My bio on this fine site says I’m going to blog on my “mainstay obsessions — culture, ritual, and spirituality,” and it is time to roll up my sleeves and get started. But first, I want to say a little more about how I come at all this.
I’m a big nerd, of the genus “academic minor” to be specific. My training is in the fields of religious studies and anthropology — neither of which are necessarily what you think they are anymore. (My two favorite online reads on these topics are the blog savageminds.org and the zine religiondispatches.org, but I digress). What this means is that from the minute I first stepped onto the playa back in 1996, I started taking mental notes for my ethnographic magnum opus on Burning Man. That work will finally be out in about a year’s time (academic publishing can be sluggish, especially when you have a toddler and a move to LA to deal with — more on that another time).
Lately, I’ve been thinking about what I call “DIY (do-it-yourself) Spirituality” and how it connects to something called “Convergence Culture.” I think Burning Man exemplifies this par excellence. Now, I suspect some of you are probably grousing — “I ain’t no navel gazing, crystal waving, woowoo chanting hippy. That’s not what Burning Man means to me!” But maybe you do go there to express your truest sense of self and to feel connected something larger than that self. And a lot of you create, perform, ritualize, and play with this sense — freely pillaging from a global treasure trove of cultural and religious symbols as you do. I’ve got a long, carefully nuanced argument about this that I’ll spare you all for now, but basically that’s what I mean by “DIY Spirituality.”
As to “Convergence Culture” — that’s a nifty concept coined by another nerd (of the genus “aca-fan major”), Henry Jenkins. His argument is also long and nuanced, but he neatly sums it up as being about: “media convergence, participatory culture, and collective intelligence.” It is “where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways.” (See Convergence Culture.)
There are some handy ideas here. For one, that bit about “participatory culture” might sound kinda familiar, no? (To my knowledge, Jenkins has never been to Burning Man, but — to paraphrase the Cacophony Society — I think he may already be a member.)
Convergence of another sort can be seen across the history of religions through what has been called “syncretism” or “hybridity.” Traditionalists have seen such processes rather less generously (or hopefully) than I do, but it is indisputable that diverse religions and cultures inevitably tend to borrow from and occasionally merge into one another whenever they come into contact. While not even I would consider Burning Man to be a “religious tradition,” its hyper-symbolic mash-ups playfully appropriate religious motifs from a vast global well of symbolic resources. Crosses, devils, labyrinths, buddhas, goddesses, gods, and ‘hello kitties’ — the list is potentially endless.
Finally, social media tools have recently made it ever more possible to see how individuals are locating both traditionally religious and DIY spiritualities in new communities and participatory cultures online. I’ve got several illustrations of what I’m talking about — both from Burning Man and elsewhere — up my sleeve. But these will have to wait for another day, lest I take up more than my fair share of pixels on my first post.
For now, I’ll stop to ask — what do you think? Is Burning Man a space for DIY Spiritualities? What does Burning Man mean to you?