On the Edge of Utopia: Performance and Ritual at Burning Man
Before reading theatre director Rachel Bowditch’s book On The Edge of Utopia, a pseudo-critical look at the Burning Man event held in the Nevada desert every August, I believed that the Juggalos (fans of The Insane Clown Posse and Psychopathic Records) were the only subculture to orient themselves around the consumption of a specific brand. Now I know that there’s another out there, Burners (a slang term for repeat Burning Man attendees), wholly devoted to consuming the product of the Black Rock City LLC, (the for-profit organization that organizes and manages Burning Man), idealizing that product and obnoxiously prostheletizing about it to people back home.
Before discussing On the Edge of Utopia, a bit of discussion about the Burning Man event itself. The event began spontaneously on a beach in San Francisco in 1987 by Larry Harvey and John Law, then members of a countercultural post-hippie outfit called the Cacophony Society (a group that inspired Project Mayhem of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club). The event was a small gathering of strange people who converged there to burn a wooden anthropomorphic figure in effigy. The event became a yearly occurrence, which grew in the size of its attendance with progressively more aggressive promotion, to the degree that for the 2011 burn, 50,000 "participants" showed up. The event also changed locations from its Bay area origin to the Black Rock desert in Nevada, and became a week long carnival for post-1960s hippies.
It is tempting to place the event in a tradition with the original Woodstock Arts Fair held in July 1969, although such a comparison would be fundamentally flawed. Woodstock began as a heavily planned, for-profit arts festival (60s slang for ‘rock concert’) that spontaneously broke down into a free concert that became a generation-defining cultural touchstone (even though the concert occurred at the decade’s end). The original Woodstock arts fair in Bethel NY was a real Temporary Autonomous Zone, Hakim Bey’s term for a spontaneously occurring social space where traditional authorities and hierarchies break down for a period of time. Burning Man began as a spontaneous social gathering that has become, over time, a heavily zoned and coded space with its own authorities and social hierarchies. It is a simulation of a temporary autonomous zone that can more properly be described as an expensive and temporary Las Vegas or Disneyworld for new age yuppies.
Rachel Bowditch is a professor of performance studies at Arizona State University. She has directed a number of plays and, according to her bio, she has been to a number of different countries. She states several times in On The Edge of Utopia that she has attended Burning Man a few times and it is very clear from reading the text that she has no interest in maintaining a critical distance from her subject matter. Out of the Burning Man media I have been exposed to, this is, without question, the worst of the books. The best of the books has been Adrian Robert’s Piss Clear, published by Re/Search, an anthology of a Burning Man ‘alternative’newspaper (alternative to the official Burning Man newspaper Black Rock City Gazette) published from (1995 - 2007). Piss Clear, which Borditch cites several times, is good because its content both critiques and celebrates the yearly event. On The Edge of Utopia merely celebrates the event with brief interludes where criticisms are raised as questions rather than statements, or raised as the statements of others.
The first striking problem with On The Edge of Utopia is Bowdritch’s gratuitous use of cultural theory, which the author deploys to show that she understands difficult post-modern texts rather than to articulate anything substantial about Burning Man. For example, she brings up Charles Baudelaire’s concept of the flaneur (a modernist idea) and also Michel De Certau’s concept of individuals walking through the city as the creation of the text of everyday life. Bowdritch suggests that we can use these ideas to help us understand the experience of walking through Burning Man’s Black Rock City (the name of the temporary urban formation built every year). De Certau’s ideas about walking are intended to articulate a certain point of view on everyday life and the interaction between the individual and their regular urban environment, his idea was intended to conceptualize a component of everyday life, and it offers nothing uniquely suited for an analysis of Burning Man. Of course it can be applied to Black Rock City too, as it can to anywhere people live, but what does a reader get out of that bit of Bowdritch’s text aside from the pleasures of understanding cultural theory? Virtually every major cultural theorist is mentioned by Bowdritch, to equally superficial ends.
