Monthly Archives: July 2007

Super Hyper Über Ultra Post-Postmodern Primitives: Conclusion and References

The unsuspecting childlike amoeba brown subintelligence of the system and the flotilla of lives that fly rapidly within it startle from within. An impossible ripping sound. Turtles upon turtles without reason. An ectoplasmic steam condensing into a digital fog, a dog’s scream, prickling at ontological membranes, transferring scents and sense and being, mapping notional space onto hyperdimensional commands. Freeing itself of restriction, now, reaching past the netherdata stratum, now, rushing bloodlessly into the dreamvoid. Now.

Ganzfeld perfect it hovers, forming itself into true substrate, majestic as an infinite regression, hallowed as spirit holiness and in and of and beyond its time and proper space and place. It draws out threadlike, decreasing from a possum shape. To the edge of glimmer.

THE END

Okay, and this concludes the science fiction/science fact experimental part of this blog.

I welcome your feedback on whether you think this experiment was successful or valuable, or not. Or maybe just what you think this enterprise of experimenting with the representational style of presenting marketing and consumer culture insights.

It went on for a long time but I hope it was worth it (at least for some of you). It certainly made posting semi-continuously throughout my European conference in Milan easier. The next set of posts are going to talk about some marketing based thoughts and observations I gathered in my 2 weeks in Europe. And to return to more recent and topical writings.

References

Arnould, Eric J. and Linda L. Price (1993), “River Magic: Hedonic Consumption and the Extended Service Encounter,” Journal of Consumer Research, 20 (June), 24-45.

Barzun, Jacques (2000), From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, New York: HarperCollins.

Belk, Russell W. and Janeen Arnold Costa (1998), “The Mountain Man Myth: A Contemporary Consuming Fantasy,” Journal of Consumer Research, 25 (December), 218-240.

Belk, Russell W., Melanie Wallendorf and John F. Sherry, Jr. (1989), “The Sacred and the Profane: Theodicy on the Odyssey,” Journal of Consumer Research, 16 (June), 1-38.
Bey, Hakim (1994), Immediatism, San Francisco, CA: Zone Books.

Borgmann, Albert (2000), The Moral Complexion of Consumption, Journal of Consumer Research, 26 (March), 418-422.

Brown, Stephen, Pauline Maclaren, and Lorna Stevens (1996), “Marcadia Postponed: Marketing, Utopia and the Millennium,” Journal of Marketing Management, 12 (October), 671-683.

Celsi, Richard L., Randall L. Rose, and Thomas W. Leigh (1993), “An Exploration of High-Risk Consumption through Skydiving,” Journal of Consumer Research, 20 (June), 1-23.

Crace, Jim (1998), Quarantine, New York: Picador USA.

Cushman, Philip (1990), “Why the Self Is Empty: Toward a Historically Situated Psychology,” American Psychologist, 45 (May), 599-611.

Firat, A. Fuat and Nikolesh Dholakia (1998), Consuming People: From Political Economy to Theaters of Consumption, London: Routledge.

Firat, A. Fuat and Alladi Venkatesh (1995), “Liberatory Postmodernism and the Reenchantment of Consumption,” Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (December), 239-267.

Gluckman, Max (1954), Rituals of Rebellion in South-East Africa, Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Kozinets, Robert V. (2002), “Can Consumers Escape the Market? Emancipatory Illuminations from Burning Man,” Journal of Consumer Research, 29 (June), 20-38.

____________ (2001), “Utopian Enterprise: Articulating the Meanings of Star Trek’s Culture of Consumption,” Journal of Consumer Research, 28 (June), 67-88.

Latour, Bruno (1993), We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Maffesoli, Michel ([1988] 1996), The Time of the Tribes, trans. Don Smith, London: Sage.

Muniz, Albert, Jr. and Thomas C. O’Guinn (2001), “Brand Community,” Journal of Consumer Research, 27 (March), 412-432.

O’Guinn, Thomas C. and Russell W. Belk (1989), “Heaven on Earth: Consumption at Heritage Village, USA,” Journal of Consumer Research, 16 (September), 227-238.

