Sunday, April 22, 2007

Burning Man Masters Thesis Near Completion

My masters thesis on Burning Man is near completion. This week I will complete the draft and begin to fine-tune it while soliciting critical feedback for revisions before turning in a final copy to the seminary at the end of the month. Below is a copy of the proposal I presented to the seminary on the topic for those that may be interested.

The scholarly analysis of Burning Man is a relatively recent area of specialization for the academic community. Scholarly analysis of spirituality and religiosity in the West at times includes studies on Burning Man, and it has also been the focus of at least one masters thesis, and doctoral dissertations. Some of these treatments have found their way into academic books dealing with American popular religion and the rave dance phenomenon. But even with this relatively recent area of study and specialization, something of an academic “orthodoxy” has already developed in terms of the theoretical lens by which this festival and community is understood. A comparison of many academic studies on Burning Man demonstrates strong dependence upon the theories of the late anthropologist Victor Turner. Turner applied the work of French folklorist Arnold van Gennep to rites of passage among African tribes, and in particular his three-fold structure or phases of this process consisting of separation, margin (or limen), and aggregation (or reaggregation). The experiences of these tribal people during the liminal phase resulted in a strong sense of social cohesion which Turner called “communitas.” Turner’s theories have been extremely influential and have provided one of the major frameworks by which Burning Man studies are conducted.

Yet as common as Turner’s theories on ritual and communitas may be in the analysis of Burning Man they are not without their difficulties, as has been recognized, for example, by Graham St. John in his analysis of Australia’s ConFest. In addition to these difficulties and shortcomings, other perspectives might be considered by the academic community that would shed additional light on our understanding of the Burning Man phenomenon. This thesis represents an exploration of two such possibilities that provide alternative analytical perspectives. The first is the “homeless mind” thesis developed in 1974 by Peter Berger, Brigitte Berger, and Hansfield Kellner, and its modification in 2002 by Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead. Berger et al.’s thesis explored the lack of confidence of the Sixties counterculture in mainstream institutions that ceased to provide an adequate psychological home for the self. Without these moorings these “homeless minds” turned within to their own “subjectivities” and then looked to the “secondary institutions” of alternative spirituality and psychology as a way of guiding the deinstitutionalized self. The homeless mind thesis has been revisited by Heelas and Woodhead and revised in light of the intervening decades since the 1960s. They suggest that the homeless mind thesis is sound and of continuing value to an understanding of the contemporary West, but that the countercultural turn to the self has broadened to include “relational, humanitarian, ecological or cosmic” dimensions, and that with this has come the development of new secondary institutions that navigate a “’middle way’ between primary institutions and the fragile resources of the homeless self drawing upon itself.”

The second analytical perspective is that provided by Hakim Bey and his discussion of the Temporary Autonomous Zone. For Bey, as the name of his concept implies, this is a temporary location in space and time that frees an individual from social control and enables them to create a new vision of reality in opposition to existing social structures.

Both the concepts of the homeless mind with its accompanying secondary institutions, and the Temporary Autonomous Zone, provide us with additional heuristic tools that enable alternative understandings of the Burning Man phenomenon.

The main thrust of this thesis is that Burning Man is an alternative cultural event created as a secondary institution that provides a religious or spiritual function as a substitute for mainstream religious institutions. This secondary institution functions by means of a Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), or perhaps more accurately, numerous TAZs, where art, ritual, and other forms of self-expression facilitate new understandings of self, expressions of spirituality, and forms of communitas and community. The social function of Burning Man as a secondary institution in post-Christendom means that it represents a significant cultural, social, and spiritual phenomenon in America which provides important lessons for the Christian church.

This thesis will be developed in the first chapter with a consideration of Burning Man in alternative academic analysis. Chapter One will begin with a brief discussion of the origin, history, and self-understanding of Burning Man as described by the founders of and participants in the event. I will then consider Berger, Berger, and Kellner’s homeless mind thesis, followed by its modification by Heelas and Woodhead. I will also look at Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone, and having put down this fresh foundation for analysis, I will consider how these concepts affect our understanding of Burning Man.

Chapter Two will explore Burning Man by way of historical contrast. I will consider two alternative culture movements that arose as a result of the 1960s counterculture, including the Jesus People Movement that traces its origins back to the San Francisco Bay Area of California and the Pacific Northwest, and the Rainbow Family of Living Light, a nomadic group that also traces its origins to the same geographical regions and general timeframe and which gathers on an annual basis in various national forest lands in the United States. This chapter will note the reactions of these groups to consumerism and organized religion, as well as the reactions of mainstream society to these groups. I will then consider the similarities between these groups, particularly between the Rainbow Family and Burning Man. I will conclude this chapter with the application of the concepts of the homeless mind and secondary institutions, as well as the Temporary Autonomous Zone, to the Jesus People Movement, and the Rainbow Family. This application will demonstrate that these concepts apply to these alternative cultures as readily as they do to Burning Man, and will shed additional light of how our understanding of Burning Man might be enlarged by consideration of these historical predecessors and “alternative cultural cousins.”

The results of the application of the insights from the preceding chapters result in a shift to ecclesiological reflexivity in Chapter Three. Given the existence of Burning Man as a post-Christendom secondary institution and middle-way I will consider what lessons the church might learn in critical self-reflection from the appeal of secondary institutions such as Burning Man and alternative spiritualities that arise, in part, as a result of the loss of confidence in traditional religious institutions. I will also consider insights from counterculture studies, utopian studies, festivals and festivity, and play theology, and how the Western church’s reflection and experimentation in these areas might aid in its own revitalization with the corresponding perceptions of its credibility among those involved in alternative cultural events. I will conclude with how this might shape our understanding of the form of the church in engagement with twenty-first century alternative cultural events and communities.


Shiloh Guy said...


This proposal sounds fascinating. I fear much of it will be a little over my head but I am anxious to read more as you post it, if you post it. A whole new world of thought!

Dave Moorhead

John W. Morehead said...

Thank you for expressing your interest in the thesis, Dave. Given its length at nearly 30,000 words, it will be too long to post on the blog, even in excerpts. I will post a few comments based upon it however over time.

If you'd be interested in a copy when it is completed just let me know and I'll send an electronic copy.