Category Archives: Burning Man

Why the G20 Protests Matter

One of the blogs about the G20 (breakingviews.com), posted on Fortune.com, argued that “The G20 needs better protestesters.”

The author, Edward Hadas, argues that in the current time of great need we are lacking badly-needed insights.

“The global mismanagement of the financial system has led to a deep recession. Intellectual paralysis has gripped the authorities and their policy response has been risky. After such failure, the political leaders gathered in London for the G-20 conference deserve a serious challenge. Sadly, all they are getting are the senseless slogans of a hippie festival.”

There’s the logical leap. Mr. Hadas decries the “intellectual paralysis” and the risky policies of governments who really don’t have any precedent for the current sociocultural-economic conditions. I agree wholeheartedly, and have been writing about those conditions for a while now.

But expecting protesters to offer up “a serious challenge” to politicians engaged at the conference is entirely missing the point. Are they going to present a serious policy recommendation? It would be wonderful and terrific is they would. Gathered together under a single banner, represented by a single articulate voice, the protesters could say “here’s the way out, implement these policies and you will save they world.” But how likely is that?

But the authors insists on looking for the unlikely, and then chiding the protesters when he doesn’t find it. So, taking a look at whether there is anything substantial or comprehensive being protested, Hadas argues that there isn’t anything meaningful there. It’s naive. It’s vacuous. It’s full of simplistic sloganeering. It lacks “a new intellectual framework.”

The author concludes: “Protesters who look like they just want a street party aren’t likely to be up to the challenge. Sadly, the more intellectually sophisticated Left seems to be hardly more capable of helping out. Any protester who can articulate a coherent alternative to the establishment’s tattered notions really could change the world.

Mr. Hadas, I wonder, is that what protests are for? Is that how social movements begin: the protesters articulate a coherent ideology, a new social vision, and then present it to the government, who enacts it?

Of course not. That’s ridiculous, and even more naive that the actions ascribed to the G20 protests. Why is Mr. Hadas insisting (and why do so many others insist) on judging the success of a protest based on what it “looks like”? The WTO Seattle Protests were a success based not on what they looked like, certainly not on their use of violence, but, I believe, because they showed a discontent underground, a cultural and subcultural current, that there are still people out there who don’t like the current system and who are organizing to try to change it.

One fascinating thing that these protests show, and one big reason why they matter, is their use of new technology. CNN ran a very interesting story about the use of information and communications technology tools by protesters at the G20 in London, and how authorities tried to use the same technologies to stay ahead of the protesters (thanks to Ece Ilhan for sending this to me). This protest, like Seattle before it, and others, was a manifestation of Net guru Howard Rheingold’s idea of Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, a type of Smart Mobilization of mobs-within-crowds.

Do these protests matter? Are they significant?

Protests are symbolic acts of systemic resistance. They are groups of people who are displaying their unhappiness with entire social systems. They aren’t meant to articulate detailed policy recommendations or ideological statements. Their cultural contribution is images of angry crowds, of “the people” acting against hegemonic power in a general way, sounds bites and placards and images.

What we get are images. And images are powerful. In our culture, they are probably the most powerful articulations of all.

Look at these G20 images.

G20_Protestesters_are_Damn_Hippies?

With the double peace sign (face-ainted in eco-green, of course), I guess it’s easy to see how this group could be linked to tthe generation of the hippies and the 1960s. But that simple fact isn’t enough to dismiss this protest, or these protesters. Instead, we might note, as a number of intellectuals have already noted, the lasting impact of the 1960s and the types of resistance that were pioneered during that time, the many social movements that have changed, and continue to change, the world. Images of hippies? Yes. Is that a problem? Only if you judge using kneejerk reactions, rather than carefully understanding why the metaphors and tropes of ’60s radicalism still hold power over four decades later. Read the sign, not just the signs.

