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All The News That's Fit To Burn : 2003 Summer Newsletter

Radical Self-Realization: Burning Man as Sacred Celebration
by Rob Kozinets

After I talk or teach about Burning Man, people often ask me, "Isn't it really just a big party?" I usually stammer something in response about all the other elements of Burning Man: the creativity, the community, the gift economy. I emphasize the onerous nature of desert existence and the massive expenditures of effort involved in setting up and running theme camps. Sometimes, I'm rewarded only with a smirking, self-satisfied look, as though slyly confirming the interpretation that I've been conned, or that I am myself trying to con others. Many people already think that Burning Man really is just a big party, and nothing I can say will convince them otherwise.

Because of exchanges like these, I tend to downplay the frivolity and outrageousness of Burning Man when talking seriously about it. After careful reflection, I think this has been a mistake. I now feel that we can find out much about Burning Man's soul by examining its apparently frivolous qualities.

Anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, and other scholars of contemporary culture are just beginning to explore the social role and function of parties — including many big parties. George McKay has studied a plethora of ideologically focused parties in the 1990s that raised awareness of, and then actually helped to address, social issues at a grassroots level. Graham St. John, an Australian scholar, has studied "doofs," outdoor parties located in the Australian outback. More than "just a party," a doof espouses a communal ethos, raises environmental awareness, and seeks to focus attention on the rights of indigenous Australians. Influential anthropologist Victor Turner reminds us that chaotic "antistructure" is a key element needed for any personal and social change.

The emerging consensus among a number of scholars, then, is that parties may be more than frivolous expenditures of bacchanalian energy. They can also be transformational gatherings that catalyze political or social change. Even more curiously, a number of scholars also find sacred qualities in these gatherings.

A sacred party? An anthropological eye, attuned to the cross-cultural currents of ritual and meaning, sees in utopias, sacred spaces, festivals, celebrations, and parties a common, primal urge to transcend the current time/space, to connect with others, to expand and reveal the hidden Self. These ancient rites often incorporate loud music, heavy with drumming, fires (or their flashing, flickering electronic equivalents), and unified dancing, swaying movements of human bodies. What seems so out of place in a sacred experience, though, is the frivolity, the fun, the light-heartedness. Shouldn't self-realization be a more somber and serious pursuit?

Clearly, critics see far too much fun going on at Burning Man to regard it as a serious spiritual experience. To name just a few proposed 2003 theme camps, consider: Tribal Penis Gourds, The Probability Nexus, The Tribe of the Chattering Monks, Sun Valley, The Church of T, and the Temple of the Ass. Can something that includes such silliness actually hold the sacred within it? Within their carnivalesque parody, these theme camps also merge notions of embodiment, sexuality, and the sacred. All these elements work together to try to dissolve what we are, and this dissolution makes room for what we might become.

The combination of humor and the sacred is fascinating because it draws us back to historic and prehistoric beliefs. Gods used to be laughing Trickers. The clowning Fool used to be the High Priest. The Temple's mysteries were once presented as riddles, puzzles, and jokes. In contemporary monotheistic Western society, religion has sterilized this ancient sense of sacred mirth, leaving an organized spirituality that is far less vibrant, alive, and able to connect with people's imaginations than the older traditions. Religion — even much New Age religion — has muted the chuckling of the universe that the ancients once tuned into so clearly. The word comedy, after all, comes from the name of the Greek god Comus, who was once honored with elaborate rituals and processions. The clown god would probably feel right at home at Burning Man.

Contemporary Western society places a big premium on rational behavior. Our ordinary "real world" lives surround us with clocks, schedules, charts, spreadsheets, appraisals, PDAs. Our commercially driven society is based on calculations of individual self-interest, efficiency, and productivity. Utterly opposed to all of these values is the illogical excess of the party. Celebrations, festivals, holidays, and holy days are the sole sacred times marked out for this logical inversion of the dominant production laws. By this means, we open up a space within ourselves that stands outside of normal time.

This year, as we ponder Burning Man's ineffable theme, Beyond Belief, why don't we also ponder the way we combine the sacred and the celebratory when we are experiencing Black Rock City? We express ourselves radically there. We rely radically on ourselves. But we also stretch our definitions of Self, our ways of being, through the use of humor, play and uncensored outrageousness. By breaking chains of convention, we enter Moments of possibility. We engage in Radical Self-Realization. When we lose ourselves in the moment, change has a chance to manifest in the evanescent wake of our experience.

These are the issues I've been thinking about lately. Burning Man's sacred and transformational principles are delicate matters, no doubt. Yet it is not necessary for us to buy into the presumption that sacred gatherings and parties are opposed to one another — one representing solemn Order, the other all-out Chaos. The two are one, and the one is many: Ancient mysteries live on in continually renewed vessels.

So the next time someone asks me if Burning Man isn't really just a big party, I know exactly what I'm going to do. I'm going to think about the sacred celebration. I won't say anything as they smirk at me. I'll channel my personal god, Comus, and just laugh.

Rob Kozinets is an anthropologist and assistant professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. He has been attending and writing about Burning Man since 1999.