Burning Men: Consumption and Creation in the Late-Capitalist Wasteland

Burning Man is a petro-anarchist tourism event, with origins as performance-art ritual and a magnetism on laissez-faire technologists and electro-primitivists alike. Its might-I-say theoretical underpinnings as an act of radical self-expression and later, a social experiment in electro-primativism and semi-commercial Outsider Art event bely its exterior form: a gathering of Californians in a truly godforsaken desert in Nevada, unwittingly participating in a late-capitalist conspiracy.

As Experiences and their digital photo-representations replace the Things of old America, Burning Man and art/music festivals like it become a commodity to be bought, sold, and used in a particularly millennial social-capital manufacturing process

Despite its professed value of decommodification, tickets to the gathering are bought and sold, an experience somewhere between a camping trip, a theme park, or a particularly dusty interactive children’s science museum exhibit. As Experiences and their digital photo-representations replace the Things of old America, Burning Man and art/music festivals like it become a commodity to be bought, sold, and used in a particularly millennial social-capital manufacturing process. While it’s well known that entertainment is a good or service, exchanged for capital, what’s less commonly spoken of is its place as an alchemical reagent in generating digital social capital via networking sites a la Instagram, where it may be further monetized by advertising revenue, influencer “promotions”, etc.

This new level of abstraction is not surprising, nor necessarily terrifying, as it is an extension of well-trodden thought trails surrounding late capitalism — the increasingly abstract nature of capital, moving from tangible goods to services and experiences, to the advertisement thereof, to the consequent use of those services as a loop back into the goods-marketing machine.

Burning man tickets become weeklong virtue-singals, artsy hallucinogen trips become advertisements for water bottles or other goods needed to survive in a primitive desert environ for one week per year.

By purchasing tickets to such an event, the consumer signals their allegiance to a few professed values to others and hopefully enriches their human experience with a few days of dusty art, designer drugs, and a quick dive into alternative community structures.

These values vary, from a distended concept of environmentalism, born of driving petrol-consuming vehicles hundreds of miles, to non-commercial living, to radical self-expression, a concept worthy of exploration alongside the other tenets of our beloved desert ritual. The point of these sorts of values isn’t to make any actual lifestyle change but to “spread awareness” through art or Instagram posts, thus generating social capital

Commoditized Expression and Radicality

OPTIONAL SIDE-QUEST: Rather ironically, Burning man inverts this pyramid, standing on a foundation Self-Actualization and placing physiological/psychosocial needs as the “not guaranteed’s” that the participant must work and achieve, as in a video game, for their week on the desert playa. The gamification of these sorts of festivals is unsurprising given the desert’s popularity as video game and movie settings. The wastelands that the player explores in the Borderlands franchise, for instance, bring the cartoonified nature of the Burning Man experience into absolute clarity, likely informing some participants mental picture of the event. This game’s role-playing structure is largely re-created in retellings of Burning Man stories, i.e. this guy dressed up as a viking with a giant raygun appeared out of the sands and was like “DUDE come with me there’s this rave down the way with another guy dressed up as a fucking Chinese DRAGON playing the sickest psy-trance right now”. These sorts of adventures become wrapped in logic that closely mimics the narratives of video game quests, where a user is given a proposition to accept or deny an objective before returning to base, drinking some more water/cleaning off the sand, and then moving on. The more immediate, and frequently referenced cultural waypost is Mad Max, itself a dystopian epic about a world devoid of hope, destroyed by capitalism. The subtext for both of these references is an interesting “we’re creating a dystopia to go live in for a week because wouldn’t that be cool it’ll be like Mad Max haha” — while simulataneously helping to create a permanent dystopia by burning untold thousands of gallons of gasoline in motor vehicles and electricity generators to fuel a week of raves and art shows that revolve around geodesic domes and the like.

Self-expression, a need which lies near the top of Maslow’s pyramid is certainly not in short supply in the current age, 2018. I am entering my bile-drenched thoughts into this keyboard, surrounded in my comfortable rented home, completely brimming with my own personal collection of affected idiosyncrasies. I wear a shirt for a punk band, comfortable hiking shorts, sockless feet propped on a pillow that at once shows my knack for color-coordination and sophisticated comfort with feminine design patterns. During other parts of the day I may be found playing instruments, conversing with my equally self-conscious and privileged roommates, or arguing with strangers in some other fiefdom of the increasingly feudal Web. These forms of self-expression are not “radical”, nor are slam poetry events, nor art exhibitions, nor is the credit card purchase of a slip of paper admitting one to any sort of gathering. This is not to dismiss the non-radical as pedestrian, but rather to highlight the mental gymnastics at work here. The values of participation, inclusion, and expression, are hard-wired into our cultural DNA, to syncretize them into a boundary-breaking “radical” form is a task beyond that of buying or selling tickets to a weeklong event in an otherwise godforsaken U.S. state.

