Postmodern Malaise, aka When Meaning Doesn’t Matter
Deep Rex Vol. 2
1. Like the much-bandied Death of the Novel, devotees have bemoaned Burning Man’s loss of “soul” for literally a decade now. But this year, the distress seemed to reach a peak—a level emblematic of our times of great cognitive dissonance. First, there was a much-needed dose of New Age mockery:
The memes flowed. Some gloriously hit home:
My first rex here is to start following the Healing from Healing account. It offers a critical and humorous take on wellness New Age culture, written by an insider—Adam Aranovich is a medical anthropologist and member of the communities he critiques. Further captions from this page about Burning Man pull no punches:
“The unrelenting and shameless hedonism and escapism, the gluttony and corruption of abundance, the outrageous environmental footprints of producing a week-long mirage in the midst of a barren and remote desert that'll just burn away like a depravedly expensive sand mandala, a reminder of impermanence and privilege for the utterly complacent technocratic elites in times when most of the world is desperately thirsty for some real, substantial revolutionary sea-change, times when the absurdity and pretentiousness of the ‘transformative festival,’ the (beautiful) ‘subversive art’ and the misguided ‘manifested realities’ of an immensely privileged group of people gifting each other with vodka cocktails and useless shiny plastic trinkets feels like a big F**k You gesture directed towards a dying planet.”
But it gets better. Next, there was the “What the Fuck Just Happened at Burning Man” essay written by a twenty-year Burning Man veteran that went viral (another rex: the comments are absolutely bananas). What this essay gets right: COVID has laid bare the defects in our culture, and those cultural defects have negatively impacted the Burning Man organization and shaped who attends the event and what they expect from it. I think the essay could have gone a step further by pointing out that this type of postmodern malaise is not just specific to Burning Man—literally every Western ‘institution’ is reckoning with it. From festivals to classrooms to museums; one worries even orgies have become affected.
The essay also points to Burning Man’s absorption by tech bros, which is by no means a new phenomenon. Relatedly, one of my most popular essays from last year explains how the “Reformed Tech Bro” archetype represents a sincere urge to distance oneself from a damaging culture, but because we are still indoctrinated within a broken system, what we went up getting are cock shamans perusing the Burn wearing designer clothing, looking for someone to have ‘conscious’ sex with (while on an epic mixture of drugs).
I view all this criticism and disagreement as mostly a healthy process of waking up to social realities—there are no sacred cows anymore, Burning Man included. We will assuredly see more and more offshoot events spring up in the coming years, people wanting to create the next new thing, now that the Burn, in some people’s eyes, has reached a level of saturation and social symmetry (meaning that it is no longer radical in the way it once was). But! Taking time to play and dance and worship as the world decays is still essential—there is a there there. Adding to the nuance: I have plenty of Burner friends who had an incredible experience this year, one that does not track with the content shared above. I too am an enormous fan of Burning Man and of ‘festival’ culture in general. I plan on attending again next year and will have more to report then.
2. Speaking of not being able to agree on anything, Lizzo played Alexander Hamilton’s flute and twerked on stage at a televised event, and the hellscape which is social media went absolutely ape shit. For some, this was a proud moment for Black women and larger bodies. For others, a self-involved act that defiled an ancient relic. Others pointed out that Lizzo happens to be a talented flute player; she’s also very famous, so it would make sense she would play a famous flute at an event for famous people.
I recommend reading this thread, which accurately explains the breakdown in shared values and understanding through a postmodern lens (FYI: I have not reviewed the entire account that produced this thread, only this thread really). We fight about so much online and IRL because we, as a collective, no longer have any shared sense of meaning.
This type of postmodern malaise is by no means new. I studied postmodernism in college, you could say it was my focus. And it fucked me up, aiding me in embracing a moral waywardness and hedonism, which I have documented at length. In our high-voltage Information Age, not knowing how to make meaning of a life and what to believe in has never been more dangerous.
In response to this postmodernist breakdown in shared meaning, people tend to react in one of two ways:
We must expose the Truth about staid beliefs and the social structures erected to enforce them, so as to live in a more equitable world (a ‘left-leaning’ perspective).
We must return to traditionalism: the basics of religion, rites, and community; hence the New Age revival of mythos, and the rise of the “trad” movement (the ‘right-leaning’ perspective).
I’m compiling notes for a big essay about this very dilemma, but what I can say in the meantime is that both scenarios must be true. Frankly, this type of both-and thinking is the whole foundation of metamodernism and integral theory. We must include all the good elements of traditionalism, embrace postmodern social realities, dialogue towards a common ground, and transcend all of it to higher orders of thinking and behaving in the world. It’s a lofty task, but one that many argue is already in the process of happening, as messy as things may seem. And I, for one, don’t really care either way about Lizzo’s ‘floutistry’—she played well.
