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…)

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…)

Burning Book Club – Chapter 3 (part 2) – Money and Revolutions

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

To everybody who’s apologized for falling behind on Book Club:  I’ve fallen behind too, so let’s make it official.  Book Club moves slowly, and nobody has to be embarrassed.  A chapter a week was just not going to happen.

But we’re making progress!

Okay … here we go …

Today we’re going to talk about money and economics.

If Burning Man, as I’ve argued, has many of the attributes and contradictions if Romanticism, there’s one more that should be noted.

Here’s Eagleton’s description:

“If the movement is divided against itself, it is largely because it is both a product of middle-class society and a protest against it.  Its flamboyant individualism is among other things an idealized version of the entrepreneur;  yet it is also a rebuke to the faceless civilization he is busy fashioning, one in which men and women are reduced to so many cogs and ciphers.  Spiritual individualism is to be prized, but its more possessive variety must be countered by some more corporate forms of existence, whether in the form of Nature, Geist, art, culture, world-spirit, political love, medieval guilds, ancient Greece, utopian communities or the Kantian consensus of taste.”

There is it – and Burning Man has been living that contradiction for decades.  Burning Man as we know it could only exist in a world of capitalist excess, and it is easiest to participate in by those who are living high on that excess.  Can there be any real argument on these points?  Yet Burning Man’s values explicitly call for us to undermine the motives and impacts of these same systems of excess.  Burning Man is like the landlord who raises the rent while voting for public ownership of buildings.

(more…)

Burning Book Club – Chapter 3 – Why do bad things happen to good Burners? (SPOILER ALERT!)

Book Burning(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.)

Does Burning Man have a problem of evil?

In one of the recent posts in this series I suggested that while Burning Man cannot substitute for religion, it may very well be able to substitute for God – at least “God” as understood by the German Idealists.

But anyone who takes seriously the idea that Burning Man is a healthy experience or progressive social force has to contend with the fact that it can be a serious kick in the teeth – and that’s if it doesn’t kill you.  If one of the questions that haunts religion is “why does God let bad things happen to good people,” what is the Burning Man equivalent?  The people who think of Burning Man only as a giant party or EDM festival have no problem with the idea that bad things can happen to good people at Burning Man … obviously they didn’t hydrate.  But the rest of us have to justify the existence of an experience of harsh experimentation in a deadly environment with limited organization not just as a thing that exists, but as a positive moral force in the universe.

Don’t we?

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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)

(more…)