[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]
Someone recently told me that he knew his camp had become an important part of Burning Man culture after someone accused them of ruining it.
I laughed for a solid 10 minutes. It’s that funny because it’s that true. For every person who is active in Burning Man culture, there’s a Burner convinced that person is selling it out.
Is this a “teachable moment” – or are we just assholes?
Anthropologists and historians remind us that “culture” is not a monolithic thing – it always contains cross-currents and subcultures and family feuds. There is no single “American Culture,” or “Christianity” or “Hollywood” – there are only currents, united to a greater or lesser degree by a common history, sensibility, or project.
There’s no reason Burning Man should be different, and even a casual glance at the playa revels that under the blinking lights we are a community diverse enough to be divided. Not so much by race or creed, but by whether we like dub-step, whether we know our enneagram score, and whether we want to prank the world or save it.
Some of us are artists who use reclaimed materials to raise world consciousness before dancing all night, while others are software engineers who love to sit on top of RVs under the desert sky with a bottle of bourbon, flying drones. What unites us, I have held, is a common aesthetic that is active enough to be a project in its own right – “Burning.” We are united by a verb, by a thing we do.
But that kind of unity obviously doesn’t prevent us from calling each other out as perceived despoilers, over and over and over again. Why are these arguments so easy to get into and so hard to settle?
Part of this is that people care about Burning Man, and “burning,” so damn much: nobody accuses people of ruining a thing they never cared about in the first place. But another reason is that we generally look to the 10 Principles to provide clear guidelines on this kind of issue. We assume that if we can interpret the 10 Principles correctly, it will be easy to see where the lines in the sand are – and who’s on which side.
It’s an understandable idea. After all, it’s what the rules and interdicts of most cultural systems are for: they tell us who we are and what we do (“Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy”), or at least don’t do (“Kill”), or what rights and privileges our membership comes with (“free speech”).
The guidelines of culture are designed, at heart, to tell us which side of a line we’re on, and what we have to do to stay there. There are always loopholes and questions, but the goal of a system of cultural interdicts is to minimize ambiguity.
Which is exactly where the comparison breaks down for Burning Man, because the 10 Principles DON’T minimize ambiguity. On the contrary: they generate it.
That’s in part because, with the possible exception of “Leave No Trace,” none of the 10 Principles are measurable by quantifiable means. There is no scale of self-expression from 1-10 such that if you wear fuzzy boots, show cleavage, and spin poi you are two points more personally expressive than someone who dyes his hair and draws graphic sex acts on the back of compostable coffee cups.
Not only is there no quantifiable measurement to adequately describe whether someone is following the principles, the very act of attempting to make such a rubric is itself usually a violation of the principles. To insist that everyone express themselves along certain lines is to render those who refuse more radically self-expressive, not less. To insist that there are only a few correct ways to include others is to be exclusive.
Perhaps most difficult of all: the principles contradict one another. Self-reliance and communal effort; civic responsibility and radical self-expression – these things make different demands on the same individuals during the same circumstances.
The result is ambiguity. Massive ambiguity.
If we’re upset by this, it’s because we want our lives to made easy: “Just tell me the right answer so I can be a good fucking Burner and get on with my life!”
I sympathize. We’ve all been there. But the things that the 10 Principles are calibrated to accomplish – to help us humanize one another, form community, generate new art and expression … “to burn” – are not accomplished when people are trying to just get their work done and go home. There is no shortcut to radical self-expression, or to immediacy, or radical acceptance – these are things you either throw yourself into, or you’re not really doing it at all.
Which is to say: the 10 Principles aren’t calibrated to make our lives easier.
They are calibrated to get us off our asses and engage with those elements of the human experience that can’t be effectively quantified.
Are we doing that or not? There’s no universal answer, because the unquantifiable aspects of life are situational: while I can offer suggestions on whether I think what someone is doing is in line with best practices … and there’s value in that … I can’t possibly judge what enhances self-expression or community or participation in a unique situation, with specific people. Only you – the person who’s directly engaging with these unique people in this unique time and place, can determine whether what you’re doing is bringing out their humanity or not, making them feel included or not.
There’s no way to do that except to try to do it, and no way to be sure you’re on the right side of the line except to give it your all. And if you’re doing that, then whether or not you succeed, your actions are in line with the 10 Principles. If you half-ass it, or just follow a rote formula, or put in the minimum effort in to get your camp mates off your back and your project done … then no. Nuh-uh.
That’s an ambiguous standard, I know: it doesn’t offer a list you can check off, or a certificate suitable for framing. And that’s the point. An ambiguous line is one that demands actual attention and effort. Anything else is just begging to be gamed.
Which means that a commitment to the 10 Principles is a commitment to live with ambiguity. If we’re trying to give people a truly human experience, then we can’t know how it’s going to turn out in advance (not for sure), and if we want radical self-expression then we’re never going to be absolutely sure which side of the line we’re on.
We’re going to try to figure it out – constantly, repeatedly – because it’s only natural that we want certainty. But to the extent the 10 Principles require us to sacrifice anything, certainty is it. We just have to live, moment to moment, experience to experience. And it’s never going to make our lives easier.
Why would we do that?
Well, look, going out to the desert doesn’t make our lives easier either. We Burn because we want our lives to be more fun, more extraordinary, more honest, more full of possibility … sometimes because we want to change who we are, or even the world.
Or pick your own reason. Why do you Burn? I can’t stand in judgment of it, and I honestly don’t care. But you’re here. If you’re Burning, you’re giving up no small measure of comfort for no small measure of … possibility.
The 10 Principles help us accomplish that – they are aspirations and guides. But they are not checklists or merit badges. To the extent they unite us at all, it is in our effort to live up to the 10 Principles, rather than in correctly interpreting their content.
is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com