Burning Man, Desire, and the Culture of Empire

More than 50,000 people gather each year to burn a wooden effigy at this eight-day festival, which describes itself as “part of a solution to our modern malaise.” Credit: Neil Girling (theblight.net).

To a consciousness formed in gentle deciduous lands, the vista is unimaginably bleak: the toxic, colorless void of a Nevada alkali lake bed, a blank white canvas the size of Rhode Island, flat as water and dry as parchment on which there lives nothing visible to the naked eye, remnant of the Pleistocene stretching to a barely visible horizon of tawn and purple mountains. Hot winds blow from all points of the compass and shift direction in an instant, whipping the playa into dust devils that spiral into a cloudless blue sky. At times a steady wind blows for interminable hours, during which dust fine as talc clogs the pores and lungs and reduces the world beyond arm’s length to a white blur. We might be inhabitants of one of Calvino’s invisible cities except that only mad dogs and white men would occupy such a godforsaken place. God / forsaken: in fact, though the concept and execution are religious at their cores, God is the word least likely to be heard. At this moment of the American Empire’s decline, this science fiction setting is home for our premier arts festival, anointed by the Los Angeles Times as the “current hot ticket” for academic study—the landscape of Burning Man.

Each year artists and pretenders from around the world camp here in the heat of late August, 150 miles north of Reno, laying out streets, building structures to house basic services (information, medical assistance, security, latrines), and constructing sculptures and installations, bars, restaurants, dance halls, and New Age amusements—e.g., an outdoor roller skating disco, or a giant vagina through which you wiggle to be reborn into friends’ waiting hands. The playa is the playground of our most powerful image makers—the software engineers and computer graphic designers of Lucasfilm, DreamWorks, Google, and Pixar who flee the constraints of civilization to play in what amounts to a freewheeling, unregulated protectorate of California.

For the eight-day duration of the festival, a central shade structure sells ice and coffee; all other money exchanges are prohibited. As an aspect of this gift economy, Burners are asked to bring food and drink for ourselves and for others, a policy that inspires 24/7 offerings of free pancakes and open-bar cocktail parties. We are also asked to give something of ourselves in a way that expresses our creative spirit while honoring the festival motto “Leave No Trace”—a visitor at any other time of year should never suspect that for eight days 50,000-plus people called this dustbowl home.

The San Francisco Bay Area has a history of incubating movements that, for better and worse, influenced national and international culture—the Beat Generation and the unrestrained hippies who succeeded it, the Summer of Love and the unrestrained materialism that succeeded it, Silicon Valley and the unrestrained materialism that accompanies it, and now the obsession with sustainability as the politically correct response to the environmental degradation wrought by all that unrestrained materialism.

If we believe what scientists tell us about climate change, our only intellectually respectable option is despair, but there’s no future in despair. Whereas Burning Man offers, according to its website, “part of a solution to our modern malaise,” a claim endorsed by a significant percentage of the hip folks west of the Rockies. I go to Burning Man to discover how it motivates people alienated from church and cynical about government; to find if it may unlock one door to learning and teaching how we may better live in harmony with each other and the planet; and to see if it lives up to its hype.

Burners often come seeking companionship and share a belief in the possibility of sudden, profound personal transformation. The festival’s website reports that participants tend to form “significant new relationships or resolve to undertake ambitious projects as a result of their experience.” Credit: Creative Commons/Dina Litovsky.

Communion at the Feet of the Man

Late August, 2010: On arriving for my first and probably last Burning Man, I join the homesteaders in staking our claim on the “streets,” concentric arcs in the dust some five miles in diameter and having as their focal point a seventy-foot tower topped by a stylized Man. The playa is already dotted with dozens of elaborate, large-scale sculptures and art projects, each more fantastic than the next.
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