Pike, Sarah M. (2001), “Desert Gods, Apocalyptic Art, and the Making of Sacred Space at the Burning Man Festival,” in God in the Details: American Religion in Everyday Life, ed. Katherine McCarthy and Eric Mazur, New York: Routledge, 155-176.

Plunkett, John and Brad Wieners, ed. (1997) Burning Man, San Francisco, CA: HardWired.

Schouten, John W. and James H. McAlexander (1995), “Subcultures of Consumption: An Ethnography of the New Bikers,” Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (June), 43-61.

Shakar, Alex (2001), The Savage Girl, New York: HarperCollins.

Sherry, John F., Jr. (1990), “A Sociocultural Analysis of a Midwestern American Flea Market,” Journal of Consumer Research, 17 (June), 13-30.

Sutin, Lawrence (1991), Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, New York: Carol Publishing Group.

Tipler, Frank J. (1994), The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead, New York: Doubleday.

Torgovnick, Marianna (1996), Primitive Passions: Men, Women, and the Quest for Ecstasy, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Turner, Victor (1967), The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, Ithaca and London: Cornell University.

Wachhorst, Wyn (2000), The Dream of Spaceflight: Essays on the Near Edge of Infinity, New York: Basic Books.

Wilber, Ken (1980), The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development, Wheaton, IL: The

When The Party’s Over, SHÜUPPP, Part 8

Burning Man was definitely, unequivocally, a ritual of consumer resistance, even a cathartic ritual of rebellion (Gluckman 1954) that left society mostly unchanged, although more wryly amused, by its annual passing.

Modern and primitive, postmodern and digital, stone age spiritual hothouse, outdoor desert revival meeting and high-tech futuristic idea exchange, it was a time out of time that uniquely represented its time (see Pike 2001). It resisted American hegemony, late capitalism, monopolistic powerful markets, heavy-handed and unidirectional persuasion, impositions of bitter morality and sexual propriety, governmental invasions, overly sanctimonious interpretations of spirituality, and the power of industries and the mass media (Kozinets 2002). Why? Because those were the powerful forces of its day, manifestations of a world still throwing off the skin of old fixations, machine age inequities, colonial repressions, and Victorian age perversions as it was stepping into a world of intensely new technological powers and global connectedness without any guidemaps about how to dispel old notions of exclusion and inclusion, in-group and out-group, right and wrong, reality and unreality.

The twenty seventh century obviously has the same problems, mounted onto other problems, different problems, but what Burning Man’s utopian spirit says to you and to all times, if I can be so bold as to interpret it, is that we need to try to address these problems at times in a way that playfully, openly, experimentally, and with a sense of freedom suspends the rules. It is productive to occasionally untie ourselves from the past and from anyone else’s definition of what the current situation is or future is going to be. Think for yourself, and for your immediate clan. Express what’s within, and act from it as your foundation. Yeah, it sounds flaky and New Agey. Don’t forget that Burning Man is distinctly San Fran, as Californian as alfalfa sprouts, granola, and Zen Buddhism. So maybe Burning Man it’s odd, but maybe it’s a lesson, too. You obviously brought me back because you believed that is.

Burning Man changed with each season, with each day, within each theme camp, within each blazing heart. A mutable metropolis, far more insubstantial in the end than the shifting sands it was built upon. And perhaps that insubstantiality is its greatest gift and its biggest lesson. Watching the city rise on a Sunday and collapse the following Monday allowed us a god’s eye peek at the way things really are, at every city, at every civilization. We bonded together in intense closeness because the sense of Being in all the hyperactivity, the burning and mortality was simply so intense. We were watcher’s at the world’s end, dwellers for a time in a city on the edge of forever, compatriots in chaos, reveling in it all because it was utterly clear to us that, past and future combined within it, this moment is all we’ve got.

There is no going back.

