Predicting Burning Man’s future … in headlines

Okay, not these headlines.

The title of Adam Rothstein’s essay about the Burning Man experience is “Burning Man is Grey.”

You and I might disagree, but it’s a clear reference to his contention in the text that the one thing everyone who goes to Burning Man has in common is the fact that, after a week in the dust, we’re all the same color.

At least, that was the case when the essay appeared in “The New Inquiry.”

When the essay – the exact same essay – appeared in Salon, it was called “Burning Man on its last legs.”

Salon also gave it a subhead:  “With rising mainstream knowledge of the event, it’s lost almost all of its creative and subversive spark.”

Thank God they told us!

To get that conclusion out of Rothstein’s piece, you have to read between the lines, in French, wearing Groucho glasses.  The idea is barely touched on, and certainly not argued.

What likely happened here:  the relevant section editor in Salon, seeing an essay about Burning Man that s/he wanted to re-title, quickly decided that – based on the fact that some guy on Facebook said he was so over Burning Man – the essay must support the idea that Burning Man is “on its last legs.”  Which is also controversial, and therefore will generate clicks.

Is it just me, or does journalism resemble performance art more every year?

Either way, this kind of thing isn’t at all uncommon.  Fact checkers having been hunted to extinction and no editor being able to keep up with a 24-hour news cycle, the news is increasingly presented to us as a series of short-hand gestures towards what people in newsrooms think likely happened while they were busy Tweeting.  This is why, among other things, reporters and pundits prefer to focus on “who won” presidential debates instead of delving into the substance of what was said;  and why it’s so easy for bullshit science to get into the mainstream press.  It’s all easier, and quicker, than paying attention.

One could go on about this at length:  complaining about the state of the media goes all the way back to Plato, who compared reading the Athens Weekly to “staring at the back wall of a dark cave, wearing chains, watching shadows pass back and forth.”  What’s relevant for Burning Man is that this kind of event happens most frequently with subjects that reporters and editors don’t understand … and Burning Man is very hard to understand.  This is why virtually every mainstream essay about Burning Man says “Burning Man is really hard to explain” somewhere in the first three paragraphs (in what is rapidly becoming the laziest trope in cultural reporting), and why Burning Man’s media team gets many inquiries from magazines every year asking “Who’s playing your festival, and how many stages are there?”

The point is:  The most likely consequence of “rising mainstream knowledge” of Burning Man isn’t going to be that it “loses all of its creative and subversive spark”;  it’s going be a lot more half-assed articles about Burning Man purporting to back-up whatever the lowest-hanging cultural meme is about Burning Man this month.   Usually these will be panicked and overhyped … because that’s what sells.

A cogent argument can be made that Burning Man is every bit as creatively vibrant as it has ever been;  l doubt we’ll be able to say the same about its press coverage in the coming year.

Brace yourself.

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)

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

9 Comments on “Predicting Burning Man’s future … in headlines

  • Jon Mitchell says:

    Such a funny move. I’m glad you wrote about it. I couldn’t be bothered, because I’m inundated with this kind of bullshit (except in tech) every day. But it needs to be said. As I said to one of my friends when this headline ran, Burning Man is to culture writing as Apple is to tech writing. It’s the ultimate troll topic.

    Just so we’re clear, not all Burning Man press coverage has to be bullshit, though. :)

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  • G says:

    “Is it just me, or does journalism resemble performance art more every year?”

    Love it !

    Sadly, IMHO, “resemble” should be supplanted by the word “becoming”, if not “has become”.

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  • durgy says:

    I like the response. A friend sent me the link for the Rothstein article a couple of days ago and I did not even click it because the premise of the headline seemed like ho-hum drivel that if read, I would reject as the subjective view of someone talking out their ass. Now, I guess, I gotta read it, but I will post my comment to your entertaining response raw and in the moment.

    As a real-time chronicler of the event in a ~daily newspaper created on playa, part of our participation with the Black Rock Beacon ends up being hyperbole and a bit of performance art. Busted! But unlike most newspapers and imported / tourist journalists we, in our own humble way, ‘get it’. While the excitement level may not eclipse a read of the Athens Weekly, we still have not found paper stock suitable for dual use for printing the news and cleaning bums in the porta potties. If we find that, we will truly be a triple threat.

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  • durgy says:

    So now I’ve read the Salon piece. I will be generous and call the author well-meaning if not under-informed and the editor penning the headline lazy.

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  • cindy says:

    it’s the standard response that criticism of the event can only be based on ignorance. cults do that too.

    burning man is part of the mainstream culture. it borrows the aesthetic of the happy anarchistic counter-culturalists. it’s a dress up party where the mainstream go an play around like they’re anarchists for a week.

    it no longer re-invents itself – the man burns on saturday night, or else!

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  • Rev says:

    Cindy –

    The playa will be, like, so sad not to have you there next year.



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  • cindy says:

    great, rev. why would you want me there – to remind you of your bullshit?

    BM is better off without people like me who know all too well what a circle jerk it all is. and how everyone (aside from those profiting most) and especially the infrastructure crews, are being exploited.

    but hey, don’t listen to me. volunteer some more – it gets you closure to the spiritual entity itself. you will gain total enlightenment, eventually.

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  • durgy says:

    Cindy – The underlying article was not particularly critical of the event, and the headline had very little to do with the article. You got that right? By ‘under-informed’ I can point to the original author’s lack of fact checking at least vis-a-vis BWS.

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  • simon of the playa says:

    i love lamp.

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