Burning Nerds – Ideology Subsumed?

We’re big fans of Caveat Magister, one of the last voices of reason to be heard at the official Burning Man blog – and always fun to read.

His latest post is on the infiltration of Burning Man culture by Academia.

The academics have come to Burning Man.  They’re through the gates. They’ve always been here, actually:  but now they’re getting organized

burning-man-dalek-stormtrooperAnd, it appears, with the full support of the BMOrg. The Cacophony Society was all about chaotic and playful rebellion to the mainstream; Burning Man in the desert started off being about shooting things and blowing things up.

Now, it seems, our libertarian values have been taken over – by Millenials who want to change the world through a rave full of naked people; and academics who want to redefine the Sacred 10 Principles with their own views of what our culture should be, and promote that to classrooms all over the world.

The Burning Mind Project wants to categorize the 10 Principles, then decide which ones are more important than others. I think if you asked most Burners, they would put “Leave No Trace” at Number 1. But not this crew, they rank it at #9 out of 10:

The next question we considered was the most difficult: should failure to adhere to some principles disqualify a person from membership in a community?  In some cases the answer is “no.”  As mentioned above, plenty of people participate in communities without engaging in radical self-expression.  Indeed, discovering the part of one’s self that needs to be expressed is often a big part of the experience.  In other words, manifesting all 10 principles is not a requirement for membership in the community.

rapunzel bungee#10 on their list, incidentally, is radical self-reliance. Perhaps that’s because academics aren’t too good at camping in remote locations, preferring the view from their ivory towers.

The Magister’s view?

I was at the very first meeting of “Burning Nerds,” a Burning Man staff initiated gathering of academics who attend Burning Man.  I helped carry snacks for the party into Ashram Galactica, then stood in the corner and listened as meteorologists in leather skins and topless sociologists and dramaturges in fuzzy boots introduced themselves and discussed their research.

photo from Toad.com

photo from Toad.com

That was, I think, in 2010, and since then Burning Nerds has had more meetings in the desert and established a thriving email list.  This year, they’re planning their first theme camp.

And good for them.  The more participation, and kinds of participation, the better.  But … lemme skip to the end here.  I’ve reluctantly concluded that academia per see is very, very, bad for Burning Man – and that we’d be better off if Burners engage in a campaign of civil disobedience against it.

Not, let me emphasize, against the academics themselves.  We’re all welcome at Burning Man, and the work they do just as legitimate as whatever other crazy project someone wants to put in the middle of the desert.  I read all of their studies avidly, which is more attention than I pay to your theme camp.

But while any given piece of individual research is likely harmless, the project of academia itself is kryptonite to the spirit of Burning Man.  Indeed, a case can be made that academia as an institution stands firmly opposed to the 10 Principles.  Outside of “prison,” if there was ever a practice that contradicted “immediacy,” “radical acceptance,” and “radical self-expression” it is academia.

In our view, this type of academic infestation is a natural by-product of BMOrg’s obsession with interrogation surveys and data-collection. Give us a bunch of meaningless and unused data, and we’ll show you an even bigger bunch of academics who want to write papers on it.

What is the threat to our culture? Well, check this out:

As part of their work to better understand the 10 Principles they have dissected them, dividing them into 5 “foundational principles” – the most important – and 5 “operational principles” that exist only because you have the first five.  “Civic Responsibility,” “Gifting,” and “Participation” are foundational – while “Radical Self-Expression,” “Radical Inclusion,” and “Leave No Trace” are operational.

We’re already completely outside of my understanding of Burning Man – let alone my experience of it – but it gets worse.  The primary purpose of the 10 Principles, they suggest, is the continued existence and support of the community as a whole.  To quote:  “In order to be a member of a burner community, one must make the health of the community one’s top priority.”

photo by Adrian Roberts

1993 – photo by Adrian Roberts

Not only do I have grave concerns about this … I think that if Burning Man’s first rule is “submit,” then a perfectly rational first response is “fuck you” … but it flies in the face of the historically strong libertarian component that existed since Burning Man’s formative years.  The early burns were not a group of politically progressive hippies going out to the desert to make a better community.  They were (among other things) a group of free spirits who didn’t like being told what to do by an over-regulating San Francisco government, which is why they went to a desert where there would be fewer communities to respect, not more.  Sure we’ve gotten rid of the guns and added speed limits since then, but when the people at the gate say “Welcome Home,” they don’t mean “if you’ve done your chores and your homework.”

Playa in 1989 - from Dust and Illusions

Playa in 1989 – from Dust and Illusions

Well said, Caveat Magister. It’s good to see that there’s at least some voice of rebellion and freedom still alive within the BMHQ – if you ever want to join the “dark side” and start contributing to Burners.Me, you’d be welcomed.

We encourage you all to read his excellent post in its entirety.

How do we rank the 10 Principles? Let’s give it a try – if you had to pick one as the most important, what would it be?

8 comments on “Burning Nerds – Ideology Subsumed?

