by Whatsblem the Pro
Caveat Magister has been a fixture over at the Org’s official web site for years. His thoughtful, thought-provoking articles written for the Burning Blog are often justifiably praised for great eloquence, depth, and sincerity. I have long suspected that in spite of our obvious differences, the Magister and I might be capable of a good, productive meeting of the minds; we are, after all, opposite numbers of a sort, and might be expected to simply butt heads and lock horns by those who think our stances are just poses. When I heard that he was stepping down from some of his duties serving the Org, I took the opportunity to make that meeting happen. As it turns out, there’s quite a lot that we agree on.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Madge, does this mean you won’t be writing the Burning Blog anymore?
CAVEAT MAGISTER: I’m not actually leaving the Burning Blog. What I left was a leadership role (volunteer coordinator) with the media team. I held that for about exactly six years, and it was almost entirely behind-the-scenes work. But I’ll still be writing for the blog – and in fact they’re keen for me to do more writing. Which, sure, as long as I have the time.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: How did you first stumble upon Burning Man, and how did it change your life?
CAVEAT MAGISTER: The first part of that question’s easy. I didn’t stumble upon Burning Man: my artist friend Sondra Carr stumbled upon Burning Man and then spent the next three years saying “you HAVE to see this!” Eventually she got a grant for a project, and I helped her with some of the pre-playa work on it. Going to Burning Man wasn’t part of the plan for me at that point, but then a couple members of her crew dropped out, and she had comp tickets, and she offered me one along with a spot at her camp, and the timing worked out because I was going to be on the West Coast anyway. So I got into a car share with two complete strangers from Craigslist, drove out from San Francisco, and arrived at BRC in the middle of the night with no clue where I was supposed to pitch my tent. As one does. You can pretty much fill the rest in like a Mad Lib.
The second part’s hard.
There’s no question that Burning Man has changed my life, but I’m not sure how to untangle it from a bunch of other changes. I moved to SF, I got a new job, and then another one, I met new people, I got involved in this and that . . . and I went to Burning Man. And a while later I volunteered for Burning Man. I don’t really know how to say “These changes are Burning Man” and “these changes aren’t.”
I know a lot of people who have come to Burning Man and – boom – that was it. Their minds opened, the doors of perception blew off their hinges, and their lives were transformed. I’ve seen it happen over and over. But it didn’t happen to me. I had a lot of very cool, very hilarious, very amazing things happen to me at my first burn – and every burn since then – but I’ve never had that moment.
The closest I think I’ve come was leaving 2011’s Burn: I left a little early because I heard on the radio that there was no wait for exodus, and I wanted a piece of that. So I threw everything in my rental car, drove out through the gate and onto the highway. . . and suddenly remembered the rest of my life. For the whole week I had completely forgotten all the non-Burning Man details of who I was and what I did and where I lived. So I had left Burning Man not even really conscious of the fact that I was going back to San Francisco – I just knew that I was going to leave (because that’s part of the process) and didn’t want to be stuck in traffic. For a whole week I’d left my life at the gate and just lived my desert identity. And then, as I left, it all came back to me. Overwhelming me. “Oh, right, that’s who I am. I have a job and an apartment.” It was a bizarre, breathtaking, moment.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: How did you get involved with the Org, and with being a featured writer on their blog?
CAVEAT MAGISTER: There’s a story with how I got involved with the Org, and I included it in the middle of a post saying goodbye to Action Girl. Take a look.
It’s all accurate, except that I’ve since learned that Termeh Yeghiazarian was also instrumental in pulling my name from the big pile. I’m very grateful.
A couple of things to emphasize about all this:
I wasn’t an insider in any way at the time. I didn’t know anybody who worked for Burning Man, or was a Burning Man artist (aside from my friend in Colorado who got me to the Burn in the first place). I didn’t even know anybody on the team I was volunteer coordinating for.
While I wouldn’t have applied to volunteer for Burning Man if I hadn’t believed in it in some way, I didn’t volunteer because I believed in Burning Man. I was trying to make friends in a new city, and they seemed like interesting people who did fun things.
In a way that was a colossal failure, because it really did take them a year and a half to get back to me.
So why did I get the job, given that I didn’t know anyone or have any experience with Burning Man beyond attending the event? There are two reasons, one of which I think is great the other of which I think is a problem.
One reason is: that I made Andie and Termeh laugh. When they looked at my volunteer survey, they laughed out loud, and went to tell other people “Check out this awesome survey!” That was the ball game right there. They were determined to find something to have me do, and it just so happened that they needed a VC and that I seemed good with people. And actually I think this is a surprisingly good way of choosing volunteers for Burning Man: if somebody’s application excites you, if it makes you laugh, if it gives you a human reaction rather than a cost/benefit analysis – get that person on the team.
It usually pans out really well.
The other reason is that I was competing against an artificially small pool of potential volunteers: Burning Man really likes to fill positions like this with people who live in the SF Bay Area. Which I now did. I understand why they want to do this. You get a lot out of face-to-face meetings. But I think it’s a mistake: Burning Man “happens” more and more around the world, and key people are increasingly operating at a distance. This is a strength, and more room should be made at the volunteer leadership level to accommodate it.
And that’s how it happened.
Writing for the Burning Blog has nothing to do with the VC position, but I came to do it as a result of that position. I did a lot of writing on the Media Mecca list and periodically we would talk amongst ourselves about Burning Man issues, and at one point about three years ago (ish?) we got into an intense discussion about plug-n-play camps. I wrote a long response as part of that discussion, and Will Chase (who is on the Media Mecca list) said something to the effect of “Hey, that’s really good! Would you mind if I post it to the Burning Blog?”
And I said “No problem, let me just clean it up a little.”
I sent him a cleaned up version. . . and nothing happened (it’s kind of a trend in my experience with Burning Man asking me to do stuff). The piece was never run. But it did get Action Girl thinking “Hey, Caveat could make a really good contributor to the Burning Blog!” And so a couple months later she asked if that was something I wanted to do.
