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On Burning and Becoming

"There is an entire politics of becomings...sorcery, which is elaborated in assemblages that are, at their origin as in their undertaking, a rupture with the central institutions that have established themselves. The plane of consistency is the intersection of all concrete forms. Therefore all becomings are written like sorcerer's drawings on this plane of consistency, which is the ultimate Door providing a way out for them. The only question is: Does a given becoming reach that point?"

~Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

"On the first page of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer define the project of the Enlightenment: to liberate the world from magic. The devastating success of the Enlightenment, they argue, is the ironic "technologization" of reason: having begun by setting the liberating power of critical insight against the power of myth, the Enlightenment ends with the reduction of reason to a set of techniques for the domination of the material world-a set of reinforcing principles that mythologize industrial productivity as the consummation of human creative power. In order to overcome the crisis of the Enlightenment, might we not have to allow for the possibility of a magical rapport with the world?"

~Joseph Delpech-Ramey, The Politics of Sorcery

To me, the global renaissance in festival culture reflects a contemporary spiritual hunger for transcendence. Transcendent states grant the mind and the body access to “hidden recesses of cosmic composition.” Transcendence allows us to experience ourselves and others not as static, finite, separate beings, but as rhizomatic, multidimensional, vibrational entities whose essence is constantly evolving.

Heightened sensory, spiritual, and communal experiences allow the individual to transcend inherited dogmas, thought patterns, and behaviors in order to access that which Marcuse describes as being inaccessible to “ordinary language and ordinary experience.”

The notion of transcendence is implicit in French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari’s discourse on the sorcery of becoming. As Deleuze and Guattari's work in Capitalism and Schizophrenia suggests, transcendent states have the capacity to wake us from the nightmare of global capitalism by reminding us that, as human beings, we are “unique contraction(s) of a multiplicity of cosmic potentials” rather than cogs in an industrial machine. Secular society is starved of the rituals and sanctuaries that have served as portals to the sacred throughout human history. By providing a sanctuary for the mythic imagination and activating radical becomings, Burning Man fosters a more magical rapport with the world. It encourages a total exploration of being that has the potential to undermine the reductive tyranny of our industrialized worldview. To quote Burning Man founder Larry Harvey, “We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers.”

Burning Man consists of simultaneous non-hierarchal happenings in an immersive, co-created environment. It is a living, breathing, highly participatory event that is continuously inventing and reinventing itself. To understand Burning Man through the lens of postdramatic performance, consider Dwight Conquergood’s definition of performance as: (1) a work of imagination (2) a pragmatics of inquiry (both as model and method) (3) a tactic of intervention. Burning Man is all three. The desert landscape is a petri dish for unrestrained artistic output and the collective reimagining of civilization. The inquiry is pragmatic in that participants actively experiment with alternative ways of existing together. The art is an intervention into an otherwise barren landscape, while the festival itself—as a radical social experiment that prioritizes decommodification, community, and radical self-expression—is a tactic of intervention into mainstream society (which Burners refer to as the “default world”).

Through its interrogation, deconstruction, and reimagining of society, Burning Man instigates “a rupture with the central institutions that have established themselves or seek to become established.” This rupture, according to Deleuze and Guattari, is an essential aspect of the sorcery that might one day liberate us from the crisis of late capitalism. Indeed, the desire to co-create is as an impulse towards freedom and liberation. As Marcuse argued, “the needs and faculties of freedom […] can emerge only in the collective practice of creating an environment.” At its core, Burning Man is the collective creation of an alternative environment whose utopianism, like Deleuze and Guattari’s politics of sorcery, impels a critical engagement with the present because it is “constantly in a state of becoming.” By encouraging self-expression, immediacy, and participation, Burning Man is continuously creating itself.

To understand how Burning Man activates becomings, it is worth examining the 10 Principles upon which the festival was founded: (1) Radical Inclusion, (2) Gifting, (3) Decommodification, (4) Radical self-reliance, (5) Radical self-expression, (6) Communal effort, (7) Civic Responsibility, (8) Leaving no Trace, (9) Participation, (10) Immediacy. At first glance, these principles seem to contain a faint contradiction. A novice Burner might wonder, “Is the emphasis on individualism or communalism?” The answer is: neither and both. The point is not to subjugate the individual for the sake of the collective, the human for the sake of the animal, or man for the sake of nature, but rather to underscore the dynamic interchange and relationality between these seemingly distinct entities.

The harsh desert landscape does much to foster becomings. The urgency of surviving in the desert cultivates a heightened sense of community—you become part of a tribe, even if it is comprised of mostly strangers. There is an implicit understanding that you will look out for one another (codified by the principles of Communal Effort and Civic Responsibility). You move as a pack, conscious that isolation could, in extreme circumstances, lead to death. At the same time, the principle of Radical Self-Reliance requires you to cultivate a heightened sense of intuition, to trust your instincts. When you are stuck in a dust storm on your bicycle far from camp, your senses all but obliterated by the white cloud of alien nothingness in which you are ensconced, you are forced to operate from a place of deep intuition—that which Bergson claimed was the primary stuff of mind. In this way, the desert setting induces a rupture with rational thinking, a movement away from the ego, from fixed identity, from the reliance on reason as a defense against the world, towards “an inhabitation of the depths of vibrational and energetic patterns verging on the white noise of chaos.”