g20_protests1.jpg

Here’s another trope that leads to the “Street Party” dismissal. We see nudity and body emphasis, masks and drumming and dance at a lot of these protests. Why? Because they are about over-civilization. They are about machine culture. They are about ideology, and one of modern activism’s greatest weapons is the invocation of primitivism. It is primitivism that gives protest a lot of its power (and its appeal). I’ve written about this under the guise of tribes, and in my research on Burning Man. This is a very important relationship.

g20_2.jpg

Here’s another powerful, ubiquotous protests image: good versus evil, and the demons among us. As Jay Handelman and I wrote in our 2004 JCR on Consumer Activism, the roots of a lot of consumer activism (and of social movements and activism in general in America) draw from religious, moral roots. This image creates a spectral, haunting, looming demon out of American dollar bills, to try to draw attention to that ancient root of all evils in the world: money, capital, and the systems that sustain it. Channeling fear, hatred, and anger in this way doesn’t follow a logical, intellectual process. Instead, it draws on instinctive reactions, to try to mobilize and to shock into a new form of (moral) awareness. Images like this, which are artistic, religious, and visceral, show that this is not a “mere” street party or hippie celebration.

Its about the Visualization, Stupid

Here’s a key visual. It’s an image. It says something is wrong. It says the system isn’t working. It is encouraging us not to simply patch up or fix the current system, but to thing about what could be. To envision another world. The world of the possible. This is the essence of social movements. Images of discontent. Intimations of a better way.

First, come the protests. Then comes the organizing, the consensus building, the ideology construction, the alternative-weighing, and finally the policy recommending and politicking and movement making. It doesn’t happen all at once.

We’re seeing the front end of the wave. Don’t expect finished work. But it is up to all of us to take these initial forays and work on them. We can ask ourselves if the system is working or not. And if it isn’t, then we need to ask ourselves what each of us can do to imagine a possible world that is better.

Article Summaries and Word Clouds: Comparing Texts

We got some great comments and suggestions following those word cloud postings. Thank you, Lois, Pablo, Magda, Domen and Bob. If you, Gentle BlogReader and Devoted Brandthroposophist, are interested in this topic, you may want to check out these comments for some excellent sites, software, and truly fascinating (and very *kewl,* too….) things that people are doing with word clouds.

I was continuing my curious curiousity, investigating to see how we might be able to get a textual snapshop, a visual-verbal comparison of comparable texts if the texts were articles (not, as before, inauguration speeches)? So just for fun, I plugged in three of my more well-known articles. Those articles are the one on online communities I wrote for the European Management Journal, the one I wrote about netnography for the Journal of Marketing Research, and the one I wrote about Burning Man for the Journal of Consumer Research.

Let’s look at the abstracts of the articles first. If you are interested in digging further into these and don’t have access, I also provide the citation and a link to a pdf copy of the article so that you can read it.

  • Kozinets, Robert V. (1999), “E-Tribalized Marketing? The Strategic Implications of Virtual Communities of Consumption,” European Management Journal, 17 (3), 252-264. I’ve already linked to this one from this prior posting.
    • Abstract: On the Internet, virtual communities structured around consumer interests have been growing rapidly. To be effective in this new environment, managers must consider the strategic implications of the existence of different types of both virtual community and community participation. Contrasted with database-driven relationship marketing, marketers seeking success with consumers in virtual communities should consider that that they: (1) are more active and discerning; (2) are less accessible to one-one-one processes, and (3) provide a wealth of valuable cultural information. Strategies for effectively targeting more desirable types of virtual communities and types of community members include: interaction-based segmentation, fragmentation-based segmentation, co-opting communities, paying-for-attention, and building networks by giving products away.
  • Kozinets, Robert V. (2002), “The Field Behind the Screen: Using Netnography for Marketing Research in Online Communities,” Journal of Marketing Research, 39 (February), 61-72.
    • Abstract: This article develops netnography as an online marketing research technique for providing consumer insight. Netnography is market-oriented ethnography conducted on virtual communities dedicated to marketing-relevant topics. As a method, netnography is faster, simpler, and less expensive than ethnography, and more naturalistic and unobtrusive than focus groups or interviews. It provides information on the symbolism, meanings, and consumption patterns of online consumer groups. Guidelines are provided that acknowledge the online environment, respect the inherent flexibility and openness of ethnography, and provide rigor and ethics in the conduct of marketing research. As an illustrative example, a netnography of an online coffee newsgroup is provided and its marketing implications discussed.
  • Kozinets, Robert V. (2002), “Can Consumers Escape the Market? Emancipatory Illuminations from Burning Man,” Journal of Consumer Research, 29 (June), 20-38.
    • Abstract: This ethnography explores the emancipatory dynamics of the Burning Man project, a one-week long anti-market event. Practices used at Burning Man to distance consumers from the market include discourses supporting communality and disparaging market logics, alternative exchange practices, and positioning consumption as self-expressive art. Findings reveal several communal practices that distance consumption from broader rhetorics of efficiency and rationality. Although Burning Man’s participants materially support the market, they successfully construct a temporary hypercommunity from which to practice divergent social logics. Escape from the market, if possible at all, must be conceived of as similarly temporary and local.

