Burning Book Club – Chapter 2 – (Part 1) A Mythology Pro-Tip for Atheists

Book Burning(We’re basing this discussion on Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God.” Read all the book club entries)

My response to Chapter 2 – The German Idealists – was getting so long and convoluted that I decided to split it into a couple of short, convoluted, essays that I’ll post this week.  I should have known that no discussion involving the philosophy of Immanuel Kant could be kept to a sensible blog post.  This entire book club is a terrible idea.  I apologize.  

How many Burners are German Idealists and don’t even know it?

To find out, let’s read Terry Eagleton’s description of the German Idealist dream circa the 1800s, only replace the word I’ve bolded with “Burning Man.”

“The fractured bonds between citizens, as well as the threatened alliance between Nature and humanity, might be restored by a communality of image and belief.  Coterie ideas and common opinions, high theory and popular practice, would no longer be at daggers drawn.  Myth would serve as a mode of displaced religion, uniting the mystical and the mundane, priest (or philosopher) and laity (or common people) in a shared symbolic order.  The abyss opened up by the Enlightenment between a coterie who lived by the idea and a populace who lived by the image might accordingly be bridged.”

Convinced yet?  It goes on.  Replace “poet or philosopher” with “artist.”

“The poet or philosopher would be invested with the status of secular priest and art or mythology converted into a set of quasi-sacred rites.  The damage to the human spirit inflicted by individualism, as well as by a withered rationality for which Nature was so much dead matter, might thus be repaired.  A more organic ideology of everyday life would evolve, one which reunited the cognitive, ethical, and aesthetic domains.”

Admit it – you’ve heard a regional rep in a mesh body suit give this exact speech.  These are sentiments I’ve heard often (if less eloquently) from those Burners who believe Burning Man is more than a fantastic party, who see Burning Man as the next major step in the evolution of a sustainable global culture.

Which is a problem, because German Idealism didn’t really go anywhere.

Don’t get me wrong, it was HUGE in the 1830s, but it hasn’t appeared at any major festivals lately.  You only see it  popping up when somebody quotes Immanuel Kant in a high school debate tournament, or when somebody proposes a “science of history” to incorrectly predict what will inevitably happen next.

While the German Idealists’ critique of religion is every bit as trenchant as their critique of rationalism, as effectively as they identified “the problem,” their solutions ultimately satisfied no one and (if pressed too hard) tended to dissolve into mumbling about “spirit” with no substance.

To the extent Burners are closet German Idealists, we should take it as a warning sign to do better.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is that Burning Man is waaaay more fun than German Idealism ever was.  We’ve got that going for us.

“Mythology, like everything else, has its material conditions,” Eagleton writes.  And in this chapter, more than the others so far, Eagleton reveals his sympathies with the Marxist take on culture – and the cultural moment we find ourselves in.  What if “myth” is not conditioned by sociology, but technology?

“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 inquires 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 mobilizer?”

The fact that myths have a material component suggests to materialists that myths are themselves subject to manipulation the same way we manipulate construction materials.  But this is a grave error:  “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.”

So modernity has changed the material conditions out of which myths come, but not changed our need for myth – or made us any better at manipulating it.

This returns us to the need for “symbolic resources,” and the idea that modern societies pathologize them.   The poisoning of mythology is one more form of environmental devastation wrought by industrialization.

“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.  Besides, individualism is a divisive doctrine, and as such inhospitable to the idea of a corporate identity.  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.”

That does sound like us, doesn’t it?  And like the myriad Burning Man camps which take their inspiration from the historical periods of cultures they probably don’t understand at all.

And Burning Man itself?  Why would we even bother coming to the desert if we weren’t caught in this trap?   Who doesn’t go here … even those for whom it’s just an amazing party … in order to have mythical experiences and recharge a kind of imaginative energy that daily life tends to drain from us?

“The more rationalized social life grows, the more vital this strategy becomes, but by the same token the more implausible it tends to appear.  Textile manufacturers do not generally make convincing epic heroes, and industrial Manchester is hard to recast as a medieval monastery.  At the root of the problem lies the fact that economic life under capitalism is less dependent on extra-economic values than previous modes of production.  One does not hammer steel for the sake of God, honor, Fatherland, or paternalist lord.  Since economic activity is without much built-in spiritual purpose, that meaning has to be imported from elsewhere, and the join is awkwardly apparent. 

The Irony of this 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.”

Burning Man approaches this, first and foremost, by recasting the question of “what we labor for.”  People tend to focus on the “gift economy” and “decommodification” as being all about money – but as I’ve argued elsewhere, that’s not possible.  The “gift economy” has nothing to do with economics, and decomomdification has everything to do with people, not currency.

