Forget the Legal Questions About Sandwiches — Are Burners “Consumers?” Or Are We Something Else?

After every Burn, there is a storm. A media storm.

After 2013’s Burning Man, the big media storm was about whether there were so many famous people at Burning Man that it was ruined. After 2014’s Burning Man, the media storm was over whether the existence of Plug and Play camps – one in particular – had ruined Burning Man. And now, in 2015, the big media storm is about whether a Pedophilic Sandwich Company running an advertisement has ruined Burning Man.

(I know, I know, you think Subway is the actual Pedophilia Sandwich Company. And that’s understandable. But it turns out that this sandwich company had a senior executive arrested for soliciting sex with a 13 year old waaaaay before Subway. So I think the name fits, and I encourage everyone to use it from now on. And if the Pedophilia Sandwich Company objects? Hey! It’s a parody! They believe parody justifies anything, right? No harm, right?)

I don’t know if going from “celebrities are destroying Burning Man!” to “pedophilic sandwich advertisements are destroying Burning Man” is progress, but I do think that under the surface these media storms are really all about the same thing:

The lines between “Burning Man Culture” and what we used to call “The Default World” are blurring into non-existence. All this is what happens when these cultures collide.  And not only has it gotten weird, it’s going to get weirder.

In fact, the weirder it gets, the more successful we probably are.

Weirdness is good because it means that the cultures are running into each other in unexpected ways, and unexpected is what we want because – let’s be honest here – the expected way that counter-cultures go is that they end up with high end boutique product lines at some of our nation’s hippest online retailers. Expected is quite literally buying the t-shirt.

“But isn’t that what’s happening now?” I hear so many people ask.

To which an honest and straightforward answer is: Dear God no! Where did you get that idea?

Since 2013 Burning Man culture has had an active discussion about how it can get fewer celebrities to come to Burning Man, and if they do come how to get them to shut the hell up. Now tell me: what other part of our world is clamoring for fewer celebrities? Who is planning events wondering: “How can we keep celebrities from taking their pictures with us?” Who else is asking “Can get celebrities to stop Tweeting about us?”

Name me another organization in the world that, if a famous and marginally talented pop singer crashed her Segway at their event, wouldn’t have put GIFs of it on their homepage and be selling the t-shirt?

Burning Man stands out.

And let’s be honest here: the usual course is that a Pedophilia Sandwich Company pays an organization a lot of money to use its name and trademarks in their pedophilic advertising, and then they come out with joint merchandising: cups, toys, t-shirts. It is not usual – not at all usual – for a Pedophilia Sandwich Company to create a commercial under the guise of parody to try and link their product, and then get sued.

What’s happening with Burning Man right now is challenging, yes, but it is also a perfect demonstration of just how little Burning Man’s engagement with the wider culture resembles business as usual.

Honest-to-God, when people accuse Burning Man of “selling out” I have to wonder: do you actually know what selling out looks like? Because suing to keep your name out of media spots isn’t it.

Don’t get me wrong – Burning Man has made many questionable decisions. But they resemble lapses in judgment far more than they do inviting commercial exploitation.

The broader culture is, without a doubt, doing its level best to appropriate and cash in on Burning Man culture (I’ve worked in marketing, and sat in meetings where VP’s have asked “How do we market to the Burning Man demographic?”), and it’s caused problems. It will continue to cause problems. But while it is an imperfect process – could it have been any other way? – Burning Man is so far engaging the world largely on its own terms.

That is not easy. It will probably get harder. Burning Man will surely have to up its game.

Which is where we come in.

Because the Burning Man organization’s capacity to react to these impacts with the larger culture are actually fairly limited; legal action, though sometimes effective, is a very blunt tool. Nor does the organization actually represent the culture, or even individual burners.

Yet often – and oddly – it the very people who argue the loudest that the Burning Man organization doesn’t adequately represent the Burning Man culture who are the ones most caught up on the question of how the Org will handle something.

We’ll all follow the Org’s legal battles with interest I’m sure, but the most significant question is not “how will the Org handle Plug n’ Play and the Pedophilia Sandwich Company,” but how we will.

