Just found this thought-provoking essay from 2013 by James Curcio at Modern Mythology. I have edited it down to highlight the most relevant passages for Burners, emphasis ours:
“Two weeks at Burning Man may be fun, but try doing it for a year and chances are you’ll come back telling me what hell is like.”
Even by definition, the idea of a counterculture expresses itself as a negation. It is arguable if a counterculture could possibly exist without the myths of the mainstream. As such it is a product of the market, and exists only insofar as it serves a function within that market.
Yet there are ideals which have been part of various vibrant (if short-lived) countercultures, which rest close to the heart of the creative process as structured by the myth of the individual: unfettered self-expression, freedom from the externally imposed social boundaries, irreverent humor, an element of egalitarianism mixed liberally with pirate capitalism, maybe even a sense of pragmatic community. History shows that these ideals are quickly lost in such movements, however, oftentimes as soon as they gain a true pulpit. The largest expression of that in recent history is of course the now somewhat idealized 1960s, a clear view of which has been obscured through a haze of pot-smoke and partisan politics.
However, “counterculture bubbles,” Temporary Autonomous Zones and so on are regularly coming into and out of being. Countercultures remain rather toothless in regard to having any capacity to sustain themselves outside the context of the society they stand in opposition to, instead utilizing a self-referential social currency of cool-points, sprinkled liberally with pointless elitism and a side of Who Gives A Fuck? One need merely look at the transformation of musical and sub-cultural genres founded on rebellion: punk, rock and roll, and the like, and what they have transformed into during the decades of their existence. In this domain, the territory between aesthetic, ideals, and social movement becomes blurry at best…
This is not to point an accusatory finger, but rather to show the essential dependence of the counterculture upon the mainstream, because they are not self-sustaining, and every culture produces a counter-culture in its shadow, just as every Self produces an Other. Any counterculture. Punk, underground, beatnik, hippy, psychedelic, straight edge, or occult culture all stand as the cardboard cut-out Shadows of corporate America.
They will be co-opted the moment their shtick becomes profitable. It doesn’t matter that these ideologies have little in common. It is the fashion or mystique that gets sold. When all an ideology really boils down to is an easy to replicate aesthetic, how could they not? “Cool” is what customers pay a premium for, along with the comfort of a world with easy definitions and pre-packaged, harmless rebellions. Psychedelic and straight edge can share the same rack in a store if the store owner can co-brand the fashions, and people can brand themselves “green” through their purchasing power without ever leaving those boxes or worrying about the big picture. Buy nothing day, AdBusters, etc. ad nauseum all utilize this principle. Without laying the material, mythic, and social groundwork for a new society, counterculture cannot be a bridge; it almost invariably leads back to the mainstream, though not necessarily without first making its mark and pushing some new envelope.
Where do we draw the line? As Yogi Bhajan put it, “money is as money does.” The question is how individuals utilize or leverage the potential energy represented by that currency, and what ends it is applied to. Hard nosed books on business such as Drucker’s Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices say exactly the same thing, in a less epigrammatic, Yoda-like way: profit is not a motive, it is a means…
Though this “revolution” certainly didn’t start in the 1960s, there we have one of the clearest instances of what good bed-fellows mass marketing and manufacturing make when branded under the zeitgeist of the counterculture. The moment that psychedelic culture gained a certain momentum, Madison Avenue chewed it up and spit it out in 7up ads. If a movement gains momentum, it becomes a market. This was used to sell these “psychedelic clothes” to a wider market. When people bought those hip clothes to make a statement, whose pockets were they lining? It’s a revolving door of product tie-ins, and it all feeds on the needs of the individual, embodied in a sub-culture. The rise of Rolling Stone magazine could also be seen as an example of this; a counterculture upstart turned mainstream institution.
Fashion embodies a state of mind, a culture. But it is not that culture. An example of this can be seen in Harley Davidson driving lawyers in their forties. As the company rose to prominence in the 1920s and beyond, Harley Davidson developed its brand off of what they sold, functionally, yet in later years that became a shtick that was re-marketed to people that needed not an alternate form of transportation, but instead what Harley Davidson had come to “mean.” The bottom line here, as discussed previously: we live in a culture where appearances count for a lot more than reality.
Those who position themselves as extreme radicals within the counter culture framework merely disenfranchise themselves through an act of inept transference, finding anything with a dollar sign on it questionable. To this view, anyone that’s made a red cent off of their work is somehow morally bankrupt. This mentality can only end one way: they will wind up howling after the piece of meat on the end of someone else’s string, working by day for a major corporation, covering their self-loathing at night in tattoos, and body-modifications they can hide. That is, unless they lock themselves in a cave or try to start an agrarian commune.