And here are are word clouds:

e-tribalized cloud

I think it’s pretty easy at a glance to tell which article is which.

Is this proof of ‘face validity’? Cloud validity?

Field cloud

Which one could that be?

burning cloud

Now, these are all solo-authored pieces that I wrote while I was an assistant professor at Northwestern University in Chicago. You would think that my style wouldn’t change that much between them. The different journals and their editorial stances and policies, even their copy-editors, of course, would have an impact on the word choices. I know that EMJ kept my dradt mainly intact, without adding or taking away very much at all. With the netnography article for JMR, there were a lot of “helpful” ‘suggestions’ by reviewers (I think I will post about the process for this article soon), and in the end they insisted that I put the word “netnography” in quotes throughout the entire article, which seemed pretty intrusive to me (I’m surprised those quotation marks aren’t the biggest things in the word cloud!). The key seems to be in the topic matter, which was quite different, and those nouns, that topical content, does seem to be what “floats to the top” with this method.

Playing and thinking with these word clouds has been interesting and it’s delightful visual fun, too. It’s cool that you can almost see my “research stream” and focal theoretical concerns–community, culture, social, consumption– in the common words among the three clouds. The differences come out, too–emancipation, marketing, research, relationship. I wish I’d had this insight (and the tool that brought it) when I was struggling to write my research statement.

I welcome your analyses of these article clouds. Bring em on. Are there silver linings, or even ‘golden nuggets,’ in these clouds, do you think? Or are we just ‘cloud-gazing’?

Synchronistic Science: Ilium and Me

Jung, Zeus, or God–take your pick

I’m still planning to write some stuff about the CCT conference last month, but I just wanted to share something strange with you. As some of you know, I started this blog, and named it, based on the sense that what is missing from a lot of the discussions about marketing and consumer culture is a deeper appreciation for the sacred, even mystical, elements of marketplaces and consumption.

I’ve been writing a lot about this lately in my own idea journals, and will have a lot more of this topic to share with you in future blog postings and other writings. I think something is in the air. A number of my colleagues in England and Italy are researching and writing about the connection between magic (as in nature magic, paganism, witchcraft) and marketing. John Sherry and I have written a bit about neo-paganism and neo-shamanism, building on the work of anthropologists like Graham St. John (whose excellent blog is here).

We have barely even begun raising the topic of the mystical and magical side of markets, marketing, and consumption. Not in the “symbolic” or “consumers think this is sacred” sense, but in the way that Jung would write about the Mystical-as a genuine Force operating in the world.

This brings me to my little story.

Do you remember over a year ago I posted the original story that I wrote for the Brown and Sherry “Time, Space and the Market: Retroscapes Rising” volume? An unpublished science fiction story that combined my ethnographic research on Burning Man, but developed it within the literary framework of a science fiction story? Here’s an internal link to the beginning of that post on Super Hyper Ultra Post-postmodern Primitives.

Now, I had posted that post (and written that chapter, originally) as an illustration of the variety of resonant forms of representation that were possible in marketing and consumer research.

