POSTMODERNISM AND THE PRIMAL WORLD OF BURNING MAN

--an interview with Larry Harvey

DARRYL VAN RHEY: Burning Man has been called a "postmodern carnival of the absurd". What exactly does "postmodern" mean. For most of us "modern" means "now"-- our contemporary age. How can anything occurring in the present come after "now"?

LARRY HARVEY: Postmodern means that in our time there exist many different types of "now". Nearly every style and every idea that has ever existed now has its adherents. We live in an eclectic age. There's no defining paradigm, no single idea to unite us. Historically modernism meant progress, science, rationalism; the extension of our conscious control of the world. To be modern meant that one had shed myth and superstition, all the unreasoned traditions of the past. The race had reached adulthood. As moderns we would order things differently. We would no longer blindly serve the past, but work to construct a new future that was based on rational principles. The unconscious would be analyzed, houses would become "machines for living", the form of everything would be designed to follow a rational function. Aided by science, we could completely control our destiny. But people no longer believe this is so.

DVR: Why? What has happened to destroy our confidence?

LH: Two World Wars, for one thing. Suddenly science was perceived to be doing these monstrous things. Science, we realized, was only a tool; a means, not an end. It couldn't produce any ultimate values; rational mind reached the end of it's tether. The final horror of the Nazi death camps lies in the realization that such evil results were arrived at by thoroughly rationalized methods. Sure, other historic atrocities match this in scale, but the Nazi's ran factories -- marvels of applied science. And, of course, there's the Bomb. Suicide and scientific reason strolling hand in hand. People still believe that science can command the world-- more so than ever, I think. But our faith in reasoned progress has been shattered. And there are other factors as well. The world has expanded, gone global. We live now in the midst of many voices, many competing traditions. We've become very self-conscious. We now question assumptioms. We've lost the assurance that once made forthright action possible.

DVR: So what faith are we left with? Are things simply falling apart?

LH: Nothing so dismal as that. The good side of postmodernism is that we're so free and sophisticated. We can choose from the past. Today in America every idea or creed or lifestyle that has ever existed is laid out before us, as if spread on a giant buffet, a never-ending post-graduate course. Never in the entire history of mankind has such freedom existed. Never before have individuals been so empowered to shape their ends.

DVR: But what of those ends? You say there's no agreement in our world.

LH: Yes, that's the downside. Discourse has been ghettoized. We all live in separate compartments. The one meta-project of our times, the only world view, is "deconstruction"; this perverse pride in proving no assumptions can be trusted and that no unifying experience is possible Your neighbor is a pagan, his roommate's an existentialist, and the guy down the street is a born-again Christian. So what? It's strictly a matter of personal taste, of lifestyle. We've become a nation of dilettantes. We haven't anything to rally round . There's no ideal held high enough for everyone to see, and so we remain in our private worlds, our sub-cultures. Individuals are stranded, their experience trivialized, because they can't make a broader connection. There's no whole to be part of. For all of our personal power we appear paralyzed. We don't know what to do with our freedom. As members of society we're impotent-- moved and controlled, it would seem, by forces beyond us. This can be very depressing.

DVR: Why do I think you're about to bring up Burning Man?

LH: Because you know me and it's true. I do believe we're working toward a solution to this problem. First, consider that Burning Man is a very large tent. We're absolutely inclusive. It doesn't matter what you think or how you choose to interpret the experience. Our event is dedicated to unbridled self-expression. What is more postmodern than the Playa? Every encampment and each individual is encouraged to express a unique vision. Anything that ever has or will (as well as many things that nevercould ) exist is represented there. It is a kind of spinning galaxy, each light a separate sun and center of a different world.

DVR: What is to keep it from spinning apart?

LH: The Man. He forms an absolute center; a sort of hub or fixed axis around which everything else is free to revolve.

DVR: But if people can no longer believe in ideologies, if no single idea can any longer command that kind of authority, why should they believe in Burning Man ?