I said “Maybe.”
She and I sat down to talk about it over coffee, and I said “Listen, it’s a great offer, I really appreciate it. But I need to make sure you understand: I’ve seen what’s usually on the Burning Blog, and I’m not going to do that. That’s not how I’ll have my fun. And while you know me, and know I’m easy to work with, this isn’t going to be worth it if I’m not saying something interesting. So I’m going to try to push boundaries on this, and take my own approach, and not care at all about fitting in with what the blog is otherwise like. I want to make sure you’re comfortable with that, because if you’re not and you give me the keys to the kingdom anyway it’ll be a disaster. So if that’s not what you want then it’s better we don’t do this. But if it is, great.”
And she said. “That’s what we want. Go for it.”
A couple weeks later, I wrote my first post. It’s been going for about two years.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: In what specific ways would you say you’ve pushed those boundaries?
CAVEAT MAGISTER: I once got a hostile e-mail from a guy I don’t know who’s part of the build crew, who wanted to know why I spend so much time being ‘negative’ about Burning Man when the point of the blog should be to get people fired up and excited. I didn’t think it was a fair critique – I think it’s pretty obvious how much I love Burning Man – but it was an honest critique. He wanted a blog that existed to rally the troops, and felt hurt by the fact that I was always going off track.
I have nothing against getting people excited. Somebody should get people excited! But it’s not what I do. There was nothing interesting to me about saying “Yay Burning Man!” and leaving it at that. I’m not that guy. Andie knew that.
Instead, I’m the guy on the blog who asks “Is Burning Man a White People Thing?” I’m the guy who asked “Does wearing a utilikilt and fuzzy boots make you more ‘authentic?’” I’m the guy who suggested that academia and Burning Man have fundamental incompatibilities, and who said “It’s Okay to be Miserable at Burning Man.”
I don’t deserve credit for originality – I imagine every Burner who’s been to the event a few years had had all of these thoughts. But there wasn’t content like that on the Burning Blog when I came on board. It didn’t seem to be something we talked about, especially when other people were watching.
When I looked at the Burning Blog, I saw a lot of great articles every year about the city being put up (John Curley, if I may say so, is Amazing); and about what art projects were going to be featured; and announcements of Burning Man policies; and, of course, lots of tales from the playa.
And it all has a place, and would be missed if it weren’t on the Burning Blog. People want to read it.
But, to me, it wasn’t challenging. It was an attempt to appreciate Burning Man (“Yay!”), but not to grab on to it with both fists, or flirt with it, or interrogate it, and see what happened. Or even understand it on a deeper level. Much in the same way that a blog on the. . . I dunno. . . Nestle website would feature a lot of great information about Nestle and about calorie content and good recipes, but could never be mistaken for a community of people passionate about chocolate having an engaged conversation, I felt like the Burning Blog had all kinds of great information about Burning Man but couldn’t be mistaken for a community of people passionate about Burning Man having an engaged conversation.
The blog for Burning Man wasn’t “Burning Man.” I’d say it still isn’t, that’s a really tall order, but what I wanted to do was move it closer.
That meant not playing it safe.
There are kinds of bold statements, hard questions, and penetrating insights you can only have if you’re willing to take risks. I was given one of the biggest microphones in Burning Man culture, and I wanted to use it to say something interesting, which meant taking risks. Maybe part of the reason we have such a hard time talking about Burning Man is that we don’t take these risks when we talk about it. Out in the desert, we’re pretty good at taking risks. In our “literature”? Not so much. We don’t risk offending, we don’t call each other out on our shit, we don’t propose the kind of ideas that, in being proven wrong, would still advance thought. We just sit around radically including each other. Which is wonderful, as far as it goes – but I want to go farther.
We also laugh at each other behind our backs a lot. I want to laugh at our fronts a lot. I’ve seen what we’re wearing.
So what I was telling AG was: I’m actually going to go for it. And that’s what I’ve tried to do: to put ideas forward that are worth arguing about, in the service of greater clarity and insight. My first post (“Burning Man isn’t the Happiest Therapists Office on Earth”) expressed the clear statement that “Burning Man isn’t benign” – something I feel is an obvious truth that we don’t talk about very much. It’s so basic to the experience and yet it’s not in any of the promotional materials or even many of the stories that we tell each other. Other subjects have been trying to have conversations about aspects of Burning Man that I feel like we live but don’t talk about.
And, to be clear, it’s hard for people – especially employees – to take these kinds of rhetorical risks in a public forum. Employees kinda can’t: anything they say runs the risk of becoming an official Burning Man statement (even if they’re not a spokesperson: they’re on the blog, right?), and it’s very hard to walk those kinds of things back when someone on staff says it. But me? I’m a volunteer. It’s easy to disavow something a volunteer says: it’s easy to say “everybody’s entitled to an opinion, he doesn’t speak for us” when the person involved isn’t on your payroll.
So I had an opportunity. And I felt like anything other than content that was good enough to be risky was a waste of it.
It’s for others to decide if I’ve succeeded or not. Or even whether it was needed. But that’s what I was going for – and still am. I don’t want to offend Larry or Marion or a guy who gives his sweat to put the fence up, but I want to write something good enough to be worth having an argument about. That means that maybe this week is the week I piss somebody off.
Does that make sense? Does it answer the question?
Man do I sound serious. If it lightens the mood a little, I also like saying “fuck” on the internet a lot. And not even to offend people. Just because.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO:
Yes, that makes quite a bit of sense, and answers several questions.
I think you and I are alike in some important ways. It suits me better to go a little deeper in criticizing the Org, but then I’m not beholden to them for anything, especially not my ‘microphone’ as you called it. I’m sure I take a much dimmer view of them and their history than you do — you ask penetrating questions about the culture and our place/participation in it, and I ask penetrating questions about the Org’s actions and intent — but in essence, we’re doing much the same thing.
