September 20, 2007
Through a Spectacle Darkly
— Spencer Dew
A human-scale version of the board game Mousetrap… A giant sculpture of Ronald McDonald meditating serenely, third eye blossoming on his brow… An iridescent whale meandering across the playa…. With such surreal scenes, the twenty-second annual Burning Man festival played out last month on the alkali flats of Nevada's Black Rock Desert.
Culminating with the conflagration of a giant wood-frame Man, the festival is a site where religion manifests in acute ways. Alongside interactive sculptures and performances offering social critique are structures designed with devotional use in mind – shrines to Gaia, for instance, or elaborate temples built and burnt each year. These buildings act as repositories for memento moris and as locations for mourning and remembrance of lost loved ones. Their ritual burning is conceived as a charged and cathartic event.
After ceremonial parting from the world, festival participants exist in an alternative space, a place of collaborative creative endeavor and free play, at once bacchanalia, art project, and utopian experiment. Many are zealous in their descriptions of Burning Man as a transformative experience, yet the event's meaning is highly contested. What some of this year's 40,000 "burners" might describe as a weeklong rave is for others a pagan rite and others an attempt at synthesizing self-expression and collaboration in public art. While some chant to end war, others are satisfied throwing glow-in-the-dark Frisbees.
The festival abounds in paradox. For example, its anti-capitalist gift economy is predicated on substantial cash expenditure – entrance costs several hundred dollars, plus supplies. Likewise, the intentionally anarchic temporary village has its own bureaucracy and laws, including patrols by several levels of police authority. You can slather on body paint and operate a flamethrower, but freedom is nonetheless regulated.
As a case in point, this year's Burning Man made news when one participant, Paul Addis, set the effigy ablaze days prematurely. The Man was badly damaged, creating real chaos in the midst of its simulation, and highlighting the limits on acceptable personal expression. Addis, though following his own logic of engagement, was arrested and faces charges of arson. The crowd around the Man divided: some applauded or screamed "Let Him burn;" others wept and shouted "Save the Man," or called, in violent terms, for vengeance against Addis. These contradictory responses should serve as a caution for us, as interpreters of such events.
Art critic Clement Greenberg famously observed that "a stretched or tacked-up canvas already exists as a picture – though not necessarily as a successful one." This barbed truism applies equally to ritual, and in scrutinizing religion's public forms we all are surely tempted at times to dismiss some events as too amorphous or unintelligible. Yet Greenberg's polemic is also self-serving; its not-so-subtle subtext is that the elite few – art critics like himself – pronounce aesthetic "success."
Our task, in examining manifestations of religion in our world, is not to assign value, but to understand the various ways that a given event works. Academic treatments of the Burning Man event are often partisan and idealizing, too quick to boast of the uniqueness of the event or praise its "success." But we must not let our own longings blind our methods – neither longings for a particular message or meaning that we endorse, nor longings for the easy comfort of a clear, unifying explanation.
As religionists, we should know to be wary of the relation between lived reality and idealized claims or awestruck testimonials. With any ritual we must be prepared for extreme heterodoxy of interpretative narratives – for function to be understood in radically different, even contradictory ways. And we must explicate both the planned and spontaneous aspects of the event, the official order as well as deviant actions like the Man's premature lighting. Ultimately, the event must be viewed as a microcosm of the larger cultural soup of which it is an effervescent bubble. Whether populist or elite, diverse or homogenous, a social reversal or a recapitulation of hierarchy, the spectacle of Burning Man deserves our attention because it exemplifies aspects of our cultural state. This surreal world created communally, one week a year, exaggerates, rebukes, celebrates, and recapitulates, conscious and unconsciously, the world we live in those other fifty-one weeks.
Spencer Dew is a PhD candidate in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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