(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.
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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