But what gifting and decommidification do accomplish is to recast that question of what labor is for:  it takes the emphasis off of generating wealth for the self, or (worse) for its own sake, to make labor become a communal activity again – we labor to give.  We labor for others.  And it turns out that this alone is sometimes enough to open the door to a re-enchanted world.  This doesn’t actually require a lack of currency on-playa per see:  but I think a winning argument can be made that in a culture as deeply sunk into consumer-capitalist habits as ours, the only way to get it through to people that they need to take gifting and decommodification seriously is to eliminate the commodities we use in ordinary transactions.

And this right here is something that distinguishes Burning Man from the German Idealists, as well as being a potentially useful materialistic/atheistic principle for dealing with spiritual resources:  if you want to change the mythology, change the economic/material conditions on the ground.

This is a particularly interesting point considering the way modern society often turns to the cultures that capitalism conquered … where we forced the conditions on the ground towards our way of life … for a set of “quick fix” spiritual resources.  Consumer capitalism prefers to turn to cultures that it all but wiped off the map than to itself for spiritual resources.  As do Burning Man camps.  The faux Buddhism and Hinduism, the imitation of generic “Native American” and “tribal” cultures … does this represent a continued pillaging of conquered peoples for their resources?  Having extracted their minerals, do we now seek to turn their spiritual resources into our trinkets … and thereby render them useless?

“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,” Eagleton notes.   Thus not only do many Burning Man camps turn their heads away from modern Western culture, but Burning Man itself has recently dabbled in themes that beg for the history of colonialism to be examined.  “Cargo Cult” last year, “Caravansary” this year – these are themes that almost demand an accounting from our cultural conquests and appropriations.

But if that’s where the imaginative resources are to be located, why wouldn’t Burning Man go there?  (A question colonialists, by definition, have no answer to.)  It’s not coincidental that both of these themes generated significantly more excitement than “Evolution” or “The American Dream.”  Cultures always follow their imaginations, even when they’re borrowed from outside sources.  Indeed, even in the temples of modern materialism, who has a greater command of our imaginations:   Niel DeGrasse Tyson, or Doctor Who?  Hint:  scientists only write fan fiction about one of them.  There is no doubt the Cosmos can inspire:  I suggest that anyone who isn’t inspired by the universe as revealed through astrophysics doesn’t understand it.  But symbolically it’s a dead end unless it submits itself to poetry.

Yet poetry itself has become more problematic in modernity, in ways that have had serious ramifications for Burning Man as an “art event” or – more broadly – a culture of art.  We cannot turn to Art the way we once could:  as Eagleton noted in the preface, the fact that we don’t hang artists anymore is indicative of the loss of power art has to move us.  As he notes in this chapter:

“Art could provide an image of social reality for the ancient Greeks, but only because their world lacked the theoretical self-consciousness of modernity, art for Hegel being a largely unconscious affair.  In such conditions, the artist was able to articulate the world-view of an entire culture.  Now, however, the work of art is resonant of little beyond itself.  That this is so is a sign of its emancipation, but also of its evisceration.  It is restricted by its very nature to a specific content and so is unable to provide the age with an image of totality – a totality which has become as sublimely unrepresentable as the Almighty himself, and which only the concept can now hope to yield to us.  As David Roberts writes, ‘art now finds its full comprehension and justification only in theory.’”

Well shit.  When was the last time you were moved by a really compelling piece of art theory?

Burning Man may be one of the few places in modern culture where art matters more than art theory.  So what are we doing here?  Looked at through this lens, it seems to me that Burning Man (the event) is creating a liminal space wherein we can significantly change the material/economic circumstances under which we live, and shake off the modern self-consciousness we constantly carry, to rediscover art and possibility in a way that modernity denies us … and in that exposure to art and possibility “in the raw” (as it were), regain symbolic resources.

What Burning Man (the culture) does is try to extend the liminal space farther out to make this possible everywhere.

Does that sound reasonable?  Or is it too pat a “theory of everything?”  It’s hard for me to tell if this insight is helpful, or if it actually leaves us further behind where we started.  If the German Idealists proved anything, it’s that even Spirit can be talked to death.

Everyone is welcome to comment in this space, though only comments germane to the topic at hand will be kept.  To join the Burning Book Club, just say you want to join in the comments section and leave an accurate email in the “email” field.

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

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

8 Comments on “Burning Book Club – Chapter 2 – (Part 1) A Mythology Pro-Tip for Atheists

  • SpirtBunny says:

    “Who doesn’t go here … even those for whom it’s just an amazing party … in order to have mythical experiences and recharge a kind of imaginative energy that daily life tends to drain from us?”