Clearly you get some hate mail from time to time. Do you get a lot of hostility and negativity from people for your writing? I know that my articles tend to really polarize people; that’s fine, it’s what I aim for. I get hate mail, and people talking nonsense about me when they don’t really know the facts, but I also get unexpected greeting cards in the mail with checks in them, and bottles of good Scotch presented to me out of the blue, and entrée to events that would cost me a lot of money otherwise. The perks are nice, but it takes a thick hide to suffer the slings and arrows.
CAVEAT MAGISTER: I am, indeed, completely beholden to the Org for the platform I have – and at a very low level I’ve been working with the Org for six years. I think you’re spot on in thinking that I do have a higher opinion of it than you do, but also that the kind of approach we take in our different spheres is quite close.
That said, people really assume I’m an Org insider in a way that just isn’t true. Although in some ways it might be getting more true. People used to come up to me all the time and ask what the Org was thinking about such-and-such or what they were going to do about a situation (tickets, for example), and I’d try to tell them: “I don’t go to those meetings. I’m not in those rooms. Nobody tells me anything that you don’t hear.” They wouldn’t believe me.
Then, by accident, I hit on the magic words: “I’ve never even MET Larry Harvey!” And somehow, when people heard that, they suddenly believed I wasn’t such an insider. It’s like a switch got flipped: “Oh, well, if he’s never met Larry . . .”
It was a really useful thing to say. It’s no longer true, though. I have since met Larry, and had several lengthy conversations with him. But what do we talk about? Ideas, concepts, sociology, psychology, mythology, political theory, history. It’s probably no longer entirely true that I don’t have any real insider information, but the broader point still stands: I’m not in those meetings, I’m not in any way a part of Burning Man’s governance, and nobody consults me about anything. Why would they?
(By the same token, I’d never suggest they’re beyond critique – “I love Burning Man therefore I must be loyal to the Org” isn’t a formulation I could ever endorse. But while I’m not going to pretend they’re infallible, you’re absolutely right that I’m not covering a “governance” beat on their blog. That just wouldn’t work on any level).
I mention all that in part because I think the reactions to me and my work that I encounter have everything to do with the perception that I’m with the Org. It casts a kind of halo around me, at least at the macro level, that people definitely react to.
At the macro level, a lot of people who don’t separate “Burning Man” from its organizers just think I’m part of the package, so they get enthusiastic about me by default . . . which is exactly the kind of thing that bugs me. It’s the exact opposite of judging me by my work or the content of my ideas. But at least they like me.
I get a relatively free pass from people who object to the Org to the extent that they understand that I don’t have a vote. People who actually know something about Burning Man and have objections generally know I’m not what they’re mad about. Most of the hostility I encounter at this level comes from people who object to the Org and don’t understand it well enough to know that I’m just a guy on a blog. It doesn’t happen often, but, like I said: it has led to some weird conversations.
But in general, I get a far more “generically positive” reaction than anything else. Nobody’s ever sent me Scotch, though. And why would they? It’s not like I built the blog (although, for the record, big single malt man).
Most of the really negative reactions I’ve gotten have come at the micro level – in response to specific pieces.
The instances that immediately come to mind are my contention that Burning Man doesn’t have a literary culture, the idea that vandalizing art isn’t art, and . . . oddly . . . my account of the war I started at Burning Man between BMIR and the Monticello theme camp. A fair number of people jumped down my throat about that one because there’s no room for war at Burning Man, what with it being a center of positivity and all. Which . . . argh. Actually that’s another one: I periodically put forward the idea that people who think of Burning Man as holding exclusively progressive political values are seriously mistaken. Which they are – but they really don’t like to hear it. They have a lot invested in the idea that only people with their political views could ever get anything out of Burning Man.
But by far the piece that generated the most heat for me personally was the piece about academia and Burning Man. A lot of people took that as an affront, or believed that it exposed me as an enemy of reason, or as someone who has no experience with academia.
In fact, from what I’ve heard (and, again, I’m in no position to verify), that was my most controversial piece within Burning Man too. That several staff members were upset and unhappy with that one, and suggested that maybe something should be done.
The story as I’ve heard it is that Marian, under whose purview the blog ultimately falls, put her foot down and said absolutely not. That they were free to write responses as individuals if they wanted, but that to interfere with what I was writing would break the system. I’m grateful for that, but she’s not wrong: I can write the way I do exactly because they leave me alone to do it.
Which, for the record, they do – and have been great about. I don’t get edited. I have complete access to write, post, and publish my own stuff. Nobody reviews it in advance. Nobody’s ever asked me to change a line.
They have, in the . . . hundreds? . . . of pieces I’ve written for them, asked me to remove exactly one. That was my response to the champagne incident (I won’t mention the brand), and was admittedly over the top. I suggested that if a brand like that wanted to come to Burning Man, we could “burn their brand,” and then included a history of the champagne, with photo shopped pictures of it being served at a concentration camp and a Russian gulag and a North Korean missile test, and a line about how it was the choice of pedophiles everywhere. It sounds funnier now than, in hind sight, it actually was. I got an email pretty quickly saying that Burning Man was in the middle of negotiations with the champagne company about how to handle the situation, and that this really wasn’t helpful, and would I mind taking it down? I did, and in hindsight am genuinely okay with the decision – mostly because I re-read the piece a month later and wasn’t happy with it. I was just too angry to be the kind of funny I was aiming for.
All of which is to say that I’ve found the experience to be well worth it, and overwhelmingly positive – but yeah, it sets me up as a target and people take shots and I have to live with that. Some of them strike me as really unfair, but hey, it’s the internet, you know? If I can’t take people saying mean things about me, I can always write a diary.
Incidentally, I really appreciated your insistence on sneaking into the Agents of Chaos show even though you had a ticket. Damn right.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: What are your thoughts on Burning Man’s future?