Participation, inclusion, and expression are absolute musts in a late-capitalist landscape ridden with the cracked husks of independent thought: content creation as a vehicle for advertisement, diversity/inclusion training as a vehicle for increased worker comfort and participation, participation itself as, well you know, the only way to make money in this hell-scheme we’ve committed ourselves to

The “radical” is revolutionary, paradigm shifting, or otherwise challenging to our daily existence. And while it’s established that merely going to Burning Man is not an exercise in might-I-say “radicality”, perhaps there is some truth to the actual meat of the experience. Activities such as going to an art exhibit, going camping, taking drugs, or gifting/bartering/mooching resources for a week do not strike me as particularly radical. More likely is that this term is invoked as a highly functional marketing technique to draw out the self-identified “radical” from the woodworks of San Francisco and bring them to the desert to suffer and create a crowd, itself a well-known marketing technique. This is much in the way that Dadaism termed itself avant-garde, or anti-art: the path of Rejecting The Usual by way of the usual means is disingenuous and doomed to evisceration by snobs and academics on some distant corner on the Web, i.e. the reader’s current cyberlocation.

The flickering auto-save feature of this website is currently driving the author up a fucking wall, further over-filling the bile reserves

Burning Man and its disciples laud their temporary city’s airport, newspapers, intricate road system, cultural offerings, and lack of a real government, despite their complete and utter reliance on the outside world. If there was ever anything less revolutionary than bringing 30,000 relatively affluent, people together in Nevada via marketing Another World Is Possible concepts for the small price of several hundred dollars, I’d be pleased to hear it.

Petro-Anarchism: A politcal ideology based on combustion

Burning things is certainly not revolutionary among humankind or our close relatives, at least not since about 2 million years B.C.E. We have fire to thank for fields as diverse as gastronomy, metallurgy, alchemy, aerospace engineering (a few steps removed), and so on. The act of burning is both practical and symbolic, the destruction of the natural in search of synthetic perfection, the reconfiguration of available reagents into shelter, tools, and nutritional homeostasis. The effigy burned yearly at Burning Man (by the creator’s own admission)lacks any true significance, settling instead for being Cool To Look At until it’s time to move on to the next “Outsider” piece of art, produced by a person who likely lives a life very similar to your own.

Petro-anarchism as a philosophy (and term) is relatively new, referring to the sort of sickly post-industrial anxieties of a world devoid of water, a crumbling civilization characterized by mass die-off from climate change, where a single Road Warrior roams Australia... wait a second... where a world formerly ruled by technology must learn to live without it, where man must use his well-stocked doomsday bunker and weekend Disaster Preparedness Training courses (offered for a reasonable fee of $39.95 in Tigard, OR by some old Deadhead each Saturday) to protect his family from man’s basest desires — to destroy, pillage, and burn all available gasoline by any means necessary. Unlike “real” anarchists, this philosophy does not suggest itself as a solution to a political problem but rather a sick eventuality, brought on by our species’ inherent immorality and short-sightedness, combined with a sort of distain for actual anarchism, which is regarded as impractical in comparison to rapid earth degradation. Most people find the thought of such a world at least entertaining, for some even erotic, the notion of driving a jeep across a desert wasteland with an AK-47 and your wife and child dying of nutritional deprivation… wait.. maybe just your super hot wife in the passenger seat with an AK-47, yeah, that’s better, and, I dunno, maybe some 80’s sort of driving synth-bass music crackling through from a pirate radio station in Fresno where you’re headed to trade some more human skulls to this weird death cult in exchange for goods… Anyhoo, this sort of thinking is especially popular with those who can afford to stockpile food, vastly overestimate their own survival capabilities, having lived in San Francisco for 25 years and having become convinced that we are FUCKED, man, because of the Republicans or whatever and maybe Ted Kazcinsky wasn’t so wrong after all, and maybe we’re just better off prepping for the end rather than trying to prevent it. So petro-anarchism exists a sort of political alternative— an amalgamation of Redneck-ish sensibilities about not wanting too many neighbors with a hope that it’ll at least be as entertaining as it looks in the movies, the apocalypse, that is.

The latent symbology is apparent in the Celtic-Gaulic wicker man tradition, the sacrifice of humanity to the otherwise uncaring gods — or, to be more sensitive to anthropology, the destruction of the image of mankind to the otherwise uncaring gods. Unlike the traditional rituals, this one was summoned from its obscurity in Western cultural history (or possible from the film bearing the name); commodified into something vaguely artistic to fill a several-hundred-dollar-per-year sized void in the spiritual lives of attendees, or at least like a cool pyrotechnic display after a week of self-inflicted suffering in a faithful recreation of Bartertown.

The oft-repeated claim that this practice reminds attendees to “keeps the fires burning” til next year should be read, again, as a brilliant petro-anarchist marketing scheme — a notion that by burning 30,000 humans worth of fossil fuel in a pilgrimage to a temporary society where we again burn a large wooden sculpture we can gain insight into what the ideal future of tomorrow may hold. In the same way that Ayn Rand repackages midcentury longing for individuality in an increasingly interdependent and collectivist world into a “radical new way”, Burning Man repackages our latent millennial longings for community and meaning into a convenient week-sized pill to be considered lightly and consumed yearly, so that we might affect real cultural change through... spending a week dying from thirst in a godforsaken corner of the galaxy north of Reno.