We Are Not Men. We are Devo(lution)

Is the Counter Culture Fest Evolving or Devolving? Thus asketh the Huffington Post in a just published critique of Burning Man.

An interesting question – firstly for the implicit idea that Burning Man as it is in 2012 is actually “counter” to any particular culture. But also because it evokes ideas of the Theory of Human Devolution – a counterpoint to the ideas of Darwinism that are challenged by some. Devolution is something that is buried almost subconsciously into J R R Tolkein’s Middle Earth pantheon. Once there were wizards, now there are only a few wizards here and there and the elves fucked off, leaving the humans and Hobbits to fend for themselves with the Orcs.

Back here on this planet, where Lord of the Rings was filmed in a country whose main city is called “Orc-Land”, we have signs all around us of devolution. Whoever built the pyramids, and the many other ancient monuments we keep finding, had knowledge and powers that we lack today. Tales tell of ancestors who lived hundreds or even thousands of years. Now we descend into poverty and chaos, as a small technocratic elite strive to rise above us to rule us as our gods.

Or something.

This orgiastic cultural shindig has been written about so many times, from so many angles that one almost hates to add to the pile (there’s even a boom in Burning Man scholarship in the academy). In one form or another, the festival has been around since the mid-’80s, and in the Black Rock Desert for more than two decades now. It is either a running cultural joke or a holy pilgrimage, depending on your point of view.

Both impressions have to do with the evangelical zeal of serious Burners. People really believe in Burning Man. When you roll up along the long, dusty desert trail to the official entrance, a team is on hand to meet you at the gates. Returning Burners are greeted with the words, “Welcome Home.” First-timers (aka “Burgins”) are made to get down on their knees and hug the ground, baptizing themselves in the alkaline desert dust.

Indoctrination, anyone? Into our Cargo Cult? The Greeters are wonderful and all, it’s always awesome to have to voluntarily agree to your home being searched by a half naked dusty hippy, just to get to a dance party.

We-send-them-signs-they-name-it-dubstep_o_129927There are 10 Core Principles of Burning Man…But over the course of the week, as more and more revelers pack into the camps, as the fever pitch of swarming parties grows ever more intense, it often really feels as if there are just three: Sex, Drugs, and Dubstep. Burning Man is one part social experiment, one part garden-variety rave. It is also big business. This organization which celebrates decommodified living is now a $23-million concern.

If it’s garden-variety, then let’s at least let it be Secret Garden variety.

Skimming through,

Are there any generalizations you can make when it comes to the Burning Man aesthetic? The art is wonderful, at times wondrous. It combines a groovy ’60s sensibility with a knack for high-tech gimcrackery, as befits its Bay Area origins. The typical work of Burning Man art is a big, tactile thing meant to be touched and climbed on, or marveled at. The aesthetic is distinguished by almost pure, dewy-eyed positivity; challenging or troubling themes are avoided.

The exception that proved the rule this year was artist Otto von Danger’s “Burn Wall Street,” a cluster of five full-scale buildings meant to represent the nation’s nefarious financial institutions: “Bank of UnAmerica,” “Chaos Manhattan,” and so on. They were burned to their foundations on Saturday night to the approval of cheering throngs. Anarchist-leaning campers attacked the work with graffiti early in the week, accusing it of being politically disingenuous. And indeed, for a political artwork, the piece’s self-description in the official guide toiled comically hard to depoliticize its message, declaring, “We are not one-percenters or ninety-percenters [sic], we are all Americans that need to fix this” — a disavowal of class antagonism that rings fundamentally hollow coming from someone blowing a reported $100,000 to pull off a bit of pyrotechnic theater in the desert.

..[.so it’s not just me, then]…

Burning Man’s leitmotif of “Immediacy” may seem obvious enough in an environment so laser-focused on hedonism. But it also reminds you of the deep social purpose that this event serves: obsessive calculation, emo-scene-hipster-this-is-why-people-like-dubstep1constant competition, and ruthless abstract thinking are not necessarily the keys to a happy personal life, but they are the characteristics of the successful personality in our particular society. No surprise, then, that many people come to view their own personality as an enemy, as something to be vanquished in order to feel fully human. Certainly, Burners can seem self-indulgent to a comical degree. But the fact that a place exists where people can go to be gods and goddesses, nymphs and satyrs, astronauts and perverts — to escape their own heads for a brief, sun-kissed holiday — should be considered basically a good thing.

