another burning man

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a noticeable increase in views of a post I wrote last year on Burning Man, probably because it’s been Burning Man season for a little while.  I didn’t go this year.  Why?  I couldn’t afford my ticket to the gift economy.  No, that’s just a joke poking fun at the inherent hypocrisy of the event, which, to be fair, isn’t a very funny joke to make: it’s hacky.  My real reason for not being there?  As a person deeply concerned with lowering carbon emissions, I simply cannot participate in an event with that kind of carbon footprint (not to mention other resource issues, like water use, including virtual water).  Okay, that’s not the real reason either.  I just like making fun of the blatant hypocrisy of the Leave No Trace ethic espoused by event organizers and participants.  But again, that’s a pretty hacky joke to make.  My real reason for not going?  It’s not that I don’t like individualist orgies or group narcissism.  I just had classes to teach.  I’d hate to cancel class this early in the semester, when we are just starting to do the delicate work of co-constituting an intimate space for learning.  On that note, I should get back to work.

11 thoughts on “another burning man

  1. I couldn’t understand how the hypocrisies and internal contradictions you point to could go unnoticed (or at least unspoken) by so many burners until I read Bataille’s work on gift, energy excess, and general economy (“The Accursed Share”). The problem space shifted for me such that the question was no longer “how is such waste justifiable?”–following Bataille’s analysis regarding excess and gradient dissipation (entropy production) as the essence of life, the question becomes “is collective ritual celebration a more just way of burning off the surpluses of capital than warfare?” Let’s not forget the aging sun is going to make earth uninhabitable for all known forms of life within a billion years. There will indeed be no trace of us left.

    1. I guess, technically, on the cosmic scale, it’s impossible to not leave no trace, God’s book and the akashic record and the official meaning of LNT notwithstanding. That is a load off my mind: definitely not cosmological bypassing. In any case, I like the “is it more just than war” criterion for action. I need to use that defense next time I’m in court for reckless driving and speeding tickets. Again, a load off my mind, especially knowing that our rituals (a word with a very beautiful soul) are definitely not themselves a form of war against the climate, a war against our evolutionary heritage, a war on ancient sunlight. As pure expenditure without return, life is a lot like a highway, one which I am compelled to ride all night long.

      1. Lets go ahead and just call it a giant art party instead of a ritual. My point (which really depends on whether you’re willing to follow Bataille’s thermodynamic logic) is that, given that all life forms are working to dissipate energy gradients as fast as possible (industrial civilization isn’t an anomaly in this respect), we have a choice (or at least I hope we do) as to how our species will go about wasting free energy. I’m sure there are more than just two options, but given the choice between two energy intensive ways to “let off steam”, I’d choose a giant psychedelic art party (group narcissism and all) over war.

        That said, I have plenty of critiques of burning man. I gave a talk at this year’s burn about the very contradictions you point to, and met some really inspiring environmental activists fighting the good fight and struggling with their own hypocrisy for attending the event. I’m not totally convinced, though, that BM is simply part of the problem. I actually think it is a symptom of capitalism’s self-overcoming, a sort of hyper intensification of the capitalist command to “enjoy!” that overflows itself by generating entirely new forms of uncommodifiable value.

  2. Matthew, please help me understand–are you justifying the ecological footprint of the burning man ritual by stating that it is a comparable form of waste to warfare? Why on earth would we bring war into this? Also, this comment alludes to renouncing your own responsibility as a citizen on the planet, in this lifetime, by stating that in a billion years nothing will be here anyway? That is like me saying that I shouldn’t feed myself now because I will be dead in fifty years. This is the complete opposite intention of LNT (Leave No Trace) principles.

    1. I’m drawing explicitly on Bataille’s work on general economy and thermodynamics here… That is why I bring up war. He argues that war is one of the ways our species has found to follow the laws of thermodynamics by burning up free energy as quickly as possible. His book “The Accursed Share” suggests that, while there is no way to circumvent the laws of thermodynamics governing the flow of energy from the sun through the biosphere, there is hope that humans can find more life affirming ways than war of “wasting” the energy gifted to us by the sun. So no I’m not trying to justify the ecological crisis. I’m trying to put it in different, perhaps somewhat uncomfortable, context. I’m as emotionally committed to throwing a wrench in the industrial machine as anyone, but I’m also not totally convinced what our species is doing is somehow “unnatural.” We seem to have gotten too good at doing what life has done all along: dissipate energy gradients. We do it so well that we’ve burnt up half the planet in only a century or two. I just wonder if somehow becoming more conscious will be enough to slow down or reverse a thermodynamic process that precedes our species by billions of years since it is written into the very laws of physics. My comment above was an attempt to suggest that maybe the best we can do is dissipate energy gradients (read “waste” energy) through collective celebration rather than through conflict and warfare.

      1. Giant art party? I wonder if you intended the GAP acronym. Cool either way. I should come clean and say that I’m just messing around (hence the “jokes” category of the initial post). But really, I think the “it’s better than war” thing is hilarious. Maybe it’s true, but regardless, it sounds like a very funny excuse.

        I like parties, rituals, etc., and I don’t have anything against burning persons or against Bataille or his headless body. I recommend the book Bataille’s Peak to people regularly, as I agree that the paradigm of scarcity is untenable and that we need to transition toward an environmental ethic of differance, i.e., a general economy (or better yet, Edgar Morin’s general complexity). I don’t think anybody or anything is simply part of the problem (and to some extent, I really don’t think there’s any problem). And I’m with you when you say that industrialization isn’t an anomaly. We can probably agree that anybody saying otherwise is simply idiotic. I hold much gratitude for you and all of the burners facilitating the emergence of a more just Earth community, and I have no doubt that many burners are decisively self-aware or autocritical.

        I do think Bataille is simplistic in his thermodynamics (and I agree with Clayton Crockett that we need to conceive of energy outside of the thermal paradigm). If I was messing around, I’d say that Bataille is so gold standard in his economic theory…and so ignorant of dark energy….a throwback at best. Speaking of energy, you’ve probably seen Cosmology, Ecology, and the Energy of God…an excellent anthology with the usual suspects: Keller, Faber, Higgins. It shares much with your thinking.

        I like the self-overcoming of capitalism thing. Thanks, Karl! Seriously though, I deeply appreciate the appeal to a value that exceeds the limits of commodification. I guess my point would be that everybody is doing it: burners as much as Burger King employees… humans working together to participate in the co-constitution of the intimate space of an integral Earth community. On that note, keep up your great work!

  3. Great fucking fantastic folks! It’s been a pleasure to read and laugh. How delicate comedy is… and persuasive. Mr. Tarnas had a wonderful riff on BM I found on fb just the other day. His views are always full of insight and archetypes. I felt provoked to question the gods with notions of sustainable concerns. I had remembered your ecological critiques, Sam. And I absolutely love Bataille’s via Matt’s juxtaposition of war and ritual to highlight better ways to expend energy. BM does facilitate great possibilities for human expenditures and it does express a “hyper-intensification” of the very attitude capitalism commands. It is a state of hyper-reality or a simulacrum. Baudrillard would be proud of Sam’s commitment to the road as a pure sight of “expenditure without return.” It’s fucking celebration bitches…

    All there is, is messing around. Because when wielding the power of perspective…there are no problems.

    Thank for going to BM Matt! Thanks for teaching instead of going to BM Sam! And thanks for the play. It would be great to see you two before I leave for China.

    1. Yes, let’s get together soon. Celebrations indeed! By the way, BM makes me laugh. I kept reading it as “bowel movement” and having to remind myself that it means Beatific Megaparty or Burgeoning Misinformation or Bar Mitzvah or something like that.

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