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