One of the questions I’m most frequently asked about Larry Harvey is not “what he was like” but “what he was like to work with.” People ask it not because they actually care about the mechanics of his editing and thinking, but because they want insight into his mind. To try to get a closer look.
Recently the Burning Man Project published two previously significant and unavailable pieces of Larry’s thought – an extensive collection of interviews he gave to the journalist Jeff Greenwald in 2013 and 2015, and what appears to be the last significant writing of his life, a short paper called A Guide to Gifting, Givers and Gratitude: A Treatise from the Philosophical Center.
I think going over the context and significance of these pieces is the perfect way to get to know Larry better as a thinker and an intellectual. So, if you’re interested, let’s talk a bit about that, shall we?
You want to?
Let’s start with the big picture.
A Picture is Worth 1000 Words, But Larry Said it in 400
Something that is frequently said about Larry, as the Burning Man Project releases or re-issues his writings, has long rubbed me the wrong way, because it gets something about his work fundamentally wrong. It’s the impression that Larry wrote “extensively.” That there is in fact a vast body of his work to be explored and unearthed.
This simply isn’t true. And that’s not an accident. On the contrary: it was the whole point of him as a public thinker.
Not as a private thinker, which is part of the problem. Anyone who knew him knew that Larry loved to talk. And talk. And talk. His conversations were expansive, Herculean. It wasn’t uncommon for him and me to go eight hours at a stretch on psychology, philosophy, and literature. And while eight hours was a bit much even for him, a lot of people got three and five-hour versions of those conversations. That was how he liked to live. He was constantly in dialogue with the people around him about everything he cared about — trying out ideas in conversation, testing them, expanding on them.
That’s why many people think he left this giant body of work. Because surely he was the same way in his writing, right?
No. He was not. And he was deliberately, self-consciously, not. In fact, Larry’s oeuvre is actually relatively small.
Larry put very little down for posterity precisely because in that context, as opposed to his voluminous conversations, he wanted every word to count.
Oh, sure, you’ll find plenty of posts and articles and interviews in it, absolutely. But remember: the man was doing this for over 30 years. This was his life’s work, conducted across decades.
For someone doing this for that long, and not just casually but as his avocation and day job both, he didn’t actually publish very much.
I mean, I’ve been doing this for a third of that time, mostly as a hobby, and I’ve published way more about Burning Man than Larry did. And my point is that’s not an insult to Larry — it was his strategy. He was very, very careful, deliberately careful, even ruthlessly careful, about what he put down in writing, and what he said in public speeches.
Not “intellectually cautious,” not “timid” — oh no, the man was bold as hell. I admired that so much, and was sometimes in awe. He had no patience for people who used up time and space to say nothing, and would have rather said nothing than been one of those people. He was intellectually courageous, even daring. But it’s because he was so emphatic on writing something important that he tried to write only what was essential.
Larry put very little down for posterity precisely because in that context, as opposed to his voluminous conversations, he wanted every word to count.
Larry envied me my ability to write fast and well, he would complain that he wasn’t a natural writer. But it wasn’t that he lacked talent or ability — Jesus, that couldn’t be less true. It’s that as a professional writer I had long ago stopped caring about every word, and only care about the words that I think really matter. Larry cared about every goddam word.
This sentence — this sentence right here? That I’m writing now? I’m barely paying attention as I write it, because all it has to do is convey the degree to which I’m not paying attention, and it has done so in a way that is adequate and amusing. Larry never, ever, ever, would have done that. He would have spent days turning it into a 15-word treatise on self-alienation.
He had no patience for people who used up time and space to say nothing, and would have rather said nothing than been one of those people. He was intellectually courageous, even daring. But it’s because he was so emphatic on writing something important that he tried to write only what was essential.
Oh, it could drive me nuts. We’d spend hours at his house, printing and re-printing draft copies (he preferred hard copies to editing on a screen, and simply never took to shared documents), where he would nitpick down to the microns, and then do it over again. And again. It’s easy to imagine him sharing a garden cottage with Flaubert, each spending days going over one sentence to make sure it perfectly expressed the thought it was meant to convey.
