Burning Man

People have varying opinions on the Burning Man festival and on Burner culture in general.  Every year, when the time comes for the festival, I’m happy to get an earful of those opinions.  I’ve found it interesting that most of my students live in a countercultural hotspot (San Francisco), yet they have little or nothing to say about Burning Man.  They treat it like it’s just one of the many big arts and music festivals that pervade their cosmopolitan lives.  Some folks don’t care, and other folks don’t even know about it.  My favorite statement this year comes from a friend’s mother, who asked him, “Why are so many people going to Birmingham?”

For the people who debate the value of Burning Man, the religious implications of the event often take center stage, with some deriding Burning Man as a symptom of civilization’s decline or as a New Age or Pagan festival that threatens the future of biblical values, and some praising the festival for cultivating a countercultural desert spirituality not unlike that of the early Christian church.  Here’s a thoughtful article that details the issues in this debate.

I think the festival is neither the decline of civilization nor a spiritual revolution.  It’s more banal than that kind of polarizing debate indicates.  It’s a diverse festival that has, for the most part, integrated well into mainstream society, hence the opinion of so many of my students: it’s just another arts and music festival.  That banality sounds good for Burner culture, making consciousness expansion and personal expression practices of everyday life, not a big deal, not a sensationalized spectacle.

If I were criticizing Burning Man, I would criticize the environmental ethics of the event.  Burning Man espouses the Leave No Trace ethic.  Maybe it’s better than nothing, but it’s stuck in managerial and recreational models of land use, and I’d hope that Burners can come up with something better than the status quo.  What bothers me most about Leave No Trace is that its adherents often claim that they are acting ethically, since they didn’t leave any traces, and that is blatantly false.

There are always traces, marks of our encounters with others.  Think of the carbon footprint of Burning Man: the event happens in a desert to which participants drive or fly, and the whole event is predicated upon burning.  That doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t participate, but it does mean that Leave No Trace leaves a lot of ethical responsibilities unaccounted for or ignored.  Nothing bothers me more than a clean conscience.  I’m against antiseptic morality.  Cornel West’s injunction is pertinent here.  Don’t deodorize the funk!

6 thoughts on “Burning Man

  1. Thanks for your thoughts, Sam. And for the links to other scholarship on the topic of Burning Man. I have mixed feelings about the event as far as its religious, political, and ecological implications. Though it is a gift-economy once you arrive on the playa, getting there is only possible because capitalism has produced such tremendous surpluses for the upper middle class and for the super wealthy tech-industry folks who come to the burn. A new sort of consciousness is trying to be born in Black Rock City, a consciousness not friendly to the values of capitalism. But I wonder if the new values that result from the transformative metanoic experiences people have in the desert are all that effectual when it comes to challenging the power of global capital once they return to the default world. I’ve not yet seen a realistic connection between the two, aside from the obvious fact that it is only because of capitalism that anyone can make it out to Black Rock City in the first place.

    1. I try to remain optimistic, especially because I’m a sucker for the counterculture. We’re rejuvenating the question: What does it mean for us to be countercultural? Does it mean that we’re a hypocritical throwback to a bygone movement? That sounds quaint and romantic. What would be worse is if it meant that we supply consumerist conformity with homeopathic doses of creative nonconformity, unwittingly strengthening the consumer culture that we pretend to counter. Our gift economy becomes a gift to capitalism, and novelty is marketed as the new and improved whatever. In any case, more research is needed, and I’m pretty sure that means more festivals, parties, sex, drugs, etc.

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