Everything is primitive. Everything is good. Everything’s retroscopic. In your neighborhood. Retro is trendy, and what could be more retro than primitivism. As the trend-setting and trend-spotted, feminine, ecstatic, wild, sexy, mysterious, rodent-eating eponymous street-dweller in Alex Shakar’s (2000) wonderful book, The Savage Girl, exemplifies it, primitive is hotly marketable and endlessly cool. So, unsurprisingly again, retroprimitivism is everywhere.
The fact that the primitive is everywhere is kind of a necessary corollary to the notion that everything is related to everything else—the shared cosmology and intuition of the mystic, the theoretical physicist, and the wise statistician all (see Tipler 1994). But, Bell’s theorem aside, there are inevitably distances between the strands of Indra’s net. And where there’s distance, there’s cultural polarity. The opportunity to bring those points together is a critical source of ritual potency. Uniting thematic contradictions is the cultural equivalent of tapping together the nodes of – and + on a battery. It sparks. That’s the power of Burning Man’s ritual.
Burning Man is unabashedly after Oneness, the When All Is One Stairway to Heavensence sentiment to which I alluded earlier. The tribes of mankind united. Heaven and Earth conjoined. Past and present reconciled. Present and Future meshed. Machines and people combined. Male and female linked. And in that it is a very prototypically modern or tribal experience (Torgovnick 1990, 1996). It is about seeking the transcendent, expansive or—if you’ve a Freudian bent—oceanic experiences, wherever they can be had. Much of Burning Man’s experience is primordially physical: sleeplessness, thirst and constant drinking, close encounters of the port-a-pottie kind, incessant drumming, inescapable dancing, drinking, drugs, bright lights in the darkness, endless walking and watching and talking. Unsurprisingly, the event’s drug of choice is called Ecstasy or X—which is a far sexier and more mystical term than its old blah blah chemical acronym of MDMA.
The Burning Man experience is a way of getting away from much that we avoid facing in life (Where does the stuff go that we throw or flush away? What am I afraid of? What do I need? Who am I when I’m away from all the usual things in my life?). It means being true to the body, to the organic self, to the animal that calls itself human. It’s felt as an untangling of Cartesian knots, even a science meets religion mystical Omega point where out of abstracted roles, jobs, knowledge bases, and circumstance we become material beings once more, made flesh. A culmination. A resurrection. A cleansing.
Yet the very notions of the primitive embodied in Burning Man’s embodiment experience are inescapably Western notions. Burning Man’s organizers and other promoters (see Plunkett and Wieners 1997) partake ideologically in many of the primitive utopian streams that Torgovnick (1996), Barzun (2000), and Kozinets (forthcoming) mention: the Noble savage cult, the wild woman and men’s human potential movements, paganism and Native American styles of New Age spiritual belief, the idealizing communal primitivism of Marxists and Situationists, the hippie movement of the sixties, the various art and performance art subcultures that incorporate and play with all of these elements.
The power of primitivism as it occurs in multiple manifestations at Burning Man—or within any other notions of the primitive—is the power it yields in juxtaposition with other things. Going primitive becomes interpreted as license to do that which civilized people do not, and it thereby reveals a culture’s notions of civilization. For Burning Man, there are conceptions of markets and money, passivity and distance, individualism and selfishness, sexual repression and constriction, artificiality and mass culture, big corporations and oppressive religions to resist. The ritual power of the primitive is particularly useful and interesting at Burning Man because it is juxtaposed so vividly and so consistently with the modern, the postmodern, the digital, the futuristic, the high tech. Many of Burning Man’s participants live in the Bay Area, and are involved in Silicon Valleyesque high technology businesses and services of one sort or another. In Burning Man, it is as if their real lives floating on the future’s edge must be counterbalanced by occasionally being grounded it down into past. The abstract made physical. The soaring bird become the slithering snake.
In the end, the distant past and the future (and in contemporary America, while the latter is privileged over the former, both are amazingly distant) end up being hopelessly romanticized and utopianized because of their very distance from us. Blobs, cloud shapes, collective dreams, Rorschachs. Our own limits, our own possibilities: that’s what we see in the past and the future. In all of the science fictional daydreaming about Internet worlds, virtual realities, and space travel, all of it is about limits and transcendence, ecstatic principles as easily attributed to the advanced dream quests of ostensibly primitive people. In The Dream of Spaceflight, space writer Wyn Wachhorst (2000, p. 54) wonderfully captures this sense that past and present are united in possibilities carrying within them a mystical promise that is, in the end, ecstatic, primitive, dark and mysteriously feminine:
Men once looked out over the melancholy wilderness of water as we now look to the stars, knowing it to veil some great mystery of unknown size and origin. Though the sea no longer bounds the universe, it remains a vast, inscrutable presence, growing darker and deeper in the distance, the darkness of a world before man, unchanged through eons of continual evolution, yet ever restless. . . . And out beyond the breakers abides the silent face of the Great Mother, an effervescence of light, flashing like countless suns.
