Last year I started reading literary scholar Terry Eagleton’s book “Culture and the Death of God,” and I was so struck by what I saw as its relevance to Burning Man’s place in the modern world that I said “I’ll start a book club on the Burning Blog so anyone interested can read it with me!”
It was a terrible idea. Just terrible. And then Burning Man happened, and I was so busy that I stopped reading the book for a while and … just terrible.
It’s 2015 now, and I’d really like to finish the book, and as long as I’m reading it, I might as well finish the book club thing to. Why? Because my parents always said “Eat everything on your plate, young man,” and that’s why I have high blood pressure today.
Going over old book club entries, I also continue to be impressed by what I see as a connection between the long-standing cultural movements that Eagleton is incisively presenting and the potential place for Burning Man in contemporary culture. So .. what the hell.
The next book club entry, on Chapter 5 (“The Death of God”) will appear in about two weeks. In the meantime, if you don’t want to read (or re-read) all the previous entries, here’s an “our story so far” summary – not, strictly speaking, what Eagleton is saying about history and culture so much as my gloss on what the subjects covered all suggest.
… goddamit, this is a terrible idea. I hope you enjoy.
Unless they have a mystical union with the ineffable, human beings need to make meaning in order to thrive. Thus we create symbols, and symbols stacked on top of one another in a certain way create myths. We use our symbolic resources to create (or discover?) the myths we need to thrive. Myths (meant broadly) are the narrative bedrock of culture. Healthy cultures are compelled by their mythology. Unhealthy cultures – decadent cultures – have no stories that guide them, only competing interests.
But mythology is dependent upon the material conditions on the ground. The philosophy of the ancient Greeks still has much to offer us in the 21st century, but the mythology of the ancient Greeks simply can’t cope with a world in we fly jet planes, drop bombs, and watch it all online. Hence nobody takes Zeus seriously outside of archeologists, comic book writers, and the showrunners of an upcoming “Zeus!” dramedy about an angry God visiting Portland and looking for love in all the wrong places.
Technological changes have the capacity to undermine and destroy old myths, requiring the development of new ones. This has created a historical pattern of cultures and mythological systems rising and falling in accordance with material conditions. (Eagleton used to be a good Marxist, and Marx was a good Hegelian).
All this changed, however, as the West began to enter the “modern” period. (Let’s say beginning loosely in around 1500, though different places began this movement at different times.) The cycle ended.
Something about modernity – its pace of change, the extent of its belief in progress, its rejection of the sacred in favor of the material, and especially its hunger for the buying and selling of commodities – makes it incapable of creating new mythologies. Modern cultures are quite capable of telling stories – the novel, the movie, and psychoanalysis comes out of this period. And modern cultures are quite capable of deluding themselves (insert your own example here), but their attempts at myth making – mass racism, nationalism, and fascism – have ended in disaster. Modern cultures simply do not seem to be capable of producing the symbolic resources that people need to thrive. It “disenchants” the world, and doesn’t know how to stop.
So what did modern culture do as a stopgap measure to buy itself time? It plundered. First it raided its own past, bringing up old mythologies and trying to breathe new life into them (occultism and the fetishization of the ancient Greeks and Romans both fall under this approach), and then it raided the cultures it was conquering for their symbolic resources – thus leading to hordes of well meaning white people claiming to be the spiritual descendants of Native American shamans; the gifted trainees of Buddhist monks; and the incarnations of Hindu gods.
Symbolically speaking, modernity is colonialism. We’ve raided the cultural and symbolic resources of the developing world the way we stole their minerals and land.
But none of this lasts, because not only were the mythologies we raided uprooted from the material conditions in which they made sense and transplanted into conditions in which they were not nurtured, but also because it they were broken down into component parts and sold as commodities – high end yoga mats, sweat lodges for rich narcissists, community annex classes, and eastern religion “lifestyle” catalogs – because that’s what modernity does. The very act of holding nothing sacred is the act of commoditizing, and it is innately hostile to mythology. These other mythologies may have a great deal to offer us, but not as lifestyle accessories, which is the only way most people can access them.
