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

From chapter 1:

“The critical, rationalist views of the Aufklarer involved an abrasive assault on the old order, but they were scarcely the kind of ideas that could easily legitimize a new regime.  For that, as we shall see later, there was need for more affective, affirmative values.  Rationalism was able to damage the credibility of the clerics, but not to step into their ideological shoes.”

“Once Reason cuts loose from the sensuous constraints of the body, it turns on humanity like a lunatic and tears it limb from limb.  A rationality unhinged from human fleshliness is a Lear-like form of insanity.”

“There can be no effective sovereignty without a foundation in lived experience, which is one reason why Reason feels the need for a kind of supplement or prosthesis known as the aesthetic.  For the most part, Enlightenment Reason lacked a corporeal presence, which the German Idealists and Romantics would seek to restore.”

“The problem is that any effective ideology must accomplish both tasks at once.  In order to be credible, and thus to win general consent, it must be rooted in what men and women actually do;  but in a society driven by appetite and self-interest it is therefore in danger of reflecting all the most disreputable kinds of value, and thus of failing to legitimize the social order.  Perhaps religion in a rationalized society can survive by reflecting the reified logic of everyday life, as in the Enlightenment’s ‘natural’ or ‘rational’ religion.  It does so, however, only at the risk of depleting its own symbolic resources.  Alternatively, it can retreat into Schwarmerei or fanaticism, cults of sentiment and the beautiful soul, mystical raivings, anodyne dreams of universal benevolence or plunge into the abyssal depths of the self.  If religion chooses this path, it preserves its symbolic resources, but must accept that they have less and less bearing on social existence as a whole.  In the modern period, art is plagued by a similar dilemma.”

“Hume famously denies that Reason can furnish a source of motivation.  Indeed, the more you ground morality in Reason, the more it may rob you of initiative.”


Chapter 2

“Art may be more palpable than philosophy, the image more cogent than the concept, but it tends to leave the populace almost as cold.  It is too minor a matter to replace religious faith, which links the daily conduct of countless ordinary men and women to the most sublime of truths.  No symbolic system in history has ever remotely rivaled it in this respect.  In the end, Idealism proved to cerebral a doctrine, as some Romantic authors were to protest.  It may have replaced the Reason of the philosophers with a somewhat less sanitized Spirit, but it found it hard to translate its truths into an everyday idiom.  For all their mystifications, this was not a mistake that the churches were prone to make.”

“That popular mythologies can be legislated into existence by philosophical fiat is itself, ironically, a rationalist assumption.  It is rather like imagining that one could dream to order.  Schelling speaks rather more realistically, though still with a touch of pathos, of waiting upon history ‘to return mythology to us as a universally valid form.”

“Mythology, like everything else, has its material conditions.  If Marx sees mythical thought as an early attempt to impose an order upon Nature, he also points out that it tends to disappear when this mastery has been achieved by modern technological means.  ‘Is the view of nature and of social relations that underlies the Greek imagination, and also therefore Greek mythology,’ he inquired in a celebrated passage,’ possible with automatic machines, railways, locomotives and telegraphs?  What chance has Vulcan against Roberts and Co., Jupiter against the lightning conductor, and Hermes against the credit mobiliser?’”

“One of the embarrassments of the industrial middle class, as we have seen already, is that its native styles of thought (rationalism, pragmatism, secularism, materialism, utilitarianism and the like) tend to undermine the very symbolic resources necessary for its own social reproduction.  It is hard to generate any very edifying world-view from such drably prosaic materials.  Liberalism and Utilitarianism do not fare well as symbolic forms.”

“Industrial capitalism accordingly finds it hard to generate an ‘organic’ ideology of its own, and so must have recourse to one imported from elsewhere.  Coleridge’s clerisy-ruled countryside, Thomas Carlyle’s feudal England and the secularized religion of Comte and Saint-Simon are cases in point.  … In a curious time warp, a hard-headed market society dreams romantically of dashing young aristocratic leaders and paternalist medieval abbots.  The humdrum prose of the present is forced to derive its poetry from the past.”

“It is not easy, then for an industrial capitalist order to come up with a vision that will seize the hearts and minds of the people.  It needs and admixture of more traditional values – faith, loyalty, reverence, organic bonds, transcendent truth, metaphysical sanctions, hierarchical order – if it is to make up for a certain emotional and symbolic deficit in its world-view.”

“The irony of the situation is plain.  The very system which discredits religion in its spontaneously secular dealings is also the one most urgently in need of the symbolic unity that religion can provide.  If traditional faith no longer offers such cohesion, new forms of it will have to be invented, all the way from mythology to the Religion of Humanity, Culture to Hellenism, high Victorian medievalism to F.H. Bradley’s neo-Hegelianism or Durkheim’s hypostasized Society.  You may ditch religious belief a la Nietzsche, demythologize it in the manner of the Feuerbachins, Saint-Simonians or Positivists, seek to transform the conditions which give birth to it in the style of Marx, treat it with F.D. Maurice as social critique rather than ruling ideology, or, as with Kierkegaard, greet the whole notion of social consensus with a certain radical-Protestant skepticism.  Yet it is hard not to feel that while religion in its classical forms is rapidly losing ground, the various regents and understudies for it on offer are for the most part too esoteric, rationalistic or downright implausible to merit much Credence.  It is unlikely that those who have turned their faces from the Pope in Rome will flock instead to the High Priest of Humanity in Paris, August Comte.”

“The Enlightenment, Herder charges, has served to justify colonial oppression, and in doing so has proved itself an anti-poetic power, stifling the folk from whom the truest poetry wells up.”

“In modern societies, understanding and imagination are likely to move in different domains.  What we can grasp intellectually gives the slip to concrete representation, such is its intricacy and impalpability.  The more abstract social existence grows, the more it drives a wedge between human faculties which (so the story goes) once consorted harmoniously with each other.  Yet the increasingly abstract condition of social life is also bound up with its alienated, fragmented nature;  so that in such fissparous circumstances, the state feels a particular need to forge its citizens into a corporate body  And this in turn generates the need for tangible icons and sensory images.”

“Both projects – the new mythology and the aesthetic – try to reinvent the janus-faced nature of religion, which looks to certain sublime truths on the one hand and to everyday existence on the other.”

“The aesthetic figures here as a whole alternative politics.  Perhaps it might better be called a non-political kind of politics, as in the lineage of Kulturkritik which stems from Schiller and his colleagues.  Culture or the aesthetic is now acting as a displacement of politics, as it is of theology. “

“Art takes the place of insurrection.  Bildung is the solution to social disaffection.  If this is so, however, it can only be because culture has already been defined in counter-revolutionary terms.  It is really a synonym for moderation and many-sidedness.”


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

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