Confused by Burning Man? You’re goddamn right you are!!!

Wait, that's ... that's not a Man. Where am I?

It might not be an overstatement to suggest that the single biggest challenge facing Burning Man as it transitions to a non-profit is explaining what-the-hell-it’s-good-for without making it sound like a therapy weekend or an erotic spa.

Why do we need to do this?  Well, one reason is that the Media Team frequently gets emails asking things like:

  • “What bands are playing at Burning Man this year?”
  • “How many stages do you have?”
  • “How do I get my act in your lineup?”

Telling these people to look at our website and see what we really do only leads to return emails saying “I still can’t find the bands!  Except, is one of them named Temple Burn?  Are they playing at the Arctica stage?  Is that the main stage?”

Actually, wow, “Temple Burn” is a pretty killer name for a band … I’m calling it.  It’s mine.  Get your own band.  You can be:  “Dust Storm.”

Actually, “Dust Storm” is a pretty good name too.  I’ll need it when “Temple Burn” kicks me out for creative differences.  Hands off.

Your band can be “Gift Economy.”  It’s kind of a folk-rock thing, very 60s influenced, writes a lot of songs about peace.

Where was I?  Oh yeah …

Walking these people through an explanation of Burning Man on the phone often doesn’t help either.  People who start out convinced that Burning Man books bands are remarkably resistant to the idea that … no … it doesn’t.

“How can you have a festival without bands?”

“Well, you see, we don’t actually like to think of it as a festival … oh shit, here we go down the rabbit hole.  Okay look, there are these 10 principles, and most people can only remember three …”

I hate this conversation.

Non-Burners I meet in daily life also frequently ask questions about Burning Man that they think should have easy answers.  Questions like:

  • What happens there?
  • If I go, what would I do?

Well how the hell should I know?  Because … because … you see … I don’t know.  What do you like to do?

Often they don’t see.  And sometimes they reduce it down to the simplest component, just to get their heads around it.  “Oh, you’re camping?  Okay, got it.  Camping I understand.  Are there any bands?  Because you can’t have a festival without bands.”

Despite 25 years, multiple books, a small cottage industry of academic papers, several documentaries, and countless newspaper articles, we still have trouble talking about Burning Man in ways that aren’t clichéd.

People pick up on that.  It’s why there are so many clichés about Burning Man.

But right now I want to place myself firmly on the side of confusion.

Because every bit as much as Burning Man is about saving the environment (yeah yeah), elevating human consciousness (really?  Over a holiday weekend?), creating alternative social models (I suppose somebody’s got to do it), Art (if you squint right, I guess), sexual liberation (isn’t that what college is for?), Art (I heard you the first time), and a raucous party spirit (isn’t that what graduate school is for?) … Burning Man is also about a kind of epic confusion that is good for the soul.

We live in an efficiency obsessed world.  An awe depleted world.  A world that tries to quantify every shred of our humanity and throw away the bits that don’t fit.  A world where kids and adults alike are often scheduled within an inch of their lives.

It’s hard to find things that are good for the soul in this world, in no small part because we’re never allowed to engage things we don’t understand.  Emotions?  Those are neurochemicals.  A sense that you’ve been called to something greater?  That’s a bi-product of evolution.  An attachment to community?  That’s an attachment disorder.  Ecstasy?  That’s either an illusion or a drug.  Existential dread?  You’re just depressed.

None of this is necessarily true, but it’s the shape we’re hammered into.  We know all the answers.  Nothing to see here.

Everything that expands our humanity – and our capacity to be human – is packaged, processed, and filed away, often because it isn’t good for productivity or it won’t fit on an insurance form.    The contemporary mandarins of productivity say this is good for the economy … but human beings can’t prosper when we’re made to live like machines and think like the internet.

The cultural backlash against this soul-killing positivism is in full force, but much of modern spiritual culture is as vapid as a celebrity hairdresser who’s skimmed “A Course In Miracles” to get style tips.  American spiritual culture is no less cocksure than the rationalists it opposes, yet no more helpful.

Seriously, can I just say:  fucking hippies!  The gospel of the New Age does little more than call upon us to feel good about ourselves just the way we are … and this does nothing to engage our capacity to be more human.  The “secret” dogma that if you “set your intentions” the universe will respond treats the ineffable as an ATM and sets the ego at the center of life, exactly where it doesn’t belong.  Most modern spirituality is poorly thought out junk food with a gloss of quantum physics.   It, too, offers slick and packaged easy answers that are useless and wrong.  The answer to Richard Dawkins is not Deepak Chopra.

