Burning Man doesn’t do “ritual” – and probably never will

Philip Rieff is one of my intellectual heroes. And not just because he married Susan Sontag

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

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

15 Comments on “Burning Man doesn’t do “ritual” – and probably never will

  • lemur says:

    this blog entry seems all over the place but i will mention…

    how was anyone able to forget the lamplighters?

    the greeters hand out maps and tell people to not put tampons in the porta potties.. like actual utilitarian things, they serve as more than just a ritual hug to the populace..

    lamplighters work is nearly all about ritual…

    and burners reject ritual? really? I recall big outpourings of love for the lamplighters performing their nightly ritual.

    it seems like youre making an effort at redefining things that are rituals as not rituals anymore because theyve become a tradition…

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  • g says:

    To my mind, the whole event has become a ritual for me personally. In my view, the annual repetition of the event is one gigantic yearly ritual. Within that physical and structural latticework then is created space for spontaneity and creativity with a generous sprinkling of chaos made inevitable by the utterly hostile harsh place where it is held.

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  • amoeba says:

    Burning man itself IS a ritual. Just because the “authority” is the “do what you will” mantra, doesn’t make it any less a ritual. Everyone comes to it in their own way, with their own habits and predelictions… But everyone comes with the expectation that here, things are different than the rest of the world. And we come to immerse ourselves in it, to be part of something bigger than ourselves. To ape it, to copy it, to imitate and sublimate the things we admire about it, to contribute to it, to inspire it, to create it. And that is another important function of a ritual.

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  • Caveat says:

    Okay, a couple responses.


    Greeters are awesome. What I meant to say wasn’t otherwise: just that the idea of the Greeters station as a ritual we all have in common strikes me as plausible but weak.

    Lamplighters? Brilliant – absolutely, the lamplighters (at least from the outside) appear to be all about ritual. That’s a great point and I should have mentioned it.

    But I don’t think it would have changed the big picture. Lamplighters are something a group does that is of service to us all but unique to that group, and not something we all join in on. I’m not suggesting that individual camps or groups don’t have rituals … even powerful rituals. Of course they do. But they’re idiosyncratic and parochial. “Burning Man” as a whole doesn’t really produce common rituals on anything but the most superficial level. We go through a gate; we watch something burn – we have no common sense of how one should do these things or what they actually mean or even if they’re important (the number of people who leave before the burn strongly suggests you can have a perfectly great Burn without a burn). And what I’m suggesting is that this isn’t an accident, that the nature of the culture creates these conditions … and it does so for certain reasons … and that this is pretty interesting. It also has implications for where we’re going.

    But I could be wrong.

    @G and Amoeba:

    Lots of people turn Burning Man into a personal ritual, and to that I can only say: Hell Yeah.

    But do 50,000 personal rituals add up to a common ritual? I’m suggesting that they don’t. And there’s nothing wrong with that: that’s the way we want it, and I love it. But the embrace of the idea that it’s great for everyone to have their own Burning Man, which has no bearing on the way anybody else can or should have theirs, is a rejection of the Authority that’s needed for profound common rituals.

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  • Kanizzle says:

    You still never gave us a wedding gift….

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  • Dustin says:

    Like Lemur said, this post is topically all over the place, so in that spirit, some thoughts:

    I embrace chaos more than plans and ritual at burns because the beauty chaos creates almost always exceeds anything we could come up with “by plan”. The amazing artistic synergies that come from everyone coming and sharing their individual passions each year easily surpasses whatever nutty theme Larry thought up (but I suppose he has to have something to do). I avoid reading too much about the art ahead of time so my first impression isn’t “oh, I read about that”. I try to have as few scheduled events as possible. Fuck the DJ schedule. Wake up. Grab your shit. Start walking. Don’t need a ritual for that. Or maybe that is MY ritual? hmmm…

    The Man burning used to feel like more of a ritual to me – it feels more like a performance nowadays. The conclave is definitely not a ritual or celebration anymore – it’s more like a fire-spinning circle jerk. I suppose the primal emotional connection to something that is purged and burned up has shifted to the Temple.

    I’m sure some hippies will stop by and explain how rituals are meant to ground us and remind us of basic connections and truths — and there’s certainly lots of that going on, but on a individual or small group level. I see more rituals at burningman than anywhere else in my life: Weddings, sunrise yoga, english tea, cocktail hours, cathartic interactive art, intentions… heck – group meals — all count as rituals in my book.

