A few months ago I was asked, in one of those email groups where people ask each other things like this: “what does it mean to be a burner? What are the core beliefs that unite us?”
I didn’t respond, first and foremost because honest-to-God do I have that kind of time? No I do not, and it is hugely irresponsible of people to ask me open ended questions. It’s like offering a hypochondriac free medical advice. His whole weekend’s shot.
But I also didn’t respond because I’d been wrestling with that question for some time … and had no good answer.
I know that the most common response is “The 10 Principles,” but … I don’t see it. I bet 90% of the Burners reading this can’t name all 10 without looking them up. Of that 10% who can, I bet 90% of them didn’t know all the 10 principles … or anything about the 10 principles … back when that magical moment happened and they first decided: “Oh, I like this. I want to be a part of this.”
It’s also commonly understood … though not often talked about … that most of us interpret the 10 Principles differently. Some of us (I’ll raise my hand) believe that “Radical Inclusion” means “everybody can participate in Burning Man,” while others take it to mean “everybody should feel included and accepted by people at Burning Man”: we’re worlds apart. Exactly what “Gifting” means is not a matter of settled tort. How “communal” does “Communal Effort” have to be? You might as well ask how many Burners can dance on the head of a pin, except that this was settled by 2005’s massive art project “Dance on the Head of a Pin!” It’s 82, and they light the pin on fire. Man that really should have been funded.
The 10 Principles are great guides, very useful, and well thought out – but they can’t be the philosophical core that unites Burners if most of us don’t know what they are and those who do don’t agree on what they mean.
They may also be expanding: several regional groups apparently have added an (unofficial? semi-official?) “11th principle”: Gratitude.
So I was stuck, and have been for some time.
What connects the sound camps to the Barbie Death Camp to the Heebie-Geebie Healers? What connects the Thunderdome to hula-hooper camps to the solo camper way out at the “million dollar view”?
We’re looking for that magic, unifying moment where everything comes together – like the one where Rabbi Hillel is asked to explain the whole of Judaic thought while standing on one foot. He lifts his left leg up, says “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary,” and puts his foot down. Fuck yeah.
But for Burning Man I had nothing. And while that used to be an academic question, it has now become one of some urgency: more new burners are coming in, fewer veteran burners can attend, and the nature of our community is at a crossroads.
It seems like we should have an answer.
Last weekend I sat in on Burning Man’s Regional Network Conference in San Francisco, listening to regional network reps compare issues, best practices, and thoughts about Burning Man’s future. There were also free tacos.
Much of what I heard was inspiring (drama or not, there’s going to be *awesome* stuff happening on the playa), and edifying, and I’ll share some of it with you in future posts – and after processing the experience, two things have become clear.
First, I never want to talk about Burning Man that much ever again. I mean, come on people: enough’s enough. Don’t you also watch Mad Men or something?
Second, I think there’s another approach to understanding what Burners have in common, and I’d like to present a rough draft of it here: something to hammer to see if it holds up.
Burners are united by common actions and not common ideals: the reasons we “burn” aren’t consistent, and don’t really matter. What we think “burning” means isn’t consistent, and doesn’t really matter. The fact on the ground, that we “burn,” is the only one that counts.
That may have been obvious to some of you, but I think the implications are important.
It’s consistent, first of all, with the way most of us encountered Burning Man and decided to participate: we didn’t study up on the 10 Principles, or any other philosophy, and then say “Yes, this is for me.” We came because we heard people were doing amazing shit: and when we saw it we thought “I could do amazing shit too,” and changed our lives.
It’s also consistent with the way Burning Man actually evolved: the Man burning came first, the Temporary Autonomous Zones in the desert came first; art cars and theme camps and fire dancing came first. It was only after Burning Man formalized and organized that the 10 Principles were developed as a way of trying to explain what the hell this is. They were supposed to be explanations, but in fact they are aspirations: the 10 Principles, loosely speaking, are our goals, not our commonality or raison d’etre. They’re things we strive to be, and admire when we see in others. They’re where we want to go … they’re our road map … but the Burn came first. With Burning Man, the experience always comes first. That’s key.
The idea that we’re united by our actions, rather than our motives, ideals, or thoughts, means that when we try to communicate Burning Man to the rest of the world, we do it by doing. In many ways this is already happening: Burning Man’s policy to the press has always been “come and participate” – never “come and watch and we’ll explain it.” The Los Angeles area Burners have a brilliant tactic of explaining Burning Man to newcomers by having them join in the creation of a community garden … it’s much easier to get Burning Man across when you’re creating something special with others.
Perhaps most importantly, this means that there’s no restriction on our potential diversity. While Burning Man is, as I’ve argued before, fairly homogenous compared to much of the country it pulls from, the fact that it’s about “doing” rather than “believing” means that we don’t need to ask people to leave their beliefs and principles at the door. You can be a Christian Burner, a Hindu Burner, a Marxist Burner, a Neo-Conservative Burner (shut up, people: yes you can). How smart you are, or how well you parrot a few key phrases are irrelevant: your “conversion experience” is about lending a hand, not changing your mind.
But if “Burning Man” is about verbs, not nouns: what is that verb? What does it mean “to burn?” A convincing case could have once been made that it was to attend Burning Man, but that hasn’t really been true for a decade, if it ever was, and it’s certainly not true now as the Regionals pick up steam.
So: “to Burn” can be defined as?
It comes in two parts.
Part the first: here’s what happens. Most of our lives are spent as agents of social control. I don’t care how non-conformist you are, it’s generally true. We spend our days and our nights implicitly saying “no” to one another in order to keep society functioning. But then, for some period of time … at the burn, or a regional, or just on a good night out, we stop saying “No.” We say “Yes.” We stop acting as agents of social control and instead become agents of possibility: we create possibilities that society does not normally allow, and then we participate in them – and open them up for others to participate in too.
To “Burn” is to become an agent of open possibility, creating a liminal space where something amazing can happen and anyone can join. It doesn’t matter why you do it, what you think is happening, or what you want to get out of it. You may not even get what you expect out of it, because you’ve given up acting as an agent of social control and have instead invited everyone to play: you created the game but it’s not your game. It’s a gift.
(Note that many of the principles are implied here, such as Immediacy, Gifting, Radical Self-Expression, and Radical Inclusion – but the precise meaning and exact ratio are irrelevant: what matters is that people are doing stuff. The principles are a road map rather than an explanation or reason.)
Part the second: Possibility is messy. But however messy the liminal space has gotten, you keep it from messing up the world around you. You clean up after your possibility. You … say it with me now … “leave no trace.” Again, it doesn’t matter why: whether you’re an environmentalist or a neat freak or a law-abiding citizen at heart. What matters isn’t what you think: it’s what you do.
So, what is a Burner? It’s someone who Burns. And what is to Burn, told while standing on one foot? To Burn is to act as an agent of possibility: creating a space where something amazing can happen, letting anyone join, and then cleaning up after it when it’s done.
The rest is commentary.
It doesn’t matter why you do it, what it means, or what you get out of it. What matters is that you participate.
So … What do you think? Is this true? Is it helpful?
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com