We can get away from all this:  we can live in a way that gives us room to breathe.  But to do it we need to give up the constrictions of false certainty.  We have to stop pretending that we know what the fuck is going on.  Life is bigger than our rational minds and our imaginations both.  Life will surprise us no matter how many systems and pat answers we box ourselves in with, so we’re frequently better off without the boxes.  To admit we don’t know what the universe is, or who we have the capacity to be … to admit our own potential to surprise even ourselves … is the only way we can really experience the full range of our humanity.

To be confused – in the biggest sense – is to be firing on all cylinders.  Without knowing the right answer ahead of time, you can be fully engaged in the moment.

Burning Man offers that.  Burning Man is one of the few places in the world that makes it easy.  I love Burning Man because I honestly have no idea what’s going to happen next from moment to moment … or even what’s happening right now.  To be a part of that epic confusion is to be a part of something bigger than I can understand, and that challenge  … that invitation … is one that I can meet with all the humanity that is forbidden by the corporatized, cookie cutter, metricized world.

To be confused, then, is essential to the Burning Man experience.

So let people be confused.  In fact, cultivate the confusion.  The harder Burning Man is to understand … and by “understand” I mean “put into a box,” the first step towards becoming a commodity … the more “Burning Man” it will be.  Let the event surprise us.

The trouble is that non-profits don’t do well with surprises.  Boards of Directors don’t like surprises;  big donors like to be clear on what they’re funding.  Non-profits have to justify themselves to the IRS, which HATES surprises.  In fact, non-profits need to use terms that the IRS determines comform to standard uses.  If that sounds like no fun at all, you’ve probably had fun before.

Developing the right way of talking about Burning Man has always been a daunting challenge, but now it is an essential one.  We need a way to describe it that is both acceptable to the non-profit ecosystem while also good for the soul.  Fail to do either one, and something goes terribly wrong.  This is Scylla and Charybdis.  (The IRS is probably Charybdis.)

The reward for success:  Burning Man will be so much easier to take to a world full of people who think there have to be bands.

Are we up for it?  To be honest, I don’t know.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at)


About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

21 Comments on “Confused by Burning Man? You’re goddamn right you are!!!

  • “To be part of that epic confusion,” that’s awesome.

    I love throwing myself into uncertainty — I do my best, thrive and have the best stories and photos after. Sometimes it’s a huge “failed experiment,” but if we take the scientific approach, then a failed experiment is better than a successful one.

    A failure is a learning experience, an opportunity. A “success” teaches us nothing.

    I can’t wait to roll through the dusty gate for the first time. I have some rough ideas of what to expect but really I have no idea what I’m getting myself into. Even my trip there and back will be an adventure and I’m stoked.

    See you there my friend.

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  • NobodobodoN says:

    “Uh… camping.”
    “Just camping?”
    “Yeah, just camping.”

    I served for a few years on board of directors for Burning Flipside, and one of the linchpin moments of that whole experience was during a phone call with our insurance agent. He was a very nice man, but you could hear his tie over the phone.

    “And no food vending or anything, just camping?”
    “Yeah, everyone brings all their own food and water. We sell ice so people don’t have to leave the event to keep their beer cold.”
    “And that’s all you do the whole time? Just drink beer and camp?”

    On the application form, there were all these check-boxes for what your event “features”. Parade, rodeo, rides, scheduled performers, food vending, religious services, and things like that. I had left them all unchecked and he wanted to make sure I hadn’t left something out. (Checkboxes for pyro and overnight camping were in a different section.) He was very confused and started to seem a little suspicious, so I just started rattling off a bunch things that we do, bearing in mind that his ears are naturally tuned to things that increase liability.

    “Well, some people wear fun costumes, or go around naked, and people share stuff they bring. You can’t _sell_ beer or burgers or anything, but some people bring a lot more than they need and then just give it away to people. And some people build stages or bring sound gear or instruments or, uh, puppets, and sometimes groups set up their own schedules and stuff, but the board doesn’t get involved with that, people just do their own thing.”
    “Oh, I see. And what weekend is that happening?”
    “Memorial Day.”
    “Shoot. I’ve got plans for Memorial Day this year. You do this every year?”

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  • alaska glacier says:

    Many people ask me what Burning Man was like, and what it is all about. The only thing I can honestly say is “it is what you want it to be” and therein lies the confusion that bewilders many people. It is hard to explain something so diverse and multi faceted, something that is constantly in motion and morphing into something else. The best analogy that I can come up with is “Remember the feeling you have on Christmas morning as a kid when you wake up and see the tree and presents and everything”? Its kind of like that… Super Evil Brian, you will be right at home. Caveat, absolutly wonderful post !!

