’sThe Hero with A Thousand Faces” even once.  Although for many people I do think “Burning Man” functions as the “underworld” in Campbell’s much celebrated “Hero’s Journey.”

I should also note that this is only my own personal response to a text:  Caveat’s bullshit, not Burning Man’s bullshit.

If reading the last four paragraphs already has you bored, for god sake don’t keep reading.  Life is short!  Go kiss somebody you have a crush on!  Book Club will still be here next week.  Don’t waste your life the way I have.

(Ahem)

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June 1st, 2014  |  Filed under Burning Book Club

Burning Book Club – Chapter 1 – Turns out Money can Buy Enlightenment

Book Burning(We’re basing this discussion on Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God.”  Read all the book club entries)

We tend to think of a secular society as one with no religion, but in fact no such animal exists – or ever has existed.  Instead, a “secular society” is one in which religion is not a central organizing principle but exists only as one of many potential forms of amusement or self-help.

“Societies become secular not when they dispense with religion altogether, but when they are no longer especially agitated by it,” Eagelton notes at the opening of this chapter.  “Another index of secularization is when religious faith ceases to be vitally at stake in the political sphere, not just when church attendance plummets or Roman Catholics are mysteriously childless.”

This unites religion with art and cultural cannons, all of which have been impacted by what Eagleton refers to as “the privatization of the symbolic sphere.”

“It is when artists, like bishops, are unlikely to be hanged that we can be sure that modernity has set in,” he writes.  “They do not matter enough for that.”

For artists to matter socially, art has to be more than just a matter of private taste.  Indeed, for anything beyond raw power and money to matter culturally, it must invoke a common bond – be more than a matter of personal taste or fashion.  Burning Man is one among many kinds of culture that fall under this shadow.  To the extent that Burning Man is attempting to re-enchant the world or make life more meaningful … to the extent that we want art to matter … Burning Man faces off against the same forces that have displaced religion.

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May 30th, 2014  |  Filed under Culture (Art & Music)

The Burning Man Minute for March 30, 2014

Burning Man’s collective consciousness transcends the hegemonic noosphere while delegating the collective unconscious to you, at speeds not yet achieved by even the most spiritually advanced iPhone app!

The Burning Man Minute helps you keep track of everything you need to know without paying attention!

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

May 26th, 2014  |  Filed under Burning Book Club

Burning Book Club – preface – “Atheism isn’t as easy as it looks”

Burning BooksRead more about Book Club and the book we’re reading.

According to the 2013 Blackrock City Census, 73% of Burning Man attendees say they belong to “No Religion.”  Of the remaining Burners, 6% claim to be Jewish, 5% Catholic, 5% “other Christian,” 4% other, 3% Protestant (although isn’t that “other Christian?”), and 2% each for Buddhism, Pastafarianism (although can’t we just call that “Atheism with a shtick?”), and Paganism.

Yet by the same count only 22% of Burners self-identify as Atheists, 49% of Burners say they are “spiritual,” and about as many Burners say they practice prayer/meditation/contemplation as Burners who say they don’t.

So while a majority of Burners clearly aren’t religious, neither have a majority of them abandoned the things that one generally looks to religion to provide.  We may not see religion as providing any answers about God, the spiritual aspect of reality, or a sense of connection to the world around us – but neither have we given up on those things.  A compelling argument can be made that we are looking for religion by another name.

This is precisely the condition of the world that Terry Eagleton examines in his book “Culture and the Death of God.”  This is not a book about whether God exists or religion is “correct” – it is a book asking the question:  “what does a culture that for thousands of years put religion at the center of morality, political authority, and epistemology, do when it has secularized?”

We have to ask the question because we still don’t have an answer.  As Eagleton notes in the preface:  “(D)espite the fact that art, Reason, culture and so on all had a thriving life of their own, they were also called on from time to time to shoulder this ideological burden, one to which they invariably proved unequal.  That none of these viceroys for God turned out to be very plausible is part of my story.”

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May 21st, 2014  |  Filed under Culture (Art & Music)

Adventures in (Burning Man) Writing: meet Marzipan Man and his “spines”

Artists rendering of a "Spine" book case.  (Image courtesy of Matthew Melnicki)

Artists rendering of a “Spine” book case. (Image courtesy of Tom Woodall )

Burning Man still doesn’t have a literary culture.  Not even the appearance of one, or the promise of one on the horizon.