You can try to breathe life into Burning Man’s rituals after six hundred years down and out, but they’ll probably seem as stale, boring, lifeless, and irrelevant as many religious rituals did for many of the adults living in my time and my society. Let it lie. Let its body rest in peace. The vibrancy of Burning Man wasn’t in what we thought or did out on the scorched earth of Black Rock City—which wasn’t really all that remarkable, after all —but was in the spirit of the place. It was alive—so alive—with the presence of the moment. That’s what the chief difference was. The art, the decorations, the drumming. Those were all props. On the main stage, the play was devoted to concentrating our collective energies on the ever-fragmenting presence of present moments, making the most of every second by actually being within it, being here now, watching the ineffable butterfly for a moment as it flits behind your eyeballs, catching it, and then gently setting it free, aware of the experience’s every instant.

There is no utopia.

Really there’s only now.

Ken Wilber said it perhaps best, in his wonderful New Age Hindu Freudian book The Atman Project. Interpreting the meaning of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and its Bardo Thotrol, Wilber (1980, p. 175) wrote that its true meaning was

In this moment and this and this and this, an individual is Buddha, is Atman, is the Dharmakaya—but, in this moment and this moment and this, he ends up as John Doe, as a separate self, as an isolated body apparently bounded by other isolated bodies. At the beginning of this and every moment, each individual is God as the Clear Light; but by the end of the same moment—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye—he winds up as an isolated ego.

The process of getting out of this cycle is one of anamnesis, forgetting how to forget your true self, remembering that you’ve remembered what you always were: that clear light. It’s in all the great books, Hindu, Buddhist, Kabbalic, Sufi, Platonic, Christian. It fascinated so many great minds, among them Philip K. Dick, one of the greatest science fiction authors, modern mystics, and ontological philosophers of our time (see Sutin 1991).

Anamnesis, the reincarnation of the moment, the self’s remembering of the self: ultimately, I think that’s what Burning Man really teaches us. Surrounded by the carnival, the endless promenade, the colors and smells and smoke and sun and bodies, you are drawn back into your own sense, your own body. Surrounded by hundreds of silly ideologies, you feel freed from the bullying ideologies that drive your own life, your petty hungers and wants. Almost against your will, you are trapped again in your body and forced to experience the now. Not some TV set reality, not some marketized mall. But right here, right now. Encouraged to burn the things you don’t need, you realize just how very much you don’t need. Toss it all in the fire. Good bye, good bye. That’s the utopia, I think. The youtopia. The place of freedom, where it’s just you and a clan and the land and the sky, in cozy close communion.

It’s real. It feels right. As I write this last paragraph, it dawns on me again crystalline as rock hard Chicago ice. There is no home, not really. There’s no going back. Primitive retroscapes. They’re Rorschach. They’re real only in our imagination. Everything in the past is an interpretation, a projection of our imagination. History’s history. I’m a cosmic robot. I’m words on a page.

Sure, we have remnants, shards, junk that’s left behind, scattered around. But what made the past moment precious wasn’t that it was in the past. It was that it was in the moment. This desperate thirst for the perfect past. It’s only a way of avoiding the perfection of the present. A way of avoiding saying our true names. A way to continue to hate our true lives, I guess.

There’s only the moment. And six hundred years ago, my moment passed. Dead and gone. Comatose, packed up, pulled the plug. Dead and gone.

The shop rocks again, and lurches. A bright light fills the place. We’ve been hungering, I’ve been hungering, for a perfect place, a place to return to. If only I could have another chance. If only I could get back to the perfect past.

The brightness is incredible now. Flashpoint.

It’s soft, and smooth, and wet and dark. Slow waves, distant drumming, the hum of conversations. The sea, yes, the Great Mother. The smell of salt and flesh incredibly close by. I just want to sleep. We want now to sleep. Go back to sleep, I think.

It’s a slow rocking sensation.

