When Is Gifting Not Gifting?

Some of my least favorite experiences as a Burner are when we become victims of our own success.

Often this happens when the “default world” culture takes something that we do, misunderstands it (sometimes accidentally, sometimes willfully), and then tries to sell a nonsense version of it back to us. 

In 2016, I wrote about how this had happened with “transformational” as a description of an event. Burning Man was a pioneer, indeed a paradigmatic example, of modern “transformational events.” For a while, that terminology was relatively unique to us, and it described something particular: it described our set of cultural practices and concepts and how we used them. We leaned on the word “transformational” too hard, but it actually did describe something, and usefully distinguished what we did from other things.

But then imitators came along and described their events as “transformational festivals” using the term to refer not to a specific set of practices and ideas but to a vibe. You know … there would be dancing and costumes and positivity and stuff. It wouldn’t be the same thing as what Burning Man was doing, but it would kinda feel like it and look like it from a distance, so why not use the same word to describe it?

It worked, and so the word moved on from festival marketing to marketing departments in general, and suddenly people were describing their products … bottles of wine, somatic workshops, time-share condos, tours of celebrities’ homes … as “transformational.” At which point the word not only meant nothing at all, it made me want to vomit every time it came up. 

Worst of all: it no longer usefully described the specific things that we were doing. The word turned into marketing lingo in our mouths, thus communicating the opposite of what we were actually trying to convey. Far from an experience of Immediacy and Radical Self-reliance undertaken outside of commerce (among other things), “transformational” came to mean a curated experience or item that you buy in order to feel a certain way. 

Which brings me, in 2024, to the word “gave.” Does anybody else remember that “gave” used to be a word? One that most people used instead of “gifted?”

Because that seems to have changed. 

Let’s Visit Historical Linguistics Camp

Not long ago, saying that you had “gifted” somebody something identified you as a member of a particular set of cultural practices, very much tied to Burning Man (by way of Lewis Hyde). Lately, though, it seems like the words “gave,” and “give” have gifted up the ghost. “Gifted” is everywhere they used to be. And I find myself asking: “wait, did we do that?”

The answer is “not entirely,” but I think mostly. An article in Merriam-Webster notes: “While it’s true that gift has meant “to present someone with a gift” for 400 years, the verb has never been so widely used as it is now.” “Gift-as-a-verb in 1995 was already seeing an increase in use that seems to have begun in earnest around 1960, but that increase became especially dramatic in the second half of the 1990s.”

The learned dictionary cautiously credits Jerry Seinfeld for the change, because of a 1995 “Seinfeld” episode which coined and popularized the term “regifting.” Which … sure … that was a thing. But I can think of something else that was growing exponentially beginning around 1995, which would explode into American counter-culture consciousness with a Wired cover article in 1996 and become a cultural juggernaut over the next 20 years. 

Which is to say that likely, yeah, Burning Man’s use of the word “gifting” has been successful enough to be absorbed into common English. Go us?

But … does it mean the same thing? 

No, no it does not. I mean, obviously. What happened with “transformational” is now happening with “gifting,” and it’s arguably worse.

A Stealth Homonym Doesn’t Smell as Sweet

“Gifted” in common English is increasingly being used as a synonym for “gave,” in a way that flattens all other meanings. I’ve seen it used to describe holiday gift giving (as in “I gifted it to her for Christmas,”), ordinary acts of object transfers (“He asked if he could use my spatula and I gifted it to him,”) and … worst of all … consumer exchanges.

Consider this passage from an excellent essay about the cultural impact of the movie “Oppenheimer” being run on traditional film as part of its release:

“Barbenheimer gave people a reason to go to the movies, gifting them a cinematic experience that had not been embraced since before the pandemic, arguably with Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame’ in 2019.” 

Wait, what? No no no no no … the studios didn’t “gift” anyone anything — they created movies that people paid to see. They were good movies, I liked them, this isn’t about the artistic quality of the movies — but the movies weren’t gifts. There was literally not one gift in the whole studio process. This was a strictly commercial transaction. 

