The Utopian Implications of Burning Man’s Primitivism: SHÜUPPP, Section 3

Burning Man is widely considered—by organizers, participants, media people, and other pundits participating within the event and commenting outside of it—to be about the creation of a primitive and sacred utopian space (see e.g., Pike 2001, Plunkett and Weiners 1997). This space is alleged to epitomize the leading edge of twenty-first century community but also to manifest the retro power and psychic energy inherent in the primitive.

Burning Man is futuristic, but it is also undeniably a retroscape. Its status as sacred and relevant to both the past and the future confers upon the event considerable cultural cachet.

Much of Burning Man’s metaphoric power seems at first blush to come from its vital associations with the primitive. It takes place in a remote desert location, over one hundred miles from Reno, near the small desert town of Gerlach, Nevada. The area it is located within, the dry Pleistocene lakebed called the Black Rock Desert, is considered to be one of the most desolate and lifeless areas on Earth, four hundred square miles of nothing. No sand dunes, no scrub, no vegetation, no animals. Just a few hot springs and some insects.

People who enter into Black Rock’s environment must undergo a pilgrimage to the distant location, and ready themselves for hardships that are imagined to be second only to Jesus’ as he fasted forty days in the desert. Never mind that Burning Man has open bars, free ice cream and pancakes, espresso bars, and ice dispensers (but see Crace 1998). Never mind that the Reno Super K Kmart stocks the pilgrims up with everything from water, sleeping bags, disposable bicycles, and vodka to generators, ice cream, and disco lights. Burning Man’s organizers’ rule of Radical Self-reliance infers and suggests that this will be a week filled with hardship, real or imagined.

Frequently enough the wind blows up over forty or fifty miles an hour, the dust storms hit, the rain turns the ground impassable, the sun heats the air over one hundred and ten degrees, the desert cold drives the night-time temperature near freezing levels. One is out in a very inhospitable environment. Like outer space, human beings would not last long in the Black Rock Desert if they did not have their technologies and stores of captured energy. This close to the Earth, to the land, to one another, to the frailties of our own bodies, life if primitive enough. There are many trials and challenges foreign to comfort-loving city-dwellers.

If this was not enough, much of the event is tailored to be intentionally ritualistic and primitive. One of the organizers’ key injunctions is Radical Self-expression. The way this self-expression expresses itself is of course culturally structured and bounded, coded to be decoded by others in the know. Differentiating yourself against the Black Rock desert’s blank canvas involves painting with cultural codes that draw heavily from the primitive.

Body painting is very popular. Red, green, and blue people are fairly common sites, and fodder for the photographic habits of the many amateur anthropologists who populate the Burning Man event. Many tattoos and body piercings are proudly on display. In an interview, one young corporate chemist boasted to me that Burning Man was great because it gave her a proper place to display her matching twin nipple rings.

Other participants I interviewed told me about the group use of ritual branding at the event. The metaphysical dimensions at Burning Man are such that some participants want to sear the event’s significance into their flesh in the same way it has been etched into their hearts and psyches. A special Burning Man brand—male and female versions—was made for this purpose and used in late night rituals by dozen of attendees.

The use of costumes and body display is probably the most immediately defamiliarizing element to Burning Man’s retroscape. Costumes are common, and range from Mad Maxian retro-neo interpretations to shamanic feathers and wings to bondage culture’s leather and all things in between. In addition, one of the commonest “costumes” is nudity. One of the most interesting aspects of Burning Man to outsiders, probably because of the Victorian Era-remnants floating around in their own cultural unconscious and their concomitant need for self-titillation, is that some participants at Burning Man routinely peel it. They disrobe to various degrees, taking their clothes off, exposing their private parts, proceeding to hang out or parade around in their fleshy birthday suits. The sight of smooth and hairy naked bodies is again a cause for considerable photojournalism of the amateur and professional variety. Gawking, lude comments, jeering, and grabbing are variously discouraged and prohibited by the organizers of the event. The organizers are trying to preserve the sanctity and legitimacy of various forms of self-expression, which rightly includes airing your sexual beefs and glorious gonads in front of thousands of strangers.