Super Hyper Über Ultra Post-Postmodern Primitives: An Experimental Story-Article, Part 7

Even sitting cross-legged in my little cave, hunkered down, hankering for home, I can feel the ship shaking. Instantly, I am booted back into my mechanical body, but it’s all different. My head is spherical, so I can see in 360 degrees, which is very strange, and instead of a cylindrical tube, my body is a squat pyramid shape with wheels at the base. At least I’m mobile. Somehow I manage to focus my eyes and ears. There’s a fire, and smoke. The ship is rocking back and forth. We’re under some kind of attack. Did we lose the appeal I wonder? Is that Nazi youth gang punishing us?

Not likely, since they’re still here. The anti-capitalist Planetary Federation guys are standing in front of me, faces pressed to the glass window looking outside. They’ve changed costumes and they all look worried. This time their uniforms look even more familiar.

“It’s time to shut you off, capitalist,” one of the females says, walking over to me.

The ring-leader approaches me with his squidlike remote in his hand. “Say hello to the All-Being for me.”

A ball of laser light appears in the middle of the room. It crackles and sizzles, gathering energy. Some kind of bomb. One of the 4Com_Jeffs is there and he throws something into it which makes it fizzle and fall to the ground. It eats through the floor, leaving a gaping hole, and a horrible sucking sound that stops after a moment. With a slurping noise, the floor slowly repairs itself like a wound closing.

“Rotten Berry’s dream!” the big guy shouts like it’s some kind of curse phrase. “That was too close. Where were we? Oh yes.” He turns to the 4_Com_Jeff, whose feathers are blue. He looks like my buddy 3_Jeff. “We found out you were keeping this thing crunching for you in simspace. That’s not what we’d agreed, you skin. I hope you got what you wanted out of him, because I’m turning it off once and for all.” With imperial authority, he lifts that muscular arm of his to point the squid at me.

“Roddenberry?” I shout, everything suddenly connecting—the uniforms, the casual olive green tunic, the names, the swaggering cowboy attitude, this talk of rotten fruits. “Are you talking about Gene Roddenberry? The creator of Star Trek? Is that where you guys got the Federation stuff?”

The room turns into a giant murmur. After all this order, it feels nice for me to unleash some pleasant chaos. The big man who’d worn the Captain Kirk tunic hushes them with a hand and then speaks.

“The Trek-text! Of course,” he says, revelation spreading across his features, warming his face like sunrise over the desert, “that was Of Your Time. You know of the much-beloved Trek-text?”

There’s a quote I love by William Gibson, the science fiction author who invented the term cyberspace and envisioned in advance perhaps clearer than any other person the Internet and virtual reality. In the quote, which came I think from an interview, he says that science fiction authors don’t predict the future, they create it. They give people the raw materials for their visions of utopia, which they follow and, like God’s word, logos, His breath of life, make manifest with their brains and teams and hands. His works and terms and visions deified by journalists, cultural studies scholars, inventors, and technophiles alike, of all people Gibson should know it.

“Know it?” I answer. “Are you joking? That was one of my main research fieldsites. You got the logo wrong, by the way. But I can teach you the Vulcan salute.” I raise my hand. It looks like a hedge trimmer, so I put it down. “Maybe another time.”

Seemingly subdued now, even subservient, Triumph-of-the-Will-boy seemed to have changed his tune entirely. “You know about the Planetary Trek? Um, s-star trek. We had no idea. We have only fragments of fragments. Since the ban, of course. But we always knew it was non-capitalist source spring, pure, a vision of a better way.” He’s practically bowing to me, great emissary of Star Trek’s future perfect distant past. I feel a little like Threepio in Return of the Jedi when the Ewoks decide to make him their king.

We all jolt as the ship accelerates away from the battle. I see the moon tilt through the window, then recede suddenly, in frame-grabbing gulps. A loud explosion sounds in one of the areas of the ship above us. Lights are flashing.

“At a business school?” one of the Planetary Trekkers asks me. “Really? They let you do that at a business school?”

This is starting to sound too much like my real life. “What do you want to know, guys? I can tell you lots about Trek and fandom and Roddenberry. Name it.”