As you pass through the thresholds of becoming at Burning Man, you ecstatically find yourself “capable of powers and affects outside the normal range.” The synchronicity that abounds on the playa (a name for the site of the festival) is staggering. Consider the following case study. In an act of radical self-expression and an attempt to liberate herself from societal shame around nudity, Amber decided to experiment with being naked one morning on the playa. She started by walking naked to the porta-potty from her camp. As she emerged from the stall, a group of naked people on bicycles rode past her. One of them stopped upon seeing her and shouted, “Hey! You’re naked! We’re naked! Our plan is to ride to the Temple for a naked dance party! Join us!” The next thing Amber knew, she was part of a bicycle clan of roving nudists—her modest intention to practice public nudity in order to feel comfortable in her own skin and undo some of the societal conditioning that had made her feel uneasy baring her body was met tenfold by the playa. She spent the entire day naked and in good company. Burners are full of such anecdotes. Many consider the playa to be a conduit of synchronicity and describe their experience at the festival as a constant state of flow. The sorcery of the playa is captured in the phrase “Playa Provides.” This saying represents the largely held belief and understanding, proved time and again by experience, that the playa has a way of providing people with exactly what they need when they need it.

My first year on the playa, I got lost and couldn’t find my camp. I was starving and eager to get back for breakfast, so I stopped off at a village of hexahurts to ask for directions. Without my even mentioning my hunger, the first people I approached invited me to join them for breakfast! “We accidentally made an extra breakfast sandwich!” they exclaimed. “It must be for you!” I was floored, elated and deeply grateful, but I didn’t have any gifts on me with which to show my gratitude (not that they expected anything in exchange-that would be against the principle of gifting. Still, the desire to give at Burning Man is infectious, and I was eager to give in that moment.) I fumbled in my pocket and pulled out a simple Bic pen, which I presented to them in a grandiose fashion: “This pen, a divine tool for self expression and for channeling inspiration from the cosmos, is all I have to give in this moment.” To my utter surprise and delight, they all leapt up and started yelling in excitement. “We’ve been looking for a pen all morning! Somehow all of ours have disappeared and we are desperate to finish a letter we started before the Playa Postal Service comes through in an hour!” Hence, playa provides.

Long-time Burner Rezzan Hussey postulates that how we perceive of ‘coincidence’ and ‘instinct’ is determined by how we experience the boundary between our inner and outer environments. By blurring this boundary, Burning Man provides a psychic-physical landscape for extraordinary synchronicity to occur. The syncing up of human with environment is indeed a kind of sorcery. Synchronicity can be seen as transactional evidence of the underlying hyperconnectivity of the cosmic whole to which Delpech-Ramey alludes. When we experience synchronicity, we are “leveraging the field of infinite potential,” according to author Pam Grout. Researcher Dr. Joe Dispenza describes it as “accessing the quantum field.” Such descriptions illuminate how synchronicity is a feature of becoming—of the alchemy that unites human with nature, self with other, subjective psyche with universal consciousness, the individual with the collective.

The founders of Burning Man consider the tenth principle—immediate experience—to be the most important value: “We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.” There is deep resonance between this key principle and Delpech-Ramey’s summary of becoming as that which reveals a secret unity in nature discovered “at an abstract compositional level.” This becoming is accessed “not through through detached observation, but through initiatory ordeals.” In other words, through non-rational, visceral channels of knowing and immediate experience.

Indeed, the experiential aspect of Burning Man is integral. Dancing is arguably the most immediate avenue through which to access the peculiar sort of knowledge that Deleuze and Guattari identify with “operations on a cosmic plane of consistency where forms intersect and enter into zones of indiscernibility with one another.” There is an obvious parallel between the “dancing mania” Delpech-Ramey describes—in which large groups dance and writhe to the point of exhaustion after eating a psychoactive fungus—and the EDM parties for which Burning Man is famous. Dancing in the desert activates a series of becomings, from animal to sorcery to transcendent oneness. The use of psychedelics also plays an important experiential role by expanding “the aperture of human awareness”. Psychedelics induce what Marcuse defined as “the dissolution of the ego shaped by the established society.” Though psychedelic states are admittedly short-lived and artificial, they accelerate the rate of becoming-sorcery by altering perception, a process that Marcuse identified as a precursor to the reconstruction of society because it anticipates an “exigency of social liberation.” Sorcery often involves the ceremonial and shamanic use of entheogens precisely because they induce heightened states in which “genuine knowledge of nature is found.”

At Burning Man, aesthetic sorcery is the gateway to magical becomings. In accordance with the fifth principle, Radical Self-Expression, Burners are in costume for the duration of the event. There are no rules or guidelines as to what constitutes an appropriate costume. Burners do not dress up as fictional characters; rather, they dress up in order to destabilize deeply ingrained ideologies of ‘self’ and ‘other’.

