Part of the blog series for the 2017 theme, Radical Ritual.
You don’t need to be a Burning Man veteran to realize that Radical Ritual, the 2017 art theme, shamelessly rips off Beyond Belief, the 2003 theme. Don’t believe me? Look it up. Sure, that year’s Man stood on top of a vaguely Mesoamerican pyramid, and this year’s Man will be shrouded by a vaguely East Asian temple, but these visual discrepancies and a few textual cuts notwithstanding, the rest of this year’s theme is a nearly word-perfect copy. This isn’t the first time he’s repeated himself; Fertility and Fertility 2.0 leaps to mind. Is Larry intentionally trolling us by recycling yet another theme?
A clever troll impersonating Burning Man CEO “Maid” Marian Goodell implied as much in an appropriately snarky comment below the 2017 theme text:
Please accept our apologies. This item went to print prematurely with placeholder text.
We are proud to announce the 2017 theme: Phoning It In.
Did Larry really phone this in? In this age of “alternative facts”, are we simply post-theme, as if not having a difference doesn’t make a difference anyway? Indeed, while semi-publicly pondering the name of this year’s theme at the Burning Man Philosophical Center Symposium at Esalen last fall, he expressed surprise when a longtime Burning Man staffer pointed out that Radical Ritual sounded a whole lot like Beyond Belief 2.0.
But whether Larry means us to or not, maybe we can take this opportunity to draw a deeper lesson about the radical relation between ritual and repetition.
Burning Man, like any ritualized space, event, or culture, is built on repetition. The word “ritual” itself is typically defined precisely in such terms: “an established or prescribed procedure for a religious or other rite”. A procedure is a process that can be repeated. Archaeologist Ian Watts has described “collective ritual” as having “formal characteristics of amplified, stereotypical, redundant display” — all apt terms for Black Rock City, where urban design and ritual practice have been repeating with slight variations for decades now, directed by a quasi-ecclesiastical authority in San Francisco. But what does it mean when an art theme implicitly about repetition is itself explicitly repetitive? Is Larry taking Burning Man in a hopelessly meta direction? (asks the Meta-Regional).
Repetition, like any concept worth thinking with, is more slippery than it looks. Philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote in Difference and Repetition: “To repeat is to behave in a certain manner, but in relation to something unique or singular which has no equal or equivalent. And perhaps this repetition at the level of external conduct echoes, for its own part, a more secret vibration which animates it, a more profound, internal repetition within the singular. This is the apparent paradox of festivals: they repeat an ‘unrepeatable’. They do not add a second and a third time to the first, but carry the first time to the ‘nth’ power. With respect to this power, repetition interiorizes and thereby reverses itself: as Peguy says, it is not Federation Day which commemorates or represents the fall of the Bastille, but the fall of the Bastille which celebrates and repeats in advance all the Federation Days; or Monet’s first water lily which repeats all the others.”
From this angle, Radical Ritual is not repeating Beyond Belief, or even the original burning of the Man on Baker Beach in 1986. Rather, the first Man Burn celebrates and repeats in advance all that follow. In this sense, Radical Ritual was repeated not just by Beyond Belief, but by the first (reconstructed) art theme in 1997, MYSTERIA: The Secret Rites of Burning Man, if not the primal immolation that ultimately spawned these curatorial spells and the words you’re reading right now.
Does such a time-twisting observation evacuate the responsibility of free will and agency from Larry and his enablers and foreclose us from deciding whether or not to play along with such games? I’m playing along here by composing this piece, interiorizing and reversing the original repetitious gesture. Perhaps this post is a tributary troll of Larry and his prank call of self-plagiarism, which, intentionally or not, impishly exposed the (non)mystery of ritual itself, calling into question the meaning (or lack thereof) of everything we do year after year, over and over again, in the desert and beyond.
Rather than force us to find some secret meaning, such repetition instead prompts us to see ritual, as Seligman et al write in Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity, as “about doing more than about saying something”. We are left with little choice but to interpret this thematic repetition as an example of “one possible orientation to action, rather than as a set of meanings”. Such an orientation points precisely and paradoxically to the communal values that Burning Man fosters through its rituals of the self. As Seligman et al write, in line with if not repeating Larry, “We are often too concerned with exploring the different forms of self-expression and of individual authenticity to appreciate the rhythmic structure of the shared subjunctive that is the deepest work of ritual,” the ‘shared subjunctive’ connoting the social imaginary we layer on top of the world. Such rituals bridge body, “spirit and soul”, breathing us in, breathing us out, apart together, together apart, again, again and again. Same same but different, as they say in Thailand, turning us forward, within, between, beyond, and back again.
Top photo by the 2013 Playa Resto crew