CAVEAT MAGISTER: It’s so obvious, answering your questions, that I’m a blogger. I can’t shut up.
I don’t have a short, pithy answer about the future of Burning Man. I don’t have a clear prediction, or an Old Testament style warning. But here are some scattered thoughts that have come up frequently.
It’s striking to me how little sense of unity there is not just surrounding what the future of Burning Man will be, but what the future of Burning Man should be. Around the time of the Burning Man Project launch I published a blog asking: what would “success” for Burning Man be in this context? When we say we want to change the world, what would that look like? It was stunning to me how many people responded (both in the comments and directly to me) that the best thing for Burning Man was not to try to change the world at all, and just to keep putting on a great event, so hopefully they’ll just do that.
Which is a fine idea, a perfectly defensible thought; but the art car’s out of the DMV on this one. A Burning Man non-profit has already been created explicitly to changing the world. It’s a thing: a fact on the ground. And I’m not sure if these people just didn’t want to acknowledge it, or actually didn’t know about it (which seems hard for me to believe if they were readers of the Burning Blog), but I would say a significant number of the responses I got wanted to talk about a hypothetical “Burning Man” that in no way took actual events or realities into account. Which. . . I’m not sure what to make of that.
But we’re not a united people, and past a certain point (the 5,000 person mark? The 10,000 person mark?) haven’t been in a while. I don’t mean the obvious disagreements between the “it was better in the 90s” Burners and the Org, or the Paul Addis supporters and the Org: though obviously. I mean there’s a lack of unity involving people who are only vaguely aware of all that stuff, and don’t care all that much.
And that’s okay. I’m not bothered by that. In fact, I think that’s a virtue in many ways. The people who don’t care so much about our back story are our future. Burning Man’s ability to appeal to a wide variety of people with diverse perspectives and interests is a strength. The question is not “are we letting too many of ‘those kinds of people’ in,” but “can we be more diverse?”
The answer is “not yet,” but we’re showing a remarkable capacity to extend ourselves and appeal to people with whom the SF-based “core” members of Burning Man have little in common. And good for us: Burning Man wins if we’re having more fun than anybody else, are good for people, and anybody can join. Burning Man loses to the extent any of these things aren’t true.
I know a lot of people want Burning Man to become a political movement. I think that’s a terrible idea – probably one of the single most self-destructive ideas we could engage in. A political movement immediately closes the doors of inclusivity by asking “are you voting with us or against us?” Burning Man, as an engine of possibility, can’t have that kind of litmus test. One of our biggest strengths is that we don’t have to share politics. Our vitality as a cultural movement is tied to our willingness to transcend politics.
Which doesn’t mean we can’t tackle big problems – but it does mean we have to focus on tackling them rather than trying to convince our elected officials to do so. Self-reliance counts here.
A lot of people want Burning Man to become a spiritual movement, too. I find Burning Man’s emergence as a major spiritual movement to be. . . in this order. . . overblown, bizarre, and fascinating. But there’s no question it’s a major part of our future.
A TV documentary was recently mentioned at a Media team meeting that’s planning to film at Burning Man along with other major spiritual pilgrimage sites like. . . Mecca.
Which. . . COME ON! Seriously? No, absolutely not. Just on the sheer numbers alone: one is a 1400-year-old pilgrimage site that a billion people visit as part of one of the world’s dominant faiths – a faith that preserved the works of Aristotle for posterity, made major advances in Mathematics, and has had a massive impact on global architecture, literature, and science.
The other is a 26-year-old party that attracts 50,000 odd people, many of whom are DJs.
Give Burning Man a good 1000 years and then, yeah, we can have this conversation. But right now it’s crazy to even be talking about them in the same breath. And I say that as someone who loves Burning Man – who has had what I would argue are meaningful spiritual experiences at Burning Man. But this is nuts.
Yet I can’t deny that this is really happening. We’ve all seen anecdotally that many people are coming to Burning Man who see it as a spiritual center, and I can tell you that a ton of people volunteer whose primary connection to Burning Man is (so they think) a spiritual one. Is this Burning Man’s future? To go from the home of the drive-by shooting range to the home of morning yoga and New Age Dharma Talks? How does that happen?
I honestly don’t know.
I’ve gone on record as saying that I don’t believe Burning Man can ever replace religion (nor should it) and I stand by that. But there is a way in which Burning Man is a receptacle of a deep hunger for meaning in Western industrial life. Again, that’s not a bad thing – and in fact is part of Burning Man’s success. But I admit the eagerness with which Burning Man is seen in some quarters as comparable to any major world religion gives me serious pause: the eagerness with which Western seekers (and Western media) takes up this storyline strikes me as having much more to do with cultural narcissism than with Burning Man’s actual spiritual qualities. But by the same token Burning Man doesn’t have to be Mecca, or the Vatican, or Bodh Gaya, to change lives. People’s experiences here are legitimate, and they come back because they’re genuinely moved. I think right now Burning Man is simultaneously the hip new spiritual supermarket (to borrow a phrase from Chogyum Trungpa) and something more substantive. I think there’s a lot at stake in which way this goes – but I honestly have no idea what the right move is.
I don’t have anything to add to the mountain of web pages that have been published about how the future of Burning Man is the Regionals, except to say “right on.” What I don’t think is fully appreciated is the degree to which this means an influx of diverse peoples and ideas that are desperately needed if Burning Man is to become the global movement it. . . kind of. . . aspires to be, and how much these people will bring their own traditions, cultures, arts, and ideas for fun with them. Burning Man’s future is to change. If you want, we could make up a cool metaphor about how fire is constantly changing yet always the same. That seems like the sort of thing that would go over big.
In many ways I guess I would say that Burning Man’s disunity is its strength. Burning Man’s future is tied to its ability to reach beyond its base, beyond San Francisco and California and New York. To the extent the regionals grow, and achieve unique identities – are not pale imitations of Burning Man – Burning Man thrives. To the extent they don’t, to the extent Burning Man becomes a place where these kinds of people go and do these kinds of things because they believe this sort of stuff, it’s in trouble.
