If I tell you that “Western Culture” is dying, will I seem alarmist?
If I say that it is our responsibility, as citizens and Burners, to pick the gauntlet of culture up, will that seem absurdly triumphalist?
It does to me. But, over the next thousand words, that’s pretty much where I’m going to go.
Dammit. I hate it when I get like this.
A sense of mission looks bad on Burners, we’re much more appealing when we’re just having fun, but ignoring the evident is worse.
I missed this year’s Global Leadership Conference, but I am told that a moment came when a mass of people finally acknowledged that the idea of the “default world,” a real world from which Burning Man is an escape, no longer holds water. There are too many leaks. There are hundreds of thousands of self-identified Burners engaging in hundreds of regional events around the world.
That’s what makes this era of Burning Man different from what came before. We can no longer even pretend there is a “default world.” To quote the 1980s: we are the world. Only a small part of it, but inseparable from.
We are, as the Org’s critics are quick to point out, a big money operation in a world where big money has more free speech rights than actual speakers do.
We are media darlings with enormous cultural reach. When Larry Harvey catches a cold, a dozen magazine articles run headlines asking if mucus is the next big thing in global counter-culture.
We are … God help us … “thought leaders” who the marketing arms of the financial-industrial-complex desperately want to reach. In conference rooms across the world, men in suits are sitting around tables, drinking Starbucks and watching Power Point presentations that ask “How do we reach ‘Burners’?” They appoint focus groups on ways to decommodify their brands and make their color palates more radically self-expressive.
Now, all this should be taken humbly. Burning Man is “big money” the way Donald Trump is “big hair.” Nobody who can count will ever mistake us for Goldman Sachs.
We are media darlings, but the fact is that even in America, most people don’t know who we are or what we do.
And the marketing arm of global capitalism is even more excited about reaching 12-16 year old teenage girls.
By all means, let’s keep a sense of perspective. But they think we have influence, and it’s because we do. We are in a cultural moment where much of the world is listening to what we have to say, freakish and strange though we are.
And by far the most potentially influential, if not to say explosive, aspect of Burning Man is a way in which it stands in relation to Western Culture as it exists in the 21st century. And that is simply this:
All across the West, people are looking around them at a world dominated by abstract entities that cannot be reached or reasoned with, and asking “How do we stop?” Liberals, conservatives – no one likes the way the world is going, and everyone feels powerless to do anything about it. We see Western culture’s rapacious appetites, its political ineptitude, its incapability to steward either natural environments or human culture, and shout “How do we stop?” from the rooftops.
Burners, on the other hand, whether at the Global Leadership Conference or in their own communities, are trying to make the 10 Principles and “burning” a bigger part of their lives and asking “how do we start?” How do we get this thing going?
That’s the basic difference, and it is of profound importance that Burning Man’s question may be an answer to Western Culture’s at this moment in time.
It means we are entering a new period in Burning Man’s growth, where what we are will be defined by how we do as a part of the world, rather than standing as a thing apart. There is no default world, and that means that Burning Man’s future no longer belongs to San Francisco or Nevada.
“FBI Uncovers Al-Qaeda Plot To Just Sit Back And Enjoy Collapse Of United States,” the Onion headline reads, and we laugh because in fact it makes more sense than any other plot that they’ve come up with. We don’t need any help declining. Have you met our congress?
How did this happen?
One of my favorite explanations was made by legendary historian Jacques Barzun, in his magisterial work “From Dawn to Decadence.”
“The West,” Barzun said, was never a single unified set of nations, but a loosely affiliated cluster of cultures that all dedicated themselves, at approximately the same point in history (give or take 100 years) to a cultural movement. “The West” is that band of cultures (eventually becoming nations) that since the Renaissance pursued the projects of Individualism, Abstraction, Rationalism, Scientism, Self-Consciousness, and … especially … Emancipation.
If those were your priorities over the last 500 years, you were part of “Western” culture.
“The West” was an unprecedented success in the history of global culture. It became the dominant global force and changed the world. But its own success has become its downfall: it has reached a point where the continued pursuit of its own values undermines it.
We have reached a point where the continued pursuit of Emancipation and Individualism prevents us from unifying around common values or engaging in collective action; where the continued pursuit of Abstraction leads to currency games that drive out productive businesses and useful industries. Scientism has created a culture in which we think the human condition can be medicated into happiness, and human contact can be replaced with the right kinds of media consumption.
Philip Rieff called this a “Deathwork” – it’s what happens when something destroys itself by achieving the highest state of its own values.
“(The culture) sees no clear lines of advance,” Barzun wrote. “The loss it faces is that of Possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the states of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully.” (Prologue, XX)
Western culture – and I say this with absolutely no pleasure or sense of triumph – is kept alive in the modern world only because we don’t know how to apply the brakes to the very institutions we created. We are coming apart at the seams, and need new value propositions in order to unify again.
At the same time, we’re not going to abandon Emancipation, or Individualism, or Rationalism, or Scientism … or any of the values that we have taken to such an extreme degree. Because they are important. Because we truly do cherish them. A new culture that begins “give up your Emancipation” is a non-starter. “Stop valuing science?” Not going to happen. Problematic though it may be, we’re never going back.
I think that so many people are so excited about Burning Man because it may offer a way through this conundrum. Burning Man is a clear product of “The West” in its emphasis on the emancipation and expression of self. But Burning Man, as a lived experience and through the 10 Principles, also offers us more ways to come together – more connection and unity – than “the West” as we live in it has been able to for some time.
To live with Immediacy, to Leave No Trace, to value Radical Self-Expression and Community at once – to live in a world that might at any moment offer you a gift – to live in a world that asks you what you have to give – these are aspirations that offer Possibility.
Burning Man, as an outgrowth of Western culture, offers us a way of life that is intuitively supportive of personal growth and agency, and a set of value propositions that represent a potential way forward though the morass that Western culture has become, offering possibility without requiring us to give up the freedoms and insights we have fought so hard to gain.
That’s huge. It’s huge that around the world people are looking at this … at what has been a 27 year test case, proof of concept, out in the desert one week at a time … and then looking at their own communities and asking “how do we start?” How do we make this sustainable, and scalable?
If I had the answers to those questions, I would have led with them. I don’t. Neither does the Org. Not really – although they have some useful ideas and helpful suggestions.
(It’s worth noting, after all, that the only people who have ever made a living at Burning Man are … the Org. That’s why they’re so criticized, on the one hand, but it also speaks a level of learned experience and know-how that we’d be foolish to ignore.)
The future of Burning Man belongs to whomever … probably a group … figures out how to make “burning” scalable and sustainable in the modern world. We’re going in their direction. The people who are founding businesses explicitly to be run on Burning Man principles … these are our pioneers.
If multiple ways to make “burning” sustainable and scalable appear, then we fragment to some extent, and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. Options can be good.
But after 27 years this is the era, and the challenge, that we now live in as Burners: in a world desperately wondering “how do we stop?” Burners need to figure out how we really get started.
If we can do that, if we can provide a truly viable alternative that does not turn its back on the West … on Emancipation and Pluralism and Individualism and all the rest … but also delivers us from the realization that more emancipation, more commoditization, more abstraction won’t save us …
Then it really is our world.
We are the default world. Are we up for it?
is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com