The Cults of Burning Man
This piece appeared in AfterBurn: Reflections on Burning Man, edited by Lee Gilmore and Mark Van Proyen (University of New Mexico, 2005). An earlier version appeared as a self-produced chapbook given away at Burning Man 2003.
For without corruption, there can no Generation consist.
I tell you: one must still have chaos in one to give birth to a dancing star!
Nietzsche, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”
Beyond Belief: the Cults of Burning Man
Black Rock cliché has that you can’t say anything very penetrating about Burning Man because its diversity and contradictions undermine any generalizations you might be tempted to make. This truism is solid enough, and should be mulled over by any Burner foolish enough, like me, to venture into a written analysis of the yearly festival. Yet behind this notion of impossible generalizations lurks a higher and more important injunction: to keep the event free from the prison of interpretation and explanation, from the insidious net of Meaning. This refusal is prophylactic. By setting our bullshit detectors on high alert, Burners ward off pretension, self-consciousness, and all of the pre-packaged “experiences” that have come to define late capitalist subjectivity. This tactic also helps sustain the event’s tribal vibe. On the playa, we are united in our evasion of significance.
Thus it is with some trepidation that I turn to one of the more vexing questions that one might ask about Burning Man: can or should we speak of the event as a sacred gathering? Even if we acknowledge the vagueness of terms like sacred, spiritual, and religious, it is still safe to say that, from the outside at least, Burning Man comes off as exceptionally profane. Ironic and blasphemous, intoxicated and lewd, Burning Man’s ADD theater of the absurd might even be said to embody the slap-happy nihilism of postmodern culture itself. Moreover, many Burners would agree with this characterization. According to my own anecdotal inquiries and observations, a good portion of committed attendees would deny that spirituality or sacred emotions have any bearing on their rollicking good times.
In matters of the spirit, however, you cannot always believe what people say. Sometimes you have to look at what they do, and what they do at Burning Man features clear parallels to some mystic fetes of yore. Take the Eleusinian Mysteries, the greatest public cult of ancient Greece. The mysteries took place annually at harvest time on the outskirts of Athens and continued annually for almost two thousand years. Initiates came from all walks of life, and made their way to Eleusis only after preparing for weeks in the city. The days leading up to the core rite featured torchbearers, pig-roasts, and Dionysian pageants. The peak of the festival took place in the secret Telestrion, where initiates witnessed a “great light.” Though we know next to nothing about it, the experience, which some believe was mediated by psychoactive drugs, seemed to provide direct insight into matters of life and death. The similarities between the mysteries and Burning Man are notable, and were certainly not lost on Larry Harvey. Writing under the pseudonym Darryl Van Rhey in a 1995 issue of Gnosis magazine, Harvey noted that, like Burning Man, the mysteries attracted a largely urban and sophisticated crowd. “Intense, ecstatic, and immediate, the rites did not stress doctrinal belief, but valued outward show and inward feeling.” Though this historical resonance might sound like wishful thinking on Harvey’s part, no less august a figure than Aristotle basically concurred: “the initiated do not learn anything but they suffer and feel, experience impressions and moods.”
Even more immediate than such classical resonances, though, are the use that Burners regularly make of religious frameworks and sacred symbols. Whatever their degree of implied irony or seriousness, participants regularly cannibalize Christianity, Satanism, Buddhism, shamanism, Western occultism, Tantra, Judaism, Wicca, and other theme parks of the spirit for their costumes, camps, sculptures and performances. Since 1994, I have participated in or observed voudon invocations, Balinese monkey chants, shabbat prayers, Santeria drum circles, sunrise yoga, spiral dances, and group zazen, and once got shushed, with a friend, for our play-by-play commentary of a ponderous Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) Gnostic mass. While some of these appropriations are sarcastic or even blasphemous (especially in the case of Christianity), many are serious attempts to squeeze the juice from more or less traditional rites and images.
But how far does the distinction between serious and sarcastic get us? It’s far too literalistic to investigate the spirituality of Burning Man by cataloging its “samples” of religious traditions or by isolating pockets of “authentic” practice. Authenticity, in context, may well be a trap. At its best, Burning Man twists authenticity and irony into a Möbius strip that never lets you know what side you’re on but always keeps you going. This productive ambivalence is fundamental to the event’s sacred power, a power that derives, paradoxically, from a circular coniunctio of sacred and profane. The specifically religious elements of the Burn are important not in themselves, but in relation to one another and to the less ethereal aspects of the festival: the carnality, the trash, the desert dust. This wider field of relations is not holistic but multiple: a promiscuous carnival of souls, a metaphysical flea-market, a demolition derby of reality constructs colliding in a parched void.
So how can we say anything meaningful about Burning Man’s spirituality? My approach here is to tease out some cultural patterns within the festival patterns I am calling “cults” and hold them up against the light provided by my own ongoing research into the history of countercultural spirituality on the West Coast, and especially in California. Many basic aspects of the Burning Man experience begin to resonate when viewed against the historical context of this these spiritual experiments, which exploited all manner of media, drugs, and hedonic techniques. Of course, tracing such roots and influences is a curious game when you are dealing with an event that wants to scramble historical traces and turn all traditions upside down. But it remains vital. One of the problems with Burning Man is that, in successfully constructing a pocket universe where radically different rules temporarily apply, the festival disguises its connections historical, economic, and cultural to the “real” world. This allows for an enormous joy, especially as the real world takes on the lineaments of a cruddy Sci-Fi dystopia. But it also undermines our ability and will to redirect Black Rock energies into our quotidian existence.
The essential cult is the Cult of Experience, a cult to which all Burners in some sense belong. I’ll follow my brief overview of that cult with four more specific formulations: the Cult of Intoxicants, the Cult of Juxtapose, the Cult of Flicker, and the Cult of Meaningless Chaos. I have called these patterns of experience cults partly because the word suggests a pocket of intense and esoteric social practice that passes through time in a marginal or secret fashion. I certainly don’t intend to invoke the authoritarian specters of Jim Jones or Marshall “Heaven’s Gate” Applewhite, who preside over the media’s vision of cult. I prefer popular culture’s sense of the term, which denotes a passionate obsession with pop stars or comic books; we may come and go from such cults as we please.