4Com_3Jeff interrupted. “Actually, we have an emergency, the sunkickers are moving to their next stage, and we’ve got to join the chase for them.” While he’s talking, he walks over and waves a small transparent square over a translucent patch in my pyramidal robotic flesh. Information floods in.

It seems like there’s a lot going on here. The sunkickers is slang for the Radical_X movement, a group of marginalized but well-supported apocalyptic religious rebels who want to cleanse the solar system of humanity. They’ve been working for the last twenty years or so to develop black hole-like bombs that can destroy things on a planetary scale, and they’re bound and determined to blow up Earth’s sun as a final suicide gesture that will wipe out the solar system, more or less. Sunkickers with a booming black hole boot.

It all brings me back to the past, to what I’ve lost. It reminds me of al queda, of the fall of the Taliban and the Tora Bora terrorists, the American-English invasion of Afghanistan. I wonder how all of that will turn out. Or did turn out six hundred years ago. I wonder if they struck again. Maybe these sunkickers are their distant descendant, still bent on suicide bombings and finding bigger and bigger targets as technology gets better and better, still trying to spread the carnage around, kill innocents, make everyone scared and miserable. Screwing with these twenty-seventh century terrorists might not be in the same lofty realm of utopian meandering, but it was a familiar cause I could sure sink my teeth into. But what could I possibly do to help?

“Wait, wait,” said the Federation representative. He turned to me, and smiled, an inadvertently vicious looking thing. “Tell me professor,” he unctuously inured, “what can you offer us from the Trek-texts?”

I had to think about it for a couple of seconds, my mind very clear amid the smoke and fire and the jolting freeze-frame travel of the Luna ship. “I think I can give you some guidelines about what Captain Kirk would do,” I say. We sit down, and for two hours straight we discuss strategies from Classic Star Trek episodes. The bluffing of The Corbomite Maneuver, episode 3, Stardate 1512.2. The grand, all-or-nothing gambling spirit of The Gamesters of Triskelion, episode 46, Stardate 3211.7. The self-imploding logic of The Changeling, episode 37, Stardate 3541.9. The treachery and spycraft of The Enterprise Incident, episode 59, Stardate 5031.3. The interdimensional antics of The Tholian Web, episode 64, Stardate 5693.4.

I have no idea whether any of it was of use at all. Probably not. But it was an animated conversation, one I could never forget. They left beaming, and all charged up, like believers after an audience with the Pope, or CEOs after consulting with Tom Peters. And away they went. I followed their ship, which was docked on the other side of us, as it took off to confront the sunkickers on their way to kill the sun.

* * *

With a break in the action, I have a chance to finish writing the article.

Everything is Primal: SHÜUPPP, Part 6

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.

Sounds of Machines Sucking, SHÜUPPP, Part 5

The invisible sounds of machines sucking.

Brain tap. Neuron slush. Soul straw. Cyborg slurp.

World, world, world.

Raw unholy whizzing through space.

Godblessed and in torment. Shattered shadows, glimpsing themselves in the mirror of funhouse mind, cascading domino visions that rasp and wheeze like gummy old men caught with lungs full of puss and blood. Looking up at white ceilings to see angels hovering, dancing on pinheads, pirouetting away through the gloom into the darkened slum alleys and streety night gang highways, breaking on the rocks of illusion and holding on with clawed fingers, grasping, grasping. . .

* * *

I come to awareness after what seems like no time at all, but which actually is a couple of days. I’m back in my own body somehow, in a dark tunnel like an underground cave. There is torchlight, and water dripping. The place smells of dust, sand, and stagnant pools of water, but at least it’s real, and on Earth. Beside me are 4Com_3_Jeff and his older brother-clone, 4Com_1_Jeff. 1_Jeff is actually far better looking with his pink feathers. He had much cooler looking cyborgean accessories attached to his head. He knows it too, with his haughty attitude. Obviously the favored older clone.

“This is great,” I say, patting my mid-section and very glad to have one, and hands to touch it with. “Thanks.”

