Burning Man

People have varying opinions on the Burning Man festival and on Burner culture in general.  Every year, when the time comes for the festival, I’m happy to get an earful of those opinions.  I’ve found it interesting that most of my students live in a countercultural hotspot (San Francisco), yet they have little or nothing to say about Burning Man.  They treat it like it’s just one of the many big arts and music festivals that pervade their cosmopolitan lives.  Some folks don’t care, and other folks don’t even know about it.  My favorite statement this year comes from a friend’s mother, who asked him, “Why are so many people going to Birmingham?”

For the people who debate the value of Burning Man, the religious implications of the event often take center stage, with some deriding Burning Man as a symptom of civilization’s decline or as a New Age or Pagan festival that threatens the future of biblical values, and some praising the festival for cultivating a countercultural desert spirituality not unlike that of the early Christian church.  Here’s a thoughtful article that details the issues in this debate.

I think the festival is neither the decline of civilization nor a spiritual revolution.  It’s more banal than that kind of polarizing debate indicates.  It’s a diverse festival that has, for the most part, integrated well into mainstream society, hence the opinion of so many of my students: it’s just another arts and music festival.  That banality sounds good for Burner culture, making consciousness expansion and personal expression practices of everyday life, not a big deal, not a sensationalized spectacle.

If I were criticizing Burning Man, I would criticize the environmental ethics of the event.  Burning Man espouses the Leave No Trace ethic.  Maybe it’s better than nothing, but it’s stuck in managerial and recreational models of land use, and I’d hope that Burners can come up with something better than the status quo.  What bothers me most about Leave No Trace is that its adherents often claim that they are acting ethically, since they didn’t leave any traces, and that is blatantly false.

There are always traces, marks of our encounters with others.  Think of the carbon footprint of Burning Man: the event happens in a desert to which participants drive or fly, and the whole event is predicated upon burning.  That doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t participate, but it does mean that Leave No Trace leaves a lot of ethical responsibilities unaccounted for or ignored.  Nothing bothers me more than a clean conscience.  I’m against antiseptic morality.  Cornel West’s injunction is pertinent here.  Don’t deodorize the funk!

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Obama, VMAs, Macbeth, and Nothing

What an amazing evening… the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards, and at the same time, Barack Obama giving a speech accepting his nomination for president by the democratic party.  If those two events don’t inspire you, I can’t imagine what would.  I was not happy to hear Obama say that “climate change is not a hoax,” nor would I be happy to hear him say that the periodic table of elements is not a hoax.  I would hope that the argument is a little further along by now.

In any case, it’s all great television, and I really mean that.  I’m not being ironic or sarcastic.  However, that is not to say that such powerful political and artistic performances fail to keep Macbeth from ringing in my ears.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

More Fear and Loathing

Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas.  To relax, as it were, in the womb of the desert sun.  Just roll the roof back and screw it on, grease the face with white tanning butter and move out with the music at top volume, and at least a pint of ether. (H. S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, p.12)

But our trip was different.  It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character.  It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country—but only for those with true grit.  And we were chock full of that. (18)

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.…
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings [….] You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.…
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. (66-68, brackets added)

The wave broke and rolled back, and we’re left in the desert.  Our experience of the tremendous power of the sacred (mysterium tremendum) has become empty, and we’re left trembling with fear and loathing in the desert.  All forms of transcendence have become empty: God, the American Dream, and counterculture idealism and utopianism.  The counterculture was the last hope for the emergence of a community based on love, but like other movements before, the counterculture became “a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody—or at least some force—is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel” (179).  And now we’re left in the desert, facing “grim meat-hook realities” (178).  If abandoning the old-mystic fallacy sounds bad, wait…there’s good news here…

Left in the Vegas desert, we are left with the real, not in the sense of an original reality that grounds everything that follows from it.  Such an origin is precisely what we’ve lost.  Thank God.  For Baudrillard, existence in the “desert of the real” is existence amidst a groundless play of images and signs, where the real is itself an effect, a copy, a hallucination or image.  The sign is the thing in itself.  Furthermore, this hyperrealism of the Vegas desert is basically a realized eschatology.  The wave broke and rolled back, and now God (Love, Freedom, America, Counterculture, etc.) is deserted and dead, and thus deserted, the divine has passed fully into immanence, into the desert.   In About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture, Mark C. Taylor is explicit on this point: “Las Vegas is, in effect, the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth” (5).  With true grit, we can start at the edge of the desert, find our way to the main nerve of the American Dream, and relax in the womb of the desert sun.  If we have eyes to see it.  Real healing–the real cure–is at hand, amidst the Kingdom of Fear.

