(This post is inspired by reading the final chapter of Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God.” Read all the book club entries for this book)
So here’s the thing about cults:
Every time one’s in the news or does something big – no matter where in the world – everybody in the media rushes to assure themselves that only losers belong to this organization: it’s for sexless poor people who just can’t hack it in modernity.
And every time – from Aum Shinrikyo in Japan to ISIS in the Middle East – they’re wrong. Every time we’re stunned to learn that many of the cultists/fundamentalists/terrorists were actually economically successful. That they had relationships, and families, and ties to the community.
Our delusion that successful IT managers or people with friends wouldn’t join a cult or strap on a suicide vest is the conjoined twin of a larger cultural delusion: that modernity offers everything we need to live satisfying lives.
The evidence is clear that for a huge swath of people, it doesn’t. If you add up:
- The people who seek solace and meaning through religion;
- To the people who (unprecedented in human history) need to take medication just to be functionally free of depression and anxiety
- To the people who are clinging to pseudo-scientific and New Age platitudes about “quantum weirdness” to find a sense of meaning
- To the people who are fanatically devoted to radical politics because the world as it is needs to change
- To the people who hold some abstract notion of “ART” as something that can never be understood except as a pure bringer of purpose where nothing else will do;
- To the people who hold some abstract notion of “SCIENCE!” as something that can bring all purpose and meaning to life if we were to just try harder to turn ourselves into beings of pure thought;
- To the people who aren’t any of these things but are unhappy and unsatisfied and running on a treadmill that feels like it isn’t getting anywhere …
Then you get most of the world’s population.
Let’s stop deluding ourselves: modernity has many good points. It offers unprecedented freedoms and opportunities and social advancements. But it leaves a giant void in most people that it cannot fill because it’s always trying to commercialize and monetize it. Turning lonely people into consumers does not make them less lonely – it only makes them consume more.
The result is seen in its starkest terms when people who have everything to live for in a modern society run off and join what amounts to a death cult: they need to make a drastic break because other is no other kind. There is no soft opt out.
Modernity not only does not offer a way out, it actively struggles to pull other systems in, appropriating and ruining them. Each one becomes a fad that other “winners” in modern society spend a great deal of money on (Yoga mats! Kabbalah! Zen retreats! And now … yes … Burning Man!), missing the point that by the time whatever-it-is becomes a commodity it is no longer an alternative to the system: it is a part of the system.
It is as good to be a King in modern society as it is anywhere else – but the fundamental unhappiness of modernity remains. Nobody has an out. And that’s why so many members of so many cults are not losers who couldn’t hack it but winners who couldn’t take it any more.
This is also why, in Eagleton’s opinion, the world might not be secularizing after all. “Free” without “happy” or even “meaningfully engaged” isn’t good enough. Thus spiritualism and religious fundamentalism are on the rise again around the globe – not just in spite of, but because of, the movement of our cultural elites into a post-modern world
“Western capitalism, in short, has managed to help spawn not only secularism, but also fundamentalism, a most creditable feat of dialectics,” Eagleton writes. A West which has finally reached the point where no one need believe in anything to get through the day – however miserable this makes us – confronts a renewed belief in a deity capable of answering all questions through strict doctrine. “Ideologically speaking,” Eagleton notes, “the West has unilaterally disarmed at just the point where it has proved most perilous for it to do so.”
Secularism is actually the least revolutionary of the two options, so far as modern capitalism is concerned, because (at least presently) it contains no grounds to stop any buying and selling. It has no values to proclaim are more sacred than the marketplace. In a baffling turn of historical irony, it is the atheists at this moment who are the defenders of the West’s status quo.
It is into this precarious balancing act that Burning Man falls like Lucifer.
