Burning Man, Identity and The Binary

The construction of meaning has been a central focus in philosophy and social science for several decades. Philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists have sought to understand how people come to see their lives as filled with meaning and purpose.

A common trope in these debates is ‘the binary.’ A binary is the pairing of two things together — man/woman, up/down, Republican/Democrat, black/white. Each one of these items becomes meaningful in opposition to the other. That is, we understand black as being ‘not white,’ man because it is ‘not woman.’ And vice-versa. As a result, the binary becomes one component of people’s ability to understand the world around them.

Marty at his first Burning Man. (Photo by Michelle Phillips)

Burner culture draws on the logic of the binary as well. We have our ‘default name’ and our ‘playa name’ (or ‘paddock name’ as we call it here in Australia). We have the Burn, and we have the default world.

The problem with binaries is that they lock each member of a pair to the other. Here, one ‘partner’ relies on the other for definition and for meaning. The implication is that one becomes just a mirror image of the other. In other words, by defining yourself in opposition to something else, that ‘something else’ is still exercising power over you — it is still defining you.

By seeing a Burn as an opposite to the default world, as a vice-versa, we risk defining the Burn by what it is not. Doing so is not transformative. In fact, it is counter to change. It brackets off the Burn, and who we are in it, as ‘other,’ as something that is not part of the social structures and institutions in which we are all embedded.

To change the world, you have to engage with it.

This is why I don’t have a paddock or playa name. Who I am is both continuous and discontinuous with the Burn, and with my Burner identity. Ultimately, what is important and integral to me outside the Burn accompanies me to it. Equally true, what I learn and experience at the Burn I take home with me. Separating them out seems not only artificial, but counter-productive.

Ultimately, I want to see Burning Man not as something special or unique or even interesting. Rather, I want it to be mundane, ordinary, everyday.

But let me be clear: When I refer to Burning Man here, I am not referring to the fire art, or the blinky lights, or the theme camps, or parties, or shirt-cockers. What I am referring to is the social interactions and the ways in which Burning Man forces us to connect to each other, to reach grander visions of ourselves.

The ways in which it is mesmerising and frightening. The methods and madnesses through which Burner communities and culture confront rampant individualism and how it requires us to have a meaningful exchange with another human being.

If nothing else, this is the social change that is needed right now.

Marty watching the Man burn in 2014. (Photo by Michelle Phillips)

So this is the Burning Man that we must keep with us. The one that places us in liminal spaces and that puts us in moments of discomfort. Not the one that is somehow ‘against’ or an opposite to a constructed ‘default world,’ nor one in which you try and ‘reinvent’ yourself just for one week a year. Rather, it is about integrating and synthesising the new ways of being with the old – both at the Burn and not at the Burn.

At the same time, it is important to recognise that, for many people, such separations provide an entry point into the culture. The anonymity can help people explore hidden or repressed traits and desires. They can give people the opportunity to express their ‘truer’ self (if there is such a thing). And often there is an important narrative behind the name — one that is filled with meaning.

However, for those of us who see the radical potential of this movement, I would suggest that binary distinctions are unhelpful at best. At worst, they are counterproductive. As a result, we must maintain a critical awareness of when and how they arise, and what purpose they serve.

In other words, when thinking about metamorphosis, we must not only ask how things should change, we must also consider how they should stay the same.


Top photo by R. J. Kern

About the author: Marty Bortz

Marty Bortz

Marty (his real name) is a Regional Burner and social researcher. He writes about politics, public policy, and transformative event culture. He is also currently leading a process to design a new governance structure for Burning Seed, an Australian Regional Burn, which will gift a new not-for-profit entity to the local Burner community.

8 Comments on “Burning Man, Identity and The Binary

  • Drogon Supertramp says:

    You’re trying to make up a problem that doesn’t exist.

    A woman isn’t defined as “not a man”, and a man isn’t defined as “not a woman”. If this were the case, neither one would have any identity or meaning at all.

    A woman is defined by: having two X chromosomes, having female genitalia and reproductive organs, etc. Not by a “lack of maleness”.

    Burning Man is not defined by being “not work”. If that were the case, it would be indistinguishable from a fishing trip or staying at home and watching tv.

    Burning Man is defined by what it is: a crazy desert wonderland of artistic madness. Burning Man’s identity is not threatened if some people approach it as a vacation from the default world.

    Binary definitions are not at all problematic. The only problematic thing here is your misunderstanding of how binary definitions work.

    Also, it’s highly controlling to tell people how to they should approach the burn. If a person just wants a vacation from default world, who are you to tell them that’s not how their burn should go? Radical inclusion means letting people have their own experience, not trying to shame them into thinking like you.

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    • robot says:

      Actually, Drogon, your definition of woman is one of many. I’m not sure what you’re trying to accomplish in your haphazard and insulting definition, but it is proof positive that binary definitions can be, and often are, highly problematic.

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  • Alan Johanson says:

    I’ve never attended Burning Man, and therefore will be burdened with a third soubriquet: Virgin. Which is fine with me – and a bit of an oxymoron, given that I’m now a two-time widower, with 149 days under my belt since having abruptly become solitary. Again. Point is, some (such as yrs trly) will turn a blind eye to intellectualizing like the above in favor of going in with eyes wide open, naiveté bubbling over, a heart open to the experience. Binary, sha-minary … I hope you two don’t spend much time in such discussions at B.M. that you forget to have fun? I can tell you from experience: Life’s too short.

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  • Jennifer Kallmes says:

    Thank you so much for broaching this topic. It’s the very idea; that I need to be something different between my burning man life and my default life that has road blocked true growth. I had a default World/Burning man friend that pulled me aside after our first Burn together and said; she had issue with me…I was the same at home as when at Burning Man. I was so hurt…i was finally home, finally able to be myself. But found myself in no mans land between two worlds accepted in none. It was that I realized that I need nothing. My name; my identity did not matter to anyone in any world except to me. As I define and view myself. Of all the lessons; and there are more than I can remember this has been the most powerful. Thank you. My name is Jennifer. And I matter even though I choose a different set of values that the American society I am a part of…sincerely Siren.

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  • Jon Broholm says:

    This is so well-stated. Burning Man is absolutely of this world, and our world is better for it. Bring your best self to Burning Man, but make sure what you bring is authentically you. Then do the same the next place you go, and the next…

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  • Hiya on the Playa aka Stacy Braslau-Schneck says:

    I stopped calling the time/place outside of Burning Man “the default world” several years ago – I instead refer to it as “the greater outer playa” – in other words, it’s just an extension of Burning Man; it’s just the area that’s geographically beyond the trash fence.

    Similarly, I have a playa name, but I consider it just a fun accessory, like a costume item or body paint or jewelry (just look at how much more fun it is!). It’s not a mask I hide behind or use to separate myself-on-playa from myself-off-playa. But I do see a lot of people distancing their everyday self from their Burner self; I like your idea of integrating them in a conscious manner

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  • Mother Teresa says:

    I don’t know how long you’ve been burning, but do you know how you get a playa name? Some people go years before they receive one. It’s not just some wily nily thing you bestow upon yourself. It’s something given to you preferably by your camp mates whom you have been with generally for more than a year. It means something and tells a story about you and your time on the playa.

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  • Jack says:

    It’s good for people who have trouble choosing names.

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