    So Burning Man is spiritual,. Okay. It wasn’t very long ago at all that BMorg steered FAR clear of publicly making any connection with the event and what is nebulously referred to as ‘spirituality’. That was left to each individual if they wanted to make that connection, but now it seems ‘spirituality’ is BM’s official religion.

    I can see how atheists wouldn’t really fit well into this scheme. Perhaps they need to be convinced through social pressure that yes, Joe Atheist, you really do have a spirt and you can connect with it at Burning Man. Just stop with all the non-believing stuff, it drags the rest of us down and it won’t get you invited to many parties, and it certainly won’t get you laid. Just go along, Joe. You’re spiritual now.

    There’s BIG money in selling spirituality, always has been. Seems BMorg has found a new profit center.

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  • It was on fire when I got here says:

    Athiest only means that you are not a Theist.
    You do not live your life as if there is a singular omnipotent ruler orchestrating the universe and humanity.
    Theism and Spirituality are completely different things.
    An athiest can have profound spiritual experiences both on and off the playa.

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  • Caveat Magister says:


    Atheists don’t fit in this “scheme?” Are you kidding me?

    The book we’re reading is called “Culture and the Death of God,” and is about how culture is and isn’t changing as it secularizes.

    How is that hostile to atheists?

    A chunk of this post talks about the material conditions required for myth, and even quoted Karl “Opium of the Masses” Marx about it.

    None of these discussions is this series have presupposed a need for the supernatural – even as they have acknowledged a basic human need to make meaning in the world that connects us to something larger than ourselves.

    Atheists are absolutely welcome. There is no “official religion” or perspective at Burning Man.

    That most especially includes mine. I’m not a Burning Man employee, and never have been. I’m a volunteer. No one at Burning Man reviews my posts before I publish them. This book club came about because I was reading “Culture and the Death of God” and thought “Wow, this really speaks to a lot of the conditions Burning Man appeals to be acting in.” Far from being a deliberate attempt to cash in on spirituality, it is my quixotic attempt to read a book that I thought was relevant to Burning Man in public. No one at Burning Man knew it was coming.

    Which is to say: don’t mistake anything I write for part of a well thought out plan.

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  • Air Freshener says:

    Another advantage that Burning Man has over German Idealism is that it doesn’t attempt to systematise everything. Maybe the key to replacing religion is in separating ethics from metaphysics, if that’s even possible. It feels as if there’s room at Burning Man for all kinds of metaphysics. I’ve encountered people who believe in Jesus, UFOs, crystal energy, etc. But despite such varied beliefs, they all believe in being kind to one another (for the most part, and perhaps only temporarily.). The Dalai Lama has said that his religion is kindness, and that comes as close to a religion that I could subscribe to as anything else. But even Tibetan Buddhism involves a metaphysical belief in reincarnation that I could do without.

    Burning Man is also notable for turning virtue back into something that is self-delighting. Ever since Kant and the Victorians, virtue has become associated with duty, obligation and prudence. Some have associated this with the material conditions that accompanied the rise of the middle-classes. Vice has become far more interesting than virtue. If you look at books or movies, it’s often the villain who has the best tunes. Burning Man is one of those rare inversions where what is hedonistic is actually what is valued as good by the society.

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  • SpirtBunny says:

    @It was on fire when I got here

    Atheists are just defined as non-theists? So they’re free to be Wiccas and believe in the power of Tarot card readings, and fairies and the Easter Bunny? They’re free to believe that an ancient lake bed in Nevada is a ‘spiritual’ (whatever that means) place because it’s generally agreed by a large loose collective that populates the real estate once a year?

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  • Dom aka "Dom" says:

    Interesting post Caveat,

    Looking at some of the conversation so far, I have a few thoughts:

    The Marxist idea of technology as what imposes order upon nature is an interesting one to ponder when it comes to the last few years of Burning Man, because we have been really affected by it. Burning Man is an event that is ideal for the age of social media and viral video, and it has become pretty apparent since about 2010 or 2011. We have reached a moment where there will probably not be a BM that goes by without a time-lapse video, a clever homemade music video with a catchy song, or 300 short “documentary” style films available on Youtube of someone trying to find “meaning” in this whole thing. One of the things I have noticed with my friends who have never been there is the extent to which I have to explain to them that “No, No… the environment of the playa can really…. really… suck and you might hate it there”. There will more than likely be at least one dust storm where you look at your tent and think “Damn sure hope I staked that down well enough”, you will deal with some dehydration, and you will probably get very grouchy for weather and environment related reasons. The playa looks very benign on an iPhone screen…. so technology has affected the “remoteness” aspect of BM in a very real way.

