Barely a week has gone by since the 2013 theme – “Cargo Cult” – was announced, and already people are arguing over what it means. Even more than most Burning Man themes, there are many ways to interpret this one. Judging by the comments in the Burning Man group on Facebook, some people are taking it as symbolic of crass commercialism.
In the literal sense, a cargo cult is clearly both highly materialistic, and completely dysfunctional. It’s a system based on the fundamental error of mistaking cause and effect for one another, and hoping to get rich thereby. It’s watching strange foreigners build airstrips and wharves, and thinking that the mysterious planes and ships with their precious cargo come because of it; in truth, the airstrips and wharves are built because the planes and ships are coming, not the other way around.
In Vanuatu, where cargo cultism dating back to the 1930s persists to this day, Yankee messiah John Frum is still prayed to, and festivities are held in his honor every February 15th. Local tribesmen dress in imitations of American military uniforms, shoulder bamboo ‘rifles’ and march in a parade; for decades they have maintained ‘airstrips’ hacked out of the jungle overgrowth, in hopes of luring back the airplanes that once brought them spam, cigarettes, chocolate, Jeeps, washing machines, and other miracles of heaven.
To real cargo cultists, the valuable cargo represents what Arthur C. Clarke was talking about with the third of his Clark’s Laws: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” To Melanesian tribesmen, the planes and ships and cargo that John Frum and his friends once attracted in such abundance were not merely coveted consumer goods, they were magical items, sent straight from the gods in impossible, miraculous vehicles. . . and while to some cargo cultists John Frum was a divine messenger and messiah figure, to others he was only a man like themselves. Part of some cargo cult belief systems involved the idea that John Frum was gaming the system somehow, and taking the cargo that was rightfully everyone’s; taking, in fact, the cargo that was rightfully theirs.
The interpretation of rank consumerism is fairly obvious and can’t be ignored. Larry Harvey, originator of each year’s theme for Burning Man, has a different take on it. His is a fuzzy mélange of benevolent and generous alien visitation mixed with a sort of impulse to get people to think about where their everyday consumer goods come from, and about the mysterious processes by which they function, are manufactured, and are delivered to us. . . but we don’t really need to accept Larry Harvey’s interpretation either. It’s our Burn, yours and mine, and we do it the way we do it regardless of how others go about the same business, even if they did found the event and come up with the theme.
The more obvious interpretations of rank materialism and alien visitation having been dealt with, we’re left with our own personal ways of seeing ourselves and our lives in the context of cargo cultism. What is our personal cargo? What miraculous elements have shaped us and our lives, and inspired us to wish fervently for more? How does our cargo get into our lives? What behaviors should we mimic to try and attract more of it. . . and perhaps most importantly, what behaviors are we now engaged in to try and attract more of our personal ‘cargo’ that are, like the February 15th parades of the Vanatuans, merely exercises in futility?