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.

The Other Interstitial Marketing

The Dread Interstitial Dimension

In common ecommerce, webvertising parlance, “interstitial marketing” refers to an advertisement that loads between two content pages, such as a pop-up ad or those full-page ad that run on many sites before you want to watch a film or video. Interstitials are about interrupting your web experience, very similar to broadcast media interrupting your experience with advertising.

I’m not talking about those interstitial ads. The word interstices can refer to a small or narrow space or amount of time. I think in marketing our theorizing tends to stick with big, permanent structures far too much. I think we should start to think about the dynamism of marketing, seeing how things constantly change.

I’d like to suggest that a new Interstitial Marketing is Marketing that exploits the opportunities in rapidly closing gaps between needs and market structures. It is the filling in on the fly of a constantly moving gap. Oftentimes, that gap is created when market needs change, but larger corporations can’t act quickly enough to fill it. So often small companies do it. Or it may be created when legal or infrastructural elements are changing and only smaller or more rapidly moving entities can respond quickly enough to exploit it. Can you say Napster? Or google? Or wikipedia? And so on.

The idea of an “opportunity” or a “gap” is a bit deceiving here. It isn’t something that necessarily already exists “out there” for companies to jump into. It’s often a co-creation. The entrepreneurial company suggests. Consumer groups respond to it, and suggest changes. The small, quyick-moving company makes adaptations. The dance happens rapidly, sort of like the big, slow-moving guy watching the nimble footloose young kid steal his girl away at the prom. And before you know it, they’re dancing perfectly together, attuned for a glorious moment in time. And often, that’s all they get. And all they need.

My friend and colleague Graham St. John is an anthropologist who studies Interstices all over the world where dance, music, and protest combine. In socially unguarded spaces and in openings, such as the Australian outback, or Greek beaches, or the streets of Berlin, parties happen as people congregate into communal forms that are temporary, activist, and celebratory all at once. I’ve used some of Graham’s ideas and played with this notion of temporary but strongly-bound community in the past, calling the concept “hypercommunity.”

I recommend Graham’s blog and his work in general. He is a brilliant anthropologist and is working in a fascinating area. He wrote me recently and his comments midwifed this idea of a new view of Interstitial Marketing. He said that he suspects “that developers seek to profit from the window that opens between product availability and crack (and the latter often circulate within small communities of hackers for a long time) with companies keen to keep the whacked product/software under the rug at all costs.” I think he’s absolutely right with this specific observation, and with a more general extrapolation from it. Our theories of marketing and consumer behavior are not really attuned to these rapidly moving, temporal, chase and catch and new chase begins sorts of market behaviors, their vitality and dynamism. And in this age of Internet-based communal acceleration, they really should be.

Consumption Studies

Several years ago, I began writing about a new project that sought to re-envision some of what we do as consumer researchers. Although the way I did it may have been flawed and overly ambitious, I’m going to use this blog to try to reformulate some of those ideas, and I’d enjoy hearing any interesting thoughts and contributions to this l’il project. The central idea is to formulate a type of Consumption Studies that acknowledges the diversity of approaches to studying consumers and consumptions. The initial ideas came before the more theoretically-inclined reformulation of interpretive consumer behavior into Consumer Culture Theory, but they compatible with that orientation, although intentionally a bit broader.

My reformulation starts at the beginning of the field of consumer research. In the mid-1980s, the field of consumer research saw a flurry of new activity marking the appearance of anthropological (Sherry 1987), “naturalistic inquiry” (Hirschman 1986; Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1988) and semiotic (Mick 1986) disciplines and methods, and other “alternative ways of knowing” (Hudson and Ozanne 1988). Over time, these have been developed and joined by existential-phenomenology (Thompson, Locander and Pollio 1989), various forms of literary criticism (Stern 1989, 1993, 1996; Scott 1994), introspection (Gould 1991, Holbrook 1995), autodriving (Heisley and Levy 1991) and other projective techniques (e.g., Heisley, Levy and McGrath 1993), critical theory (Hetrick and Lozada 1994, Murray and Ozanne 1991), historical methods (Smith and Lux 1993), feminist theory (e.g., Bristor and Fischer 1993, Fischer and Bristor 1994), postmodern perspectives (Firat and Venkatesh 1995) and hermeneutics (e.g., Arnold and Fischer 1994).

