01 January 2000

Cargo Cult

This is my original post from 2 December 2012. It was written a little hastily, so in its original position on the timeline I put a revised version about a week later, which is my preferred edit. I'm keeping this version here for posterity.

Yesterday Burning Man announced their art theme for 2013: Cargo Cult.

For the reader unfamiliar with cargo cults: they are an amazing phenomenon. The story goes that during the Second World War the US built airbases on numerous small islands in the Pacific, many of them places with paleolithic civilizations which had experienced little or no contact with technological society up to that point. After the war ended, Americans abandoned the islands ... but the islanders then built fascimiles of airbases out of local materials, in hopes of luring the airplanes, with their useful cargo, back to the island. There's a lot more to it than that, of course, but that's the core of the tale.

It's a story that makes a good symbol. I've alluded to it myself at work, talking about “cargo cult design”, borrowing from a talk by the physicist Richard Feynman, Cargo Cult Science. He used cargo cults as a metaphor for the kind of pseudoscience which offers charts and numbers and impressively scientific-sounding language without doing real science.

they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land

Similarly, the organizers of Burning Man are turning to the cargo cult as a metaphor, offering a sly critique of technocratic consumer culture.

Like the islanders, most of us are many steps removed from the Cargo that entirely shapes our lives. We don't know how it's made, where it's made, or how it works; all we can do is look beyond the sky and pray for magic that will keep consumption flowing.
We feel sure our theme will attract many alien Visitors, and hope this will stimulate our planet's faltering economy.

That has some bite, no?

The theme description leans heavily on the image of John Frum, the mythic figure from the original island cargo cult who the legend holds will eventually return bringing gifts from the sky. The description begins with the question ...

Who is John Frum?

... and that has a lot of bite as well; I cannot resist a dark little chuckle at that one.

But notice how the cargo cult story provides such a seductive parable of the encounter between the modern and the paleolithic. We want this story so we can use it as a metaphor.

We need to stay wary of how the story of the cargo cult is a little too appealing. I'm told that there's a school of thought among anthropologists which holds that the formation of cargo cults in the first place springs in part from performing for the anthropologists who find it so fascinating. Plus the story connects to a bunch of stories we want to tell ourselves about the encounter between very different societies, stories we want to tell ourselves about Exotic Primitive Native People, stories that easily slide into racist ooga-booga cartoons.

When does talking about cargo cults cross the line into ho ho, let us now laugh at those colorfully-dressed islanders with their silly superstitions, too stupid to know that you cannot make an airplane out of coconuts like Gilligan and the Professor with all of the ugly bigotry that implies?

The Burning Man Organization seems incautious about this element lurking in the theme. Consider this quotation offered in the theme description, from a “Melanesian informant” describing John Frum:

’E look like you an’ me. ’E tall man. ’E live long.

That's a little too close to the minstrel show for comfort.

Now I don't want to suggest that Burners are a bunch of racist bigots who think Al Jolson performing in blackface is okay. That's obviously untrue. But Burner culture does include a lot of culturejamming remixing symbols from other cultures.

Many folks would call that cultural appropriation. Personally, I have some ambivalences about the way that cultural appropriation is sometimes criticized, but many Burning Man examples are not as innocent or witty as that Hello Kitty icon. Consider the story of a Burners' event gone badly wrong just a few years back.

Visionary Village — a loose group of artists and other young people who enjoy the annual Burning Man arts festival in Nevada — began routine publicity for a Burning Man-style “private event” at the Bordello on E. 12 Street in Oakland. The online flyer circulated on Tribe.net read: “GO NATIVE” in an Old West font set against a desert sun, and the dance party was advertised as a “fundraiser for the Native American Church.” Native-rights activists got wind of it and publicized additional text from the VisionaryVillage.org web site indicating four “elemental rooms” would be themed: “Water: Island Natives (Maori); Air: Cliff Natives (Anasazi); Earth: Jungle Natives (Shipibo); Fire: Desert Natives (Pueblo).” Ravers were offered a discount off the $20 door fee “if you show up in Native costume,” and the money would fund “neurofeedback research demonstrating causality between medicinal use [of peyote], improved brainwave patterns, and heightened mirror neuron activity in users.” The 140-year-old Bordello property abuts Interstate 880 and an ancient Ohlone Indian site dated to the 12th century B.C., which was also promoted.

Native American activists showed up to that event, and there were some rightly embarassed White people.

With prior examples like that, Burning Man does not get the benefit of the doubt on whether or not Cargo Cult constitutes play on a racist narrative about Primitive Natives and an invitation to a minstrel show.

I presume that the Burning Man Organization doesn't mean it that way, but if they know that the theme will be read that way, as they should, then they are giving offense intentionally. If you give offense intentionally, that's an insult. It says to people of color that the Burning Man Organization does not care if Burning Man feels hostile to them.

Burning Man is overwhelmingly a White People Thing and the insult to people of color implicit in cultural appropriation is one of the big reasons why. That's a problem for an event which counts radical inclusion as the first of its foundational Ten Principles.

I have to ask what the Burning Man organization does intend with this theme. The legend of the Cargo Cult is a legend of people using the form of the airstrip without understanding its essence.

So is that statue of Ganesh at the front of a Burning Man theme camp cargo cult Hinduism?

Is the Cargo Cult theme itself cargo cult anthropology?

No comments: