Burning Man should treat “Academia” the way it does “Commercialization”

Looked at in the proper light, the Ivory Tower is a terrifying art project.


The academics have come to Burning Man.  They’re through the gates.

They’ve always been here, actually:  but now they’re getting organized.  I was at the very first meeting of “Burning Nerds,” a Burning Man staff initiated gathering of academics who attend Burning Man.  I helped carry snacks for the party into Ashram Galactica, then stood in the corner and listened as meteorologists in leather skins and topless sociologists and dramaturges in fuzzy boots introduced themselves and discussed their research.

That was, I think, in 2010, and since then Burning Nerds has had more meetings in the desert and established a thriving email list.  This year, they’re planning their first theme camp.

And good for them.  The more participation, and kinds of participation, the better.  But … lemme skip to the end here.  I’ve reluctantly concluded that academia per see is very, very, bad for Burning Man – and that we’d be better off if Burners engage in a campaign of civil disobedience against it.

Not, let me emphasize, against the academics themselves.  We’re all welcome at Burning Man, and the work they do just as legitimate as whatever other crazy project someone wants to put in the middle of the desert.  I read all of their studies avidly, which is more attention than I pay to your theme camp.

But while any given piece of individual research is likely harmless, the project of academia itself is kryptonite to the spirit of Burning Man.  Indeed, a case can be made that academia as an institution stands firmly opposed to the 10 Principles.  Outside of “prison,” if there was ever a practice that contradicted “immediacy,” “radical acceptance,” and “radical self-expression” it is academia.  This is true in theory, and especially in practice.

So much in the way bankers are welcome to attend Burning Man but we try to keep commercialization out, I think we’d be well advised to welcome academics but do our best to frustrate “academia” every chance we get.

Above all, we must not let academia define our culture on its terms.  We should be willing, and eager, to confuse, befuddle, and overwhelm the academic attempt to define Burning Man at every stage …  from strenuously  critiquing published accounts to refusing to respect data-gathering processes … and under no circumstances take academic studies too seriously.


I’ve been wondering if this was true ever since that first meeting of the Burning Nerds, but the concerns became conclusive after being invited to a presentation at Burning Man Headquarters next week by the organizers of “The Burning Mind Project” – an organization of educators who are trying to find ways to bring The 10 Principles into the classroom.

I have no idea why we would want to do that, so I plan to attend and expect I’ll learn something.  They could be doing excellent work.  But when I went to Burning Mind’s website and read about their understanding of Burning Man, I was horrified.

As part of their work to better understand the 10 Principles they have dissected them, dividing them into 5 “foundational principles” – the most important – and 5 “operational principles” that exist only because you have the first five.  “Civic Responsibility,” “Gifting,” and “Participation” are foundational – while “Radical Self-Expression,” “Radical Inclusion,” and “Leave No Trace” are operational.

We’re already completely outside of my understanding of Burning Man – let alone my experience of it – but it gets worse.  The primary purpose of the 10 Principles, they suggest, is the continued existence and support of the community as a whole.  To quote:  “In order to be a member of a burner community, one must make the health of the community one’s top priority.”

Not only do I have grave concerns about this … I think that if Burning Man’s first rule is “submit,” then a perfectly rational first response is “fuck you” … but it flies in the face of the historically strong libertarian component that existed since Burning Man’s formative years.  The early burns were not a group of politically progressive hippies going out to the desert to make a better community.  They were (among other things) a group of free spirits who didn’t like being told what to do by an over-regulating San Francisco government, which is why they went to a desert where there would be fewer communities to respect, not more.  Sure we’ve gotten rid of the guns and added speed limits since then, but when the people at the gate say “Welcome Home,” they don’t mean “if you’ve done your chores and your homework.”

What does Burning Mind say that this hypothetically overarching commitment to community means for the other 10 principles?  Well, “Radical Inclusion” is described by Burning Mind this way:  “Everyone is welcome to participate, given that they are committed to the foundational principles.”

What’s “radical” about that?  Doesn’t the Catholic Church work the same way?  Surely one’s inclusion can only be “radical” if it extends to people who disagree with you.

The onus is on us to include “the other,” not on “the other” to do what it takes to be included.  Otherwise “radical inclusion” is nothing but a hip way of saying that our conformity is better than yours.

“Radical self-expression” is described this way:  “This principle creates a safe space for people to take risks and be creative.”  That’s not only wrong, it’s nonsensical.  You can’t take risks in a safe space.  Taking risks is by definition unsafe.  Let’s be clear:  if your radical self-expression is safe, you’re doing it wrong.

More to the point, Burning Man is not a safe space.  It says on the ticket that you might die.  Burning Man is not benign.  The odds are high that someone will fuck with you.  Grade-A bastards are frequently celebrated as heroes out in the desert.  I, personally, may insult you through a megaphone.  One of my best experiences at Burning Man was provoking a war – and I don’t feel less a Burner for it.

Take all that away and what have you got?  A picnic.

No, what makes Burning Man such a great place to take risks is that everyone is doing it – which doesn’t make it safe at all (someone’s radical self-expression may hit you where it hurts), but which does make it easier.  It’s not “safe” to take risks, it’s“easy” to take risks.  We’ve taken your risks and lubricated them.

There’s a lot more Burning Minds has proposed that I disagree with, but this gives you the idea.

And my point isn’t that they’re wrong and I’m right.  Although … sure.

And the point isn’t that Burning Mind is a bad project (SPOILER ALERT:  I compliment them later).

The point is that what they’re doing is a good example of the academic project, and why it’s so dangerous.  Academia kills what it loves.


Academia tries to establish an empirical model of a phenomenon that limits what is possible in order to better define it, while Burning Man as a lived experience tries to encourage an infinite diversity of possibility.

Thus academics who come to Burning Man because they love the lived experience of infinite possibilities all too often try to develop scholarly models of Burning Man that, if taken seriously, destroy new possibilities.  Much in the same way that over-explaining a joke kills the humor, attempts to model Burning Man as anything other than a lived experience kills what makes it worth trudging out to the desert with 20 gallons of water and a shower contraption that doesn’t work when it’s windy in the first place.

Clearly defining “radical self-expression” means you get less of it, not more, because suddenly people are only expressing themselves the way they’ve been told to.  Clearly defining “immediacy” means that now you need to measure your immediate experience against a definition of immediacy to see if you’re doing it right – which is self defeating.  Clearly defining “radical inclusion” is an excuse to figure out who you can exclude.

For individuals to engage with the 10 Principle directly in their lives (“Participation,” “Immediacy”) someone can’t have already done the thinking for them.  The idea of “Gifting” should inspire Burners to imagine experiences they could offer that no one else can, rather than to pick one from column A and one from column B of officially accepted practices.  The 10 Principles must be struggled with to be effective.

A certain level of ambiguity is healthy for Burning Man.  A certain level of uncertainty, even confusion, is essential.  The academic quest to put a definitive label on something is in direct contrast to what makes Burning Man worth doing in the first place.  Academia is trying to reinforce the envelope that Burning Man is trying to push.

There are ways of talking about Burning Man that don’t do that:  we do it every day with each other.  And certainly there is no problem with someone deciding what the 10 Principles, or the burning of the Man, or any other part of this rigmarole, mean for themselves:  the whole point of preserving ambiguity is that it leaves you the freedom to do that.  And then to change your mind.

There are even ways of addressing this issue in academic research that would probably work well for us:  phenomenological and qualitative methods, for example, are at least in the ballpark.  But such things are not widely respected among mainstream academics precisely because they are concerned with a lived, subjective, experience – which is not replicable.  Doing that kind of research doesn’t get you invited to the right conferences.

The best thing we can do about it is not to force the academics to talk about us the way we want  (trying to do that goes against … well … everything) but to do the job ourselves (“self-reliance”), and do it right.  To come up with a better alternative that they will be inspired to follow.

Perhaps even to imagine a better version of academia, the way we do the rest of the world.

Which, now that I mention it, is what the Burning Mind Project is trying to do.  So maybe they’re ahead of me on this issue after all.  If so, I applaud their efforts.  But it would be a tragedy if, in the effort to make academia more like Burning Man, we also made Burning Man more like academia.

As academic interest in Burning Man picks up, this gets more and more likely. Burning Man has scores of volunteers (I’m one) who help to keep it from becoming commercialized;  it has an intellectual property team;  it has lawyers.

Right now no one’s on the front lines to keep it from becoming academicized.  Unless we decide to do it ourselves.

We need to find ways of talking about Burning Man academically that open possibilities rather than limiting them.  The right question – for the 10 Principles or anything else about Burning Man – is not “what does this mean?” which is the beginning of doctrine, but “how can I use this to do something amazing?” which is the beginning of new frontiers.  Talking about ourselves this way to academics is a start.

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

UPDATE:  The founders of The Burning Mind Project have responded here and here.  I couldn’t have asked for a more receptive receptive response.  It’s kind of amazing to see that happen on the internet.

My post following  their presentation at Burning Man headquarters in San Francisco is here.

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

101 Comments on “Burning Man should treat “Academia” the way it does “Commercialization”

  • If you want to be in opposition to academics at Burning Man I would be wary of the idea that their methodologies and results could be harmful to your view of the playa way of life.

    There is a much simpler way to express it. These are professional academics. As such, they are practicing their default world trade at Burning Man if they come to it to study it. If you wish to object to something that might be it.

    Of course, that’s true of all BMOrg staff, the contractors, and the paid staff that some camps have.

    But the closest analogy is that they are the media, but they write for a specific academic audience. And while Burning Man does try to spin the media (with some success) by making them realize they must participate rather than just reporting, I’ve never been thrilled with that program, and I can’t say I would be thrilled with a similar program against academics.

    So in the end, I don’t see this screed as much different from other justifications for chilling speech. There’s always (well, almost always) a nicely argued case for why that particular type of speech will be harmful to the community. Sometimes this is argued because the speech is wrong, sometimes because it is correct!

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  • Caveat Magister says:


    I think your comparison of academics to media is an interesting one, and worth considering.

    But I’m not calling for less speech: I’m calling for more of it.

    As I specifically state:

    “The best thing we can do about it is not to force the academics to talk about us the way we want (trying to do that goes against … well … everything) but to do the job ourselves (“self-reliance”), and do it right. To come up with a better alternative that they will be inspired to follow.”

    Saying that’s “chilling speech” is like saying I’m “chilling mouse traps” because I want to build a better one. Or that I’m “chilling speech” if I don’t think the political parties are representing my interests well, and so I want to start a new one.

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  • Some Seeing Eye says:

    We would not know about cargo cults without the qualitative academic research of anthropologists. Those tools are used today in design thinking. The event would benefit from continual design evolution using those tools. If someone wants their experience to include an academic embrace of Burningman that is their expression. I can’t imagine it will ever be an percevable fraction of attendees.

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  • Caveat Magister says:

    @Some Seeing

    I’m not arguing against the value of academia in general. It’s vital, for example, that bridges be built up to spec; precision in history is essential to know what really happened; laws need to be clearly defined to avoid exploitable ambiguity.

    Nor do I say academic projects at Burning Man aren’t allowable – on the contrary, I explicitly say they’re legitimate.

    But the academic project as a whole is meant to build the walls Burning Man tries to knock down – and this should be acknowledged and addressed.

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  • You are, of course, entitled to your views. However, as a Burning Man academic, I see this concluding phrase is open to critique: “But the academic project as a whole is meant to build the walls Burning Man tries to knock down – and this should be acknowledged and addressed.” How is taking a stand against academic explorations of Burning Man, and thus self-limiting our understanding of ourselves, tribes, festivals, liminality, secondary institutions, etc., as well as consideration of possible shortcomings, weaknesses, and inconsistencies in Burning Man moving us forward exactly?

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  • jimmytwotone says:

    Who wants to eat my ass? I keep it clean. I’m available. Email me: jimmy2tone@yahoo.com

    I also watch a lot of TED videos, they’re awesome! I’m spiritual but not religious, FYI.

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  • Admiral Fiesta says:

    “How is taking a stand against academic explorations of Burning Man, and thus self-limiting our understanding of ourselves, tribes, festivals, liminality, secondary institutions, etc., as well as consideration of possible shortcomings, weaknesses, and inconsistencies in Burning Man moving us forward exactly?”

    I think it comes down to (if I may bastardize some physics) “the act of observing changing the observed”. Academia seeks to codify a taxonomic view of the world in order to understand it. This is an admirable pursuit, but it is anathema to culture jammers who constantly seek to push Burning Man to be something it wasn’t the year before. I do not find taking a stand against academic exploration of Burning Man self-limiting in any way; rather, I take it as a challenge to “give those academics something to talk about”, to add a new significant variable to their research, not just confounding noise.

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  • Stephanie Wood says:

    (re-posted from the Burning Nerds facebook page)
    Academics is an art form. In the way a painter goes to burning man and is inpired to paint, in the way a musician goes and is inspired to play, in the way dancers go and dance…an academic goes and asks, Why? This is beautiful, this is our art. Indeed, just like other artists we are used to this type of critisism, however we usually don’t expect it from our burner brethren. To me this article seems to embode a certain type of fear, the same fear I usually expect from those who have closed their mind to possibilities. I refuse to believe my art is a threat. I am saddened to think others would believe it to be so.

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  • Check out the thread on the Burning Nerds Facebook page for more comments/thoughts:

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  • ted says:

    Honestly, I think your argument doesn’t make any sense. You see a group of academics studying burning man and ostensibly you think this is a bad idea (though from the beginning of the article it seems more like you just think they’re doing it wrong — you spend the first several paragraphs making counterpoints to their points *before* decrying the whole thing). Okay. So what? It’s art you don’t like. That’s not going to harm anyone or anything. Just ignore it if you don’t like it instead of trying to cut off an entire group’s creative expression.

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  • Lukedias says:

    I’ve always thought about academia as being a body of people who like to observe the world and make sense of it through experimentation, modeling, insightful comments, and logical arguments. Often times this group will write about their thoughts so that others may join the conversation. In that sense, Caveat, you are one of my favorite Burning Man Academics :)

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  • Eric says:

    “I read all of their studies avidly, which is more attention than I pay to your theme camp.”

    You read *all* of *their* studies? Whose studies? All academic studies? You sound ridiculous, and have no idea what you’re talking about w.r.t. academia.

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  • dirtwheel says:

    Not too long ago a touring band, The Dreadful Gets, had artists, poets, business men, writers, sculptures, cooks that would sit, record, edit and transfer the music onto cassettes and then into cases and then back into people lives, so they could be analyzed and dissected and then duplicated again for later. Getting a real sense for what anyone might think was trying to be relayed. The covers we’re articulate and detailed, sound quality crisp and ultra clear and for a while much wanted and sot after. Somehow though, it felt as though they were missing out on all the immediate fun. Maybe later trying to relive a moment. I don’t think those tapes diffused any of the spirit or music then or now. I just don’t know if those tapes get played that much any more. We can try to put this in a box and categorize it, organize it, subdivide it, spell it out in detail. Out there in the desert, I don’t think many people are worried about academics. Just like no one was worried if the guy down front had the record button on or not. Academics is just another way of being creative and trying to make sense of the magic for that group. Their way of connecting. Not everything should have a magnifying glass on it or always be spelled out. Tons of stuff should, ‘just be’. As soon as you get to the playa ‘pencils down’. Now comes the time to see if you can be present enough to find and make the magic after all the work on the academics has been done the other 50 weeks. I’m not sure academics could destroy this. It’s just a service that was needed at the time, as a creative outlet for some. Maybe the academics should write more about the art of blowing shit up, that might help. Or maybe we should just have one single principle and call it good. Everyone should be able to do what they want in order for this thing to work.

    Principle #1: Everyone in this communal effort, should immediately participate and rely on his or her inner resources when gifting their radical self-expression in a most decommodified way, making sure they civicley leave no trace.

    Kumbh Mela

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  • joe says:

    From my perspective an academic observation/analysis of Burning Man really only addresses a portion of this creative equation. The logical/rational side. There are other aspects of Burning Man that can be much more difficult to quantify and explain. Like say the spiritual or emotional sides. For example, creating a war does not really make much rational sense. However, was it fun? Sounds like it was a lot of fun for a lot of people. Did the experience affect some individuals in an inexplicable yet slightly profound way? Sounds like it may have. Some things are better felt/experienced than described. Words will always fall short for these things and Burning Man is one of them. Even my weak attempt at trying to explain my point falls short. So let them try and let them have fun trying but when they reach the gate, like Dirtwheel says above, “Pencils down! The test is over.” Time to experience and feel.

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  • Don says:

    Okay so let me get this straight. First you complain that burning man has no literary culture… then have a delightful discussion about vandalism… then through “ We should be willing, and eager, to confuse, befuddle, and overwhelm the academic attempt to define Burning Man at every stage” you want to vandalize the one form of literary expression that you’ve found. I love your posts, but sometimes you confuse me.

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  • RevDr Shamus says:


    I’m having a hard time understanding and/or validating as true some of your assertions in the above article and would very much appreciate some clarification as to what your intent was.

    .. Outside of “prison,” if there was ever a practice that contradicted “immediacy,” “radical acceptance,” and “radical self-expression” it is academia. This is true in theory, and especially in practice ..

    How is this true in theory and/or practice? Academia, in my experience, goes out of its way to protect ideas that are new, and may be radical — that’s the point of the tenure system. Isn’t tenure exactly what you defined radical self expression as, giving people freedom to take risks and be creative in relative safety? There are many institutions in place, such as peer review, that might make the “immediacy” argument, but I’m not sure about acceptance or self-expression being a complete contradiction. It sounds like a bit of a stretch to me.


    … phenomenological and qualitative methods, for example, …

    What is a phenomenological method? I took several philosophy classes involving phenomenology (including one entitled “Phenomenology”), and didn’t know there was a method associated with it. Do you mean phenomenography, which is essentially, subjective ontological empiricism?

    … the academic quest to put a definitive label on something is in direct contrast to what makes Burning Man worth doing in the first place. …

    While I agree this is the case for the natural sciences, I do not believe the liberal arts, social sciences and fine arts fit into this category. For example, the first thing I learned in pre-law was “The Color of the Law is Grey.” Meaning, no matter what, there are no solid labels, just various understandings and interpretations stitched together in an amalgam-like fashion on an ad-hoc basis. The same is true for my social science classes — sure, they’re trying to study it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re trying to put all these labels on it. It could just be a greater part of a countercultural phenomenon worth studying at large to prognosticate on the future of American politics.

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  • JV says:

    Ultimately, Burning Man is just another observable phenomenon, as much as we may like to think it exists outside of that kind of thing. As the event grows and becomes mainstream knowledge, academic studies of it are inevitable and academic communities within the greater Burning Man community are logical extensions of that. I welcome it. For one, it’s so easy to parody. For third, who cares?

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  • smoop says:

    Burning Man is an event like no other, and Burners are a very talented and intelligent group of people. Can you blame them for trying to wrap their heads around the Event, its culture, its Principles, its reason for existence and its success? For wanting to understand its essence, what makes it so beautiful, and how to take aspects of it and infuse them into the default world? Everyone does this; academics just take their thoughts one step further and make them public.

    Our Principles are the first thing that unite us, and we stand proudly by them. Isn’t it a wonderful thing to see these noble beliefs implemented in other society? Why are you upset that the rest of the world wants to learn from Burning Man? It is too inspiring for people not to attempt to understand it.

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  • Stu Sands says:

    I’m with you, Caveat. I make it a point to participate in as many academic inquiries regarding Burning Man as I can, and give false responses to every question. It’s my duty. Much like the Samoans did to M. Mead.
    Also, I disagree that the academic pursuits are an art form. Of course, this opens up a huge discussion with no hard conclusion, but it strikes me that this stems from everyone wanting to be an “artist”. When everything is an art, then art is meaningless. It’s great to be an academic and that makes our world considerably richer, but I don’t believe it’s an art. If you wanna be an artist, then make art…Burning Man is the perfect place to put anything out there. But my car mechanic is not an artist, my banker is not an artist, and my professor is not an artist, however skilled and great they may be.

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  • Chris says:

    I think your argument needs to leave some room for a new emergent more situated/embedded/entangled/action-oriented pragmatic academic (as well as new ideas of what academia can mean). While I think some of your arguments can be raised against the ideas of the traditional academic, such as the anthropologist or philosopher who only observes from an external perspective, many of the more radical thinkers throughout history have also led active political lives. Speaking personally, my experiences at Burningman and other festivals (as a participant first and foremost) were the primary reason I decided to go to graduate school. I am currently studying Aesthetics and Politics at CalArts, where I am researching how we can try to make festivals more meaningful and (hopefully) positively transformative experiences. That being said, I think your article could benefit from a few clarifications. (1) a communitarian perspective does not necessarily imply a submissive attitude. In this case the health of the community relies on radical expression and boldness, among MANY other things, which also includes a certain spirit of proactive connection and generosity. (2) “safe” is such an ambiguous term, and there is a large margin between “safe” and “not dangerous.” While BurningMan may never be “safe” (hopefully especially for preconceived ideas), we should think about how we want it o be “dangerous.”I think we can all support the idea of a community that is both challenging and supportive, while refraining from being openly and explicitly threatening, harmful or malicious. There’s no way such a beautiful and lasting community could grow out of such harsh conditions if BM was only about radical individual expression. I cannot speak for others, but the reason I am studying events like BM is partly to understand how we can reshape environments off-playa to better promote similar ideas of radical communal exploration and co-creativity.

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  • Sparky says:

    The unexamined life is not worth living. ~ Socrates

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  • zombiegirl says:

    As with any and all attempts to constrain freedom of thought and choice – from opposition to gay marriage to censorship in school curricula – Caveat’s posting and a few of the replies raise this question for me: “Why are you spending your energy, intellectual and otherwise, building a case against the choices of others?” It is particularly ironic to reference the libertarian roots of BM as a justification for criticizing how other Burners choose to organize, engage and otherwise express themselves.

    The parallel you draw with bankers and commercialization of BM is weak unless you imagine academic burners seek to impose university culture on the playa. My own experience of these folks is that they are bringing their particular gifts to the playa and insinuating some of the BM culture into academic research and education, which could have a truly subversive effect on one of the most change resistent modern citadels of power and privilege.

    I say more power to them, but really, that is not the point.

