“Decommodification” and “Cultural Appropriation” – two great conversations that go great together

Right now many Burners are having conversations about how they can discourage people attending Burning Man events from engaging in acts of cultural appropriation (like wearing native costumes) … and many other Burners are having conversations about how they can keep Burning Man decommodified, weird, and even dangerous as it grows.

I’d like to suggest that these are in fact the same conversation.

Different parts of it, absolutely. But discussions of decommodified growth and cultural appropriation are both about how people relate to cultures they don’t belong to, and how cultures react to people on their edges.  They are about how newcomers and outsiders do (or don’t) gain standing in in a culture. They are both about what we would like people engaging with an unfamiliar culture to do, and how we convey that – about the shit we would like them to cut out right now, and how we best achieve that.

More broadly, they represent specific data points in a larger conversation about how we keep cultures whole in a world that wants to break them up into pieces and sell them off to tourists.

And while both specific instances are vital to talk about on their own terms (Burning Man and native cultures, for example, are not reducible to each other, and their specific circumstances will have specific priorities and remedies), I think there’s a lot of value in connecting them through this larger conversation.

Because in many ways this is one of the fundamental questions of our time: how do we hold something sacred in a world of market forces, without turning our backs on either?

There is a basic human need to live in communities devoted to something more meaningful than just generating profits for no reason – sacrificing everything for the bottom line leaves you nothing worth living for. When only profit matters the environment is ravaged, families are torn apart, life is a constant struggle, and – eventually – terrible things happen to mass groups of people.

Holding something as sacred … not necessarily religiously, but of unconditional value, that cannot (or must not) be bought and sold … is a precondition of sustainable human existence.

At the same time, market forces are the most phenomenal engine of prosperity that human kind has ever known – and that prosperity has helped unleash extraordinary cultural innovation and artistic potential. To cut a society off from that is to invite not just poverty but stagnation. The market, to be sure, is not the only way new ideas are generated and spread, but it is a generally true that the more hostile cultures have been towards market forces, the less welcoming they have been to innovation and progress as a whole.

(People wanting a deeper dive into this dynamic should check out last year’s Philosophical Center series on Art, Money, and the Renaissance.)

This dynamic – the need for the kind of intellectual and expressive freedom that comes with a market, combined with the market’s tendency to undermine the very results of that intellectual and expressive freedom – has been long studied and debated. It links arms with colonialism; it was the obsession of Adorno and the Frankfurt School; it’s even found in the frustration many Christians feel at the way in which their major holidays have been taken over by shopping malls and greeting card companies. When someone angrily says “Jesus is the reason for the season!” they’re making a complaint in very much the same vein as “keep those tourists out of Burning Man!”

There is, in other words, a lot of background reading you can do if you’re interested in this subject. Some extraordinary analysis is out there. But what it doesn’t have is a clear solution: the mechanisms of appropriation and alienation have been exquisitely documented, but no practical solutions have been found. Socialism looked pretty good in theory back when Marx first proposed it, but, the last 100-odd years have not been kind to those seeking a dictatorship of the proletariat … possibly because the whole “dictatorship” part was just never going to go well. It is clear now – as it should have been then – that simply demanding that people give up either freedom or prosperity is a non-starter. People can offer them up voluntarily, as one does to a cause one believes in, but that’s a gift. Good things can happen when people give their time and labor and money to something they believe in – but forcing people to sacrifice their freedom and prosperity, or even their imagination, to a cause they don’t believe in is always a terrible idea.

In many ways, it seems like what we need is a space where people can voluntarily put commerce aside in order to explore and connect with each other in new ways, and come face to face with what is of unconditional value to them, and then take that back out into the world they live in.  Which … are you seeing this? … sounds suspiciously like Black Rock City and Burning Man.

Which is one of the reasons I think what Burning Man is doing is so important to the world: it is perhaps the closest thing we have to a proof of concept that we can carve a space outside of market forces in order to reinvigorate the parts of our cultures (and ourselves) that we don’t want bought and sold. This is crucial – people have been trying to figure out how to do this in a modern context for a long time.

But in pointing this out, we have to appreciate just how early and imperfect Burning Man’s efforts are. That we’ve been doing this sorta-kinda for 30 years is just a drop in the bucket. For all of Burning Man’s phenomenal growth around the world, it’s an exaggeration to say that we yet know how to scale. For all of Burning Man’s phenomenal results changing lives and empowering individuals – something that happens on a mass scale every year – we are still very much figuring out issues of ticket distribution and philanthropy and volunteerism. We’re stumbling not because we’re doing it wrong, but because this really is new territory – if people were already good at this, they wouldn’t need Burning Man.

And all this work, all this success, has brought us up to the issues that many cultures have been grappling with for a long time: how DO we encourage people who come for our cultural cachet to actually take our principles to heart? How DO we convince people that simply buying their way into our space is less worthwhile to them than engaging with us in unfamiliar ways that are outside of commerce? How do we keep people who think they admire us from becoming a parody of us?

Burning Man’s struggle is in no way comparable to those of native or oppressed peoples’ in its severity or life-and-death stakes, and of course our struggle is a struggle of choice while theirs is forced upon them. But many of the issues we are grappling with involve the same basic mechanisms of appropriation and integration. Any solutions for one may very well be useful to the other.

