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.


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?


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.”


A Little Heavy Reading …

Today's book club selection ...
Today’s book club selection …


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