Am I a “Burner?”

I’ve recently been traveling around the U.S. talking to people in open forums about Burning Man’s philosophy and culture, and periodically I’m going to post about some of the questions people have raised and some of the discussions that have been had.

The first thing I think needs to be said was brought up by an impassioned man who had been active in several local Regional events, but never been to Black Rock City.

What he wanted to know, what he wanted validated, was: “I’m really a Burner, right? I’m not less of a Burner than people who go to BRC?”

And look, there’s no committee that decides this. There’s no equivalent of a Burner Pope who issues encyclicals on something like this. Burning Man culture does not permit an authority who can validate you, either to yourself or others. And to the extent people set themselves up as such authorities, they can be mocked.

But … but … I do have a personal opinion on that, which I told him. And it’s one I’ll gladly defend anywhere, any time. And that is:

People who “burn” where they live, but don’t go to Black Rock City, are much better Burners than people who go to Black Rock City, but don’t burn where they live.

This is, I think, basic to what Burning Man actually is. As I’ve written elsewhere, “The premise of festivals like Woodstock and Coachella is that “You had to be there to experience it!” The premise of Burning Man is: “I can do this myself!”

My opinion doesn’t mean more than anyone else’s, but I think that reasonably, at this point in Burning Man’s evolution, this is as fundamentally true as it gets.

Top photo: “Identity Awareness” by Shane Pitzer (photo by Christopher Robin Blum)

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

21 Comments on “Am I a “Burner?”

  • Wovoka says:

    You guys & girls are really, really good at keeping the flock from straying too far with all these sometimes-daily Journals. Food for the starving soul and all that: Keep the faith, baby. Who needs church or synagogue or temple when we can be transported – not just once in our life but each year – to a higher plane, er, Playa?
    All I can say is, you hooked and reeled me in after just one measly visit. You bet yore butt I’ll show up next year and until then, KEEP THEM LETTERS COMIN’!

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  • Rocking Daddy says:

    True that. Still, let’s make sure new members are authentic.

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  • Lamplighter Scott says:

    Burning Man, the event, wherever it is held, is an fun and fulfilling artificial construct to me that lets participants experience the possibility of connection with others in ways that are sometimes hard to achieve day to day. The more we participate, the more we learn about that and ourselves. Many get to the point that we feel we don’t need the dust and just start to live life fully with the principals in our daily lives, not to possibly ever attend an event again. Sad in some ways, but that leaves room for more to explore.

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  • Shannon Wells says:

    This year was a first for me. I left BM with a new outlook of my role as a human. If I’m sincere about change I must continuing the practices and lessons learned, taught me by generous burners.
    To teach others to be more environmentally aware, to love one another with expressions of sharing, kindness, understanding, it begins with my daily life.

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    • Lesa Kramer says:

      Right ON! My first, life changing year was 2001, and came home to FLA 2 days before towers toppled. I returned to live in home state, Cali in 2004, and went almost every year, (last trip 2013) with sincerity, caring and understanding to the principles; follow in my personal and professional life. Planning for next year? xoxo PS> Giving back for me is taking care of that lone person on outer ring, from so far away, bewildered, in a rent a car, crappy tent, and some freeze dried food…Welcome to our off the grid, wonderland! Always camped 8:45 ish, 3 block ish, in (HINT!). Burn ON/Ignore poop comments:)

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  • Jane says:

    Often times I wonder if I’m a Burner. I built an art car and I go to Center Camp to give people gifts (necklaces that I make). And after I get home and I look in the mirror I see – Yes, I’m a Burner because I’m not a dirty minority.

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  • street view says:

    I also think as the same like you. The only way to understand is that you have to experience on your own. I have been in that situation and my advice is that you have to believe that you can do it (just like in the post). It sounds theoretical but it’s true for me

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  • Facetious Raccoon says:

    I’m not a burner, I just work here

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  • Penguin says:

    “a burner” is not a correct phrase that just creates confusion – it would be like saying “I am a hungry” or “I am a tired”. There really isn’t such a thing as “a” burner – it’s not a thing it’s a state of being, a belief, an understanding. Where you go or what you do doesn’t define you, it is what is within you that defines you.

    Much better to say “I am burner”. This who understand will understand :)

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    • Perstephanie says:

      “I am burner” infers that completes you and sums you up. I don’t mind being referred to as a burner, but by no means is it the be all, end all of my existence. I’m multifaceted; being a burner is just part of me.

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      • Penguin says:

        Not sure I see how it would infer that it completes you if it is a single state of being. I can say “I am happy” and “I am tired” at the same time so why can’t I say “I am burner” and be more than just that? To me it would be similar to being democratic without being a democrat – the whole adjective/noun thingie.

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  • YourMotherIsABoat says:

    Only way to expand the product market is to un-couple the term from the location based event. Hard to sell people on stuff if they think they actually have to show up in that desert…

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  • Jenny Wonder says:

    Burning Man has long outgrown its bounds of Black Rock City. The future of burning is dependent on regionals and burners burning in place. The principles are meaningless if they are only observed on playa and do not carry over into reality camp. You can be a badass burner and never set foot in Black Rock City.

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  • Joshua Carroll says:

    I self-identify as a burner and also have been trying to reduce the use of this dichotomy in public / community language, I think it’s unnecessarily othering.

    In my humble opinion, the very wisest philosophy on this topic was the original one by the Cacophony Society: “You may already be a member!”

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  • Gerflash says:

    As it turns out, Caveat, your opinion does mean a whole lot, and probably more than many. Your articulation was spot on. I’ve been to BRC 16 years in a row; and I do burn where I live; and I feel I’m a burner, but not having ever been to any regional burns, I do feel that I’ve been missing a lot. Really hope some day that my schedule will allow attending regionals!

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  • william quintin says:

    OK Burner.

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