Alternate Voices of The Early Burn

This is pretty thought-provoking stuff. there’s a lot of chatter currently swirling around the Burning Man community and he Internet in general about what happened this year at Burning Man (see my reportage here).

I just read a few very interesting takes on the event. The first is a Wired online interview with Paul Addis, the guy accused of the early burn of the Man. Claiming to be part of an intelligence operation aimed at waking people up through the unexpected and the pranksterish (sounds a little familiar), Addis offers a scathing critique of how Burning Man has become overly structured, mismanaged, and commercialized. What he says echoes extremely closely some informant interviews I’ve previously published. But takes it a whole lot further in terms of directing the critique not at mainstream society, large corporations, or the media, but at the Burning Man organization itself. Here’s a quote from the interview:

“We’re being programmed on every level: TV, radio, internet, advertising. It’s everywhere. We believe in the true promise of the American Dream and that should be for everyone no matter what. We’re jamming the program and allowing people the freedom of their minds rather than the programming someone else is trying to sell them. That’s the most important thing. We’re not telling people what to think or how to think, just presenting alternatives and facts and everything else. Humor, that’s the best way to do things. We’re not out here to be preachers. But Burning Man has become just as nefarious a cultural programmer as General Electric or Disney. You only need to look as far as Burning Man’s media team to see it’s like the Bush media team except with a different purpose. They exercise the same tactics to achieve the same results: to portray themselves in the best lights and to avoid negative media attention.”

There is a lot of stuff here that most countercultural folks would agree with. But Burning Man and Bush sharing a media team? I’ve heard that Karl Rove has been sighted sunbathing near Gerlach, Nevada. Now we know who Burning Man’s new Director of Publicity is going to be. Seriously, are we judging the message solely by the medium? The strategy by the tactics? That effectively locks out all countercultural communication with the mainstream, doesn’t it? Doesn’t that hamstring social movements into little local affairs that will have limited impact?

That Wired article refers back to an earlier statement that Addis made on the Laughing Squid page. In it, he offers a scathing (hmmm….there’s that word again) okay angry screed against the people who attend Burning Man. It’s clear he’s got strong opinions on the event’s current formation and they may be worth repeating here. There’s nothing here I haven’t heard from a lot of people who don’t like the event, but the whole anarchist “without fear” thing is an interesting and perhaps HunterSThompsonesque spin on things.

“We could give a fuck less what you all think of us for doing this. Most of you are newbies who have been drawn in by the semi-religious nature of the event, or maybe just the easy drugs and easier sex. You have nothing to offer the event other than your fucking money and obedience. You spend the rest of your lives in mortal fear of everything that insurance companies tell you to fear, and pretend that you’re free and clear because you spend four days at a desert bacchanal where spinelessness is not only encouraged but genetically replicated for implementation in successive generations. In short, you are the swine of which Thompson spoke. Get over yourselves. Some of us live quite well without fear. Doing so requires the ultimate in what Burning Man used to represent: personal responsibility and individual liberty. That’s all been lost in the last decade of Burning Man’s history. Consider this operation a history lesson that was desperately needed.”

Because he is so incredibly judgmental, I suppose he invites a little bit of evaluation of his own thoughts and actions. Talk about obedient and unthinking “swine”: who is quoting his mass media idol here and not actually thinking for himself? When Wired asked this righteous dude, who is emphasizing “personal responsibility” whether he burned the man early, guess what he said? “For legal reasons I can’t answer that.” Then he proceeded to defend the burning in every way. When asked what he would be pleading, he said: “Not guilty to all charges.” Personal responsibility? Oh, I recognize that personal responsibility. That’s the one that other people are supposed to have. And I guess the same goes for the lack of fear thing too. I saw nothing in that article that makes this any different from the guy stealing into Rockefeller Center in Manhattan and burning down a piece of someone else’s art there to prove a point. Vandalism. Arson. Evading the truth. That’s lack of personal responsibility.

I also don’t get beating at the counterculture from within. According to a lot of pundits, that sort of pointless and stupid infighting is what has condemned the Left to so many years of pain. While the Left is endlessly fragmenting, the other side is organizing. Unifying. And Winning Power–Real Power, not the Symbolic stuff that turns into ashes really quickly. And it’s sad to say but that’s a microcosm for the environmental movement right now. That’s why we have corporate style environmentalism winning while the harder cores argue amongst themselves.

That’s not to say, as one of my comments today aptly remarks, that Burning Man is Left or Right, or easily fits into those notoriously slippery political designations. This is more about two contending aspects of counterculture: the anarchism, and “anything goes” mentality that a lot of bohemian and postmodern theories assert, the acting-out rebellion for the sake of rebellion against the more institutionalizing form of enacting social change that may use some shock tactics, but is more about building lasting social change into wider society.

Finally, this posting, “Two Flames: The Story of Green Man 2007” by Doctress Neutopia cuts much more to the core of an environmental critique of Burning Man, inflecting it in an spiritually-inclined, shamanic mode, anti-nuclear, ecofeminist vein. I recommend the read. It’s thoughtful and coherent (but utterly wrong-headed, IMHO).

Bringing Burning Man back to its subversive roots could cause shock waves throughout the world media. Burning Man could truly become a social movement that Harvey dreams about fusing art and politics for the transformation and salvation of humanity. To go up against the global corporate military regime, we need to fight fire with fire, symbol with symbol, religion with religion.But, alas, as in the real world, the Burning Man staff didn’t take time out to reflect and understand the significance of Addis’ wise action. Instead, they called it a selfish publicity stunt. They rebuilt the Man so that the Saturday night’s “Burn” could go on as scheduled. It seems their Green Man effigy was only “green washing.” Rebuilding it to re-burn it only caused more CO2 to be cast into our dying atmosphere and more forests were destroyed to provide more wood for the “ Green Man. ” Addis writes, “ Burning Man should stop the disingenuous Green Man immediately. It’s all a lie. If you want to know how much a of a total lie it is, run a Google satellite photo of Burning Man right now and count the number of RVs there. And they’re telling me it’s an environmental movement? Bullshit. There are people sucking gas up there faster than they are passing it.”

Everyone radical is arguing that Burning man isn’t radical enough. Everyone subversive is arguing that Burning Man isn’t subversive enough. So who do they attack? The society that they think needs this high level of radicalized discourse and action? Nah. Burning Man, of course. Why? Maybe because the counterculture is much more likely to embrace them for attacking it than the mainstream. You attack the counterculture, some in the counterculture (the counter-counterculture?) will applaud you, set up a legal fun to defend, and members of the mainstream will either ignore you, praise you, or just shake their heads in bewilderment.

Burning Man against the world media? Burning Man against the military establishment? Who are we kidding here? The reason I think Burning Man is at a tipping point is precisely because the organizers of the event are entwining the “project” with social forces and powerful institutions. They are making themselves solid. And that’s another reason why they’re being attacked by the more insubstantial elements in the countercultural space. Because they are gaining steam. The dramatic increase in numbers is only part of the story. A small part of it. Rather than burn down people’s effigies, why not clean up a hurricane’s mess, like Burners Without Borders? Or make your own art piece, and burn that?

I just don’t get it. Or why otherwise sensible people are defending it.


  1. albill September 6, 2007
  2. rpwagner September 6, 2007
  3. Bridget Leonard September 6, 2007

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