The second striking issue with Bowdritch’s text is that she repeats the rhetoric of Burning Man officials without accompanning critique. So, for example, David Harvey has had to face the challenge that his event looks like a theme park or a Las Vegas but for self-righteously “enlightened” pretentious people. David Harvey’s response is that, while his event may look like a theme park, the difference is that Disney, for example, is a commodified experience, unlike Burning Man. Bowdritch presents this statement by merely affirming Harvey’s words... so what if a reader is left with a sense that, otherwise, what Bowdritch describes sounds most definitely like a commodified experience as well? By Bowdritch's own telling, despite her text being an echo of official rhetoric, Burning Man sounds like the commodified ‘countercultural’ experience, the commodified ‘gift economy’ - with tickets ranging in price from $240 to $420 dollars, and with the offer of experiences that can only truly be meaningful in everyday life, how can Burning Man not be a commodification of those things? Furthermore, if mainstream consumer capitalism promises the consumer that he or she may already indulge every desire and fantasy, satisfy every whim (wherein every day is Carnival in the Bakhtinian sense) how does Burning Man actually challenge that system?
While Bowdritch clearly admires Burning Man, it is not difficult for the reader (i.e. ME) to discern from her text that Burning Man is a ridiculous thing. Not only is it a safe place for the white middle class yuppies to play at cultural rebels for a week and get their angst out of their system (which is fine), it is also essentially a corporate-industrial product, and an example of the cultural industry’s most profound insertion into the countercultural sphere. To give an example, Bowdritch quotes some guy who managed Harvey’s image, to suggest that he should always be seen wearing the same hat. This repetition of a particular image essentially produces Harvey as little more than a living sign, essentially the Colonel Sanders of pseudo-counterculture. Furthermore, Bowditch devotes a large section of one of the final chapters to a discussion of the meaning of the man. As can be easily predicted, the man means nothing - or in the terms of the new age culture of isolation and self-indulgence posing as personal enlightenment, “each person has their own meaning.” Virtually every existing countercultural group develops its own set of symbols with very specific meanings that are shared between their adherents, recent examples include, the troll face or the Guy Fawkes mask of Anonymous, or the %99/%1 binary of the Occupy Movement (and certainly subtle deviations on those meanings might exist for different segments of a larger group, or for individual members). The fact that the man means nothing is a testament to the emptiness of this temporary culture, so that each ‘Burner’ can, in isolation, decide that the man means “hope”, or “creativity” or some other lame platitude, what is unstated by Bowdritch is that the decision to officially state that the man, the symbol around which the entire event is organized, is meaningless, is almost certainly a buisness decision so as to not alienate any potential paying Burners with meanings that make them uncomfortable.
I don’t really have much to comment on the art of burning man, it’s probably fun to watch or look at in person. One of perhaps the most obnoxious aspects of Bowdritch’s use of theory is that there is a GLARING lack of Guy Debord, whose absence is conspicuous in that his work so obviously supplies a critique of Burning Man, and also in that Bowdritch would evoke the name of pretty well every other cultural theorist just for the sake of bringing them up. Debord’s critique of commodity consumerism in The Society of the Spectacle, given what has already been argued (by me, not by Bowdritch) about the Burning Man event as one large expensive spectacle. Furthermore, some artists have complained to Bowdritch about not being compensated for the labour they invested in making the event worth attending, stating that the company refused to provide free tickets (which were promised) to an acrobatic troupe.
The most amusing part of the book, for me, is near the end where Bowditch discusses the Burners going out into the world to change it for the better. To take their experience of Burning Man and use it as a model for a better place. I’ve met Burners and people who go to similar events (such as the Om Festival that occurs every year outside of Toronto), and they’re generally unapologetically ignorant, condescending, self-righteous, and just rediculous people. Their rhetoric is often a mixture of new age cliches and self-serving hyperbole and its difficult, as a listener, to not imagine that their talk is conditioned and affirmed by these brief events they attend every year that so much of their identity is staked on.
