Beyond Burning Man
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Beyond Burning Man

Utopias Are for Suckers

The real work — culture building — can never stop. In this excerpt from “The Scene That Became Cities: What Burning Man Philosophy Can Teach Us About Building Better Communities,” Caveat Magister explains why.

Photo by Luc Asbury

Culture building is an active process. Culture is not something you can belong to passively. Burning Man very clearly illustrates the fact that culture is a set of skills, and those skills require practice.

If people engage with a culture passively, then no matter what the culture says its values are, what it actually learns to value is passivity. If the way most people participate in a culture is through consumption, then the culture becomes about consumption, regardless of its pretenses about itself. Past a certain point, it doesn’t really matter what your founding documentation says; if you get out of the practice of holding your leaders accountable, then you get bad at it, and eventually you no longer really value it. If you force cultural activities on others, you might get them to practice some of those activities, but mostly what you’ll practice is forcing things on people, and mostly what they practice is responding to force.

Culture is a set of skills, as much or more than it is a set of ideas, and it moves in the direction that those skills do — either mastery or decay. And when people practice doing something else? Culture adds those elements.

There are passive cultures, to be sure, but culture is not passive. It is what you do. It is the skills you get good at.

Because our work never stops, it can never be perfected, and so we must give up dreams of a utopia just around the corner, the idea that if we can only do this one thing, institute this one program, get people to change this one way, our work will finally be finished and we can stop. Utopias are for suckers. Normatively, you get to relax, hopefully a lot. Take naps. Sleep’s great. Existentially, however, you do not get to relax. None of us do. The culture you’re in always bends around what you’re doing right now, no matter how small the scale. Thus, the traits we have are far less important than what we are doing. It doesn’t matter what you know; it matters whether you are learning. It doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, but whether you are giving. It doesn’t matter whether you are good, but whether you are being good. Doing good.

This activity is not to achieve a specific outcome; it is to keep practicing skills that are unconditional — things we value and do for their own sake — rather than transactional. Learning unconditional skills is fundamentally different from learning transactional ones. As we all have discovered in this life, you can’t make someone care. You can’t force someone to love. You can’t compel someone to be curious or conscientious. You can only make them go through the motions of these things, which is far less effective and just as likely to cause resentment and resistance. You can force someone to learn how to do arithmetic, but you can’t make them be interested in math.

The only way you can actually encourage someone to practice unconditional skills, rather than practicing the appearance of having such skills in front of an authority figure, is to give them the opportunity to practice authentically, which means putting them in an environment in which this is possible. This means putting them in an environment in which one can discover and experiment with one’s own unique intrinsic motivation. As they discover and explore what matters to them, as they practice doing what they care about and achieving mastery with it, they internalize the unconditional skills that make it possible for them to truly participate in a culture. They seek out expertise, they find communities of shared passion, they pool resources to create more interesting projects, they contribute and give. People whose primary motivations and skills come from extrinsically motivated tasks have no reason to stop the world from sinking if they’re able to profit from the waves. People whose primary motivations and skills come from intrinsically motivated goals have have practiced sacrificing the needs of the moment for something greater than themselves.

Burning Man is not a noun, it’s a verb, because really all culture is a set of verbs. So we do not get to stop. We keep going, improving, making things better, recognizing that there will be imperfections and trade-offs and still working, with no end point in either sight or mind, to practice being the people and communities we want to be. No matter how good you get, you will always be an amateur, trying to learn new ways to do it better.

If we cannot rest and we need to give up utopia, then we must also abandon the idea of ever “winning” a cultural conflict, at least for long. The secret to Burning Man’s cultural success is precisely that when our principles come into conflict, we look for ways to enhance all of them, not to rank them in some arbitrary hierarchy that meets the needs of the moment.

When “Radical Self-Reliance” and “Communal Effort” are in conflict, we look for solutions to the problems of the moment that can enhance both of them, rather than placing one above the other. And if, for a time, pragmatism demands that we do have to take steps that enhance one but not the other, we’re constantly looking for ways to bring the other back up to snuff. When one cultural value defeats another over the long term, both end up diminished as creative tension is lost.