The successful development of this diverse group of analytic frameworks and methods within consumer research has generated its own set of problems. Although all were once (and by many, still are) viewed as “alternative” (Hudson and Ozanne 1991), each particular area contains diverse and complex discursive and investigative traditions. For instance, variants of ethnography within consumer research have included not only naturalistic inquiry (Lincoln and Guba 1985; Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1988) but impressionist (Sherry 1997), “critical” (Peñaloza 1994), and “retextualized” ethnography (Thompson, Stern and Arnould 1998). Under the rubric of apparently uniform doctrines such as semiotics lurk very different traditions, texts and techniques (Mick 1998).

If one digs deeper, one can find that even disparate ontologies and epistemologies can seek shelter under the same disciplinary bridge. It has become more and more difficult as these inquiries grow in popularity and complexity to identify commonalities across their disciplinary and discursive boundaries that can guide their coordination into multimethod research, so as to achieve truly interdisciplinary, rather than merely multidisciplinary, studies (Ferber 1977, Wells 1993).

That elusive quest for interdisciplinarity is important to consumer research. If knowledge claims exclude useful forms of understanding and methods that are not in their purview, stultification, debilitation and the lack of relevance will result (Wells 1993).

Interdisciplinarity provides increased opportunities for communication across scholarly fields, unexpected discoveries and tangible social benefits.

A philosophical argument might also be considered. Assume that there are different and equally relevant forms of knowledge into which different methods tap (and these are points that I will explore in depth as this argument unfolds). If we accept as true that other forms of knowledge offer relevant contributions, then a purist’s approach to methodological rigor is relativistically invalidated by equally relevant research approaches founded in different domains. It is surpassed, it would seem logical to assume, by those more multidimensional, multiperspectival and inclusive approaches that can meaningfully account for the types of knowledge elided by singularizing approaches. That’s the argument I’m going to further here—that broader views are better. Of course, the tradeoff is that broader may not necessarily be more accurate or replicable. But if the broader view can encompass the replicability of the narrower view, and expand on it, then it seems to be offering more towards the objective of understanding on every level.

The terrain whose interdisciplinarity this article seeks to explore is not the entire field proper of consumer research. Rather, it is focused on a more delimited territory of contextual inquiry which we might term Consumption Studies. Deploying Sherry’s (1995) useful terminology, we can unite the plenitude of above-mentioned studies by classifying them as forms of contextual inquiry.

Contextual inquiries examine and represent the complexity and plurality of the social and cultural world in a relatively non-reductive manner that attends to its realistic and naturalistic embedding in multiple contexts. Contextual inquiries specifically devoted to consumption-related topics could fall under the heading of Consumption Studies. The term is intended to indicate that these inquiries are not constrained by nomenclature to the overt behavior of individual consumers but drawn, instead, to the multifaceted, shared, and even contradictory sets of meanings, practices, consequences and identities that contemporary consumption –or perhaps, in more properly pluralistic fashion, consumptions—entails (see, e.g., duGay et al 1997, McCracken 1997, Thompson and Haytko 1997).

Consumption Studies, therefore, examines the cultural, societal, moral and phenomenological aspects of consumption. They explore, describe and analyze the rich content and linkages of cultural identities and consumption practices, of consumption objects and social meanings, of the macrosocial and ethical concerns associated with marketing and consumption in a commercial culture. They need not specify causal linkages, but they can, and often do.

It is well worth noting that I am going out of my way with this definition of contextual inquiry not to automatically exclude analyses based upon quantitative data, nor to automatically include all research based upon qualitative data. The focus here is on topic and orientation. I am being extremely inclusive and, again, those are treacherous waters for academics to be treading in. Particular methodologies and forms of data are more suited to and more commonly accompany particular research philosophies. However, if quantitative methods (such as, say multidimensional scales, causal models, and detailed survey analysis) were to focus upon the complexity and plurality of consumption contexts as they naturalistically occur, they clearly could be, or at least be a part of, the contextual inquiries of which I speak.