    Is is not surprising that the some of what Burning Nerd academics and educators ponder is as you say “outside” your understanding and experience of BM. Unless you imagine that your experience represents playa orthodoxy I would expect that lots and lots of what goes on is outside your experience and understanding. Isn’t that the point of radical self expression and acceptance?

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  • Caveat Magister says:


    Nobody’s attempting to constrain freedom of thought and choice. I wrote:

    “We’re all welcome at Burning Man, and the work they do is just as legitimate as whatever other crazy project someone wants to put in the middle of the desert.”


    “The best thing we can do about it is not to force the academics to talk about us the way we want (trying to do that goes against … well … everything) but to do the job ourselves (“self-reliance”), and do it right.”

    How does this constrain freedom of thought and choice? It doesn’t. Everybody is welcome to think and choose whatever they like.

    A number of commenters seem to be confusing “academia” with “critical thinking.” They’re not the same. Critical thinking is something anyone can do, right now, without restraint, credential, or baggage and biases of any kind. You don’t need a degree, textbook, or teacher.

    “Academia,” however, is a cultural institution with enormous baggage: it has rules and biases regarding who can say what, when, and how. It has rules about what constitutes evidence and proof; it makes assumptions about what kind of findings are relevant (Yes, even the humanities.) It is a lens through which the world is to be understood in a certain way. There are rebels in Academia, of course, and counter-movements, but they’re outliers. Often for good reason.

    I am exactly saying that academia (not “individual academics” but “academia”) can’t help but try to impose its biases upon Burning Man. The dominant academic model is for the credentialed expert to study a subject, for the subject to passively accept being studied, and finally for the credentialed expert to publish an authoritative report that conforms to academic biases in approach and methodology.

    They’re free to do that, of course. But why do we have to sit still for it? Why do we have to passively accept being studied that way?

    We don’t, and I’m saying that to do so is in fact bad for us, because academic biases in approach and methodology run counter to the 10 Principles and Burning Man as a lived experience.

    I’m not sure how you get a defense of orthodoxy from a critique of academia. I want – and explicitly said I want – everyone to struggle with the 10 Principles for themselves.

    “For individuals to engage with the 10 Principle directly in their lives someone can’t have already done the thinking for them.”

    That’s as far from creating an orthodoxy, or saying everybody has to do things my way, as you can get.

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  • buddhachica says:

    “The unlived life in not worth examining.” – Sheldon Kopp

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  • Peace says:

    Caveat says

    ‘“Academia,” however, is a cultural institution with enormous baggage: it has rules and biases regarding who can say what, when, and how. It has rules about what constitutes evidence and proof; it makes assumptions about what kind of findings are relevant (Yes, even the humanities.) It is a lens through which the world is to be understood in a certain way. There are rebels in Academia, of course, and counter-movements, but they’re outliers. Often for good reason.’

    This is just not true. I’ve worked alongside academics for 20 years. They often drive the institutions they work for crazy because they are free thinkers. I’m sure that is even more true of those who attend Burning Man. Academics are reporters. We know what we know about history because of academics. One of my first thoughts when I went to Burning Man for the first time was “I hope some anthropologists are studying this”. To be able to observe a community being formed and watch it’s evolution in unbelievably valuble as we try to figure out how to save this world before it goes furthur over the edge. But my experience of academics is they practice Star Fleets prime directive: Observe, but don’t interfear with natural evolution. The academic work on Burning man would be useless if the infulence they have on the event effects the nature of the event.

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  • Turtle Dove (Stephanie Wood) says:

    @ Peace. Woah. Star Fleet prime directive! Nice! And well put.

    @ Caveat. “I am exactly saying that academia (not “individual academics” but “academia”) can’t help but try to impose its biases upon Burning Man. The dominant academic model is for the credentialed expert to study a subject, for the subject to passively accept being studied, and finally for the credentialed expert to publish an authoritative report that conforms to academic biases in approach and methodology.”

    So you don’t like the style of the dominant academic model. I am starting to see what you are getting at. I read something awhile back (possibly on e-playa or a mailing list) by an Academic of sorts who was studying burning man and treated it like a Safari….spent a couple of days observing and not participating…was unable to rely on herself and instead spent big money to stay with a “all included camp” of sorts. She had a tough time to say the least…This kind of thing does get to me. I like to think the principles are important to everyone who attends the event (heck, I wrote an academic paper ABOUT the principles ;-))…but it doesn’t mean they are. However I doubt these kinds of things can be reigned in much….but I also don’t consider them much of a threat to our state of being at burning man. Perhaps I am missing something?

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  • reidflys says:

    This article made me sad.

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  • jamesun says:

    academia is an institution of curiosity. quantitative/qualitative social science research causes no harm, and the growth of academic studies about burning man reflects individual intentions to interpret commonalities/other factors in this event :)

    good researchers try and avoid imposing unjust perspectives. while some research about the burn inevitably is within bullshit ivory tower perspectives, consider it as a translation into a different language. great research from extremely curious academic professionals around the world is really admirable- whether in the Amazon, Himalayas, Middle East refugee camps, Haiti, the Congo, etc. Many of these researchers have pure intentions of documenting other ways of living for human beings so that such knowledge can be incorporating into our society- a society that definitely needs to change before we nearly collapse (see: 2012 hottest year ever; hurricane sandy went left; see level rising 1 meter; cultural extinction; oil extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon; Peruvian mining, etc.).

    The people who try and conduct academic research at burning man likely include a few of the social scientists that are VERY curious about human beings can evolve to become a better global society, and burning man is a very important case study (despite the faux fur and aesthetic fire). What fucking right do you have to shit on someone’s curiosity?

    also, who the fuck are you to rabble rouse negativity? “we should oppose” are words that should never be said.

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  • “If your radical self-expression is safe, you’re doing it wrong.”

    You sure? That’s awfully academic of you.

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  • Souris says:

    You have little to no understanding of academia, and despite what you seem to think, your experience of Burning Man is not the only legitimate one. Somehow I think that if someone were to write a polemic suggesting other burners try to thwart your self-expression and projects at Burning Man, you might have a problem with it.

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  • What a fantastic discussion! Morgan and I wanted to share some of our thoughts on this as well. We posted to the Burning Mind blog at http://www.burningmindproject.org/2013/03/04/at-the-gates/ and http://www.burningmindproject.org/2013/03/04/academic-civil-disobedience/ — looking forward to meeting some of you Wednesday night.


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  • decker says:

    This thread makes me sad. Lowlights:

    Paisley Circus:
    “If your radical self-expression is safe, you’re doing it wrong.”
    You sure? That’s awfully academic of you.

    No, it’s self-expressive, assertive, and completely un-backed-up by research or evidence: the opposite of academic. If it had been academic, Caveat would have run a case-study of a cross-section of the population to ascertain what “self-expression” meant across the spectrum, reduced those observations to easily analyzed trends and numbers, and then published a paper focusing on the experience of the “average burner”. And then awaited a peer review that sanded off the rough edges and motivated him to publish a follow-up that acknowledged some short-comings in the original while including new observations from the following year’s festival. It’s that sort of academic reductionism of identity that CM is countering.

    burning man is a very important case study (despite the faux fur and aesthetic fire).

    This is exactly the sort of academic bullshit CM is warning against. Burning Man isn’t without the faux fur and aesthetic fire. Academics that try to understand it as an anthropological case study by simplifying out the less typical expressions of self (or, in your example, the most prevalent) are missing the intrinsic “it-ness” that makes TTITD something other. “It” is everything that happens out there. This is why CM encourages engaging in and misdirecting the academic investigations. Simplification and analysis are anathema to the actual experience of liminal chaos.

    also, who the fuck are you to rabble rouse negativity? “we should oppose” are words that should never be said.

    Really? What other words “should” never be said? “Should” I oppose your dictation of my vocabulary or is that prohibited as well? “Should” a ban on rabble rousing negativity be added to the 10 principles?
    CM’s phrase is a call to arms in defense of identity; yours is a restriction on speech and action.

    This is just not true. I’ve worked alongside academics for 20 years. They often drive the institutions they work for crazy because they are free thinkers.

    I tried being an academic once. The conformity and groupthink that I ran into at every corner set me straight pretty quickly. Maybe your besties are the outliers, or maybe you live in Berkeley, or maybe you have a different understanding of “Academia” from what CM is describing, but Academia as a whole is the epitome of slow-changing conservatism. Research looks for change. When it finds it, it necessarily proves Academia’s prior understanding to be wrong. Consequently (and predictably) Academia tends to resist it wholeheartedly. The classic example: Timothy Leary and Harvard.

    And, while I admire Star Fleet’s Prime Directive in other academic contexts, the 9th Principle is “Participation”. So, not to put too fine a point on it, if you’re observing without interfering, you’re doing it wrong. Which seems to me to be CM’s central point.

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  • Disco Mike says:

    This is the most unbelievable stupid thing I have ever heard and speaks volumes about how little the author must have tangibly contributed to the work that makes burning man happen.

    Thats great that you think a whole city in the desert comes up like magic, but the fact is science, technology, and most notably the world from whence the academics came has made every last thing in that paradise possible. Every large scale art project, and tiny mounted LED; every mutated vehicle and feat of structural engineering and creative architecture was made available to you by the world the academics spent the last 3500 years creating.

    This is literally the most blasphemous article I’ve ever read. Keep academia out? If there’s one thing in the real world that it is most intrinsically, by its very definition, similar to black rock city it is the notion of university.

    “Research looks for change. When it finds it, it necessarily proves Academia’s prior understanding to be wrong. Consequently (and predictably) Academia tends to resist it wholeheartedly.”

    WHAT?? Are you JOKING? Are you seriously out of your fucking mind? Academia is the most thirsty-for-discovery organization of people on the planet and the academic world has [in many cases singlehandedly] pushed forward and provided defense and validation for new ways of thinking to the other branches of society including politics and social issues.

    Its just so insensitive to the very life blood of the SAME DAMN TRADITION that both put a man on the moon AND put that giant metal panda bear or whatever the fuck in front of you for entertainment somewhere out near Reno, NV.

    Right now, there is no one on the planet I hate more than the author of this article.

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  • Carbon Buildup says:

    A major problem with Academia trying to understand Burning Man is that if they ‘succeed’ then the event will be ‘defined’ and ‘categorized.’ THAT goes against what Burners really want of this event. I have this trouble too with my work. I’m a professional hydrologist, and I became one primarily because I love hanging around streams. Unfortunately, hanging around streams for the sake of analyzing them and classifying them ruins some of the enjoyment of the scene. In order to enjoy streams I have to not think of them consciously. If Academics somehow come to a conclusion about what Burning Man is, then all of us Burners will simply be playing out their definition, at least in the minds of whoever believes their studies.

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  • Coyote says:

    Burning Man was better last year, before all of the academics got there.

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  • warner blake says:

    “I, personally, may insult you through a megaphone.”

    Insulting behavior with a megaphone was noted in my first trip to the playa last year and it’s sad to me that this peculiar, sophomoric practice is mentioned by the writer in a positive, even boastful context. Whoa, let me off the bus.

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  • C says:

    Jimmytwotone, I will gladly eat your ass. Stop by Stiffy Lube or whatever they’re calling it this year.

