Burning Man Bravely Goes

Is Burning Man about to Flame Out? Has Burning Man really sold out? Far from it.

In past research I wrote about the comments I kept on hearing that hearkened back to a mythic “uncontaminated” time in the past past. In that nostalgic time, things were so much more authentic. The “true” “vision” was shared. It seems like so many things in our culture express this tension between a perfect mythic utopia and its commercial encroachment. Consumer discourse on many topics almost unerringly steers towards the idea that this or that has become “too commercial,” and is simply not the way it used to be, for example, holidays like Christmas and Easter, music or theater, pro or collegiate sports, religion itself, vacation destinations, children’s birthday parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and on and on.

I said that this vast range of topics demonstrate the much broader cultural discomfort with the commercialization of the things that matter to us, a feeling of being trapped and at the mercy of distant corporate actors who own the things that matter to us. Although communities did what they could to preserve the meaning, the sense that this really matters, consumers keep finding that sense of what is special drained away as they find more and more corporate and commercial incursions that feel disingenuous, manipulative and exploitative.

I actually wrote this originally about Star Trek’s culture (“Utopian Enterprise” Journal of Consumer Research 2001). But it holds up equally well for Burning Man.

We need to forget dichotomies and p(lural)urisms. In past work, I’ve drawn on Michel Foucault’s notion of a “heterotopia” to explain Burning Man. Foucault used the concept of heterotopia to refer to unsettling or non-ordinary social space, asserting that every culture contains places “which are something like a counter-site, a kind of effectively enacted utopia” in which the world outside of that site is “simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” As developed by my friend scholar Graham St. John, heterotopias possess an aura of mystery or danger, and always contain multiple meanings for participants. Burning Man is less a perfectly unified utopia, with consistent management of communities and markets, as it is a messy, real world, experimental heterotopia.

The debate among Burning Man participants (“burners” as they’re oft-time called) is beginning to heat up over this. You can see some of it within these recent postings on tribe.net. There are many good points, as you’d expect with an educating and thoughtful group like Burning Man participants. I really like this posting by “Ms. Dynomite” a lot. On the tribe.net discussion board, she says:

“I feel like I’m the only person not shocked and appalled by this. For one thing, this isn’t really new news. Some of that info has been available to the public for some time now, such as the involvement of large companies in this year’s green theme. Also, much of what I’m seeing here feels like a reactionary Money Bad, Fire Pretty argument (or the Business Evil, Fire Pretty argument). The reality is that the event cannot be a large as it is and function successfully without operating as a business of some kind. “Business” and “commerce” are not inherently evil, destructive concepts. There are ways to operate in a smart manner without sacrificing humanity.

Burning Man has never been anti-capitalism. It is, instead, an attempt to ameliorate some of the social deficiencies of markets. And here, with its limiting of corporate power to manipulate, but maximizing of corporation’s powers to enact and bring positive change, Burning Man is attempting that experimental social amelioration once again. It is trying to inject some much-needed emotional, creative, and social heat into the corporate soul and into consumers’ relations with it. It is questioning this relationship, as it must, alongside the questions of how to consume and live within the limits imposed by our small and increasingly overloaded planet.

As my JCR article argues, Burning Man isn’t really about a fruitless quest to find a place outside of the market after all. Because there really isn’t a social place outside of social transactions. We trade, we create, we exchange, we live: they are all intertwined in our human beingness. There is no place outside the market in absolute terms. There are only relationships being managed. That’s exactly what Burning Man is doing this year. Managing those sticky relationship. In a more daring way than it has ever been done before.

I don’t know what the reception of Burning Man’s new set of rules is going to be by its community members. The impact seems to be among the more radicalized members of the community thus far.
I don’t know how corporations are going to take to having to display their products as literal commodities, and handing them over to the “artists” of Burning Man. That’s an uneasy compromise solution.

I don’t know how Burning Man’s playful “art” theme is going to try to handle a problem as complex as environmental degradation and devastation. Or what people are going to make of it at the event and afterwards.

But I do know this: it’s going to be a very interesting week.

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