My list is not at all definitive. Imporant Black Rock cults, such as the Cult of Flesh and the Cult of Sleeplessness, will have to be treated elsewhere. I have chosen these five cults because of their deep connections to particular features of California’s spiritual counterculture. But though my comments are rooted in my research into this cultural history, I will also draw, inevitably, from my personal experience of the Black Rock gatherings I have attended, not quite continuously, since 1994. By experience I don’t simply mean my firsthand observations and reflections, but also mean the moments of cosmic wonder and insight that have occasionally flared up in my nervous system, at times with a disarming incandescence.
One particularly vivid moment occurred during the 2002 Floating World incarnation of the event. Given the year’s aquatic theme, I finally got around to performing a solo shtick I had been planning to do for years, but somehow could never pull off in the face of sloth and distraction. I donned a bathing suit, snorkel, mask and flippers, and plopped down on a touristy Brazilian beach towel on the edge of the playa, near the esplanade’s main drag. I twisted my legs into padmasana (full lotus position) and settled down to meditate for forty-five minutes or so.
As a statement, I guess you could say I was performing my response to Freud’s dismissal of the mystic’s “oceanic” consciousness as an infantile resubmersion into the womb. Whatever. What really made the act work were the flippers: huge yellow duck feet that I picked up at a second-hand sporting goods store out in San Francisco’s West Portal neighborhood. Enhancing my already somewhat freakish meditation posture with these Donald Duck jobbies was, simply stated, a hoot amusing enough, in any case, to wind up featured on a Burning Man website for a spell. As a bonus, the gag also allowed an internal experiment: what happens when you juxtapose such absurdity with serious meditation?
My snorkel-sit began auspiciously. As soon as I settled into the posture and relaxed my gaze, I inhaled a distant whiff of sage, which grew in strength until I sensed that some unseen person was smudging me with the Native American/New Age power plant. Gradually I opened my mind to the wide space of sounds encircling me. I was not so much listening as generating a diffuse awareness of ambient events knitted together gently into a single acoustic space. Though I was trying to avoid identifying the source of sounds or focusing on particular noises, I soon became aware of a moving cluster of guttural barks and impassioned “Arrgghs.” I could not resist categorical identification: Pirates.
Given the year’s theme, I had expected to see many such crews: loud, obnoxious young men walking a dangerous line between honoring the anarchist sodomites of yore and using a tired Hollywood cartoon to float stupid frat-boy antics. But this was my first encounter.
Within moments I heard, or rather sensed, a large animal hurtling my way, and in an instant I was tackled by a pirate. He slapped and rolled me around, slobbered curses down my snorkel, and mimed my decapitation by pressing a red plastic sword against my neck, none too gently sliding it across my Adam’s apple. I remained perfectly still throughout this commotion, registering but not reacting to it, and because padmasana is an extremely stable posture, I kept my shape even as I was rolled around in the dust like a human pretzel. After capering around for a minute or so, the pirate politely set me back on my haunches and ran off to enjoy further escapades. I immediately recommitted to the posture and my breath, and sat for another half hour or so.
For all of Burning Man’s rhetoric of participation, such spontaneous interminglings of theme are relatively infrequent. One often enters into another’s “trip,” but two trips don’t often collide with such intensity, and rarely pass into physical contact without consent. To this day, I blaze with admiration for my pirate’s aggressive lack of restraint, his perfectly Zen instinct for the performative possibilities of the moment possibilities that were not only comic, but cosmic as well. I flashed on the Tibetan practice of chöd, wherein the yogi offers his body to bloodthirsty, blade-wielding demons in order to separate himself from self-clinging.
I suspect my pirate had no idea of chöd, nor of the mahavidya Chinnamasta, a Tantric goddess pictured with her own decapitated head in her hand, as blood spurts from her neck into her own mouth. But no matter: the fellow had split me open. I was facing the hot sun, and the glow behind my eyelids began to intensify, slowly swallowing me into a sad ecstasy. Inhaling and exhaling the light, I felt my heart open to the massive, glorious pain of all the beings in this world. There I sat, with a serene broken heart, the bands of my Donald Duck flippers cutting into my ankles and my magenta Toys-R-Us facemask slowly filling with tears. Gradually the trance passed. I could hear people stopping to take snapshots, and felt the stirrings of pride. But these feelings and sensations just melted into the red ball of yearning absurdity that the moment had become.
This experience galvanized my interest in the spiritual back story of Burning Man, and you can imagine my delight upon receiving the flier for the 2003 gathering, announcing the theme as Beyond Belief. It appeared that Burning Man was finally going to foreground what, to my mind, had always been its most powerful and unspoken undercurrent. The ambivalence implied by the theme’s name, which disavows the religious beliefs whose materials it wants to appropriate, was marvelously captured in the illustration by Hugh D’Andrade that graced the 2003 flier. Beneath a mutant cherub blasting the good news, a multi-armed androgynous imp meditates in the center of a labyrinth, flanked by a Lilith-like devil girl and a Ganesha on a skateboard, a lotus flower blooming at his/her lap and a t’ai chi (yin/yang) symbol emerging from his/her third eye. We recognize this bizarre and mutant assemblage: its mix-and-match iconography, its humor and faint perversity, its own mischievous refusal to admit whether or not it is “serious.” And we recognize it because, like all living icons, it encodes patterns of knowledge and experience burned deep into contemporary consciousness.
THE CULT OF EXPERIENCE
At the core of Burning Mam’s spiritual wager is the commanding claim of personal experience. “Beyond belief, beyond the dogmas, creeds, and metaphysical ideas of religion, there is immediate experience,” wrote Larry Harvey. Newbies quickly learn that status and fun are not to be gained through familiar modes of consumption or spectatorship. Instead, participation, spontaneity and immediacy are prized, even (or especially) at the sizable risk of delirium, discomfort, or the sort of excess that your parents might call “making a fool of yourself.”