    As for the rest of this, well I agree that Academics want to try to define burning man, and we should let them! They’ll never succeed. This beast evolves too quickly. It is something different every moment and every year. So let’s support them in their intellectual circle jerk and be sure to positively reinforce them by complimenting how big and juicy their brains are. And for those brave few who finally break free of their mental prisons and decide to participate by stumbling out of Stuffy Lube and into Stiffy Lube, I’ll be waiting.

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  • C says:

    P.S. – Carbon – nobody reads their bullshit except for other people writing bullshit. It is an echo chamber. Everyone else is out making it, experiencing it, living it, breathing it, and sweating it out of their pores. If they want to be passive critical spectators, that’s cool. I’m an exhibitionist.

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  • Consider the possibility that allowing “academics” to do their thing at Burning Man is a way of exporting BM concepts out to the academic world which could use them. The commercialism issue is one thing. Trying to suppress intellectual engagement within Burning Man is another. It is insular and elitist.

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  • Miss Tiffany Lee Brown, Incorporated says:

    Yeah, thinking about creative stuff can sometimes squish the creative urge. Writing about it can, too. But it’s kind of no big fucking deal unless you’re dealing with a creative world that *relies on* poncy overanalyzing in order for its practitioners to function.

    I submit that much of The Official Art World, Fancypants Literary Scene, and Elevatedly Fine Performing Arts is subject to that description in the USA. Makers/writers who wish to work full time at their making and writing usually have to scramble for cash. Many of them teach, become academics, learn the right language and approaches in order to be successful grant writers. Others organize nonprofits that must, alas, also use those approaches to get a damned grant or get a rich person or corporation to help them put on shows or publish a high quality magazine or book. Some mix these Fine Artsy activities with media work, such as reviewing—whether for publications targeted at a general readership (say, a paragraph review of a dance performance for the local alt-weekly), popular magazines like Artforum, or stick-up-the-butt academic journals that don’t even have the decency to pay their writers.

    So you end up working part-time as an artist, part-time as a nonprofit arts organizer helping other artists get their work out in the world, and part-time as a person who talks and writes about artstuff. It’s a problem because the US is so inhospitable to funding large numbers of artists and writers, especially ones who do unusual work. All those thinky thoughts required for the grants and journals and blathering at conferences can sour your original work and lead you to pretty stupid places. And when you teach, the temptation to pass all that onto your students is high, because they want to be “successful” in some way, and you know that just letting them noodle in their studios for two years and throwing an MFA at them isn’t going to help them survive out in the real world.

    I happen to know all this because I’ve lived it and I am it and I’ve been surrounded by people who’re also in it and doing it. It’s been a huge struggle. For many contemporary artists in the US, even one who doesn’t do a BFA or MFA degree, this process of wrestling the angels and demons of markets/money and academics/theorystuff has become part of the artistic process itself. I feel like I’ve gotten through it alive and healthy and creative and it’s all good, but fuck me, did these conflicts and struggles suck up a lot of my time. And they’ll probably be back later.

    So if someone’s complaining about the influence of academia on the art world at large? I fret. I think they might be right, and I wonder what we can all do about it.

    I’m not worried about the influence of academia on Burning Man, because Burning Man is not the general art world. Academic fanciness isn’t the currency on the Playa. You can’t buy a coffee at Center Camp with it or trade it for a blowjob, fifth of whiskey, or tarot reading. Ninety-nine point nine nine nine etcetera percent of Black Rock City residents don’t need academia to justify their participation. Akademikspeak is not paying their way.

    Subjecting interesting cultural phenomena to studies and research and theories and self-important serious blathertalk is actually kinda fun sometimes. It’s also not much different from a non-academic subjecting interesting cultural phenomena to blogging and diarizing and opining wisely about What Burning Man Really Is. The question is: will it truly hurt the heart of Burning Man? I’m thinking, nah.

    Radical self-expression can mean lighting yourself on fire and running headfirst into a 17,000-ton bowl of jello under a full moon. It can mean coming up with a flowchart of principles and sub-principles and sub-sub-principles. Or, ya know, writing a blog post.

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  • oh, and i think Coyote has it pretty well summed up: “Burning Man was better last year, before all of the academics got there.” snicker, snicker.

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  • J Edgar Groover says:

    Fuck you Caveat. Burning man is academia. If it weren’t rich schooled people of leisure there wouldnt even be a fuckin burn. See how many people go if you take away the so called “academics”

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  • I agree with Richard Feynman (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRmbwczTC6E). The beauty of a flower is not lessened by a scientific understanding of how it grew, the molecules it is composed of, or why it is pink. Understanding a flower only gives us a greater appreciation of its beauty because we can know so much more about the flower.

    That is how I see academia. It is an open minded tool for increasing our understanding and, from this understanding, we can learn more about the beauty of the world around us. Academic study of burning man will not put limits on what burning man is, it can only look at burning man and help us gain a greater appreciation for its uniqueness.

    Academia thrives on ambiguity, confusion, and complexity. Making Burning Man the perfect subject of study. And if you wish to try to confound academics by acting strangely, lying in studies, or general civil disobedience you will not defeat them, you will simply open more doors of human behavior for them to explore. And through their exploration we can understand more, and see even more of the beauty in the world that surrounds us.

    Academia is vastly different than commercialization. The commercialization that burning man seeks to avoid is a process of exploitation and selling out all in order to increase profits. Academia is vastly different in that it cares only about understanding our world. Academics are people who have dedicated their lives to learning about and understanding our world in return for what is usually a modest wage considering the level of education and dedication required. Thus, academics are not those who seek profit, but instead are those who are passionate about learning about our world and also passionate about making the world a better place. Although we may not always agree with the answers academia gives us in life, we should still respect their dedication to truth and understanding.

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  • Disco Ball says:

    You talk about academia as if it was one monolithic thing – as if your understanding of academia is all there is to it. That is about equivalent to saying that Burning Man is a bunch of drugged-out ravers trying to get laid in the desert while following the latest trend in corsets and fuzzy boots. Not true, but not untrue either. Just depends on who you encountered while you were there.

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  • KenCat says:

    It’s a shame that there’s so much mistrust and lack of understanding about academic endeavor. It also seems that most of the OP’s criticisms are more about human nature than academia per se.

    Sure, academia is the worst way to generate knowledge – apart from all the others. But the way it works eventually leads to a higher understanding and benefit to society as a whole. It can’t make or prescribe your BM for you; but it *might* help us all understand why BM works for all of us; and how others might also benefit from the wonderfully human experiential experiment that is BM. It’s an incredible privilege to go to BM, so don’t we owe it to others to encourage and spread that learning to a wider, and interested, society?

    1. This discussion is in fact what academia is all about. Open discussion is the basis for academic progress – not closed or protectionist ‘this is what BM is’ which seems to be the point of the OP. What academia does not do is impose anything on anyone. Sure, as an academic you might want to form a model (which is always recongised to be insufficient; that’s why it’s a model or a theory) and form a deeper reasoned, shared understanding; but academia does not seek to limit or impose – in fact, entirely the opposite. It encourages debate, interest, open-mindedness and intellectual, constructive bantering.

    2. Yes, there are rules and structures by which evidence is gathered and discussed in academia – just as there are rules about how you should build an art car or how to construct a geodesic dome so it doesn’t fall down. This creates a better quality construction of knowledge. This is why academia is not “free thought” but how we structure shared thought and understanding into a coherent an agreed form that can stand and be understood independently. The man or the temple are not “free expressions”, but have to be built to very specific rules. You can think what you want, but *shared* knowledge is the same.

    3. The OP is *entirely* mistaken when he says the standard approach is for one expert to write a definitive text and everyone else to believe it – there are always competing views, debate and discussion. A theory or a model is a target to be taken down. It happens within academic confines and there is a process – just in the same way that there is a right way and a wrong way to weld or sew or stage an election. This is because academia acknowledges that a single human view point is fallible – but a multitude eventually might not be.

    4. Sure, politics and human societal complexities dilute the pure academic endeavor – but are you really saying that the BM experience or the playa is devoid of politics? Really?

    5. If there are specific groups who come to BM just to “do academia” without getting involved, they still offer substantially more to the playa than all the other ‘tourists’ who do the same but do not have a higher goal to enhance human self-understanding. Oh, and we also know from a long history of research that the observer cannot help but interfere with what they are observing anyway. ;-)

    6. The ‘spread’ of an idea – as reflected in the Burning Mind – always changes the original purpose (as BM now is different from when it started). That’s a human issue and not one that can be blamed on academics. In fact, what academics try to do through structured knowledge acquisition is understand *why* it’s important so the whole of society can benefit.

    That is where the glacially paced, shared, difficult process of academia helps; where this debate is valuable; but also where it will be utterly impossible to stop educated people using their brains for academic and intellectual enlightenment about BM either on or off the playa.

    [PS. I’m an academic, with no desire to academe about BM. It’s too much fun. But I also understand that self expression is part of academic endeavor; and that sometimes that has is indeed radical]

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  • Issimo says:

    Magister: Do not fear that the academics will ‘figure out’ Burning Man and try to sell (they ALL sell their findings to the boss, thesis adviser, congregation, investor, publisher, etc) the world on what they came up with. The instant they think they have nailed it they will move 50 yards (probably less) down the street and discover that they are SO FUCKING WRONG and have to start over. They won’t ever do any damage. As C Says says: Let them “be passive critical spectators, that’s cool.” Maybe they will all give up and create a farting art car. Purple stinky flames in the night. Happy Playa!

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  • Professor emeritus says:

    Forgive me for existing, let alone for enjoying and writing about Burning Man. I’ll stay home from now on.

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  • Professor Speevie says:

    O academe, what far flung planet are you?

    Eeeny Meany, Chile Beany, the SPIRITS are about to speak!

    Hmmmm…..are they friendly spirits? Friendly? Just watch!

    Speaking from the point of view of an academic (20+ years at the university level) AND a burner, the power structure of East Coast academia is not really Burning Man friendly. I have only been able to attend 4 times, because the dean, provost, and president fail to see any pedagogical value in a faculty member attending Burning Man, nor any value whatsoever in sharing the experience with students.

    The students, of course LOVE to learn about the 10 principles and EVERYTHING ELSE about Burning Man. But they especially love learning about DIY culture, survival skills and the gift economy. They know the value of these lessons of Burning Man, and many of them seek these values through participation.

    Regarding the administration’s perception: I have been scolded and threatened with being fired if I ever miss the first week of school again. I have been accused of the following: drug use, psychedelic nudism, polymorphic sex addiction, lazy bastardize, committee-work dodging abjection, propagandizing radical, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.

    My colleagues have shared their delight, envy, love, jealousy, craving, scorn, blessings, and other conflicted responses. They all want to go, but most are afraid of the administration punishing them, or intimidated by the intensity.

    It comes as no surprise that a power dynamic is at work here. And fear of the unknown. And stereotyping. Sounds like real life.

    Correlatively, I am delighted that thoughtful scholarship is being produced about Burning Man. And embrace academics who dive into the middle, and/or are long time burners. We NEED to have dance parties at conferences, please!

    Burning Man is, and has always been, an instructive, performative, participatory, life-changing experience. While some of us (including me) believe that it’s best understood by jumping into the middle, I think it’s fine for some academics to dance around the edges, act as a translator, and share theoretically the lessons of Burning Man with the realm of higher “education.”

