Burning Man

Generation Dobler

The fight to avoid buying, selling, or processing in a wealthy modernity

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Seven years ago, I wrote a cover story for reason called "Burning Man Grows Up." I remained fascinated enough in that peculiar art festival/experimental community that I expanded the article into a book, This is Burning Man.

This month, the tech business mag Business 2.0 cops the title of my original reason article to tell a different story about Burning Man's evolution.

Both are indeed about Burning Man growing up. My story was about Burning Man growing from its origins as a mostly anarchistic intentional community of artist/boho buddies gathering in the distant, eerie, and empty Black Rock Desert in Nevada (where the celebration had occurred every Labor Day since 1990, after it outgrew its 1986 birthplace on a San Francisco beach). I chronicled how Burning Man was growing into a more complicated set of entanglements with and responsibilities to government entities, and making tentative steps toward imposing order and rules on fiery chaos.

The story in the July issue of Business 2.0 is instead about Burning Man shifting into collaboration with corporate forces in the service of modern progressive eco-politics, while trying to maintain its identity—one could even say its "brand identification"—as an "anti-commodification" social movement.

Event co-founder Larry Harvey is smart enough to have told me "try to live without commerce…..you'll be dead in a week." But he argues a distinction between the commerce and division of labor that keeps us all alive and what he sees as a corrupt modernity in which too many human relations are reduced to the impersonal trading of commodities.

Burning Man has heretofore, as stated in its "10 principles," strived to keep anything to do with commerce and advertising (except sales of ice and coffee at stations it operates, already a topic of some derision in "Burner" circles) out of its sacred space.

As Burning Man's "principle three" states: "In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience."

But things are changing. The Business 2.0 article explains that something very different will be happening at Burning Man this year:

The fact that the organization sells coffee and ice is controversial enough. Imagine the reaction, then, when Burning Man makes the riskiest business move in its history: It's going to allow companies to exhibit products at the 2007 event.

Each Burning Man has a different theme, chosen by Harvey. This year's theme is "The Green Man." Burning Man, an extravaganza characterized by the consumption of huge quantities of fossil fuel, has discovered environmentalism. It is attempting to offset the 28,000 tons of carbon it estimates the event generates. Most controversially, the organization wants to bring as many green-energy companies as possible into what Harvey calls a world's fair of clean tech. Google is going to help produce an online 3-D search service called Burning Man Earth.

Burning Man officials stress that no money changed hands for the companies to have their place in this alt-energy pavilion. I was also assured that the strictures Burning Man placed on preventing the companies from doing any actual branding or direct marketing were so severe that 80 percent of companies that showed initial interest eventually backed out, figuring there was nothing in it for them.

Still, many Burning Man fans are not mollified, thinking that even without branding or explicit marketing it's still an influx of what they consider commercial commodities in the heart of their sacred space. See, for example, this 300-plus message Tribe.net thread, or these threads on Burning Man's own web site message board, "Eplaya."

One sample from the Eplaya: "This is one of the most disheartening things I've ever read about Burning Man….Talk about going into the temple and turning over the tables of the money changers….It's not going to be a trade show, but….there is going to be a pavilion where unbranded products are going to be shown by unbranded reps. Bullshit."

Another aspect of the story pissing off the cognoscenti is Burning Man bigwig Marian Goodell's perhaps injudicious use of a certain sort of language in referring to her…. constituents? People? Customers? (That identifying the right word can be a struggle exhibits the strange, confusing edge that Burning Man the business/festival/social movement teeters on.) From the Business 2.0 article:

"This community is a dream for anyone looking at demographics….We have kids who work in coffee shops and we have billionaires. To ignore the value of our brand, the buying power it has, is silly. But it's a ritual for these people, which is why it's going to be hard for them seeing businesses out there."

People suspicious of markets and marketing bristle at the word "demographics," but it can mean something as innocent as "people who are into the same things."

Emotionally, I don't understand why so many people get so upset at being marketed to, or at gleefully acknowledging the good that comes from crafting a social world that is dominated by people willingly exchanging skills, services, and goods. These types could be called Generation Dobler, after the famous quote from the sad sensitive man-child character, Lloyd Dobler, played by John Cusack in the 1989 film Say Anything.

Dobler certified his soulfulness by announcing that "I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed."