I’ll say it again: Burning Man wins if we’re having more fun than anybody else, it’s good for people who are involved, and anybody can join. Burning Man loses to the extent any of these things are’t true.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: You make some very good points there, but I think it’s vital to distinguish between Burning-Man-the-event, and Burning-Man-the-corporation, in order to have a meaningful discussion of what Burning Man’s future is. It’s also important for people to know and understand where we came from, and how we got here.
As for Burning-Man-the-event, what we’ve got now is terrific as far as an arts festival or a party goes. That’s valuable to me, and the community that has grown up around it is chock full of interesting trailblazers with big brains. . . but as you’ve highlighted, it’s also full of willfully ignorant people with shuttered minds and a massively overblown sense of the sacred. I think the last thing the world needs is a new religion; it’s long past time that we listened up to Mr. Nietzsche and put our toddler toys away. At this late date, God isn’t just dead, He’s fossilized, like an ichthyosaur skeleton. It seems a terrible shame to me that Burning Man — even if it really is a new religion — isn’t something much better and much more important than it ist; I think it was better and more important for a short time, long ago, but has long since succumbed to the same type of predators that have been running the music industry for decades.
Some people believe that the Org has deliberately courted a certain type of person who is susceptible to magical thinking, because people who are that easily awed and so ready to drink any reasonably tasty kool-aid they’re offered are much easier to herd than a rabble of anarchists and Cacophonists. . . and let me just be very clear and say that I personally am convinced that the people who sit on the Board are mainly concerned with making money and not much else, despite the titanic volumes of hot air they put out to the contrary.
I keep hearing the words of George Santayana in my head; that quote that everyone is familiar with but almost nobody actually pays heed to: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We can walk out into the desert, draw a line in the sand, hop over it and say we’re in another world now, but if we don’t keep in mind all the things we’re trying to leave behind, if we aren’t mindful of the myriad assumptions and blinders that we’re prone to making and wearing, if we don’t give a thought to the way that corporate cultures have evolved precisely to co-opt and exploit our most creative urges, then crossing that line in the sand is just loudly inviting opportunists to exploit us for their own gain. We started with Hakim Bey as our guiding light, but have rapidly sunk back into the outer darkness we thought we were escaping. Instead of Hakim Bey, we’ve got the product of an unspeakable ménage-à-deux between Heaven’s Gate and the Koch Brothers. We’ve been persuaded and convinced by bloodsuckers that we have far too much blood in us and that their presence is absolutely vital to whatever it is we’re trying to accomplish as a culture. It’s still a great party, and the art is wonderful, but the freedom and otherliness that it once had has become entirely illusory. The persistence of that illusion is no doubt a comfort to many, but it’s also the biggest threat we face as a culture.
I think you and I agree that when we talk about changing the world, we have to bear in mind that we don’t have our own house in order. All the talk we hear about the Burning Man Project ignores that, because when you’re at the top of the pile and your real interests are corporate in nature (i.e., making money), the actual viability of the culture you’re promoting doesn’t signify nearly as much as your bottom line does. It’s like all the blather you hear about the American military “protecting our freedom” and “spreading democracy” when (A) what they’re really engaged in is conquest for profit; (B) our freedom was never in jeopardy, except from the people who tell us that imperialist military adventurism is protecting it; (C) they’ve already succeeded in taking most of our freedom away anyway, and in destroying the democracy they’re supposedly spreading. All they’re really spreading is manure. For such people to talk about “changing the world” is a nasty joke; they will promise you freedom and give you chains; they will promise you abundance, and take everything from you. A fat, malodorous turd in every pot, that’s what you typically get from people who tell you they’re out to change the world. . . and both the turd and the pot will sport corporate logos, and come with abusive end-user license agreements.
CAVEAT MAGISTER: I once had a friend named Bill, a great guy. The story goes (I wasn’t around) that in 1970 he followed a girl to the Ozark Mountains and joined a back to the land commune. Must have been some girl.
I met him almost 30 years later. The commune hadn’t lasted, but he’d married the girl and they’d stuck around and when everyone else had moved away they’d kind of inherited all the land. To my knowledge it’s where they still live today.
I visited his homestead. . . gorgeous, I can’t tell you how amazing the Ozards are. . . and I asked him, brashly, impertinently: “Do you think the back to the land movement actually accomplished anything? I mean, can you point to one thing that’s different today because of that movement?”
“Sure!” he said. “They sell granola at Wal-Mart.”
I didn’t get it. “So?”
“So they sell granola at Wal-Mart!” he said. “Back when I started, you have to understand that everything we did was supposed to be crazy. Dangerous. UnAmerican. We were out on the fringe. And back then we were the only people talking about food that was closer to nature. Now, they sell granola at Wal-Mart! And organic food! And pesticide free produce! Can you think of a bigger appropriation? It turns out that a lot of our good ideas had their biggest impact, way more of an impact than we ever imagined possible, after they got accepted by the mainstream. So sure, we didn’t last. But our biggest success turned out to be getting appropriated.”
I’m reminded of that when I hear arguments about the dilution of Burning Man’s culture. It’s not a simple issue. Appropriation can actually go both ways. Because however much we have moved away from the guiding light of Hakim Bey, the only reason I ever heard of Hakim Bey is that Burning Man moved so far.
How far is too far? I don’t know. But I do know that it would be ungrateful of me to say that Burning Man should move just far enough so that I could hear about it, show up, and get inside, but no further. That doesn’t seem right at all.
Nor do I think it should move just far enough to appeal to people “like” me. That’s a recipe for quick obsolescence. No, the people we most want to reach. . . that any movement most wants to reach. . . are the ordinary citizens, for all their flaws and imperfections and idiocies. And guess what? They’re inspired by Burning Man.