Some of us libertines would consider Hedonism to be the pinnacle of human evolution, rather than decadence being a sign of decay. This author is more on the side of decadence though:

Burning Man can be a cathartic experience. For true believers, however, it is more than that; it is also something like a movement. That is how Larry Harvey speaks about it today, and the organization has just recast itself as the Burning Man Project, a non-profit that will focus on spreading its gospel through supporting pocket utopias throughout the world. Its native politics seem to range left, from entrepreneurial libertarianism to dubstep printersturdy liberalism to anarchism to — leaving the left-wing galaxy for a minute — the guy who explained to me that we were all aliens “trapped behind enemy lines” in human bodies. You can’t deny that Burning Man has inspired some worthy projects, from various environmental initiatives to various forms of volunteerism. Still, when people start talking about Burning Man as a cause, I get suspicious.

Much sincere and worthy attention is paid to promoting sustainability. “Leave No Trace, Make Your Mark” is the mantra. But you cannot convince me that throwing a massive outdoor party with hundreds of machines that shoot fire into the sky is a model of sustainability. It is a model of decadence. More importantly, it ought to be a rule that any community that is as un-diverse as the Burning Man community be prohibited from styling itself as a reasonable facsimile of a workable alternative model for society. If you want exposure to diverse communities, try the subway or bus. Skip Burning Man. (Can you imagine if there was an event that attracted predominantly people of color to swap illegal substances and burn symbols of civilization? It wouldn’t last a month.)

There is a politics of hedonism — or “Radical Self-expression,” or whatever you care to call it — but it is a contested politics. New Orleans’s Mardi Gras, with much deeper roots in a broad and diverse urban culture, began dubstep-djas a masked bacchanalia whose specter of cross-class and cross-race fraternization alarmed Louisiana elites; post-Civil War, the city’s elites reclaimed it making it over as something more genteel, as a vehicle to lure visitors back to the South and to reassert their cultural authority. In modern times, Mardi Gras has become a thoroughly mainstream spectacle of commercialized exhibitionism, though it continues to nurture various alternative currents and its Krewes form a vital organ of community life. So the question should be, how is Burning Man evolving? What ideological pressures are shaping it?

Every year, people come to Burning Man and re-find their sexuality, or experiment with something new. Yet you can’t really, today, believe that promiscuity is some wild alternative value; it is a quite commodified value, and one that fully appeals to a crowd with no interest in Burning Man’s more idealistic side at all. In the Black Rock Weekly, Burning Man’s pop-up paper, the increasingly omnipresent “Frat Boy” is #1 archetype on its “Ladies Guide to the Creeps of Burning Man.”

Some very good points made here, and this is why Burners need to always be sure to not take themselves very seriously. It’s a freaking party in the middle of nowhere, not a Utopian model for sustainable society. It’s a long, long way from that.

Ben Davis wraps it up very poignantly, I like this guy.

One night in camp, as a joint was being passed around, people began to discuss what it all meant. “Why can’t it always be like this?” someone said. “I mean, look around — this is the way it should be. This is people helping people. This is what we are capable of. If the government could only pay attention, look out at all this creativity, all this building, there wouldn’t be any recession. You could put everybody to work.” He drew in on the joint.

And you just want to yell: Yes and no! (Admittedly not a great thing to yell.) Yes: It’s an amazing experience. Yes: The creativity on view is mind-expanding, the climate of generosity inspiring, the de-commodified vibe enlivening. And yes: At its best moments, which are many, Burning Man feels charged with wholesome utopian energy. In its pagaentry, you see men and women grasping for the kind of meaningful experience that they — tapping away their waking lives in soul-killing cubicles, with only the rewards of a shrill and disposable commercial culture to comfort them — have been deprived.

