Burning Man's "Performative Rebellion"
Thoughts after the great playa deluge
Burning Man 2023 is over, except for the endless Instagram feeds of scantily clad super models and hirsute DJs, triumphantly continuing the party despite the elements. The three-day deluge provided some good clickbait for a few days, but ended — happily — without catastrophe. Burners didn’t suffer an Ebola plague. There was no cannibalism, no disintegration into Lord of the Flies survivalism. The overflowing Porto-Potties did not induce a biological catastrophe. As some commenters noted, in the end, the flooding was hardly as drastic as what happens during an average year at the Glastonbury festival, where revelers must contend with worse drugs and more aggressive drunkenness along with flooding.
In fact, most of my friends who got briefly trapped on the playa had an excellent time. The danger of the near-national emergency added some sparkle to their well-worn routine. As DJ Tasha Blank wrote on Instagram: “It was an extra precarious pain in the ass, but most burners are used to extreme conditions and are the most rugged, resourceful humans I know. Also, the playa’s increasingly predictable and polished personality totally needed a wet slap in the face.”
Two of my favorite takes on the averted catastrophe are from Jules Evans and Nathan DuFour. In his excellent “Ecstatic Integration” newsletter, Evans notes that an increasingly unpredictable climate is wrecking havoc on edge-surfing, experiential tourism — and even just garden-variety sun-worshiping:
I think of cruise ships being quarantined during the pandemic, of tourists collapsing in heat waves in Italy, or having to be rescued by boats from Crete on fire, or Maui on fire. …We are emerging out of the brief manic era of hydrocarbon industrialism, which among other achievements gave us mass tourism and the fetishization of the sublime tourist experience - climbing Mont Blanc, sailing down the Nile, diving at the Great Barrier Reef, encountering lions in the Masai Mara, raving at Burning Man, and so on… But in the last few years it’s getting harder and harder to escape reality, and these sorts of getaways are resembling less Room With A View and more Survivor.
I am not even sure, when it comes to Burning Man, if this result can actually be called ironic. After all, the whole idea of the festival was to create a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-meets-Pepperland pre-reenactment of a world-ending catastrophe. The scenario Burning Man once distantly foreshadowed now speeds toward us — yet, for the most part, we still find ourselves woefully unprepared. This is both eerie and predictable.1
Samantha Powers, an environmentalist working in regenerative finance and a second-year Burner, wrote: “The rain — what a surprise, what a blessing, what a challenge, what a world we are living in as the climate and water cycle changes so dramatically. This Burn was an incredible experience for me, both in-spite of and because of the weather. Challenges like this force us to surrender to what is and to deepen community care — two things we're going to have to get much better at as ecological collapse processes accelerate.”
In an Instagram reel, DuFour, a philosopher, looks at Burning Man as a “performative rebellion” that has run its course:
Instead of simulating the way we could all live in a temporary festival context, why aren’t we actually building the way we could all live in a permanent and enduring context? Sometimes it makes sense to run that simulator, but perhaps we’ve run it enough times. … It may be that our generation has a different responsibility: Not to performatively rebel, because that’s already been done, but to actually instantiate those ideas in an enduring way.
I find this a healthy perspective. Hakim Bey’s concept of a Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ) inspired the Burning Man founders. I tend to look at a city like New York as a “PAZ” (permanent autonomous zone) waiting to happen. Once people break free of the indoctrination and conditioning that keeps them in consensus trance (if that is possible), we might devise new forms of systemic, decentralized cooperation.
The difference between a “performative rebellion” and an effort to create something permanent and enduring was obvious to me from my first visit to the event. I tried to build an infrastructure to support this kind of transition with the Evolver Network. We helped local communities self-organize around the new consciousness / ecological paradigm. While the wealthy Burners I knew lavished support on art cars and spectacles, very few of them were willing to fund a far-reaching social-change project meant for the masses, even when our initiative was growing rapidly.
Among the comments on DuFour’s video, I feel great sympathy with this one:
It’s more convenient to power structures and capitalism if our creative energy is limited and contained to an exclusive, pretty inaccessible and short-lived event. Throughout so much of human history, the most creative, highest forms of art were made specifically for the elite and nobility. For example, the Palace of Versailles.
There is, indeed, a Versailles-like feeling to Burning Man. In Breaking Open the Head, I saw similarities between Burning Man as an annual pilgrimage and the Eleusinian Mysteries. I would say it has far more of the Versailles vibe, at this point, than it resembles the great Classical centers of initiation, known to antiquity.
(For paid subscribers, I am going to delve into what I suspect, uneasily, to be the occult meaning of Burning Man, based on Rudolf Steiner’s ideas, at the end of this piece.)
From Brian Muraresku’s Instagram, I learned that at least one sculpture at this year’s festival referenced those legendary Mysteries: “A monumental replica of the ancient chalice excavated in Spain that once contained a psychedelic graveyard beer,” Muraresku writes. From his feed, it looks like Elon Musk’s brother Kimball and his wife Christiana helped fund the piece.
I knew Muraresku, a Catholic, when he lived in New York and first got interested in psychedelics. He told me he read my first book, Breaking Open the Head, loved it, then bought every book in my bibliography and devoured them. In fact, he has told me on numerous occasions that Breaking Open the Head was his initial inspiration — yet, oddly, he left all mention of my work out of The Immortality Key. This was disappointing as I try to be scrupulous and credit my sources and influences. I have no doubt he found the link between the Mystery centers and Burning Man through my work.
As far as I can see, The Immortality Key rephrases the work of Carl Ruck and other scholars, including Albert Hoffman, who already covered the likely use of entheogen in the ancient mysteries in The Road to Eleusis and other books. (as I discussed in Breaking Open the Head). Although The Immortality Key has the breathless, gee-whiz vibe of a mystery novel or boy’s adventure, it lacks surprising revelations or new ideas. Sometimes all that matters is being in the right place at the right time — particularly if you are part of the Ivy League elite, and, therefore, palatable to the mainstream.
A Brown-educated corporate lawyer with a baby face, Muraresku has turned into a zealot, evangelizing for psychedelics as the New Revelation. I find this bizarre, considering he never tried the substances himself. This is from his recent talk at the PAUA conference in Paris, where I also spoke:
I'm also a fraud because I haven't done psychedelics, as most people know. But I would suggest we need more research into what makes this authentic… There's a lot happening at various universities in the states and around the world looking into harnessing this technology. There’s a program at Yale and Johns Hopkins… so it's about this, but psychedelics, yeah, wow! That's some conversations we can be having that were a non-conversation two years ago. It’s now a conversation in some of the leading universities in my country and with governments around the world. Religious institutions. This is a conversation we all need to be having.
At PAUA, Muraresku proclaimed psychedelics as, potentially, the one thing that can save humanity: “This is something that is truly universal. I think it's supreme technology and something that if we learn how to harness properly, authentically, and sacredly, it can save us.” Never having tried them, he literally has no idea what he is talking about. In this expansive phase of the psychedelic renaissance, now that others have done the dangerous ground work, establishment figures can build second careers, amass cultural power and capital, by evangelizing for this once taboo topic, even if they have no, or very limited, direct experience of the subject.
If Burning Man isn’t the return of the Eleusinian Mysteries in postmodern form, then what kind of occult transmission is, in fact, taking place there?
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