That’s a good thing. Even if they’re just coming for the party. Even though they haven’t had to take a multiple choice test about Burning Man’s history and influences. One way to look at this process is that Burning Man is getting “watered down.” It’s not untrue. But if we’re truly open to everyone, if we’re truly inclusive, we have to understand that the institution and culture will themselves change to reflect the people we’re reaching. We are absolutely free, even called upon, to argue in favor of changes we like and against changes we don’t – and we are invited to live those principle and show by example how sound our reasons are. But the fact that someone was at Burning Man 15 years ago doesn’t protect them from being offended or upset or challenged this year. Burning Man will change, because the only organizations that don’t are the ones that are about to die. Or to kill.
When I think of the lessons of history for Burning Man, the lesson that comes to me is that connecting with the larger culture is a virtue. The fact that the larger culture is so absurdly commercial is unfortunate, but it’s a fact: any movement that can’t swim through those waters is going to drown. Without rising to the defense of the Board (I have no idea what their motives are), I will say that the executives of every arts organization I’ve ever encountered were all focused on money. The San Francisco opera won’t leave me alone; the neighborhood arts groups wants me to “buy” a tile that my name will go on; public radio stations that I already pay for with my tax dollars hold pledge drives twice a year; the small theater company I frequent sells me a ticket, then asks me to Facebook and Tweet my friends, and then hits me up for a donation. My film producer friend is on Indiegogo right now, seeking fiscal support for his vision.
Is this because arts and art groups (along with social welfare groups) attract money loving bloodsuckers? Or does it say something about what it takes to do art and social welfare on anything more than a private scale in the world?
Frankly Burning Man is the least aggressive fundraiser for an organization of its kind I’ve ever encountered. Maybe that will change with the non-profit; maybe I’m just being fooled by people who are better at this than me. You could be entirely right. (I have friends who say you are.) But the dirty secret of the arts world is art and money are conjoined twins. We don’t like to talk about it because a group of 19th century romantics decided there was something dirty about making a living: that the bourgeois sensibility is locked in eternal war with art. But like most dichotomies, it’s as false as it is simple. Most of those particular romantics had family money. They were not the descendants of Dr. Johnson, who labored in penury for nine years to produce his magnum opus: they were the children of merchants and aristocrats who were rebelling against their parents. They were able to condemn people for making a living precisely because they didn’t have to. Our whole attitude to art and money was largely set by people who held us in contempt.
Dr. Johnson, incidentally, later said that “Nobody but a blockhead ever wrote except for the money.” So obviously he didn’t feel that nine years of impoverished toil were their own reward, or even particularly good for the soul.
To the extent that you want to argue that Burning Man isn’t really a radical zone of anti-commerce, I’ll agree with you in the abstract: but on the level most of us live our lives, to go out and spend a week surrounded by people and not pay for anything is actually a hugely anti-commercial act. Most of us never get anywhere near that in the rest of our lives. And I’ll grant you that this says more about the sad state of our culture than it does about Burning Man per see, but, it’s not nothing. For most of us, it’s huge. For the people we most want to reach, it’s enormous: it opens the door to the idea that we can live differently far more than any number of lectures would.
But the point is that people have to make the decision to move away from commerce in their lives – to hold that there are things beyond financial value – for themselves. They can’t be pushed or talked into it. What works best is for them to experience what that’s like, and take it up from there when and if they’re ready. And to create that experience, Burning Man has to be concerned with financial realities. It has to be fiscally functional. I don’t hold that against them. Precisely because I try to learn from history.
The people who could do what you and I seem to want – run an art and service organization with little thought for money – have historically been monastics. Monasteries. . . Dominican, Franciscan, Cistercian, Zen, Tibetan. . . have lasted for hundreds of years and combined artistic expression (chant and paintings and calligraphy, and more) with public service and vows of poverty. And they’re awesome. I have the utmost respect for monasteries and monastics as transmitters of art and culture.
But obviously they were (and are) attached to strong religious orders – exactly the thing that neither of us wants Burning Man to become. So we’re at a quandary, wanting to get behavior that comes with monasticism without any of the ethos that inspires it. I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know if Burners want to be that. It’s all very much a work in progress.
In some ways this seems to me to be the struggle of the post-modern society: how do we get responsible communal behavior out of people who are fully emancipated?
Burning Man hasn’t answered that question, but I think it’s one of the many areas it helps illuminate – and better than most I’ve seen.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Granola at Wal-Mart — if you’re into granola — is certainly some kind of progress, but it sure isn’t a revolution. I mean, the granola’s there, but Wal-Mart is still there too, and so is the military-industrial complex that Smedley Butler and Eisenhower warned us about. Changing the world by outliving the older people whose taste in consumer goods don’t match yours seems like pretty weak sauce; is that really an accomplishment? ‘Twas ever thus, for every new generation in the consumerist world!
Let’s note, too, that we’re talking about a kind of change that is only possible in a society glutted with abundance and well-laden with the stolen and bloody fruits of empire; there must be a thousand grim little principalities in which you eat whatever the hell is available, and it’s probably the same stuff your great-great-great-great-grandparents ate, and there’s probably not enough of it.
But I’m not being fair to you. You specifically asked your friend Bill what the back-to-the-land movement accomplished, not what all the political unrest of the ’60s got done. In that much smaller context, granola at Wal-Mart seems like a pretty decent little victory, for Americans and other Wal-Mart shoppers. . . but it’s irrelevant — or worse — to the Third World (is there quinoa in your granola?). As an example of sweeping positive change, it’s a bar that is set miles too low.
Maybe I’m still not being entirely fair. Your point was that the back-to-the-land movement’s greatest achievement came as a direct product of the movement being co-opted, not that it was an achievement that represented any real change for the better.
