On Radical Repetition — or, Is Larry Trolling or Enlightening Everyone by Recycling Past Themes?

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

About the author: Ian Rowen

Ian Rowen

Ian Rowen, PhD is a human geographer who has forgotten the 50 U.S. state capitals and an artist who’s never bothered to draw, which makes him uniquely unqualified to serve as one of Burning Man’s international Meta Regionals. Read more of his diversions at ianrowen.com.

5 Comments on “On Radical Repetition — or, Is Larry Trolling or Enlightening Everyone by Recycling Past Themes?

  • JV says:

    “Rather than force us to find some secret meaning, such repetition instead prompts us to see ritual…”

    HA! HAHAHAHA!!! I’m gonna use that next time I repeat myself. Nah man, I’m not out of ideas, I’m prompting you to see ritual. HA! HAHAHAHA!!!

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  • Jack L. Lopes says:

    Once is an experiment. Twice is lazy. Three times is a failure of imagination. Or so someone said once. Or possibly more than once. Those who forget the past…are immune from this rule.

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  • Rio says:

    Don’t really care, sounds good enough for me, but see this JRS archive:

    Larry Harvey at Grace Cathedral – “Radical Ritual”

    As director and spokesperson for Burning Man, Larry Harvey has delivered lectures in all sorts of locations, including museums, university halls, libraries, at Internet technology conferences, and, of course, in the desert. This month, he is honored to be invited to speak at yet another fascinating forum: historic Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

    Burning Man brings together art, performance, fire, and temporary community to create what has been called “ritual without dogma.” Larry Harvey, Founder and Executive Director of the Burning Man festival, joins The Very Reverend Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, to discuss the creative power of ritual. How does ritual help us express our spirituality? Join us when The Forum at Grace Cathedral looks at “Radical Ritual.”

    WHEN: Sunday, May 20, 2001 9:30 – 10:30 am Pacific Time WHERE: Gresham Hall at Grace Cathedral (in the crypt) 1100 California Street at Taylor, San Francisco

    This program is FREE and open to the public and will also be WEBCAST LIVE at: http://www.GraceCathedral.org

    Questions will be taken from both live and Internet audience. Details for the audio webcast will be on the web site by May 14. This program will also be available on our site an on-demand RealAudio file by Tuesday, May 22.


    PS — A friendly warning to all: the Bay to Breakers race is also on May 20, and many streets throughout SF will be closed starting at 8 am. You may wish to consult the bay to breakers web site for more info and plan your travel accordingly (or join us via the live web cast).

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  • Terra Spencer says:

    I don’t agree it’s recycled themes at work. Beyond Belief should have looked at your beliefs like religion or the belief you hold about your work ethics. Ritual is a how you use those beliefs to create actions. I might believe in Celtic Gods but that doesn’t mean I do rituals like witchcraft might do. I might have the belief of Christianity but I might not do the ritual of church. Rituals can even be our jobs and the patterns we create which become our normal daily lives. We both might believe in being a good worker means being on time but we both might have different rituals on how we succeed at it. I might get up two hours early while you might get up 10 minutes before you head out the door due to liking the rush of almost not making it. So tons of people can have the same beliefs but do far different rituals. To me, this theme isn’t the same as Beyond Belief and I don’t think it was meant to be taken that way.

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  • Mitch says:

    Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.

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