But horizons are illusions, and there’s always something on the other side.

Wow … I feel like I’m writing a lost verse of “Rainbow Connection.”  Somebody get me a banjo.  (Burning Man happens to have a highly advanced banjo culture.  A theme camp will actually be sending the first banjo into space this September.)

But I digress.

Words may never adequately describe Burning Man, but words are a vital part of the human experience and the artistic impulse, and just because no literary style or culture has emerged doesn’t mean dedicated individual Burners aren’t out pushing the boundaries of the written word at Burning Man.

These are their stories.

(Dun Dun)

Oh crap, now I’m doing an episode of Law & Order.  How did this happen?  Somebody call forensics!

You see what happens when there isn’t a literary culture?  Words scatter across genres.

(Quick Fun Fact:  Burning Man is developing one of the most advanced party forensic labs in America, capable of detecting exactly who harshed your buzz up to 30 hours after the incident.  The technology is incredible.)

But I digress.

One of the innovators trying to push the boundaries of what words can do at Burning Man is Marzipan Man (Matthew Melnicki), who last year began placing “spines” – freestanding book depositories – on the playa, and placing his own hand-stitched books in them:  free to take, with the hope that someone will put some of their own work in to share.

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May 7th, 2014  |  Filed under Burning Book Club, Culture (Art & Music)

A Little Heavy Reading …

Today's book club selection ...

Today’s book club selection …

ANNOUNCEMENT:  AT THE MIDDLE OF THIS POST, I SUGGEST STARTING A BOOK CLUB THROUGH THE BURNING BLOG.  IF THAT MIGHT INTEREST YOU, READ THE WHOLE POST AND THEN LEAVE A COMMENT IF YOU WANT TO PARTICIPATE. 

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people recently about Burning Man’s place as a historical movement in global culture.  I don’t know that this is something a lot of people are talking about -  but I do think the people who want to have this conversation see me crossing the street and jump at the chance.  Something about me screams “guy who will stand on the street corner talking about the transformation of self and society for a half-hour, even if it means missing his best friend’s birthday party.”

That’s never really happened, of course.  I don’t have a best friend.  Or get invited to parties.

There is a question out there as to whether Burning Man is the latest answer to a historical movement in society following “the death of God.”  Which doesn’t necessarily mean Burning Man is a replacement for religion (which I’ve argued it cannot be), but does mean that there has long been a concern that Western society is now lacking – depending how you think about it – either a center around which everything can orbit or a bridge between the mundane and the transcendent.

Is that a niche Burning Man can fill?

The answer, right now, is a solid “maybe.”  But I’ve been very struck by this question as I’ve read  a read a book that (so far) hasn’t mentioned Burning Man once:  Terry Eagelton’s new exegesis “Culture and the Death of God.”   Sections have been jumping out at me, time and again, as potentially relevant to the broader cultural world Burning Man finds itself in.

I’ve put some quotes below.  I’m using an eReader, so I can’t give meaningful page number citations, but I will group them by chapters.  You might not see the relevance – it could just be me.  But questions of how much guidance Reason (capital R) can give Culture (capital C), how art and aesthetics interact with society, along with the symbolic resources cultures require, and the conditions necessary to create and keep them,   strike me as very relevant to Burning Man’s future … in the most abstruse, round-about way possible.  But still.

Does anyone want to join me in the book?  I’m only a quarter of the way through – if anybody wants to try a book-club like discussion on this blog, send me a note and let me know.  Or just stop me on the street …

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

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April 29th, 2014  |  Filed under The Ten Principles

Research tip for Burning 365 days a year

"If you had three wishes that could be expressed in bacon form, what would they be?"

“If you had three wishes that could be expressed in bacon form, what would they be?”

[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man's 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]

Those of us wondering how we can live the playa in our daily lives might want to review some research profiled in last week’s New York Times.

Many of us – especially those from low-touch, high privacy cultures (like, ahem, me) – assume that most of us are happiest when people are left alone in their zone of privacy:  don’t disturb people you don’t have a reason to talk to.  It’s a gesture of politeness and respect.  We’ve internalized that.

It usually makes people like me uncomfortable when others breach these rules, but the research conducted in Chicago by behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder suggests that our momentary discomfort might make us happier in the long run.

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