    This is an opportune moment. Academia has become corporate. Will these new theorists be a force against the corporatization of education, or will the solidify Burning Man’s branding? Perhaps this can be resolved in Thunderdome.

    Much love peoples.
    Prof. S

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  • TCM says:

    dear magister, this was wonderful.
    i was worried that words about words about this silly festival would waste my time; i’m a slow reader, and anyway wary about nametag-like statements.
    i feel bullied, almost always, by the world of words; yet this is a deep irony — i live in the scientific annals professionally and am a closetcase/involuntary poet.
    when someone says “have you seen such-such-such?” or defecates a person-name like “Hannah Arendt” or “Gerard Winstanley”, I instantly get sleepy.
    there is no “anythingness” there; citations are so starchy.
    I struggle in my own microbiology writing, trying to be terse and cogent, and yet for years I’d repressed myself from being an artist, believing that widely-waved theory about brain hemispheres.
    But recently my physician explained to me: “it’s just a venn diagram, matt! some people operate in the intersecting spot in the middle!”, and I realized that the whole science vs art dichotomy was far more of a fabrication than were ewoks and unicorns.
    I realized the limitlessness of biological science, and that my whole fascination with photosynthesis research has really been an ARTISTIC urge to tell stories… and I realized that poetry is really a mechanism with which we make absolute statements that CANNOT BE ARGUED WITH.

    The problem is the badge of ego.
    When people say “This This This, is is is”, they usually have neglected to add the important speculative storytelling-like lead in, like: “it’s possible that…” or the potent caveat “once upon a time…”

    But then, I am going to defecate right now by citing “deconstructionism”, Derrida, postmodernism.
    And then I am going to defecate on all of it, and huzzah the humorists, who are in a court of their own: there can never be an academics of jokes.


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  • madeleine lime says:

    Prof. S, you make me want to barter for your academikspeak. Trade you for a fifth of whisky? Tarot reading? Blowjob while you’re duking it out with Magister in the Thunderdome?

    In any case keep thinking and writing!

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  • Dr. Realz says:

    OMG Really the knuckle heads are going to explain what any high schooler would understand, judge us and determine what is a burner. Great we now have a de facto supreme court. I go to the burn to get away from control and judgement. This is the WRONG PATH. Stop trying to control it and just embrace it or fuck off.

    Deep playa plunge

    Be careful in the deep playa, something has been awakened
    It was the middle of the night and my mind was altered
    With the energy of the evening pounding
    Foolishly I decided to do a deep playa plunge
    I hit the esplanade then passed the man
    The music, lights, and art slowly settled behind me
    My two wheels floating me into the abyss
    I raced on to parts of the playa that few go
    How far out was I one mile, two?
    The darkness spilled out before me
    The tone of the night still playing in my head
    Suddenly the wind started molesting me with it’s dirty fingers
    Then the sand reached up and grabbed my tires
    I fell over and when I arose I could see it… off in the distance…something?
    What is that?
    The soiled wind shielded it from me
    Is that art? Or what… my mind and eyes strained
    The wind shifted and I could see it was moving in a ghostly way
    I looked around for others…only darkness
    It suddenly turned and started to move towards me
    As if.. as if it sensed my presence
    I felt a primal fear, something is wrong
    I tried to ride away but the playa keep griping my tire and the wind pushing me down
    Closer and closer it came I could feel it’s presents
    After I hit the ground the third time I rolled over and looked up
    it loomed over me
    It reached down and grabbed me I tried to get away but to no avail
    Like the terrible beast it was it devoured me whole
    I had confronted my own reality

    By Dr. Realz

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  • Tom H. says:

    I appreciate Caveat Magister’s post about academia, and I think most of the sentiments deserve consideration.

    But I hope I can clarify a major misunderstanding (as I see it). When CM worries about the academic document’s statement about Burning Man being a “safe” place for expression / art/ participation/ whatever, CM should realize that, in that context, “safe” is simply the academic term for “allowed without judgment.” Safe in this context does not mean a place necessarily removed from the elements, from dangers, or from the vagaries of flame cannons.

    Academics lapse into their language. Non-academics misunderstand. The “safety” the academics want to promote is not the false safety of the litigious, American society at large; it is the freedom of expression that only Burning Man offers.

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  • Captain Goldstar says:

    My two cents:

    I’m coming from the academics side, though on CMs scale I may be deemed an ‘outlier’ to academia, though I don’t see myself as one, nor am I referred to as one by my peers. What I can offer to this conversation, which only a few of the comments seem to provide, is what my lived experience as an academic at burning man has entailed. I think the proof is in the pudding with this one.

    I’m a graduate student in architecture, working on a self-directed thesis, and this year I spent 24 days in Black Rock City. I spent two and a half weeks helping to build the temple, a few days building my theme camp (the Mollusk Nation – c/w the Pearl Palace), and an effigy for the academics group called the Ivory Tower. It was a busy week, especially when you throw in all the dance parties, days at the beach, and countless activities I delighted in through the week. After the Temple burned and my role as a ‘researcher’ had pretty much come to a close, I took a solo adventure that landed me six miles outside the trash fence, buck naked, looking back on the city. You’d be amazed at what great perspective you can take on BM out there alone under the starry sky. The walk back took me 4 hours, without food or water. It might make more sense to describe it as a spirit quest, but I consider it an essential portion of my research. I spent the entirety of the festival engaged as a participant as much as a researcher, but will note I did spend the duration of my time on the playa documenting my experiences in different capacities.

    I imagine you think that by my relationship to academia, I spent a week shoving cameras in peoples faces asking them to sign waiver forms so I could quote them. I didn’t. In fact, I burnt all my waiver forms that I had laboriously earned ethics approval for. It’s plain as day that when you shove a camera in someone’s face and ask them to sign something they don’t want to read, that they’re going to give you a skewed sample. Quantitative analysis is not the only means of gathering evidence in academics. My experience amongst my peers is much the same. While none are studying BM, they are all researching the world through personal experience, well digested, guided and challenged by their academic supervisors, and very few are engaged in quantitative analysis. I think that’s the biggest oversight in the original posting here – you cannot paint all of ‘academia’ with the same brush. The academics I’ve met at BM were mainly engaged in learning from this place, not just trying to define it. We’re looking for lessons that may bring light to other endeavours amongst our peers and professions. I, for one, am not trying to build a wall around BM. In fact, I’m running full tilt past the trash fence into the night. So on that level, CM, I’m sorry your view of academia is so limited.

    On my way down to the desert, I made a note that I wasn’t certain how my role as a ‘researcher’ would pan out in a place like BRC. As I suspected, I didn’t find myself playing an antiquated role of the researcher. I don’t think you can do this at BM and look yourself square in the eye, you’d be deluding yourself, rendering your results moot. How could any one define such beautiful chaos?

    Well, that’s where things get interesting, and my interest in BM takes on a stance, academically speaking. BM isn’t just chaos. It’s rife with infrastructure. You pay upwards of $400 for a ticket, and there are goddamn port-a-potties in one of the harshest environments I’ve experienced. That’s not just a bunch of culture jammers, that’s a highly structured event. There are certain things you can bank on being there at BM – medical services, fire fighters, rangers, a temple, a trash fence, centre camp, sanitation services… there’s even a street layout that’s changed only incrementally through the last 18 years. There is an entire infrastructure that supports the madness that ensues. As a peer who attended the festival with me put it: it’s like a physical expression of the internet. There’s an infrastructure that simply supports… life. Do with it what you will. Does my research endeavour threaten BM somehow? I should hope not. If anything, I think it could identify how the infrastructure could be enriched to support greater chaos.

    Does that surprise you? What did you think I was doing there as an academic? Trying to distill some comment on the people who attend it? Well, I’m not. I’m just trying to learn lessons from this marvellous event that can positively influence the world. I think that’s what most people are doing at burning man to some degree, and my experience as a researcher is no different.

    I think CM’s comment stems from a legitimate concern for researchers that pepper the festival with registered cameras, waiting to tag participants in order to define the festival. They’re annoying, but I love them, and try to engage them as participants wherever possible. I was approached by a researcher while I worked one of the ‘kissing booths’ and was asked if she could take my picture and if I could sign a waiver. I told her not unless she kissed all of us working the booth. I sympathize with such concerns, CM et al, but I’d be wary of branding the entirety of academia just as you think they’re branding you.

    I’d like to see more here from what other participants’ experience of ‘academia’ is at BM. I think this conversation stems from a widespread feeling of intimidation towards academics. CMs proposition is one that is fear-based, fear that BM will be branded as something he doesn’t see it to be. Perhaps a stance of curiosity on CM’s and others’ behalf may lend some light on this. I challenge you to ask academics what they’re actually doing and learning at Burning Man, and how that research is taken up by academia. You’d may be surprised.

    -Cap’n Goldstar

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  • Nick says:

    You have a paradox that is common to many believers in ”libertarianism”: you rail against the system in one breath and soak up the benefits in the next. The very computer you wrote your diatribe on is the result of academics and would not exist without a society – a society that has a government and academics and even religon. Privilidged elitists who claim to be anti academeme/government/religon are sadly shallow in their logic and only do so out of anger or possibly to adhere to some sort of current social fad.

    I bet you are anti tax as well… Until you need to call the fire department, or drive on a paved road, or trust your life to an air traffic controller…

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  • Christy K says:

    i tried to read most of the comments after i read the article and i would say now that there may be a fear among people who self-identify as ‘Burner’ and call Black Rock City ‘home’ that their lives will change if too much academic influence intrudes upon the culture.

    it is unlikely that any burner under influence of this fear would ever be inspired to articulate the fear into words; as faith in Burning Man is enormous in those that identify as ‘Burner’ and call Black Rock City ‘home.’

    every burner i have ever met is already under the influence of academia to some degree. school is the foundation of society. and if you’re able to make it through Burning Man you have to have learned something.

    i think caveat’s opinion is based in a prejudice which i share: Burning Man values are better than the values of academia. we don’t want academia’s unstated principles (which can sometimes foster frigidity of the creative process) to influence the culture which we rely on to retain our hope that humanity can be better than what it is.

    also, i was raised in a very very small town in the rural u.s. if academia had not required me to attend fact retention seminars during my youth, it would be impossible to know that humanity should be better than it is.

    p.s. please note the sarcasm as the comment comes to a close.

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  • Christy K says:

    Oh no!! now i fear that i have altered the energy i share with Burning Man to the point of never reaching satisfaction there at all ever again!!! oh well i guess. words are like thoughts or theories or whatever.

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  • Fredo says:

    So absolutely true!!

    There is much more to life than trying of analyze it.


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  • Puppy says:

    Yeah kick out the nerds and let’s burn books while we’re at it :rollseyes:

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  • Puppy says:

    I’ve read more comments now. There’s a pitiful amount of ignorance here. I’m not sure I ever want to step foot on the playa again. Intellectuals and academics have always been pretty high on the fascist’s hit list because they tend to create truly radical ideas. The thought that DNA might be a double helix or that there is a sub-conscious mind are a damn sight more world changing than wearing a pair of fluffy boots or getting your tits out at dawn. Remove intellectuals and academics from any human endeavour at your peril as they are invariably the defenders and dissidents of ideas – the most radical and powerful things of all.

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  • Brenden says:

    Fear of academia betrays one’s insecurity of intellect.

