June 4, 2013

Book of the Month

Lee Gilmore, Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010) + DVD. 

Review by Dusty Hoesly

Lee Gilmore’s excellent Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man focuses on why so many Burners, as participants call themselves, find the countercultural festival to be culturally and personally significant. Gilmore combines ethnographic fieldwork (based on over a decade of attendance as well as official participation on its Media Team), interviews, surveys, and media reports into a multidisciplinary analysis of religiosity on the playa.

Evolving from a spontaneous effigy-burning on a beach near San Francisco, Burning Man has become a highly organized corporation which manages the annual temporary encampment at Black Rock City in northern Nevada, attracting people from California and around the world. It is a haven and a catalyst for culture jammers and technopagan free spirits. (Incidentally, this year’s theme is “Cargo Cult.”)

Gilmore’s survey data show that most attendees are either “spiritual but not religious” or avowedly secular. By examining this sub-population more closely, Gilmore navigates what religion/spirituality looks like at Burning Man and amongst American “nones” more broadly. For Gilmore, “Burning Man is an important site on the vanguard of this contemporary movement [‘spiritual but not religious’] in which creative expressions of spirituality and alternative conceptualizations of religions are favored, thereby destabilizing and reinventing normative cultural assumptions about what constitutes ‘religion’” (2).

Throughout, Gilmore wisely resists labeling the views of participants or the festival itself as religious, spiritual, or secular. Part of what makes her study engaging and possible is a polysemic understanding of these terms, as well as recognizing the heterogeneity and fluidity of participants’ experiences. Participants’ usage determines how Gilmore operationalizes such terms. Staying close to the ground, in this sense, imbues her analyses with greater legitimacy and persuasiveness. “Ultimately,” she claims, “what matters more to Burners than academic quibbles about what properly constitutes spirituality, religion, or authenticity are their own immediate and idiosyncratic experiences, their encounters with community, their cathartic and visceral rites, and the challenges met and overcome in the crucible of the desert” (155).

Burners seek ritual without dogma, experiences which are spontaneous, immediate, and authentic, open to interpretation, and non-institutional. In this way, Burning Man critiques normative aspects of American culture, even as the meaning of the experiences at Burning Man and the event itself are contested within the community. Transformation occurs not only within individual participants but also in the larger culture, as Burners leave the utopian community on the playa and return to the default society. Burning Man is not just an event but a way of life

The theoretical tools Gilmore deploys—from anthropology to religious studies to media studies—are well-suited to elucidate the events taking place at Burning Man. Gilmore argues that Victor Turner’s theories of liminality, communitas, rites of passage, and pilgrimage not only aptly explain ritual experiences at Burning Man, but also that its organizers explicitly model aspects of Burning Man on his concepts. However, Gilmore is careful to point out places where Turner’s theses do not match perfectly with ritual aspects of the festival: for example, noting that even as a homogenizing communitas is created through Burning Man, social and class distinctions amongst participants remain.

Gilmore demonstrates that both the festival and the effigy itself are open signifiers which mean whatever participants want them to mean, even as various in-group members and Burning Man managers articulate a normative vision for what the festival is and should be. While Burning Man is an open ritual that resists routinization as a barrier to spontaneity, immediacy, and authenticity, these elements are also controlled, rehearsed, and familiar, she argues. The communitas at Burning Man is “increasingly normative or ideological,” and thus contrary to the spontaneity which many participants seek and idealize (117-118). This is just one of many examples where Gilmore reads against the grain of the festival, demonstrating shrewd judgment despite her lengthy affiliation with the festival that has “changed the course of [her] life” (167).

How can Gilmore’s book help us study religion in the American West? First, she encourages us to rethink the categories of religion, spirituality, and the secular, privileging emic perspectives over those of scholars, and stressing contestations within groups as well as with outsiders. We might begin to see religious-looking activity in places we had not expected and beyond traditional institutional settings. What counts as sacred space exists in the eyes and bodies of the beholders. Second, this festival may spur us to explore religiosity in the desert beyond asceticism or nature religion, beyond interiorized and solemn experiences of solitude. Third, Gilmore invites us to examine pilgrimage as a tool and category for analysis in Western religiosity. This could include everything from early marketing materials presenting the West as a place for transformative experiences to national parks and environmental tourism to visiting cultural meccas like Hollywood and Portlandia.

As Gilmore’s treatment of Burning Man and the above examples show, there is no clear line separating sacred and secular, and there never has been: “the persistence of alternative spiritualities and the apparent manifestation of spiritual expressions in ostensibly secular venues such as Burning Man is ultimately nothing new,” she contends (63). “The dynamic and creative deployment of religious discourses and ritual symbols in surprising and compelling new ways at Burning Man—and elsewhere in North American society and culture—illustrates how themes such as transformation and redemption that have traditionally been expressed and developed in ‘religious’ contexts are also experienced and ritualized in ‘alternative’ venues such as Burning Man, which many participants understand as a theater for spirituality, self-expression, communal bonding, and cultural transformation” (165).

As an astute analyst who grounds her theoretical interventions in abundant data, Gilmore has written the definitive account of ritual and spirituality at Burning Man, as well as one of the most exciting books yet about religion in the contemporary American West.

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