You can complain about hippies and sunburns anywhere, but only at Burning Man can you say how much you hate people who disguise their construction equipment as plants or who organize remote control shark attacks at the pier after midnight.
Burning Man is a beautiful rainbow of things that might piss someone off, and so there are as many complaints about Burning Man as there are Burners.
But among those people who object to Burning Man as an entity – as a thing that exists at all – there are three specific objections to who we are and what we do.
One is that Burning Man is immoral and a danger to the youth of America … much like sex. Another is that Burning Man just isn’t as good as it used to be … much like democracy.
The third objection is the most pernicious, and it has just been leveled again by the writer Fenton Johnson in this summer’s issue of Tikkun magazine. This objection takes many forms but it boils down to a fairly simple idea: “Burning Man does not live up to its own values.”
Here’s how Fenton puts it in his article “Burning Man, Desire, and the Culture of Empire,” (PDF) the title of which is already a pretty strong indication of just how much he may be over thinking this:
“Instead of seeing Burning Man as ‘part of a solution to our modern malaise,’ I can as easily see it as a late-stage expression of manifest destiny — the absolute need of white men to impose our will on every landscape, even the most remote and forbidding. Its gift economy does not eliminate money but requires that we spend it — a lot of it — before we arrive, in contrast to earlier utopian experiments that presumed frugality.”
“I make myself uncomfortable by pointing out that the drugs fueling the party arrive as the result of untold suffering, and later I make everyone uncomfortable by questioning how an event can describe itself as an experiment in ‘radical self-reliance’ when it requires thousands of gallons of fossil fuels, twelve-volt batteries, generators, and computerized reservations of rental trucks and RVs.”
“Is Burning Man just another means of extending the adolescence of empire, where people who, denied conquest and exploitation, resort to the Nevada desert to play out their fantasies?”
“Among the fifty thousand, the artists and writers seem best prepared to do the slog labor required to turn the wheel. But Burning Man presents no apparent challenges to transnational corporate rule or wars of aggression aimed at maintaining the economic power of a declining empire. In fact the festival is remarkably apolitical, perhaps because many of its principals derive their prosperity from corporate institutions at the heart of our empire (Lucasfilm, DreamWorks, Google, Pixar).”
Heady stuff. I’m not entirely clear in what sense many of our “principals” derive their prosperity from LucasFilm, Google, etc., … or who our “principals” even are. But I am very impressed that, given Fenton’s sensibilities , he managed to go 7 pages without quoting Walter Benjamin.
None of this is new or original: we’ve been getting the “if you’re so interested in sustainability then try not throwing a giant party in the desert” snap for decades. If there were a 50 year-old knock-knock joke about Burning Man, that would be the punch line – even though one could say the same thing about any summit or meeting. (“Hey Kyoto Protocols – wasted a lot of jet fuel there, didn’t’cha?” “Hey Netroots Nation: if you really believe in the internet, why emit greenhouse gasses to get together in person?”)
The paradoxes of a gift economy are also well trod ground. The issue of gender relations at Burning Man is a topic that comes up with all the regularity of an undergraduate seminar. The issue of Burning Man’s limited racial diversity has certainly been mentioned from time to time. Fenton is correct to note that Burning Man hasn’t single-handedly overcome either dependence on fossil fuels or racial and gender disparities in America yet – damn us! – but he has nothing to say about these issues that we haven’t been saying ourselves for years.
And Fenton certainly isn’t the first activist to be disappointed by Burning Man’s “remarkably apolitical” stance. But it’s his biggest objection.
Burning Man and its affiliated organizations do quite a bit of good around the world – helping to rehabilitate New Orleans homes after Katrina, purchasing solar power arrays for schools, donating money to artists and to humanitarian missions – but Burning Man has never organized a protest march, never lobbied for a piece of legislation that didn’t directly impact its operations, and despite the devout wishes of many Burners it has never taken its anti-consumerism into the realm of anti-capitalism.
