Our Cargo Cult

I love what my friend Caveat wrote about the Cargo Cult theme. He is beyond correct that we’ve got a narrow road to walk through a mine field of cultural explosives. But I have a smaller, simpler question about this year’s theme:

Who is Larry Harvey?


As far as I know, he is a white man who came up with an idea to burn an effigy on a beach for profoundly deep reasons known only to him, though the people say it might have been about a woman. The people were moved by this gesture. They saw great power in it. So they went back the next year, and they did it again.

Soon more people flocked to see the Burning Man. They heard it was a display of great power. Before long, the original purpose no longer mattered as much as the Burn itself. When the Man had crumbled into embers and ashes, all the people knew was that they had to return the following year and do it again.

More and more people came. They moved to the desert, where they had more room. A festival bloomed. A temporary city grew up around the Man. Each year, the people brought more and more of the trappings of city life, trying to create some enduring importance for this ritual. And each year, they burned the Man, and then all that was left was to pack up their cargo and go home.

Over many years, the legend became myth. The myth of the Old Days. The myth of Before The Blinky Lights. The myth of No Tourists. The myth of The Real Burning Man.

And the people thought the Old Days were over. They thought Burning Man was gone and would never return. They cried and wailed and complained. But they kept coming back. They just kept coming back and burning the Man again, just hoping that this year, at last, Larry Harvey would reveal what Burning Man means.

Do you think he’ll save us this time?

Photos by Scott London

About the author: Jon Mitchell

Jon Mitchell

, a.k.a. Argus, was publisher of the Burning Man Journal, the Jackrabbit Speaks newsletter, and the Burning Man website from 2016 to 2019. He joined the Comm Team as a volunteer in 2010 and as year-round staff in 2014. He co-wrote a big story about spending 24 hours at the Temple of Juno in 2012. His first Burn was in 2008.

11 Comments on “Our Cargo Cult

  • Man. You guys are taking this stuff way too seriously.

    It’s just Burning Man.

    Give it a rest.

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  • Jon Mitchell says:

    That was a boring comment. Be less hipster.

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  • G says:

    Reveal what Burning means?
    Why would Mr. Harvey reveal the meaning of burning Man? How could he? Why would he? That would spoil the whole thing. All great art is ambiguous. With the Mons Lisa even be known at this point in history if Leonado da Vinci had spelled out exactly what the painting was all about in his own mind?

    Will Larry Harvey save us?
    I have also heard some indications that the whole Burning Man thing has grown up around him. He has become a symbolic figurehead surrounded by sycophants and enablers, and I don’t mean that in derisive way. Human nature is to form organizations, most often behind a dominant/symbolic figurehead (commomly male) at the top. They become something like the queen bee in a bee hive. (or the Queen of England, for that matter) The whole hive functions with the queen bee at the center. She does nothing except to eat, excrete, and drop eggs eggs .
    We are all just social monkeys with extra toolmaking abilities after all. Burning Man is undeniably a social hierarchy.

    Allow me to be a bit enigmatic and throw this out. Is Larry Harvey in fact the Burning Man culture’s John Frum / Handsome Lake / Hong Xiuquan / Anagarika Dharmapala?

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  • G says:

    My proof reading sucks.

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  • Cusster says:

    “It’s just Burning Man”? Someone doesn’t “get it”…

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  • DPTV says:

    One time I knew somebody who “got” burning man. They were really annoying.

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  • montgomery_ryan@hotmail.com says:

    If Larry Harvey explaining what Burning Man is turns out to be anything like George Lucas’ unwieldy explanation of The Force in the prequels then I don’t want to have anything to do with it.

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  • Wawu Balabaloo says:

    Larry is a form of Frum. Kind of like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, though he doesn’t hide.. he holds the cohesive idealistic vision staunchly for others to wiz-up their own magic to share, as he has said what it means in so many terms… that it is up to you to interpret what the burn means for yourself. I would happily say that, ironically, it’s our collective madness that is our savior.

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  • fancipants says:

    the meaning of Burning Man?
    hmmmm well it can be completely different for each unique participant imo. what one brings to the annual week long event and what they will find out about themselves in the process is again a very individual based experience which can really only fairly be defined by that person. that’s why Burners have such a hard time trying to explain to their Virgin friends what it’s all about. you have to prepare, get there, get dusty, find your way around the city, get lost, survive the heat, make new friends, share space, try new things and let go of any expectations before you can even try to define this multifaceted magical place!

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  • jack johnson says:

    As 5th year attendee, I can say that the Burning Man event is a cultural phenomena . What one experiences is solely personal and unique. One can bring away from this experience only what they have absorbed. But to relate that to someone not familiar with the BM culture, is a difficult task. We all attend to socialize and interact with the BM event in different ways, whether it be volunteering to support our fellow burners or engage in presentation of relatable Art. I will be looking forward to another year on the Playa, to meet new friends and experience wonderful art and interesting people.

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  • oboepollo says:

    Stop the complaint department. You all see the amount of work that goes into this entire thing and you know its magical events and memories will never be forgotten. 380 for Assn entire ween offs more than fair. About fifty dollars a day for break down and it goes all night. Come on now…yall know you have spent fifty for a one night party that was what maybe eight hours in a contained area… If you don’t want to go then don’t…its simple. The price is fair. It costs money to very there but once your there what do u buy…ice? In theory you can go and offer your blessings and friendship and help or trinkets and eat for free the entire time. I fed so many people do you think creating this party, structures land, workers, clean up and behind the scenes s cheap? So shut it…go or don’t…its worth every damn dollar

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