As it started running out of cultures to raid, Western culture began attempting to create “religion substitutes” – asking Art and Culture and Nation to step in and fill the void. All of these could take on some of the capacities that religion had filled, but none could satisfactorily perform all of them, and one by one they ended up either being watered down versions of a faith in a generic “something” (Art and Culture), or leading us down dangerous paths (Nation). We have tried many times to create a substitute for religion in human life, but we tend to just graft religious (and especially Judeo-Christian) impulses and beliefs on to whatever we have handy. This effort inadvertently suggests that a world without religion would be functionally identical as a world with it … a highly questionable assumption. A truly atheistic world would likely have very different basic premises than the ones developed through religious thought. Meanwhile these substitute religions has notably failed to deliver anything that people can – or at least want to – live with. They’re still searching.
The closest we seem to be able to come is the creation of a genuine mythology are pop stars, which are to mythology what voyeurism is to sex, and internet memes, which are to mythology what dirty limericks are to sex.
Into this comes Burning Man. As a young artistic movement, Burning Man demonstrated a capacity to re-enchant the world – to create symbolic resources that people found they could use in their daily lives – without demanding that anyone give up the advantages of modernity or follow a new creed. In fact, Burning Man was (and is) most appealing to people who had all the advantages of the modern economy. People who didn’t need security – which Burning Man does not provide and arguably reduces – but were in great need of creativity, authenticity, and community (which Burning Man offers like candy) were able to come and find symbolic resources that they otherwise were not producing themselves.
Burning Man grew in large part because of this winning combination: it offered something that Western society as a whole was lacking, and demanded no major sacrifices (outside of a week in the desert) in return. The reward was high and the bar to participation was low.
What was both novel and very “of its time” was a curious twist: Burning Man provided the “symbolic resources” with which individuals could build or reinforce their own mythologies, but did not actually provide any kind of mythology which it asked them too. The 10 Principles were developed after the fact and are more explanatory than enforced, and the Burning Man experience (which is far more essential than the Principles) has been found usefully supportive of the world views of committed Christians (such as pastor Phil Wyman); materialist atheists (like Larry Harvey himself), and a vast spectrum of people radically in-between or elsewhere (most of us). In this, Burning Man has adopted the radical individualism of western modernity, while also believing that if viable symbolic resources are provided, people who would never give individualism no matter how tired they are of will use these resources to build bridges and voluntarily establish a common culture. Burning Man was a kind of Maker Movement for Jungian archetypes.
That was then, this is now.
As Burning Man has grown in the world, it has faced the challenge that all modern counter-cultures face: appropriation. Like all successful counter-culture movements that came before, Burning Man finds itself being celebrated in a way that gentrifies it, and by gentrifying destroys what makes it actually challenging. Can Burning Man survive as a true alternative to the deathwork that modernity has become – can it continue to create symbolic resources useful to people who want to live with the advances of the 21st century – as it is transformed by success into a part of the establishment?
Maybe: the material conditions on the ground are significantly different than they ever have been before. The digital and sharing economies along with block chain technologies and 3D printing, among other factors, may mean that a Burning Man ethos is actually more effective at generating shared prosperity than is a corporate one. But the fact that no other movement has been able to usefully survive mass appropriate should give us serious pause.
Burning Man can succeed as a generator of symbolic resources in the 21st century if it can represent something that cannot be bought – if (to use the language of its 10 Principles) its self-expression and community and inclusiveness and all the rest truly cannot be commitidized. To the extent Burning Man is ever for sale, it will fail. To the extent that it represents something that cannot be sold – only given – it will represent a true alternative.
What that will look like, how it will work, and exactly what it has to offer are questions we still don’t have answers to. We likely won’t really know until after the fact. But it seems likely that there are clues out there – educated guesses, waiting to be guessed.
To be continued in two weeks.