Some see this as a betrayal of principles: if Burning Man is serious about its values, why doesn’t it take the kid gloves off and become a full blown activist organization and movement? Why doesn’t it give up the big desert event? Anything less, they chide, is a refusal to live up to its values.
The assumption here, common among too many activists, is that everything can be judged on a scale of utilitarian value. Things are only valuable to the extent that they have a measurable impact that is in line with your goals. This is exactly why arts and music programs are often the first things cut in school budgets: what practical use do they have? This is why even liberal cities frequently put symphonies and theatres on the chopping block in tough times: Beethoven never got a poor family housed and Shakespeare doesn’t mitigate global warming.
Even the exposure to new values, new ideas, new ways of thinking, are often discarded precisely because if people think new thoughts they might not support the old ones with such fervor. “An ideology,” Jacques Barzun has written, “is a philosophy that has stopped accepting new evidence.” There is a quiet paranoia among the saviors of the world about discovering something new under the sun.
Burning Man, to this way of thinking, couldn’t possibly have any legitimate priorities that don’t have a pre-ordained, quantifiable, impact on the world.
I’m deeply disappointed to see such an argument coming out of the pages of Tikkun. Is that how they think of God? Is that how Fenton thinks of spirituality? As a definable means to an already known end? Are we supposed to be striving for The 7 Habits of Highly Spiritual People?
The notion is profoundly un-humanistic. People are driven, regardless of time and culture, to be creative in ways that serve no defined end. It is one of the few common denominators of the human species – and one we find vitally important for all its uselessness. Men and women have been just as willing to lay down their lives for poetry as for bread.
Why do it? Why carve massive pictures into the desert floor? Why write poetry when it might offend the emperor? Why devote a life to music when it doesn’t make money or save the environment? Why be experimental in style and subject and consciousness when the world has so much need?
Because beauty is valuable for its own sake – not just for what it can “do.” Because the experience of creativity, like the search for transcendence, requires extending beyond what you know, beyond instrumentality, into a realm of new experience. And we do this not because it is useful, though it often is: we do it because the act of aesthetic discovery itself is important.
As I’ve written before, Burners are not actually unified by a set of shared values whose definitions we agree on – most Burners have different interpretations of the 10 Principles and which are pre-eminent and how they are lived up to. What unites us is the fact that we “Burn” – we are united by what we do, not what we think about it.
It is that focus on “Burning” for its own sake that allows us to be open to diversity – anyone who likes doing what we do is welcome. It is that focus on “Burning” for its own sake that keeps us from becoming doctrinaire and holier than thou: everybody is free to think what they want, nobody has to drink the Kool-Aid. Burning Man doesn’t even serve Kool-Aid. (Granted some people brew their own and chug it …)
Fenton would have Burning Man exist as a rebuke to corporatism and empire – but even if the world were a just place, we would still want to have Burning Man. It is important beyond its usefulness: we do it for its own sake. Instead of reaffirming what we already believe, it offers us new vistas.
Like any spirituality worth having, like any art worth experiencing, Burning Man is more valuable as its own end than it is as a means to a goal. Burners, as individuals or groups, may challenge “American empire” or “transnational corporate rule,” and perhaps will even be inspired to do so by Burning Man. Many have been, discovering during a transcendent experience at Burning Man that what they really want to do is save the world. God bless ‘em.
But Burning Man is not an activist boot camp. It is an incubator for extraordinary experiences … and it doesn’t promise that they’ll be benign, or safe, or hue to any particular ideology. Its only promise is that something astonishing will happen.
It is that connection to the extraordinary that makes Burning Man valuable, and that makes it unsuited to a political movement. It does not ask that extraordinary experiences serve a purpose, let alone a doctrine. You can interpret them however you like. They may make you miserable.
Burners make great activists, but if Burning Man itself took up activism it would be reduced. Too many of Burning Man’s values are incompatible with the instrumentalism and utilitarianism required for activism. Burning Man is an engine of possibility, a connection to our collective unconscious, and if you bend it to any other purpose it will break.
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