Which is lovely in its way, I guess, but the reason many people can indeed survive doing none of those things is because of the unprecedented wealth created by those who do. Most moderns, at least when pressed, recognize that commerce makes our lives richer in certain ways. What the Burning Man devotee wants is an opportunity to create temporary zones without it, for the entertainment value and for the (very real) additional (temporary) richness of social reality it creates.

But Burning Man is rife with the products of corporations, and always has been. And has always had to be. The prepared food items and bottled water we live on out there; the portajohns our wastes go in after eating that food and drinking that water; the tents we sleep in, the pipe and metal domes we lounge under, the clothes we wear, either exotic or normal—all sold to us not for fellow-feeling but by monied interests, usually corporate, who just want our cash. For Burning Man to be truly free of the products of corporate commerce, it would be a zone we could survive in for at most a few hours, and grimly at that.

Why corporate commodity's omnipresence bothers certain people in the first place is an interesting question. I got some insights into the ways to think about this common intellectual/emotional prejudice against dominant aspects of markets, commerce, and property from a presentation at last week's FreedomFest in Las Vegas.

Some of the brains behind the organization FLOW spoke at the event—Michael Strong, Jeff Klein, and John Mackey (a FLOW co-founder who in his day job is CEO of Whole Foods). FLOW's mission is to "articulate and animate an inspiring vision of a world with sustainable peace, prosperity, and happiness for all, catalyzed and sustained by entrepreneurial initiative and conscious capitalism."

In pursuing that mission, they stress that private property is often a means to developing virtues, character traits, and preferences that make people happy. They tell stories and spread information about how markets can and do solve problems and spread wealth. But they are aware that lots of people don't care about results as long as they see the means as corrupt, and thus also try to push an "entrepreneurship of meaning" to sell fresh ways for people to envision and react to the world around them, to develop and inculcate new "generative myths" about markets and culture and how they interact.

As this recent Burning Man brouhaha shows, such work, however difficult, is sorely needed. A popular progressive myth of markets, property, and commerce as largely tools of exploitation, despoliation, greed, and frequently impoverishment is still far too dominant in certain influential circles of American life. Burning Man is trying to do this year for its audience what FLOW tries to do—recast corporations and their products as not villains and despoilers, but as providers of tools and methods to solve problems.

The folks at FLOW might have been able to warn Burning Man that their many years of disparaging money, markets, and corporations constituted practicing an "entrepreneurship of meaning" that guaranteed that their actions this year were going to rile up part of their audience.

To use an analogy that could offend all concerned, what's happening with Burning Man could be seen as if Burger King, after years of assuring its customers that flame-broiling burgers was the proper thing to do and one of its special distinctions, decided to start frying them after all. Sure, many might not even notice or care. Some might decide, well, I've learned to like Burger King for lots of other reasons—the fries or the pies or the cool "King" icon. But some will feel betrayed.

What's so infuriating about market capitalism to those who want to hate it? We inevitably swim in it, and any attack on it threatens to involve us in a performative contradiction. We create, we trade, we buy, we sell—it is essential in the nature of any culture that wants to survive beyond the grimmest self-sufficiency.

What Burning Man is doing this year is an experiment, and possibly a dangerous one. As a long-term customer of the event, I confess I've been wary from the instant years ago when they began hyping "principles" beyond "come to an interesting place and do whatever you want. Lots of courageous, very active creative types will be out there too, most likely, and you maybe should try to be one yourself."

I doubt I'll be spending much time in their pavilion of green technologies this year, but an important message can be found in what they are doing: that the free play of creative action, even in a corporate market context, can be interesting and important, create win-win situations, and be engines of innovative and exciting new ways to act, to accomplish, and to live. Anyone lucky enough to live in America in the 21st century knows this in their bones, even if they are loathe to admit it out loud.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.

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  1. A corporate presence of this kind is a significant change from prior events. Not that I’m against such things, but Burning Man for me was more a way to celebrate the things we do when we aren’t trying to make money, a central theme that separated the event from being a trade show or craft fair. You know, just camping in the desert with a bunch of hedonists. Frankly, I’m surprised the event managed to avoid such things for so long.

  2. Nothing Ruins A Good Thing Like Success.

  3. on a somewhat related note. The Whole Foods CEO seems to be kind of a jerk.

    http://biz.yahoo.com/ap/070712/whole_foods_online_comments.html?.v=2

  4. “Aw, man, it’s not cool like it used to be

    I offer a hearty Fuck You, Loser to anyone who utters that nonsense.