Let loose from the restraints of mundane life, people from our Thanatos-obsessed Western culture rather unsurprisingly feel the need to inject a bit more Eros into their day, to be free and expressive, to be the centerpieces rather than the cutlery on the table of daily life for a change, admired and attended to, turned on, and a source of anonymous others’ arousal. Literalizing the Garden of Eden scenario, there is also often an innocence to the nudity that divorces it from sexuality. There is no lewdness, no spread parts, no erections. It is more of a human potential movement kind of nudity, nudity for the sake of self-expression, for the sake of play, for the sake of intimacy, for the sake of freedom. Burning Man’s is a nudity oftentimes as chaste as Renaissance depictions of Adam and Eve.

There’s also a lot of tribe-talk within and about Burning Man, in the neo-tribe (see Maffesoli 1996, Muniz and O’Guinn 2001) sense. As cyberphilospher Kevin Kelly, writing in Plunkett and Wieners 1997, n.p.), notes, the Burning Man’s gathering expresses a unique polyglot nature as “it commingles many strains of late 20th-century affinity tribes into a single seething meta-tribe.” In Kelly’s listing of these affinity tribes he includes: pyromaniacs, anarchists, “desert rats,” high technology wizards or “digerati,” Deadheads, “wind surfers,” gun and ammunition enthusiasts, “the rainbow family,” ravers, art-car hobbyists and admirers, radio enthusiasts, “party hacks,” New Age and alternative spirituality celebrants, neo-pagan “ritualists,” and “modern primitives.” In addition, there are nationalist affinity tribes (e.g., camps with nationalist themes drawn from Israel, Switzerland, Canada), gay and lesbian tribes, environmental tribes, nudist tribes, feminist tribes, Satanists, bikers, and scores of others. Participants often emphasize the event’s expansive social nature, tolerance of difference and resultingly rich diversity of representation. They see in the gathering a culminating Stairway to Heaven in which All have come together as One.

Burning Man’s admixture of the unifying, the sacred, the utopian, and the primitive can be read into some of the key literatures circulating within consumer research: the admixtures of sacred and profane, structure and antistructure, marketplaces and communities that were charted by Odysseans Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry (1989), O’Guinn and Belk (1989), and Sherry (1990); the magical mystery tours of Arnould and Price (1993); the vibrant liberatory version of postmodern thought propounded by Firat and Venkatesh (1995) and the related “theaters of consumption” of Firat and Dholakia (1998); the tight knit idealism of skydiver culture described by Celsi, Rose and Leigh (1993); the primitive out-on-the-edge machismo of Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders as described by researcher-bikers Schouten and McAlexander (1995); the literalizing fundamentalist primitivism of modern mountain men as chronicled by Belk and Costa (1998), and the mass mediated technological utopianism of Kozinets’ (2001) Star Trek fans. Utopia, the sacred, and primitivism coexists within the many multitudes that make up Burning Man’s affinity groupings.

Sacred, primitive utopias also exist within mainstream culture, in particular, within the flow of marketing images and communications. Brown, Maclaren, and Stevens (1996) are not wrong when they point out that marketing is among the world’s greatest utopian enterprises, the keeper of the utopian flame in the late twentieth century. Rather than grand visions of a better world of peace and understanding, marketers are generally marketing little utopias of clear skin, minty fresh breath, close shaves, positive attention and adoration, and instant credit. But consider the source and semblance of these daily desires. Was there ever a time in humanity’s past when we smelled good, were automatically shaven, instantly loved, and had access to every material thing our little hearts could desire? Again, the Garden of Eden springs to mind. But more tellingly than that even, these private youtopias are retro in orientation—in our pampered civilized world we—many of us, perhaps each of us—once smelled of talcum and baby-freshness, were gorgeous and fabulous, had all the attention and love and toys we could handle. Our own childhood was, to varying degrees and at various times and for various people in various ways, an idealized state to which many of us long to return.

Yet the primitive is often not nearly so childlike, innocent, or harmless. The primitive contains within it hints of deep dark danger. As noted scholar of the primitive Marianna Torgovnick (1996) notes in her book Primitive Passions, the metaphorical power of primitive peoples comes from the fact that they are culturally coded as radically Other [see also Belk and Costa’s (1998) insightful work on the modern mountain men enclave in the American West]. The primitive contains within it all that we have shut out from civilization. It is coded with the animal within, the savage beast, the dark emotional desires we seek, often for very good reason, to suppress. In everyday parlance, to call someone primitive is to call them ignorant, unmannered, unsophisticated, or worse.