And there’s nothing wrong with that! I saw Barbenheimer, and I apologize to no one for it! I would like to appear in the sequel as “Burning Man Ken,” even though I’m pretty obviously “philosopher Alan.” But … if there’s one thing that “gifting” doesn’t mean in a Burning Man context, it’s a commercial transaction. The very definition of “gifting” in the 10 Principles is: 

Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.”

Now there’s a lot of room within that for disagreements about best practices, about who’s doing it wrong, about whether the patches at the People’s Front of Judea are better than the stickers at the Judean People’s Front … a thousand arguments can and will bloom. But we’re always talking about something unconditional. We’re always talking about a non-commercial transaction. We’re always talking about something that exists outside of obligation. 

So what we have is a word that has been used to describe a specific cultural practice we developed, one that is vitally important to how our culture and community works, now being used in general language to describe the exact opposite.

This… can’t be good. At the very best, it limits our ability to explain our culture to the world. At its worst, it’s replacing our most important cultural practices with a watered down, parody, version of themselves. 

But (as with “transformational”) it’s a problem that we see every time we actually do make a breakthrough into the larger culture, and one we haven’t figured out how to address yet. 

What They Don’t Know Can Hurt Us

This is hardly the first time that an element of Burning Man culture has been appropriated and made generic in the larger culture. The Burning Man “look” has been used to sell everything from sandwiches to exclusive getaways; the image of something as close to Black Rock City as trademark law will allow is used to sell cars and promote music; people still (unlawfully) put the Burning Man symbol craft projects they sell. 

In each case, what Burning Man actually is and means is not only diluted, it’s at risk of being lost. 

It happens in a less direct, less obvious, way too. “Radical Self-reliance” gets turned into a consumer ethos of outdoor wear and survival gadgets and glamping equipment. Rather than, as the principle says, encouraging the individual to “discover, exercise, and rely on their inner resources,” in this version of “self-reliance” the individual is encouraged to rely on what they can buy. Not the same.

“Immediacy” is often confused (sometimes even by Burners) with “instant gratification.” Instead of being present in the world as it is, and the experience one is having, one has a desire and then wants to get what one wants “IMMEDIATELY!” And so a principle that is intended to open one up to the present moment becomes a call for faster delivery services. Not the same. 

It’s always a problem, but there’s also a pattern. No one ever tries to appropriate Decommodification. They’ll argue over its exact use and meaning, sure … they’ll do that endlessly … but no one ever appropriates it for some other purpose, because … well … it’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to use Decommodification to sell stuff.

In virtually every case (I’ll address some exceptions in a later post), Burning Man’s language, principles, and cultural practices are appropriated in the service of commerce. People who are genuinely interested in what we’re doing, what our culture is, are mostly willing to ask the questions and do the work needed to understand it, while people who want to find a way to sell stuff only need the outer shell of what we do, and discard all the parts and practices that make cashing in difficult. Then they tell us “but this is what it REALLY means!” 

It’s not a good faith debate when one side is trying to understand what a principle of culture is and the other side is just trying to stick a price tag on it. 

We are not budging an inch, but our culture is being counterfeit and sold underneath us. And unless we can explain who we are and why it matters clearly, people believe the knockoff because it’s more familiar and less work.

We Have to Juggle Many Things at Once. We Can Juggle, Right?

There’s a natural inclination in the face of this to stick-to-our-guns even harder, to hunker down and repeat our existing explanations and stories even louder. And to some extent this is correct, we can and should do that. The whole point is not to lose what we’ve had: to hold on to what we’ve created in the face of a world that wants to package it and sell it back to us as something less. 

But it’s not enough. 

Culture, like people, is dynamic. It adjusts, it adapts, it evolves. It changes. The world has changed a lot over the last 5 years — before the pandemic, during the pandemic, after the pandemic. Burning Man is in a new cultural phase, one that makes it harder to develop a shared global vocabulary through discussion. As a result, we must simultaneously celebrate and honor what we’ve created, holding it close, and also find new ways to express it, new frontiers. Some of this will be conversational — talking about who we are and what we do — but even more essential will be demonstrating it. Finding new ways to express Gifting and Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance and Radical Self-expression. Finding new frontiers for Immediacy and Communal Effort. 

