Monday, September 9, 2013

The 10 Principles of Burning Man Analyzed

The 2013 Burning Man is over, participants have returned home to continue their normal lives.  They will return with new experiences and ideas, and they'll change in ways they can't quite explain to their non-burner friends.  Part of Burning Man's appeal is that it eludes formal description and is best understood by direct experience.

The intentions which provide the theoretical foundations of Burning Man (and all other Burning Man regional events) are the 10 principles.  As with Christians and the 10 commandments, most burners haven't memorized the 10 principles and will probably violate some of them.  Unfortunately, the 10 principles come into conflict with one another, aren’t implemented perfectly or lead to undesirable outcomes.


Radical Inclusion
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.

Burning Man is more inclusive than most places, but it's not perfectly inclusive.  The city is divided into camps of people who typically know each other before the event starts, you cannot expect to receive anything from camps you don't belong to. Realistically, you need to spend at least a thousand dollars and take a week off to attend, so poor people are excluded by default. The demographics of Burning Man show that groups (many of which have been excluded throughout history) are drastically underrepresented.  A slight majority of Burning Man attendees are male, and an overwhelming majority are white.  The most successfully included group are LGBQT people, they are overrepresented at Burning Man.

Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

Getting gifts is great, and it's not hard to get gifts from strangers at Burning Man.  But you won't necessarily want the gifts you're given, and other people won't necessarily want what you give them. Many participants put little or no effort into giving gifts and many gifts end up being trashed.  Other gifts (mainly services like massages) are so popular that long lines to receive them.

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.

There is no money, stores, banks or stock exchanges at Burning Man.  Normal economic transactions (besides purchasing ice and coffee) do not occur.  Large amounts of unique art is created for Burning Man.  While Burning Man does succeed in preventing the creation of large numbers of identical products, there exist many services that commidify the Burning Man experience.  You can buy your way into camps which will provide you with everything you need without any participation on your part.

Radical Self-reliance
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.

To a degree, this principle serves the interest of the owners of Burning Man (Black Rock City, LLC).  The less people rely on BRC, the easier it is for the company to make large profits. Inner resources are of limited use if you're getting dehydrated.  Still, burners do usually leave the event stronger and less dependent on others.

Radical Self-expression
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

The description of this principle isn't entirely clear.  Gifting is a principle, but here BRC is claiming expressing yourself is a gift to others.  You will see forms of expression at Burning Man you won't see anywhere else. You'll probably receive compliments on your form of expression, no matter how strange it is.  But if Radical Inclusion and Radical Self-expression were both implemented perfectly, Burning Man would be a hotbed of conflict.

Communal Effort
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

Building a city from scratch requires lots of work, and most of that work is done communally.  But Burning Man is composed of tribes that usually don't work together.  Large scale Communal Effort does occur, but it's mostly on dance floors or small projects, the big projects are mainly composed by tribes which aren't always Radically Inclusive.

Civic Responsibility
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

This principle also enables BRC to make more money.  Roads, Port-a-Potties, police force and medical care are all provided by BRC or volunteers.  Beyond this, it’s not clear what level of civic responsibility is useful, especially if people are Radically Self-Reliant.

Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

At a glance, BRC succeeds at this principle tremendously.  But upon further inspection, this principle (and its alleged concern with the environment) is flawed and likely only exists because of a deal that BRC made with the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) in exchange for access to the land where Burning Man occurs.  The Black Rock Desert contains almost no life, if Burning Man didn’t exist it would be a good candidate for a toxic waste dump.  BRC’s is more concerned with clearing biodegradable matter from the desert than discouraging its attendees from bringing gas guzzling Recreational Vehicles from the event. 

Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.

The amount of effort people put into Burning Man is amazing, but it’s not equally distributed amongst all participants.  The camps which have a track record of participation are in the center of the city.  So new camps on the outskirts will have a hard time finding an audience to participate with, and their members will likely spend most of their time participating in other people's projects.

Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.

This principle is the hardest to understand.  Long term planning is necessary for a successful burn.  The man takes hundreds of people months to build and it is almost completely incinerated within half an hour.  When participants return to reality, they won’t remember the many hours they spent preparing or even most of the time they spent on the playa.  They’ll remember the short serendipitous moments  

Though my analysis of the 10 Principles may seem harsh, it should not be taken as a condemnation of Burning Man itself. The event existed before the principles and it's not clear how the Principles have impacted the event. Sometimes codifying a ritual ruins the ritual. It's important for Burning Man participants not to take the Principles too literally or to follow one principle at the expense of another. Ultimately, the Burning Man experience is created by the attendees, not the administrators. Participants should feel free to make their own principles and express and justify them to other participants.


Linda O said...

I applaud your analysis as it is fair and data-based. Be prepared for overly sensitive people to kick into protection mode around "their" event. You are a part of the burner community and a valued one at that.

TimothyB said...

I disagree with Linda here.. I don't see this as being 'data-based' but as 'opinion based' in many ways. Lets look at the first one, and I'll give you my opinion:

Radical Inclusion: "Is not perfectly inclusive". Well, of course it isn't. nothing can be perfectly inclusive. :-) You are probably not aware of the reason for the high bar to attend the event.. it means you have to be reasonably committed to go to even show up. By the way, there are low income tickets, and etc. But being that this is an event in a remote place, there is no getting around the bar to entry for those whom have no resources. However, one could attend a regional burn at far less cost, and then perhaps volunteer and get a low price/no price entry to the big burn. In fact I personally know of an Anthro student who committed to attend on $500 total spent, and did it. What he needed to do was trade time for money, and it worked. He ended up spending less than $500, and got in for near free by volunteering for the org in other areas, and at other times of the year. It is possible, and he was not a burden on anyone else.

LGBQT are overrepresented... ???? No, they are just completely OUT and you see them :) Also remember where it is.. near San Francisco. Believe me, they are not overrepresented by that community's standards. So when you say they are overrepresented, I have no idea what you are talking about :)

Too many white people - I agree that there are not as many latinos or other people of color there, but you have failed to mention the overwhelming number of Asian people that are there as well :) I would go so far as to say that Asians are overrepresented ;-) Also, over the years I am seeing more and more people of color participate because those subcultures are being slowly informed of the event, and that its ok to go. For example, where in previous years, I would see maybe two or three black people my entire time, now I see many every day (and thank goodness!)

This is all a perspective. I don't agree with your statements in general, and although Im sure you feel strongly about your opinions, they are just that. BRC is changing yes.. but in my view, it is for the better, as it infuses pop culture with the basic ideas of gifting, decommodification, immediacy and Art as life.

Dale said...

It's a fair critique, although all of these issues are complicated, and there are unavoidable tradeoffs and conflicts between any two principles.

One complexity I notice is that if BRC LLC was to provide more services, it would likely require the price of the entrance ticket to rise. (Assuming that BRC LLC isn't making an inordinate profit right now, but that seems unlikely.) In that case, participants would have to spend more money, in return for having to put in less effort themselves. That change would make it harder for poorer people to attend than it is now (since poverty is basically that your time is worth less relative to money).

It might be helpful if you detailed how the behavior of BRC LLC could be improved.

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