Burning Man and the Rituals of Capitalism

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In the Festival of the Burning Man, Black Rock Desert, Nevada, 2,500 hardy souls trekked out into the middle of the largest flat expanse of land in North America to experiment with community.
Matt Wray

Issue #21, September 1995


The Setting

It's hot. 105 degrees in the shade. Of course, there isn't much shade to speak of, just the stillness of heat under the shadow of the shelter we've made. It's a minor work of art, this shelter, with a frame made of jute, bamboo and a covering of nylon and burlap. Right now, it's the only thing keeping us from crisping in the midday sun. We lay about in lawn chairs and try not to move, waiting for a breeze, a breath of wind.

As evening falls, the wind does come up, bringing a dust storm with it, and we soon have to abandon the shelter. The dust, incredibly fine and whiter than snow, drives us choking into the stifling death heat of the cars. One of the members of our little group isn't having a very good time of it — the dust has brought on a fierce asthma attack, and he's sick, puking bile and white dust out through his nose. He looks like he's vomiting yellow plaster. In the car, the dust drifts in through the cracks in the doors and windows as the wind gently rocks us. Outside, our pasta dinner, only half prepared is lost in the swirl of wind and sand. I look into the rear view mirror and ask myself what the fuck we're doing.

This is the Festival of the Burning Man, Black Rock Desert, Nevada. It's Labor Day weekend, 1993. 2,500 hardy souls have trekked out into the middle of the largest flat expanse of land in North America to experiment with community. It's my first year here and I'm not sure what to think. We're plunked down in the middle of a vast alkali playa, a prehistoric sea bed, surrounded by purple mountains. This is, as Edward Abbey said, one of the last true wildernesses. And we're, for a short time, to build a small community. There are all sorts here, a living, breathing encyclopedia of subcultures; Desert survivalists, urban primitives, artists, rocketeers, hippies, Deadheads, queers, pyromaniacs, cybernauts, musicians, ranters, eco-freaks, acidheads, breeders, punks, gun lovers, dancers, S/M and bondage enthusiasts, nudists, refugees from the men's movement, anarchists, ravers, transgender types, and New Age spiritualists. In the course of the weekend, participants will, among other things, set up FM radio stations, print a daily newspaper, build a desert rave camp, and soak in the muddy heat of surrounding hot springs. All this activity takes place as a way of expressing our desire for collective action, collective experience in the face of all that threatens to keep us isolated from one another. We've come here to form a small town, an intentional but impermanent community. We've come here to burn the Man.

The Festival of the Burning Man was intended to be an experiment with ritualized community building and ritual performance art. According to Larry Harvey, the originator of the Burning Man, the idea began 10 years ago when he and a friend built a small figure on the beach in San Francisco, doused it with gasoline, and watched it burn. It was, he claims, an impulsive act, one without much intention beyond a celebration of the solstice, but one which was strangely powerful and moving. They returned the next year to build the man and, as Harvey puts it, "Out of this simple act of construction, a sense of community has been born... Before we knew it, people were performing in ritual."

Ritual Capitalism

If we are to believe the historians and anthropologists, the connection between ritual and belief is an ancient one. Something about the conscious repetition of certain practices and events seems to be a cornerstone of belief and faith. If ritual was a part of ancient religion, it is equally a part of modern and (perhaps especially) postmodern belief systems as well. Whether we speak of the dramaturgical harvest cycles of early Greek civilization, the daily prayers of rosary counting Catholics, or the meditative lifestyles of Zen Buddhists, we understand that ritual is constitutive of and helps affirm faith. Rituals often inform and shape our daily practices more than we like to think. At times, we perform these rituals automatically, unthinkingly.

We eat, we shit, we die, yet we do so within specific historical, economic, and social conditions. Whatever personal or group rituals we may choose to enact, capitalism demands that we partake in specific rituals. Stockholders consult their morning business papers as if they were bowing their heads in prayer. Ever go to a business or shareholder's meeting? It's kind of like being in church. Everyone is dressed in their Sunday best and all are there to hear the good news of economic profit and to reaffirm their faith in the gospel of corporate growth and economic development. Others fulfill their ritualistic belief in capitalism by shopping. In fact, more and more consumerism seems like an end in and of itself. "I shop, therefore I am," usually said in jest, contains a kernel of truth about the ontological ground of existence under capitalist social relations. And others still fulfill the ritual by working at low wage jobs or wait in welfare lines for their daily crumbs. Regardless of our social position, capitalism demands that we have faith, that we believe in it as an economic system despite considerable historical evidence of its inherent instabilities and inconstancies, despite the historical fact that it is a fundamentally unjust and inequitable means of distributing resources and sustenance. If capitalism is God, why is he always having a crisis? What kind of God is that? And what kind of faith is that? Our unthinking participation in the daily rituals of capitalist culture only reinforces our unspoken and uncritical faith in this most shitty of gods.