If Burners ultimately allow themselves to be defined by those who would exploit us as “consumers,” then in the end Burning Man will probably be consumed by market forces.  If, however, we find ways to live and respond to the world as something other than people who are defined by their branding and purchasing choices, then the forces seeking to appropriate Burning Man will have very little power over us.

I’ve proposed Art Vikings as a partial solution to Plug n’ Play camps, and obviously support any campaign to make sure the Pedophilia Sandwich Company is associated with pedophilia across multiple media platforms. I think any company interested in preserving some semblance of a brand might want to be cautious about offending a community full of artists. I’m just saying: if Burners were to have an unofficial contest to see who could produce the most viral images fucking with the Pedophilia Sandwich Company’s brand … and gift them far and wide across the internet … so that  images of worms and penises in their toasted sandwiches come up high on any image search … so that the phrase “cannibalism” and the name “Jeffrey Dahmer” are permanently associated with them on social media …

Well, that would potentially be an effective way to communicate that we choose to engage with those who would market to us on our terms, not theirs.  We as a culture can do far more to make marketing gurus terrified of going near Burning Man than the Org and its lawyers can, simply by insisting that we are not passive recipients of commercial messages.

But my strategies may not be your strategies – your mileage may vary. And rightfully so. The whole point of do-occracies is that they don’t move in lock-step.  I’ll be shocked and disappointed if, out of the whole community of Burners, my approaches are the most effective.

But too often we tend to think of these issues and these confrontations as top-down processes: “what is the Org doing? Is it doing the right thing?”

That’s a relevant question, but it’s ultimately the wrong question. To be a Burner now is to be standing right on a dissolving boundary line between Burning Man and commercial culture. How you choose to handle the weirdness this creates – and who you choose to be in it – ultimately determines where both cultures end up.

It will not be easy. It will be disruptive and weird – if we do it right. But be confident that whatever you do will make a difference. The belief that there’s nothing we can do, that selling out and capitulation, not just by Burning Man but by you personally is the only way this could go, is business as usual’s first line of defense.

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

16 Comments on “Forget the Legal Questions About Sandwiches — Are Burners “Consumers?” Or Are We Something Else?

  • anon says:

    I like the cut of your jib Caveat Magister. Your post made me laugh out loud by the complete ridiculousness of your idea and the thought that it just might actually work. Quiznos could be the new Santorum!

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  • This post is full of golden nuggets. Thank you for your consistent voice of reflection.

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      Heh – funny you should say that. There have been several occasions where I’ve written something, gone to post it, then seen you had something up, looked your piece over, and thought “Do I even need to post now? Seems like Halcyon’s got this …”

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  • Franko says:

    I love this entire idea so much, but I have to ask: that “Art Vikings” piece was posted in 2011… what is the follow-up on that idea from the intervening burns? HAS there been such “viking-like” raiding parties staged on P&P camps? if so, BRAVO! i want tales of the exploits. if no, then why not? Staging war on the internet is one thing, and more easily done… bringing the conflict to the playa in a humorous, but instructive way is a whole other matter.

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      When I first posted the Art Vikings piece, I got a number of emails and requests from people asking how they signed up. And I’m afraid I told them I wasn’t the leader they were looking for. At the time (2011) I had a fairly involved on-playa volunteer gig (volunteer coordinator for Media Mecca) and simply didn’t have the bandwidth. Nor – and I think this is vital – did I want to half-ass it. Because you’re exactly right: if Art Vikings aren’t humorous and instructive, if they aren’t an invitation to play, then they’re just mean and counter-productive. If it’s to be done it has to be done right: it’s very advanced pranking.

      So I’m afraid I don’t have any on-playa stories to share: I’ve been all theory and no practice so far. I heard rumors this year of people doing something that sounded very much like Art Vikings, but couldn’t get anything confirmed.

      It is possible … conceivable, could-be, too early to tell, maybe, who knows, I’ll deny everything … that I am talking with some people about some thing for next year that could involve Art Viking like elements. But that’s a long way off. And I deny everything.