But something really pretty freakishly weird just happened.

In that story, written and submitted in December of 2001 (as John Sherry and Stephen Brown would attest), I set myself up autobiographically, as myself a professor in a Midwestern university (Northwestern’s Kellogg), but I cast the tale in the far future. I had been forcefully reincarnated using future technology, my consciousness and memory brought back into a physical body by people in the future who had need of my scholarly ability. These people, future groups of warring tribes, in fact, had need of my knowledge of Burning Man. Which sets up the tale and allow me to position my ethnographic reflections on Burning Man as a retroscape, a place that evokes the primitive past even though it also partakes in a timeless sense of the future.

Okay, that was kind of fun and I liked the result. Here’s the weird part.

Ilium by Dan Simmons–with altered colorschemeI recently started reading the book Ilium by one of my favorite science fiction authors, Dan Simmons. In the book, godlike people in the future forcefully reincarnate a Midwestern professor in order to use his scholarly abilities for their own purposes.

Reading that was totally strange. It was almost the exact same idea of using professors from the past and bringing them into the future for the purposes of these future people. I was really struck by that Jungian synchronicity, that unexpected concordance.

Synchronicity, if you aren’t aware of the concept, was Carl Jung’s word for coincidences that are just too strange to be coincidences. Too weird, or repeating, patterned, or just so weirdly impossible that they give us a sense that everything in reality (“reality” or, maybe, Reality?) is connected somehow by forces larger than ourselves (cue Twilight Zone music, right?). It suggests a different notion of causality, a causality linked by meaning rather than brute physical elements.

The story gets odder.

As I’m reading this book about the reincarnated professor in the far future, I come across page 76. Some of the characters are trying to locate a strange, ancient woman, and are asking one character, named Daeman, about her.

“Where did you meet her?” asked Ada.

“The last Burning Man. A year and a half ago….Lost Age ceremonies never interested me very much, but there were many fascinating young women at this gathering.”

“I was there” Hannah said, her eyes bright. “About ten thousand people came.”

Burning Man? In the far future? I did a double, then a triple take when I read that, my heartbeat loud in my ears.

What the heck was going on here?

This was just a pileup of coincidences. A causal connection and concordance of meaning. Consider these facts:

  1. Both science fiction stories are set in the far, far future.
  2. The central character in the book is Thomas Hockenberry, a future-science reincarnated professor from the Midwest. My story’s central character is Robert Kozinets, a future science-reincarnated professor from the Midwest.
  3. Both stories involve the idea of “posts.” In my story this is a post-postmodern primitivism that deeply involves the sacred. In Ilium “posts” are post-humans who sponsor a type of primitivism involving ancient gods.
  4. Burning Man plays a peripheral role in Ilium, but a central role in my story. But this book is probably the only major science fiction book I know of that involve Burning Man at all. Burning Man in the far, far future. AND for some strange reason it occurs alongside the reincarnated Midwestern professor thing, just like my story.
  5. The Ilium book was first published in 2003. That is two years after I wrote my story. There was no way I could have seen it before. The Retroscapes book was finally published in 2003 as well (with the edited, amended chapter, which had the science fiction elements excised.

Maybe the creepiest thing, the creepy coup de grace that sent a shiver down my spine is this. I started reading this book during the Olympics. Not intentionally, really, but maybe all of the Greek references in the book made it a bit more attractive to me during this time. It has lots of Olympian references, because it is about Greek gods living on Olympos Mons on Mars and an incredible re-enactment of the Homer’s Iliad.

I just went back to bookmark and re-read the sections on the story that I posted on the blog. And then I find Renan Wagner’s old comment post at the end of my story where he talk about being “in ancient Olympia” taking a course on “Olympic Studies.” And then he links up the Olympic Games, a giant burn, the lack of a marketplace, and Burning Man. Just like the book does.

This is just too weird.