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  • Archetyp0 says:

    Burning Man doesn’t seem quite as mysterious nowadays as it was years ago. The aura and mystery surrounding the event has, in many non-burner minds, been cemented in their own mental-shorthand… “HOT…DUSTY…HIPPY…DRUGS…MIDDLE of NOWHERE…”
    There have been more and more references to it in the media and in pop culture venues. Very few people I speak with have NEVER heard of the festival, but mercifully, few show up without some level of invitation.
    I hope it continues to be a little like Brigadoon… just sets down on the planet every year for a week, then vanishes… as if never here at all. Next year the exact same people return with more awesomeness and new outfits and rides.
    I truly welcome change and growth… I embrace it on ALL (read:many) levels… and Burning Man CAN improve on perfect… but fuck… the default world could take the MF blinders off ! Paraphrasing Daniel Pinchbeck, when speaking of the dark shadows falling across the planet… said that the shadows that appear the darkest are caused by the oncoming brilliant light…(open to your interpretation).
    To me personally, Burning Man will remain a very bright light. Peace/Love/Smiles

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  • Meshblorg says:

    As a non-burner looking forward to going for his first time… I have to say I’m very excited! My life has always centered around music but after seeing some of these art installations at massive raves like Electric Daisy Carnival and the Coachella Valley Music Festival, I’m ready to camp out and become a part of the artistic wonder that is Burning Man!

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  • larry harvey says:

    I wrote the following statement for use at a recent retreat, a workshop for Burning Man’s staff in which we discussed the many challenges we face in turning Burning Man into a non profit organization. We had been pitched the idea that we needed to create a sort of elevator talk that nailed down all of the Burning Man Project’s aims in a mission statement that would leave no room for the unknown.

    Reflections on the mission of the Burning Man Project

    I think the difficulty we’ve encountered in attempting to condense the essence of the Burning Man Project into a short concise statement, one that summarizes its aims in the world in a precise and programmatic way, is due to the fact that this mode of thinking is more or less foreign to our experience. Practically speaking, we have primarily been the providers of a context, not so much the manufacturers of its content. As planners, we design a kind of bucket, and the Ten Principles, regarded as rules of engagement, describe the specifications of this bucket. In this we are expert. Yet to confuse this cunning vessel with the phenomenon it generates would be a great mistake.

    Virtually all of those things that convince us that Burning Man has the potential for a manifold application in the world, and that now form a few of the incipient programs of the Burning Man Project, have originated as spontaneous outpourings: they have overflowed the bucket. In terms of central planning, these initiatives have been unpredictable and idiosyncratic: reflections of the many ways in which participants have incorporated their immediate experience of Burning Man into their lives.

    I am speaking here of a cultural dynamic that we can channel and coordinate, and in so doing make an emergent consciousness more present to itself. But we should never believe that we should or can substitute our institutional control for what really amounts to a force of nature. To get into the bottling business, to market, as it were, some kind of distillate of what Burning Man means, would misrepresent how things actually work. Indeed this is why we have never explained what the Burning Man himself means. Most certainly we control the context in which this wooden symbol is perceived, but beyond this it is up to participants to achieve such meaning through their engagement with the event.

    I only dwell on this issue because I believe it is crucial to the future
    functioning of BMP. I think we’re rightly apprehensive in fearing that the operations of a future non-profit could lead to a classic bureaucratic blunder: regarding the control of things as indistinguishable from a mission. I think that pride of place and the politics that surely come with this could be a greater hazard in a non-profit than it has ever been in our relatively nimble LLC.

    I can foresee a time in which the public would approach this powerful institution as humble supplicants. As with any large institution, the actors who inherit Burning Man could be lured by the idea that they are wholly in charge of its aims. Step by step, without even realizing it, they might contract its meaning into a sound-bite, a gerund, a brand name, like so many bottles of Coca-Cola, making it more easy for a consuming public to swallow.

    But lest it seem too humble to suggest that we are merely bucket makers, let me also say I think we all believe that in time to come the world could house numberless buckets such as we wish to create, artesian sources of meaning which, washing over the globe, will overturn all expectations. Perhaps that is our mission.


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  • fancipants says:

    great read Caveat! i will be heading back to BRC for the 6th time this year and when people who haven’t been ask me what it’s all about i try to keep it short and sweet and say just come and then you will know. so maybe you Larry should invite some of those IRS guys to come and check it out as well then they would see whith their own eyes what happens in our legit city over the week. who knows i bet a couple have actually already made it to the Playa along with the surgeons, lawyers, polititians, and other so called suit an tie professionals. you could even give them a personal tour if you thought this would benefit where BMP stood in the eyes of our money controlled societal system after all we don’t have anything to hide and in my opinion it just might get the word out there that much more that the citizens of Black Rock are wanting to effect a change on this messed up world one year at a time. it was sure one of the best decisions i have ever made back in 2004 to come check out what all the hype was about and i am certainly not the same person i was before i experienced the undescribable…long live Burning Man!!