That was his process. And it couldn’t have been more different than his conversations, which were fun and experimental and happy to dive right over a ledge in the pursuit of truth.
Larry wrote very little, comparatively. It’s actually kind of shocking to me how much he went out of his way not to write anything he didn’t think absolutely needed to be written. And so, reviewing his collected works now that he’s gone, it turns out that almost all of it is essential.
With that in mind, let’s look at the two recent publications.
Out of Nothing, Everything: Conversations with Larry Harvey
I feel weirdly connected to this book even though I had absolutely nothing to do with it. That’s because the first set of interviews were conducted in 2013, which is the year Larry and I became friends, and the second round of interviews was conducted in 2015, the year Larry asked me to help establish the Philosophical Center. And so, I dunno, I kind of feel like I was involved in this book, even though I wasn’t. I suspect a lot of people have feelings like that, just as valid as mine.
This work is a hybrid between Larry’s conversation and his writing: I mean, it a book entirely of conversation, but Larry didn’t have quite as much fun with interviews like this as he did with his off-the-record conversations, precisely because he knew he was on the record. That he was speaking for posterity. Even so, I am delighted by how much of his playful spirit comes through here.
Oh, hell, I need to be more effusive: this book is SO GOOD! It is SO GOOD! It is so good that every time I look it over (and I’ve been looking at it for years, having acquired my own copy of the interviews in 2016) I wonder if I ever actually needed to write anything about Burning Man at all. Seriously, did anything else ever need to be said about Burning Man?
Well, Larry actually thought so. He felt quite strongly about it, in fact, which is why 2015 was the year he formalized the Philosophical Center to enhance Burning Man’s intellectual output. But we’ll get to that in the next section. My point is that this long series of monologues by Larry is just such superb thinking, and such a beautiful guide to his thinking at the time, that anyone who wants to get to know Larry better should consider it required reading. Much of what he thought and felt about Burning Man over the course of his life is contained within. His voice comes through clearly, as does the clarity of his thought.
I think that question of “most” and “least” “essential” would have bored Larry. His question would have been: “What is the experience that you have reading it?
Also: at about 33,000 words, it is probably the single largest collection of his thoughts. I haven’t done a comparative word count, but I suspect it’s longer than all his other writings and speeches on Burning Man put together.
And yet, still, it’s a masterpiece of concision. Part of me wants to say that this is likely the single most essential piece of Larry Harvey writing there is outside of the 10 Principles, but then I think of all his other, shorter pieces that I keep going back to and referencing in my own work, and I change my mind. Indeed, maybe it’s the least essential precisely because Larry was the writer who boiled everything that mattered to him down into the shorter pieces. I dunno — but I think that question of “most” and “least” “essential” would have bored Larry. His question would have been: “What is the experience that you have reading it?
And to that question I can only say: if you want to get a sense of the man himself, and the expanse of his thought up to 2015, this is the document.
But his thinking didn’t stop in 2015. Quite the contrary: he was escalating.
A Guide to Gifting, Givers and Gratitude: A Treatise from the Philosophical Center
Now this piece, on the other hand, I was deeply involved in the writing of and the discussion around. Larry, myself, Stuart Mangrum, and Steven Raspa all talked about the issues, then Larry and I wrote the first draft based on those notes, and after an extensive process of editing and re-writes that Larry and I did together, Larry was showing it around to people and making small changes based on their feedback and every few days showing me new copies in which words I honestly did not give a damn about had been changed to make sure they were somehow better. Sometimes they really were.
It was one of the many things we joked about. “I’ve sent you a new draft, you probably don’t care anymore, but look it over,” he said in one of our last conversations.
“No, I do care, Larry, I just …” and I tried to think of the absolutely perfect way to say can we just PUBLISH it already? There are only so many ways you can say that before you get repetitive. Larry showed he cared by further editing it and I showed I cared by wanting to publish it. But Larry would not be rushed. He could never be rushed. About a year after his death, the Burning Man Project actually asked me if I was in possession of a more recent draft of this document than the one they had on hand — and sure enough, there it was, sitting in my inbox, sent shortly before his stroke, waiting to get my feedback on words I thought were absolutely good enough five drafts ago.
