(AUTHOR’S NOTE: I would rather be writing about theme camps. I would rather be writing about the Midway. But in classic Burning Man fashion, my ride is over 30 hours late … you know who you are … and so I’m writing about a magazine piece that annoyed me. Hey, I’ve gotta keep busy, you know? I’ll see you out there. One way or another I’ll see you out there.)
Here’s a good rule of thumb: anytime someone tries writing a dry, humorless, assessment of people having fun, they will end up with an essay that is dry, humorless, and forgettable.
Knowing that, I’d like to make a few observations inspired by Jacobin’s essay on how Burning Man has betrayed us all by failing to be a socialist paradise, while there is still a chance that someone will remember having read it.
There’s a great deal of refutation and correction that I could offer to the piece – from its statement that “Burning Man’s tagline and central principle is radical self-expression.” (No, in fact there are 10 Principles, none of which are identified as superior to the others) to its assessment that a few theme camps run by rich people are fundamentally altering the experience of Burning Man (“Caravansicle” is a well established debacle, but almost nobody actually noticed it was happening at Burning Man itself: which is to say that it actually had no impact on most people’s experience. In fact, aside from Caravansicle I challenge any Burner to think of a memorable theme camp run by the 1% – while I know that anyone who’s attended can think of dozens of experiences they had with camps organized by volunteers and n’er do wells, the people who have always made Burning Man what it is). But such refutation would be an exercise in defensiveness applied to pointlessness.
Because the central argument of Jacobin’s Burning Man piece has nothing to do with Burning Man specifically: rather, it is the implicit argument that the only “legitimate” experience a person can have is one which is in alignment with “correct” politics.
The piece, after all, gives absolutely no consideration to Burning Man as a lived experience, as a generator of art, or a source of fun. It does not consider Burning Man’s philosophy on its own terms, or what actual Burners get out of the experience. Instead, its sole focus is to condemn Burning Man because (based on estimates) just under 3% of Burners make over $300,000 annually.
Ironically, a piece championing the needs of the 99% utterly ignores their experiences of Burning Man, because we don’t count. Zuckerberg, Tananbaum, Page, and other gazillionaires are all name-checked, but no Burners who aren’t gazillionaires are named, let alone quoted or talked to. Far from being independent actors with our own reasons for going to Burning Man, we are an undifferentiated mass of not-rich-people who may be building, running, and living in Black Rock City, but whose motives and experiences aren’t worth considering.
Thanks, champion of the people!
Such reductions are the work of those who see art as nothing but agitprop and whimsy as a distraction from the Very Important Work that must be done. And to be sure there is Very Important Work that must be done. Certainly. No argument here.
But not everything is reducible to it. Burning Man is a living testament (the kind of testament that matters most) that not everything good in the world is reducible to politics. On the contrary: the experience of Burning Man is one which explicitly creates an experience of life outside of politics, and people keep coming back because that has profound value.
Burning Man is hardly unique in this. After all, if art is only legitimate based on the correctness of its political content, then we don’t really need the art at all: just a pamphlet laying out the bullet points. If whimsy is only legitimate as an act of political protest, then, there is only propaganda. And what about those other principles – besides radical self-expression – that the Jacobin piece largely ignores? Communal Effort? Participation? Gifting? Are we really to believe that these are only valuable to the extent they are done by people with the correct politics, in the politically correct way?
Burning Man absolutely does not stand for any particular political program precisely because those things it does stand for place the lived human experience over political theory. That a political rag written by political hacks has missed that point is as sad as it is unsurprising: it happens all the time. Socialists, neoconservatives, libertarians, progressives, tea partiers – all of them have found that Burning Man does not share their politics. An event which privileges the lived human experience over the boxes in which political theory tries to place people will never have correct politics, no matter what side they’re coming from. But it has something to offer them as human beings. This is, in fact, a key element of Radical Inclusion: you don’t have to change your politics to be a burner.
Those who only see the world in political terms will see no value in that. Will, in fact, accuse us of being naïve and standing the way of the Very Important Work. They are certainly entitled to their opinion. For myself, I think the fact that most of us don’t want to live in a world where everything we do has to be measured against its political impact – where values like inclusion, self-expression, participation, immediacy, and self-reliance, can’t transcend the limitations of politics – is emblematic of what’s best about us. Jacobin may be trying to speak for the masses, but I don’t think they actually want to live in Jacobin’s world. I think they’d rather live in Burning Man’s, rich and poor alike. For good reason. A world entirely defined by politics is dry, humorless, and forgettable … to the extent it’s not the stuff of nightmares.
Photo by Duncan Rawlinson