On the most basic level, the cult of experience makes itself known through a continual parade of intense and not altogether pleasant physical sensations: the brain-numbing heat and Porta-potty stink, the crusty snot and the dry, cracked feet. These offer continual reminders to you and your body that something is definitely going on here. The cult also manifests itself in the pervasive mode of seduction: the blinky light or exotic body or hilarious shtick that seeks to distract you from whatever goal or concept you were riding in order to draw you ever more deeply into the wildfire of energetic activity blazing in the Here and Now. Burning Man represents the ultimate attention economy: what participants exchange are the willingness, and the opportunities, to submit to new experience. These experiences in turn create stories, which become the coin of the realm, fetishes traded over the fire, always pointing back to the mysterium tremendum of consciousness itself.
The cult of experience demands a Sisyphean struggle. Human beings are habit-breeding machines, and no more so than in our patterns of thought, sensation and perception. Though the Dalai Lama might taste something like “pure experience” n his meditation pillow now and then, humans sink and swim along a rather mindless stream of consciousness choked with slogans, beliefs, recurrent memories, contradictory plans, and perceptual maps. Burning Man stirs all this stuff up. Moreover, as Burning Man ages, its own “immediacy” becomes routinized and codified an inevitable process, perhaps, though one that has encouraged many old-school Burners to stop attending the festival. Theme camps and spectacles grow familiar, alternative styles of communication and consumption are established, and participants and planners develop systems psychological and technical to manage chaos and fear. Even the injunction te “Participate!” becomes rote, and part of the experiential ethos of the festival now includes the active and creative resistance to this creeping process of calcification.
What’s important to recognize here is that Burning Man’s rhetoric of experience is itself historical, and draws, in particular, from a deep well of American spirituality. The trope of experience already permeated Yankee Christianity by the mid-nineteenth century, when revivalist passions drew whole crowds into powerful fits and feints, visions and revelations. But it was William James who made this subjective turn fundamental to American religious understanding. In his famous Varieties of Religious Experience, James argued that experience rather than belief was, if not the cornerstone, then at least the ground bed of religious life. “The plain truth is that to interpret religion one must in the end look at the immediate content of the religious consciousness.” This emphasis on consciousness anticipated the individualistic and subjective turn religion would soon take, a move that implicitly generated interest in mysticism and what have come to be called “altered states of consciousness.” James argued that these states had to be taken into account if we were to develop an adequate picture of the universe in its entirety. Forever endearing himself to later psychonauts, James put his own neurons on the line by experimenting with ether, nitrous oxide, and peyote.
James by and large couched the experiences he described in Christian terms, although he discussed movements, like mind cure and New Thought, that we would now recognize as progenitors of the New Age. But the “cultures of consciousness” that came to define the West Coast’s spiritual avant-garde significantly detached altered states from well-defined religious forms. At Beat cafés and Acid Tests, and more formally at retreat centers like Esalen and the Ojai Institute, a variety of “post-religious” experiences began to be explored. Of course, bohemianism has always placed a romantic premium on personal experience, and this romanticism flourished in the counterculture’s embrace of primitive exotica and psychedelic Orientalism. But California’s scene also reflected the West’s pragmatic culture of sensation and know-how, an essentially empirical approach to matters of the spirit that made tools more important than beliefs. Consciousness-altering techniques like meditation, biofeedback, yoga, ritual, isolation tanks, tantric sex, breathwork, martial arts, group dynamics, and drugs were privileged over the claustrophobic structures of authority and belief that were seen to define conventional religion. “Spirituality” emerged as something distinct from religion proper. Even when established traditions like Zen or Sufism were creatively engaged, they were embraced more as practical means for changing consciousness than as arid cosmologies or rules to live by. Experience became the teacher. It’s a tricky teacher, of course, and the ephemeral insights and ecstasies of consciousness can easily leave one in deep despair or confusion, high and dry without the raft of creed or belief. Nonetheless, given the sense that an imminent change was coming, either political or spiritual or both, experience became the central countercultural path toward transformation.
Curiously, this attitude reflected contemporary anthropological concerns with liminality and rites of passage; as Victor Turner and others explained, the intense, novel, and destabilizing experiences associated with tribal initiations heralded a new mode of social being. Yet because this new context lacked the homogenous cultural matrix in the 1960s and ’70s, the field of possibly transformative or meaningful experience was wide open and certainly not limited to “spirituality.” Everything was in potential service to the Happening. Every intense situation or wondrous rush was a potential launching pad of the new or unraveled self. This lack of distinction helps explain one of the more curious features of the era’s subcultures: the commingling of overt hedonism and spiritual ascesis. Many people would routinely move between these modes meditating and fasting one week, gobbling drugs and partying the next. Even more potent and characteristic were the “Dionysian” fusions of these two modes into a powerful spiritual hedonism that encompassed sacred sex, psychedelic magic, and dizzyingly imaginative gatherings.
Burning Man aggressively extends this tradition of hedonic ecstasy, especially emphasizing its technical or practical underpinnings. Op-Art visuals, disorienting sonics, and a self-conscious excess of sensory stimulation and conceptual reference all help undermine the stabilized frames of reference that, so the story goes, frustrate our capacity for a fresher taste of the Here and Now. Indeed, the festival can often seem like a single distributed, full-sensorium brain machine, designed to bring us in tune with our mind’s ongoing construction of real-time on the fly.
Burning Man’s bawdy blasphemy and hyperactive pace also insulate the festival from the sectarian excesses of Californias consciousness culture, which led some spiritual experimentalists into the arms of repressive situations conventionally labeled “cults.” It would be silly to insist that there is nothing at all cult-like about Burning Man, either in its organizational structure, its architectonics, or its transformative effects on participants. But it remains an open and rather slapdash cult, one that offers no particularly coherent message or any coercive demands. By multiplying the opportunities for novel perceptions and altered states, but undermining the coherence of individual trips with bacchanalian excess and a strong distaste for sacred cant, Burning Man represents, in comparison with the ’60s and ’70s spiritual counterculture, a “late” form of the cult of experience, at once an advance and a decline. The event is deeply skeptical about overt claims of power or meaning, but is also optimistic about the regenerative capacities of creative, full-intensity living. Though visibly ridiculous and profane, Burning Man’s faith in sensation and the carnival of consciousness is, in the end, rather innocent and pure.
