Sticking it to the man

August 29th, 2007 by Adrian

Apparently the 40-ft wooden namesake effigy of the Burning Man festival got torched a little early this year;  presumably the timing of the fire was chosen to coincide with the lunar eclipse.   So is this an act of vandalism that spoils everyone else’s party?  Or is it a spontaneous bit of creativity that truly exemplifies the spirit of the festival?

I’m leaning toward the latter.  Yes, it’s disruptive and destructive, and if you’d planned out your circle dance and mud-painting for the appointed hour of conflagration, you’re going to feel cheated.  But I always thought that Burning Man was supposed to celebrate a kind of benevolent socialistic anarchy, a self-organizing commune unbound from the restrictions of a bureaucratic society.  It’s not like the Superbowl half-time show, or the apple drop in Times Square.  At least, it’s not supposed to be, right?

According to the Burning Man website, the 10 principles of Burning Man are:
Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification. Radical Self-reliance, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy.  So let’s break this down and see how well it fits those principles.  Here’s my report card on the early burning (skipping those tenets for which there’s no real relevance either way):

Radical Inclusion:                 C
On the one hand, not as many people get to participate in the bonfire ceremony.  On the other hand, “no prerequisites exist for participation” sounds like it’s not about setting your alarm for the party either.  Radical inclusion should embrace non-conforming individuals, even at the expense of communal consensus.  Maybe especially at the expense of communal consensus.  I call this a wash.

Radical self-reliance:            A
It’s all about the individual, baby.

Radical self-expression:      A+
This act doesn’t just defy the cultural norms of the city hives in a comfortable, officially sanctioned (and hence largely meaningless way).  It flouts the rules and regulations of the festival itself.  ¡Viva la revolución!

Communal Effort:                 F
It’s a rude slap in the face to cooperation and collaboration.

Civic Responsibility:            D
Clearly breaches the rules imposed by the festival organizers.  The only thing saving it from a complete F is that public welfare and safety aren’t at risk.

Participation:                      C
It’s transformative change, sure, and actions speak louder than words.  But not everyone gets invited.

Immediacy:                         A
“Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture.”  Well there you go – carpe diem.

Overall grade:                   B-
It’s not a home run, but definitely a passing grade.  I don’t expect the organizers of the festival to see it this way… that’s part of the problem with trying to brand and commercialize counter-culture.  Before you know it, you ARE the man, and you’re sticking it to yourself.

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