If you want to utilize creative tension, you have to give up on the idea of ever resolving it. Instead, you have to embrace its ambiguity. That ambiguity is the challenging place where your best innovations and advancements will come from. And why would you end that?

Out of this ongoing effort, we reach a point where we can place the individual’s own intrinsic needs and desires in a creative tension with the needs and obligations of culture, thus enhancing both.

A culture that believes it must achieve stasis and balance and permanent harmony, or that has no significant decommodified spaces left, can never accommodate the idiosyncratic passions of an individual. Because it has no place for those passions, it cannot benefit from them. A culture that can genuinely ask “What matters to you? What do you want to do for its own sake? How can we help?” is going to find itself changing in unpredictable and colorful ways, but it is also going to be invested in and supported in ways it cannot imagine, by allies it did not know it had, as people begin pursuing their unconditional passions and building communities.

This not fanciful; this is not an abstract philosophy that would never work in practice. This is not a naïve argument that people are innately good if you just leave them alone. (Remember, Larry was always emphatic that “you cannot expect people to be better than they are.”) Burning Man is a proof of concept demonstrating that a culture that tries to keep people in their place is far less effective and unifying than a culture that tries to put people in a position where they can find their own meaningful goals and make choices that are meaningful to them. This is what we have demonstrated. Burning Man is supported by an army of volunteers, tens of thousands that we know of, around the world, representing every income level and station of life, liberal and conservative and apolitical. It has donors ranging from the super wealthy to people struggling to get by. Burning Man has thrived because this dynamic works. People who discover what is important to them when they work with you, who can make meaningful choices as a result of your presence in their life, and who feel that there is still room for them with you as they grow and change as a result of these choices, will stand by you through hell. You often get more from people, much more, when you engage in unconditional relationships with them than you ever do from transactional ones. We overlook that in our default world because we do not practice the skills that lead to unconditional relationships. We are bad at them.

Happiness, let us remember, is found in working at your capacity toward a goal you find meaningful. Burning Man culture spreads because we have more fun, because that fun is good for people in ways that are meaningful to them, and because anyone can play. These things are all that it takes to develop the skills in people that are, as they are mastered, the essence of a thriving culture.

If a group of artistic ne’er-do-wells, desert carnies, and aesthetic rebels can build Burning Man spaces into a global movement, imagine what we can achieve as neighborhoods, cities, regions, nations.

We don’t need a blueprint, we don’t want a master plan, we just need to practice the skills and create the kind of spaces we want to live in, and share them. And if you don’t know what those skills and spaces are yet, make art and give it away to find out. That’s how Burning Man started. Then find someone doing something interesting that you do not understand at all, and ask: “How can I help?” That’s how it grew. Out of these simple acts, individuals and cultures can place themselves in creative tension and grow together.

Above all, do not be Sisyphus. Don’t let the role you are assigned isolate you from others. Don’t accept the need to manufacture plastic happiness out of meaningless, passionless pursuits. Don’t turn yourself into a commodity. Practice reaching out to the world around you. Develop skills that create conditions out of which things you and others genuinely care about, deeply and passionately, can emerge. Over and over again.

This is an excerpted and slightly adjusted version of part 6 of Caveat Magister’s “The Scene That Became Cities: What Burning Man Philosophy Can Teach Us About Building Better Communities.” It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Burning Man is a global cultural movement rooted in the 10 Principles, with a vibrant network of events and communities in 37 countries around the world. Burning Man is actively influencing art, design, civic engagement, placemaking, and business, and Burning Man Project is the nonprofit organization that supports that ecosystem. Get the latest news from Burning Man Project in the Burning Man Journal, follow us on your social network of choice, and sign up for our email newsletter, The Jackrabbit Speaks.

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Burning Man Project

The nonprofit Burning Man Project facilitates and extends a global cultural movement united in the pursuit of a more creative and connected world.