“Long Gone Hippies in the Desert”: Counterculture and “Radical Self-Reliance” at Burning Man

Mario George Rodriguez

Abstract


Introduction

Burning Man (BM) is a festival of art and music that materialises for one week each year in the Nevada desert. It is considered by many to be the world’s largest countercultural event. But what is BM, really? With record attendance of 69,613 in 2013 (Griffith) (the original event in 1986 had twenty), and recent event themes that have engaged with mainstream political themes such as “Green Man” (2007) and “American Dream” (2008), can BM still be considered countercultural? Was it ever?

In the first part of this article, we define counterculture as a subculture that originates in the hippie movement of 1960s America and the rejection of “mainstream” values associated with post-WWII industrial culture, that aligns itself with environmentalism and ecological consciousness, and that is distinctly anti-consumer (Roszak, Making). Second, we identify BM as an art and music festival that transcends the event to travel with its desert denizens out into the “real world.” In this way, it is also a festival that has countercultural connections. Third, though BM bears some resemblance to counterculture, given that it is founded upon “Radical Self-Reliance”, BM is actually anything but countercultural because it interlocks with the current socioeconomic zeitgeist of neoliberalism, and that reflects a “new individualism” (Elliot & Lemert). BM’s ambition to be a commercial-free zone runs aground against its entanglement with market relations, and BM is also arguably a consumer space.

Finally, neoliberal ideology and “new individualism” are encoded in the space of BM at the level of the spectacle (Debord). The Uchronian’s structure from BM 2006 (a cavernous wooden construction nicknamed the “Belgian Waffle”) could be read as one example. However, opportunities for personal transformation and transcendent experience may persist as counterculture moves into a global age.

Defining Counterculture

To talk about BM as a counterculture, we must first define counterculture. Hebdige provided a useful distinction between subculture and counterculture in an endnote to a discussion of Teds versus Rockers (148). According to Hebdige, what distinguishes counterculture from mere subculture and related styles is its association with a specific era (1967–70), that its adherents tended to hail from educated, middle-class families, and that it is “explicitly political and ideological” and thus more easily “read” by the dominant powers. Finally, it opposes the dominant culture. Counterculture has its roots in “the hippies, the flower children, the yippies” of the 60s.

However, perhaps Hebdige’s definition is too narrow; it is more of an instance of counterculture than a definition. A more general definition of counterculture might be a subculture that rejects “mainstream” values, and examples of this have existed throughout time. For example, we might include the 19th century Romantics with their rejection of the Enlightenment and distrust of capitalism (Roszak 1972), or the Beat generation and post-War America (Miller). Perhaps counterculture even requires one to be a criminal: the prominent Beat writer William S. Burroughs shot guns and heroin, was a homosexual, and accidentally shot and killed his wife in a drug haze (Severo). All of these are examples of subcultures that rejected or opposed the mainstream values of the time.

But it was Roszak (Making) who originally defined counterculture as the hippie movement of 1960s era college-aged middle-class American youth who revolted against the values and society inherited not only from their parents, but from the “military-industrial complex” itself, which “quite simply was the American political system” (3). Indeed, the 1960s counterculture—what the term “counterculture” has more generally come to mean—was perhaps the most radical expression of humanity ever in its ontological overthrow of industrial culture and all that it implied (and also, Roszak speculates, in so much that it may have been an experiment gone wrong on the part of the American establishment):

The Communist and Socialist Left had always been as committed to industrialism as their capitalist foes, never questioning it as an inevitable historical stage. From this viewpoint, all that needed to be debated was the ownership and control of the system. But here was a dissenting movement that yearned for an entirely different quality of life. It was not simply calling the political superstructure into question; with precocious ecological insight, it was challenging the culture of industrial cities on which that superstructure stood. And more troubling still, there were those among the dissenters who questioned the very sanity of that culture. These psychic disaffiliates took off in search of altered states of consciousness that might generate altered states of society. (8)

For the purposes of this paper, then, counterculture refers specifically to those cultures that find their roots in the hippie movement of the late 1960s. I embrace both Roszak’s and Hebdige’s definitions of counterculture because they define it as a unique reaction of post-WWII American youth against industrial culture and a rejection of the accompanying values of home, marriage and career. Instead, counterculture embraced ecological awareness, rejected consumption, and even directed itself toward mystical altered states. In the case of the espoused ecological consciousness, that blossomed into the contemporary (increasingly mainstream) environmental movement toward “green” energy. In the case of counterculture, the specific instance really is the definition in this case because the response of postwar youth was so strong and idiosyncratic, and there is overlap between counterculture and the BM community. So what is Burning Man?

