Free from the Net of Meaning: Larry Harvey and Burning Man


Burning Man founder Larry Harvey has passed away at the age of 70. It has been virtually impossible to live on the Westside of Los Angeles, as I did for the past few decades, and not have conversations about two things-Coachella and Burning Man. Burning Man, which began as an annual ritual on the Northern California coast became a seminal counter-cultural event. black Rock City, the site of the annual 'burn' in the Nevada desert drawing thousands of people from all over the world for an experience like no other, a TAZ event (temporary autonomous zone, driven by a gift economy and a commitment to an avoidance of significance and what writer Erik Davis called the 'insidious net of meaning.

Almost everyone has an opinion about BM, it runs from dismissal of it as a New-Age bacchanal, to hopes that the ideas of behind BM would take hold in the wider culture and 'really change things.'

The questions that are raised in many of the circles I move in relate to issues of religion, spiritualty and the sacred/profane dynamics so prominent in most conversations about religion today. I knew a girl who used to tout the spiritual dynamics of BM, she also used to go there dressed only in blue latex and a commitment to explore sexuality and hallucinogenic experiences. I also know of a few groups of Christians who go, some to evangelize or be a presence for God, whatever that means.

Unbridled sexuality, wide use of drugs and lots and lots of wild goings on muddied the waters for many people who were somewhat confused as to what exactly Burning Man was or was trying to do or be.

What makes the event sacred is its very profanity, or perhaps I should say, the way in which the sacred and the profane intersect and join up. “Beyond belief, beyond the dogmas, creeds, and metaphysical ideas of religion, there is immediate experience,” this is what Larry Harvey wrote and perhaps provides a clue to the essential dynamic of BM--its an experience. And it's this dynamic at the heart of Burning Man that links to it broader and perhaps more accepted forms of American Spirituality. American Spirituality is many things and takes many forms, but it is essentially built on experience. William James, who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, noted that it was experience rather than belief that was at the root of religious life. Burning Man's experiences may seem a long way from traditional religious expression, that is partly because traditional religion has continually domesticated its experiences (think Pentecostalism, Charismatic movements etc that very quickly saddle experiences with dogma and order which ultimately turn them into virtual parodies of themselves), and also because of the conditions under which things are experienced at Burning Man. Because it is wrapped up in a healthy dose of hedonism and other physical dynamics, the event doesn't present a singular experience and consequently the myriad experiences people have at Burning Man become its currency its ritual form and its means of sustainability.

Like many forms of American spirituality Burning Man's perspective is riddled with the apocalyptic. Burning Man, which it should be noted has now become a well-laid out, temporary city, is haunted by the conditions of the playa-the consumerist, capitalist, military-industrial world, that rules the outside world, acknowledges, dismisses and mocks that world through its gift economy, its artworks, its hedonism, and throws itself wide open to the void that exists, but that void is not nothing, it is chaos, creative chaos. Chaos is a reminder of impermanence and this of course lies at the heart of the event itself. It lasts a week and then disappears without a trace, leaving the empty desert playa as though nothing ever happened. It's not that there is no meaning, there just isn't any meaning except that which lies beneath the creativity and the chaos, between the apocalytpic and the utopian--it is spirituality gone wild, perhaps the only form of spirituality that might survive in the times in which we live,