Culture of Gathering

Here’s some random thoughts I’ve strung together lately.

I first went to BurningMan in 1999. I was coming from Chicago, and had newly attached myself to a portion of the subculture that the festival exemplifies. I went there with almost buzz-cut blue hair and got there by way of misadventure (it’s really another story altogether.) The whole experience was awe-inspiring, harrowing and dramatic. I was 21 years old, had only been away from the insulation of growing up in suburban Cincinatti for two years, and was ready for a mind-fuck. To this day, what I remember the most fondly of the BurningMan experience are things that I have since identified in our rather pedestrian or banal culture. I have started to come to the conclusion that BurningMan is really not that special an event, but as with most things in human society through the ages, is merely a carbon copy of our deep, collective unconscious that desires ritual, ecstasy and communion on a sublime level.

Our world has been sterilized, homogenized and legitamized for our protection. It is in branding we trust, and when some stop trusting the brands of giant corporations, the trust transitions to non-branding, which becomes a brand in itself. This really isn’t much of a modern phenomenon, but just the current incarnation of the human need for juxtaposition to impart meaning.

Human beings are curious creatures. We cluster together creating urban centers, we huddle for warmth, we gather on specific days for feasts and fasts, we build great monuments to our inspirations, we gather in great halls that inspire reverence, awe and legitamacy, we wear symbols, badges, uniforms to let the world know who we are. We do it all without having to think about it. And only on occasion does anyone really sit and ponder why we do it.
I recently read the WONDERFUL book, The Devil in the White City. It presents in GREAT detail the Columbian Exhibition (Chicago Worlds Fair) of the late 1800’s, the architects who built it (and a large portion of the great architecture of the time) and the serial killer who dwelled nearby. The book claims that the spectacle that was the Columbian Exhibition was one of the things that inspired Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Indeed, when reading how the Worlds Fair came together in a flurry of sights, sounds and smells of the far-flung reaches of the world combined with the excitement of new technologies and thrills, it’s not hard for me to bring Disney World and Disneyland to mind. People flocked from all over the US (and the world) during an economic depression to see and experience it. It became a community of revelrie that was pristine in comparison to the modern urban environment. It was all the optimism of what a city and society could be.

And at the very end, the architects sat back and wondered what to do once the gates closed and the Fair was closed forever. The truth that eventually, it would fall to ruin didn’t set well, and the awesomeness of the experience was something that was supposed to be finite. Some of the architects sentiments were to burn it instead of letting it to become a ruin. Alas, without their hand, Fate took care of it herself.
My husband and I went to Disney World in Orlando, FL last year. It was the first time I had been there since I was a child in 1985. It had been 2 yrs since I had last been to BurningMan, and I was stunned with the similarities between my BurningMan experience and my Disney World experience. They are both idealized versions of our world, and thrust the participant into an experience that is withdrawn from the modern world, allowing a sense of freedom, security and pleasure within its confines. I think that what REALLY drew the comparison for me was at dusk in the Magic Kingdom, as people with funny hats and blinky lights crowded around together at the best viewing points for a fireworks extravaganza, complete with mildly thumping electronic music and laser light, the world around becoming magical and twinkling.

What is BurningMan but a carnival? What is BurningMan but an exposition of our hopes and dreams laid out for all who will be present to experience? It’s a festival showcasing the same basic nature that some of in society can’t help but market and attempt a profit. At the end, it all disappears through a coordination of fire and packing up the rest. It is over, like a dream, and the participants attempt a transition back to the banal.
Last night we went to Golden Gardens to celebrate our friend’s birthday. We had never been there before, and it turns out to be a sandy beach on the northwest part of the city. People were gathered all over the place, barbecuing and celebrating other birthdays, or just soaking up the sun. I haven’t been on a coastal beach since I was a kid, so I was amazed at the gathering of people around fire, communing with each other, and sharing in feast. I started thinking about the story of the beginning of BurningMan, with Larry Harvey just hanging out and burning a man in effigy on a California beach, and people gathering around making it into an annual event. As I was standing on the beach, it became obvious to me how it all happened .

Humans just can’t help it. The way I see it, about all ritualistic/religious behavior calls to a basic human need that some people feel uncomfortable scrutinizing. I think that sometimes it causes that nasty cognative dissonance that gives birth to the paradigm shift. I consider it an essentially terrifying experience –take a comfort zone of fundamentally believed in vehicle for ecstatic revelrie (ie. specific denomination or counter-culture ideal) and see it as being no less special or different from any other mode, including those one is directly opposed to, and watch for the fireworks. I think this is why many people focus so much on difference instead of similarity. The possibility of acknowledging that we’re just as loony as anyone else in our beliefs is too much to bear.

But then there are a few like me that find cognative dissonance is the best thing about being alive.