In its earliest stages, to the extent Burning Man was known at all, its participants were accused of being Satanists, occultists, crazy-liberal-hippies – never “losers” exactly, but certainly people who were far, far out of the mainstream. Now, by contrast, we’re terrified that Burning Man is losing its edge because too many “winners” are showing up – too many billionaires, too many big name recording artists, too many powerhouse networkers trying to turn this into Davos in the Desert.
Some of them are here, surely, as a cynical act of bad faith: trying to appropriate, cash in, and be seen at the next thing-the-kids-do. (To be fair: some artists probably are too.) But while undoubtedly true that misses the larger context in which Burning Man operates. Where else do so many of the globetrotting masters of the universe go when they’re not at Burning Man? Why they go to Davos. And TED. And a dozen other high-powered conferences in which the well-heeled winners of capitalism proclaim amongst themselves that something has gone terribly awry with the world and we desperately need new thinking to save it.
It’s too late to ask whether, for a significant portion of the population – and the well-heeled far more than the downtrodden – Burning Man is going to be asked to shoulder up some of the social/psychological burden that religion carried in previous centuries: it already has been. Indeed, the furor that erupts over questions of ticket sales and fairness are so much more passionate here than in other aspirational events (can you imagine a scandal over whether Davos was distributing its invitations fairly, or TED wasn’t including enough low-income options?) precisely because it taps more successfully into that belief that there is something bigger, better, and beyond us that we can connect with. Where the Malcolm-Gladwell-lecture-circuit proposes that we can achieve great change by altering the logistics of how we use technology and apply government policy, Burning Man posits that we can fundamentally change our condition by better expressing our humanity.
What’s the difference? There are a number of them, and it’s perhaps worth going into in a separate post. But what matters here is that Burning Man has actual principles beyond just efficiency, innovation, and progress (which, taken one way, are not “principles” at all so much as a commitment to doing what we already do more effectively). The very act of stating – as Burning Man has – that there are at least 10 things that can actually be more important than cashing in makes it as close to a secular challenge to the malaise of secular modernity as we presently have. Right now it offers us a path whereby we can retain the freedoms of modernity while holding that there is something larger in our lives that we can access and commit to.
How does it do that? What does it offer which other things don’t to make this possible?
Eagleton’s analysis of the nature of belief suggests that there are two likely explanations – which are contradictory but not necessarily mutually exclusive across a population.
The first is that Burning Man represents the ultimate triumph of post-modernity over meaning: it is all dazzling surface, without any deeper significance,
We acknowledged that Burning Man had the potential to do just that in our analysis of Chapter 5, and it’s worth repeating here:
“What Nietzsche recognizes is that you can get rid of God only if you also do away with innate meaning. The Almighty can survive tragedy, but not absurdity. As long as there appears to be some immanent sense to things, one can always inquire after the source from which it springs. Abolishing given meanings involves destroying the idea of depth, which in turn means rooting out beings like God who take shelter there. Like Wilde in his wake, Nietzsche is out to replace what he sees as a vacuous depth with a profundity of the surface.”
A coherent case could be put together that this is actually Burning Man’s project too: that it replaces depth of shared meaning with arbitrary expectations of conduct (the 10 Principles) and the ability to Choose Your Own Epistemology while you skirt along a dazzling surface of fire-breathing sculptures, instillation art, and naked people that creates an amazing subjective experience but ultimately “means” nothing.
This is the ultimate reduction of all things to skin depth: Burning Man would reduce everything to the possibility and potential of new images, thus re-enchanting the world with possibility and potential. But the only thing any of these images could lead to would be other images, because that’s all there is: there’s not even a “subject” to watch them in any real sense, because to allow for a self that is more than a play of images is to allow for subjective depth. The world would be re-enchanted, but there would be so much less of it. To keep from getting modernity’s heartburn, we would replace our hearts with GIFs.
