Burning Man: A Reflective Culture

The post-Burning Man euphoria is slowly passing as the flood of photos, videos, and blog posts are hitting the Internet. The first wave has passed and the second wave will be coming soon. While most of the comments and thoughts are positive and joyful, there will be many that have had a hard time with the events of such a festival. This is no surprise from an event that is “whatever you want it to be” because time, study and history has shown the people will find joy in their internal joy and misery in their internal misery.

Burning Man has been referred to by many social scientists as a Sub-Culture or a Counter-Culture, though this is done with hesitation. Part of the reason for the hesitation is due to Burning Man not fitting the finer points of the definition of sub/counter culture. Using a wide brush definition, then any group that have more than a handful of people could be seen as a sub/counter culture and in many ways that worked with the Burning Man groups for a while. But the growth and diversity of the groups within the groups of the population of Burning Man has revived this discussion.

Burning is Not a Sub-Culture

The definition of a ‘sub-culture’ is: “a cultural group within a larger culture, often having beliefs or interests at variance with those of the larger culture” (Google). And the definition of a ‘counter-culture’ is: “a way of life and set of attitudes opposed to or at variance with the prevailing social norm” (Google). As it can be see here, the definitions of each is the same as the other. So for ease of communication, from this point forward both with be referred to as ‘sub-culture’.

Sub-culture is about the opposed view or a variance (the fact or quality of being different, divergent, or inconsistent [Google]) from the larger culture and at first glance Burning Man and all of the smaller communities that have branched from it does fit the definition of a sub-culture because what is seen on the surface is a complete lack of control and what looks like a society built only on the use of drug and acquisition of as much sex as possible. While there are those parts it is on the surface, because it is what is or has been the most shocking parts; and Americans love the shocking. But these things does not make Burning Man a sub-culture, and in fact it helps to prove the opposite, the Burning Man is in line with the current culture.

One of the largest reasons that I have found outside of people referring to Burning Man as a sub-culture is the names. Because Burning Man has a name and the people that self-associate with the location, event, and activities call themselves “Burner”; is the reason that many will believe that there is a sub-culture there instead of referring to it as a very large crowd within the larger culture.

A Reflective Culture

As the title of this paper indicated, in order to explain what Burning Man is to the larger culture, a new idea had to be born and this idea is a Reflective Culture. A Reflective Culture is “culture within a larger culture that will reflect the views of the larger culture in either minimizing form or heightened exaggerated form.” While there are many people that might argue with this idea, spending a week or more at Burning Man might help to point out that this definition is a truer one than calling Burning Man a sub-culture.

In an effort to show that Burning Man is a reflective culture, here are five brief examples of things that are within the current scope of the American Culture and are being either exaggerated or reduced in the behaviors of the members of the crowd:

#1: Non-violence and Redirected Violence

The Death Guild and Thunder Dome has become one of the most well-known and popular attractions on the ground at Black Rock City. Partly because of the well-known dome and the association the Mad Max movies but more for the intense fighting that will be played out in the confines of the dome. Americans love to watch violence play out in many different forms and Thunder Dome is a form that has become a staple of the event. Outside of Burning Man, people will get their need for violence fixed through action movies and video game play; but at Burning Man, you not only have a chance to be part of the action but you can climb on to a large dome to watch it happen when others are fighting. In many ways, the presence of Thunder Dome helps to sub-due the need for violence that most people feel when frustrated.

Outside of the Thunder Dome there is very little violence, and as one person point out, there seems to be almost an excessive amount of love and happiness. In many ways, people seem to be compelled to be happy and excited all of the time. It could be argued that this is due to being on vacation but it is far more believable that the increased happiness comes from an environment that is encouraging of this behavior. This same sets of behavior is also found in American Culture in the form of the ‘be happy’ movements that started in the sixties and are still being forced on people to this day. In day to day life, most people are expected to be smiling and happy and if they are not, efforts are made to bring about this condition. One behavior that is often present is while people are walking down the streets, they will randomly yell “Woo Hoo” as if trying to encourage hyped up feeling and happy feelings.

Burning Man is an environment of emotional highs and lows. It is argued that the extreme highs and lows are because of the extremes of the environment, and while this might be true on the surface, the truth might fit more with the expectations of the environment. People are encourage to self-express their emotions with others, and recognize themselves; and this is exaggerated in the Burning Man environments.

#2: Community Involvement

America was built by smaller communities helping each other out and that is no different at Burning Man. The principle of “No Commerce” is in large part responsible for keeping the community support alive in a larger culture of purchase power. Interestingly enough, recent reports on the lower SES communities has shown that the power of the community is still very much alive in most of American culture and in many ways, Burning Man seeks to magnify these relationships. For many, survival in the harsh desert environment is about having a little help from friends and neighbors; and the community is heavily encourage to maintain these survival behaviors.

