The Case of the Missing Man — Part 9 — The Quick and the Iconographic

Somewhere in the Multiverse someone is building the Man. Not just A Man but THE Man. Or are they?! This is Part 9 in a series of updates posted by Caveat as he follows the tangled trail as an agent of the Philosophical Center. Read all the posts here


Burn night. But I never expected it to go down like this. 

Dave X had stolen the plans for the Man, but someone had put him up to it and distributed them publicly. He’d finally given me a there “where” — a set of GPS coordinates in another universe. He’d promised me that if I went there, I’d find out “who.”

Something that Stuart, who’d brought me in from retirement to work another job for the Philosophical Center, suddenly didn’t seem to want me to know. Too bad I’m the kind of philosopher who asks the hard questions: like “why is there something rather than nothing?”and “Who planned that heist?” 

Not even Aristotle got that one right. He’d thought that the butler did it. But then, the ancient Greeks always did blame the workers. 

I borrowed an art car — it looked like I was driving a lottery ticket. I think it was a commentary on consumerism, but I’m not sure. The part that said “you have to play to win!” shot fire. I began the trip. The long trip I’d made so many times before, out of California, into Nevada. I shifted into fifth gear, checked my mirror, switched lanes and changed universes. In this new universe, everyone had worn Stetson hats except Larry. They’d called him “The Hatless Man.” The first thing people in this universe asked when they saw the Burning Man wasn’t “what does it mean?” but “where’s his hat?” Also, in this universe, no one knows where cheese comes from. It’s a mystery. Scientists just find snack trays lying around with yellow and white cubes of cheddar on them. 

Stuart called me not long after I’d cleared out of town. 

“Where the hell are you?” Stuart asked. “I know it’s not you on your account in virtual reality.”

“What gave it away?”

“You kept trying to talk to me about cryptocurrency.”

“Looks like you got me,” I said, driving further away.

“You were supposed to meet me in Sparkleverse. Or BRCvr, or something, somewhere. Was it last Blursday? I can’t think straight with this headset on. But I was just gifted a nice virtual electrolyte popsicle, so there’s that. And I met a newbie who made me cry from the beauty of it all.” 

“I think there may have been something in that popsicle,” I replied, using my calm Zendo voice. “Have you been virtually dosed?”

“No, of course not,” he answered. “Anyway my resistance is too high. But where are you? You’re missing all the interactive play!”

“‘Interactive’ in a digital context means something completely different than ‘interactive’ in a physical context, and the term’s become overused to the point of uselessness!” I shouted. “Besides, I’m doing what you asked me to do: finding the missing Man. And I think I finally know where it is!”

He chuckled softly. “So much striving, Caveat, isn’t it time to just let it all go? Desire is a trap, you know that. There’s still time to join me in BRCvr, they’re keeping it open for a few more days. We can hang out, philosophize, it will be just like the old days.”

“Those days are gone, my friend, I answered. “And so am I. I’ve got a date with Destiny.”

“Ooh, new girlfriend? Tell me everything…”

I hung up on him. There’d be time to talk later — if I survived — but now I was still on the case, and the endgame was in sight.

I drove over the mountains. I drove through Reno. I drove into the desert, along familiar roads I’d traveled every year. The GPS took me closer and closer, until… at last… I reached the gate of Fly Ranch.

Fly Ranch. How original. At the end of the day, they did what everybody thought they were going to do. Part of me was disappointed, the part that works my ass off to do something different for Burning Man every year. But part of me wondered: in 2020, why make anything harder than it has to be? Isn’t this already different enough?

The gate wasn’t open, but that’s never stopped me. From here, I could see there was activity on the far side of the property, out at the site of the 1997 burn on the Hualapai Flat. That must be where they were going to burn the Man this year. But Dave X’s coordinates didn’t take me there. They curved me around, into the wetlands. I parked my car and took the rest of the trip on foot, under a glowing desert sunset. This beautiful place has always cast a spell on Burning Man Project, it’s the Daft Punk of sirens. 

