Each year, Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man, selects the event’s theme for the year. Art projects, theme camps, mutant vehicles, etc. are invited to use the theme for inspiration, or not. Burning Man is a do-your-own-thing kind of place
Psyche, The Green Man, Evolution, and Beyond Belief are examples of past themes. They are relatively easy to relate to. This year’s theme is Cargo Cults, which strikes me as odd. What is Harvey thinking?
I first learned of Cargo Cults in a zany book by Christopher Moore, The Island of the Sequined Love Nun. Moore is one of those folks whose imagination can take you on a laughing roller coaster ride and leave you asking, “What just happened?” If you like strange, I highly recommend his books.
Anyway, Cargo Cults were a phenomenon that grew out of the impact of World War II on certain South Seas islands. Traditional cultures with little knowledge of or contact with the modern world were suddenly buried under an avalanche of technology and material goods as first Japan and then the Allies occupied the islands.
On one level, it was like manna from heaven. On another, it resembled hell. Traditional cultures buckled under the impact and native inhabitants were left without the underpinnings of their belief systems. When the allies packed up at the end of World War II and took their goodies with them, the natives were left with nothing.
Cargo Cults were the result. They carried a mixed message. Forget all of the modern stuff and return to your traditional practices. Think of a fundamentalist preacher urging “Old Time Religion” as a response to modern trends. But there was more. Returning to the past would also get the goods flowing again, the manna from heaven. The natives went out into the jungle, built airplane runways, and waited in expectation. Their cult included the belief that the cargo would magically reappear.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa, I watched the conflict between modern and traditional cultures. And I watched as my students struggled with the conflict. Existing with one foot in each world creates a difficult balancing act. It is easy to get lost. I also think it is easy to lose what is good in the old and take on what is bad in the new. “Dark magic,” xenophobic tribalism and grasping materialism make a poisonous brew… regardless of the culture. Liberia and its tragic civil wars certainly proved this.
And yet, the clash of cultures has often created the dynamic mix of old and new that allows and encourages us to move forward, to see old problems in new ways, and to find new solutions.
I can’t wait to see how this year’s theme will be handled at Burning Man. The stalwarts of the event believe Burning Man is more than a huge party in the desert. They like to believe they are creating a new culture. And maybe, to a degree, they are. If they are a little cultish in their approach, it comes with the territory. The question is how a Cargo Cult fits in.
In my next blog, I will explore what I consider the positive aspects of the Burning Man “culture.”