What I’ve learned about Burning Man from reading “Culture and the Death of God.”

Burning Books 2(This post is inspired by reading the final chapter of Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God.” Read all the book club entries)

So here’s the thing about cults:

Every time one’s in the news or does something big – no matter where in the world – everybody in the media rushes to assure themselves that only losers belong to this organization: it’s for sexless poor people who just can’t hack it in modernity.

And every time – from Aum Shinrikyo in Japan to ISIS in the Middle East – they’re wrong.   Every time we’re stunned to learn that many of the cultists/fundamentalists/terrorists were actually economically successful. That they had relationships, and families, and ties to the community.

Our delusion that successful IT managers or people with friends wouldn’t join a cult or strap on a suicide vest is the conjoined twin of a larger cultural delusion: that modernity offers everything we need to live satisfying lives.

The evidence is clear that for a huge swath of people, it doesn’t. If you add up:

 

  • The people who seek solace and meaning through religion;
  • To the people who (unprecedented in human history) need to take medication just to be functionally free of depression and anxiety
  • To the people who are clinging to pseudo-scientific and New Age platitudes about “quantum weirdness” to find a sense of meaning
  • To the people who are fanatically devoted to radical politics because the world as it is needs to change
  • To the people who hold some abstract notion of “ART” as something that can never be understood except as a pure bringer of purpose where nothing else will do;
  • To the people who hold some abstract notion of “SCIENCE!” as something that can bring all purpose and meaning to life if we were to just try harder to turn ourselves into beings of pure thought;
  • To the people who aren’t any of these things but are unhappy and unsatisfied and running on a treadmill that feels like it isn’t getting anywhere …

 

Then you get most of the world’s population.

Let’s stop deluding ourselves: modernity has many good points. It offers unprecedented freedoms and opportunities and social advancements. But it leaves a giant void in most people that it cannot fill because it’s always trying to commercialize and monetize it. Turning lonely people into consumers does not make them less lonely – it only makes them consume more.

The result is seen in its starkest terms when people who have everything to live for in a modern society run off and join what amounts to a death cult: they need to make a drastic break because other is no other kind. There is no soft opt out. (more…)

Primal Screaming over Burning Man (and the war of cultural appropriation)

The_ScreamOne gets the impression that many Burners thought that when Burning Man got big enough for the forces of liberal consumer capitalism to notice it, that those forces would just roll over and plead for Larry Harvey to rub their belly. Or that the New York Stock Exchange would hang the 10 Principles on the wall and replace the opening bell with dub-step.

That was never going to happen. Burning Man’s entry into the world as a genuinely large scale movement was always going to be a complicated, messy, clash of ideas.

And now that Burning Man has grown big enough and popular enough to be co-opted by market forces, those forces are trying their level best.

Burning Man has been imitated – on the surface – by people trying to make money for some time. This attempt at full-on appropriation is beginning in earnest now, as opposed to 10 years ago, because without a merchandizing arm (which Burning Man has always refused to do, its recent asinine experimentation with scarves as donation premiums aside), it is difficult for appropriators to make money without scarcity. Not impossible, but difficult enough that the massive machine of the marketing/lifestyle complex didn’t really turn its sights on Burning Man.

Now that we’re living in an era of ticket scarcity, however …

Yet as the conflict is joined, the many Burners who talk about Burning Man as though it had “sold out” – as though it had been defeated – are confusing the ending with the beginning.   They are declaring that the civil war has been lost because shots have just been fired against Fort Sumter, when in fact this is a prelude to the massive conflict to come.

Burning Man culture and the Burning Man organization haven’t lost a fight against liberal consumer capitalism – they’ve only just begun it.

This – what Burning Man is going through right now – is what that looks like at the beginning. The early stages.   When market forces decide not to care that we have 10 Principles or that some people put their life into a theme camp for others to enjoy and now can’t get tickets.

What’s happening now was not only inevitable, but predictable: from Walter Benjamin to Theador Adorno to every fucking post-structuralist some of us were forced to study because we took an English class in the 90s, there is a huge body of literature and research showing that yes – yes indeed – when a counter-culture gets big enough, the forces of liberal consumer capitalism try to appropriate it for their own ends. And, so far, they have been successful every time. That’s how Che Guavara ends up on T-shirts made in third world factories and sold to college students whose dorms are cleaned by immigrants making minimum wage.

The fact that it’s happening is why discussion about Burning Man has largely transformed from a dialogue into a primal scream. (more…)

Raise your hand if you’ve “graduated” from Burning Man

Has this been you?  (Photo by AlphaSpirit)
Has this been you? (Photo by AlphaSpirit)

A few years ago Sondra Carr, the artist who first introduced me to Burning Man, said that she had reached a poignant new milestone: she was done with Burning Man, and ready to move on.

Now most of the people who you hear saying things like this are angry: they say “I am DONE with Burning Man!” and will tell you, at length, that their readiness to move on from Burning Man is entirely Burning Man’s fault, because they’ve got ROADS now, or because too many of THOSE people are here, or because the organization ISN’T LISTENING!”

That is to say, they talk about Burning Man as though the decision to move on from it is the result of a terrible mistake, even an injury, and that in the normal course of events we would all keep doing it for the rest of our lives.

That’s not what Sondra meant. Just the opposite.

She’s not angry at Burning Man. She doesn’t agree with everything the Org has done, but she doesn’t expect to agree with everything anybody does. She has had very good experiences here, a few really terrible experiences, and is ultimately very grateful for Burning Man providing her with the opportunity to engage in tremendous personal and artistic growth.

It’s just that, having grown, she believes it is time to move on. This doesn’t mean never coming back: “I’ll come back if I have a particular art piece that I think should happen there, or if a ticket happens to come my way,” she tells me. But it does mean that going to Burning Man for its own sake is no longer a priority: rather, she needs to refocus her efforts .. and all that growth … on making the magic she discovered at Burning Man happen in the rest of the world.

She sees it as graduating from high school: you don’t stop going to high school because goddamit high school did something terrible to you … you stop going to high school because you are ready for other things. There is no ideal world (except on TV) where people never stop going to high school. It exists for you to be done with it. If it’s done its job well, it will show in the way you live through the rest of your life. (more…)

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…)