Now, if you believe me that I did indeed write this story in 2001, and that I didn’t read Ilium before I wrote it, how would you explain these convergences? Doesn’t this seem to be too much intersection and patterning of meaning to be a random coincidence?

What’s your explanation? Am I missing something? Or is this just the way the universe winks at us and tells us that there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye?

The ACP Virtual Worlds Conference in Philly

Well that’s enough book promotions and griping about bad service for a while. I promise. I want to get back to the focal concern of this blog, and that’s exploring the interface between business and academic research as it pertains to online communities, technology, and entertainment,

I’m in Boston today at a retreat for the Convergence Culture Consortium’s partners at MIT. Writing this from my hotel in Cambridge. We’re going to have a very full agenda that combines academics with businesspeople, and these events are always very stimulating and thought provoking. I’ll post an update for you after it’s done and fill you in.

But first I wanted to provide a little update on a wonderful conference I attended lat week on May 1-2 in Philadelphia. It was the 27th Annual Advertising and Consumer Psychology conference on the topic of “Virtual Social Identity and Consumer Behavior.” The conference got a lot of interest and, again, was one of those boundary-spanning events that drew both academics and working practitioners.

Jeremy Bailenson, the director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford talked about how applications of psychology work out in the virtual world of avatars. His work does a lot of testing of different social psych theories of attraction and repulsion. So, for example, tall avatars are liked better and are more popular than short avatars. Better looking avatars also have an easier time. And, using software, if you get an avatar to mimic your own gestures, or to facially resemble you (with a sort of morph), you will like and trust that avatar more. That was pretty cool stuff.

Lyle Wetsch from St John’s Memorial University presented some very promising and intriguing research he’s doing with students on the socialization in Second Life—they are keeping logs of their own socialization experiences as they move into the culture of Second Life. Alison Bryant from Nickelodeon and MTV, and Anna Akerman from Adelphi, presented fascinating work on the match between kids and particular virtual worlds, and how this linked to their stage of cognitive and social development. I’m over-simplifying, but it was sort of like kids begin with Webkinz tamagotchi-like play world, then they move up to Habbo Hotel, then they get into some of the TV properties like Virtual Hills, and then they graduate into places like Second Life and World of Warcraft. A life cycle of virtual world migration.

Rockstar Georgetown marketing professor Gary Bamossy gave a wonderful presentation on the sacred and profane aspects of online game playing in China, based on his research with Jeff Wang and Xin Zhao. And I thought Bill Minnis, from the company & Billion People, gave a really interesting talk about the problems with online retailing and where it would need to go in order to become as popular and as acceptable as physical retailing. He also compared Second Life programming with cave art and Harry Potter—wondering if the “next Harry Potter” would be a virtual world or a game. This comparison of world creation to art creation is very appealing to me, and I think that conceptualizing these sorts of creations as forms of art could be enlightening to our conceptions.

Newcomer Leila El Kamel from the Universite Laval gave a very scholarly and thorough linkage of Metaverses as Consumer Experiences that drew on a lot of interesting and relevant postmodern theory and philosophy. In such new places, we almost need to draw on elements form science fiction (this was a continual theme) and postmodern theory (Leila was one of the only ones to really push this important point).

Lauren, me, and Ereni

I also like newcomers Lauren Labrecque and Ereni Markos presentation on consumption, marketing, and flow in Second Life. Their research explored the implications of marke4ting and brands in Second Life with a number of interesting observations. I also liked that they got theatrical, dressing up in wigs and gloves so that they physically embodied an “avatar-like” presence during their presentation. And, of course, I also loved that they quoted this blog during their presentation. How cool is that? Readers, you are not alone. In fact, this blog is getting some impressive readership now, well over a thousand unique visitors a day, and rising.

