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  • Writer's pictureW. Gerard Poole

Towards a Model of Cultural and Social Differentiation in Relation to Creativity

Updated: Apr 8, 2023

Social Differentiation, Creativity and the Ecstatic Experience.

Alchemy 2013

Emergent themes that I am exploring through my participation in the "Transformational" festival culture. NOTE: This not at all an academic article. It's just the seed thinking for a number of possible articles not to mention some semi-metaphysical musings and rambling thrown in. Theme #1: Creativity in relation to organization and labor. Creativity is, inherently within its unfolding processes, self-organizing. The organizing aspects are integral and emerge from within the creative process itself. Cultures are primarily self-sustaining not through the emergence of organizational social structures, nor by designated divisions of "work" and labor, but by the creative process that brings both organization and labor into being. With the manifestation of organization and labor, sustainability is made feasible as an inevitable by-product of the creative process. The implication of this idea is simply that culture, and with it human society, are dependent foremost on creativity; labor and organization are by-products. If creativity dries up, culture and society will dry up with it as an inevitable consequence. Certainly survival, at base, requires hierarchy and division of labor. It is required among other species and it is likewise for humans. That's true. But it is cultural adaptation that has been driving the evolutionary engine for humans now for millennium- as much, or more so, than survival. Creativity and ritual are cultural endeavors far more than survival endeavors. We might call it "accelerated adaptation", or 'self-directed adaptation", but certainly we are adapting to our own created circumstances, our own cultural environment as much as to the environmental circumstances our distant ancestors adapted to. Theme #2: Emergent Ritual as experiential intensification in relation to labor and organization Ritual, in the case of Burning Man and its regionals, Fire Rituals (the Man), and the Rites of Passage, or death rituals (the Temple), seems to "ignite", in certain peoples, the creative process. And that process seems to in turn generate culture. What might be the relationships between creativity, ritual, and culture, in terms of labor and self-organization? The Anthropologist Edith Turner, after decades of studying ritual with her husband Victor Turner, suggested that the purpose of sacred ritual is the "raising of life-force". We might apply her suggestion to the fire ritual phenomenon as: fire = energy = life-force. This at least provides a starting frame work with which to try and understand why certain peoples have throughout history created entire ritual systems around fire, music, and intoxicants. The ancient Indian Vedic traditions of Igni (fire) and soma (a duephoric that was drunk for religious ecstatic purposes, but what exactly it consisted of is not certain) are full of such examples. Certainly Burning Man is one powerful example in the present. The creation of the fire requires organization and work, especially when dealing with the sheer magnitude of Burning Man. The fire itself is manifested energy, and certainly even for people coming from technology-based societies, the simple phenomenon of a raging fire never fails to stimulate a certain degree of awe and exhilaration-despite the fact that the fire is not being put to any specific use. The sheer force and magnitude of the unleashed energy is awe inspiring for its own sake. As the fire unleashes energy, it feels as though we the spectators in turn, stimulate and structure our own internal energy- a kind of contagion? But we cannot igonre the other side or the energy contagion, the thrill of released energy: the lust for destrucition. Fire cannot happen without something being consumed, soemthing being destroyed. The "destruction" of the Man, is in plain view. The thrill of witnessing him "go up in flames" cannot be searateed from the lust of witnessing the Man's destruction. The thrill of creation is concomitant with a lust for destruction, and both are awe inspiring, whether as awesome or aweful. Nowhere is that relationhip more evident than in burning rituals. We become excited and raise our own "life force"...One might say that that is just a metaphor, but is it really just a metaphor? Besides fire, or perhaps along with fire, Music and ritual are very often one and the same creative process. The musical ritual is also often a primary, or central, ritual in many cultures. I associate the musical ritual with the alchemical element of Water; it acts as a vehicle, or vesicle, in which to generate and structure emotional states. However,the musical dance and chant rituals, such as those practiced by the !Kung of the Kalahari desert, are employed as technologies in their own right to not only raise an internal exhilaration among the participants, but as Richard Katz writes in in Boiling Energy, (Harvard University Press; 1982) they can raise, or manifest, an actual physical energy that can then be used to heal. According to some witnesses the!kung don't just heal what we might call psychological ailments, but actual physical conditions as well. Steven Friedson observed similar practices in Malawi, Africa among the Tumbuka, and called it a "technology of healing" (Dancing Prophets; University of Chicago 1996). No such observations have been made at Burning Man, which is probably for the better -all they need now are some "miracle cures" to further sensationalize the event- 50,000 hippies, and would-be hippies on the loose is more than enough. I'm proposing, just as a metaphorical model, that Burning Man culture is founded upon Fire Rites (Burning), Water Rites (music- although arguably it's weakest pillar at this point), Earth Rites (The Death and Transition Temples), and Air movements: The Ten Principles, and other concepts that have emerged in the wake of the actual activities. These concepts, rules, and dogmas (that collectively we might classify as the mythological products) are the tricky, even fickle products of the intellect; the tail that follows the dog but that nonetheless