Growth on its own is never a clear indicator that the underlying ideals of a movement will remain preserved. If history has shown anything, it is that successful movements lose substance either through shallowing their core values until they become an empty, parroted aesthetic, as with most musical scenes and their transition from content to fashion; or the movement’s core values are so emphasized that the meaning within them is lost through literalism, as we can see in the history of the world’s major religions. The early Christian Gnostic traditions of “love thy neighbor,” “all is one,” and the agape orgies were replaced by the Roman Orthodoxy and the authority provided through the ultimate union of State and Religion. The hippies traded in their sandals and beat up VWs for SUVs and overpriced Birkenstocks. It oftentimes seems that succeeding too well can be the greatest curse to befall a movement, and it is a well-documented fact of cultural trends that when the pendulum swings far in one direction, it often turns into its opposite without having the common decency to wait to swing back the other way…
Thus, the utopian dreams of most countercultures are rendered somewhat toothless by the brilliantly co-optive myths of capitalist culture. One might hope this is a temporary state of affairs, as the hippy movement hoped that primal territorial and ideological conflicts are some sort of prolonged hold-back rather than the underlying reality of the human condition. Regardless, hope alone does not bring change. The paradigms that root a culture in ideological stasis are too strong for any single “revolutionary” or grass-roots movement to effectively shift them all at once – all that results from demonstrative radicalization is further polarization, disenfranchisement and estrangement. If, on the other hand, people find alternatives that truly work for them, which allow for new cultural possibilities (and blind-spots), they will likely spread by virtue of their efficacy. If social groups can establish greater sufficiency, they become less dependent on the structures of government and business, though it’s unlikely they’ll be able to escape the establishment of their own versions of the same. It almost seems that such things can only happen blindly, naturally, as bees pollinate flowers.
So we come to it.
As counterculture scenes grow and enter the market place – all the elements of it have been defined, commodified, and made replicable. This is precisely the same process that occurs from one generation to the next. It isn’t that any subculture – or any “scene” for that matter – needs to be revitalized once it has reached this stage. They are all dead shells, ideas which at one point in time served a purpose, and are now just fetishes.
Perhaps the line between “Home” and “Defaultia” was always destined to get blurrier, as the amount of money involved increases.
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I never for a moment thought Burning Man was anything other than a TEMPORARY Autonomous Zone. Of course such a paradigm could not be sustained, it wasn’t designed to. As William Faulkner wrote:
“One of the saddest things is that the only thing that a man can do for eight hours a day, day after day, is work. You can’t eat eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours — all you can do for eight hours is work.”
Which is why I’m against the BMORG’s “spreading Burner culture” efforts, and look askance at anyone talking about a “permanent Burning Man” who isn’t on the playa and under the influence of pharmaceuticals.
I agree that a counter-culture can only survive as long as their is a primary culture to bounce off of and provide needed infrastructure. And I think that’s just as it should be. Some good ideas come from counter-cultures that eventually become mainstream. As much as it sucks for those who initiated such ideas (it’s never fun when the meatheads glom on), it’s beneficial in the long run for society.
If you’ve ever visited Camden Town in London you’ll see what remains of past counter culture symbols. They’ve all been co-opted completely mainstreamed. The so-called counter-culturalists there wear the official counter-culture uniforms – non-conformists just like everyone else, void of any meaning or rebellion or counter to anything.
It’s the same at Burning Man now. All the official fashion is downright comical. The ironic BM Fashion Shows of the past, is now taken seriously. That’s just how mainstream people interpret such things. It seems they have zero sense of irony, and irony (in its lowest form) only now exists within hipsterdom (the culture of the death of cool).
The new Western counter-culture is isolation of the individual, a total rejection of society and unnecessary social interaction – to live in a log cabin or to hide in plain sight within a city and to seek self-improvemnt physically and mentally.
I totally agree, especially with your last paragraph…
I live the latter and may soon live the prior…But I always try to open others minds, which rarely works…lol
Hipsters are funny and they are themselves a counter culture within a counter culture, that is mainstream but they deny that fact. So in fact, hipsters are just normal people masquerading as “counter culture”. Anyone who knowingly tries to be different for the fact of “cool”, is not counter culture…Am I making sense?
Hey, records and records players are nothing new…lol Neither is your “voltron” tshirt…But to each their own right?
