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“We Will Always Burn the Man”: Taking the Ecstatic Moment of Burning Man Online

Since its inception in 1986, Burning Man has attracted many attendees who consider their participation as a spiritual pilgrimage for an experience of communal creative ecstasy. The annual gathering often draws hundreds of thousands of people to the Nevada desert for a psychedelic bacchanal. However, with the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic, Burning Man organizers faced the problem of moving a fundamentally in-person communal experience to a virtual environment. This paper explores how in 2020 and 2021, the Burning Man project attempted to recreate the ecstatic moment in a virtual context using digital technology to mediate a communal affect of ecstasy among the physically distant bodies of participants.

In addition to various rituals, traditions, and commitments, the entheogenic drug ecstasy (methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA) is central (McBride & Brown 2019) to the Burning Man pursuit of values which include radical inclusion, self-reliance, and civic responsibility (Burning Man, “The 10 Principles”). Given the relatively active use of this entheogenic substance among participants, and the parallels between chemically-, technologically- (Aday et. al. 2020), and religiously-induced forms of ecstasy (McDaniel 2018), we explore and define “ecstasy” in terms of its affective capacities that promote these goals. Specifically its ability to achieve ego-dissolution (Tramacchi 2004), and consciousness-expansion (Metzner 2013).

To that end, this paper performs a discourse analysis of Burning Man blogs, Reddit pages, interviews, and social media accounts, from a cultural sociological perspective that sees “every action, no matter how instrumental, reflexive, or coerced vis-à-vis its external environments [as] embedded to some extent in a horizon of affect and meaning” (Alexander & Smith 2001). We draw from literature in affect studies (Phelps 2017), new religious movements, entheogenic esotericism (Hanegraaff 2014), and the burgeoning area of psychedelic studies (Emerson et al. 2014), to examine how Burners sought to inhabit the extreme conditions of the hot and dust-stormy desert remotely, to experience psychedelic sacraments in VR, and to generate the collective ecstatic religious affects of a “transformational festival” (Johner 2015) through a collective and technologically enhanced digital-virtual network.

Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 150 words)

Since its inception in 1986, Burning Man has attracted hundreds of thousands of people to the Nevada desert for a psychedelic bacchanal. Many attendees consider their participation in the ritual gathering as a spiritual pilgrimage for an experience of communal creative ecstasy. With the onset of COVID-19, however, Burning Man organizers faced the problem of moving a fundamentally in-person communal experience to a virtual environment. This paper explores how in 2020 and 2021, the Burning Man project transitioned its rituals and worship experience to recreate ecstatic moments in a virtual context. Drawing from literature in affect studies, new religious movements, entheogenic esotericism, and the burgeoning area of psychedelic studies, we explore how Burners sought to inhabit the extreme conditions of the hot and dust-stormy desert remotely, to experience psychedelic sacraments in VR, and to generate the collective ecstatic religious affects of a “transformational festival” through a digital-virtual network.

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