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  • Bob Bennett says:

    Academia, like organized religion & government – local, state and Federal (including Congress ,the judiciary, & the executive branches) has become very much authoritarian. Burning man is still very much anti-authoritarian (even if the new list of rules every year chips that away. Scott Peck M.D. in his book – People of the Lie – The Hope for Healing Human Evil – writes about how over-specialization leads to evil – both of the individual and of institutions. Creative anti-authoritarianism like the artists of burning man displaying every year – and bring into the default world- may be the best hope to avoid being totally engulfed by evil.

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  • Jaguallero says:

    Never interrupt your adversary when he or she is saying something stupid. What a pity that Caveat Magister was not exposed to a stronger influence from academia in his formative years.

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  • It’s worth discussing this topic (I grazed others’ opinions) and here’s my 2 cents: As an economist, I can sympathize with the abuse of models and data schematics in an attempt to organize and explain human behavior. BM is definitely NOT a place to explain in this way — and no, academic thought is not “art” — it’s (quasi) science, which means it doesn’t understand what it can’t tabulate.

    The problem I see is that academics will claim that they’ve “explained” BM, but they’ll be wrong. That’s their problem but it may also create a false impression in others. Is that worse than sex-in-the-desert? No idea.

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  • Tarra Links says:

    This is a discussion worth having and I am disappointed with the mocking tone taken by some contributors. On the other hand, expression of two completely different points of view is required to find the middle ground.

    Art, science, religion, and economics are inextricably linked. Economics is a part of BM because it costs money to get in. But once inside, the almighty dollar is not present. So, economics is embraced as a necessity, and then limited inside the gates. The middle ground, then, is a discussion of what other aspects of culture are antithetical to the intent of BM and to what degree they should be limited.

    If individuals care to apply their academic philosophies/sciences to a study of BM that is their prerogative. As an art historian I go to escape the categorizations and methodologies that make me an observer of cultures and not a participant. Allow these poor folks to establish a group…a think tank? Next they’ll be conducting interviews and handing out questionnaires. Sitting in groups studying you instead of interacting. They will! I know these people, for I am one of them.

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  • James says:

    It sounds like you are defending anticommunication. Any cyberneticians at Burning Man?

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  • ssakcaj77 says:

    Caveat wins, he got everyones attention. We all lose, about 20 minutes of our day wasted on his silly notion

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  • Dr. Realz says:

    when you meet buddha on the road kill him!

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  • Jason1969 says:

    Way to “Befuddle” academia by starting the deepest, most intense academic discussion with the Burning Man community. You have done more to strengthen academics at Burning Man then to stop them. Makes me think you are one of them…. wait a minute… Oh you got me! Good prank, Caveat!

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  • I hardly ever contribute to blog post discussions but this thread got me so depressed and embarrassed to be a Burner that I felt compelled to respond. The use of gross stereotypes and the continued demonizing of “they” is so contrary to everything I experienced at Burning Man. I am an academic. An academic artist. The first time on the playa I literally shouted that I needed to find a way to introduce this to the students I teach. All of it. I want to bring them here to learn, to grow and to incorporate this spirit into their individual artwork. But after reading this blog I would be afraid that my students would be demonized as corporate academics to be shunned.

    The author of this post has a point regarding some of the faults of academia. Most of those faults come from faculty and administrators who, like the author of this post, have rigid and limiting definitions of what is and what isn’t acceptable and seek to govern what should and should not be allowed in the system. I still would like to bring the students I work with to Burning Man, yet I fear what my academic colleagues would think if they read this post. Would they read it and immediately decide that only a group of “drug-addled hippies” would demonize academia this way? After all, stereotype begets stereotype.

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  • Dr. Realz says:

    Most of you are missing the point entirely. You don’t burn with a purpose of getting something out of it. You’re not supposed to get anything out of it. That’s the point.

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  • Disco Ball says:

    No, Dr. Realz, I think you are missing the point. You don’t tell other people how to experience a burn. There are as many ways of burning as there are people. And furthermore, everyone burns with a purpose of getting something out of it. You would not make the effort to get yourself and all your supplies to the playa if you didn’t have the expectation of getting something out of it, whether it be fun, new experiences, surprises, release, connection, spiritual awakening, or who knows what else.

    This whole thread is annoyingly peppered with the ignorant comments from non-academics who seem to think they have some special knowledge and “get it” in a way that academics don’t. Get over yourselves! There is no us and them. That person spinning fire in front of man or hopping next to you at the Billion Bunny March may have been an academic, and you’ll never know because you are so hung up on some idea you have of what a burner is and what an academic. It is not for you or Caveat to determine what is and isn’t a proper burner.

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  • Greg XPresley says:

    10 Principles is about 8 too many.
    In order to ‘dissect’ something, it has to be dead first.
    Ignorance is the beginning of knowledge.
    It’s easier to burn something than to build it.
    A Playa without an Obnoxicator is like a picnic without ants.
    $380 will pay for subscriptions to over a dozen academic journals.
    The Black Rock Desert eats words. Always has, always will.

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  • Caveat says:

    Disco Ball’s comment illustrates the point of my post entirely.

    I agree completely that there are as many ways of burning as there are people, and that you don’t tell people how to experience a burn.

    Yet the academic study of Burning Man will inevitably do just that. It will say – because this is a key part of the nature of its approach to knowledge as a cultural institution – that “these are Burners, this is what they do, this is how they do it, and these are the 5 essential points and 13 secondary points that make up their experience. This, by contrast, is what they don’t do, and here are the borders they live by.”

    Not every academic study will do that, and not every time. But it’s an inevitable outgrowth of academic interest in Burning Man. The building of quantifiable models to represent (and thus form the boundaries to) a phenomenon is the dominant form of discourse within academia.

    And they are, of course, entitled to do that. I have never advocated banning or censorship of any kind. I do not, and will not. Academics are welcome here, and can think and write whatever they want, just like the rest of us (and be mocked for it, just like the rest of us). But … and this is my point … we don’t have to sit still for it. We don’t have to be passively studied. We can not only dance while they’re trying to take our measurements, we can also study ourselves more effectively. That’s what I’m advocating: that we produce our own body of critical thought and make it compelling enough that Academia follows our lead.

    Is anyone really arguing that we can’t get ahead of academia on this issue, or that we as an institution or as individual participants, are required to offer deference to those who would study us?

    What I do object to is the kind of credentialism that says non-academics (or people whose academic credentials aren’t identified) can’t critique academia. “Academic” thought is not synonymous with “critical” thought or “deep” thought: Plenty of brilliant ideas have emerged from outside the groves of academe. (Indeed, it was the peer review panel that put Socrates to death.) Yet the idea that you need an academic credential in order to have a valid opinion is a key feature of academic culture that is at odds with Burning Man’s principle of radical inclusion.

    If the academic can and does spin fire, the non-academic can (and will) have an opinion on the pedagogical limitations of academia as a hegemonic cultural force.

    Surely we don’t have a problem with that?

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  • Dr. Realz says:

    Enlightenment is not seeing the truth but seeing it isnt there!

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  • Disco Ball says:

    Caveat, I can see what you are trying to say here. Unlike some of the anti-academics who have commented, you have not told us not to come or that our experiences are less valid than yours. And no academic has told you that you are not entitled to your opinion, despite many of us disagreeing with it. Here is the problem. You haven’t showed us any examples of academic research that says anything remotely like “these are Burners, this is what they do, this is how they do it, and these are the 5 essential points and 13 secondary points that make up their experience. This, by contrast, is what they don’t do, and here are the borders they live by.” Without any examples, I don’t assume this to be what is going to come out of research about Burning Man. In fact, in my field of study, something like that would not pass peer-review and get published, unless it clearly stated what the limitations of the research were and stipulated that they were only applicable to the particular people interviewed at that point in time. So my experience of the academic review process is drastically different from what you present it to be. From what I have read here, I think that many of the other academics who have chimed in also find your description of academia to be the opposite of their own experiences. So why would we value your opinion above our own experiences when you have not cited any examples or given us any other reason to believe your fears are anything other than unfounded?

    But suppose the biased kind of overly-deductive research you describe does get published? So what? Who is going to see it? Not very many people. I see things out there in the world all the time that explain Burning Man from the perspective of some artist or photographer or blogger that don’t match my experience of the event at all. Why is it so much more damaging in your eyes when it comes from an academic? Personally, all of the academics I have met at Burning Man (and I have met many, since I attend the Burning Nerds party) are burners, some of whom have decided they find Burning Man so fascinating that they are incorporating it into their academic work. I have never met any who consider themselves separate from the event and came expressly for the purpose of studying it. If these outside observers exist, they are still people who were drawn to the event in some way, and are experiencing it in some way. I fail to see how any of that is different from an artist, a photographer, journalist, movie maker, or a poet who is a Burner and incorporates it into their work.

    Far more people outside of Black Rock City will see the YouTube videos that people post after the event (like, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go”) than any academic journal article that may be published. So these videos have a much bigger opportunity to shape the public’s view of what Burning Man is. And by making these videos, the videographers are also just showing one part of the picture (their interpretation or experience) and they also are influencing it by observing and documenting, but you are not afraid of them. Why are you more concerned with academia’s influence than the fact that hundreds of people buy Burning Man tickets thinking that it is filled exclusively with skinny 20-something year old white chicks who hula hoop topless while on ecstasy because of the images they have seen on YouTube? The hula cam has gotten almost 4 million views on YouTube, while most people are either scornful of or afraid of academic research, so any journal article would likely only be read by a few hundred people. It leads me to believe that you have some personal bias or issue with academic achievers.

    Unfortunately, this entire thread has made many academics feel like they as individuals are being singled out and not valued at Burning Man. I think this is a real shame, since I have found the academics to better embody many of the core principles of the event (especially radical inclusion) than most of the others I have met on the playa. I think the event would be poorer if no academics showed up There are many groups of attendees whose impact is far more likely to negatively influence the nature of the event.

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  • Caveat Magister says:

    Before I respond to Disco Ball:

    I think the comments thread is a terrible venue for this kind of detailed discussion. Clearly there is a critical mass of people interested in this discussion, and some of the people who disagree with me should have the opportunity to respond to my arguments in a less abridged fashion. (Particularly since it’s relevant to note that my writing in no way represents the opinions of the Burning Man organization.) If I offer to post responses from a few academics as individual posts on the Burning Blog – say, 1000 words(ish) explaining why I’m wrong and/or academia is a benefit to Burning Man culture, would you participate?

    Would anyone else reading this thread?

    Feel free to send me an email off list and let me know. If there’s enough interest I’ll see about setting it up.

    Now …

    @Disco Ball:

    But I did site an example: the Burning Mind project website. The whole middle section of the post is devoted to an examination of a site, by academics, devoted to understanding Burning Man and the application of its principles. If that’s not an example, what would be?

    It might not be enough of an example for you, and it might very well not pass peer review … but look at what’s happening here. In a debate about the place of academia at Burning Man, some are making the claim that only evidence which generally follows academic standards should be accepted. Whatever ideas or example are present need to be presented in a way that would pass peer review before some academics think they ought to listen.

    It may seem perfectly sensible and appropriate to you that these standards be followed, but if we take that seriously then it disenfranchises everyone outside the club who has an opinion. Their take no longer counts.