has a way of giving the illusion, over time, that it is actually the front end of the beast, that the myth/intellectual representations are actually driving the event. Because regardless of what model or metaphors I might be employing temporarily, the observations are still, I believe, accurate. Burning Man culture is, if nothing else, the creative process manifest. And with that process there has manifested a concurrent high degree of self-organization. It would not be exaggerate to say that there is a spectacular degree of self-organization, as Katherine Chen so well documented in her Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.: 2009). It's fair to say that Burning Man is nothing but a manifestation of creativity. It, creativity,is the only reason the event exists at all. But what drives the creativity to such extremes and to such a seemingly unlikely place? Back to Ritual... The burning of the Man and the burning of the Temple are indisputably the two central rituals of the original event at Black Rock, and these two rites continue to be the central rituals in the regional proliferation events. These two rituals are the two axis points around which all the other events orbit. How the temple, which was not even an event in the early history of Burning Man, evolved and became such a prominent ritual, one that many participants consider to be "the soul of Burning Man" is an interesting story in itself (for another article). So the Fire and Earth rites (to continue with my literary metaphor), are well developed at Burning Man. Fire; Life force and energy, ecstatic collective communion (burning The Man effigy), and Earth; the building of a communal temple, the bringing of private memories of loss, the collective act of release, and with that, the inevitable contemplation of our own individual mortality. The fire ritual raises energy levels and collectively structures emotions of exhilaration. The temple focuses and structures emotions of introspection, loss, and sorrow, and it also tends to operate at a much more personal level. Both use fire to raise and release energy and both structure emotional states, but the prevailing emotional states are of very different emotional tones- even opposites. This is also manifested in the kind of behaviors that accompany the ritual: loud chaotic noise and music at the Man burn, utter silence at the Temple burn. The structured formal behaviors (rituals) and the structured emotional states, are naturally coherent, naturally organized by the creative ritual process itself. No one decreed the emotional states or the behaviors that would develop around them, the behaviors and emotions drove the rituals in the first place. The behavioral structures and the emotional structures emerged concomitantly. The community at large, and the evolving administrative structures, emerged as responses to the emotional drives. So did the enormous degree of communal self-organization and specialized labor. But again we have to ask why. Why to such an unlikely place, and why such near fanatic devotion? The two general emotional states and their ritual manifestation are almost near opposites of each other, so it could not have been a single emotional drive that catalyzed the event, yet on the other hand without some kind of emotional drive, the event would never have taken place to begin with. So if it's not any specific emotional drive, or combination of drives, that is operating behind the manifestation of this event, what is driving it? A brief commentary on Music and Burning Man But although music is everywhere in Black Rock and at the regionals, it remains at this time an incoherent hodgepodge of musical instances most of which are surprisingly mediocre (surprising for a ritual event that is already 25 years old?). This suggests to me that the work of the emotions and the ecstatic experience is still very much in the developing stages at Burning Man.The event is still young and has a lot of potential that has yet to become manifest. A fifth element: Ethos? And a further excursion into the Myth/ritual dynamic... The ethos, or principles, have also migrated with the regionals. But here we encounter that first instance of the myth/dogma tale (pun intended) possibly wagging the ritual/experiential dog. Many people get the impression that the regionals are manifestations of the Burning Man 10 principles, as though the rituals and behavioral activities followed the principles, the dogma, the myth content. But this is not at all the case. The 10 principles did not exist when Burning Man came into being and they, the ten principles, only came into being as the event/ritual evolved and expanded. In other words, the principles emerged out of the experiential creative process as necessary administrative elements to help contain and give structure to a beast that was quickly undergoing what has been called in other pilgrimage traditions massification or "cultural intensification" (Michael Murphy: 2000). By massification it is meant the sudden, or even gradual, increase in the participation of a ritual or pilgrimage to where the growth exceeds a certain threshold and at that point there emerges an administrative structure that up until then wasn't necessary. It is a natural outgrowth of the ritual's own unfolding, and with that massification, many unforeseen challenges can arise that often threaten the original experiential nature of the ritua/event. However, this is also the point at which the ritual begins to generate culture in the form of aesthetics, arts, behaviors, and eventually dogmas, all of which together begin to have a powerful affect upon the original socio-political cultural bed within which the ritual emerged from in the first place. In fact, I will argue that it is at this threshold that any notion of the social or the political first begin to manifest, and the manifest not as catalysts to the process, but as inevitable unintended consequences. The socio-political considerations, like the mythological content, become more prominent as the event continues to expand and continues to create culture in its wake. But the experiential dimension and the cultural products come first, the dogmatic (myth) and social structures later- and with them inevitably- unforeseen problems. The point