THE CULT OF INTOXICANTS
One cannot overestimate the role that psychedelics have played over the last fifty years in giving modern spiritual seekers a real kick in the pants. Although avant-garde spirituality has marked the West Coast since the turn of the century, it remained a small and esoteric path until LSD and other drugs offered people a dependable and immediate access to powerful and compulsively intriguing expanded states of consciousness. Burning Man’s most relevant psychedelic ancestors remain Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. Profoundly influential throughout the West Coast, the Prankster’s Acid Tests were memorable expressions of the multimedia philosophy of party-as-drug. These improvisatory fetes deployed low-tech media, a ragged carnival of thrift-store fashions, and the fusion of performance, participation, and prank. Kesey’s famous bus Furthur is about as Burning Man as the ’60s ever got: a gas-guzzling art car driven by a macho meth-head, hurtling down mountain sides with festooned crazies shooting film and barking bull-horn commentary through squealing speakers strapped to the roof.
On the surface, the Pranksters distanced themselves from the explicitly esoteric maps that other psychonauts were using in order to make some sense of psychedelic experience. At Millbrook, the upstate New York mansion that served as the intellectual Mecca of psychedelia in the mid-1960s, Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass), and others were raiding the vaults of Tantra, Vedanta and Tibetan Buddhism in their quest to maximize and comprehend their journeys. The Pranksters avoided such pretense, and their brief visit to Millbrook, as related in Tom Wolfe’s classic The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, was a culture clash. Kesey told Wolfe that, as far as the religious use of LSD goes, “It can be worse to take it as a sacrament.” But Wolfe also noticed something deeply religious in the Prankster manner, a religion of unmarked experience that would go, occasionally, by the name of “Now.” The Prankster’s tomfoolery and systematic evasion of deep meanings were productive attempts to keep the Now fresh, to keep the scene close to the source.
Giving voice to the same hunch that Larry Harvey expressed in his statements on Beyond Belief, Wolfe speculates that all the great religions begin, not with some conceptual or philosophical breakthrough, but with “an overwhelming new experience.” This gnostic flash radiates through the concrete lives of a small circle of folks, generally hanging around a charismatic leader who seems to have plugged into the hidden sources of life. To his credit, Kesey more or less dodged such a messianic role. As the “non-navigator,” he interacted with his crew obliquely or through cryptic slogans like “See with your ears and hear with your eyes” or the famous “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.” In his role as Mr. Burning Man, Larry Harvey has played an even more humble hand, at least in terms of his quietly intelligent public persona. Though the “inner circle” of Burning Man has its own sectarian qualities, Harvey and crew are betting on an even more democratic model of participation than the Acid Tests: if you get anywhere near the bus, if you even see the damn thing glittering in the distance, then you’re going to hop on.
One of the reasons so many have hopped on is that, before Burning Man is an art festival or a postmodern ritual, it is a party, an uncorked hoodoo bash. Burning Man organizers ask participants to abide by the same laws that apply in the “real world,” yet many disregard this directive. Indeed, indulgence in intoxicants is seen by many to be fundamental to the event’s celebratory, neo-anarchist ethics. Though serious overdoses and sociopathic levels of drunkenness are relatively rare, the feral aspect of such voluptuary behavior should not be denied I vividly recall one snarling female teen that thrust a grubby hand in my face, demanding that I sell her whatever Ecstasy she presumed, without cause, that I was packing. Nonetheless, despite the idiocy and thuggery they can inspire, intoxicants cannot be separated from the sacred potential of consciousness itself. In other words, once one acknowledges the transformative effects of cognitive ecstasy, then drugs are not far behind. Bacchus is a god of wine, Shiva the lord of bhang, and Siberian shamans aficionados of Amanita muscaria. In its most essential form, popular religion may be indistinguishable from psychoactive release.
Fundamentally, Burning Man’s cult of intoxicants is a cult of pleasure, with MDMA rivaling alcohol as one of the most popular substances on the playa. Nonetheless, the more turbulent and mind-bending psychedelics remain a supreme sacrament in this particular cult, and they are pleasurable only in a qualified sense of the term. Psychedelics, or entheogens, as they are sometimes called today, amplify and transform perceptual processes, jacking consciousness out of its usual ruts and increasing the capacity for wonder and the weird. At higher doses, they seem to catalyze awesome experiences of cosmic fusion, revelation, synchronicity, and demonic paranoia that often seems impossible to process without invoking sacred frameworks, however provisionally.
Today, the question of psychoactive spirituality remains tied up with the problem of authenticity. Shamanic societies the world over grew out of and maintain relationships with “plant teachers” in the context of deeply nuanced and relatively homogenous worldviews. Modern consumers, on the other hand, are basically flying blind, whatever their self-styled shamanic beliefs. Despite the mystic insights and magical paradigms they may unveil, psychedelics entheogens are also, for us, secular and modern: commodity molecules that rather dependably tune the nervous system to particular channels in the spectrum of consciousness.
From this perspective, we can only say that psychedelics entheogens can produce something like spiritual or visionary experience. We can look at them as reality-modelers with powerful special effects but weak claims on truth. By thereby bracketing the “truth” of the experience, psychedelics may paradoxically move spirit beyond the bugaboo of authenticity. People who undergo mystical or visionary states of consciousness “on the natch” often face the overwhelming temptation to reify and cling to their phantasms, realizations, and insights as real a temptation that often leads to “religion.” Psychedelics, on the other hand, disenchant the very exalted states they also introduce to the psyche. Amazing mind states may follow the swallowing of a pill or the insufflation of a noxious powder, but they also pass away as the compounds are metabolized and flushed from the body. In this way, drugs may encourage us to sap the illusion of essence from all states of consciousness not just this serotonin trance we take for ordinary reality, but from even the most legitimate mystical experiences. Everything is a construction, an endless mediation of mind and materials.
Such strange loops proliferate at the Burn, which few will be shocked to hear represents the bleeding edge of contemporary American psychedelic culture. Though detailed figures are of course impossible to come by, it seems that a moderately sized but passionate chunk of Burners amplify their playa escapades with compounds such as LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, ketamine, and 2C-B. But the psychedelic intensity of the Man does not depend on the morphology or even presence of the tryptamines saturating the cranial fluid of its more sophisticated drug users. It lies instead in the qualities of playa experience itself, especially at night, when lights and spaces take on the character of portals that shuttle your nervous system into a spin cycle of possible worlds. Even those hewing the straight edge launch into their evenings like trippers, packing supplies and opening their psychic gates to a diverse but strangely coherent stream of synchronicities, fractured archetypes, visual phantasmagoria, and unsettling transhistorical implications the bulk of which will not be recalled the next morning. Wandering the playa in any state, one is simply no longer lord of one’s house.