LH: We've never asked them to. It's an experience-- a mystery, an initiation. People are free to extract from that experience any belief which satisfies them. Our aim has always been to make the Man accessible. I like to say someone could come to our event speaking Tagalong or Hindi and still understand it in an immediate way. The Man, his placement, and the festivities that surround him have all been designed to appeal to people at a primal level.

DVR: What do you mean by "primal"?

LH: The sort of experience that we all, in our innermost nature, have in common. Myth and ritual have always been adapted to connect to this. They treat of origins and how things came into being. They allude to archaic experience that is pre-verbal, prehistoric, and that occurs before culture itself intervenes in our lives. Let me give you an example. When Jerry James and I designed the first Burning Man in 1986 we fashioned its face to form an inverted triangle. It was a casual act; we were hurried and worked from scrap lumber. It was expedient. All I claim is that it seemed expressive at the time. Four years later I decided I would give it a more naturalistic look and I toyed with various designs. No other shape seemed so evocative. I wondered why. Why should so abstract a form feel charged with emotion? My son was then seven, so throughout these years I'd thought a lot about developmental psychology. I knew that everything he did was aimed at building an identity within himself and in the world around him. I also knew this process starts in infancy, that from the moment any baby's born it is adapted to seek out certain clues, certain perceptions, in order to find its place in the world. So as I stared at the Man's face it gradually occurred to me that maybe we had stumbled on just such a percept, such a clue; a primal image. Infants seek their mother's faces, yet newborns, we know, encounter a vast chaos. First they must learn to perceive. They must distinguish near from far, figure from field, and that when objects that have disappeared return to view they do so on a continuos axis in time. This is how infants, through their ceaseless groping and testing, construct the world of space and time as a coherent whole. It's an achievement that is beyond language and beyond culture and that over a lifetime represents to us, at the deepest level of experience, our primal sense of reality. In the case of the Man's face I theorize that an inverted triangle corresponds to the basic pattern of eyes and mouth in the human face. What could be more simple and significant? To an infant it would read like a first rudimentary map of our humanness drawn in bold outline. I believe that myth and ritual use such patterns and images to reenact experiences of this sort. This is the source of their power. They return us to a primordial world which represents, for each and every one of us, the source of our separate beings.

DVR: How does this relate to the postmodern world?

LH: I think we need a unifying symbol that's accessible to a diverse array of people. Our world is multicultural. People need an experience which both transcends these differences and respects them. That's where Burning Man comes in. We share no single belief today. There is no dominant ideology in our society. But Burning Man is not about belief. It's an immediate experience which transcends any culture-bound concept. I speculate about the role of the primal, but my thoughts on this subject are after the fact. The proof lies in the experience itself. Since we first placed a face on the Man this has always been true. The only possible thing that can hold us together is something which, in itself, lies beyond words and ideology; a return to the archaic.

DVR: How does this agenda play itself out in the desert?

LH: It's a virtual diagram of what we've discussed. The Man, as I've said, forms an absolute center. He stands at the end of a monumental avenue that's lined with wooden spires. It's like a Neolithic temple complex . It harkens back to an historic moment when science, art, and politics were all one thing, all united in a single sacramental act. All over the world, at the very dawn of civilized history, we see evidence of this. Great temples, axis mundi -- "world navels" they're called-- dominated public space. However, our public encampment, by contrast, is a secular space. It spreads out in an anarchic sprawl. Everyone is free to choose their spot within it and to express themselves however they please. The days before the burning are a kind of Saturnalia, a spread-eagle celebration of whatever makes each person unique. But, at the burning pageant Sunday night, they come together. It's a collective act of witness, a homage to what we hold radically in common. As I said, It forms a kind of diagram. Our camp is eccentric-- we've been called the "eccentric elite". But our collective ritual is powerfully concentric. It's designed to unite us around a world axis which transcends these differences. Either of these two extreme types of experience by itself might be dangerous. But, combined, I think they offer a kind of solution to the postmodern problem.

Larry Harvey is the founder and director of the Burning Man Project. Darryl Van Rhey is a writer residing in San Francisco.

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