The sea, rocking, ebbing, flowing. The stars, the sky. The desert is the sea. A cultural tabula rasa, a social palette for combining the infinite shades of human conception and experience.
This feminized notion of primitive creativity is endlessly interesting. Surrender means transformation. Transformation means creation. Creation means production. Production means reproduction, expression, and art. Gifts, art, femininity, ecstasy, community: these are the cultural code words of Burning Man and the primitive. They manifest in and through the rituals and practices used to enact them, be they gifts of nudity, barter, gift of candy, body painting, sand painting, sand sculpting, branding, wrestling, desert dream questing, alcoholic beverages, musical performances, meditation and yoga lessons, ecstatic trance dancing, elaborate rave facilities, drumming circles, whooping and hollering, fire-twirling, or ritual explosions. There’s no limit to the numbers of practices and rituals that can simultaneously express the primitive and the modern, mix the two together in potent semiotic combination, conjure up and dispel the deepest darkest desires.
It’s not necessary to follow what people did at Burning Man, or even the cultural codes they used. The point that is far more important is how they cracked their own cultural codes, and manifested them. For so much of Burning Man’s ritual power comes not from a purist’s reinterpretive attempts to relive the primitive past—as do the literalizing mountain man adherents of Belk and Costa (1998) or some of Torgovnick’s (1996) informants—but from participants’ openness to an experimentation that blends past, present, and future. Opening the door to play with these cultural contradictions releases much cultural power.
Burning Man is A.I.’s Flesh Fair, Star Trek’s Planet Eden or Genesis Planet, Mad Max’s Thunderdome, and The Planet of the Apes—a future that returns to the primitive, but twists it, turns it, tweaks it in unexpected ways. Although it contains trees made of cow bones, and corporate biochemists wearing animal skins and bones through their nose, it never claims to be an exclusively primitive or primal event, or any other kind of event for that matter. It is described again and again by participants who believe in such things as “modern primitive.” But its organizers unerringly insist it can be everything, anything, and nothing. Drawing on the emancipatory “theatres of consumption” of Firat and Dholakia (1998; see also Firat and Venkatesh 1995) it could as easily be termed postmodern primitive. Or, because we were never modern, or never postmodern (see Latour 1993), perhaps it is post-postmodern primitive.
How about super über ultra hyper post-postmodern primitive?
What is most important about Burning Man is what Burning Man is not. That there is a primitive to escape to, a Black Rock City to construct, is due to the reality that we feel we need to escape from something, to some place. Why do we need to construct this place? What is it this place is resisting? What are we afraid of? Who are we? What is it we need to give ourselves permission to do? The answers to these questions will map out our society, our civilization, our selves, our passions, our constraints, our contradictions: the culture polarities that define our existence.
Are people of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries “empty selves” (Cushman 1990) who need to be filled to rim with Brim, fulfilled by empty commercial promises, which might include the chimerical postmodern primitive promises of para-spiritual events such as Burning Man? As someone who has found Burning Man personally transformative, I find that a very incomplete way to pose the question. We are all half-empty and half-full most of the time, fully empty and fully full some of the time.
Have we lost of “a life of engagement,” a state of affairs brought about by the presence of what Borgmann (2000) calls “paradigmatic consumption”? Have we completely split up on so many social levels that we need to be brought together, the person with their creation, the role with the self, the me with the us? According to Situationist Sufi philosopher Hakim Bey, “the intervention of Capital always signals a further degree of mediation” (Bey 1994, p. 7) and so Burning Man might be thought to be dispensing with capitalism and therefore also doing away with mediation [see also Borgmann’s (2000, p. 422) related contention that paradigmatic consumption and the culture of technology are intertwined].
Somehow, I think the hungers we feel for connection are far more pervasive than this, built into the very acts of communication and conception that allow us both to self-identify and to differentiate from one another. High technology may have exacerbated some of the prickly problems of social being that were already there, but it didn’t create them out of the ether, or the ethernet.
All of this suggests that the primitivism of social gatherings and movements should be conceptualized as more connected to a micropolitics of utopia and ecstasy than it previously has been. Utopias technological, social, and postmodern primitive are all sung in the key of Other. They suggest the importance of ecstasy, release, culmination, transformation, creative destruction, danger, and mystery in these conceptions.
Holidays, festivals, wild parties, and other gatherings of many sorts might not be political movements we can easily recognize as such, but they may be youtopian moments.
Moments, not movements.
Our attention can shift, should shift, from the calendar to the clock, from to the block to the blip, from decades to days. Utopias and primitive potentialities may not need to be classified dichotomously as either reformist or revolutionary but as odd hybrids that don’t seek Social Change but instead savor moments of change on a very small and local level.