Culture belongs to those who submit to it – Philip Rieff
I’ve only been invited to one playa wedding.
I’d just met Christa and Kanizzle, and immediately fallen in love with them. We all proclaimed our undying devotion. They told me they were getting married on Thursday, at the Temple, at sunset. They told me it was crucial that I be there. I swore I would, because what’s more important than lifelong friendship?
I didn’t make it.
I don’t remember why. Something came up. It might have been a situation at Media Mecca … or a friend in need … or a really, really good happy hour … or maybe I was making out with somebody … or I could have just been really tired. It could have been anything, really. I mean, it was Burning Man: how can you plan three days in advance?
The ceremony still had a special guest. A girl who Christa had known since the second grade but lost track of for years just happened to be there, at the Temple, at sunset.
A Burner friend of mine is getting married tomorrow. Not at Burning Man, obviously, but it will still be out in the middle of the wilderness somewhere (so I’m told). I’m supposed to sing at the ceremony, so they’re picking me up at some point (as of this writing I don’t know when) and driving me out to the site (I don’t know where) to perform a ceremony of indeterminate length, wherein I will sing … something (we haven’t worked the songs out in advance). If I’m lucky, I’ll get a ride back.
By the time you read this, I’ll have had an amazing time.
Here’s the thing, though: pretty much all of my Burning Man-related experiences have been this way. Yours surely have been too. Bring enough of us together and playa time takes over, even in the “default world.” We inevitably operate on the fly: we improvise, we piece systems together on the run. We duct tape. We embrace chaos. We show up late and change plans on a whim. It’s kind of what separates Burning Man from the Boy Scouts. They can march in a straight line, and we can open the floodgates of primal creativity. When you march in a straight line well enough, you get merit badges. When you open the floodgates well enough, amazing things happen: without even knowing, someone from your second grade class shows up for your wedding, beckoned by a temple in the sand.
This year’s theme, however, is “Rites of Passage,” and rites … rituals … are by definition orderly. The correct things must happen at the correct time. There’s no room for everyone to do their own thing. There’s an agenda: precision is valued, impulses are repressed for the good of all. It may not be clockwork, but there’s always sublimation. To participate in a ritual is to submit to it.
(Rites which don’t involve such order tend to involve great sacrifice and duress, like fasting and pain. These are also forms of sublimation and submission.)
So what does “ritual” mean for a community that can build a city in the middle of the desert, on time and under budget, but not organize a picnic?
As a volunteer coordinator … someone whose job it is to organize picnics … I take this question personally. Volunteers who show up ninety minutes late for their shift actually think telling me “It’s Burning Man, what are you going to do?” will smooth things over. I shit-can their asses to the curb faster than they can say “where’s the Gatorade?”
But of course they have a point: that’s my excuse for missing Kanizzle and Christa’s wedding. But that was just holy matrimony, this is a volunteer shift!
Oh God, I’m such a hypocrite …
But there’s a dichotomy there that’s fundamental to any community that celebrates radical freedom through massive works of engineering. And that dichotomy is lived but often not acknowledged. The Man only burns when safety inspectors clear it; rangers and EMTs and perimeter staff have to show up when they’re told; Center Camp Café has to be built to standards such that it does not collapse; art cars had better be built to standards such that they do not explode.
Far from a celebration of individual liberty, Burning Man can legitimately be seen as the iron shackle of art and culture.
Art, culture, and Burning Man do not liberate some of us – they enslave us. They are what we offer our liberty up to. As soon as those freaks out in the desert created something that was bigger than the sum of its parts, it made demands. That’s how culture works. Sublimation has a bad rap: giving up sex for symphonies can be the right decision.
Burning Man’s hedonistic chaos goes hand in hand with an iron discipline that does not melt. It couldn’t be any other way. So we have the raw ingredients necessary for compelling rites. Enough people have given up enough of their life and liberty to Burning Man to create an extraordinary culture of ritual.
We just haven’t done it. On the contrary: Burning Man has a deeply impoverished culture of ritual and ceremony. We suck at it. Individuals, and individual camps, may have rituals, but Burning Man as a whole … sucks at it.
I mean, come on. What’s our central ritual? The burning of the Man. And … what does that mean?
What’s that about?
What do you do for it, besides stand around and watch? (And shout “Wooo!”)
How do you participate?
There are no clear answers to these questions. Aside from the people who build the thing, we wouldn’t know how to submit ourselves to the Man burning if we wanted to. (And it’s not clear we do.) The Man burning is a thing that happens, and a lot of people get a lot out of it, but it’s not really a ritual any more than “Community” coming on TV at the same time every week is a ritual. It’s just a thing that happens that we like.
God I love Community.
The next closest thing (besides the Temple burn, which is structurally identical) is the Greeters station. That comes closer, because there are some established protocols for everyone involved: you drive up, you’re greeted warmly, told “welcome home,” and maybe you ring a bell or get spanked …
Yeah, okay. I have quibbles … but there is a kind of ritual there. Still, submitting to be told “hello” (however delightful) is pretty weak tea. It asks almost nothing of us. In some ways agreeing to sit in our cars for four hours in line is more of a rite of passage. And yes, there’s something to that … but it’s an accident of necessity. It’s a ritual in the same way that walking to church is – a show of devotion, but only incidentally part of the process.
Burning Man can be given the theme “Rites of Passage,” but we really don’t do them.
It’s very unusual to have a culture with so much sublimation and so little ritual. Possibly unique (academics: use the comments section to explain how terribly wrong I am). What’s our deal?
My thought … and I’ve been thinking about this for three straight vodka tonics … is that burners reject ritual because we reject the very notion of authority. Authority (capital “A”) is intimately tied into ritual: indeed, one of the key services of any ritual (even rites of passage) is to affirm Authority’s existence, and our place below it. We stand when a judge walks into his courtroom; our wedding vows are promises that we agree to obey; athletes shake hands after a game, affirming the idea that they all submit to sportsmanship.
Burning Man tries to have sublimation and submission without Authority. Sure, we’ll submit ourselves to art and culture … we’ll give our time and talent and money, and we’ll even risk our lives … but don’t you dare tell us what the experience means! We’ll figure that out ourselves! Don’t tell us what to do! We’ll … well, okay tell us what to do when we’re figuring out how to do the thing we signed up for, but, otherwise, don’t you even try!
This is odd: we are weird, weird, people. Usually cultures resistant to Authority refuse to sublimate much, and cultures that are into sublimation are into authority. What’s with us?
Perhaps this is the result of the idea that there are no spectators: the notion that we’re all participants doesn’t mean some of us aren’t more engaged than others, but it’s certainly how we interpret it, and that suggests no one ever has grounds to speak for Authority. Perhaps it’s the natural result of an event that is designed explicitly to be about the things participants bring with them (theme camps, art cars) rather than the things the organization provides (porta potties are important, but not really central to our experience). Maybe our rejection of authority was branded into us by our original frontier founders. Could be any combination, or more.
But it’s clear that this is a central axis of Burner culture: we celebrate freedom, chaos, and whimsy; we sublimate ourselves to art and culture and sustainability; we reject Authority … all at the same time.
If this is true (and I could be wrong), then I suspect Burning Man will never be a potent political force … politics is explicitly about Authority. If this is true then I suspect Burning Man will always be an incubator for new art rather than a way to perfect existing practices: the practice needed to perfect something requires the kind of environment Burning Man culture will actively refuse to provide.
And if this is true then I suspect Burning Man will never develop a strong culture of rituals. The ground is not fertile. Burning Man is a recipe for profoundly moving and meaningful experiences – but not for rites of passage.
Playa weddings will always be chaotic affairs.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com