is that the Burning Man 10 principles emerged as by-products of its own evolution, of its gradual growth process, and not the other way around. That is, the principles in no way brought Burning Man into being. The mythological content did not precede the ritual experience. Nonetheless, and this is most evident at the regionals, the principles can be easily perceived as having structured the events before they came into being. And there is some truth to that. Many of the regional participants have never been to the founding Burning Man event. This includes participants who have attended regionals for years! When they start a regional, the administrative organization comes first, and the event is in fact planned and designed around the 10 principles. The administrative structures are modeled after the Burning Man structures - but they, unlike Burning Man, start with these "myth" elements before the event (ritual) has ever taken place. That is, the regionals start with administrative organization and dogma before the first event ever happens. See how easily this reversal can happen? Over time the myth (dogmas, ethos, origin stories, etc.) can seem to have generated the ritual (the formal and informal behaviors that constitute the event). Theme #3: The Myth and Ritual dynamic in response to increased organizational structuring This issue was first raised in the Western academy in the late 19th century as the Myth and Ritual Debate, and it continued as an ongoing debate into the early 20th century. It began with a growing consent among scholars that myth and ritual seemed to act as fundamental generators of human culture. But which of the two, if either, was primal? Did Myth create ritual, or did ritual give rise to myth? another way to ask the question is: Are rituals enactments of myths, or are myths concentrated representations of ritual experiences? Are they the structured knowledge derived from/ and preserving knowledge of, the ritual experiences? From the ensuing research, the debate itself and the studies conducted to explore it, entire schools of thought emerged within the Western academic tradition. And although the debate started within the comparative religion field, it helped give rise to the field of Anthropology and other related fields (see Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 1992 - this is a wonderful and essential read for anyone interested in ritual studies). Perhaps the most influential writer (though not at all the only one) was Sir James George Frazer. His master work, The Golden Bough (1890), started out as a defense for the primacy of myth, but by the end of his career, he reversed his position and made his change in position known in the later editions of the original work. He concluded that human culture was founded upon ritual, not myth. Although I agree with this position in general, I also saw that the myth/ritual reversal takes place because of a natural dynamic within the myth/ritual relationship, a dynamic that I modeled in my Ritual Spiral Theory (Poole: 2009). The Burning Man event and its growing "system" seems to bear this out. While undoubtedly the Burning Man event itself began as ritual behaviors that came into being strictly for the experience, eventually the mythological content (i.e. the 10 principles) started to drive into being other rituals in the emerging ritual system such as is the case with the regionals. Emergent Theme #4: Possible Links between Ritual, Experience, and Cultural Evolution? A secondary question, more specific to the transformational festival scene, is this: Is the actual motivation - even for the original fire rites, much less for the present arduous process of carrying out the entire Burning Man communal enterprise - a conscious desire to create culture? That doesn't really seem to be the case, or even to make sense. Most people don't wake up one morning and decide they want to go somewhere and create culture- change the world politically maybe, but not create culture from the ground up. and certainly 50,000 people didn't pack their gear and prepare all year to go to Burning Man last year with such a lofty enterprise in mind. However, self-expression, self-discovery, and creativity - and a little "sex and drugs and rock'roll" (or EDM)- certainly plays a huge, if not dominant role. And so I am asking: Could the sheer joy or ecstasy inherent in the creative process itself- for it's own sake -be the actual underlying motivation? That seems to me to be far more than just plausible, it seems to be the only answer that makes sense. Judging from my own participant observation, interviews, and research of other people's work, it seems to very much support what one of the principle founders, Larry Harvey says in nearly every interview on the subject. He sees Burning Man as an empty canvas upon which the individual is free to live out his/her own creative impulses. The pleasure inherent in the creative process also provides the most sensible explanation for the sheer exuberant joy that is so characteristic of not only Burning Man, but even distant pilgrimages, distant in both geography and culture, such as El Rocio (Spain) and the Kumbh Mela (India). At times, and I'm sure I'm not the only one to have experienced this, the "joyfulness" of many of the participants can be a little unnerving. But if we postulate for the moment that the pleasure of the creative process is the driving force behind ritual in general, and if we continue with the proposal that the ritual process is what generates human culture from the ground up, then one has to ask the next obvious question: How could the creative impulse become the central critical force in human culture - and with that, to human survival? Certainly, it seems to be self-evident that human survival is dependent upon human culture. But could pleasure or ecstasy be the actual central driving force behind human culture? That idea, while provocative, still leaves a lot of explaining to do if we consider the ubiquity of war and murder among our otherwise lovely species. But let's be clear here, I don't mean "pleasure" in it's more limited sense of to feel good - I mean ecstasy, the spectrum of powerful emotional states underlying the mystical/religious experiences, emotional states through which an inherent