    You want untainted original coolness? Go Start Something. Dont participate. Give up and accept the fact that this is the path of all things cultural. When they get big enough, they become a company. They start acting like a company. The Greatful Dead became a corporation in 1973. The ‘spontaneous order’ thing works until the portapotties overflow. Then they start exchanging licencing rights for someone else to manage their waste removal. Que sera sera.

    I have no pity for hippies

  5. Nobody cares about the hippies in the hood.

  6. The ‘spontaneous order’ thing works until the portapotties overflow. Then they start exchanging licencing rights for someone else to manage their waste removal. Que sera sera.

    Objection! Isn’t the outsourcing of waste removal a splendid example of spontaneous order in the true Hayekian sense-rather than the uninformed hippie sense?

  7. GILMORE,

    The Greatful Dead did become a corporation. But they still managed to keep their scene cool all the way through the 80’s (well up until Touch of Grey anyway). It was really a very libertarian story.

  8. I’d mentioned a couple of weeks back about the ‘Resources’ email BM sent out listing a dozen or so companies to buy cool shit from for the event. Well, they followed it up a few days ago by a SECOND email, with yet more companies hawking ‘resources’ to buy.

    BM is surely not anti-commerce anymore. They just want you to buy from the ‘right’ places. The Church of Stop Shopping indeed.

  9. Even anti-corporate types have to accept the power of markets. If Burning Man is truly about noncommercialism, then the free market of people wandering around it will lead to that pavilion being empty.

  10. Sorry, but I am unable to take Burning Man or carbon offsets or any of that “grown men trying to be hip” stuff seriously due to my unfortunate condition of having a functioning brain.

    Perhaps I can cure this pesky condition with more television?

  11. Oh well then – we can’t strive for anything other than the $tatus quo eh? Is that it? I mean, we can’t even be having this conversation on the web without the marketing and the corporations, right? So let’s all bugger off shall we? There is consuming to be done.

  12. Burning Man? Is it that time of year, again?

  13. The best part of BM has always been the sense of being less a camper and more an astronaut; it doesn’t even feel like earth. Here come the damn earthling marketers. Just hope I’m not tripping when we meet.

  14. In all seriousness, who gives a fuck about Burning Man?

  15. >>.it doesn’t even feel like earth.

    It smells like it.

    Stop pretending there’s anything transcendent about hippies in the desert.

  16. When I first went to Burning Man, I almost didn’t go because of their stance on business and commerce. It made me angry that they were so opposed something so basic and good in human interaction. Now that I’ve been twice, I understand why business is banned, and I believe I understand why so many people are afraid of it being let in this year.

    I think it’s an issue of honesty. Part of the modern business is to analyze and view their customers on a large scale. This includes marketing to a mythical “average” consumer. It also includes what many of us perceive as dishonest means of obtaining our interest in products and services. People are adopting DVRs in growing numbers, and those that do are watching fewer and fewer commercials. Why? Because we don’t like them. With traditional television, we are not offered an opportunity to get information about products and services we find interesting. Instead, 30 seconds of lame jokes and minimal information about products, which we often don’t care about, are interleaved with the shows we want to watch in such a fashion that it’s tedious to ignore. You can surely see why we feel a bit tricked and bullied in this situation. It’s not that the commercial is so bad as to be worth not watching the show for. It’s that our choice of what advertizements we care about and when to see them has been taken from us. Advertizement (and now laws!) are pushed down our throats by companies in inappropriate and unfair ways.

    It’s a virtue in the business world to be aggressive, to “push into new markets”. But this is not a virtue socially. Do you enjoy being in the presence of people who push their ideas and attitudes on you? Unfortunately, modern business is a lot like that pushy religious aunt who is always trying to get you to go to her church and doesn’t respect the fact that you want to be able to decide for yourself whether you want to go to her church or another one or none at all. How come we laugh street preachers down when they shove their religions on us, but just bear the irritation of people on the street corners, in our newspapers, on our TVs and radios, “placed” in our movies and news broadcasts, hanging out all over the web pages we read, and generally jammed into every nook and cranny of our consciousness when they are trying to shove products and services down our throats instead of religion? Many, many businesses are engaged in a constant, less intense analogue of spam email using every medium imaginable.