The Rite of The Burning Man

As Harvey said of the Festival of the Burning Man in a 1993 interview: "In practice, what we do has historic parallels. In the ancient world, half the world's great religions came out of either the desert or the mountains, with the idea that you were in contact with powerful natural forces. I think that sounds, that feels pagan to people. But we're not feather fathers, we're not druids (although many come here to pretend to be), but we are laying the infrastructure of a temporary civilization. It's a laboratory to consider how perhaps society can be constructed and how we can critique it."

For what purpose? As Harvey puts it in the Summer 1993 newsletter of the Burning Man Project, "Culture and meaning should be something we create through our interactions with one another as we take part in the shared life of a community. But modern society discourages active participation and encourages us to be passive consumers. Instead of a community, we've become a mass. As a mass, we don't participate in culture, we consume it. We live together in isolated stalls. The context of community, the vital interplay of human beings, has been forgotten. What we consume has no inherent meaning or transcendent value to us. It is no surprise we thirst for thrills. Consumption doesn't lead to satisfaction, only more consumption. If we're to break this cycle, we must somehow reclaim community and create culture out of that experience."

What Harvey is pointing to here is what French philosopher Guy Debord has called "The Society of the Spectacle." Debord wrote that life in the 20th century presents itself to us as an accumulation of spectacles, images, and events that happen to us, alienating us from life as a directly lived experience. The spectacle mediates our social relations, separating us from one another and from the material world. Debord viewed the spectacle as the outgrowth and expression of the dominant mode of capitalist production and understood our infatuation with spectacle as a justification for the existing social-economic system. Mass dissemination and consumption of spectacles makes us feel like capitalism is a natural part of life. We do, as Harvey points out, become passive consumers, relinquishing our will and desire to change the world or create a new society.

Of course, the clever irony is that the actual Burning of the Man is a spectacle par excellence. As such, it draws us in, seducing us. It is totally mesmerizing, a hypnotic flickering display around which we flock like moths to the flame. Yet it is a spectacle without any commentary or meaning, except that which participants bring to it. There is no official voice of Burning Man, no high priests, no dogmatic presence. Like a carnival, the festival exists as a wriggling mixture of serious fun. The sheer hybrid strangeness and polyglot weirdness of the participants and performances contradict and challenge one another, and, for a weekend, the desert becomes a contest of meanings. No one interpretation of the event can ever carry the day. If there is a definitive meaning of the Man, it is that there is no definitive meaning. It is, thus far anyway, a spectacle without domination. A spectacle that requires our active involvement for it to exist at all.

Initially, one of the main things that drove me to attend Burning Man, other than the constant proselytizing of long time Burning Man participant/organizer and inveterate radioman Dick Dillman, aka Sky King, was the attraction to an event that seemed largely outside the reach of corporate capital and beyond the surveillance of the State. It had all the lure of an indie 7". Held on Bureau of Land Management lands, Burning Man has historically been a self-policed event. No federal agents (at least none on duty!), no state troopers, no local police force to contend with, just the Black Rock Rangers, a group of dedicated participants lead by the intrepid Danger Ranger Michael Michael who patrol the desert in search of those who would harm themselves or others. For these guys, safety is job #1. That's why in 1993, when they set up the first Burning Man Drive-by shooting range, they cleared the area of all spectators. Firing fully and semi-automatic weapons from a car doing 40 per can get a little scary, but these guys make it seem like a walk in the park. These kinds of self-policing events are rare — communal gatherings of this size are usually the focus of surveillance and enforcement of laws, rules, and regulations. Not so at Burning Man, where anything goes, as long as it's safe. Well, kinda safe. Like the thrills of a circus show, the edges of danger always seem close at hand at the Burning Man.