In contrast to the self-consciously “spiritual” frameworks that surround, say, the contemporary use of ayahuasca, Burning Man’s psychedelia is raw, lusty, and chaotic. Its cult of intoxicants does not isolate “good” visionary compounds from party drugs. This resistance to explicitly sacred metanarratives could well be criticized as a dangerous refusal to inculcate the higher, more integral potential of the entheogens. But I suspect that, as with the cult of experience, this refusal simply reflects Burning Man’s spirit of cognitive diversity, one that takes psychedelics not so much seriously as aesthetically. As such, its psychotropic landscape disenchants as much as it enchants, and offers playful tricks and weird science as antidotes to the cosmic revelations that inevitably come. Even here we are reminded that, as Aristotle suggested, there is nothing to learn from the mysteries. For though Burning Man celebrates visionary capacity, it does not deny the peculiar and even garish emptiness of drugs. This void may offer the deepest teaching of all: you can’t really see the patterns until you embrace the nothingness that they etch.
THE CULT OF FLICKER
In his 1970 media freak classic Expanded Cinema, the Los Angeles writer Gene Youngblood defined his era as the “Paleocybernetic Age.” umped up on Marshall McLuhan and the cult of experience, Youngblood sensed a new phase of culture and humanity emerging, one that unleashed the liberating power of archaic consciousness into a technological society whose growing understanding of systems cognitive, technological, anthropological was laying the groundwork for radical change. Youngblood saw the Paleocybernetic age reflected in the media experiments he describes in his book, a catalog of underground cinema breakthroughs leading up to and including light shows, installations, and performances. For Youngblood, expanded cinema meant nothing more or less than expanded consciousness, the drive spiritual as well as technological to manifest the spectral machinery of mind in the world before our eyes. This is the cult of flicker.
However you dub the vibe paleocybernetic, future primitive, or technopagan West Coast artists have long deployed new visual technologies in the service of trance states well outside (and antecedent to) the official boundaries of modern consciousness. Well before the Prankster Acid Tests and Avalon ballroom light shows of the ’60s, San Francisco was home to a nuanced and esoteric tradition of expanded cinema that included Harry Smith’s Bop City jazz projections and the profoundly immersive Vortex Concerts staged by Henry Jacobs and Jordan Belson at the San Francisco Morrison Planetarium in the late 1950s. During these concerts, Belson, who went on to make sublimely cosmic experimental films like Samadhi and Re-Entry, projected largely abstract images through hundreds of projectors, some of which rotated or flickered or zoomed, against the sixty-foot dome of the planetarium. Belson called it “a pure theater appealing directly to the senses.”
Less visible (but nonetheless present) during the punk era, this Paleocybernetic vibe again rose to prominence in the early 1990s, when the incoming futurism of global rave culture fused with and rekindled California’s penchant for psychedelia. Expanded cinema found its way into the photon jams of local club VJs, especially in the subculture surrounding trance music. (This explicitly psychedelic dance music, characterized by invariant beats and squiggly, heavily flanged melodies, has only recently begun to lose ground as the dominant party genre of Black Rock sound systems.) Although the digital mixtures of abstract graphics and mystic iconography associated with the trance scene rarely rose above candyflipping kitsch, a smaller group of sound-and-video artists continued to push the experimental edge, exploring modular programming tools and complex algorithms to massage and plumb new patterns of hypnotic abstraction.
But the screen only gets you so far. Given the ubiquity of LCDs and cathode ray monitors in our everyday lives, and the impossibly high production values that go into mass consumer simulations like Hollywood movies or Middle Eastern wars, a truly viable cult of flicker must reclaim the visual space outside the box. This is perhaps Burning Man’s greatest aesthetic triumph: the creation of an immersive and chaotically collaborative space of expanded cinema that marries a wide range of visual media, both fancy and crude, with the most powerfully archaic flicker tech of all: fire.
From the burning bush to Viking funerals to the iconography of Hell, fire carries an intense symbolic load. But the true greatness of fire lies in the fact that such symbolism is nothing more than cardboard and Kleenex in the face of the blazing thing itself. We are all metaphysical children before arc lights or bonfires or propane explosions, fascinated by fire’s all-consuming alchemy of beauty and threat. This fire-lust flickers at the core of consciousness itself. Twenty thousand years ago, when the Black Rock Desert was bathing beneath tons of Pleistocene sea, our ancestors had already spent untold generations with fire. Its shadow dance must have formed the visual track to oral tales and goddess knows what manner of ancillary rites. We often hear that modern consumer culture has replaced the hearth with television, but we seldom draw the full implications out of this received notion, which is that fire was the old one’s TV. Some of that hypnotic power continues to animate the fire-twirling that remains, despite its formal limitations, Burning Man’s signature performance art. For spectators, these highly ritualized performances function as a syncretistic cult of flicker and flesh; for twirlers, they offer a literally elemental encounter a dance of power and risk, a mutual seduction, an erotic opportunity to lick and swallow an incorporeal event that feeds on matter itself.
As the festiva’s early madness gave way, perhaps inevitably, to the demands of safety, the destructive potential of Big Fire was significantly curtailed. Burning Man’s central event has now become a controlled fireworks display far less immersive than the fearsome and toxic rites of earlier years. In the Debordian sense, fire has become increasingly spectacular in these latter days of the Burn. For Debord, the spectacle the totalizing pseudo-world of technical mediations that support the capitalist system profoundly alienates us from actual life through its endlessly circulating images. Though Burning Man works against this alienation and scrambles its relationship to capital through a gregarious potlatch, the central event of the Burn, whose neon inflagration mingles with a myriad of camera flashes, reminds us that the festival is also shaped by postindustrial circuits of technical mediation. But Debord’s situationist critique cannot really touch Burning Man’s Big Fire, because the spectacle of fire itself is so deep and so old, so visceral and profoundly excessive, that for a spell it consumes all frames.
Although Burning Man has gentrified fire, the festival has also intensified the technology of flicker. Though screens are relatively rare in Black Rock City, the nighttime playa-scape has itself evolved into a vast, three-dimensional display of artificial lumiere. At night we find ourselves navigating through the after-images of a friendly arms race of lighting designers, who continue to push the envelope on relatively new (and increasingly cheap) technology like lasers, electroluminescent wire, LEDs, glow sticks, and computer-controlled strobe lights. Myriad lines, dots, and blinky lights dance before your eyes, many forming specific icons like dice or Mayan pyramids or mobile jellyfish. Burning Man’s lightscape also serves as an open museum of classic visual phantasmagoria, like Brion Gyson’s Dreamachine, or the moiré patterns and perceptual tricks of ’60s Op Art, or the gothic lightning bolts of the almighty Tesla Coil. Even the high beams and sirens of law enforcement vehicles weave themselves into the virtual scene, especially on Sunday night, when a bit of the old-school fire chaos returns. It’s bardo time: the street signs are stolen, familiar structures are gone, and you are forced to navigate by nothing more than a hazy constellation of confusing lights, slowly shutting down.
THE CULT OF JUXTAPOSE
Like the institutionalized postmodern art it both imitates and mocks, the aesthetic language of Black Rock City is a language of juxtaposition. A potential effect of all collage and assemblage, the energy of juxtaposition is released especially where heterogeneous elements are yoked together without the intent to smooth out their differences. Juxtaposition is the fundamental strategy of surrealism and its postmodern descendents, which most certainly include Burning Man.
One often hears Burning Man dismissed as a theme park, but what’s more important is that it contains thousands of theme parks little pocket universes butting heads. Space-time itself seems to morph into a flea market, a masquerade of memes, or the Mos Eisley spaceport from Star Wars. Even though many of Burning Man’s camps and costumes are, in themselves, devoted to a particular theme the bayou, Bedouins, octopi these elements inevitably criss-cross in the turbulent, constantly flowing serendipity of playa life. Here juxtaposition is revealed as the basic formal operation of synchronicity, as two apparently unrelated events or elements suddenly form a secret link that strikes, in the mind of the perceiver, an evanescent lightning bolt of meaning. Even lame or boring expressive moves can be redeemed through the chance collaborations that define Black Rock City’s densely layered polyurbanism, where synchronicity becomes a basic operation of social and cognitive reality, a kind of “grace” that emerges through clashing fragments.
Juxtaposition is also the chief strategy employed by many art installations, costumes, art cars, and theme camps. As in the case of Arcimboldi’s Mannerist paintings, which depict human heads made out of fruits and twigs, many art objects derive their power through the juxtaposition of image and material Dana Albany’s recurrent Bone Tree, say, or her 2001 Body of Knowledge, a cross-legged man, built from old hardcover books, who bore more than a passing resemblance to Arcimboldo’s Il Bibliotecario. Other surreal contrasts arise through the placement of objects huge red fuzzy dice, a bed, a lone piano against the stark minimalism of the playa itself. Theme camps like Elvis Yoga stitch together elements associated with divergent classes or cultures; costumes are often thrift-store patch-works featuring bold clashes of color, material, and evocations of forgotten subcultures.
These different modes of juxtaposition generate many of the well-loved effects of the festival: absurdity, instability, irony. But they particularly inform the festival’s treatment of spiritual and religious forces (recall the hybridized Beyond Belief figure on the Burning Man flyer discussed above). In this context, juxtaposition allows people to invoke sacred forces while sidestepping issues of belief, or seriousness, or responsibility. I can think of three recent examples here. For his recurrent center camp piece Twinkie Henge, Dennis Hinkcamp used the perennial Hostess treats to construct a small-scale version of the famous megalithic monument. In 2002, the esplanade was blessed with a huge seated Ronald McDonald, a golden inflatable who sported a Nepalese third eye and smiled beatifically onto the crowds. And since 1998, Finley Fryer has occasionally presented an incandescent chapel built of nothing but recycled plastic. And in 2000, David Best began a series of enchanting and celebrated Temples that came to demarcate the most authentically reverent spces on the playa; with the exception of 2003’s mosaic Moghul confection, he conjured the exotic filigree of these structures from the pressed-wood scraps left over from the manufacture of kids’ dinosaur puzzles.
The apparent irony of these gestures is actually a doorway into a deeper and subtler movement of spirit. Modernity has bequeathed to many of us a profound disenchantment with both the cultural and institutional forms of religion as well as the beliefs that sustain them. At the same time, many feel the sneaking suspicion that such forms may be necessary as temporary vehicles or containers of the visionary insights and sacred energies many continue to crave. Though these forms may successfully channel the spirit for a time, they inevitably fail: they become consumer idols, or safety blankets, or cheesy parodies of themselves. By affirming an ironic relationship to these forms, we draw attention to their incompleteness, to their inability to satisfy our yearning or sustain the disenchanting movement of spirit. This sort of irony is more than a cynical operation in cahoots with the secular disavowal or mockery of spirituality. It is rather a sacred irony, one which itself marks the margins, and sometimes the core, of historical religions. When Ramakrishna donned ladies’ clothes, or Yun-men proclaimed that the Buddha is a shit-stick, the point was to shatter form through contrast. Ironic juxtaposition, in this context, is revelatory. For minimalists of the spirit, such irony may clear the air for the formless beyond; but the maximalists at Burning Man heap together the broken shards of forms into a fallen Humpty Dumpty bonfire of apocalyptic collage.
West Coast spiritual culture has long shown an affinity for juxtaposition. Part of this is rooted in California’s syncretistic religious supermarket, especially in Los Angeles, where Hindu onion domes and Mayan Masonic halls fit in just fine alongside eateries shaped like oranges or hats. But this sensibility also emerged from the plastic arts of the place, particularly the love of appropriation, collage. and assemblage (or structural collage). As Peter Plagens noted in his 1974 book about West Coast art, Sunshine Muse, “Assemblage is the first home-grown California modern art.” During the late 1950s, Beat artists such as Bruce Conner, George Herms and Wallace Berman constructed objects and made collages that strongly engaged images of sex, fetishism, and spirit. Hearst Castle showed that even the wealthiest Californians yearned to sample and slam together times and places. But the iconic grass-roots example remains Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, three famous free-form spires built, without plans, from pop bottles, tiles, and teacup handles.