    That’s exactly the kind of culture creep from academia I’m talking about. This discussion is an example. If the face of a critique of academic culture, some academics are responding that anyone without the proper credentials and/or academically prepared examples shouldn’t be taken seriously. The only possible reason I could be making this case is that (ahem) I “have some personal bias or issue with academic achievers.”

    This is, forgive me, the essence of an ad hominem attack.

    It’s also not true (to the extent my opinion counts). Recall that I was a volunteer at the founding Burning Nerds party and have been a member of the email list ever since.

    I do feel terrible that academics are feeling singled out (that’s one of the reasons I haven’t cited other examples is that it’s necessarily so aggressive in this context), and I wouldn’t want anyone to feel unwelcome at Burning Man. Academics are absolutely welcome, and their work here is no less valuable than anyone else’s.

    But on the other hand, the internet is a rough place. I’ve been called bad things on this thread. (Among other things Disco Mike said “Right now, there is no one on the planet I hate more than the author of this article,” which seems excessive) You gotta shrug it off. If you’re going to put ideas out there, it’s to be expected in this day and age that someone might take exception. I hope academics don’t feel that, because they’re academics, they’re entitled to special treatment in this regard. Everybody gets made fun of at some point at Burning Man. Have you seen what some people say about Larry Harvey?

    Feel free to respond here, but, also, I hope you’ll contact me about responding in a longer version as a seperate post.

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  • Dancing Will says:

    It seems that some people who work in academia were upset that Caveat (presumably) insulted the institution they love/work for etc. So they are being understandably defensive. Defending what they love and believe in is what anyone would do if they felt like it was being attacked (although some of those posts were pretty mean spirited). It’s hard to be impartial when you are a representative of something that is being critiqued. That is how I see most of these anti-Caveat posts. But, I don’t think Mr. Caveat was attacking the people who work in the academic world, but rather it’s structure and methodology. That if that structure were brought to Burning Man that it would somehow reduce the amount of spontaneity and impose more restrictions on the way people think about the event. That if we as a community allow ourselves to be studied and defined by outside sources then we will cease to be ineffable. Then again I may be putting words in his mouth here…

    I think it’s an interesting point to bring up, it doesn’t worry me very much though. I think (because I know you all are just dying to hear my opinions!) Burning Man will be just fine, even if it is studied and defined etc. etc. Because, that has happened before and it will happen again. We have been labeled many times as many different things, but the ineffability remains and that will have little effect on how many people will go to Opulent Temple on burn night, or on my ability to find a damn taco in that town when I really need one.

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  • I haven’t had enough coffee yet to read this in detail, or read the follow up, but it did make me smile because you did catch a bit of the culture of academia. As a former academic, I can attest to the presence of certain mindsets. Your description seems to be most true to the social sciences. That doesn’t mean everything you said was “right,” but your rant did cause an old memory of mine to surface. When I was a senior in high school, many years ago, back in the 70’s, I dropped out of regular school and went to an alternative school. The school was going through some difficult changes due to the differing philosophies of the people running it (new people challenging old people). We students were stuck in the middle of it, and eyerolling almost became a sport. Anyway, one of the new guard was a sociology major and was writing his thesis about our school. His focus was on his made up term, “slumping.” He hadn’t been around that long, had come up with the idea that we had cycles of “slumping” and “deslumping,” and was attempting to sort of quantify it all. He completely missed the point that the power struggle going on, that was creating these “slumping” issues, really had nothing specific to do with the school but instead was about power struggles within a nonauthoritarian, nontraditional setting, of which our school was one example. He treated our school as something unique that created these cycles by its very being, instead of realizing that what was going on was a personality-driven power struggle that could occur in any environment where there was control to be had. We students just made the whole thing into a joke and worked “deslumping” into every sentence. I guess my point is that the academic mindset combined with certain personalities who often gravitate to certain academic disciples can create results that miss the mark in often hilarious ways. My final note about this is that I used to be in the hard sciences. My work was all about quantifying and categorizing. Then, after a major trauma in my life, my therapist told me that I had let my scientific side run the show too long and had neglected my creativity and it was time to do something about that. So what did I do? I went to Burning Man! And I’ll be back as many times as I can until I die. And I won’t ever write a paper about it, although I am likely to tell some stories. lol

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  • ssakcaj77 says:

    enter Fillibuster here

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  • BCARTER says:

    An academic group’s understanding? A nice perspective, but being critical of them is priceless!

    Thank you Caveat and all the commentators for making this one of the most interesting and humorous reads for a Sunday morning!

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  • Dr. P Clear says:

    Caveat Mag,

    I agree that you can’t analyze your experience and be in your experience at the same time. Academics tend toward disassociated analysis.

    It reminds me of a dream researcher who compared dream analysis to shooting an animal, stuffing it, and then studying its behavior. Don’t do it. It doesn’t work and it kills the thing you study. Page Smith wrote “Killing of the Spirit” about educational fundamentalism. Again to your point. I get it.

    However, naturalistic inquiry by scholars should not be confused with academics who are teachers in ivy covered towers.

    This is a distinction you’ve missed.

    Dr. P Clear

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  • Academia “disenfranchises everyone outside the club who has an opinion.” Oh, Caveat. Why do you care whether a sociology professor at Bumfuck State University ignores the non-academic opinion of a random Burner like you or me? Burners dismiss other Burners all the time. Some Burners dressed to the retro-steamy nines look down their noses at [whatever they call candy ravers nowadays]. Some psychedelics-infused Burners think the straightedgers aren’t really having a full Burning Man experience. A tent-dweller sniffs at the cozy, clean RV-sleeper next door.

    In each of those instances, some Burner is “disenfranchised” by someone else’s precious club. Sometimes it’s legit, too. If your reality is so limited and shaped by your identity and philosophies as a tripper, you might not have room for too much info from a non-chemically-enhanced point of view. If your deal is fancy clothes, someone who looks like an off-duty Ranger shouldn’t perhaps take up too much of your time. I have a friend who has always Burned from the safety of an RV, and when he talks about The Elements on the Playa, I totally disenfranchise him because his viewpoint on that subject veers off so mightily from mine. I take care to listen when he talks about other Burning Stuff, because I’m capable of harboring multiple points of view.

    So are many of the academics posting here. As actual, participating Burners, they can “enfranchise” the opinions and experiences of others. When they put on their academia hats, they probably focus on academic concerns. It’s cute. It’s fun! It could even result in some interesting thinking. And it’s NOT HURTING ANYONE.

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  • Anton Cauthorn says:

    I think dissecting something to understand it is not only acceptable but also beautiful. When something is wrong with our car do we simply guess what is wrong or do we dig down and listen to the problem, then look under the hood, dissecting until we solve the problem.

    Likewise, when someone builds a car that works we dissect it to determine why it was successful and what we can do to mimic those techniques. Understanding is beautiful and leads to human progress, it is not something to be feared and it is not something that limits what we do. If we have more voices trying to understand burning man that includes academics, perhaps we can do more to spread the principals of burning man.

    The way we understand any part of the world is through analysis. Although academics may follow specific procedures in their analysis we all dissect the world every time we try to understand anything.

    I would have agreed with you if you limited your post to simply pointing out the silliness in the description of burning man by the burning mind project. Critiquing others bad ideas is part of the academic process. I imagine that there are many different ideas about what the 10 principals mean. I see nothing to fear in the fact that a group of academics happened to write down what they think those principals are.

    I simply don’t believe that the small act of academics trying to understand burning man might somehow limit our experiences there. If someone chooses to experience burning man by analyzing the event through the lens of the academic model so be it. Why is their world view any worse than the world view of other writers, videographers, or participants who all walk away with their own view of the event.

    This is the idea that I truly disagree with:

    “Academia tries to establish an empirical model of a phenomenon that limits what is possible in order to better define it, while Burning Man as a lived experience tries to encourage an infinite diversity of possibility.”

    If academics make of model of something it does not limit it. Newton famously made his “laws” of nature that told us how nature behaves. But academics didn’t mean nature had to obey these laws, just that when we observed nature it did follow predictable patterns. Newtons laws did not force nature to obey, they just described it. And in fact, it took Einstein to find out that Newton’s laws were only approximately correct and that nature breaks Newtons laws. Einstein did this by proving the conventional wisdom wrong. None of these explanations limited nature, they just give us a better way to understand it. Likewise, a better understanding of burning man cannot limit burning man, it can only hope to give us a greater appreciation for its beauty.

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  • Dr. Realz says:

    Interpretation or should I say misinterpretation is one of the problem many burners have with academics publishing papers about the social construct that has manifest itself at the burning man festival. That said several of the serious academics read in their own interpretation of what people posting were saying, reading between the lines if you will. Case in point misinterpretation academics are not welcome at the burn, and we are against someone writing personal account of their experience or filming a personal account, these are extraneous interpretation they in no way define to a finite degree what burning man is. One of the many things I find offensive is that anyone would try to define what is for lack of a better word is magical. Really can’t you guys just dissect something else?

    Oh by the way on my previous post where I wrote “Most of you are missing the point entirely. You don’t burn with a purpose of getting something out of it. You’re not supposed to get anything out of it. That’s the point.” I was mocking the serious academies and being a little factious, my warped Sense of humor, I take for granted that we all understand that the burn is a personal experience and da you actually take something from it.

    Oh and disco ball I am thinking of using your name calling for my playa name. When I meet people I can say Hi I am ignorant that way I will beat all the really smart people to the punch, or when they tell me I am ignorant I can proudly say yes I am and befuddle them!

    All you serious academics should understand the more you take this serious the more we are going to mock you and torment you and just for the record academics rock, self interpretation and dissection of burning man and then granting them a level of legitimacy not cool. Exit stage left.

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  • Caveat Magister says:

    Some of the recent responses disagreeing with me have been very good – I particularly like Miss Tif’s March 10 comment, and think she’s almost entirely correct.

    But …

    There seems to be a consensus developing that we don’t need to worry about academia because academics are powerless. Nobody reads them. They’re irrelevant. They couldn’t possibly affect anything.

    Oddly, it’s academia’s defenders who are saying it’s a sheep in sheep’s clothing. Acceptable because it’s pointless.

    I don’t think so. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. While I agree that any given academic study is surely not to be regarded as a threat, I do believe that ideas change the world.

    I do believe that the work academics do, over time, develops into a meaningful and important contribution to human culture.

    I look around and I see all kinds of impacts that academia and academics have had on the way we think about law, about government, about how to revitalize neighborhoods and how to find happiness. About what freedom is and what it means to be human. In no case is there ever a definitive study that everyone points to as being the only document of importance, but in every case the collected body of work tends to point in a direction, and human beings tend to slowly move in that direction.

    It’s not a linear process: it stops and starts and reverses itself as ideas rise and fall and change. But it happens.

    Ideas have power. They change the world. And I generally think this is a good thing.

    Not seeing academics as irrelevant, I ask if the approach taken by mainstream academia is a healthy lens through which to view Burning Man – and I see all kinds of conflicts emerge. I think those should be looked at. Talked about. And I think we should develop better ways of talking about ourselves than the standard academic model.

    If you think academia is irrelevant and will have no impact, over time, on how people see us and what they think we are and how we fit in the world, then of course you’ll think that any action at all is an overreaction. And that’s fair.

