“…but he takes various shapes, just as fire, when it is mingled with different incenses, is named according to the savour of each.”1
How can we consider ourselves as being together? How do we meet? We, moving and becoming individuals.
If our existential structure – as far as Heidegger is concerned – is that of the Dasein, our being-together-in-the-world is both In-der-Welt-sein and Mitsein, phenomena closely embedded in spatiality — the Umhafte der Umwelt [1927, 101].
Let us start here. Let us conserve space and some distance but let us divide being-together-in-the-world into being-together-in-space and being-together-as-space:
in-space: where space is nothing less (but nothing more, yet) then the only category in which A and not-A coexist in ontological peace.
as-space: where I am, as ex-isting to otherness, as being out there, necessarily outside of myself, the other of my other, always something else, always one step behind each present situation of being thrown into a world of immediate response demand to existential choices.
Now the question: is “as-space” its own category’ As-near, as-distant, the spatial here and there includes only those at-hand (zuhanden) and it appears, thus, that it is I, to myself, that am the magnetic centre of any togetherness. However complex the actual structure of the “real ontological subject”2, being-together-as-space is nothing but an aspect of my self, the all-encompassing Dasein. Or is it’
Well, though it is impossible to “be human without being a human” [Husserl 1936], and though “the world is always already the one that I share with others”3, being oneself might not, in fact, be enough for togetherness to emerge. Besides others and me, there is a world of words and places we are thrown into. And it is not I or we, but these words and these places that allow us to say “we” and “I”, here, now, before we carry them along in our unstoppable becoming (Werden). “Man is a semiotic animal, a species whose individuals are kept together and apart by their use of signs” [Olsson 1994].
Being-together-as-space is thus being-together-in-place: the one in which we meet, the one we can name, whose contours we might dispute but whose existence is agreed on ― common place. We are together in our neighbourhoods, in our cities, in our space too, as far as we possess an image thereof, i.e., as far as we have made it to a place. The topos of the mapped space is the deictic “where” we meet4. Çatal Hüyük becomes a city the day a fresco of itself is engraved in stone [cf. Farinelli 2003, 152]. The topos of the discourse is the topic we have agreed to discuss. In both cases, we know of our being-together.
But places are not rocks in the flow of time. They come into being, by topomorphosis5, as Angelo Turco names the “process through which a cluster of social values not only condensates in a place but, by taking the aspect of that place, becomes that place.”6 At the same time, “much bitter dying must there be in your life, ye creators”7 of social values. Topolysis8 is an expectable side-effect of the creation of any new place.
Thus, having places for its containers, our togetherness never resides on solid ground and one might as well call it liquid [cf. Baumann 2000]. The rest could be considered as a mere question of viscosity. Jericho has lasted ever since the Mesolithic (9’000BC), Nabatieh camp destroyed within two decades. Swiss Expo’02 biodegraded after just one year.
Yet it would be hard to attest to any acceleration of the topomorphosis-topolysis cycle along the History of mankind, for we do not have any actual hold on places: they are often renamed, rebuild, sometimes even displaced9.
Two distinct aspects of our life might be claimed, nevertheless.
Firstly, there is the unquestionable acceleration of our transportation means. Potentially ― and often very effectively ― our contemporary spatial practice consists of an incredible flow of human bodies through our most important places. As we have been able to show, more than 30% of time spent in city-centres is so by others than those we call their “residents”. Like the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, our places can more than ever be conceived of as pure self-identical forms, as conceptual centres of a never-halting movement of individual particles of human matter. More than ever, the self-identity of our places does not rely on any material substrate but on the narrative conceptualization we provide them with.
Secondly, there is our technological capacity to build large-scale temporary places: theme-parks, national expositions, open-air-concerts. This month’s site is one of these.
The site’s name is “Burning Man”. Its place is Black Rock City, a “temporary city” in Black rock Desert, Nevada, that ― at least in its physicality ― emerges and decays at every end of September since 1986. Its 2006 edition counts 39’000 inhabitants. It takes its name from the ritual of burning a large wooden sculpture of a human on its sixth and last day.
As described by its cofounder, Larry Harvey, Burning Man is “a project dedicated to discovering those optimal forms of community which will produce human culture in the conditions of our post-modern mass society” [Harvey 1997]. “It is, like cyberspace, a frontier in which individuals can exercise remarkable freedoms. Our desert world and the blank expanse of its playa form a decontextualized arena of action [where] it is possible to reinvent oneself and one’s world aided only by a few modest props and an active imagination.” The direct link with cyber-reality is achieved, among others, by burningman.com, the site of the place, that allows anyone to be there without being there, to share or to discuss its claimed values, i.e., to participate to the constitution of togetherness having the place and concept of “Burning Man” for its centre. The web-site, the place, as much as the sculpture of “Burning Man himself” constitute a “centre of gravity, a powerful axis in time and space [that] human beings require […] in order to found a cultural sphere” [Harvey 1997].
A simple cyber-contemplation of this axis will not do of course ― at least in Harvey’s sense ― as “real community can only be attained through the experience of certain primal unities in the physical world.” Burning Man attendees, after payment of 195usd to 280usd (depending on the ticket acquisition date), are “encouraged to find a way to help make the theme come alive, whether it is through a large-scale art installation, a theme camp, gifts brought to be given to other individuals, costumes, or any other medium that one comes up with” [“What is Burning Man”].