The bohemian economics of making art far from New York partly drove this bricolage artists started playing around with bits and pieces for the same reason the Merry Pranksters were driven to scavenge thrift stores and hence history for clothes. An alchemy of trash emerged, one that not only made a virtue of necessity but also suggested a new kind of aesthetic pleasure. Today we enjoy some Burning Man artworks simply because of the low cost and crappiness of their materials. But such regenerative work has far deeper implications. According to the San Francisco poet Robert Duncan (who used collage techniques in his gnostic modernist verse), “The trivial is as deep as the profound because there is nothing in creation that does not go to the profound.”
Of course, the reverse of this claim may be just as true. One result of today’s corporate colonization of the unconscious is that even our most cherished profundities are trivialized. Burning Man plays with both movements in its topsy-turvy game of sacred and profane. But the redemptive potential of juxtaposition goes beyond the binary oppositions that compose such hierarchies, pointing towards a deeper and more continuous alchemy.Probably the greatest expression of the West Coast poetry slam remains Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 “Howl,” resplendent as it is with weirdly fused phrases like “hydrogen jukebox.” In the poem, Ginsberg speaks of those in his generation who open up to the eternal through culture clash and the imaginal confrontation with urban junk. Forty years later, Burners have now joined those “who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed…”
THE CULT OF MEANINGLESS CHAOS
Perhaps you are wandering aimlessly across the playa at night, and, lo and behold, some distracting marvel captures your attention. In the ambiguous distance, you glimpse a filigree of light and shadow, an oasis of surreality, a portal to some possible pleasure. You head towards the dusty fairy lights as if they were a Sci-Fi tractor beam, the amazement increasing until you finally arrive and discover a rag-tag structure consisting of a few 2 X 4s, some rebar and wire, and a nest of duct-taped blinky lights feeding off a grumbling generator. Ingenious! Against the glimmering canvas of the night, this jury-rigged contraption produced just the right visual cues to conjure an empty thing of beauty and wonder right out of your own nervous system. You are simultaneously satisfied and disappointed; you admire the creative gift but sense a strange, smirking con in the works. The cosmic carnie barker leans forward and whispers in your ear: “Just a show, my friend, you pays your quarter and you takes your ride. Up for another turn on the wheel? Just watch out for those smoky lights…”
Burning Man’s backdrop is more than the blank playa or the desert nightscape: it is the Void. The barbarous, post-punk, devil-may-care panache of so many Black Rock citizens is only the most obvious sign of the nihilistic underpinnings of the event especially resonant these days, when the cybernetic meltdown of posthuman civilization only magnifies the old familiar zero at the heart of the human condition. Burning Man’s apocalyptic undertow mocked, ignored and indulged in with equal abandon rescues the festival, at least some of the time, from frivolity and cliché. By opening its arms to the void, without fear or hope, Burning Man thickens the event’s official discourse of celebration, creativity, and community, lending these optimistic cultural narratives a darker urgency. Burning Man’s void is not, however, a meaningless blank it is a creative chaos, an intense invocation of novelty, humor, and weirdness on the lip of the abyss. This hyperactivity represents Burning Man’s debt to the expressive mania shared by the Dadaists, the Pranksters, and every other group of void-gazing artistes who made kinky love among the ruins. But whereas the Dadaists unleashed their gibberish in small clubs in Berlin and Zurich, Burning Man turns the city from form itself into a theater of the absurd not just Marx Brothers absurd, or Kierkegaard absurd, but downtown-Hong-Kong-on-a- Saturday-night absurd.
Burning Man’s manic and generous creativity also suggests a deeper teaching. Buddhism, Taoism, and Hindu tantra all suggest that the reality that lies on the far side of form, the reality of emptiness or the unstructured Tao, is full of potential. Like the quantum vacuum pictured by free energy enthusiasts, the void flings phenomena out of itself. Some Taoists considered meditation and ritual as means to return to the original unformed chaos that would connect them with the sources of life before returning them to the world of our senses five. At its oversaturated best Burning Man rides the formless edge of form, generating shapes and signals that constantly slip back into noise and confusion. The festival beckons us, in Lex Hixon’s poetic paraphrase of a line from the Prajnaparamita Sutra, “to abide without abode, to dwell where no objective or subjective structures can dwell, without any underlying physical or metaphysical foundation, totally isolated from conventional conceptions, perceptions and descriptions.” This is the realm of sacred chaos.
The classic Eastern notion of the pregnant void also happens to mirror one of the core intuitions of Western anarchism, which is that things get along just fine without order being imposed from without. Anarchism and Taoism’s “chaos spirituality” thus share a faith in the spontaneous and fecund powers of the creative process, and a sense that this productive flux diverges from the overt organization of social forms. In Deleuzian terms, the Tao deterritorializes. This process remains in a precarious and sometimes agonistic relationship with civilization, which not only demands order from without, but order from above. As N.J. Girardot wrote:
The Taoist accepts the fact of being born into a civilizational order but does not accept the possibility that civilizational values define what it means to be fully alive and human. The acceptance of phenomenal existence requires a more profound recognition of the fact that fulfillment and renewal of human life depends on a periodic return to a chaotic or primitive condition.
Civilization is not what it used to be; today’s destratified empire of global capitalism has learned to absorb, exploit, and deploy chaos in sophisticated ways. Nonetheless, the archetypal conflict between chaos and civilization remains one of our deepest structuring binary myths, right up there with good and evil or male and female. In one of the primary versions of this tale, the Mesopotamian hero Marduk, the god-king of the founding city-state of Babylon, kills Tiamat, the old goddess of primal chaos. From her corpse he makes the heavens, with its fixed stars and ordered constellations. This myth suggests the way in which the urban state, with its investment in complex organization, would come to demonize the ancient seething matrix from which it emerged, and that always threatens to engulf it again in waves of destruction and social anarchy. Although traditions like Taoism retained organic connections to the pregnant void, and carnivals allowed little bits of chaos into Christian culture in the West, most avatars of chaos were shunted into the shadows of increasingly patriarchal religious forms.
