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“Burn” culture and Generation Dobler

July 12th, 2007 · 1 Comment · Politics, Rants

Over at Reason, Brian Doherty (author of This is Burning Man: The Rise of a New American Underground) has written an interesting piece on some of the more untenable philosophical positions that have come to dominate much of the “burn” community in recent years.

I’ve never been to Burning Man itself, but I’ve attended - with some regularity - a regional East Coast “burn” for the past four years. I have great affection for the event and really enjoy the people who attend. It’s an overtly positive environment that is profoundly informed by an almost childlike innocence and a sense of pervasive benevolence. The artwork is always impressive, the burners are entertaining and generous and the organization is impressively well-executed. On the whole, it’s a class-A affair and a hell of a weekend getaway.

But there is also a sense among a large percentage of participants that it’s NOT a getaway at all, but rather a deliberate, nigh-spiritual group-affirmation of a certain philosophical position and “lifestyle.”

Many participants have come to believe that Burning Man (and its consequent “regional” events) is representative of (and dedicated TO) a strange amalgam of collectivism, libertine disconnection, poorly-defined Leftist ideology and radical anti-corporatism. While it’s certainly true that the events have sought to remain insulated from the pernicious creep of things like corporate sponsorship and large scale profiteering, it’s clearly NOT the case that the event was ever intended to be an extension of the anti-corporate movements of the modern era. This has, predictably, led to some heated clashes recently, as the organizers of Burning Man have chosen to actively engage and recruit corporate entities for the next event in an effort to “go green.”

In the past, Burning Man has been a massive, over-the-top display of reckless counter-conservationism (albeit as a consequence of a over-the-top artistic sensibility, rather than as a deliberate effort). An orgy of flame fed by obscene amounts of fuel and generating a massive “carbon footprint,” it’s certainly never been what one could consider “eco-friendly.” Mother Nature doesn’t care if your carbon emissions come from a two ton SUV or a sixty foot flammable set of wooden horse genitals - pollution is pollution. So, this year, its organizers have courted green energy companies and have decided to turn Burning Man into an exposition on responsible energy production and use.

Overall, a laudable goal. The event curtails its conspicuous consumption of fossil fuels and the energy companies get to show off their goods to what - one would assume - is a PERFECT target audience. And therein lies the problem. By “getting in bed” with these corporate entities, the Burners have been targeted as… ominous drumroll, please


And marketing anything at all to them - even something as overtly positive as environmentally-friendly products and energy - runs afoul of the vague “philosophy” that has formed amongst Burners in recent years.

From Doherty’s piece:

People suspicious of markets and marketing bristle at the word “demographics,” but it can mean something as innocent as “people who are into the same things.”

Emotionally, I don’t understand why so many people get so upset at being marketed to, or at gleefully acknowledging the good that comes from crafting a social world that is dominated by people willingly exchanging skills, services, and goods. These types could be called Generation Dobler, after the famous quote from the sad sensitive man-child character, Lloyd Dobler, played by John Cusack in the 1989 film Say Anything.

Dobler certified his soulfulness by announcing that “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed.”

Which is lovely in its way, I guess, but the reason many people can indeed survive doing none of those things is because of the unprecedented wealth created by those who do. Most moderns, at least when pressed, recognize that commerce makes our lives richer in certain ways. What the Burning Man devotee wants is an opportunity to create temporary zones without it, for the entertainment value and for the (very real) additional (temporary) richness of social reality it creates.

Emphasis mine.

I’ve actually expressed that precise view to various burners over the years and met with relatively (and uniformly) vitriolic responses as a result. It’s the reason why - while I enjoy burns as social and artistic events - I’ve never been able to incorporate myself into the idea that it representative of a lifestyle. Or a philosophy. Or a movement. To me, these events are an opportunity to elect to disconnect from - not rail against - my everyday life for a while in a (fairly) safe, (fairly) organized and legitimately enjoyable environment.

In short, it’s a vacation. A vacation with lots of fire. And naked people.

And like all vacations, it is made possible by the excess wealth generated by its participants in every OTHER part of their lives. Burning Man survives not because of the dedicated but relatively poor members of its community who scrimp and save and find creative ways to get there and participate. It survives because of the large number of wealthy participants who pour vast amounts of capital into the event. They have (consciously or not) allowed their wealth to benignly support the less well-to-do (or - more cynically - the less WILLING-to-do). Remove everyone from the process who - for example - owns a home and the event would cease to exist.

Such is the nature of ALL Utopian, collectivist societies. Go back to the 1960s when communes “proved” that people could live without being part of corporatized consumerism by pooling the WELFARE CHECKS of their members to pay for food and lodging and you find the spiritual predecessors of this mindset. Long-term collectivism, truly divorced from wealth production and the means of wealth production is an impossibility.

SHORT-term collectivism is even more dependent on wealth from outside because there is a dramatically contracted amount of time available to plan, acquire and implement infrastructure, to attract and inform participants and to establish the mechanisms for organization and control that will prevent things from deteriorating into chaos and destruction.

So, next time you’re prepping your “art car” or planning your next major installation for a burn, stop for a moment and think a pleasant thought about capitalism and the way it has acted as the unseen, unspoken patron of this event that has brought so much joy and excitement to so many people. And be nice to the guy showing off CFLs on the Playa. He’s one of the good guys.


1 response so far ↓

  • 1 ralf // Jul 13, 2007 at 6:33 am

    I am not familiar with the ways of your ‘the Burning Man’, but it sounds interesting. Like Carnival or a bacchanal.

    Although, (as you mention) the Principles might need some work. ‘Radical self-reliance’ and ‘civic responsibility’ don’t seem all that compatible to me.


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