My hope is that by examining these issues in their broader implications, Burning Man can make common cause with those who also want to create space for their cultures, and the things they value unconditionally, that doesn’t try to shut down the market but exists outside of it. From native peoples to Christians frustrated by the secularization of their holidays, from neighborhoods resisting gentrification to scientists and makers who want to apply their skills to something that matters instead of whatever the markets demand … we may or may not want to hang out with each other, but we have a common struggle.

And I’d especially like to bring this to the attention of those many Burners who feel that “cultural appropriation” is nonsense, that it’s a made up injury, but who wonder how we can keep those hundreds of thousands of people who want to come to Burning Man but don’t know anything about it from fucking up all our fuckery.

Let us recognize one another, and learn from one another in our common struggle.

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

6 Comments on ““Decommodification” and “Cultural Appropriation” – two great conversations that go great together

  • Lynn says:

    It so sad to see people that are Haters, people who commit vandalism, people who litter our playa, ones with zero regard for the 10 principles or worst, don’t even know what they are. The camps that are not friendly and forbid you to enter to just say hi.( what are they hiding?). Each year I see a little more deterioration of our beloved Burningman. It’s heart breaking and I wish I knew how to stop this negative direction the tourist are leading the event.

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  • Kenn says:

    I agree a bit with Lynn here. I think that coming to BM should require a least a modicum of insight about what is happening there. The other day I was wondering if we could possibly require the understanding of the 10 principles in order to buy tickets. It would be a pity to see this wonderful gem we all own, slowly devolve. It is particularly clear when one is out and about on Tuesday versus Saturday. It is something that we need to address, with articles like this and with responsible discussion

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  • HoneyBee says:

    Acculturation by Choice – we may be new at it, but we are creating something amazing. Yes, there are those who don’t “get it”, but who is to say where those individuals are on their Path? If the rest of us, as conscientious members of the Burner community, set the example of living the 10 principles, we must then be patient as newcomers find their way. That being said, there are some social behaviors that no one should tolerate: theft, violence, bullying, property destruction. Like MOOP, if you see it, you own it. Make yourself a part of the acculturation process. We are all teachers.

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  • I still remember the first time I went to Pine Ridge Reservation, SD with my Italian friend… Over 25 years ago now. We were going to visit a Lakota grandmother – friend of his. When we hit town our first stop (of course) was the grocery store, to load up on food for her. I climbed out of the car, wearing jeans, a denim jacket, no shirt, headband and feathers in my hair.

    There was a van parked at the edge of the lot and the driver waved me over so I went to say hello.

    “HI!!“ he said, and shook my hand firmly. “Hi!“, I replied. “I’m Lakota. Are you Lakota?” he asked. “Nope.” I replied. He gave me a hard stare and asked, “Are you trying to be?” “Nope. I’m just trying to be me.” “GOOD!!“ he said, and shook my hand firmly again.

    I have a lot of respect for that man. Not everyone I’ve met has been so understanding. In my learning I’ve been fortunate to have had some very wise teachers from several different cultures and from each of them I’ve taken what little bits I could and woven them into my own tapestry. To this day I still have long hair (what’s left of it) because it’s the me I see in the mirror. I still wear feathers in my hat and sometimes in my hair; I wear my feathers down to show I am a man of peace, one for unity, two for balance, three for unity…

    In this culture we tend to think of costumes as ways to hide – Hallowe’en ghosts and more, but traditional costume (look it up in a dictionary) is about Revealing the face of the wearer and the people. The clothes, the songs, dances, rituals and more all have meaning. They have the same meaning whether or not anyone is wearing them, and without that knowledge they’re just empty shells. The word taboo comes from the Maori tapu – which refers to the energy surrounding sacred objects. This energy must be removed before the objects can be handled.

    Wearing mocassins on my feet doesn’t make me Native, but wearing mocassins in the woods helps me to feel a part of the earth beneath my feet. Understand the difference.

    There are villages in Ethiopia where every day van loads of people come to take the villagers’ pictures, in exchange for cash. As part of this new ritual the villagers have taken to wearing outlandish/ garish headdresses and other accoutrements in order to make themselves stand out and get paid. Village life has become a circus sideshow. Once the vans leave, the tusks, bones, etc. come off. They have no meaning. I’m not judging those people’s attempts to earn an income, but THAT to me is cultural misappropriation.


    P. S. This might be of interest to some: “The God of Mike” http://www.wolfnowl.com/our-stories/mikes-stories/the-god-of-mike/

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  • Simon of the Playa says:

    learn to MAKE kool-aid, not buy it.

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  • One of the beautiful paradoxes of Burning Man is that it is a conscious space outside of “commodification and markets” while still very much existing within the dense matrix of commodification that is the modern world. If we’re honest it forces us to examine that paradox within ourselves and admit that BRC is in no way decommodified: it’s just front-loaded with commerce all the way up until the gates open. But having a week-long break from our corporatized default environment can help us deprogram and re-orient our internal compasses, and begin to unpack what is important…and what is not.

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