Burning Man and the Seeds of a New Story

Mission at Tenth special supplement

Vol. 7, 274-279 (2018)

“Carnival of Consciousness: Practice as Research in Black Rock City”

A Submission by Matthew T. Segall, PhD

“Burning Man and the Seeds of a New Story”

“We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.” –W. H. Auden, Another Time (1940)

As religious scholar Lee Gilmore argues in her book Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man (UC Press, 2010), the annual Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, NV provides that growing sector of the human population who identify as “spiritual but not religious” with an opportunity to cultivate the communal ethos and participate in the ritualistic catharsis that are normally associated with traditional forms of religious practice. Some theologians have criticized so-called SBNRs for being too self-centered and warn that the growth of such an identity has more to do with the degeneration of culture by consumerism than with any genuine flowering of spirituality.The growing popularity of Burning Man, defined by its rejection of advertising and commodification, suggests that there is more to the story.

Human beings are order-seeking, meaning-making, story-telling creatures. For our species, meaning is at least as important as eating, and in some cases, more so. We construct cosmologies to orient ourselves in a mysterious and ever-shifting reality. No cosmology can hold chaos at bay forever, nor can it grant us complete understanding of the more than human powers that inspire all our mortal efforts to order, interpret, and narrate reality. Just as secularization led to the breakdown of the authority of traditional religion in the early modern period, it is becoming increasingly obvious at the start of the 21st century that the myth of the market (i.e., the modern story of individual competition fueling techno-industrial progress toward a consumerist utopia) is now also failing to properly situate human beings in our actual time and place on planet Earth. According to geologists, Earth is now entering a new geological era as a result of human industrial activity: the Anthropocene. The dominant values of the global economy are unraveling the life systems of the planet at a faster rate and a larger scale than anyone could have imagined a few centuries ago. Modern industrial humans have become a geological force, but so far our technical power continues to overshadow our knowledge of the planet’s fragile life systems.

We are star stuff come to life upon a planet of immense but limited means. Our existence has taxed to the point of bankruptcy the potential energy of Earth’s ecosystems, so much so that ecological entropy now threatens to destroy civilization itself.

It may be that our species is already doomed to extinction within the next century. In some sense, this message of doom has woven itself into our official civilizational narrative. Apocalypse is one of the bestselling plots in today’s mass media market. Everybody knows the old world is coming to an end, but because the horror of this fact is too much for any individual to face alone, the majority of us continue to sit in front of our screens watching, as though it were all just another form of entertainment.

Of course, fantasy and imagination are no mere trifle for our species: our meaning-making capacity is precisely what is at issue. How are we to conceive of our human presence on this living planet? Are we a cancerous growth or self-forgetful gods and goddesses? Are we capable of re-storying our industrial mode of meaning-making with a more life-enhancing cosmology? Must we be motivated solely by passive and isolated consumption, or might the celebratory and participatory communal values fostered by Burning Man signal a newly emerging possibility?

These are questions of the ultimate meaning of the universe, and their answers determine how we compose our societies and how those societies come to inhabit the Earth. As the geologian Thomas Berry put it, ecology is simply functional cosmology. An integral ecology implies an awareness of the way our images of the cosmos quite literally come to transform its physical existence: the mechanistic and disenchanted worldview underlying industrial capitalism, for example, has pushed the planet into climate change and mass extinction, forever altering the future course of every species’ evolution. A million years from now, even if our species is long gone, the biosphere will still show the scars caused by the industrial mode of life. Clearly, industrial cosmology does not function adequately as an ecology. It is based upon the mistaken assumption that monetary profit is genuinely productive, when in fact, rising corporate profits are perhaps the best indication of declining ecosystemic vitality. Only plants are truly productive, since only they are capable of eating the celestial energy of the Sun, which thanks to photosynthesis produces and sustains all life on Earth. All other biotic activities, human and otherwise, function only by transforming terrestrial energy originally captured from the heavens by plants.

“Like all structures,” writes political ecologist Alf Hornborg, “the biosphere is composed of differences. If it is humankind’s mission to devise a coded system of signals to integrate this most inclusive of living systems, our monetary system must recognize those differences or continue to annihilate them.”

Modern industrial cosmology has dissociated the human economy from the Earth’s ecology. Earth is a diverse tapestry of organisms delicately woven together by millions upon millions of years of co-adaptation. This variety is crucial to its ongoing resiliency. Consumer capitalism homogenizes culture and nature in order to more effectively market its mass produced products everywhere on the globe. Humanity, and many other species besides, are increasingly threatened by the worldlessness produced by an economic system that values abstract profitability (the replication of money) over concrete productivity (the recreation of life).