I think as contemporary First World people we find it pretty easy to settle for less than we had in the past, because most of the compromises we’re forced to make still work out to be insanely good deals for us. We’d all still vastly prefer to be the brokest, most homeless and nameless person in America than the anointed Pope-King of some famine-stricken tribe of desperately malnourished refugees being hunted down and slaughtered by child soldiers, so we tend to accept the subversion of our ideals for profit relatively cheerfully. . . like, it’s not that hard to tighten your belt a little when your ribs and your spine are total strangers to each other.
We see examples of that all time; Obamacare blithely accepted as a reasonable substitute for the single-payer option, for instance. It’s a shameful national failure that values profits over people, but it still beats having no hospitals or healthcare options at all and being chronically undernourished, like one person in eight on this planet. The price of gasoline is another; it may seem outrageously high when you consider the price of a barrel of oil in the UAE, but most of us can still afford to drive when we really need to, and gas is still cheap here compared to the prices you see in some parts of the world.
Note that Turks and Brazilians, who live on thinner margins than we do, take to the streets instead of doing the Yanqui thing, which is muttering and bitching and tossing down another tall cold one and lighting up the night with the glow of our TV sets instead of going out and tossing a brick through a bank window, or setting fire to a police car.
That’s what I see with Burning Man: an anarchic utopia a la Hakim Bey that has already been destroyed by people seeking to profit from it, but whose ruins and crumbs are still so much better than the world outside of it that not many people see fit to call foul. I’d probably feel the same if well-populated autonomous zones were a more available, um, commodity. . . but they’re not, they’re rare and precious, so the theft and destruction of one seems like a major crime to me even if we do get ice cream and cake as a consolation prize.
I could walk out alone into the desert and get all kinds of freaky all by myself, but that’s not any kind of movement and it wouldn’t be nearly as fun or as meaningful or as significant as doing it with fifty or sixty thousand of my closest friends. . . and therein lies the heart of my reasons for being as hostile to the Org as I typically am: Burning Man the Temporary Autonomous Zone cannot be retrieved; it is lost. . . but if burner consciousness can be raised to the point that most of us begin to clearly recognize the difference between what Burning Man is and what it was before it was co-opted, then we can increase the autonomy in all our lives, every day, and we can make that freaky walk into the desert together in total freedom, without being moth-hypnotized by the compromised light of Larry Harvey’s corporate-sponsored effigy. We can’t save Burning Man, but we can save burner culture!
You cite other non-profit organizations as being focused on money, but the Burning Man Org is not non-profit, not yet, and maybe not ever. They certainly have been dragging their feet about making that promised transition. Even if they do, it will be an illusion as a transition, because it won’t mean they won’t be turning a profit; mostly it’ll mean that they’ll get huge tax breaks and more access to donations, and will get to enhance their prestige by invoking the powerfully deceptive mumbo-jumbo of “non-profit organization.” They’ll still be able to pay themselves obscenely large salaries, and it’s the salaries of Board members that make the difference between an organization that is focused on money for the sake of fulfilling its mission statement, and an organization that is focused on money as an end unto itself. When the Board of the San Francisco Opera start paying themselves millions and spending only a fraction of their organization’s donated income on producing opera, get back to me about how they’re just like the Burning Man Org.
Just for the record, I’m not one of those people who thinks money is evil, and I see nothing wrong with making a living, even in the non-profit arts sector. What I see something wrong with is co-opting what other people do, trumpeting it as your own work, and making a living off that, especially when doing so destroys what was best about the thing you’re co-opting. The Org constantly, consistently takes credit for Burning Man as though Larry and a handful of his friends built it all with their own hands, when the reality is that 99% of it has been built by non-Org people just trying to reach that now-fictional Autonomous Zone they were promised, and paying for the privilege!
Even the Ten Principles, to a large degree, were transplanted whole from Cacophony Society ethics. . . but for every burner who knows that, there must be fifty or a hundred who have never even heard of Cacophony, and think the Ten Principles are sacred laws that sprang directly from the godlike brow of our Dear Leader. By failing to separate “Burning Man” from “the Org” in some of your comments, you’ve managed to strongly underscore the false reality the Org has created, in which they get credit for everything.
At this point I should probably play my own Devil’s Advocate and say that I can’t fault the people on the Board for what they’ve done as much as I’d like to. Given access to tens of millions of dollars, most people would immediately be corrupted, and would immediately start spinning justifications for their corrupt behavior. To point the finger at the members of the Board and cry out “J’ACCUSE!” is to hold them to a higher standard than is truly reasonable; it’s denouncing them for being ordinary people and not heroes. However, their non-heroic behavior has destroyed something fragile, unique, and terribly valuable, so although what they’ve done is just nothing, zero, zilch, zip, nada when compared with, say, what the Nazis did, the excuses and the support base that make it all possible are the same; the scariest thing about the Nazis is that they were human beings, not monsters, and the same is true of the Org. . . so while of course it’s absurd and over-the-top to compare the Org with the Nazis, there’s still this truth to be gleaned from the comparison: what we must fight against if we want to build our bold new utopia is what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” The enemies of utopia aren’t heartless, fanged horrors sprung from the depths of Hell; the enemies of utopia are mediocre minds and weak wills that take the path of least resistance or succumb to the temptations of personal gain at the expense of the community. . . because that’s all it takes to bring Heaven crashing down around our ears, and keep it down. We can’t expect the people running things to be heroes, but heroes are what we absolutely need.
CAVEAT MAGISTER: At this point we’re not really talking about Burning Man, we’re talking about politics. And I have not yet begun to get wordy!
You want a revolution, and while I agree that a revolution is absolutely justified (they usually are), I am deeply suspicious of revolutions, no matter how justified.
I’m positively Burkean in my observation that the customs and protections of a civil society are incredibly fragile and easily broken, and nearly impossible to rebuild once damaged. Barbarism is never far from the door, always closer than we think, and so the attempt to build a better tomorrow by tearing down the culture of yesterday is far, far, more likely to destroy progress already made than it is to advance us closer to a humane future.