    For me personally, that was always one of the more alluring things about it. It was so damn hard to make it there (from outside the Bay Area or Nevada at least). It took me 8 years from the moment I decided I wanted to go to the point where I made it there because something would always happen to wreck my plans. It seems almost silly to write that last sentence now, because technology has made the playa seem so accessible.

    So we seem to wrap ourselves up in new myths as a result, largely around the 10 Principles. Do not get me wrong, I think the Principles are cool and all, but I get nervous when someone describes our culture as a “commitment to principles” or “guided” by them. It has become our own myth-like way of talking about our event. An event that at one time or another, the following things were true:

    – You could possess and shoot firearms for a lot of early years and there was a drive-by shooting range.

    – Someone had a place called McSatan’s where you could purchase food

    – There was no such thing as Leave No Trace and we left massive burn scars on the playa surface

    – Even into the 21st Century, some things operated on the barter system, not gifting.

    – Some people reacted very negatively to the introduction of electronic music at BM

    In my most cynical times, I look at the 10 Principles as little more than Franchise Guidelines. People were throwing regional events and wanted to call them “burns” so people made up the 10 Principles to make sure there was some uniformity in what can be called a “burn”. This does not make them bad (I really like all of them), but they have become a new form of Burner myth. For better or worse, they are part of our narrative, a narrative that has taken a new turn as technology has affected BM. This will continue and affect the Principles themselves more and more as well, do not even begin to get me thinking about what “Radical Self Reliance” means once we have effective and cheap 3D Printers to use on the playa…

    But these are just my ramblings…. I am probably wrong

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  • Larry Harvey says:

    I believe that Caveat is right when he says, “People tend to focus on the gift economy and decommodification as being all about money – but as I’ve argued elsewhere, that’s not possible. The gift economy has nothing to do with economics, and decommodification has everything to do with people, not currency.” To imagine that the world at large could be solely animated by one great gift “economy” is a sentimental folly on a par with imagining that by self-consciously adopting the appropriated trappings of “tribalism” we might somehow become “noble savages”. The great utility of money in a marketplace is that it makes it possible for us to acquire goods and services that have been assembled as a result of numberless exchanges that occur throughout the span of complex trading networks. To make a purchase is to acquire manifold resources whisked to us, as it seems, by a kind of magic carpet, and this crucially serves the unique aims of the individual. This quicksilver transmission of value is only made possible because these transactions, unlike gifting, do not depend on deeply felt personal relationships. Those resources that both participants and the event organization bring to Burning Man, and then transform into radical self-expression and gifting, are necessarily acquired in a more or less impersonal marketplace, and to pretend otherwise is to devalue both individual liberty and the fabric of civilization.

    Yet I also agree with him when he states that Burning Man, “…takes the emphasis off of generating wealth for the self, or (worse) for its own sake, to make labor become a communal activity again – we labor to give. We labor for others. And it turns out that this alone is sometimes enough to open the door to a re-enchanted world”. I will go further than this and suggest that our cultural practice is in some ways cognate with the sense of sacredness that is typical of all religion. Religion always reaches toward the “unconditional”, something that is held to be realer than real and that is experienced as a wellspring of being. Sacred things, in this conception, are unlike anything else in our world. They cannot be defined by light that falls upon them, but are felt to radiate a kind of inner light that shines through us. They have the quality of what is called the numinous—a unique glamour, a supernatural potency, an eerie kind of presence that is said to mark the hyper-real, and through an act of witness, it is held, they can transfigure what we are.

    In the case Burning Man, however, we have dispensed with supernatural unconditionality. Instead of deity or demiurge, we have created an event that is one long meditation on and rehearsal of the unconditional value of gifts. The principle of Gifting states this very simply, “The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value”. There is nothing particularly abstruse or hypothetical in this proposition – even a child can easily and intuitively understand it. Gifting is also threaded through two other principles and forms a kind of discourse. Decommodification is said to be undertaken in order, “to preserve the spirit of gifting”, and Radical Self-expression is described as arising, “from the unique gifts of the individual”. It should be noted that here the idea of a gift has shifted from meaning a thing or action that is freely offered to another person, and now refers to those innate abilities with which we’re naturally endowed. Such qualities, in this conception, are simply given to us unconditionally and may be said to exceed our conscious control. They arise from deep within us irrespective of earned merit and in flowing through us they are felt to have a power that can alter who and what we are. I think that most creative people intuitively understand this, and thus one might regard gifts in their passage as bearers of greater being. This is a very different value system than that afforded in the marketplace. When such a circulation of gifts occurs at a societal scale, as in Black Rock City, I believe it can intimately affect the choices that we make as consumers and producers in our everyday lives. In any healthy society these two regimes – the one profane, the other sacred – should be allowed to co-exist, and this may be what Jesus of Nazareth was getting at when he purportedly said that we should render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.

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