Only the “subversive implications of genuine spirituality” can reverse the spread of worldlessness, since, Hornborg continues,“the concept of sanctity is diametrically opposed to the notion of generalized interchangeability on which modernity is founded. To suggest a mountain or a person’s time are not for sale is incongruent with the basic premises of the modern project.”

Burning Man provides our species with a precious opportunity to step out of the “default world” in order to reimagine our purpose as individuals and re-story our collective existence as members of a planetary community of life. Modern industrial cosmology is disenchanted, such that each human being is conceived of as an isolated atom of ultimately tragic identity lost in an immense sea of random, chaotic change. To even call this a cosmology is to stretch the meaning of the term, since industrial capitalism offers no explicit vision of the universe as a whole. It denies wholeness, instead encouraging each separate individual to pursue his or her own selfish ends in the hope that their sense of dissatisfaction with life might find some temporary reprieve in the fleeting pleasures of consumption.

The Burning Man festival, in contrast, resituates human beings in the ritual context of communal meaning-making. It invites modern people to participate in the co-creation of an initiatory experience that re-awakens us to the possibility of an enchanted universe. It is inspiring the birth of a new story, a new way of being human, based not on alienated labor and the mindless replication of money, but on ritual play and the joyful recreation of life.

That said, according to the festival’s founder, the late Larry Harvey, the Burning Man ethos is just good ol’ fashioned capitalism. It is undoubtedly true that the extravagance of Burning Man wouldn’t be possible without the huge surpluses produced by California’s digital economy. But this is not the same old capitalism. As alchemists have known for millennia, initiatory transformations often unfold by way of enantiodromia, whereby taking something to its extreme ends up catalyzing a metamorphic transition into its opposite.

Gilmore’s book, mentioned earlier, makes the case that the growing popularity of the annual desert pilgrimage is forcing religious scholars to “reconsider the concepts of ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ as defined less by matters of institution, doctrine, and belief and more by questions of ritual, practice, and experience.” Having attended the festival myself many times (the first in 2010), I would agree with Gilmore and others thatBurning Man represents the emergence of a novel, prototypically American religious movement. Its ethos strives to find the sacred balance between individual expression and collective participation. Its peculiar form of religiosity weds art and technology into a carnivalesque celebration of bodily beauty and soulful creativity. A strong strain of critique of the dominant culture pervades the event, standing in stark contrast to Harvey’s rather strange claim that Burning Man somehow represents “old-fashioned, Main Street Republicanism.” The event can represent many things for many people, but there’s little doubt that Burning Man’s gift economy encourages the kind of authentic encounter between strangers no longer permitted in the hustle and bustle of the “default world,” and its “leave no trace” policy fosters the kind of ecological awareness that is necessary if our species is to survive the present planetary crisis.

2011 marked the first year in the festival’s history that the temporary wooden temple structure reached higher into the sky than the ritually burned effigy known as “The Man.” To my mind, this is a symbolic change indicating Burning Man’s transition into a new phase of its existence. No longer is it simply about burning The Man and reveling in the destruction of the patriarchal (and industrial) status quo, its participants are beginning to explicitly thematize the vibrant spiritual culture they have constructed to replace the dominator culture. 2011 also marked the birth of The Burning Man Project, a non-profit organization committed to renewing urban centers with the power of radical participation and artistic expression. More than 20 years after an earlier iteration of the festival was kicked off Baker Beach for being a public nuisance, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee welcomed Burning Man back to the city of its birth.

Despite its encouraging seepage back into the default world, the lifeblood of the Burning Man experiment remains the weeklong ritual in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada. It is there that a new way of being human is being born, and that the traditional boundaries between the sacred and the profane are being redrawn or perhaps erased all together. Viewed as a collective phenomenon, it seems to me that the individuals involved in this participatory project are only just beginning to understand the full meaning of the world they are bringing forth together. It is as if the massive gathering of hippies, freaks, geeks, techies, welders, healers, artists, witches, jedis, and general purpose weirdos is being unconsciously lured to the desert by higher powers to provide a welcome committee or interdimensional portal of sorts for a new kind of consciousness to incarnate upon the Earth. Just as the Judeo-Christian religions of our collective past were generated by the profound transformations of desert-dwelling prophets, the planetary spirituality of our collective future may be being generated by a now more democratic form of initiation.

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