TOPIC: Blowing it up at Burning Man. Religion, Technology and Ritual in the Age of Authenticity
François Gauthier is professor of Religious Studies at the Department of Social sciences of the Université de Fribourg, Switzerland, since 2013. Born on the Quebec side of the Ottawa river in 1973, he is a socio-anthropologist of religion who likes to think outside the box and outside the West, mixing up French and English-language traditions. He likes getting dirty when doing his ethnography and then upswinging into big macro questions and back. He prefers epistemology to fixed methods, believes Marcel Mauss was right when he refused to separate anthropology and sociology, and struggles with parenting-work equilibria.
He has recently published Religion, Modernity, Globalisation. Nation-State to Market (Routledge 2020) and has co-edited the Routledge International Handbook of Religion in Global Society (2021). He is also the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of the generalist social scientific journal MAUSS International. Anti-Utilitarian Interventions in the Social Sciences, and a co-editor of the French language Revue du MAUSS semestrielle. He is committed to enabling the provincialisation of the West while resisting the dissolution of universalism into relativism, promotes critical thinking as a means for political involvement, and works to renew interest for religion as a main theme for the general social sciences while de-marginalising the social scientific study of religion. Finally, he is a sucker for Durkheimian effervescence and crazy stuff.
Burning Man is one of the West’s most important event-culture, which assembles over 70’000 participants in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for the duration of a week, and which has fostered related progeny worldwide. Shunning all definitions and attributes, BM’s gift-based economy is a bonanza of intense experiences that oscillate between transgressive and carnivalesque effervescence and intense personal experiences of interiority. Framed by the “Ten Principles”, BM is fueled by a truly ingenious and effective mix of technologies inherited from the counter-cultural tradition or invented in situ. Peopled in majority by “spiritual-not-religious” actors (but not only), BM is by no means an explicitly religious event, yet the religious dimensions are overwhelming. At the same time, BM is wholly unassimilable within the usual epistemologies of the sociology of religion and religious studies. How are we, then, to understand BM? The first part of this presentation will attempt to describe the event and pin down some general traits of its dynamics and structure. The second part raises the question of how we are to deal with BM in the study of religion? I argue that a pretty radically different perspective is needed, one that does not start by defining religion as a differentiated sphere but rather, in the wake of Marcel Mauss, one that understands religion to be fundamental and irreducible dimension of social phenomena considered as total social facts. From this angle, BM suddenly appears not as a marginal phenomenon with respect to “real religion”, but rather as a formidable example of and even standard for religion in our globalized, consumer societies.