This year’s Burning Man theme is “Rites of Passage”. Burning Man is always so full of rites of passage that this theme seems both perfect and redundant. I’ll probably go on at length about Burning Man’s rites of passage at some point, but today I’m looking at one specific ritual, and a different interpretation of it that comes from my anthropological perspective (I suspect that throughout my Burning Man journey I’ll find things that I see differently from my “lay” co-travellers).
Burning Man is held on the Black Rock Desert – a old dry lake bed, called the ‘playa’ (why? I don’t know). The weather is windy and temperamental, and the temperature oscillates between nearly 0 and above 40 degrees Celcius. The playa surface is dust, made of the fine silt of the old lake. It’s very very fine, and a bit alkaline, and gets everywhere. The dust is a major feature of the Burning Man experience.
Last week I was talking to some people who hadn’t really heard about Burning Man and what it was, and they asked why it was held in such a challenging location. To me, the location is a vital part of the event. Burning Man is about creating a new city from scratch, but it’s not just the physical city that is created. The society of the city is made over new as well: the philosophies of radical self reliance, the gift economy, etc – these are all aspects of the new and different social order which is the essence of Black Rock City.
There’s a thing called communitas, that often happens at ritual events, where the usual rules of society are turned upside down or disappear. When the usual structures that categorise and separate people are not there, they are free to interact as whole human beings, and form new (usually temporary) relationships based on personal rather than structural attributes. Burning Man is all about communitas.
I see the desert is a symbol of burning Man’s blank social canvas. Through its emptiness it signals to Burning Man participants that this is a place wholly outside the strictures of normal life, the ‘default’ world. From nothing, participants are free to build from scratch both physically and socially. The immense emptiness of the playa is an important part of what makes Burning Man what it is.
Apparently, if it’s your first time at Burning Man, one of the things the Greeters do when you arrive is get you to roll around in the dust – because you have to learn to “love the dust”. From what my friends have told me, they interpret the “love the dust” ritual as forcing you to accept that the dust will cover you, and will get everywhere – that there’s no point trying to keep it off you.
I also see this ritual, and the admonition to love the dust, as encouraging participants to embrace the playa and its dust as a vital part of the event – as a participant in the shared act of creation and rebuilding that is Burning Man. Rolling in the playa dust connects you to the playa – your new home (the traditional Greeter greeting – to new and old burners alike – is “Welcome Home”). It also connects you to the Burning Man community, through the shared dustiness of the other 50 000 burners. It is a rite of incorporation, re-creating you as a member of the community and a resident of the playa that holds that community.