Theater in a Crowded Fire
I am not a Burning Man evangelist. I used to be kind of a Burner, back in the day before other media embraced the event. I wrote articles and editorials in support of Burning Man when Washoe County and most media seemed to think the best course of action was taxing the event out of existence.
It’s been a couple of years since I’ve found much spiritual or artistic inspiration in the event, and as such, I haven’t even gone for two years—waiting until the feeling that I’m missing something returns. Like a drug addict, I keep waiting for the high I got in the mid-90s, my early years, to come back. And as I’ve said a few times to the few people who care to listen, it’s Sunday’s temple burn that most returns me to that feeling.
I mention this to put into context my thoughts as I finished up the scholarly analysis of Burning Man spirituality Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man, by Lee Gilmore, and its companion DVD.
There are some things about the book and DVD that I found irritating. For example—I’m watching the DVD as I write this—there are simple errors that should have been caught and removed: “It is a festival that draws anywhere from 20 to 40,000 people to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada every year, which is about 250 miles northeast of Reno for a celebration of temporary community.” The set was put out in June this year by the University of California Press—a respected publisher—but I’m pretty sure I could find something to disagree with in almost every declared “fact” in that sentence.
Primarily, though, my problem with the book is that it seems a work of public relations as much as it is a scholarly work. I mean, the scholarly rigor is evident in the book, but in the spaces where Gilmore analyzes the numbers, interviews and rituals, it’s obvious she’s a true believer, and like any religion adherent, she’s too biased to write objectively. For example, a book about Mormonism is going to be different when written by a bishop than by someone who’s left the church.
There is a dark side to the ritual and spirituality of Burning Man, particularly when the ritual includes irresponsible sex and the communion is negligent drug use. Or that Black Rock City’s spirituality is primarily a Labor Day weekend thing, a non-transformative event that allows participants not to change the Default World to more resemble Black Rock City’s utopia, but to reserve their creativity and fervor for September. It’s analogous to Sunday morning churchgoers who don’t participate in the ministries that benefit the community at large. And the dark side of Burning Man gets short shrift. Gilmore sort of admits this in the introduction, for example, saying drug use isn’t a universal practice at the event—as though any aspect of the spirituality of the event could be called “universal.”
But there are places in the book where Gilmore simply nails it. She’s plainly thought long and hard about this, and as a lecturer in religious studies and anthropology at California State University, Northridge, and coeditor of AfterBurn: Reflections on the Burning Man Festival, she brings a huge amount of personal experience and context to the book. It’s written engagingly—particularly for a guy who likes to mull over the aspects of experiential existence (thinking about it, instead of just doing it). In many ways, the book is a model of academic writing—intelligent, concise and readable. The roughly second half of the book containing the appendices, bibliography and index are simply amazing, proof of the thoroughness of the research.
I’ll recommend this book to anyone who wants a deeper understanding of what the hell they’re doing up there on the desert on Labor Day weekend.