September 01, 2007

Of Burning Man and Self-Justification

For those not familiar with it already, every year tens of thousands of people gather in the Black Rock desert of Nevada for a festival called Burning Man. The event is held ostensibly to celebrate abstract values of human nature that, its participants feel, aren't valued enough in everyday society. It promotes things like spontaneity, creativity, radical individualism and community building. The event's promoters provide us with an essay called What is Burning Man? on their website to fill us in on what the whole thing's all about.

Of course, these things are just abstractions; they're not tangible things that take place in the real world. The way these values are expressed are manifold, but for many of the 45,000+ people who have gone to Burning Man this year, this expression will involve taking a variety of drugs, getting naked in the desert, having lots of sex, getting drunk and falling down. I'm not mentioning these things because I object to them out of hand, but because that's exactly what will go on.

The San Francisco Chronicle is currently hosting an official Burning Man blog (official to the newspaper, anyhow), Burning Blog 2007, in which an attendee has been providing regular updates of what's happening at the festival. The top entry at this moment is a photograph which has become for me the human face of Burning Man:

The visage of the festival
There's something about that face, that dull expression, that vacancy, that summarizes the event quite well in my mind. If that seems a bit cruel on my part, I have good reason for it. There's nothing countercultural about Burning Man at all. I'll get protests over saying such a blasphemous thing, but I stand by it. Burning Man, with its $250+ price of admission and its caravans of SUVs cruising across the country to gather for a week (or usually a weekend) in the wilderness is quintessentially a product of American culture, even moreso because the people who create the event can do this while proclaiming that the theme for this year is "the Green Man," which the Burning Man website explains as:

Beginning with the advent of the modern age, we have regarded nature as a beast that we can tame. We have built levees to contain the rush of rivers and rebuff the ocean's swell; we have extracted oil from the earth to fuel the engines of our cars. We have constructed dams equipped with turbines that project electric power in a skein across the globe — our cities are cocooned in artificial light that rivals and occludes the stars. It's very easy to presume we hold the upper hand. Yet levees break, and glaciers melt. The power of the tide when roused comes up to meet us with a challenge and a message that we can't ignore.

Some say it's our chief duty to preserve the natural world intact, protected from the ways of man. This is a worthy goal. And yet, if Burning Man has taught us anything, it's that we can collaborate with nature...
Burning Man requires a lot of Burning PetrolApparently, this "collaboration" entails burning up lots and lots of fossil fuel to gather together in a natural place, party naked and set fire to neon tubes. As someone with a bit of a background in biology and ecology, that's a bit of a stretch from where I sit. Collaborating with nature in any other context means taking what is necessary for survival and providing something necessary for the survival of something else. I'm unaware of the necessity of doing what Burning Man participants do in terms of the natural world. In fact, according to one source who has investigated the impact of the festival on the environment, Burning Man in 2006 contributed approximately 26,000 tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. This is not what collaboration with nature looks like, and clearly there is no necessity for this to occur at all, particularly when it is done by many of the same people who like to point out to others the negative impact they have on nature in this very vein.

Still, one might disregard this or disagree with me. At its core, Burning Man is about individualism or, more accurately (if anything accurate can be said about this thing) about voluntarily investing one's individuality into the creation of a participatory community that provides for the benefit of all involved. The first question in my mind about this is why it's necessary to travel hundreds, even thousands, of miles to do this. The vast majority of "Burners" don't live as hermits in isolated caves the rest of the year, I'm sure. They already live in communities, albeit not necessarily in communities that charge an entrance fee for participation (or perhaps they do, and maybe that's what the participants could change in the real world instead of the artificial one they build for a few days out in the desert). This supposed need to take care of the world around them is a motivating factor, though, which must be the reason that A banner for Burning Man
...The super Wal-Mart, apparently the destination of choice among Burners on the way up the road, was huge...


It's good to know that Wal-Mart, a mom and pop, community-building organization with an excellent track record of caring for its employees and eschewing the use of sweatshop labor in impoverished countries, gets so much additional patronage as a result of the event. Clearly, Burning Man can in no way be viewed as a consumerist quasi-religious ritual that encourages the consumption of vast amounts of resources for purely hedonistic purposes. Anyone who says so simply doesn't get it because they've never been there, dude.

But that's just it; everything done in the "temporary autonomous zone" of Burning Man lasts a few days and goes away. A few of the people who participate in it might change in some way, but for the most part the participants are out for a good time and that's all there is. Should the event be banned on a such a basis? I don't think so, and that's not what I'm advocating. This spiritual, socially-conscious gloss that's painted over the thing, though, is absolutely artificial. It's a smugness, a self-justification, with no better rational context than any religious ritual, and perhaps not even that valid. It's a party, that's all. It's a celebration of consumerist culture and the power of capital. Poor people, by which I mean those who struggle everyday to maintain food and shelter, don't go to a festival like Burning Man once a year to build exclusive little communities outside the perimeters of everyday life. Instead, they ideally band together morning, noon and night to provide for one another and create real communities. They celebrate their own creativity, except in their case creativity is a means to survival, not a nicety tacked on as a result of accumulating time off from work. A number of those people work in terrible conditions, producing the goods that Burners consume at the cheapest rate possible so that Wal-Mart can crush small businesses by turning profits while maintaining lower prices than any family-run enterprise could ever hope to do. They don't drive to their celebrations in huge rented mobile homes; that's not a privilege they enjoy. To the very core, Burning Man is an event stemming from the existence of economic class stratification. I'm not objecting to that, but because of the sheer size of the event and the energy invested into it, it is incumbent upon those who think they're changing society by being involved with the big party on the playa at least acknowledge this.

A giant inflatable penis on the playa, in front of row upon row of massive mobile homes; not a bad glyph for the consumer hedonism at the core of Burning ManThere's nothing wrong with getting a few dozen, or a few thousand, of your friends together for a big party. Everybody needs to relax every so often. Still, it's not a bad idea to be honest about it, at least to oneself. Pretending it's some kind of spiritual retreat, that it benefits anyone other than oneself, that it somehow makes the world or one's culture a better place, and overlaying it with all sorts of woo-ish nonsense while cruising down the highway in a vehicle that gets 5 mpg with the end goal of ingesting a few doses of hallucinogenic chemicals and stripping naked to dance in the desert with the hope of getting laid before a big pile of wood, glass and metal gets torched... that's just dishonest. It's transparently dishonest to anyone who thinks about it. For participants to say that those who don't themselves participate "don't get it" is just like religious advocate saying that those who don't believe as they do "don't get it" because they haven't experienced Jesus in their hearts or Adramelech on their left shoulders or what have you. The fact is, it's often those within a cultural phenomenon who don't see what's going on precisely because they've placed a stake in a certain way of looking at things, thus becoming prone to discarding evidence that comes from an examination of the larger context.

Sphere: Related Content