  1. Pingback: Making Sense of the Non-Census | Burners.Me: Me, Burners and The Man

  2. Pingback: Airlifting in the Challah | Burners.Me Burning Man commentary blog

  3. Pingback: What is the Most Absurd Thing You Could Do? A Newly Deflowered Burner’s Interpretation | Burn After Reading Magazine | Burners.Me Burning Man commentary blog

  4. One of the most important things I got out of Caveat’s initial post was that the real magic of the 10 Principles is that they are meant to be *struggled with*. As an academic, my natural tendency – my art, if you will – is to analyze them from multiple perspectives and through the lens of various frameworks and ideological constructs.

    However, note that Caveat posted BEFORE he came to Wednesday’s workshop on education at BM HQ. We (Burning Mind) really appreciated what Caveat had to say, and responded on our blog at http://www.burningmindproject.org/2013/03/04/at-the-gates/ and http://www.burningmindproject.org/2013/03/04/academic-civil-disobedience/. Basically, he pointed out a lot of things about our approach and tone that were counter to who we were are what we’re trying to accomplish – to stimulate progressive, constructive dialogue within the community. In sounding too sciencey we missed one of our main points, which Caveat so elegantly positioned: “How can we use the 10 Principle to do something AMAZING?” 🙂

    We met him the other night and here’s what he had to say AFTER spending a couple hours in discussion with us and others about bringing the spirit of BM to education: http://blog.burningman.com/2013/03/afield-in-the-world/why-the-10-principles-because-you-never-change-the-world-the-same-way-twice/

    Bottom line, my ONLY regret about our dialogue and about seeing Caveat on Wednesday is that I didn’t hug him!! Can’t believe I missed that!! He has great insights, great points, and we should all pay attention to how cleanly and insightfully he deconstructs who we are as part of this culture, and how we can use it to make ourselves and the world a better place. Thank you Caveat!!!! 🙂 <3


  5. Pingback: The Burning Mind Project | At the Gates?

  6. Dissecting the 10 principles like they’re some kind of holy writ seems pretty pointless. At best, they’re an imperfect attempt to describe what makes Burning Man culture different from other events.

    It’s hard to pick just one, but Participation, to my mind, most sets Burning Man apart from similar events like Envision and Lightining in the Bottle which are ultimately spectator oriented (Decommodification/Gifting also enters the picture for these).

    Rainbow Gatherings tend to follow (although not explicitly) most of the 10 principles. The big difference between a Rainbow Gathering and Burning Man is Radical Self-Reliance. You don’t have to have the financial security to be able to afford a week’s worth of food, let alone a ticket to go to a Rainbow Gathering (and in this sense, Rainbow is more Radically Inclusive than Burning Man)

    All of the above events encourage Radical Self Expression to some degree. But RSE differentiates Burning Man from a night at the opera (where standards of dress & behavior are tightly regulated) or perhaps even something like the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally (a male wearing a pink tutu isn’t going to go over well there).

    Leave No Trace doesn’t seem important to me at all as a unique aspect of burner culture. Plenty of events espouse Leave No Trace (to varying degrees of success). LNT at Burning Man is different because it’s tied in with Participation; everybody cleans, not just a hired cleanup crew.

  7. Pingback: Pura Vida! Envision Nails It Again | Burners.Me Burning Man commentary blog

  8. I think the 10 principles make a nice story used to give people something to rally around as sense of meaning, but are generally not practiced comprehensively by individuals in the community; unless it is a mean to their end’s desire.

    “Leave No Trace” is all fine and good for those in the immediate local environment, and of course to ensure another permit from the BLM is assured, however, it is of no concern when it comes to the environment of those down wind who are affected by all of the pollutants released in the air from the burning of fossil fuels by countless vehicles in transit, generators and construction equipment and of course the burning of the man and everything else that gets burned with it; and as the article pointed out without making the community or world a better place.

    Similarly, “Radical Inclusion” is a wonderful concept in theory, and very similar to the concept of America as a whole which accepts people from everywhere in the world ( albeit within regulated constraints ), however, it doesn’t overcome the limitations of basic human nature and the desire to self-regulate with who one associates. Many camps operate more like cliques in who can be included, as well as, if someone doesn’t dress like a “proper burner” than they are looked down upon by those that do. Yet another example that gets talked about, since there has been a need to remind people that “shirt-cockers are people too” and thus should be supported goes to show that while those different than us will be present at the event, it doesn’t mean that individuals will follow through with that principle when its more fun, especially when amped up on drugs and alcohol, to make fun of those that are into something different; or at least treat it like some kind of early century side-show act to be entertained, mocked and ultimately discarded when one is done with them.

    I could go on about the other eight and not to mention the amount of violence upon others in the “community” which seems to happen each year during the annual event, but thankfully less so during the rest of the year.

    If anything comes across as the most important principle in practice by individuals in the community it is that of hedonistic desire, where “Don’t fuck with my burn” is the motto that is thrown down like a “get out of jail free” card to avoid taking responsibility for one’s actions and for manipulating the actions of others.

Leave a Reply