The notion of the primitive is at once ancient and modern. In master historian Jacque Barzun’s (2000, p. xv-xvi) history of Western cultural life from 1500 to 2000, he states that

the longing to shuffle off the complex arrangements of an advanced culture recurs again and again. It is a main motive of the Protestant Reformation, it reappears as the cult of the Noble Savage, long before Rousseau, its supposed inventor. The savage with his simple creed is healthy, highly moral, and serene, a worthier being than the civilized man, who must intrigue and deceive to prosper. The late 18C returns to this utopian hope; the late 19C voices it in Edward Carpenter’s Civilization: Its Cause and Cure, and the 1960s of the 20C experience it in the revolt of the young, who seek the simple life in communes, or who as “Flower People” are convinced that love is an all-sufficient social bond.

As Barzun suggests, not only is the modern notion of the primitive the repository of our deepest animal desires, it also contains our loftiest aspirations. Primitives came from a time of miracles, of shamanism, animism and prophets who heard the beloved voice of God, witnessed God’s miracles firsthand. The primitive connects the Earth with the sky, bridges our most grounded reality—animalistic being— with our dreams of practical, material transcendence. This is the source of the primitive’s mythic and ritual potency, the reason primitive people’s serve as the sources of so many utopian dreams. The foundational European Eutopian novels of the past (Barzun 2000), and George Lucas’ powerful fictions are similarly peopled by fascinating and mysterious beings who are fascinating and mysterious precisely because of their great distance from us—they come from far, far away.

Writing for her paradigm, Torgovnick (1996) may be putting an unnecessarily feminist spin on the primitive when she states that it is coded metaphorically as “feminine, collective, and ecstatic” while the current modern civilization is coded as “masculine, individualistic, and devoted to the quotidian businesses of the family, city, or state” (Torgovnick 1996, p. 14). Yet many of the female participants I interviewed at Burning Man would agree wholeheartedly with her. They felt Burning Man’s conjuring up of primitive spirits as a freedom from the artificiality and inhibitions of the everyday. They found the role of the primitive female to be one that resonated deeply within them, allowing them to express sides of their identity they normally had to repress. Wild women and savage girls in hiding secretly roam the streets of San Francisco, it seems.

Yet freedom is a double edged sword, and so is Burning Man. It’s attraction comes from its promise of danger, the hint that, by attending, you will somehow surprise yourself. Surprising yourself may be a necessary prerequisite to finding yourself, or at least to self-transformation. But transformation is change, and change is dangerous to the ego. The primitive qualities of ecstasy, collectivity, and femininity have acquired “a double valence—both violent and spiritual” (Torgovnick 1996, p. 14). Cannibalism was regarded like this, a sacred rite and a violent act. So were the sexual appetites, primitive signs of erotic life force and sources of excess and violence. At Burning Man, people play with their own inner fires—religion, spirit, the erotic, beliefs, histories, the communal, the ecstatic—and with real fire—psychoactive agents, desert conditions, trance dance, real fire. Burning Man is, for one week a year, a place to draw close to the flame, with all of the endless dance of rich associations and threats that this metaphor suggests.

For a culture to live in a state of perpetual celebration seems unlikely and impractical. Release of inhibitions is only possible where there are inhibitions to escape.
Ecstasy must be followed by return to the body. To live in a perpetual state of ecstatic Bacchanalian revelry would reduce any city, like Black Rock City’s central art piece, to ashes. Unbridled ecstasy is primitive and dangerous.

Yet, as Turner (1967) originally, and Torgovnick (1996) more recently, argued, the release of the ecstatic and transcendent urge seems essential to many, perhaps every, culture. Occasionally transcending self may be the road to a healthier self. Frequently transcending self may lead to dysfunction, violence, and a death wish.

These are the tensions that Burning Man rides, represents, and reveals. It rides the razor’s edge of ecstasy, of community, of creative destruction so well, I believe, because of its temporary nature. The primitive, the ecstatic, the bacchanalian, may be vital in occasional doses, but toxic or at the very least unsustainable on a constant basis.

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