I didn’t have to look at the GPS, there was only one place I could possibly be going now: the Fly geyser. In the distance, I saw a figure standing on top of the deck above the hot spring. 

He saw me. And waited.

There would be no chase. Whoever this was, we were finally going to have it out. Good. It was about time somebody Radically Self-Expressed. For a participatory culture, we sure keep a hell of a lot of secrets. 

He was stocky, clean shaven, fidgety, wearing a trench coat and a red shirt. It was only when I got much closer, and made my way up the stairs, that I realized that I’m stocky, clean shaven, fidgety, wearing a trench coat and a red shirt. 

My blood went cold as a spreadsheet in winter.

“Caveat,” he said when I arrived, nodding.

“Caveat,” I said back to him. “Well, well, well.” I took a deep breath. “I never thought you’d be the one behind it.”

“And I never thought you’d be the one trying to stop me,” he said. 

We stood there and stared, deeply disappointed in ourselves. 

From around the geyser, a familiar figure appeared.

“I believe,” Caveat said, “that you already know The Dame?”

“That’s a nice pair of goody two-shoes you’re wearing there,” she told me. “Caught any crooks in ‘em lately?”

“You sprung The Dame?” I asked Caveat. “But why? She wasn’t working with you.”

“It turns out she’s Molly Rose’s roommate,” he said. 

“She is?”

“Out on the East Coast, yeah. She left a comment in one of your last posts, talking about it. And, you know, it screws with someone’s living situation when their roommate ends up in jail.”

“I had no idea you know Molly Rose!” I told The Dame.

“I had no idea YOU know Molly Rose!” she told me. “All this time, we had no idea!”

“Yeah, that’s funny,” I said. “God, it’s a small Multiverse.”

“It really is. Expanding to an infinite size and distance made us feel more trapped than ever. Also, did I hear you know Destiny? And that you guys are dating now?”

“Can we offer you a cocktail?” Caveat said. “I’m pretty sure I know what you like.”

“Maybe one for the road,” I told him. “I’m here to take you in. But you…” I gestured to The Dame, “can go, because apparently I like Molly Rose more than I do myself.”

Two Caveats being here felt all kinds of wrong. There are very few Caveats left in the Multiverse. We’re as rare as a spare ticket at the gate. 

“Oh, no, I’m staying here for the show,” Caveat said. “Because when the Man starts to burn, it’s going to be spectacular. We’re not even supposed to be here: the permit only allows 25 people on site. If they catch us, they shut the whole thing down. Which, of course, suits me fine.”

“Why?” I asked him. “Why would you do it?” It’s the question we always ask ourselves. 

“Do what?” he asked. “Help more people participate in a do-ocracy?”

“Stealing art isn’t participation! Why would you betray the Project, after all these years?”

“The Project betrayed me!” he snapped. “It betrayed all of us! We’re in a crisis, and instead of supporting the artists and doers on the ground, it’s closed up ranks to preserve itself as an organization!”

“People in crisis need organizations!” I shot back. “We can achieve more with effective organizations than we can ever do on our own!”

“Not if the organizations are constantly telling you to wait for their decisions,” he snarled. “Our whole culture exists to encourage people to do things, to be agents of their own creativity and drive! To not ask permission! At a time when the world needs us to support people making art where they live more than ever before, we shouldn’t be telling people to spend more time on the internet!”

“We all live on the internet now!”

“We’re not helping them find their agency — clicking links isn’t participation! We’re not helping them create, we’re giving them one more video game to play while they sit and wait for further instructions!”

“Collaboration is a kind of Communal Effort, you radical poseur! Building a city in virtual reality is still building! People working together isn’t less creative, it’s more! Tragic times call for exceptional cooperation!”

“But cooperation to do WHAT, you self-important pseudo-intellectual! What is the Project even trying to achieve? A culture committed to temporary spaces and Immediacy cannot endorse simply surviving for its own sake!”