Currently, our multidisciplinary (but not, generally speaking, interdisciplinary) field operates without a thorough map of the sprawling subdivision of Consumption Studies. This is true more of its methods than of its topics, which I think are pretty thoroughly summed up in Arnould and Thompson’s (2005) amazing article on Consumer Culture Theory (or, as they later named it, Theoretics; see Arnould and Thompson 2007).

Researchers seem to be approaching contextual inquiry as if it were composed of numerous, methodologically distinct subdivisions, when in fact it can be viewed in an equally complex, but considerably more unified fashion. To facilitate the conjuncture of diverse contextual inquiry programs and methods, as this discuss proceeds I am going to aim for a generally comprehensive purview of this sub-field of Consumption Studies, but exclude other types of inquiry which do not attend to the richness of multiple contexts in naturalistic, cultural and phenomenological modes of inquiry.

Again, my goal is inclusion. The intention here is not to suggest any sort of hierarchization of Consumption Studies above other forms of consumer research, which are often extremely useful for establishing causal linkages and descriptions of processes (versus those of content). These other methods of investigation are equally worthwhile. They are excluded from the purview of this article because their linkage with Consumption Studies faces considerable epistemological obstacles.

An interdisciplinary Consumption Studies would provide for the theorizing of the consumption of research alongside the research of consumption, the business of research production alongside the research of business production and the meaning of consumption research alongside the research of consumption meaning (see, e.g., Peter and Olson 1983; this is one of my favorite marketing articles of all time).

It might signal a ripening within the field of consumer research, demonstrating a willingness to actively engage and combine the multiplicity of complex, contradictory and –even within their own native academic terrains—fragmented and hotly contested paradigmatic analytical frameworks and methods. It would seek not to water down theories and methods in order to merge them, but to sharpen them through critical awareness of their subtleties, oppositions and links. The result would be an outline not of the monologic convergence or brutal integration of methods, but the ways in which their most useful elements can be intentionally used to further understanding of consumption through contextual inquiry.

Seeking a more paradigmatically encompassing approach, Hudson and Ozanne (1988) have previously identified four alternative approaches for incorporating diverse research programs and methods within consumer research:

(1) a supremacy approach that seeks the superiority of one approach,
(2) a naïve synthesizing approach that ignores differences in underlying foundations,
(3) a dialectic approach which applies the methods with an appreciation for their divergent philosophical foundations, and
(4) a relativistic alternative.

Exemplifying a supremacy position, Shelby Hunt (1991) proposed “scientific realism” to amalgamate all consumer research –alternative or not—in a conceptual framework based in correspondence or triangulation with “objective reality.” Paul Anderson’s (1986) influential “critical relativism” outlined the logic for viewing scientific knowledge as consensual agreement among members of a research community and propounded that methodologically divergent consumer research approaches be considered “incommensurable,” and uniquely evaluated vis a vis “their unique modes of production and their methods of justification” (p. 156). Left underdeveloped and unrealized by this polarizing polemic was the abstruse yet obviously appealing option of a dialectic approach.

I want to see how far we can go in developing this dialectic option. In so doing, the arranged marriage of reluctant epistemic partners is a pragmatic necessity. In the days and probably weeks following, interspersed by whatever turns my crank enough to enter it into the blogosphere, I’m going to overview this conjugal arrangement in Consumption Studies by exploring the continuum-like properties of a range of ostensibly dichotomized polarities. First I want to apply a philosophical insight that dates from Plato’s time to identify three distinct but interrelated ways to investigate and understand consumptions. Then I want to explore corresponding methods and their intersections. Depending on how this goes, I may provide my original and somewhat lengthy (but still unpublished) example of an interdisciplinary contextual inquiry that examines the consumption meanings of high technology products in order to illustrate the approach. That example was later expanded into an article that is upcoming in JCR, quite an interesting expansion that I may elaborate a little bit. Finally, and hopefully with some assistance from other thinkers in (and out?) of our field, I’d like to offer up some implications for future research in Consumption Studies.

So that starts this little Consumption Studies ball a’rolling…..

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