    But I think ideas change the world, and an “authoritative” scholarly consensus will start to develop about Burning Man in a decade or so, and I think we shouldn’t be passive by-standers to this. I think we should be present, and irreverent, and brilliant. Engaged. It matters if we’re telling our own story, our own way, in a compelling voice, or if we let others define us.

    By which (“others”) I don’t mean the academics in our midst. They’re Burners too with every right to tell their own story their own way.

    But I do mean their editors, publishers … and the academic culture that sets the rules and guidelines much of their work is expected to follow. The institution through which academics – even Burner academics – move tends to deal very badly with lived experiences on their own terms. That counts for something.

    At least if academics aren’t irrelevant.

    Thanks for reading.

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  • mulch says:

    I would hope to hightly question academias perspective if they believe that they have some monopoly on scientific truth or organized thought in general.

    I question your need to assess their purpose.

    I expect people to question why I might choose to wear a hat that spins around on my head on the playa.

    Question it. Be vocal about your questioning. But support my hat and support their purpose if it doesn’t interfer with you. And support it especially if it makes you consider something you would otherwise not consider.

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  • savagehenri says:

    Quoted for truth from Miss Tif Again:
    “Burners dismiss other Burners all the time. Some Burners dressed to the retro-steamy nines look down their noses at [whatever they call candy ravers nowadays]. Some psychedelics-infused Burners think the straightedgers aren’t really having a full Burning Man experience. A tent-dweller sniffs at the cozy, clean RV-sleeper next door.

    In each of those instances, some Burner is “disenfranchised” by someone else’s precious club.”

    Also, with all this talk about creativity, it needs to be pointed out that academic research, teaching, etc. involves a great deal of creativity. It might be convenient to write about academics as left-brained reductionists and the running dogs of the military-industrial complex, but this is a straw man that plays on stereotypes in order to disenfranchise certain voices from the get-go.

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  • Sally says:

    I LOVE this article and would add that two aspects of Academia that I find frightening are 1) the militaristic structure and the resulting shit-chain of humanity and entitlement it fosters and 2) the sad incestuous loop-lives of those who buy into Academia as the one way and who have spent their entire lives locked behind its doors… obviously, those who’ve made it to the burn are doing better than the majority, but I see the threat that compels Caveat to warn us. Go On Ye Bastards of the Playa!

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  • Don says:

    Seeking to define burning man via any metric doesn’t limit it. What Caveat seems to be indicating is that if one were to ever remove burning man from the realm of pure qualia it would die, and quite frankly that isn’t true. Burning man is a shifting mass of ideas and wonder each worthy of study. Studying the motion of a fire dancer, the physics of an art car, the logistics of a camp, city planning, the glory of assholery, how the ten principles work, and other things won’t be a magic silver bullet that slays the man. It will help us bring these things to others. Yes there will be people who will try to find a profitable least common denominator, and make a magic mc burning man experience, but fuck them. This is how we fight them. Burning man is glorious and worthy of study; be it by poets, musicians, bloggers, interpretative dancers, ravers, fools, sparkle ponies, shirt cockers or the (apparently most villainous of these) academics. If my method of seeing the world involves measuring it, touching it, analyzing it, and trying to figure how shit works then I’m going to do that as part of my burn. It is part of my immediacy, if you don’t want to participate in a study, or a conversation then I understand, just find something else to do and don’t mess with my data.

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  • Dr. Realz says:

    Academic interpretation is unavoidable soon or later someone will quantify and qualify what burning man is. We have a duty as burner to delay this as long as possible to give this delicate magic a chance to manifest itself in the default world. As I write this I am imaging a scientist looking at the essence of burning man in a petri dish. The scientist next to him says what do you see. The first scientist says a bunch of naked people giving me the finger.

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  • Captain Vic says:

    I am a carrer academic who has attended the academic meetings at the Ashram Galatica the past several years. Great fun. Having said that, I am not the least worried that academic types will have much of any effect on Burning Man. It is OK with me if you follow this course of action “We should be willing, and eager, to confuse, befuddle, and overwhelm the academic attempt to define Burning Man at every stage …”, but it is really not necessary. The academic types are perfectly capable of doing this to themselves, they do it all the time.

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  • VWChairman says:

    Magister Caveat…

    What do you think of the following study? I love burning man, contribute to its evolution in my own little way, and hope to see our community’s amazing characteristics influence the world around us. I also want to gift something back to our community, and think the following study satisfies a personal fascination and a communal need to reflect on the impacts of our actions. What I propose specifically attends to our “Leave no Trace” principle, but very much touches on the others as well.

    Urban metabolism is a method of understanding the evolution of a city. It attempts to capture the stocks and flows of materials and energy through a give space and time. Urban metabolism sort of considers cities organisms, or ecosystems, and examines the consumption and output of energy, water, food, trash, emissions, etc. While most studies have looked at metropolitan areas, like LA, Melbourne, or London, none to my knowledge have looked at the completely unique (temporary) city model represented by Black Rock City. But none of the data exists yet, and much of it would have to be generated by participant feedback (surveys/interviews?) regarding resource use/consumption/waste. Of course, there are the intangible, non-quantifiable elements of an urban metabolism study that looks at Black Rock City (ie. art, culture, personal growth, sense of community, evolution, technology, etc.). I don’t think I would try to capture all of these elements in my study, but rather give credence to them through a discussion. I can see ways that remote sensing or soil (ie. playa dust) testing could look at environmental and atmospheric impacts. The goal of the study would be to get a picture of our collective impact from participating in our week long gathering, including travel to and from BRC. Cities around the world may have a great deal to learn from our model. Consider it an extension of Larry Harvey’s interview with Time, where he recommended “5 Things Cities Can Learn From Burning Man” (http://www.time.com/time/video/player/0,32068,39616455001_1921966,00.html) Like I said, this is totally unique in the sense of urban metabolism studies.

    I am a five time burner that returned to academia between my 3rd and 4th burns. I’ve always appreciated the influence Burning Man (as an event, community, and eclectic culture) has had on my personal and professional lives. For me, I don’t see them as such distinct spheres that cannot overlap. I don’t have any intentions of portraying the event or our community in any sort of canned fashion, I agree with many of the perspectives noted in this thread, and could engage in conversation about this topic for a great deal of time. In fact, I think the best thing to come of this blog post is the discussion that has followed.

    Rather than discuss the merits of arguments for or against academia’s role at burning man, can we evolve to the stage of determining how to expand each other’s hearts and minds? I welcome your feedback. How can the study be improved so as to move beyond the shortcomings of traditional academia that you (and I) criticize?

    I’ll start my PhD in Ecological Planning and Design next fall, and I am fascinated by the myriad of ways that Burning Man has influenced my understanding of cities, urban design, civic processes, and resource use. One request, however, please try to avoid discrediting my interest in conducting this study on the basis of some personal flaw — like everyone, including you I suspect, I am simply trying to make sense of the world around me and do what I can to improve it.

    (**If anyone else is interested in an urban metabolism study of BRC, get in touch with me**)

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  • Dawn says:

    As an academic burner who has published an article about bringing students to Burning Man on a grant from my university (Southern Theatre, Spring 2012), which sits smack in the middle of a VERY conservative, rural, fundamentalist hyper-religious area, I have a problem with Caveat Magister’s definition of “radical self-expression.” It doesn’t apply to me if my self-expression is my observational, critical thinking and writing skills? And when I leave burning man, I am absolutely taking those 10 principals with me and applying them to my default world, which lies partly in an academic institution.

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  • Bruno says:

    Omigod this thread is delicious! Yes, fuck academia at burning man. Let’s invite a clonclave and elect a pope instead… because observation of experiential applications to the real world isn’t the point. A dogma of 10-principles, a new testament forbiding academia, ram it down your throat religion “lite” for the benefit of all new supplicants, conversion of the masses, and radical dis-inclusion, is what we should espouse. ‘Cuz THAT hasn’t been done before! LOL! Cargo Cult is the perfect theme for BM this year. I wish I were going to be there to dress as a Jehova’s Witness and distribute pamphlets. This is just going to be too good to miss!

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  • Dr.Realz says:

    Observational, critical thinking and writing skills are a very touchy subject, specifically What is referred to by academics as implicit memory. You are observing from the first person and if you come from a fundamentalist hyper-religious area how much influence will this have on your observational, critical thinking and writing skills? The credentials of academics carry a weight of legitimacy. This is a slippery slope I am reminded of how the academics have taken the 13th amendment, designed to protect newly freed slaves after the civil war, and used it to legitimize the person hood of corporations here in the United States. I am sure the academics involved sincerely believed they were doing the right thing. The irony of all of this is the academics themselves are now under assault the corporations have now turned their attention to the 300 Billion dollar public owned education system and are pushing to privatize it. They have weaponized accreditation and are using the threat of losing it to control the budgets and governing of our public schools google save ccsf for more info.This is burning man and we are all on fire. Later bitches.

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  • Prince of Neptune says:

    Um. This is what an academic approach gets you at Burning Man:

    A = I x D / M


    A is a standardized anthropological assessment of Burning Man culture created with traditional academic techniques such as discussion and collaboration by traditionally trained academics

    I is the collective inspiration of all those involved in the aforementioned discussion and collaboration given them by the culture and experience of Burning Man

    D is the duration of exposure to the phenomenon

    M is cognitive masturbation

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  • El Gallo says:

    As an academic myself I totally agree with much, ir not all, of what Caveat Magistar is putting forth. I too attended an that same meeting in the Ashram Galactica. I was appalled at what was a scarcely hidden agenda being proposed by a young lady under the smoke-screen of “academia”. She was clearly probing the audience to see hw far she could go in getting them to sign-on to an obvious Leftist “activist” component. I thought this was positively deadly. The University system today is so heavily polluted with Leftist activism,read fascist propaganda, that is truly nauseating once you’ve learned to smell it through the maze of convoluted code words and terms. Burning Man, if anything political at all, is Libertarianism at it’s best, but by at “it’s best” I mean no political interpretation at all is best.
    Socialism does not allow, in principle, that anything can be non-political or that anything should fall outside the scope of political regulation. This poison permeates the academic departments today, and especially the sociology departments (the most interested in Burning Man), and the humanities in general. I smelled it coming when the ACLU was suddenly on the scene offering services supposedly to “protect” us against the police- who asked them, and who needs their protection?
    Under normal circumstances a disinterested academy would be welcome. But with the academics in today’s university climate, come the Leftist “activists” (again read fascists) whose aim has nothing to do with the pursuit of knowledge, and everything to do with the appropriation of anything in popular culture that can be put to their service.
    Again- this was so obvious at the Ashram Galactica meeting that year that it took me by surprise and caused me to think really hard on what I witnessed.
    It is really heartening to see that I was not the only one who smelled a rat disguised as a scholar.
    Even though I am a Ph.D. in the humanities myself, and I came to Burning Man with both a personal and academic interest- I completely understand the point being made, and I have been doing a lot of soul searching on this very topic. Thank you Caveat for bringing this up. It was both brave and bold of you.

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  • El Gallo says:

    Please excuse the overly strident tone of my last post. I meant it to be more ironic and with a touch of humor, but it came out a little too belligerent. But the problem of political activists masquerading as scholars within the Western tradition is very serious and I’m glad it’s being addressed here. I would love to see BM culture influence the Universities, but I am very wary of the reverse.

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