The antiauthoritarian tendencies of bohemian culture have long given it a taste for Dionysian chaos, and its spiritual regimens have privileged a Rimbaud-like derangement of the senses. Aleister Crowley, for example, in addition to his prophetic enthusiasm for sex and psychoactive drugs, reimagined the demonic dimensions of Western occultism as an atavistic and Nietzschean force field capable of creatively destabilizing patriarchal civilization. But the explicit countercultural worship of chaos proper did not take form until 1958, when two beatniks, known eventually as Omar Ravenhust and Malaclypse the Younger, had a vision of the goddess Eris (or Disorder) in an all-night bowling alley in California. Whether or not this origin story is true (and why not believe it?), Malaclypse the Younger, whose given name is Gregory Hill, eventually put together the Principia Discordia: or How I Found The Goddess And What I Did To Her When I Found Her. The pamphlet is a visionary assemblage of nondual wisdom, hotdog jokes, and appropriated collage art a core sutra of the cult of juxtapose. An underground hit in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the Principia Discordia communicates an eclectic, goofy, and skeptical anti-doctrine of spiritual chaos or “Zenarchy.” “If you can master nonsense as well as you have already learned to master sense, then each will expose the other for what it is: absurdity.” This “magnum opiate,” with its corny profundities and free-fall praise of the sacred Chao, would go on to influence Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy, the Church of the Subgenius, and, eventually, Burning Man.
Whether interpreted creatively or destructively, chaos proclaims the impermanence of all forms. That is why it is both funny and terrifying. In the case of Burning Man, one form that has notably fluctuated is the relation to chaos itself. The festival has witnessed some dramatic changes in structure and character over the years, and has passed through at least two major bifurcations. In 1990, the Cacophony Society’s John Law led the gathering to the Black Rock Desert from San Francisco. Seven years later, after Law departed from the organization in a disagreement about how to manage the growing crowds, Burning Man moved off the main playa to a smaller, privately owned site known as Hualapie Playa. Although fortunately temporary, this move was accompanied by a permanent ban on automobiles and firearms, along with the imposition of the semicircular concentric grid of streets (and street-signs) that continues through today. The 1990 event was still a loose gathering of friends, whereas Burning Man has now shifted into a well-established and specifically urban phenomenon. In other words, like some freak show replication of Sim City, this festival of chaos came to replicate the core framework of civilization itself.
There were many reasons for this later, more “developed” phase: population pressure, the demands of various bodies of the state, and the inevitable desire to creatively improve public works. As such, this transformation by and large occurred with an air of organic inevitability. Burners with strong anarchist principles griped that such urban controls compromised the festival’s incarnation of what Hakim Bey famously dubbed a “temporary autonomous zone.” After all, the sacred Chao would have us interrogate all linear narratives of inevitable development particularly when those developments concern the sacred Chao itself. Though not necessarily cooler or more engaging, Burning Man was a significantly more disordered (and less civilized) event before 1997. The presence of assault rifles, the lack of safety controls and street signs, the dizzying distance from mountains and roads, the more feral demographic all these elements brought participants into a greater proximity to chaos, emotional and perceptual as much as physical and infrastructural. In contrast, the chaos of today’s festival often feels contained, more semiotic than systemic, a perversion of the already surreal attention economy one finds in Las Vegas or Times Square. And much of this derives from the crystallized architectonics of the festival: the invariant city layout, the establishment of dance-clubs along the esplanade, the neon “advertising” of the nightscape, and the centralized logo-like presence of the Man.
No one should be surprised by this calcification; certainly not students of spiritual chaos. As Tom Wolfe showed in his study of the Merry Pranksters, the spontaneous immediacy of a weird scene’s early “Now” is tough to maintain as the gospel spreads and the masses turn on. Sociologist of religion Max Weber described this process as “routinization.” In Weber’s view, religious movements begin with the otherworldly charisma of an extraordinary, even “supernatural” eader who punctures the everyday grind. Over time, in a quest to guarantee that believers have dependable access to this charisma, it becomes institutionalized in schools, positions of authority, and dogmas. “Charisma cannot remain stable, but becomes either traditionalized or rationalized, or a combination for both.” Thankfully, Burning Man’s charisma does not lie in a singular individual, but in the nonhierarchical social field of the collective. Although Burning Man’s routinization has not created a particularly visible hierarchy of authority, the problem of routinization remains. In a sense, this problem is manifested as the urban form itself a form that maintains a febrile and polyvocal diversity even as it constrains the more unsustainable excesses of chaos.
We should not conclude from this that Burning Man has at all lost its sacred spark. As the vampiric tendrils of consumer media and the surveillance society wrap themselves ever more tightly around the heart of human experience, the festival continues to successfully ride the paradox of regulating a temporary autonomous zone. The cults I have outlined all speak for the power of this paradox, since they reflect a cultural continuity that remains fresh and unstructured partly by erasing their own historical traces. Moreover, a powerful assemblage of social and creative energies has emerged from Burning Man’s turn towards urban organization. The festival’s late phase has also been marked, unquestionably, by its greatest art, art that absorbs and permeates social space and personal interactions. Utopia, we should not forget, is a city. For a week or more, Black Rock City is a polis without cash, where citizens walk and ride bikes more than they drive, where people finally begin to realize the admonition of that annoying Berkeley bumper sticker: “Practice Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty.”
Northrop Frye reminds us that William Blake identified Eden with the realized human imagination, and that he saw this paradise not as a peaceful garden, but as a fiery city. Not a Rainbow Gathering, in other words, but a Black Rock town, going wild. Like the human imagination, the city is an absurd excess: it flickers, it intoxicates, it energizes forms that its own energies consume. And we can see terrible forebodings in this incandescence, pulsing like warning lights on the near horizon of space-time. Burning Man stages the city as utopia and as inevitable catastrophe simultaneously. But this city is also imaginal, remember, as much inside us as out. Rome burns as we burn, amazed adults in a Pleistocene playground, belting out the old refrain: ashes ashes we all fall down.