EssaysFeatureUtopia

Burning Man’s Experimental Dreampolitics

Does the iconic festival suggest a new way forward?

When the era of master narratives recedes and well-trodden Enlightenment principles cease to be relevant, progressives should issue the challenge to come up with an alternative thinking. It is quite a challenge today to bring about new reasoning when the distinguishing feature of our current condition is distrust and skepticism towards facts, rationality, and common sense. In today’s socio-political reality the winners are those appealing to the emotional and sensorial realms, speaking to the desires and the irrational. Right-wing politicians are enacting the politics of dreams while left-wing politicians seem to neglect it, clinging to evidence-based discourses.

Historian of media, Stephen Duncombe, has suggested turning the situation around by acknowledging and reappropriating the power of “dreampolitics,” which has long and successfully been used by conservatives and even fascists. “Dreampolitics” is a way of political thinking and acting that rests on the verge of fantasy and reality, that takes into account emotions and dreams. Carrying predominantly negative connotations of the exploitation of humans’ intimate feelings, “dreampolitics” can also be employed in an honest, decent, and transparent manner. As such, Duncombe suggests embracing the “ethical spectacle” as a principle mode of doing “dreampolitics”. An ethical spectacle should rest upon the belief in democracy, human rights and equality, the responsibility of all participants for their neighbors and the earth, and, paradoxically, belief in the real, that is to say, belief in an external reality. What distinguishes the ethical spectacle from the media spectacle is that it relies on popular participation in an egalitarian environment where the participants’ ideas and dreams constitute the collective ethos.

Looking at contemporary practices that embody the principles of the ethical spectacle, such as Billionaires for Bush or Iraq Veterans Against the War, the Burning Man Festival stands out as one of the most appropriate examples. Burning Man — known as a utopian project — sets out to create an experimental seven-day long city with its own economy, politics, and society. Started thirty years ago, the festival has grown to attract thousands of people annually, creating a strong community of “burners” bound by shared principles and values designed and embedded by them.

According to Larry Harvey, co-founder and moral guide of the festival, “We have become a nation of poseurs. It is not a life that’s lived or shared, but an imitation of life, a kind of commercial of self. It’s as if we ourselves are now TVs and broadcast images.” [1] The awareness of living in a simulacrum society motivated him and his friend, Jerry James, to create their own reality, in which their lives would be more authentic. Their contempt for the pernicious individualism, alienation and isolation of post-war American culture and the market economy compelled them to recreate a form of social relations based on a gift economy, communal attachment, hedonistic spirituality, and tribalism.

One of the fundamental principles of the ethical spectacle, according to Duncombe, is participation and inclusion. Burning Man by its very nature exists due to the participants alone, who build the temporary city’s infrastructure and liven it with the vibrancy of creativity and fantasy. At Burning Man, outside hierarchies based on class, gender, and race are abolished and all different voices are given the chance to be heard. The environmentalist statement “Leaving No Trace,” that envisages the ethical spectacle’s requirement of responsibility, is vigorously cultivated and promoted by the organizers.

Burning Man may be viewed as a phantasmagoric place inspired and motivated by an existing reality. Participants seek to reimagine and construct their own reality, an ideal community opposed to the existing individualistic capitalist one. Belief in reality is one of the prerequisites of the ethical spectacle. Participants do not disavow the very idea of reality; instead they aim to demonstrate that a radically new reality is possible.

The organizers challenge the commodification and institutionalization that alienate us from each other. Not only are goods commodified in a market economy, but both our attention and emotions are exploited for profit. To counteract this commodification, Burning Man operates as a gift economy, in which one shares goods and services without the assumption of exchange. In a gift economy, the impersonal, alienated and isolated “I” is substituted by a communal, trusted and affinitive “we”. Professor of marketing and Burning Man participant, Robert Kozinets, rightly noted that, ironically, the organizers of the festival sought to promote the event as a treatment for market malaise by using the same therapeutic language, desire for self-transformation and yearning for carnivalesque employed by the advertising industry. Considering this, Burning Man does not reject consumption or the market per se, but rather cultivates a more open, communal style of consumption.

Every spectacle has its symbols that embody the spirit and desires of the movement, and at Burning Man that symbol — the spiritual center of the festival — is a 45-foot tall Burning Man, built of neon and wood, that is burned on the last day, symbolizing purification through fire. Burning Man, in this respect, calls for reflection and meditation on one’s life; it encourages everyone to concentrate, revise and dispose of things they are willing to eliminate from their life.