South Park and Religious Environmental Ethics

The “Jewpacabra” episode of South Park (S16, E4) contains some good Passover jokes.  One joke is a comment made by Cartman.  In a dream where he is an Egyptian boy (the Pharaoh’s son, to be specific) experiencing the Biblical Plagues (e.g., locusts, raining frogs, etc.), Cartman asks Kyle what’s happening, and in response, Cartman offers a critique of God’s concern for nonhuman organisms.

The following dialogue between the boys occurs with the sound of frog-rain in the background and the sight of dead frogs on the ground around them.

Cartman: It’s raining frogs!  Kyle, Kyle my Hebrew friend.  Did you see that it’s raining frogs?

Kyle: Yes.  It’s because the Pharaoh won’t give the Hebrews what we want.  God is angry.

Cartman: So God makes it rain frogs? That just seems kind of mean to frogs, Kyle.

Kyle: That’s how God is. […]

Fear and Loathing in the Desert of the Real

Psychedelic drugs have been a widespread part of popular culture since the middle of the twentieth century, influencing artists, musicians, celebrities, environmentalists, surfers, ravers, scholars, etc.  It is fairly well-documented that psychedelics have shaped the development of various spiritualities, including nature spiritualities oriented toward experimentation with intense, boundary-dissolving, sensory experiences, wherein the self and the natural world converge, such that nature is felt to be a source of belonging as well as a strange and uncanny other.  Deep ecology would be a case in point, as would the aquatic nature spirituality of surfers. 

A particularly unique example of psychedelic nature spirituality is implicit in the 1998 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, based on the novel of the same name by the “gonzo” journalist and pop culture icon Hunter S. Thompson.  Fear and Loathing portrays a wild and drug-fueled trip in which a fictionalized Thompson (played by Johnny Depp) goes to Las Vegas with his legally dubious lawyer (played by Benicio Del Torro) to find and cover the story of “the American dream.”  Nearly all of the dialogue in the film is taken directly from the book, making a close reading of the book a helpful tool in analyzing the film. 

What I’m interested in doing is looking closely at the film to consider two things: 1) How  does the film affirm psychedelic experiences of the sacred (wholly other) power of natural phenomena (e.g., bats, reptiles, plants, water, the desert, as well as varieties of genders, classes, and races of humans)? 2) How does the film criticize various spiritualities, including Christian, New Age, Satanic, and even psychedelic. 

My initial thought it that the film affirms the experimental and experiential wildness of psychedelic nature spirituality while also harboring a critique of its tendencies toward utopianism, idealism, and anti-modernism.  Through that affirmation and critique, the film promotes a more realist sense of psychedelic nature spirituality.  Accordingly, the film celebrates Las Vegas in all of its deserted reality, that is, the groundless artificiality and errant depravity that characterizes the hyperreality of Baudrillard’s “desert of the real.”  This resonates with Mark C. Taylor’s realized eschatology, in which the hyperreal desert of Las Vegas is the site of the realization of the Kingdom of God on Earth. 

The deserted realism of Fear and Loathing makes it unique among psychedelic nature spiritualities, and, perhaps paradoxically, it also makes it the most viable for becoming integrated into contemporary society.  I don’t romanticize Thompson or his drugs, guns, or suicide.  What makes him relevant is not his authenticity or originality or his subversion of the system.  He is so relevant precisely because his passion for the real is thoroughly ungrounded and ethically questionable, abyssal and abysmal, deserted like the realized Kingdom in which we all participate.

Tool, Rock, and the Dionysian Future of Music

In Ecce Homo, Friedrich Nietzsche declares his “tremendous hope” for “a Dionysian future of music,” in which music would free itself from moralizing and rationalizing tendencies and creatively affirm the boundary-dissolving experiences that accompany states of ecstasy.  In the twentieth century, many forms of popular music have contributed to the fulfillment of Nietzsche’s Dionysian hope.  I’m interested in adapting the poststructuralist method of “pop analysis” developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to consider how Dionysian religious impulses are at work in the genre of rock music, with specific attention to the music of Tool, a contemporary American rock band comprised of a vocalist, drummer, guitarist, and bassist.  Tool’s music connects with religious elements of personal transformation, ritual ecstasy, and esotericism while also harboring a critique of authoritarian religious beliefs and institutions. 

A full analysis must wait.  In the meantime, an outline will suffice.  There are at least three main points to discuss: 1) Nietzsche’s critique of Western music and his proposal for a more Dionysian music, 2) the Dionysian religiosity of popular music, and 3) the religious elements present in the lyrical, instrumental, and performative dimensions Tool’s music.   

