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.
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.
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