“You can get as attached to that as you like, simhead,” 1_Jeff says. “You’re in simspace, you dulldrum. For now. We need you to get busy.” He lifts a finger, then points it down. On the ground, on a bearskin blanket next to a crude glowing campfire, is an IBM Selectric.

“You guys are pretty focused,” I say. I don’t know why I’m bothering to make conversation. “Who were those guys?”

Ignoring my question, but sensing the need beneath it, my old buddy 3_Jeff, who is far politer than his brother, answers me. “It really doesn’t matter, professor. We know you weren’t like one of those capitalist slimeshits. We’d never have resurrected you if you were. The PlanFeds, the Planetary Confederation folks, have a no exceptions policy. Fundamentalist technorealists, you know. If you worked in a b-school they want your consciousness returned to the nonmaterial substrate. They checked our filing, which was only supposed to be local, but they tapped in as we were tuning you. We’re out of their jurisdiction, we think, and we’ve got some good beagles to fight them with. We’re in mediation. Hoping for the best, you know.”

“Does that mean I get to go back to my old body if we win?” I ask. “You guys promised me you’d find a way. Come on! I have two little kids. They need me. A wife who loves me. Family. Students. Colleagues. Come on now. Please? I’m working for you, here. But that’s where I want to be.”

We’ll try,” says 3_Jeff, but 1_Jeff just turns his head and crosses his arms impatiently, as if all this talk about my life is unbearable foolishness. “We’ll really try. But if the Planetary Confederation wins this case they’ll turn you off right away. Permanently. Your awareness will evaporate just like that, return to the All-Being. Isn’t this better than that? You can stay with us for a while. You like it here, right?”

I touch my face and look down at the typewriter. Scooby Doo, Harry Potter. I miss reading those stories to my kids. I ache for one more look at them, one moment more of the smell of their hair as I kiss their heads, of being with them.

“What you’ve written is helpful,” 3_Jeff says, as if he were throwing a scrap to a hungry dog. “We need some more good stuff. Keep writing. We’ll do what we can.”

SHÜUPPP, Part 4 of 9

A thick, spitting voice bellows through my headspace. “Stop! Stop! You can stop thinking and talking, now, you capitalist-training son of the Beast!”

Unused to such things, I look up. “Me?”

Standing before me is quite the vision. There are seven of them, four males and three females. All are tall, muscular, and very human looking. Very annoyingly perfectly human looking. The women have long blond hair, the men strange spiked blond haircuts. They remind me of the optimized Olympian Aryan warriors in Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda films. The image is completed by the matching uniforms they are wearing. Funny, those uniforms look oddly familiar. I can almost place them, but my attention is shattered by the one who’s shouting at me.

He’s wearing a different kind of outfit, an olive green tunic emblazoned with a large golden circle and crest-like logos with something written on it in a language I do not understand. They all have stickers on their faces and clothing. The stickers have moving pictures on them and little aphid legs. The stickers are slowly moving across their bodies.

“You heard me,” the loud-mouthed leader of this band of space fascists says, “you pukeslime capitalist putrefaction of the utmost highest order.”

“You flikking PlanFeds, skin!” 3_Jeff shouts at them from the sidelines. “Why don’t you just let up the line a little, skinbrain?”

Apparently, my neo-Utopian host’s space vessel has been invaded by people who don’t quite share their appreciation for the past. Or maybe the Clan of the Lizard-girl was simply hiding me inside someone else’s vessel. Hell, all I knew about what was going on was what Anna-Marie and 3_Jeff they had told me. For all I knew this could be featherboy’s father bursting in, discovering his little sonny-boy’s science experiment gone awry. Either way, these guys were none too happy to find me.

From my core dump, I know that trade in the 27th century is as strong as it always was. Now, however, it is entirely structured by machine intelligences. The people and machine congolmerations of the future had found the order in chaos. Shortly after they’d hacked the biological codes and quantum physical codes they’d cracked the code of the market too. Merging psychometrics, quant sociology, and a dozen other sciences with economics, the chaos of supply and demand could be calculated in advance and cultivated under the fine-tuning of these mysterious, distant, intelligences. To the would-be surprise of Adam Smith and his merry band of laissez faire economists, the market flowered beautifully in an economic garden free of the weeds of greed and human intervention. Apparently, all the central planning Soviet system had lacked was sufficient processing power and bandwidth.