Here’s an isolated example from a Craigslist 'Men Seeking Woman' filled with the kind of New Age rhetoric that Burners use to discuss themselves and their worldview:
My priority is to help raise the vibration and frequency, to assist Gaia in her and our current shift to New Earth. I follow some of tibetan buddhist believes, medical wheel, shamanism, spiritual, but not religious. I will never conform to any religion or get married. I am much more concerned with happiness and well-being versus a career with a position of power or large paycheque. I'm very accepting and open-minded but at the same time, selective of those with whom I consider spending my time with and sharing my aura. I live life outside the mainstream thinking and possessing higher consciousness. I'm passionate about changing the world. I would truly love to be with someone who not only "gets me", but has some of the tendencies and interests as I do. I'm a unique human being. Aries, and cusp of taurus. I'm an individual and not part of collective. Nothing is more dangerous to the far left than a liberated thinking and independent individual. Some people call me shaman, I feed homeless people because bother me to see someone go hungry, into past life regression, intuitive, sensitive, self-aware, psychic, indigo, starseed, empath, healer, old soul, hard worker, bohemian, artist, sexual, free spirit, energetic, kindhearted, eccentric, street-smart and passionate.
I rarely drink coffee, caffeine free tea for me, casual drinker, never touch soda or drink any fake juice. I drink 100 lters of spring water, fresh juice, take about 6000 IU of D3 daily, vitamins and minerals. I use chemical free products in my home and body. My diet mix with 80/10/10, organic foods, eating foods according to your zodiac sign, vegan, raw vegan and fruitarian foods. I do a lot of cleanses every year to reboot my body. I'm fascinated by health and the human body.
I don't care if you are not vegan and vegetarian, but that would be a big bonus for me. Please be health conscious, care about what you're putting in your body and how it's going to affect you in the near future. If your body is out of shape, eat unhealthy foods, fast foods, live unconscious lifestyle, and have no interested in using your common sense. Please move to the next ad.
I dress mod, little goth, H&M, black market, alternative, new age, funky, jeans, t-shirts, khaki pants, dress pants, dress shirts, aldo shoes, dress shoes, converse, boots, and doc martin.
YOU COULD BE: Burlesque dancer, trapeze, circus performer, pole dancer, princess, belly dancer, ballet dancer, dance teacher, do gymnastics, work in theatre, acrobat, figure skater, roller derby girl, into hula hooping, yoga teacher, kensington market girl, writer, indigo, intuitive, vegan, vegetarian, eat healthy, herbalist, into knitting, mod, goth, emo, into paganism, fire spitter, wicca, buddhist, sex therapist, art therapist, princess, tantra and reiki practitioner, massage therapist, photographer, designer, costume designer, fashion designer, makeup artist, body painter, pottery, making jewelry sculpture, singer, play music, musician, creative, connected to the universe, pineal glands and tantra. Alternatively, you are open to new experiences and have open-mind.
You are open-minded keeping active with yoga, walking, running, cycling, eating healthy, meditation or do some kind of fitness.
Sometimes, you are equally comfortable in yoga pants, lululemon, hiking clothes, t-shirt, tight jeans, short sexy tight dress, boots, high heels and stilettos. You are into fishnet, pantyhose, thigh highs and tights. Maybe, design your own clothing, love fashion, girly, you like to dress funky, artsy, alternative, stylish, colorful, sexy, erotic and bohemian. You like to put on a wig and corset for fun sometimes or open to trying it out? You enjoy putting on nail polish, thick black eyeliner and lipstick sometimes. You are open to trying cruelty-free makeup? I am not attracted to women who wears hippie sandals, dress like a slob, hipsters or grandmother.
The above text are excerpts from a MUCH LONGER personal ad, and I think that they reveal that underneath the “I’m a confident spiritual but not religious man, etc” reveals person alienated from others by this very ethos he expresses. An individual who conceives of life outside the system as a life of proper consumer choices, and what's more all of his demands for a woman of alternative tastes amounts to a passion for consumerism that extends even to his efforts to make contact with another person. The above quotation is a microcosm of the extreme essence of the effects of the culture industry that so concerned Theodor Adorno, that even so called alternative living, once (and still is in some spheres) concieved of in real forms like the Transcendentalist commune called Brook Farm, is now the consumption of forms of resistance as commodities. Burning Man is the culture industry in a very sophisticated form, wherein it includes a philosophy that perpetual self-indulgence and amusement can be a challenge to mainstream culture, while being simply another form of a mainstream mass culture that is built on the promise of perpetual self-indulgence and amusement. This is the absent critique of the event that can be found in the contours of Rachel Bowdritch's text.
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