We’re Starting Year 3 of Burning Man’s Cultural Diaspora — It’s Going to Get Weirder

Caveat is Burning Man’s Philosopher Laureate and has been writing about Burning Man culture and community for years. His writing does not represent the official views or opinions of Burning Man Project. Because we value Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, and Participation, the Burning Man Journal has always been a space for sharing the many diverse voices, unique experiences, and colorful stories within our incredible global community. If you are interested in sharing your perspective, please submit your story for consideration here.

This year, the Virtual Burn was a two-week extravaganza — an award-winning technological Tour de Force — that participants absolutely loved and many say should be a direction that Burning Man goes in from now on.

This year, Plan B’s “Renegade Burn” took place out on the Black Rock Desert and — despite fairly stringent requirements from the Bureau of Land Management — created a magical week that participants absolutely loved and that many say should be the direction that Burning Man goes in from now on. 

This year, Regional groups and small art groups and people like me decided not to go anywhere, but to “do Burning Man” right where we live, creating art experiences in ordinary environments. We absolutely loved it, and many say that paying less attention to the desert and huge events in order to Burn where you are is the direction that Burning Man should go in from now on. 

So this is what Burning Man’s doing next, because it’s what Burners want. Got it?

This is a new phase of Burning Man’s cultural development, now entering into — by my calculations — its third year. 

Dude, Where’s My Culture?

Back in 2016, I proposed that Burning Man had gone through four distinct cultural phases. Danger Ranger said it was five. One of us could be right and the other could be wrong, but I think it’s more likely that Burning Man culture is a paradox and whether you saw four or five phases depended on whether you were moving at the speed of light and if your cat was dead. 

When the pandemic hit, Burning Man entered a new cultural phase — though we’re only beginning to acknowledge it now because we spent so long hoping that things would get “back to normal.” But even if the pandemic subsided, they wouldn’t have. They certainly won’t now. 

To understand this fifth phase (or sixth, if Danger Ranger’s theme camp crosses the event horizon of a black hole), let me quickly run through the other four. I won’t take long, and I think this progression matters. Here we go:

First, Burning Man was an experiment: it was some people on a beach going, “Hey, what happens if we burn a life-sized wooden man? Let’s find out!” 

Second, Burning Man was a frontier: people were going out to a strange and desolate environment where there was no existing settlement, and building one. Burning Man for most of this period was synonymous with “Black Rock City,” because what else was Burning Man but going to this desolate frontier and building a temporary settlement together?

As the Regionals developed, Burning Man entered its third phase, becoming a culture: it now existed independently of its traditional location in space. It had an ethos — the 10 Principles — it had traditions, and it became something you could do anywhere. It was no longer “we go to this place,” but instead became “these are the things that we value and do.” 

As Burning Man became a truly global community, it entered into its High Culture phase, in which you had increasing collaboration between cross-cultural and transnational groups who were trying to engage in truly enormous projects and solve wicked social problems … all of which requires a level of standardization and bureaucracy to do properly. And so a kind of large-scale — though often informal — administrative state emerged even as Burning Man became more diverse, because more people from more places were trying to do bigger and bigger things together. High Cultures are more diverse in many ways, but also less diverse in others because, past a certain point, collaboration means standardization and bureaucratization. Otherwise you have to reinvent the wheel every time. 

In all these phases, Burning Man had either a location where “it” happened (Baker Beach, the playa), or cultural centers around which the axis of its global culture spun (the playa, but even more so San Francisco and Reno, where the administrative offices are). 

The pandemic changed all of that. To extend a metaphor: our culture’s capital city was gone. Further, all of our Regional capitals, where major Regional Events happened, were gone. All of our cultural centers — abruptly gone. 

The administrative centers remained … but what was there to administer? 

The literal answer to that question is: lots of stuff. It was, in fact, an administrative crisis, and preserving much of what had been done for the future was a significant challenge. 

But the figurative answer from the standpoint of a living culture was … unclear. Years before the pandemic, Burning Man Project had hoped, over time, to transition to a state in which its non-profit elements and programs for cultural development would have been robust and significant enough to exist on their own, but it hadn’t gotten there yet. The Project had been the center of the Burning Man world because it had run The Big Burn and liaised with the Regional Burns … but without those, its relevance to the daily lives of most Burners was a giant question mark.