This is a fairly convincing description of the visual scenescape of Burning Man, but I find it unconvincing as a subjective experience of it. This doesn’t matter if subjectivity itself is on the way out – my opinion may be that of a caveman trying to reverse engineer the Big Bang – but so long as I have subjectivity I think it’s worth pointing out that this theory does not speak at all to Burning Man’s uniqueness: if all one really needs is a brilliant display of images combined with arbitrary rules of behavior, one can go to the movies. But not only is that not subjectively experienced as comparable, but the motives that bring people to Burning Man and the movies are tangentially related at best.
To better understand this other possibility, we return to the notion – brought up early and often in these essays – of “symbolic resources.”
I am very fond of a quote from legendary psychologist Rollo May that virtually all of contemporary psychotherapy can be seen as man crying out for mythology. There is considerable evidence suggesting that human beings need a kind of symbolic infrastructure in order to thrive: metaphorical stars by which to navigate, heavens to aspire to, and stories that make sense of our brief journey between ashes and dust. These things don’t emerge from scratch anymore than a post-industrial economy does. They require the symbolic equivalent to agriculture, power plants, stock exchanges, and meaningful currency, among many other contrived analogies.
The system of capitalist appropriation has thus far been unable to stop itself from trying to package these symbolic resources and sell them back to us – thus ruining them for their intended purpose. A symbolic resource that has a price has no value.
But symbolic resources may not have to be communal to have value – and this may be a vital difference from what’s come before. Eagleton devotes some scathing words to the Enlightenment atheists who believed that while Religion might be false it was still essential for the masses of people who needed something to believe in. (Religion was all well and good for the servants …) Beginning in the last century however, the work of Carl Jung, William James and others attempted to liberate “symbolic resources” from doctrinal collectivism: their belief was that individuals could develop their own personal mythologies, sufficient to connect them to life’s deeper meanings (whatever those may be).
It was an idea that modernity very much pays lip service to in principle, but that clearly hasn’t worked in practice. My belief is that Burning Man’s nascent success shows us why.
The first reason may just be fortuitous timing: to the extent that mythology must align to some degree with material conditions on the ground, it may be hugely relevant that we are in an young era with new forms of communication, new ways to organize communities, and new economic practices. Burning Man, after all, is influencing and influenced by the Maker Movement, the open source movement, and the rise of crowd funding and sourcing. Much more can be said about this, but for now we need only acknowledge that this probably isn’t an accident.
More specifically, Burning Man also stands as a bastion of community in the era of “bowling alone.” It’s surely no accident that virtually every religion that has withstood the test of time has emphasized community. While certainly many esoteric and mystical rituals involve spending time alone with the divine, the ordinary day-to-day work of religion is done in groups and communities. This matters in many ways we do understand, and likely in many ways we don’t, but the most obviously value for Burning Man is that the nature of the experience at the heart of Burner culture – “burning” itself – is exponentially magnified through group activity. The more people actively participate, the greater and more unexpected the experience of burning is. Burning Man does not deny the value of introspection (I think most of us do a lot at Burning Man), but the central experience requires collaboration and community and participation (etc.). Individualized faith has nothing to compare.
Burning Man’s emphasis on decommodification likewise makes it revolutionary: it is a direct shot across the bow of the mechanisms of appropriation, and creates not a safe space but a sacred one. Immediacy supports this as well: to focus on embodied experience in the moment is not to necessarily be a better person, but it is less compatible with a world of status symbols and aspirational neuroses.
The point being that this kind of collective environment appears to allow for the restoration of symbolic resources in individuals – even if the content of those resources is not collective, or even shared. The existence of the sacred liminal space itself is sufficient collective infrastructure to support individual’s symbolic resources. If true, Burning Man does not need to inspire a religious experience at all: it only needs to inspire. If it can do that it can offer way out of our present stand-off, with the forces of soulless appropriate on one side and the forces of theological certainty on the other.
Success is by no means guaranteed: Burning Man may yet fail where every other attempt to address the soulless nature of modernity has before. But the success of Burning Man so far strongly suggests to me that we have a working proof of concept.