paradox can be expressed by two binary opposites both rooted in the word "awe"; awesome and awful. But we can also consider the close erotic relationship for many people between pleasure and pain,as well as the two opposing experiential paths of sensory overload and sensory deprivation and their relationship to ecstatic or "mystical" experiences. (Charles Laughlin, Eugene D'Aquili, explored these relationships and developed a neurological model called Biogenetic Structuralism, 1974, and later Laughlin, D'Aquili, and J. Mcmanus, explored the neurology of the mystical experience itself calling it Neurophenomenology, 1990) The obvious large scale by-product of Burning Man has been culture; Burning Man culture (still fledgling true, but a cultural movement nonetheless). Yet if we continue to propose that the underlying process at work, beneath the surface play of fire, ritual, and music, is the creative impulse motivated by the pursuit and cultivation of the ecstatic experience, we are led to still another intriguing question. The creative impulse in humans cannot be said to have any specific object - in fact that might be it's most salient aspect. Certainly Larry Harvey wasn't contemplating an emergent culture when he proposed to his friends to go and burn something on a beach in San Francisco. The pursuit of pleasure, or ecstasy, seem to have it's own intelligence, its own hidden "adaptive value". Sex and its relationship to procreation is an obvious example. We don't pursue sex, or procreation per se, we pursue pleasure. Furthermore, the pursuit of ecstasy among humans is just as much the pursuit, or cultivation, of states of mind as it is the pursuit of sensation. The varieties of ecstatic experiences is far more than the simple pursuit of sensual pleasure and release. If human culture is founded upon the creative impulse, and the creative impulse is driven by the deliberate pursuit of ecstasy - not simply sexual pleasure - then the impulse seems to have a powerful link to the pursuit, and even the deliberate cultivation, of different conscious or emotional states of mind. We may not deliberately set out to create "culture", but we do set out to alter, change, or intensify our conscious/emotional states (the relationship between the emotions and consciousness is another subject) as another concomitant by-product of the deliberate pursuit of the creative process. Creativity, states of ecstasy, and states of mind, are inextricably intertwined as a single seamless engagement into the creative process. If we suggest this link, for the sake of argument, between the cultivation of the ecstatic experience and cultivation of conscious states as being inherent elements operating within the creative process, and extend that link to consciousness in the broadest sense, then one might argue that the cultivation of consciousness itself, is a critical element operating within the creative process. With that consideration in mind, the real "adaptive value" behind the creative impulse and the work underlying cultural creation, might prove to be the cultivation of human consciousness itself, as a concomitant product of the cultivation of the ecstatic experience and, to paraphrase William James' well known work; in it's many varieties. (The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1901-1902). In this way the "Transformational" festival label that has been applied to Burning Man (although certainly not a label that has been unanimously accepted) might be justified. Ritual, one might argue, is the most universal manifestation, and vehicle, through which this process, the pursuit of ecstasy, takes place on a communal scale. Human culture is then the by-product of the human impulse towards creativity driven by the pursuit of ecstasy, a process that carries with it, as a by-product, the cultivation of consciousness itself. But if culture is a requirement for human survival, then the cultivation of consciousness (as the varieties of ecstatic experiences) is also a, or the, critical pursuit for human survival. Looking at Burning Man and other similar events from this approach suggests that what are doing before, at, and after, these events, is not recreation for privileged children of Western opulence, but rather, what we are doing is essential to ourselves as humans and to humanity in general. We are cultivating nuances of our own self-consciousness- through our engagement in the creative process, motivated by the pursuit of ecstatic experiences. The ecstatic experience itself, in all its variants, is what creates new nuances of self-awareness; of the self to the self; of the self and society; of the self and the cosmos at large. Either one, or any combination, the experiences are unpredictable perhaps moments of complete illusion, but either way, the effects are powerful and permanent. These experiences, and the cultural products that result from them, to include the cultivated and structured pursuit of the experiences and the reflection through myriads of representational forms in their aftermath, can be seen as the central driving features of every human culture. The entire ritual semiotic process of experience and representation, rooted in the varieties of ecstatic experiences, is what gives rise to ritual systems- the systems that underlie all religions. And all human cultures prior- perhaps- to our present emergent secular-technological culture, are religious cultures. There are no exceptions anywhere. All human cultures are founded upon ritual systems,and all ritual systems are founded upon the varieties of religious experience. Well the possible role of ecstatic states driving human culture is an interesting idea, but either way as I mentioned earlier, Air is a fickle, mercurial element. The festivals are real. But the descriptions, intellectual by-products, and even the self-declared ethos and principles that have emerged from within the festivals themselves, might prove to be illusory and/or eventually incoherent at best. The mythical tale might already be giving the impression that it's wagging the ritual/experiential beast. Besides, I'm an Anthropologist (Ethnomusicologist/Ritual studies to be more precise), and we specialize in our own brand of "myth-making".

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