Thus Burning Man culture entered its new cultural phase: Diaspora. A culture scattered to the winds, without a center. Without a home to be welcomed to.

The term “Diaspora” is defined as a community that identifies with a homeland but is dispersed from it, unable to return. My observation is that, conceptually, this is a useful lens through which to understand the current movements in Burning Man culture. I in no way, however, intend it to suggest the tragic severity of historical diasporas. The term is a framework through which to understand structurally what is happening in our culture in this moment — not a comparison to the historical tragedies endured by, for example, African, Semitic, and Tibetan peoples. Any serious diasporic comparison between the experience of Burners and that of actually oppressed groups is out of touch. “Burners” are not an oppressed people; we just can’t go to our cultural “home” right now, and that means we are connecting with one another differently.

What Do We Want? Everything! 

Cultures in diaspora may long for their historical and mythical homelands, but they are more directly influenced by their neighbors — by the places they actually are and what is immediately happening around them. Lacking a common center of gravity, they tend to diversify, going in multiple — even contradictory — directions at once. Which is what we see happening now with Burning Man.

Some Burners want a return to the full cultural scaffolding, painstakingly and collaboratively built over decades, because it helped them do big things that they were passionate about. It isn’t a sacrifice for them — it’s an opportunity. Other Burners are thrilled by the prospect of getting to spend more time in a frontier, because frontiers can be incredibly fun and challenging. Some want to lay claim to Burning Man being a specific place again, the Black Rock Desert. Others say the deserts of Spain and the Middle East and the lakes of the Midwest and the street corners of the Southeast are as important to Burning Man as the playa in Nevada.

The point isn’t that anyone is right or wrong: the point is that it’s all true at the same time. The center has not held, and so there are no central organizing elements with the same moral authority and cultural gravity that we used to have. Which means we’re all a more localized, fragmented, community than we have ever been before. Our passions have no common container to hold them.

Whether or not this is a good thing depends on how we respond to it.

Arguing About Fun Is Less Fun Than Doing Things

This will be a terrible time in Burner culture if we start fighting about the “one true way to Burn” — if the people who love VR can’t imagine why someone would want to go camping without roads, and the Plan B Burners say that because they had a great time no one gets to have roads again, and San Franciscans and Angelino Burners really rip into each other about how to make the best burrito … that kind of schism reduces us all.

Burning Man culture doesn’t thrive in those kinds of arguments because Burning Man culture is about discovering and supporting one another’s passions — about having so much fun that complete strangers want to join you — rather than shutting down other people’s passions and fun.

One of the things that Burning Man has had in common in all of its cultural phases was that it helped people find what they really wanted to do when the bullshit and the empty gestures of society were taken away, and then encouraged and supported them in doing just that. As I’ve written elsewhere: there is perhaps no more perfect distillation of Burning Man culture than to see someone doing something weird and amazing that you don’t understand, and asking them, “Can I help?”

If we can look on our new differences with curiosity and delight, rather than feeling threatened by the idea that other people might have different ideas about having a good time … if we can be a community in diaspora that still supports one another’s dreams and doesn’t assume that people who have different passions are unprincipled … then we will eventually emerge into whatever cultural phase follows “diaspora,” greatly enriched by all the diverse experiences people are having in their corners of our world. 

Because the more support they get, the better at it they’re going to become, until eventually they’ll offer us experiences we never imagined that will blow our minds.  

“You’re doing it wrong!” was a wonderfully funny thing to shout at each other when we all had a common center. Now, at the risk of being earnest, I think “what have you learned?” is a better thing to ask one another from our separate corners of this Burning world. 

So, How Does This End?

The diaspora is going to get weird for a while. As we pack the 10 Principles on our backs and head in different directions, looking more to the people around us than the former center of our world, we are likely to become increasingly unrecognizable to ourselves. 

The Diaspora period will end when some group or groups get(s) enough moral and cultural authority that people willingly orient themselves to what they’re doing. 

And how do they do that? The way it’s always happened in Burning Man culture: by helping other people have their own fun and meaningful experiences. Not by telling them “you need to do what I want to do,” but by helping them do what they want to do — and doing it in such a fun and meaningful way that they decide on their own that they want what you do to be part of their lives. 

Cover image of  “The Fire of Fires Temple” (Photo by Matt M.)

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

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