3. Haley Nahman, a culture critic in Brooklyn, wrote a critical take on astrology. What I like: the essay talks about all the ways people abdicate personal responsibility and fall all too easily into pop-psychology labels. To blame Mercury in retrograde for all their problems. How ridiculous it is to think that merely inputting your birthdate and its location into an app can give you universal archetypes about who you are, how you should live.
The essay also discusses Human Design, which is one of the more intriguing Enneagram-esque models of personality development. A supernova explosion in 1987 apparently transmitted insights to Human Design’s founder, Ra Uru Hu, leading him to weave astrology, the Kabbalah, and the I-Ching into a holistic self-knowledge system. I, for one, do not deny that such things can happen. According to Human Design, I am a manifestor (obviously) into which only 9% of the population falls. “Discovering” this about myself tickled my millennial narcissistic urge to be supremely special. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I have a skeptical mind, and upon further research learned that today Human Design proponents and marketers often prey especially on lost and insecure women in their late twenties and early thirties, selling them turnkey solutions for their existential problems, which is obviously fucked up and representative of all the pernicious and pervasive effect capitalism has on even the good things it touches. It could be worse: I’d be loath to see what Human Design would look like under communist influences instead.
I’ll admit though, of all the personality frameworks, I find Human Design the most “accurate” to my self-identified traits, and therefore, the most intriguing. While researching this rex write-up, my girlfriend, Grace, was thrilled to learn that as a reflector—which accounts for less than 1% of the population—she is even more special than I am! This implies, obviously, that we must be a super duper special couple.
But I digress. While I love much of Nahman’s writings and social commentary, I sometimes find myself wishing her words contained more of the sense that only comes from spirit, from mystery. Her stance on astrology reflects a healthy postmodern cynicism, but it also embodies the perils of scientific materialism which, as I’ve shared before, is a worldview with neither fun nor flair. This is a common type of secular self-assuredness: if it cannot be seen or measured and graphed, it must not be real—or important.
Yet everything in our universe is interdependent and connected. I, for one, think that, again, there must be a there there when it comes to astrology and our relationship with the celestial bodies. I doubt many of the current paradigms trying to sell you something capture it though—in full agreement with Nahman there. But when we consider all the Holy Books, the canonical tracts, and spiritual practices our species has created over the millennia: if there weren’t something in them that tracked, they would have been lost in time. One can be confident this is true—because how many Latin-speaking Juno-worshippers do you know?
4. Tis the season: my go-to soup recipe. Skip the instructions for the swiss chard and simply add it at the end, serve with some sourdough and grass-fed butta… voilà.
5. DFx community rex: We are reading Gabor Mate’s Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture for our next book club read. Our next dialogue is on “Discernment in today’s information ecology & culture.”
6. It’s impossible to separate from my own hazy days as a DJ, but upon revisiting, I think it’s safe to say that electronic music was indeed doing something special in the early 2010s. I still think the song below is one of the greatest music videos of all time, it brings me back to my twenties. And if you’re new here, I maintain a Spotify playlist of random monthly tracks I’m loving here.
So I’ve been heavily involved in our regional burn for a decade, though I’ve never attended the big burn, and every September I just can’t wait for the obscene amount of navel gazing that goes on around the perpetual death of burning man. Personally I think it’s a combination of over investment in a semi-cult-like community (and I say this in full awareness of my own over-investment), underestimation of how very very fucking impossible it is to run a large idealistic event via commune / non-profit / committee system, and the unpleasant fact that unfortunately the world still runs on cold hard money, even if you pinkie promise you spent it all before crossing the gates. So rather than bemoaning the inevitable evolution of the event for the next couple decades, could people maybe try turning off their Instagram so half the bullshit goes away; accepting that absolutely everything will either change or die, so their angst about the ethical differences between the ‘90’s and ‘20’s events might fade; accepting that everything was always better before they found it; and taking your good advice from above, that if this particular experiment isn’t what they need, maybe start something that is?
Also please call it a festival again, I love it :)
I greatly appreciate your observation of what seemed to be the institutionalization followed by the inevitable decay of Burning Man. Despite having never been myself, nor a regular participant of festival culture, I can still see why such a loss of sacredness would play out. I would assert this is the natural course of collective decadence, where upon Novelty is lost to the laze of Entropy.
You mentioned "where to find meaning" and "what to believe in" being of dire importance, most particularly in the current age of mass information. I would assert here that the solution to meaning is found within the concept of responsibility. Not responsibility that has been handed to you, but responsibility you have discovered and claimed for yourself, which is analogous to "one's calling", wherein lies the answer of "what to believe in". This, I suspect, is what the post modernist clumsily identifies as the total lack of any universal truths in contrast to one's personal truths.
Where festival culture comes in short however, isn't the post modern folly of pedestalizing personal truth, but rather the inability to meet the aforementioned mode of attaining one's own calling, and rather opting to collectivize a series of responsibilities, and project them of onto the patrons. In short, it has become the hedonistic rendition of the megachurch.