One of the reasons the Mudpocalypse was actually such an effective cultural moment for us — one of the ways it cut through all the bullshit that the media tries to pin on us — was because people could see us reacting to a crisis in a different way than they’d expect. They wanted stories of people going feral and turning on each other at the first sign of scarcity, or at least a Fyre Festival debacle. What they saw instead, over and over, was people who were well prepared and willing to share with complete strangers; instead of carnage in the mud, they saw people creating art out of the mud. We did things differently, and mattered. 

The world has changed. What are we doing to demonstrate that Burning Man culture has more to offer it than its commodified, appropriated, imitation? To some extent one can look to the Regionals, who are doing it by reigniting Burning Man’s emphasis on small-scale, human, experiences. I think that can only help.

Fundamentally, we will take back cultural ownership of our own cultural concepts when we do more with them — when we experiment with new ways to decommodify, to give gifts, to engage in acts of Radical Self-expression, and do so without the self-justifying bullshit of needing to sell something. Burning Man wins not by retreating into its fortress, but by continuing to find new ways to engage the world on our terms, and let anyone play.

Cover image of Organic Fruit and Veggie Camp (Photo by Bill Klemens)

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

17 Comments on “When Is Gifting Not Gifting?

  • Suzanna Marlow says:

    I always enjoy your essays & reflections. I’m not a Burner, missed my opportunity to go early on, & now don’t know if I’ll ever go. Getting old. But I have had an interest in it, the community, the people that make this happen. Loved your book Turn Your Life Into Art. Great book. Great ideas. Inspiring. Keep doing what you do. And, thanks!

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  • Kangaroo says:

    Caveat, we’ve likely never met. I’ve only been at the desert scene since 2003, knew about it maybe 5 years earlier. Read your ‘Cities’ book, was given to me by a burner friend. All very earnest stuff in there, didn’t explain why I go to Black Rock City every year. I don’t care if every winery, festival and etsy store on earth use terms that have come to be associated with so-called ‘burning man culture’, because they will never be the real thing. I also don’t care if I can’t explain what I do on the playa in exclusive terms. Burning Man is an amalgamation of cultures, beliefs, lifestyles, and reasons-for-living-and-creating that is glued together with a carnie wicked sense of humor. That humor element is what’s missing in the world’s perception of the event (and no mention of that in your book?); really helps to be in on the joke (we’re camping in the harsh desert bringing crazy creations and giving up work, time, and loads of cash to do so) to see how to bring ‘burning man culture’ to the outside world. Last year was better! ;-)

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      No mention of humor in “The Scene That Became Cities”? Are you *sure* you read it?

      Literally the first words after the table of contents are:

      What is Burning Man?


      “Burning Man” is a form of the social verb “To Burn.”

      “To Burn” is to:

      Establish a liminal space in which you create something amazing for its own sake, that anyone can actively participate in and even co-create, and then clean up after yourself when you’re done.


      There is no official definition of Burning Man, and anyone who thinks there is needs to be told a joke.”

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      • Kangaroo says:

        Oh yes, I read the whole thing, cover to cover. It was quite the journey. As to humor: On the very last page, the third to last paragraph, is where the thing finally appears, closest to how Burning Man functions: ‘If we are having more fun, and that fun is good for people, they will want to play with us.’ Yes indeed. That is the key. All the rest is philosophical water under the bridge. ;-)

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    • Anne says:

      Well said! Thank you

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      Ha! Yep, Kangaroo – bravo. You read it, you got it, and I’m very grateful. None of the rest matters unless it’s helpful for people to get there.

