In a recent article, burner and economist Conner Smith asked “Does Burning Man work?”
Smith acknowledges by the end that asking this question “is missing the point entirely,” which is one of the reasons why his piece (for all my quibbles with pieces and parts) is worth reading.
But I want to emphasize this point, and extend it: because asking “does Burning Man work?” isn’t just missing the point, it’s utterly nonsensical. And therein lies one of the most potent, and revolutionary, aspects of Burning Man in the modern world.
Burning Man has no purpose. It’s pointless. Utterly pointless.
There’s nothing for it to “work” at.
Many people go to Burning Man in the hope of changing their lives. Which – great, if you want to do that. Burning Man has an extraordinary record, going back 30 years, of dishing out transformative experiences that let people become who they want to be. Happens all the time.
But that’s not what Burning Man’s “for.” That’s not what it’s about, designed towards, or attempting to achieve. If Burning Man doesn’t change your life, that doesn’t mean you did it “wrong.”
If Burning Man isn’t like therapy, it also isn’t like a museum – where you ideally should leave more edified and edumacated than you came in. Camps may have educational agendas, just as they may have transformative ones, but Burning Man itself has no educational agenda. A burner who knows 6 of the 10 Principles isn’t doing any “better” than a burner who knows 4. Or who says “wait, ten what now?”
I’m not saying education is bad. Heck, I can probably name 8 of the 10 Principles. I love this shit. But there are a whole lot of people who actually leave Burning Man knowing less than when they came in, and that’s not a problem. Not a failure. Because there’s no expectation that anybody has to learn anything. Knowing less might even be good for them.
Burning Man’s not even like an amusement park, where the damn thing clearly isn’t working if people aren’t having fun. Most people are absolutely fucking miserable at least some of the time at Burning Man. I’m guaranteed – absolutely guaranteed – at least two major existential crises that week. And those aren’t the “wrong” parts of Burning Man, the “bad” parts – those are just Burning Man. Burning Man doesn’t exist to give anybody a good time.
It’s not here to change you, improve you, educate you, give you pleasure – Burning Man has no purpose. “Burning” isn’t a thing we do to reach some other goal, it is simply a thing we do for its own sake.
And once you take the question of utility away … once you stop asking what Burning Man is supposed to be “for” and the kind of experience you therefore need to have if you’re going to do it “right” – you take the whole notion of efficiency off the table, and shove it to the corners of your life. Because if Burning Man has no purpose, its purpose can’t be achieved any more efficiently.
Burning Man is an “efficiency third” culture. And once you put efficiency, that master virtue of business consultants and tech entrepreneurs and time management seminars, way down on the priorities list, things don’t collapse into mediocrity. On the contrary: they get really potent.
Because when there is nothing to gain, nothing to be pulled towards, everyone gets to do what they really want to For a week you’re stuck, trapped, with having to decide what’s really important to you right now, in this moment, with no way to win.
It is only at that point that many people start to change their lives and learn new things and take what may very well be the world’s greatest master class in social transformation – and many other people dance their asses off all night, teach strangers how to make necklaces, sing pirate songs, or build giant mazes. Burning Man absolutely empowers people to go out and change the world and rebuild areas hit by natural disasters and help refugees – if that’s what they want to do – but no more so than it empowers people to build a giant space whale, or an art car that serves fresh grilled sandwiches, or pretend to be the world’s worst encyclopedia salesman. Most people end up building communities of some kind, not because they need to but because they really want to. Practicality is simply not the point, and efficiency is only valuable to the extent that it improves the experience you’re having, rather than the one someone thinks you ought to have.
It just so happens – and what a lesson for the rest of the world this is – that when intrinsically motivated people have a fun and meaningful time doing something that is important to a community, it often ends up going a lot better than if you put efficiency first. That’s a valuable insight – one that constantly inspires people, year after year.
But it only “works” because it can’t possibly “work.” Burning Man is an engine of possibility because it has no point. It’s what we do for its own sake that matters.
Photo by Dan Adams