While it may seem outwardly that the Burning Man community is extremely inclusive, equal, transparent and expressive, my research has revealed that this temporary society faces the same set of problems as Western capitalist societies. Though being radically inclusive in terms of age, occupation, activities, and class, Burning Man appears exclusive in terms of race and engagement. According to the most recent Black Rock City census, of Burning Man’s 70,000 participants, 87% identified as White, 6% identified as Hispanic, 6% as Asian and 2% as Native American. Only 1.3% of burners identified as Black. In response to these figures, the main organizer, Larry Harvey, said: “I don’t think black folks like to camp as much as white folks.” African Americans, in their turn, frequently refer to Burning Man as a party for privileged white men or a manifestation of an absolute need of the white man to impose his will on every landscape, even the most remote and inhospitable.

Apart from the race issues, it is also striking how the festival tries to equalize its participants through radical self-expression and a communal economy, but nonetheless provides privileges for certain categories of participants. The rule of radical expression is usually interpreted quite literally: burners wear extraordinary, flamboyant, or trashy costumes that supposedly flatten class distinctions. However, the gesture is superficial, for it does not actually solve the problem of inequality, but rather hides it under layers of costume and freaky sunglasses. In response to a question about inequality, one of my interview respondents indicated that the moment of introduction is often used by burners to distinguish themselves. People will name their “theme camp,” which implies the social category they belong to. The closer your theme camp is to the playa — the main square — the more prestigious it is, since the ticket to settle there is more expensive, like “front row center” seats in a theatre.

Not only is Burning Man not diverse in terms of race, but it also does not allow for spectating. For Duncombe, spectating is an indispensable part of an ethical spectacle. The Burning Man ticket says: “This is not a consumer event… Participants only. No spectators.” Such a restriction not only deprives people of the opportunity to engage in the community, but to a large extent distances the very participants from the surrounding environment by not letting them communicate with people outside. Moreover, not only are external non-participants dismissed and disregarded, but more passive participants are frequently derided for being “spectators”. Robert Kozinets, reflecting on communal relations, recalls:

The peer pressure to remind and shame people into participating in a way that would be recognized by others as acceptable – this was mainly limited to dressing in a wild costume, going naked, wearing body paint, riding a strange vehicle, or working on or displaying art – was at a near fever pitch throughout the entire event. From their comments to me, people indicated that they were constantly judging others in terms of the degree of their participation in the event. [25]

Echoing famous political theorist Iris Young’s critique of an ideal community, the Burning Man community denies the difference between its subjects and rests on the desire for a totality, to think things in unity. A desire to identify oneself with the other members of the community implies excluding all otherness, “separating pure from impure,” authentic from inauthentic. The “burner” identity is built upon common rituals, values, and traditions that constitute a strong emotional and psychological attachment.

Reflecting on the controversial nature of the Burning Man “dreampolitics,” it is important to remember that the distinguishing feature of an ethical spectacle is a political goal that encourages its participants to act. The political goal of Burning Man is to emphasize the destructive implications of a market economy on social relations and to reveal possibilities for a new reality, which in this context is a communal society. The problem here, however, is that in order to achieve its objectives, perfect people are required. Sadly, there are no perfect people and no perfect community and it is through the dialectical process of imperfect people trying to create a perfect society that the dreampolitics shapes itself. Dreampolitics is about a dream, but it is even more about the path one must go down to realize that dream. I don’t believe in the possibility to achieve the ideal community, but I strongly believe that we can do better. It is through our dreams and ideals, strivings and aspirations for perfection that we reimagine, rethink and reconstruct our society. Burning Man illuminates the imperfection of all social relations even within the most libertarian political environment. It demonstrates the importance of a dialectical process in social relations that are always dynamic, interactive and progressing.

Mariia Shynkarenko is a PhD student in Politics Department at The New School. She studies theories of social movements, civil resistance, and people’s power.

 


[1] Gilmore, L., Proyen, M. AfterBurn: reflections on burning man. University of Mexico Press: USA, 2005

Also for you:

Mariia Shynkarenko

  • Lisa Aslanian

    It also costs over 1k to get in. And the camping is pretty intense—- no water. You have to bring enough to drink and to bathe. And there is no coherent politics to the event. Truth also is that if you don’t want to be stoned 24/7, you won’t feel at home.

Previous post

Blue Monday: Monday Morning Blues

Next post

To the Directors of the National Museum in Krakow