While there is increasing bemoaning of the loss of community, Burning Man actually shows that community does still exist and can thrive. The difference is where we are looking for people’s communities. Many people all over the country have communities, but they are not made up of their next door neighbors. Country clubs, churches, schools, local hang-outs and even online chat groups are the prime areas for finding communities. Burning Man is another place to develop communities and in many ways, is help to create national and international communities because the individual of a group are in fact scattered all over the world. For many Burners, it is the exaggerated community and sense of belonging that keeps them coming back year after year.

#3: Gender Roles

Gender roles and gender discrimination has been a hot topic on the news, in the government and in many areas of life for the better part of the last 40 years of American history. This issue has be focused on from many different angles including: sexual rights, reproductive rights, work place discrimination, affirmative actions, safety, violence, etc. Observations of interaction at Burning Man has shown that not only are gender role beliefs suppressed to a point of non-existence but there are environments in which people can work together and there is little to no bias based on their gender, sex or orientation. Burning Man is well known for being an environment that encourages people to look at skills, strength and weaknesses beyond the visual assessments. Unlike with the ‘be happy’ movement and community involvement, both magnified in the Burning Man culture, the gender roles is sub-consciously suppressed and has little influence, just as it is becoming in the larger American culture. It has been a slow process and there is more work to do, but Burning Man is leading the way into a less discriminating world.

#4: Drugs and Alcohol

One of the big concerns about Burning Man is the amount of drug and alcohol used there. While there are law enforcement officers at the event and they often ticket people for possession and use of illicit and illegal drugs, it does not change that there is a lot of it all out there. For some people, the start their drinking when they get there and might sober up enough to drive at the end of the week.

Many have complained that the excessive use is one of the variance items that makes Burning Man a sub-culture but that is also not true. Americans drink, and do drugs… a lot of them. In many ways, some of the foundations of American interactions are found in bars and parties, though not to the point of being drunk for a whole week. It is fairly common for a person to have a cocktail at the end of the day and for many, getting drunk on Saturday is the highlight of the week. For proof of how much Americans like their drugs and alcohol, watch television for a while or sit outside of a bar for a while.

Burning Man culture does not encourage people to drink too much, but it does nothing to stop them outside of asking people to be healthy and safe and when the person falls down, the community tries to get them to a safe place or a medical station. This is no different than would be found on the streets of any American city or town but at Burning Man it is magnified and larger.

#5: Sexuality

Much like with drugs and alcohol, Americans like sex and a lot of it. American culture has roots going back to the Age of Enlightenment, of which sex was believed to not only be something to embrace and enjoy, but also a fundamental right (the belief in the right has it’s own problems but that is for another paper). Evidence of the right to have sex is seen in the various different assaults and other sexual activities that have become increasingly public. Play parties, polygamous relationships, Viagra commercials and even sex therapy are points of evidence that Sex is seen as a right deserved by all willing and able people. In fact, sex is a very publicly private thing in American society, as could be seen in the ways in which American will show availability and public efforts to engage in sex.

And just like with drugs and alcohol, Burning Man culture does not stop people from seeking out what they think is their right to pursue, but instead asks people to be respectful of other’s rights and safety. The big difference between Burning Man and the rest of the America is that Burning Man takes the transparent world of sex and allows it to be see-through there. Many of the people in the culture treat sex as a fact of life and nature and so should be seen as an obvious fact of existence.

Conclusion

A first time attendant said to the author “Burning Man is not a vacation, but a survival experience.” This statement is very true and the culture of Burning Man has weathered it much in the same ways that the American culture has survive over time and through trials. Another person said that “Burning Man was a micro-cosmos of the development of America” and this is also a true statement. While Burning Man is reflecting the larger American culture it is also calling America what it is: an adapting, survivalist culture. Looking through the American history books and the media, one can see that Americans are invested in survival and when the world has gotten to easy to survive in, they will seek out another environment to survive in. Burning Man is surviving because of the facts of life (drugs and sex), shifting responsibility (gender roles or lack there-of), a little help from friends (community) and the ways of violence and happiness… and these are the same ways that America is adapting. The survival of America is not based in staying the same but instead adapting to the future and in many ways the magnifying glass and fun house mirror of Burning Man is showing the ways America is adapting, for good and for bad.

Authors Note: This document is wholly the opinions and thoughts of the author and has not sought or received approval from Burning Man LLC.

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