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  • roissy says:

    Caveat, about one out of ten of your postings are brilliant, this is one of them…

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  • no shame says:

    Are burners consumers? Of course they are.. How can they not be? To be able to enjoy this wonderful week-long fest, burners are paying. They pay for a week-long trip to BRC. If you come from Europe, the cost will be high. That already is consumerism for me.

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  • UNCLE BUBBA says:

    Before the first bite of granola and sip of potable water was consumed by the first burners on the playa the sell out to capitalism and the man had happened. Humans (living) are consumers. I only saw living human burners on the playa. We as burners can shade and hide the signs of capitalism while we are celebrating Burning the Man. Yet we ALL have to get our hands dirty in commerce to live on the earth. I love it all.

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      I don’t mean to suggest that the use of currency or the purchasing of goods and services is itself a problem.

      I’m referring instead to the assumption that we must be passive recipients of the messages to consume, that our proper place is to sit quietly and be hit over the head with an endless stream of inane marketing adding up to the lesson that our only role in this society is not to make, or do, or engage or offer new alternatives but to select from pre-fabricated brands … and that we couldn’t possibly have the right to hold anything sacred if someone could use it to make a buck.

      Capitalism itself is not in any way incompatible with such principles as Communal Effort, Participation, or Immediacy, Capitalism *as we are expected to practice it* is.

      There is systemic assumption driving this whole encounter that any attempt to engage with that which poisons our souls (let alone our community) is illegitimate – and any creative response is illegitimate.

      If we must have commerce – and we very well might – then let us be co-creators, rather than victims. Let us be creative, rather than inert. Let us meet those who would market at us on our terms, rather than theirs.

      Get it? There’s a difference between capitalism which says “we utilize a marketplace” and capitalism which says “you need to sit down and shut up while we market at you.” The former has plenty of room for creation: the latter requires us to be consumers.

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  • Kookaburra says:

    “We’ll all follow the Org’s legal battles with interest I’m sure, but the most significant question is not “how will the Org handle Plug n’ Play and the Pedophilia Sandwich Company,” but how we will.” — Caveat Magister.


    Bravo. Thank you for reminding us about one of the core human design principles — That of people having an active role in the design of their world — that is how we perceive it, how we actively create it and the narrative we tell others about it. All these actions create Burning Man, and they can equally destroy it. WE have to take responsibility for our role as people, as members of the community, as connected to the social network that expresses the experience that is Burning Man. A network that within it has a community called ‘the Org’ .. but it also has thousands of other communities, akin to families. And each of those has a responsibility in how they and their family participate, both on the playa and off it.

    Love and light.

    p.s. As I sit here in my old gum tree. I am merry merry king of the bush you see. I laugh. Oh how I laugh. Reading your blog posts creates such a wonderfully happy and gay old time for me. ;-)

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  • anonymous says:

    Really a boring piece. Uncritical of BM, its corporate board, and yet somewhat slanderous to Quiznos.

    The point I think I derive most from this and other Bmorg flunkies is that no criticism whatsoever is allowed of BM or its wannabe guru founders.

    This whole thing would have blown over if the response to the parody was ‘who the fuck cares’ but that would have called for a level of maturity not on display here.

    There really is no difference between BM and the ‘default world’ despite pretensions to the otherwise. BM unleashing its attorneys is just more proof.

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  • anon says:

    Where’s the consent from each of the people in this video?

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  • The Hustler says:

    I noticed something: the ones who are the most Tea Party/conspiracy theory sort of angry with Burning Man for “selling out, man” are the ones who do the most to see that it does; ignoring that no one pranks or laughs at the Burning Man community with more gusto than burners, and seemingly angry that the Borg defends (through various means: IP, Media Mecca) the things we hold most dear.

    They can go to Coachella and whine about Jade Helm and chemtrails.

    This brings me to a few ideas I was kicking around, which include raids, kidnapping and probably getting into some trouble. (What ar they going to do? Fire me? Revoke my meal pass or comped ticket? Ha!) I realize I’m still in the post-burn probation period for doing anything retarded/awesome, so I’ll lay low and ponder the possibilities.

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