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  • g says:

    Hey! I just got invited to a wedding at the temple on saturday, how about that?

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  • Stilty says:

    I personally feel that burning man is a perfect environment for ritual and ceremony. Being loosely based on the older traditions and modernized to adapt with culture, it straddles the line between tradition and evolution. The hedonistic undertone can be a distraction, a part of the ritual or something to push against for discipline. Involving ceremony and ritual in my burn last year really made the experience much better and put me where I needed to be, restored my faith in humanity and challenged me to push my limits.
    If you can”t find the ritual there, try stilting for 11 hours (till bleeding) then walking across the embers of the temple (on stilts) after it has fallen and become a more intimate environment. Or find the equal in your medium since I don’t recommend it if you aren’t an expert stilt artist. My point: Burning Man can be as loose or serious, religious or agnostic, fun or miserable as you make it. I enjoy that flexibility.
    In my experience the best rituals come out of a spark but based on traditional discipline. Last year I attended a ceremony that the organizer didn’t attend, so we all had to lead. We took turns, shared styles and everyone seemed to take something different and give something to it. A beautiful experience, I was so inspired I woke up the next morning and went to the airport the see Black Rock City from the sky for the first time. I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it…
    Blessed Be

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  • willowbl00 says:

    Can’t the ritual be that of consent and joy?

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  • simon of the playa says:

    the best thing about doing blow off a hookers ass is the ritual involved beforehand.

    just sayin’.

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  • eclair says:

    What do you think ritual *is*? The things we do might be the same (watching the man burn, standing at a friend’s casket, sending out birth announcements, blowing out our birthday candles), but the way we do them and the way we feel while we’re doing them is different for everyone, sometimes for the same person doing them different times. That seems to me to be part of any modern-day ritual.

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  • fratboy69 says:

    eclair says:

    “What do you think ritual *is*? The things we do might be the same (watching the man burn, standing at a friend’s casket, sending out birth announcements, blowing out our birthday candles), but the way we do them and the way we feel while we’re doing them is different for everyone, sometimes for the same person doing them different times. That seems to me to be part of any modern-day ritual. ”

    While I completely understand the sentiment here, I think that this statement expresses the essential misunderstanding that motivates the objections on this thread. There is a false dichotomy here that suggests the only two elements of ritual are a) the repetitive act and b) the way we feel about that act. This leaves out something important that Caveat is talking about.

    A ritual that we consciously engineer is not a ritual. Sure, in a trivial anthropological sense, all rituals are man-made. But, what we forget, us moderns, is that rituals gained there power not from us as their conscious architects, but from Mystery. Mystery is what allows us to simultaneously engineer powerful rituals, yet all the while submitting to that power because we don’t consciously connect that ritual with OUR wishes, OUR personal desires.

    Mystery allows for an external force to develop and to take over the heavy lifting of imbuing our experience of ritual with meaning. And not simply subjective meaning. Something infinitely stronger than that. Objective meaning. The kind of meaning that can’t be subverted by switching the channel and selecting another option for how to parse our experience. With mystery (and the power that Mystery makes possible, Authority) we can participate in rituals that subject us to a Logos which is completely out of our control. Those are the conditions under which true rituals are possible. Without them, we can mimic the movements, share in a kind of atavistic appropriation of ritual that is geared towards our Modern subjectivist minds. But ultimately it will always by us, in a room with ourselves, making shadow puppets with no paper screen.

    Hands visible, magic minimal.

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  • Moze says:

    Mr. Magister here you go, my response http://blog.burningman.com/culture-art-music/initiations-and-salutations/ Please let me know what you think.

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  • As a newbie travelling from Australia this year, I am checking some of the postings at random. This discussion re ‘ritual’ caught my eye. Several years ago, my wife of 26 years died after a long battle with cancer. The week after she was cremated, I brought home the ashes from the funeral parlour and sat them on the piano, and then went outside to sit in the sun to read my newspaper and have a cuppa. As I sat there, I thought, “Cathy used to sit and read beside me here in the moring sun…” so I went back inside and grabbed the ashes, and sat them in her favourite spot, and went on with my reading and drinking. It felt ‘just right’… and then it also struck me: “Religions – from which most ‘rituals’ spring – are for people with no imagination.” MAKE YOUR OWN RITUALS!!! (I should also empahise that many people have ‘bucket lists’… my equivalent is what I call my “fuckit! list”… if I can do it, why not!!! (BTW: I hope to be with Golden Cafe camp – look me up!) Enjoy your next breath!!! Doug x

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