1. Nietzsche’s critique of Western music can be understood as a critique of logocentrism, according to which music is subordinate to the clear boundaries drawn by rationality and discourse.  This logocentrism is evident in Plato, including his Republic, where the ideal city is described as one in which songs should be arranged in a hierarchy that subordinates their harmony and rhythm to their verbal element, their logos.  This logocentric subordination of rhythm and instrumental harmony also occurs in Christian religious music (e.g., plainchant and liturgical music), where logos is Christ.  In a modern secular context, one can notice this subordination of music to logos in Rousseau’s essay “On the Origin of Languages,” according to which music arises out of imitations of language, not experiences of sound or hearing. 

For Nietzsche, the logocentric domination of music is a life-negating habit that should be overcome by a life-affirming sense of music, a Dionysian music wherein the intense and boundary-dissolving power of rhythm and sound is encountered as a wellspring of creative enchantment.  Moreover, by invoking Dionysus, Nietzsche indicates that this life-affirming music occasions ecstatic states not unlike those experienced by participants in ancient Dionysian rituals.

2. Many forms of twentieth-century music contributed to overcoming logocentrism (e.g., Schoenberg’s atonal pieces, Cage’s aleatory and silent compositions), however the music that has been most Dionysian emerged not in classical or art music but in popular music.  As the pop analysis developed by Deleuze and Guattari suggests, becoming heterogeneous and minoritarian is the only way to effectively escape the master signifiers and major identities that dominate music, and that is precisely what pop music and pop culture accomplish.  Whether rock, country, or hip-hop, popular music spreads through mainstream culture in the horizontal networks of subcultural and countercultural trends, thus engaging while also subverting the standards and authorities that mark the proper boundaries of music as a “fine” or “high” art. 

Lyrics in popular music use local dialects and diverse idioms that transgress proper grammar.  The rhythms and melodies are extremely repetitive, designed not to express a clear development of musical motifs but to provoke uninhibited dancing, community building, sexual activity, and ecstatic states.  The live performances of popular music are very loud, and the behavior of audience members includes acts that are not welcome at a classical music venue (e.g., enthusiastic screaming, singing along with the performers, nudity, and drug use).  In short, the lyrical, instrumental, and performative dimensions of popular music enact Dionysian modes of becoming that escape the logocentrism of Western music.  This is particularly apparent in the music of Tool.

3.  Tool was founded in the 1990s and is still performing and releasing new music.  Tool fits in the genre of rock, but is also closely connected to metal, punk, and progressive genres.  Their lyrics express critiques of religion, as in songs like “Opiate” and “Eulogy,” which satirize religious claims to authority or leadership and the weakness of those who follow that leadership.  Amidst the critique of religion, the lyrics also express commitments to personal transformation and the realization of the divine potential of humanity, specifically using images and symbols from esoteric traditions of hermeticism, alchemy, astrology, and ritual magic.  Some language is more explicitly religious, for instance, singing of embodied existence as a “holy gift” (“Parabola”) in which one can realize one’s “divinity and still be a human” (“Lateralus”). 

The Dionysian character of the lyrics shows up forcefully in the use of profanity in the lyrics, the use of screaming in the vocal melody, and multiple allusions to drug intoxication, disorder, transgressive sexual acts, and death-rebirth experiences.  Furthermore, the lyrics are not the dominant part of the music.  The rhythms and instrumental harmonies of the guitar, bass, and drums are not mixed into the background but are just as prominent as the vocals.  The distorted and electronically altered sounds of the guitar and bass contribute much emotional and chaotic intensity to the music. 

The beats played by the drums frequently make use of polyrhythms, wherein multiple meters occur simultaneously.  Not incidentally, polyrhythms are a defining trait of the ritual music of African diaspora traditions, where the mixture of meters corresponds to the mixture of divinity and humanity that occurs in the spirit possession states that the music occasions.  Tool’s drummer makes conscious use of polyrhythms, and he uses hermetic correspondences to arrange his drum set.  The Dionysian religiosity of Tool’s music is apparent at the live performances, where the stage is often decorated with the psychedelic artworks of the visionary painter, Alex Grey, and audience members encounter drug use, nudity, dancing, moshing, and various boundary-dissolving states of consciousness. 

In short, Tool’s music fulfills Nietzsche’s Dionysian hope and thereby engages in a wildly experiential version of what John Caputo calls “religion without religion,” with lyrics, harmonies, and rhythms enacting a creative dissolution of boundaries while overcoming the life-negating logocentrism and authoritarianism of Western music and religion.