Great article about it from a guest writer here a few years back. http://burners.me/2012/09/30/everyones-unique-except-me-why-i-hate-magical-thinking/
I absolutely love that article!
I can almost fall into a couple of those categories but what makes me different is ACTION…Being proactive…
I pick up plastic everywhere I go. Its hard to ride my bike because Im always stopping. One day, on the way past a dirty bus stop littered with plastic cups, I decided to go into the SB and ask them to send an employee once in a while to pick up the crap…As soon as I opened my mouth I was greeted with NOT OUR PROBLEM…lol Anyways, long story short, a hipsterish looking fellow with the tight cut and dark rim glasses said “Call the city, its not our trash”..I responded with, “Oh, I call the city and yes it is our trash”
That is kind of reminded me of the individual with the good thoughts just to avoid feeling responsible. He was happy to blog about it but wasnt “about it bout it”
Anyways, the city finally put the trash can back at the bus stop and got rid of the bench…I guess as punishment?
The real problem, imo, is the belief in Utopia. By it’s very nature, all Utopian social theories are untestable, thus, all Utopian assertions are irrefutable… pure dogma. Virtually all social theories have this problem, because societies are to big, and to complex to perform meaningful experiments on them. Think about it, how does one test a social theory? The attempt to create Utopia requires that individuals never question Utopian ideals, thus, the goal of Utopia necessitates totalitarianism.
Utopian ideology does not swing like a pendulum to it’s supposed opposite, authoritarianism and totalitarianism; rather, they are two sides to the same coin.
“Counterculture” suggests being counter to culture. What so many tricksters, prankster and fire artists, for whom I have known, seem to embrace, is pro-culture. Being pro-culture means embracing those parts of your cultural heritage that one finds unsavory, and would rather reject. Think white kids buying into black culture to reject their own peoples historical legacies, and so forth.
Likewise, as much as I detest and would rather reject the Boomer generation’s attempt to throw their cultural heritage out the window, I know that doing so would be hypocritical, as I am a child of that generation. This entire article seems to be written from that 60’s, Boomer generation frame of thinking. The romantic urge for total cultural overthrow, and political revolution, leading to the ultimate solution to all our social woes. But issues related to freedom, liberty, sustainability, and so fourth, have no single, one time fix.
We will always have to work to maintain a free, fair and sustainable society. There is no permanent fix, leading us to some Utopian perma-vacation, where we don’t have to work to maintain that society any longer. A free, fair and sustainable society is anything but easy, comfortable or convenient. Instead of being counterculturists, let’s be pro-culturalists, and promote the most important aspect of culture: it’s inevitable tendency to change. Change is the key, here, as well as remembering what we have changed from. If your beloved subculture changes, and no longer seems true to it’s roots any more, then this is exactly what it should do. Don’t be a douche bag, and try to trademark your community’s cultural expressions, in the hopes that you can preserve it’s cultural fidelity. In the end, you will only stifle it’s authenticity, because every revision of cultural expression is always going to deviate from it’s roots. That is what is always guaranteed to backfire.
Forget about counterculture, and Utopia… instead, let’s try to promote open source culture, and the cultural commons. Culture need not be countered if it is open to change. Call it evolution, if you will.
Great comment. Open source culture , sharing , gifting , helping and entertaining each other – that is the future. A Utopian future…
In a manner most similar to the Borg, another bottoms up, crowd sourced community is being assimilated by an org desiring of top down control, and cash, upon the labours of the volunteer community, replace all whom resist assimilation in due of their beliefs in the priorly stated principles and community. Reddit forums blacked out as users protest former employee’s sudden firing.
It’s not clear what led to Taylor’s swift departure from Reddit after only two years, but a since-deleted Quora post obtained by the Guardian suggested Taylor pushed back on the inevitable commercialization of the coveted Q&A series.
“Reddit management was pushing Victoria to do a bunch of highly commercial things around AMAs, but Victoria wasn’t comfortable with those ideas,” Quora executive Marc Bodnick reportedly wrote.
I have thought this for some time now…Not just about BM but about lots of things. It is so very true…
Compare BM to now and the 90’s…You will see less “imitators” back then, probably none.
Now, all you need is a pair of goggle, a FAT wallet and a stupid head dress and all of a sudden your “burning”…Oh and dont forget the booze and drugs
Ski goggles and a respirator on a windless day… And don’t forget the Utilikilt and the rockin Tevas.
How could I forget the Tevas?!! haha