“People need tools! They need inspiration!”

“They do! But they also need less bureaucracy at a time like this, not more!”

“You’re demanding a perfect response, but if you’ve learned anything from Burning Man it’s that perfection is overrated and it’s okay to fail!”

“But if we fail we should be trying to do something amazing!”

“We’re burning the Man! We’re doing the thing!”

“A purely symbolic gesture at a time when we need actual human connection!”

“If it’s a meaningless gesture, then why steal the plans and give them away?”

“Burning a Man in your community creates that connection! But it’s only worth doing if everyone can do it!”

The Dame coughed. “Hey… just checking… what exactly are you two arguing about? It’s getting hard to tell.” 

Off in the distance, on the Hualapai Flat, a flame lit in the night. 

“You’ve failed,” I said. “They’re burning the Man. There’s a light in the darkness.”

In the sky, beyond the moon, a hundred distant flames lit in the firmament. And then a thousand. And then a hundred thousand. 

“I’ve succeeded,” he said. “All across the Multiverse, everyone’s burning their own Man! And they’re all just as official! And it’s glorious!”

“The one Man Burn brings us all together!”

“When everyone can make an ‘official’ Man, we become greater than the sum of our parts! After all, what…”

“Don’t say it!” I warned him. 

“What would…”

“DON’T SAY IT!” I shouted. 

“WHAT WOULD LARRY DO!” he shouted back.

I drew my art gun. 

He drew his. 

We fired.

The Dame screamed and leaped away. The last words I heard her shout were “You really need an editor!”

He took Surrealism in the leg.

I took DaDa in the shoulder. 

I sprung forward and we grappled, as all across the Multiverse artists lit their effigies, with one eye on the flames before them and one eye here, at the place that unites us. 

“Drop the gun!” I shouted.

“Provide inspiration, not directives!”

“Why do you have to fight about everything!”

“Why have you stopped fighting!”

The words “YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!” came out of both of our throats as his leg gave way and we lost our balance and together plunged over the railing and down, down, into the hot springs below.

Off in the distance, somebody cheered as the art grew brighter.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat Magister

A member of Burning Man Project's Philosophical Center, Caveat served as the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca from 2008 - 2013, and the lead writer/researcher for Burning Man's education program from 2016 - 2018. Caveat is the author of the The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities. 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

4 Comments on “The Case of the Missing Man — Part 9 — The Quick and the Iconographic

  • Wovoka says:

    Really wish I could have stayed with all these wonderful Burning Man posts – had been grieving, only last March, the projected loss of another reunion with like-minded Back Rockers in, as I like to say, “reality as it should be.”
    No longer.
    This is indeed “a culture that preaches the virtues of diversity, equality, and Radical Inclusion,” but it’s been impossible, lately, to switch my attention from the rampant evil spreading across our nation – indeed, the world – to this lovely, exciting dream that is Burning Man.
    So in about a week I’ll dive into Naked Reality, bringing 6 face shields, countless masks & several pairs of nitrile gloves, plus 5 cameras, on an extended driving trip to monitor the heartbeat of America.

    But I hope to see y’all next August!

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  • The Hustler says:

    The Dame has a point: good writing is a product of good editing. It’s a function of collaboration; writing and editing are functions of each other. It’s the two Caveats fighting.

    I’ve drifted from my point — perhaps I never had one.

    Caveat stole the plans to illustrate that Black Rock City isn’t all of Burning Man, it’s simultaneously unimportant, a superfluous carnival analogous to Burning Man culture and also a deeply important pilgrimage. It’s the old “fake Caveat who is also the real Caveat fighting against real Caveat who is also the fake Caveat” trick. I haven’t seen that one in a while.

    And, I was wrong about Stuart. Mostly.

    As a side note, the Caveat Magister account I created in BRCvr I didn’t talk to anyone about cryptocurrency. I did, however, visit BMIR but only once.

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  • Satan says:

    Curses! Broiled again!

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