Seeing Lauren and Ereni walk in with their wig and costume on while I was presenting (with my co-author Richard Kedzior) was a Burning Man moment for me. It made me remember just how Burning Man Second Life sometimes feels. This Frontier sense and Wild West mentality with different rules, different social structure, a love of technology and technological possibility, a loose feeling of social chaos, of possibility, of anything can happen. Except that I think Second Life’s lack of rules and greater freedom actually makes it a less interesting place than Burning Man. Burning Man has new rules, participative rules, collective identity rules, rules that build community, while Second Life more anarchist approach actually ends up with a more barren, individualistic, predatory feel. Or maybe that’s just because Second Life has become overly commercialized, while Burning Man has kept the black hounds of business at bay….

The best part of the conference was the conversations. One lively discussion was about the future of Virtual Worlds and who to understand them. I made the point that we really don’t have an adequate overview of the different kinds of virtual world marketing elements that are out there yet, and a link to how that relates to our business models. Are they games that are pay-for-play or subscription? Are they advertising, which supports content development? Are they like e-commerce, stores where we buy something online and which replace brick and mortar? Are they add-on services, providing things like customer service or access to a community? Are they themselves a different kind of service, separate from a game, offering some new element to our product? We just don’t know.

There was also a nice set of volleys about whether there is anything really new here at all. Professor Bamossy made some very good points that there wasn’t anything all that theoretically interesting being show here. People were just showing that theories that apply in one domain (like tall people are more successful and more well-liked) also apply in the virtual world domain of perception. Okay, that begs the crucial question: so what? Richard and I had tried to argue that there were key elements of virtual world experience that were actually quite unique. I’ll share those with you another time. But Gary was pretty adamant that we didn’t need new theories to explain how people behaved, even under those new circumstances or contexts, and that the old ones seemed more than capable of doing the job. Goffman explained how people presented themselves in avatars pretty well. Piaget explained the way kids moved through stages. Freud explained why there was so darn much sexual activity in Second Life. This didn’t seem like it was really “new” at all. It’s a very interesting and important point, and certainly in a half-hour of discussion we only got to dig underneath the surface level just a bit. But that’s what these conferences are great for.

On the plane ride home, I began to sketch out a way to understand and focus our attention on virtual worlds, to organize what is still, in a lot of ways, the Wild Untamed West for Consumption and Marketing Theory and for Business Practice.

So thanks to Natalie Wood and Mike Solomon of Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia for co-chairing and organizing such a stimulating and exciting conference. I think the ripples from this conference will continue to spread and build into many worthwhile contributions to our growing knowledge of this fascinating development of virtual world.

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.

Burning Man Burns Again

Oh, in case you were wondering, the Man burnt on schedule this year despite the adversity I reported earlier.

Bocking: A premature burn. A suicide. A serious injury. Lots of weird publicity.

And a very big crowd. The Associated Press reports that 48,011 people showed up for Burning Man this year. That’s the biggest crowd ever, and a whopping 23 percent increase from last year. Quite remarkable given that the event’s attendance has been flattening for a while.

I can’t help but to try and interpret all of these events not only for what they mean for Burning Man as a Project and a social movement, but also for what they harbinger in terms of an understanding of the theme of The Green Man this year, about our relationship with the Planet at this point in time.

And it makes me wonder…

Burning Man Gets Bocked!

Holy Smoke! Some trickster torched Burning Man last night. The SF Chronicle apparently picked up the story first. And now it’s making its way through the national and international press.

Paul David Addis, a 35-year old “artist” and resident of San Francisco started the blaze at 2:58am last night, according to the Chronicle. Said dude was booked on felony charges of arson and destruction of property. He also was booked for resisting a public officer. And, my fave, for possession of fireworks. He posted $25,632 bail and was released Tuesday afternoon from the Pershing County Jail in Lovelock, Nevada (whose mugshot appears to the left here). He has one of the better mug shots, I must admit. How did they allow him to pose like this?

Now, what happened here?

Some of the best reportage on the story I’ve seen is by RU Sirius on the 10ZenMonkeys blog. RU interviewed the arsonist in question on the blog several weeks ago, and even quotes him today dissing Burning Man as “toothless and wallowing in its own muck and irrelevant to anyone or anything” So why go to the time and trouble of going to the event? And getting arrested at it. Usually, sane people ignore things they consider irrelevant. They torch things that they consider relevant, and despicable.

