Monday, September 06, 2004

Postmodern Man

Ok, so the seventh largest city in Nevada (it's true, the four after Las Vegas and Reno aren't huge) is the provisional week long annual settlement, Black Rock City, the site for the Burning Man festival.  This the third piece in a series of posts about BM, and it's time move from the history of the event, to the underlying rationale (if you want to call it that) for the whole shindig.  This will include two fair sized excerpts of interviews of the co-founder of the festival, to provide some insight into what has guided the development of Burning Man up to this point, and presumably will guide it into the future.

Larry Harvey started BM with some friends on a San Francisco beach 15 years ago, To provide an escape from what he calls (in this exceprt from an interview by Darry Van Rhey) the postmodern situation

Postmodern means that in our time there exist many different types of "now". Nearly every style and every idea that has ever existed now has its adherents. We live in an eclectic age. There's no defining paradigm, no single idea to unite us. Historically modernism meant progress, science, rationalism; the extension of our conscious control of the world. To be modern meant that one had shed myth and superstition, all the unreasoned traditions of the past. The race had reached adulthood. As moderns we would order things differently. We would no longer blindly serve the past, but work to construct a new future that was based on rational principles. The unconscious would be analyzed, houses would become "machines for living", the form of everything would be designed to follow a rational function. Aided by science, we could completely control our destiny. But people no longer believe this is so.

DVR: Why? What has happened to destroy our confidence?

LH: Two World Wars, for one thing. Suddenly science was perceived to be doing these monstrous things. Science, we realized, was only a tool; a means, not an end. It couldn't produce any ultimate values; rational mind reached the end of it's tether. The final horror of the Nazi death camps lies in the realization that such evil results were arrived at by thoroughly rationalized methods. Sure, other historic atrocities match this in scale, but the Nazi's ran factories -- marvels of applied science. And, of course, there's the Bomb. Suicide and scientific reason strolling hand in hand. People still believe that science can command the world-- more so than ever, I think. But our faith in reasoned progress has been shattered. And there are other factors as well. The world has expanded, gone global. We live now in the midst of many voices, many competing traditions. We've become very self-conscious. We now question assumptioms. We've lost the assurance that once made forthright action possible.

DVR: So what faith are we left with? Are things simply falling apart?

LH: Nothing so dismal as that. The good side of postmodernism is that we're so free and sophisticated. We can choose from the past. Today in America every idea or creed or lifestyle that has ever existed is laid out before us, as if spread on a giant buffet, a never-ending post-graduate course. Never in the entire history of mankind has such freedom existed. Never before have individuals been so empowered to shape their ends.
This is a better description of postmodernism than I have found in many more formal treatments. I am not nearly so sanguine about the result, but I must accept that we do live in a truly postmodern world, dealing with broken myths and broken symbols.

In this 1994 interview (interviewer not identified) Harvey discussed the need for ritual, the lack of true ritual in modern society, and how the creation of ritual plays a key part in Burning Man.
L - . . .We encourage people to invent ritual, to invent games. Every year someone will devise some kind of performance art. You can call it performance art, you can call it ritual. I think performance art is basically an attempt to recreate ritual, for the most part, at least that's the impulse behind it. Last year suddenly this giant hand appeared next to the Man with a mysterious circle in the center. Nobody new what it meant. It got burned, I have no idea who did it. It was enormously expressive. Every year things get invented. If something delights everyone and there seems to be an instant consensus, if this was indeed an expressive and meaningful thing, whatever it might mean, as long as it strikes a chord, we tend to find out who did it, encourage them to continue, or adopt it and somehow incorporate it into the things we consciously plan from year to year. And by that means we acquire a measure of received tradition. We're building a body of that. It's all a result of spontaneous contributions on the part of people.

R - This is a growing tradition, I mean some of the traditions are kind of, have been fixed. You're definitely in the realm of what is traditionally considered religion and that area, you're on the same kind of ground.

L - We're definitely on the same kind of ground.

R - Most religions don't encourage the creation of a new ritual. (Laughter)

L - No they don't.

R - It's kind of like this is the way it is.

L - Well that's distinctly what divides us from religion. Historically religions have pretty uniformly derived from some kind of primary mystic experience. The charismatic figure goes out in the desert, comes back with this wonderful visionary message for their fellows, and that vision then gets translated into a religious observance . We take people to the threshold of religion. Our aim is to induce immediate experience that is beyond the odd, beyond the strange, and beyond the weird. It verges on the wholly other. It contemplates a realm of profoundly irrational experience. I think that kind of experience is the fountainhead for all religions. Essentially what happens to religions is that a priestly class intrudes in the process and stations itself between the believers and the immediate, the overwhelming the unfathomable, the irrational the transcendental experience that inspired the religion in the first place. They become the keepers of the mystery . They place themselves between the communicants of the religion, and the immediate experience. And then they dictate the terms on which you can have contact with this wonderful mystery. We don't dictate those terms. We create a mystery alright, and we encourage others to create a mystery. But we don't propagate any doctrine; we don't insist on any metaphysical interpretation. We just invite people to the experience itself. If you look at what we're doing, it's on the pattern of stone age ritual, you know. Using pretty slender means, we evoke something tantamount to a megalithic temple complex. It involves a pilgrimage to a remote place, an initiation. The focus of our whole ritual is sanctified in the sense that it's removed entirely from the world. Put in a place profoundly apart from ordinary experience. The Black Rock Desert is about as far apart from ordinary experience as you could get. It involves meditation on an extraordinary object, which in it's setting seems to be incomparable to anything else, to be almost not subject to the normal rules of our perception. It culminates at last in a act of sacrifice. It's all done on a cosmic scale. This is plainly the stagecraft of religion. That's what we practice, yeah.
I quoted these two passages at some length, both to make sure that there was some context, and becaise there is a lot to learn from both. Summarizing from the various posts, Burning Man has grown from a group of friends on a beach to a emporary experimental society of thousands, based on powerful common experiences that fulfill the human need for ritual, for pilgrimage, for mysterious beauty in a postmodern society even though the participants do not share common beliefs. The next post will review what a pastor has written about his experiences at Burning Man.

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