But also, no. No: It can’t “always be like this,” because the whole thing is an extremely privileged experience that costs thousands of dollars and a week of your life. No: It does not show you “what we are capable of.” It offers a rather partial picture of human potential, desperately insistent on positivity and transcendence on account of its own condensed and fleeting nature. Without confronting the more sinister aspects of our experience, those aspects can only grow, unchecked. And no: If the powers-that-be could “just see,” that would change nothing — the world is messed up because it is profitable for very powerful people that it stay that way, not because powerful people are confused.

It seems that some of the powerful people at Burning Man are quite confused. And Burning Man is very profitable for some of them.

Whether it devolves from here, or evolves to something increasingly greater, is up to us Burners. Bureaucracy, stay out of our way!

3 comments on “We Are Not Men. We are Devo(lution)

  1. Lovely article, but I think it misses the point. We live in a world full of societies with social restrictions that are rooted in ancient traditions that have no real value or meaning (such as the requirement to wear clothing in public, even on a warm day). Burning Man is a festival of human culture who’s organizers make no effort to control how you express yourself for a whole week. For the folks that go ever year, it is a celebration of a new year, with the burning of the Man on Saturday being a mood of wild debauchery and the burning of Temple on Sunday with a mood of introspective reflection.
    It differs from going out to the bar on New Year’s Eve only in scale. It costs money to get a taxi to get to the bar, it costs money to get drinks, and costs money to get back home. The difference is that after the Temple burns and it’s time to clean up and go home, you are changed. Every burner I’ve ever met reflects on each burn in terms of how they grew or changed.
    If you look at the term ‘movement’ you will recognize the analogy for change. When a car moves, it is changing is location. When 50,000 people come together and leave changed, the analogy of a social movement seems fitting. There is not a “pile” of literature or a growing academic study of other festivals. Where are the articles and blogs on Electric Daisy Carnival or the Rainbow Gathering? That you (or myself) cannot understand what a movement truly is about, how it is evolving, or even how it may or may not effect you is of little consequence to the truth of a movement. I think we can agree that many people see a movement in Burning Man that they do not see in other festivals.
    Some folks speculate that the cargo cults of the South Pacific unintentionally led to the success of labor unions in the last century (http://www.nthposition.com/thelastcargo.php). Those people did not act with intent to dismiss colonial control, but it certainly appears that their culture explicitly did so through the actions of it’s people. It may be more fruitful to model a culture as a living organism. Like biological life, cultural organisms grow, adapt to live, and eventual die to be replaced by a new cultural organism. In line with the biological life model is that not every culture acts intelligently or with explicit motive. The best we can do is observe and record history and hope that the anthropologists of the future can posit a plausible theory to explain the effects that a culture has had on the world.
    I know that the first year I return home from Burning Man feeling unchanged is the last year I will go. That year has not yet come to pass likely because the culture of Burning Man is still very much alive. Perhaps it is wisest to wait for it’s death before writing it’s obituary.

    • Thanks for an excellent and thoughtful response, Chad.
      This article didn’t really say much, other than lifting a series of quotes…and why isn’t it signed at least?
      I disagree that achieving change is essential. It’s a beneficial by-product, but I value the total experience, the adventure, and the many possible outcomes just as much. I think BM provides an arena for potential enlightenment.

  2. It’s incidental and has nothing to do with Burning Man, nor does it alter the points you’re making, but it should be said: Devolution is not a serious scientific theory, it’s just something some guy wrote a book about. His theory is far from scientific; he immediately postulates “the realm of pure consciousness, spirit” which is, I’m sorry to say, the real of pure making-it-up-as-you-go and not science at all.

    Furthermore, evolution does not have goals. It’s absolutely arbitrary to say that higher intelligence is a higher state of evolution, and it’s absolutely wrong to say that we might not EVOLVE (not devolve) to have less brainpower. Note too that it wasn’t Darwin who coined the term “the survival of the fittest” and he didn’t agree with it. Evolution is about adaptability, not fitness, and sometimes the big brain strategy is a losing one.

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