The costumes at Burning Man signify the individual’s willingness to divest from old forms and to participate in the collective creation of new significations. Outrageous self-adornment is a symbolic act signifying the deconstruction of identity and a departure from conventional self-representation. In this way, dressing up is a means of activating becomings. The elaborate costumes are deliberately anti-mimetic and thus pave the way for the “multiplicity of experiential states” that is the essence of becoming. Although this multiplicity is manifested in an infinite array of fashion trends, the prevalence of furs, feathers, and animal tails at Burning Man is worth noting. Such accessories represent a collective process of becoming-animal and a shared reverence for the “instinctual immanence” of the animal.

By creating a space for the human imagination to run wild, the playa becomes a playground for the multiplicities of the human experience to unfold. The large-scale art at Burning Man transforms the barren landscape into an inconceivable aesthetic universe. Many of the installations are created with the intention of underscoring the ethos of Burning Man. Consider the Heart of Gold, a series of interconnected geometric sculptures inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings that play with the viewer’s sense of perspective and warp the viewer’s perception of the inner and outer dimensions of the self. The less industrial but more heart-centered Hug Deli is intended to foster intimate connections between strangers and promote a culture of inclusivity and kindness. Other art pieces are simply feats of technological innovation, like the Dreams of Flight, aluminum figures wired with internal LED lights that are flown around the playa at night under large black helium balloons. Meanwhile, a piece like the Cupcake Train, a set of muffin sculptures on wheels in which participants can ride around the playa, is intended simply to celebrate the ridiculous. All of the art is transcendent in the sense that it is distinguished and divorced “from any daily reality we can possibly envisage,” to quote Marcuse. In a matter of weeks, Burners are able to build an entire city in the desert filled with fire-breathing sculptures, mutant vehicles (a.k.a. art cars—mobile sculptures that carry people around the playa), and temples made of scrap wood. By showcasing the infinite reserves of the human imagination, Burning Man also highlights the absurdly rational, arbitrarily selective, and reductive nature of the “default world”.

Burning Man’s revolutionary utility lies in its industrial futility. If, as Adorno argues, the oppressive domination of capitalism is perpetuated through the culture industry, Burning Man seeks to destroy the industry of culture by decommodifying culture itself. Building large-scale art in the desert out of sheer creative exuberance—art that will ultimately burn to pieces, in accordance with the principle of Leave No Trace—is an act of radical defiance against late capitalist ideologies that dangerously “mythologize industrial productivity as the consummation of human creative power.” Debunking this mythology is an essential precondition to becoming sorcery because reducing the human being to her productive capacity denies her of the multiplicity of experiential states that is her birthright and compromises her ability to access her “infinite reserve of creative potential”. Through the principles of Gifting and Decommodification, Burning Man aims to temporarily liberate participants from the sorcery of money (a project that is not without its contradictions, as the financial resources that go into the festival are indeed noteworthy - stop at any Walmart within the remote vicinity of Black Rocky City the week before the festival and you will observe Burners scavenging the aisles in preparation for their desert sojourn. True decommodification would mean boycotting major corporate entities like Walmart that profit from what Marcuse refers to as "man’s libidinal tie to the commodity." But while the festival may exist in a bubble, it cannot exist in a vacuum. Like any project on the planet, it is still under the influence of the global economy, which cannot be dismantled in a week. What's significant is the social paradigm and psychological state induced by a temporary suspension of transaction.) so that they might instead experience a sorcery of becoming: “We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.”

Some critique Burning Man for claiming to be revolutionary yet ultimately providing a temporary reprieve from the problems of society by creating an artificial utopia that leaves participants with a false sense of accomplishment, as though somehow by partying in the desert they have succeeded in transforming the social imaginary and changing the world. Indeed, many people resume business as usual, complicit in the very norms and institutions the festival purports to challenge. However, a good many of the 80,000 people who attend Burning Man each year are changed by their experience and strive to carry the 10 Principles with them into the world. Their tales from the playa inspire friends and loved ones to question the status quo, liberating others’ imaginations through powerful storytelling. Although the festival is only a week long, the Burner community is active year-round through organizations such as Burners Without Borders, which provides disaster relief and humanitarian aid to communities around the world.

Burning Man entails the collective manufacturing of an alternative universe through “intensified affects, experimental semiotics, and alternative power structures,” which are the key features that Delpech-Ramey ascribes to sorcery. The convergence of 80,000 people in a co-created city under harsh desert conditions sparks collective becomings that enable people to “enter into communication with other levels of duration—states in which the energies of the virtual whole can be given new shape.” These heightened states effectively undermine the tyranny of institutionalized rational society—a.k.a. the default world—because they compel people to reimagine “the constitutive elements of the cosmic whole in new and unforeseeable ways.” It is the ultimate becoming.

1 Comment

Nov 07, 2019

I love this article, and the way you use our words to describe Burning Man.

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