Defining Burning Man

According to the event’s website:

Burning Man is an annual event and a thriving year-round culture. The event takes place the week leading up to and including Labor Day, in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The Burning Man organization […] creates the infrastructure of Black Rock City, wherein attendees (or “participants”) dedicate themselves to the spirit of community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. They depart one week later, leaving no trace […] Outside the event, Burning Man’s vibrant year-round culture is growing through the non-profit Burning Man Project, including worldwide Regional Groups and associated non-profits who embody Burning Man’s ethos out in the world. (“What is Burning Man?”)

I interpret BM as a massive art festival and party that materialises in the desert once a year to produce one of the largest cities in Nevada, but one with increasingly global reach in which the participants feel compelled to carry the ethos forward into their everyday lives. It is also an event with an increasing number of “regional burns” (Taylor) that have emerged as offshoots of the original. Creator Larry Harvey originally conceived of burning the effigy of a man on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986 in honor of the solstice (“Burning Man Timeline”). Twenty people attended the first BM. That figure rapidly rose to 800 by 1990 when for legal reasons it became necessary to relocate to the remote Black Rock desert in Nevada, the largest expanse of flat land in the United States. In the early 90s, when BM had newly relocated and attendees numbered in the low thousands, it was not uncommon for participants to mix drugs, booze, speeding cars and firearms (Bonin) (reminiscent of the outlaw associations of counterculture). As the Internet became popular in the mid-1990s word spread quickly, leading to a surge in the population. By the early 2000s attendance regularly numbered in the tens of thousands and BM had become a global phenomenon. In 2014 the festival turned 28, but it had already been a corporation for nearly two decades before transitioning to a non-profit (“Burning Man Transitions”).

Burning Man as Countercultural Event

BM has connections to the counterculture, though the organisation is quick to dispel these connections as myths (“Media Myths”). For example, in response to the notion that BM is a “90s Woodstock”, the organisers point out that BM is for all ages and not a concert. Rather, it is a “noncommercial environment” where the participants come to entertain each other, and thus it is “not limited by the conventions of any subculture.” The idea that BM is a “hippie” festival is also a myth, but one with some truth to it:

Hippies helped create environmental ethics, founded communes, wore colorful clothing, courted mysticism, and distrusted the modern industrial economy. In some ways, this counterculture bears a resemblance to aspects of Burning Man. Hippie society was also a youth movement that often revolved around drugs, music, and checks from home.

Burning Man is about “radical self-reliance”–it is not a youth movement, and it is definitely not a subculture (“Media Myths”).

There are some familiar aspects of counterculture here, particularly environmental consciousness, anti-consumer tendencies and mysticism. Yet, looking at the high attendance numbers and the progression of themes in recent years one might speculate that BM is no longer as countercultural as it once was. For instance, psychedelic themes such as “Vault of Heaven” (2004) and “Psyche” (2005) gave way to “The Green Man” (2007) and “American Dream” (2008). Although “Green Man” was an environmental theme it debuted the year after Vice President Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006) brought the issue of climate change to a mainstream audience. Indeed, as a global, leaderless event with a strong participatory ethos in many respects BM followed suit with the business world, particularly given it was a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) for many years (though it was ahead of the curve): “Capitalism has learned from the counter culture. But this is not news” (Rojek 355). Similarly, just in time for the 2008 U.S. Presidential election the organisational committee decided to juxtapose “the Man” with the American flag. Therefore, there has been an arguable shift toward engagement with mainstream issues and politics in recent years (and away from mysticism).