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  • Surfer Girl 101 says:

    Brother, BM is and will always be unique within the heart of the people who were touched by the experience in deeper ways than one can actually explain or practice on a day to day. Of course the ego and the instagram and the crazy modern world we live in is trying to sell pretty much anything and everything. But the essence, happiness and freedom of being out there, that does not and will never have a price. Even describing the feeling and the depth of the adventure of any visitor of BRC can’t be done in an item or one reading. Every year we get a % of idiots who go for the pics the party the dopamine but we get an even bigger % that discovers magic and in their own way brings it back home. Yeah, it sucks, seeing and going to other festivals and having this weird BM outfits and even, I dare say, the music, the decoration, the desert vibe and all, they imitate the superficial aspects of it. But BM is and will always be, to me, a transformation of the heart. And that my friend, has no dollar price.

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  • Geomom says:

    The nudge from nature last year was great. Generosity with a touch of snark. Mocking the parade of desperate motorhomes attempting to break the law of mud physics as they paraded by our camp, then retrieving them with a tow rope and 1970 Land Rover the next day (Fish and Wheelgunner for the win!). I loved how any bar with a generator kept the beats pumping – best block party ever. Come sit a while and join our unscheduled unscripted discourse. Take this giant box of Cheezits with you (so us overprepared don’t have to pack it out). Here – I don’t know why I packed two potties, but take this pail, toilet lid and bag of cat litter. I suspect that you are right – the rain and mud restored some of the magic, especially to those who have never experienced it before.

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  • Mamabear says:

    I’m new, 2023 was my virgin Burn and THIS is helpful for me to know. I will look forward to giving my home made gifts to fellow Burners!

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  • Dustin says:

    Great to see you back Caveat. You’re a truly gifted writer.

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  • Heartspace says:

    Nice observations, as usual. As an essential part of decommodification, I have always thought of the (almost) absence of a market economy of people buying and selling things or services is the secret sauce, for what makes burning man transformational. That is a hard thing to pick up and market in the default world, because it is a radical departure and critique of that world.

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  • Avid says:

    I feel I understand what you’re saying and have seen interpretations of it in every bit of society and advertising-right down to political advertisements, which would make you hurl. By the end of your article I became angry at why I can’t make it to BM anymore even though I’m in Carson City and wouldn’t have to foot the bill to fly in from anywhere else around the globe- the price of the ticket. Even with the advertising in my mind of what I gained from attending in the past, I can’t pay for it in “real life” again, even at the cost of all it did for me in the past. I’ll keep the Burners definition of these words alive in the desert near by…even if I may not meet you on the playa again.

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  • Polkadot says:

    Anyone who asks for a definition of burning man needs to be told a joke
    Right on

    But Mostly Too deep for me.

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  • Paul Garber says:

    If the act or desire of escaping from the clutches of capitalism in America, even briefly, is possible, burners engage in collective actions that, taken together, defy this culture’s hegemonic insistance on affordable comforts with a snarkiness best viewed through pilot goggles in a dust storm.

    There are thousands of small efforts required to make it Burning Man. Driven by a shared intention to collaborate and create something different, burners’ actions transcend even the requisite trips to Home Depot and WalMart because we are motivated by a radically different collective vision of what life can be.

    Intentionality matters. It informs how the stage is set. On the Playa, there is no fourth wall: there are none save the internal ones we bring.

    How can liminality occur in such a space? We intentionally decide to co-create this experience, and do so at the extreme periphery of mainstream culture.

    The mainstream culture, much like a cow’s stomach, can only chew up this myriad of magical experiences, then regurgitate it back to us as memes for instant consumption. But the essence is lost. Take a ritual process, run it through AI, and experience the result.
    It isn’t even worth ruminating on.

    Burning Man can be lived as a sacred journey. It can also be lived as an alien form of Baccinalia. The intention we bring with us ends up making these authentic experiences possible. They inform us deeply as when we are in a dream.

    On the way home, we try to integrate, make sense of it, philosophize, then return a year later, hopefully a bit more lucid as to why.

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  • Gerry Mander says:

    How about an analysis of why early access passes had to be renamed work access passes and now setup passes? Or when “unpaid labor” becomes “volunteering”?

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  • roberto dobbisano says:

    does this mean no merch tents at rave camps?

    darn, i wanted to get a hoodie…

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