Both the distraction character of the event (supported by the fact that it is paid for), as well as its outside-of-everyday-life character (supported by the fact that Black Rock City does not physically last) contribute to intensify the togetherness provided by the place. “Creative social intercourse” [Durkheim 1983], the paradigmatic attribute of urbaneness, is thus achieved in a temporary city, not despite, but because of its temporality.
The example whereof Burning Man is, is certainly more exemplary than the place itself. Judged more severely, especially in consideration of most photos posted by event-goers on the internet, the story of Black Rock City tells nothing more than amusing anecdotes in the self-aestheticising lives of nudist it-consultants and Dink-revolutionaries. There are aspects of Burning Man that could certainly match Houellebecq’s cruel description of the “Lieu du Changement”10.
One should not disdain the imaginative power of Burning Man, nevertheless, and by this I mean especially the very sign and symbol that this place/event has chosen for itself: the burning self.
Fire, in effect, is the paradigmatic figure of self-identity in radical change, as well as the clearest expression of will aimed at nothing but the total discharge of its own self in the temporality of its action. This is not Thales’ liquid cosmos and certainly not Baumann’s liquid society either. Liquidity happens despite itself. The liquid does not discern objects and paths: there is something sub-discerning, something hypo-critical about the “meeting of strangers” in Baumann’s places of “unproblematic togetherness”, where being-together is “given well before any effort to make it be has started” [2000, 100]. Much more, there is something hyper-critical in the confluence of desire incorporated by a temporary city, like in the one-night stand of two people that have secretly wanted each other for years. In the burning event of togetherness, others seek others, to consume them in some way, perhaps, but certainly to interact with them11. The meeting of strangers, in the case of a place/event like Burning Man is nothing like an event without a past [Baumann 2000, 95] as it is always preceded by a past of drives and urges. The social role of a temporally society, like that of Black Rock, is the self-annihilating confluence of these urges. Its kind of togetherness is a little death, a ― sometimes all too easy ― social orgasm. But Houellebecq is both right and wrong with respect to that fact: events like the one described here are very much perspired by sexuality, indeed, but there is more to sex itself than anatomical obscenity. Be it in a metaphorical or in a concrete physical sense, the sexual form should rather be understood as one of the major figures of human togetherness on diverse social scales.
A more important point, though, has to be made about the convergence of place and event, here. While postmodern liquidity critique, facing event-like togetherness, asks for place, togetherness as phenomena like Burning Man finds its place in the event. It turns the event to a place, annihilating their distinction. Now, which posture is of greater contribution to our being-together?
In a society of mobile and constantly evolving individuals, advocates of the permanence of places are not the ones who will provide us with a conceptual foundation of togetherness. There is something profoundly dissociative and xenophobic about the nostalgic claim for perpetuity, for the unchanging once-and-for all identities of continents, nations, communes… It is for the sake of our society, that we have to overcome this all too pusillanimous desire for ontological cosiness. The world of words and places that we are thrown into is a world of transitional objects: always necessary, but only useful in their impermanence. The signs and places of our togetherness need to be constantly re-evaluated, redrawn, remapped, over and over. We must be careful not to lose our story12 in the game, but to embrace the transitoriness of our places might be a more efficient way of conserving togetherness in our plural and evolving society. Thus, if we look away from its tendentious hipness, there is an appealing project in Burning Man’s claim to reverse the disintegration process of our society by the very tools of communication and unceasing movement that our technology has developed. [cf. Harvey 1997].
Photo: André Ourednik, Lausanne, 2007.
Zygmunt Baumann, Liquid modernity, Polity Press, 2000.
Émile Durkheim, De la division sociale du travail, Paris, Alcan, 1893.
Franco Farinelli, Geografia: un’introduzione ai modelli del mondo, Einaudi, 2003.
Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, Max Niemeyer, 1927 (2001).
Michel Houellebecq, Frank Wynne (transl.), The elementary particles, Vintage, 2001.
Edmund Husserl, Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie, Martinus Nijhoff, 1936 (1969).
Friedrich Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen, Insel Taschenbuch, 1885 (1976).
Gunnar Olsson, « Chiasm of thought-and-action », Franco Farinelli, Gunnar Olsson, Dagmar Reichert, Limits of representation, Accedo, 1994.
Angelo Turco, « Aménagement et processus territoriaux: l'enjeu sémiologique », Les langages de la rue, 90-91, 3-4/1997, Paris, L’Harmattan, pp. 231-249.
Doctorant au laboratoire Chôros (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) il a étudié la géographie, la philosophie et les méthodes mathématiques à la Faculté des Lettres de l’Université de Lausanne. Il a publié notamment les nouvelles « Après » (2003, Îles sur le toit du monde : Une anthologie romande de science-fiction, revue Archipel, en collaboration avec la Maison d’Ailleurs), « Autopsie d’une itération divine » (Articulo.ch) ainsi que le recueil de poèmes Chants dilettantes d’un fainéant éduqué au rythme des saisons et des manies (2002, L’Âge d’Homme). Ses recherches actuelles portent sur la modélisation formelle de l’habiter et de la cohabitation. Voir également le site de l’auteur.