But Larry would not be rushed. He could never be rushed.
It’s a pretty short and pragmatic document — both of which were deliberate decisions — and you can read it quickly. But to get to know Larry, what we should talk about is the way it’s structured, what it doesn’t do, and why we did this at all. Because these things speak to the heart of what Larry’s ambition for the Philosophical Center had become.
How It’s Structured and What It Doesn’t Do
The first thing that people usually tell me after they read it is how surprised they are by its pragmatism: they had expected something more complicated and abstract. You know, philosophy in that deep and ponderous way in which big words expressing difficult concepts are used in complicated sentences.
Larry hated that shit. Sure, he had an enormous vocabulary and wasn’t afraid of big words, but if people couldn’t actually engage with his philosophy, if they couldn’t get their hands around it and use it as a tool, if they couldn’t fit it in their heads in a way that delighted them, he wasn’t interested. He was overtly dismissive of thinkers making “castles out of air.”
He was never, ever, going to use the Philosophical Center to produce papers that were designed to appeal to experts in a way that was frustrating to beginners. We had a number of conversations, in fact, about how determined we were to protect philosophy from the academics. Which, to be clear, we didn’t mean literally. But Larry was keenly aware that within many academic circles he himself, an autodidact without advanced degrees, would not be seen as qualified to comment on his own work.
Larry loved people who got an education for the sake of learning things that delighted them enough to share — he had no patience for people who got degrees so that they could exclude other people from trying to think. The idea that a “philosophical center” would try to be the only place where thinking about Burning Man was allowed was not just to miss the point but to try to kill it. Making ideas accessible to others is not just Radical Inclusion, it makes the ideas better.
That was the ambition: not to be right, but to examine difficult subjects in ways that would be helpful and prompt additional, high-caliber thinking, without restricting freedom.
Here’s what else this treatise doesn’t do: it doesn’t actually answer any questions. It actually doesn’t tell anyone to do anything.
It is, like the 10 Principles themselves, not prescriptive. There are neither marching orders nor directives. The reader is not just assumed to be an autonomous being who is capable of making their own decisions; the reader is assumed to be in possession of information about the situation they’re in that the writers don’t have, and who therefore is the final authority on what should and should not be done in their own situation.
It is really tricky to write treatises that are simultaneously practically useful and not prescriptive. But that’s the needle that we were trying to thread with this document, and the goal of the Philosophical Center as we were conceiving it, as a whole. Nothing else would do.
Where We Were Going
The plan, the idea, was that A Guide to Gifting, Givers and Gratitude: A Treatise from the Philosophical Center would be the pilot launch of a series of treatises on difficult and challenging subjects that were coming up for the global Burning Man community.
To look at pain points (like how one can actually fundraise in a decommodified culture, like how to create bureaucracy that is also compatible with Burning Man culture, and like things we couldn’t even see yet, but that we could discover by listening to the community), talk to people dealing with the issues directly to get evidence and case studies, think about them carefully (and yes, slowly — to never be held to an arbitrary time table), and then publishing treatises like this one. Treatises that would never tell anyone to do anything, would not presume to know more than the people actually in the situation, but which could help — by dint of clear and accessible thinking — to clarify what the issues actually are, and what is at stake, and why, and what can be useful to think about.
The idea that a “philosophical center” would try to be the only place where thinking about Burning Man was allowed was not just to miss the point but to try to kill it. Making ideas accessible to others is not just Radical Inclusion, it makes the ideas better.
If we did our work well, these documents would be helpful. If we didn’t, they would hopefully prompt more helpful thinking in response.
That was the ambition: not to be right, but to examine difficult subjects in ways that would be helpful and prompt additional, high caliber, thinking, without restricting freedom.
And that, I think, was Larry’s personal ambition, as a thinker, as well. That’s where he was having the most fun. Which is why he so often quoted William James’ dictum: “Belief is thought at rest.” Being “right” was never the goal of Larry’s highest thinking, or the thinking he took delight in, it was just a by-product that happened along the way.
I hope you enjoy these newest publications.
Top photo: Larry Harvey, (photo by Juan P. Zapata)