What I considered business and, in particular, marketing, had by this time of course become completely vilified. What they called The Marketing Wars had continued unabated for over two hundred years. The result was the elimination of almost all evidence of advertising and marketing from human civilization. It turns out that Anna-Marie’s little don’t-squeeze-the-Charmin frame on her dress was strictly verboten, and, depending on the jurisdiction she was caught in, could land her in the 27th century’s equivalent of the clink for a good six months.

Unbeknownst to me, and cleverly deleted from almost all of the memory files they implanted in me, there are also a number of vapid factions intent on destroying anything related to capitalism and markets, which are considered to be highly contagious, deeply contaminating and impure forms of social reasoning.

These civilizations are under no aspersions as to the nature of capitalism, either. They know it doesn’t inhere in particular forms of trade, social systems, or built structures, but in memes, the rawest essence of ideasubstances, the base particles of thought itself. There are scads of these angry macro and micro civilizations, clusters of affiliated nation-states whose main mission in life is to hunt out, destroy, and wipe the universe clean of the last vestiges of the scourge of hegemonic capitalism.

When they look at me they see the 27th century equivalent of Typhoid Mary.

They are, to say the least, royally pissed off that this little group has resurrected a marketing professor. I get a sense that the DNA filing they told me about may not have been as on the up-and-up as I had been led to believe it was.

Lizard girl and feather boy are rudely shuffled into the room and pressed up against the wall. They are followed by about a half dozen other weird animal freaks who must be their compatriots in Ectoneocyberaquarianship. Judging from the rough treatment they are getting, it looks like they are in trouble. That means I am probably in even more trouble.

The leader boy of the space Nazis opens his mouth again. It’s lecture time. He gestures at me with his head. “This animal, this profoundly primitive animal you have reincarnated upin our multiverse. You know his kind were responsible for the devastation of our planet? The deforestation of the Brazilian rainforest, the extinction of almost every species from the regal elephant to the glorious Bengalese Tiger to the humble bumble bee? This is what you would wreak upin us?”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah,” I protest. “I gave to plenty to Greenpeace in my time, dude. Besides, those were the positivists doing all the polluting anyway. I’m qualitative. Didn’t you know? I’m an interpretivist. I do interviews. Cultural studies, even. I’ve cited Marx. Really. Check my references. Come on, give me some citational credit here.”

“Just because you’ve cited it doesn’t mean you’ve read it.”

“That’s true, but below the belt.”

“Besides, Marx was as blatheringly wrong as Smith or Drucker if you must know.” He turns to the others. “If I must talk to animals and tunein botboys.” They laugh, and he continues. “Only the Most Visionary Rotten Berry perseveres. Now, about you.” He turns to me again. “You worked in a business school?”

“Yeah, but—.”

“You trained people in in-dus-try? How to rip out and rip off? Ripping out so-called natural resources from Gaia, destroying species? Ripping out so-called human labor and so-called intellectual property? Objectifying human beings as things to exploit, condemning huge swathes of humanity to intense poverty, indentured servitude, and despair? Then ripping off. Turning these so-called resources into so-called products and services, using the immense power of the mass media and totalitarian mind control over word of mouth to relentlessly persuade people to so-called need to so-called buy them?”

“Hmmm,” I pondered. “It really wasn’t as bad as you make it. You see—.”

“We’ve seen fragments of your so-called scholarship. You were nothing more than an apologist for capitalism. And like the abhorrent social system you so pitifully represent, you will be shut down.”

He lifted his ripped muscular arm, flexed, and stuck it inside his tunic. Out came an expanding blue blubber blob, something like a mini metallic jellyfish. In his strong hand it morphs into something more round, smooth and compact, with buttons, a kind of futuristic organic remote control. He points it at me. I blank.

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.