While every tent and encampment here in the desert seems to contain its own sideshow, the Festival of the Burning Man centers (if it can even be said to have a center) on the construction and raising of a giant structure made of steel and rough timbers. The Man is assembled and raised on the first day of the festival. Set apart from the main encampment, it stands over fifty feet tall; and with arms and legs outspread, the massive human figure measures nearly forty feet wide. The construction crew gets here early, aligning the Man so that it sits astride the rising sun. One of the many rituals this weekend will be to awaken before dawn, stir up some coffee, and head out to the Man. As the sun rises up between its legs, we'll raise our cups to the sun and chant a greeting to the Java Cow. Nobody knows who or what the Java Cow really is, but somehow it doesn't seem to matter. Sometime during the weekend, festival participants will lower the Man, instilling it with 500 pounds of diesel fuel and black powder explosives. Then in a communal effort, Burning Man participants grab hold of a very large, very fat rope and haul the Man back up into a standing position. Outlined and rigged in blue neon, the Man glows ghostly at night, powerful generators humming at its feet. He stands ready to be destroyed. On Sunday night, the final evening of the event, there is a black tie cocktail party, followed by a festive parade procession out to the man. Then at the height of the pre-burn frenzy, archers shoot flaming arrows into the Man and he explodes into flame, shooting trails of fiery sparks and screaming fireworks. An apocalyptic bacchanalia ensues, continuing long into the night. Monday morning comes and you're left to wonder. To wonder what it all means.

Faith in the Future

Often capitalism makes us feel this way. We wonder what it all means, and we remain mystified by its workings. But it is perhaps too easy to say that we shouldn't have faith in capitalism. After all, what alternatives faiths do we have at present? The question is, of course, whether or not capitalism can be reformed enough to be worthy of our faith. If it is, then we need to aggressively pursue those reforms which will ameliorate the damaging effects of capitalist faith. If not, then we need to consider alternate economic structures as possible answers to the problems which capitalism creates. This is one of the dilemmas which faces the Left — do we focus on radical democratic reforms to capitalism or do we strive for revolutionary socialism? There are no easy answers here, perhaps it is even a false dilemma, but the reality is that either choice will require a great deal of faith — a willingness and a strength to believe in a different kind of society for the future.

As I write this I'm preparing to spend another year out at Burning Man. My gear is packed with food and supplies and the truck is loaded for high weirdness in the desert. But I'm apprehensive this year. Burning Man has received more media attention this year than in times past and major corporate media are expected to arrive in force. Last year it was HBO, this year it will be MTV. I worry that this media exposure will soon bring dramatic changes to the event. In fact, I know it will. Of course, change is often a good thing, but my fear is that the presence of corporate media will radically alter the scene, undermining the participatory nature of the event, turning it into yet another commodified, fetishized spectacle of late capitalist culture, to be consumed like a professional sporting event or some kind of desert Lollapalooza. My fear is that the communal rituals I've come to associate with Burning Man will be overwhelmed by another more powerful ritual of the capitalist belief system — the ritual commodification of our everyday lives under capitalist economic relations. Burning Man is, in so many ways, an embodiment of the conflicts and contradictions we experience as participants in capitalist culture. We don't escape these contradictions simply by trekking out into the desert wilderness. But we do adventure into the unknown, an as yet unformed and inchoate social space.

So why am I going back? It's actually simple — I believe in Burning Man. I say this with only a touch of irony. My pilgrimage is a small act of faith, a yearly ritual that has no particular meaning other than what I choose to give it. For me, there is nothing transcendent about it, but it is no less powerful for that. In fact, it is the immanence of the event, the very here and now worldliness of it that makes me want to return. To gather with my friends each year to partake in and witness the high desert weirdness, the strange and wonderful beauty of the Burning Man — that's something to believe in. For now.

Epilogue

It rained. It seldom rains out here in the desert, but this year it rained every day, turning the dust of the playa into a vast mud bath. It hailed. Frozen ice the size of gumballs ripped through our shelter. No one can remember the last time hail fell on the playa. Hair raising electrical storms lit up the night as lightning forked across the mountains. We half expected frogs and swarms of locusts to descend. Double full rainbows unfurled over the encampment. There was something cosmic about the power of the natural forces we encountered out there. We were swept up by that power and it carried us somewhere else, for a time. Somehow, it felt like the thin edge of future.

As we feared, there were lots of cameras and film and video crews, but the media kept a surprisingly low profile, and people often told the camera crews to fuck off, to shut down and get lost. Vending was kept to an absolute minimum, and most people bartered for goods, although "black market" sales of drugs seemed especially brisk. I was reminded once again that corporate presence never equals corporate domination. There is always resistance. My hope is that the ritualistic commodification of everyday life under capitalism and the complacency of the society of the spectacle will never completely overwhelm the restless, creative counter-rituals of community building and active participation which take place every year at the Festival of the Burning Man. But who knows? The future is never certain. The only certainty is that if we continue to place uncritical faith in capitalism, the future holds few surprises.

Matt Wray is a Ph.D student in Ethnic Studies at Berkeley doing research on the social construction of whiteness and the cultural poetics of white trash. He's still blowing playa dust from his nose. Reach him at mwray@garnet.berkeley.edu.

Copyright © 1995 by Matt Wray. All rights reserved.

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