    On top of being constantly pressured in a disrespectful way, we are also frustrated by the obvious dishonesty we see coming from corporate PR departments. When was the last time you heard a business say “Oh man, we totally fucked up. We’re really sorry.” It does happen on occasion, but when it happens it’s frequently “spun” to sound as good as possible even when the company itself does not believe the press release is the whole accurate story! Now consider something else: frequently we find situations where competing companies sponsor product comparisons which each show their own product as the best. If the companies were truly sponsoring honest product comparisons, then they should disagree by portraying the competing product in the favorable light as often as they disagree by protraying their own product well.

    What’s more, we’re not even surprised that companies do these things. We take it as a given that we are going to be bullied, lied to, patronized and ignored when we have a problem. This is what we have come to expect from business. For most of us, it’s not that we don’t like the variety of products and services made available at low cost by modern capitalism. That part is wonderful. I am personally alive today because of advances in medicine created by capitalist businesses, and I love being alive. What I absolutely cannot stand is that businesses frequently treat us in ways that we would never dream of tolerating putting up with from our friends or family.

    I think the issue is less that burners (and people in general) truly hate having the ability to buy or sell things. It’s about the fact that most businesses do not treat us as intelligent and capable of deciding for ourselves whether we are interested in or want what is being sold. A huge amount of the anti-capitalist sentiment would be diminished if consumers felt like we could have rational truly two-way communication with business where we were not being ignored, patronized to or bullied. We’re sick of being told what to think. We can think for ourselves, and in thinking for ourselves, we can decide what cars and laptops and bottled water we want to buy, thank you very much. Burningman gives many of us a one week per year vacation from the businesses which behave like overbearing inlaws. I think many of us feel like our mother-in-law has just been invited to go on our camping trip with us, and that she’s “promised” not to badger us while she’s there. We’re very skeptical that she won’t try and shove her views and opinions down our throats while we’re trying to have a good time and kick back.

  17. There is always the Rainbow gathering.

    No port-a-johns. No commerce. Sure, it smells kind of bad and you might starve a little. But if you’re into the whole purity thing… there you go.

  18. “…the free play of creative action, even in a corporate market context, can be interesting and important, create win-win situations, and be engines of innovative and exciting new ways to act, to accomplish, and to live. Anyone lucky enough to live in America in the 21st century knows this in their bones, even if they are loathe to admit it out loud.”

    There’s a couple of ways to read that closing paragraph.

    either 1) that a corporate market context creates exciting new ways to act and accomplish, or

    2) that “the free play of creative action” (including but not limited to corporate markets) *can* (but not necessarily has or will) create exciting new ways to act.

    The first one I absolutely don’t feel in my bones. Not even a little bit. Actually, I feel kind of the opposite down there.

    The second is obviously true, but kind of trivial for bone-feeling. Yes, of course the free play of creative action has the capacity to create exciting new ways to act. It’s just that corporate markets consistently manage to bollocks that potential up and make something unpleasant and even somehow dehumanizing out of it.

    And I would have assumed that anyone lucky enough to live in America in the 21st century knows that in their bones, even if they are loathe to admit it out loud. But maybe I’m wrong.

  19. I always thought that people who go to Burning Man are trying to take a vaction from capitalistic pursuits. Isn’t it obvious that it would be disliked even if it’s necessary? The goal here should be to find a way to do BM without the need of corporate sponsorship not to embrace it because it’s the most immediate solution. Marketing isn’t evil but neither is wanting to take break from a norm.

  20. >>> What’s so infuriating about market capitalism to those who want to hate it? We inevitably swim in it, and any attack on it threatens to involve us in a performative contradiction. We create, we trade, we buy, we sell–it is essential in the nature of any culture that wants to survive beyond the grimmest self-sufficiency.

  21. >>> What’s so infuriating about market capitalism to those who want to hate it? We inevitably swim in it, and any attack on it threatens to involve us in a performative contradiction. We create, we trade, we buy, we sell–it is essential in the nature of any culture that wants to survive beyond the grimmest self-sufficiency. >>>

    Creating, trading, buying, selling do not constitute capitalism. Humans were creating, trading, buying and selling for tens of thousands of years before capitalism existed. What’s distinctive about capitalism is having market exchange not only of goods (& services), but also of capital and of labor.

    It’s interesting that libertarian defenders of capitalism appear to celebrate goods markets all the time, but don’t seem to mention labor and capital markets nearly as much. Maybe that’s because the latter are a hell of a lot harder to defend…

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