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  • jrad says:

    my simple explanation is this: it’s the greatest party in the history of human civilization. nothing more and nothing less.
    I know that calling it a “party” doesn’t exactly say what it is, but i think when modified by “the greatest….in the history of human civilization” it paints a pretty clear picture. try that on the IRS :)

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  • fancipants says:

    at jrad….

    “it’s not just a party it’s a revolution”

    that was on a bumber sticker i got there one year.

    burn on!

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  • mscot says:

    When people asking me, I show them photos of Bliss Dance. To me, that work of art sums it all up perfectly.

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  • Dorji Tsering Sherpa says:

    A teaching during Vipassana meditation says”

    Strive Ardently oh man and Burn
    Purity comes from Burning away the Dross
    Gold must pass through crucible in order to be refined.”



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  • chicken john says:

    Well. What a cop out. Really. You just wave your magic wand of words and say that what can’t be described shouldn’t be described. You package up with a bow the thing that you are explaining can’t be packaged up with a bow by describing how you can’t describe it. You have been hanging around with Larry too long. Maybe.

    Maybe your right to do this. Say this. Maybe it’s your right. Maybe this is the right path. The Zen double speak everything is funny thing. But to defy convention, to chuck all the thinking that got us to this place… the place where we have to build a thing that defies explanation to untangle convention and stasis… but shurly we can do better. Maybe.

    Maybe. Maybe a cop out is what we need. A quick bla bla so we can keep doing whatever it is we do. Maybe this well written, comic, gentle report is too much like the dreaded Larryspeak vomitose-vapid-abyss-doubletalk that has strung along a generation of people excited to change the world only to find that in order to do that we need a strong visionary leader who is intelligent and actually likes people and participates in the culture that he/she is a cheerleader of.

    Maybe it’s not. Maybe this is a great essay. Maybe Caveat can lead us! Maybe these words solve all our problems, and allow BM to be more then a good job for 30 people and Caveat can be the funny, fun, charming leader guy that we’ve needed for 20 years… maybe. Maybe this is the break we’ve been waiting for.


    Maybe there are too many fucking maybe’s in this. Maybe there is too much ambiguity. Maybe we need, no, maybe we DESERVE solid answers. Solid commitments. Absolutes. But absolutes are the opposite of possibility’s. And that is exactly what Burning Man is: an engine of possibility. And a pretty big one at that.

    Burning Man is a populist art gathering that manifests as an engine of possibility created by a templet for unrestricted generosity outside of commerce.

    There. I said it.

    I for one can hardly wait for the regime change, if it happens at all (which I bet it won’t). It will be so great if the people who were running BM were fun. Young and fun. They won’t let it happen, of course. They will control it to the very last, and set it up so it’s still somehow under their control even after they pass.

    But if this essay is part of the new thinking at BM, I’m in. If this is the person who is talking to the press, that’s great. If we can only get this guy to talk to Time Magazine maybe people wouldn’t be embarrassed by the leadership of the culture we all built together. A culture of liberty and expression and tolerance unlike the world has ever known.

    If only we had a proper constitution and the board members of the new non-profit (that I am convinced will never exist) were elected democratically (like buying one ticket entitles you to one vote)… maybe it could be possible that our culture could be more relevant then any of us could ever possibly imagine.

    Yea… maybe that could be possible.

    thanks for the thinking… chicken john

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  • Kanizzle says:

    Is Bassnectar playing this year?

    Seriously though, thank you for this one dear friend. And thank you Larry for the followup…and thanks to everyone else for the enlightening responses.

    I’m on my way to Transformus in a few hours heading up a camp of 60+ folks whose sole mission is to cause mischief and confusion at all hours….THIS, is just the soul-food I needed.

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  • simon of the playa says:

    it’s too late, we’ve already booked Wayne newton for 2012.

    don’t blame the messenger.

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  • Marsh Troupe says:

    Dude, you are win.

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  • Ric Crawford says:

    I guess all this intellectual stuff is great and all, but I STILL didn’t get the names of the bands. My head hurts.

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  • eyeballs to the skyballs says:

    @chickenjohn: template (sp). (maybe).

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  • I could not agree more! Or maybe I don’t! All hail confusion. Maybe that should be the 0th principle.

    Tweeted your line about treating the ineffable as an ATM. That was killer.

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  • Curtis says:

    We got bands :)

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