The 10ZenMonkeys story seems to link up the recent decision of Larry Harvey and the Burning Man organization to allow corporate demonstrations with protests of the event this year (apparently, like Addis’s). Addis also apparently had a history of dissing the restrictiveness of the principles and rules governing the event and Larry Harvey’s management of the event. So the story suggests that maybe maybe there was a mistrust of the marketizing of Burning Man this year that motivated this act of resistance and arson?

A Burning Man ranger with the hairy name of Ranger Sasquatch is widely quotes as saying that this is an act of “an attention whore has made a plea for attention.” Hey, it’s an attention economy. Prematurely burning down the man is good for a big what of publicity.

Then, there’s the kicker. The 10ZenMonkeys story features and details Addis’ new one-man show where he portrays, wait for it, that great gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson. The story ends with a cryptic statement: “Then again, it is also true that Addis’ one-man show is poised for a West Coast tour.” RU, RU serious? RU ever? Are you really suggesting that this guy did this act as a promotional stunt? To make himself famous? To market his one-man show? Hmmmm.

A few years ago, my colleagues Sven Bergvall and Jacob Östberg made a film called “Burning Bock” that chronicles the annual burning of a goat-shaped straw figure in Gavle Sweden. The problem with the event in recent years is that it has turned into a contest between official organizers and the public to see who can manage to burn the goat first. Repeatedly, people have simply been too tempted by the goat, and set it alight themselves before the official ceremony. Although everyone is bummed out when it happens, it makes for a lively drama, lots of guarding and covert watching of the goat, and lots of smirking and tongue-clicking when some new jackass sets the thing alight. And guess what? The person who burns it ends up with their name in the press, immortalized. Hey, it’s way less than murder rap. And it provides almost the full fame content. In th attention economy thats a cost-benefit ratio that’s hard to beat.

Burning Man just got Bocked. Bigtime. As in, “Hey, you bocked my candle!” or, “Be careful with that lighter, you nearly bocked that pack of cigarettes.” Or, maybe even more generally (use your imagination here), “Ooops, I bocked.”

The question now is whether this will turn into a pattern or not. Whether there will need to be a full-time Ranger force guarding the Man. Or whether there will be an electrified perimeter fence set up around the man. Or a plexiglass display case. Maybe the Man could be burnt in a remote and undisclosed location, and the image of the burn transmitted live by satellite to Black Rocky City. Or maybe there will be vigilante forces that will guard the man around the clock, or hunt down those who burn it. Or a set of spare Men could be constructed for such emergencies, so that when one Man burns another is simply pulled out of storage. I kind of like that image.

So there are lots of solutions. I’m resting assured that the good folks at BMOrg will opt for the less oppressive ones.

It’s certainly relevant that even before the ashes have cooled, Burning Man’s organizers have pledged to rebuild the effigy in two (count e’m, just two) days. Their news release, posted on their website, conspicuously depersonalizes the event, apparently seeking to minimize the potential fame accruing to the perp.

And I think that’s the even more interesting story. This isn’t just about individual fame. It’s about community in crisis. Challenges faced. Building the Man only to freshly burn him down again, officially, because that’s the point. The Eternal Return.

For those of you interested in further delving, I recommend the LaughingSquid’s coverage of the event, including the debates about how cool or uncool is this act that runs counter to the counterculture. Me? I’m with the side that sees this as an act of attention-getting vandalism plain and simple (I really hope it wasn’t intentional self-promotion). Burning Man isn’t about anything goes (although it came from that history). It’s often about creating a social movement that respects people, their communities, and their rights. It’s not really contrarian; it’s utopian. Destruction for the sake of destruction (or self-promotion) isn’t about any of these things. In the year when Burning Man is supposed to be contemplating how we treat the Earth, what does this act say about how we can collectively and individually behave ourselves to reverse the damage already done and the monumental destructive momentum we’ve built up?
Or maybe, just maybe it’s even more important to notice how we are responding to the act.