Burning Man® and the Old Switcheroo

by Whatsblem the Pro

Photo by Sincerely Hana

Photo by Sincerely Hana

The JACK RABBIT SPEAKS has an interesting bit of wording in the latest issue. It’s in a section called “Black Rock City Civics” and it has to do with decommodification:

See, one of our core principles is Decommodification … which means amongst other things, that Burners don’t want to be treated like a consumer to be sold to, especially on playa. Here’s the full description: “In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.” Besides, fliers create more MOOP, and we really don’t need any more of that, either!

Nothing wrong with any of that, is there? Except for that one little phrase: “especially on playa.”

Obviously none of us wish to be marketed to on the playa, but by slipping that little qualifier in at the end, Will is telling us that the Org disapproves of us buying things from each other no matter where we are. Of course, that doesn’t count if the Org gets to be in complete control of your interactions with other burners. JACK RABBIT SPEAKS, the official newsletter in which we are being encouraged to regard conducting trade with each other as taboo on or off-playa, often contains advertisements for burner-to-burner businesses.

You foolish children, they seem to be saying to us. Why would you want to network with each other and do any kind of trade or business together? We and we alone will moderate your interactions with each other.

In light of the Org’s trademark lockdown that attempts to prevent the very people who build and maintain the Burning Man brand from using it for non-commercial purposes to gather together and spread the culture beyond the playa, it seems absurd that they want to preach to us about decommodification. . . or about fostering the culture.

By the time Will gets to the part where he quotes from the ten principles, the ‘we’ in phrases like “we stand ready to protect our culture” has been twisted to mean “the Org.” Why is the Org interested in protecting the culture from burners themselves? Because by “our culture” what they really mean is the Org’s exclusive right to exploit burners, on or off the playa.

As we’ve already reported, just days ago the Org in their quest to “protect our culture” sent vaguely threatening messages to several Facebook group administrators, asserting that the use of the words “Burning Man” as part of a group’s name is some kind of trademark violation (it isn’t). The group in question is called “Burning Man Classifieds,” and it was made by burners for burners. Burners actively protect it from cynical outside commodification, and they don’t need the Org to help them do that.

It’s all well and good to blithely assert that “Burners don’t want to be treated like a consumer to be sold to,” but when you’re dealing with a group of burners who have voluntarily gathered in a particular place to do exactly that – have a burner swap meet – then maybe you’re going a little beyond the bounds of “protecting our culture” and sidling into territory that is more aptly described as “a corporation bothering people for no good reason.” Or maybe an even better description would be “a small handful of people, using a corporate trademark to co-opt YOUR culture and profit from it.”

Call me paranoid if you must. I realize that the wording in the JRS is subtle, but coming on the heels of the rising unpleasantness between the Org and burners on Facebook, this smells like a subtle attempt to sway burner attitudes toward an unthinking response that supports the Org’s commercial ambitions for the future. It cleverly ties the idea of any kind of commerce whatsoever between burners to concepts that are already familiar and repellent to us all: commerce on the playa, and MOOP.

The Org is not the culture; burners are the culture. It’s high time for the Org to admit that they have a massive conflict of interest between their stated purpose of spreading and nurturing the culture, and the personal interests of the Board of Directors.

10 comments on “Burning Man® and the Old Switcheroo

  1. OK, that is a take on it I would never have come up with! I have never seen anything that says “thou shall not trade ever”. What I have seen (in writings and speeches by Maid Marian and Larry Harvey) says to me that we will find more value in trade that we engage in with the intent of creating a positive interaction for all parties.

    For instance, My mechanic is a burner – I have a car problem and he says “It will cost this much to fix it, but you will be back in 2 months with another expensive problem” I said “is it throwing good money after bad?” he said “YES”!!. Who has a mechanic like that? I do, because he is interested in me getting the most value for my money, not in getting the most money from me that he can.

    This transaction has been de-commodified. Yes, I am paying him for his time and the parts, but he does not see me as just a paycheck, and I don’t see him as some mechanic who is probably going to rip me off. There is an aspect of commodity here, but the personal relationship is far more important.

    When raw gifting is possible, great. Lets do that. But I need a reliable mechanic, and he needs to pay his bills.

    Decommodification means reducing the part of commerce that says “I’ll trade this generic widget with you for the most cash I can get, even if I need to lie to get it”, and replacing it with “lets trade these resources to make both of our lives better”

    The part about free stuff is gifting, a different principle that is also worth working toward.

    Finally, they are principles, ideals to guide the actions of those who adopt the principles. They are not the ten commandments that we must follow or be damned to hell. Remember, we are doing this for fun.

    Dag Nation

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  3. I don’t know how to check, but I’d be surprised if BMOrg doesn’t have a trademark on “Burning Man”…

  4. So the Org is threatening Burners on Facebook for expressing the culture in commerce? And they don’t want commodifcation but they don’t mind raising ticket prices on the commodity they are in full and only possession of. Maybe if you have lots of money you don’t mind or notice but a lot of us are being priced out of Burning Man and it looks to me like that is about the Org making money and has nothing to do with the needs of Burner culture. BTW a low-income charity where you can beg for approval is no substitute for general fairness.

  5. I feel like the Jack Rabbit Speaks is just a forum to highlight some of the Burner businesses out there. Doesn’t seem to me like they’re trying to dictate how the Burner market works, they’re just calling to attention what businesses they see as interesting and unusual.

    Yes, being an official newsletter gives them more weight and a whole lot more circulation than most, so inevitably there will be controversy and politics as to what gets features and what gets brushed over, but I’d say so far they’re doing a decent job.

    I wouldn’t want to see a JRS that’s bereft of any Burner businesses, and I wouldn’t want to see a JRS that is overloaded with business advertisements either. I don’t read each and every issue from top to bottom, but I do read the blurbs that catch my eye. So far I think they’re doing a good job of keeping the balance.

  6. The whole line is ‘Burners don’t want to be treated like a consumer to be sold to’. I am not sure how this is equated to networking among friends. It sounds like it is considering the idea of treating people as consumers rather than as humans. I am totally on board with that.

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