The French Revolution led to the Reign of Terror; the Taiping Rebelling led to 50 million dead; the Russian Revolution lead to Stalin and Gulags and famine; the Maoist revolution in China led first to the horrors of the Great Leap Forward, and then to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution … which still can’t be safely spoken of in China. The Cuban revolution led to 50 years of dictatorship and political prisons under one man. The Iranian revolution led to the absolute control of religious fanatics over every aspect of daily life. And so on, and so on.
All of those revolutions were completely justified. There’s no question. It’s just that none of them achieved their stated aims, and instead they generally turned out as bad or worse than the thing they revolted against.
There are, absolutely, markers you can put in the other column. The American Revolution turned out pretty well. The Indian revolution against the British was a clear overall win. The Velvet Revolution, certainly. But it’s pretty slim pickings compared to the long line of occasions when, far from serving the interests of the oppressed, the revolutions they fought took on the characteristics of the thing they fought against. Revolutions generally eat their parents and their children in the same gulp.
(The American labor and Civil Rights movements, incidentally, don’t belong on either list: they weren’t revolutions because they weren’t trying to tear down the system. They were trying to get equal access to the system, and improve it. Its fringe elements were revolutionary – advocating the overthrowing of American culture – but most of the movement wanted a piece of the pie, not to rebuild the pie. I would say the same thing about the recent struggle for marriage equity: “give us access to a legimate institution in order to secure its legitimacy by making it more just” is far different from “tear down the institution.”)
When you say “The enemies of utopia aren’t heartless, fanged horrors sprung from the depths of Hell; the enemies of utopia are mediocre minds and weak wills that take the path of least resistance or succumb to the temptations of personal gain at the expense of the community,” I agree with you. Wholeheartedly. But those people are most empowered in the midst of a revolution, when the customs, traditions, and authorities that kept their weakness in check are broken on an alter of righteousness that they were never following anyway. The path of least resistance is always set lower in a revolution.
This has nothing to do with Burning Man.
But I think it does bear on the context in which we see Burning Man: to the extent you want it to be the harbinger of a revolution, I don’t. Once again, you called it: we in the first world really do have so much to lose, even if I’m horrified at how readily we’re letting some of it go. (Insert Benjamin Franklin quote here)
I’m thrilled if Burning Man leads to incremental changes in human behavior; I’m ecstatic if it inspires people to make their city block more sustainable; to the extent they recognize the value of non-commoditized space and events, I’m glad. To the extent it creates a personal transformation that turns someone away from the banality of evil and towards a more conscious life, I bow to them and the personal journey they’ve made.
This may seem too little, too late – and I’m sympathetic to that view. We don’t have time for incremental change. But nothing else usually works. “Worse change faster” isn’t a slogan I’ll march to. So I’m not the least bit bothered if Burning Man is an agent of incremental cultural improvements, rather than revolutionary transformations.
But those are some of my political views, which have nothing to do with the question of what Burning Man is or isn’t, and how it actually relates to the world. Indeed, I’m particularly of the opinion that for all the good it may do in the world, Burning Man isn’t fundamentally something instrumental. It is not politics by other means. The very nature of possibility and freedom that it embodies suffers when it’s yoked too tightly to an outside agenda.
As to the Org … it’s absolutely not the culture. Nor is it the leader of the culture, though a lot of people look to them for guidance. (Sometimes for good reasons, sometimes because they just haven’t really thought this through, sometimes because they’re social climbers.) And to the extent anyone mistakes them for the embodiment or leadership of Burner culture, I’ll disagree with them. But as to the question of how the Org acted back in the day… I wasn’t there. I mean, I know people I love and respect who feel as you do, and people I love and respect who don’t … and I wasn’t there. I have no clue what I would have thought, or my expectations would have been, in the heat of the 1990s when the event was expanding exponentially and everything seemed both possible and on the brink of collapse. I have no idea what I would have thought in those moments.
I came later, after the Org was a settled fact and the 10 Principles were codified, and I have heard many oral histories and conflicting accounts from people whose struggle that was, and damned if I know. Is it an easy way out to take a pass? Sure, but unless and until my experience gives me insight (or I’m able to hear a truly definitive account), I’m taking that pass. I have a moral duty to stand up for people I see being wronged, and to stand beside my friends if the world takes up arms against them. I don’t think I have a moral duty to take a stand on an issue that I honestly don’t know what to think about. I really don’t know what a radical Burkean intellectual with an attraction to decadence does in that particular crucible.
What pains me about the answers I’ve given you is that there’s so little whimsy in them: they strongly suggest I take myself very seriously. Now I think to some extent you’ve brought that out in me by asking the questions that I wanted to rise to, and I can’t regret that. The truth is that I very rarely get a chance to talk on this level about this kind of thing with someone who’s willing to call bullshit. I took the opportunity.
But at some level, if I really had the courage of my convictions, when you asked how Burning Man changed me I would have sent you a long rambling story about the time I was really high on E and manifested a bicycle to take me to Opulent Temple (which is the only place I go at Burning Man because it’s got the biggest lights), and how unfair it was that the Sheriff’s office said I stole the bicycle, because obviously they’re just not spiritual enough, and that’s how I found my calling in life: liberating police vehicles. Let them manifest their own goddamn wheels! Give me back my bicycle!
Deep down, I fear I blew it by not saying that.
I also should have found a way to put product placement of some kind in every paragraph. “Burning Man is NOTHING like Mecca! At best, it’s like the refreshing sensation of an icy cold Coca-Cola!” “Revolutions eat their children, much in the same way children eat Skittles. Man can they taste that rainbow!”
Dammit! I bow my head in shame.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: This exchange is getting pretty long, and it’s never, ever going to end if I start talking politics with you. . . so in answer to your skeptical pessimism regarding revolution, there’s just one little word I want to throw at you: Iceland!
It’s good that you and I can have a meeting of the minds like this, and I do appreciate your participation. . . I look forward to seeing you on the playa.