Wake Up, Neo – There Is No Counter-Culture

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.
baby softHowever, “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…
1-BUILLThus, 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.


how much

In a gift-based economy, how much is enough? How much of what? Exactly.

David “with a small d” Kittay is a professor at Columbia University, teaching “Technology, Religion, Future” and “Interpreting Buddhist Yoga”. He’s also the father of Burning Man’s Social Alchemist, Bear Kittay. Last year he gave a talk at TEDx Black Rock City about How Much?

The discussion is on the subject of a hermeneutic algorithm to determine meaning in our conversations. How much meaning resides in what is said and understood.

Teacher and lecturer in Columbia University’s Religion Department, specializing in Buddhism. Moderated panel at Columbia last year on “Burning Man, Religion, Technology, and the Future,” with Larry Harvey, who attended my seminar on the same subject. Many years experience as trial lawyer, and teach and appear on panels speaking on ethics, law, technology, the future, and religion.

Radical Experimentation

The Burning Man Project’s Social Alchemist, Bear Kittay, has just given a TEDx talk in Stockholm, Sweden. He talks about harnessing creative energies to address social inequity.

Burning Man’s Bear Kittay asserts the need for “Radical Experimentation” for humanity’s survival and thriving in the 21st century and challenges governments and philanthropists to adopt a new approach to creative empowerment.

As a Social Alchemist for Burning Man, Bear has worked closely advising Burning Man’s CEO and has represented the organization on six continents while pioneering new initiatives to instigate trans-national network collaboration. While acting on the belief that cultural evolution and technological innovation are inextricably linked to personal transformation, Bear’s creative, iconoclastic nature throughout his career has helped him build an extensive network of funders, operators and sector experts in countless mission-driven enterprises globally. As a founder of Organizer.com, Music for Democracy, and advisor to several venture-backed startups, Bear has raised over $20 million in funding.

So what does this mean for Burning Man’s future? Will we see some “experimentation” (which, despite Bear’s claims, is a noun, not a verb)? Will BMOrg introduce some innovation in the way Burning Man is put together and run each year, beyond just the bizarre ticketing system and themes beginning with CAR? Can Burners come up with ideas to make the world a better place – and will BMOrg take the risks to try them?

Or will it continue to be the same every year – just add virgins, taxes, and rules?

Some highlights:

“Let’s reimagine civilization…let’s co-create a community”

“When the fixed outcome of an experiment turns into an identity, the identity turns into an institution, the institution turns into dogma – and we’re right back where we started.”

“The hippie movement, the green movement, Occupy, Burners – it’s so easy to fall into the trap with identifying so much with one solution that happened in the past, that it becomes who we are and limits us”

“The Internet is an umbilical cord, we’re all connected – we are all learning, adjusting and calibrating into this new macro-organism…this new participatory identity and way of life is fundamentally different”

Best practices in transparency that we have access to every day transform how we view the world, allocate our resources and time, who we feel we are in the context of others”

“Democracy is transforming from the idea of voting to becoming constantly part of an evolving real time conversation”

“We must develop the cultural and social technologies to properly leverage these moments we’re going to have in our evolution to create the better world we want to see”

“How do we unlock our real genius in society? Support those who are not neuro-typical…Gifted minds need to be nurtured.”

Think you might be gay? Go try it! Are you an artist?…go make some art…what’s the worst thing that’s going to happen? We’ve got to break our taboos, we have to break off our shackles…that’s what it’s going to take to move humanity forward” 

“I challenge those who are professional investors or exited entrepreneurs or philanthropists to break your models…let’s prioritize in investing in more things like Burning Man”

 The Modern Iconoclast...'Calm down. Things will work out.'