Recent themes are really re-appropriations of mainstream discourses; hence they are “agonistic” readings (Mouffe). Take for example the VoterDrive Bus, an early example of political talk at BM that engaged with mainstream politics. The driver was seven-time BM veteran Corey Mervis (also known as “Misty Mocracy”) (“Jack Rabbit Speaks”). Beginning on 22 July 2004, the VoterDrive Bus wrote the word VOTE in script across the continental United States in the months before the election, stopping in the Black Rock City (BRC) for one week during the BM festival. Four years later the theme “American Dream” would reflect this countercultural re-appropriation of mainstream political themes in the final months leading up to the 2008 Presidential election. In that year, “the Man,” a massive wooden effigy that burns on the last night of the event, stood atop a platform of windows, each inscribed with the flag of a different country. “American Dream” was as politically as it was poetically inspired. Note the agonistic appeal: “This year's art theme is about patriotism—not that kind which freights the nation state with the collective weight of ego, but a patriotism that is based upon a love of country and culture. Leave ideology at home…Ask yourself, instead…What can postmodern America, this stumbling, roused, half-conscious giant, yet give to the world?” (“2008 Art Theme: American Dream”). BM has arguably retained its countercultural authenticity despite engagement with mainstream political themes by virtue of such agonistic appeals to “American Dream”, and to “Green Man” which promoted environmental awareness, and which after all started out in the counterculture.

I attended BM twice in 2006 and 2007 with “The Zombie Hotel”, one among a thousand camps in the BRC, Nevada (oddly, there were numerous zombie-themed camps). The last year I attended, the festival seemed to have come of age, and 2007 was the first in its history that BM invited corporate presence in the form of green energy companies (and informational kiosks, courtesy of Google) (Taylor). Midway through the week, as I stumbled through the haphazard common area that was The Zombie Hotel hiding from the infernal heat of the desert sun, two twin fighter jets, their paths intertwining, disturbed the sanctity of the clear, blue afternoon sky followed by a collective roar from the city. One can imagine my dismay at rumours that the fighter jets—which I had initially assumed to be some sort of military reconnaissance—were in fact hired by the BM Organizational Committee to trace the event’s symbol in the sky. Speculation would later abound on Tribe.net (“What was up with the fighter jets?”). What had BM become after all?

Figure 1: Misty Mocracy & the VoterDrive Bus. Photo: Erick Leskinen (2004). Reproduced with permission.

“Radical Self-Reliance”, Neoliberalism and the “New Individualism”

Despite overlap with elements of counterculture, there is something quite normative about BM from the standpoint of ideology, and thus “mainstream” in the sense of favouring values associated with what Roszak calls “industrial society”, namely consumption and capitalist labor relations. To understand this, let us examine “The Ten Principles of BM”. These include: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation and Immediacy (“Ten Principles of Burning Man”). These categories speak to BM’s strong connection to the counterculture. For example, “Decommodification” is a rejection of consumerism in favour of a culture of giving; “Immediacy” rejects mediation, and “Participation” stresses transformative change. Many of these categories also evoke political agonism, for example “Radical Inclusion” requires that “anyone may be a part of Burning Man”, and “Radical Self-Expression”, which suggests that no one other than the gift-giver can determine the content of the message. Finally, there are categories that also engage with concepts associated with traditional civil society and democracy, such as “Civic Responsibility”, which refers to the “public welfare”, “Participation”, and “Communal Effort.”

Though at first it may seem to connect with countercultural values, upon closer inspection “Radical Self-Reliance” aligns BM with the larger socioeconomic zeitgeist under late-capitalism, subverting its message of “Decommodification.” Here is what it says: “Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.” That message is transformative, even mystical, but it aligns well with a neoliberal ideology and uncertain labor relations under late capitalism. Indeed, Elliot and Lemert explore the psychological impact of a “new individualism”, setting the self in opposition to the incoming forces of globalisation. They address the question of how individuals respond to globalisation, perhaps pathologically. Elliot and Lemert clarify the socio-psychological ramifications of economic fragmentation. They envision this as inextricably caught up with the erosion of personal identity and the necessity to please “self-absorbed others” in a multiplicity of incommensurate realities (20, 21). Individuals are not merely atomised socially but fragmented psychologically, while at the macroscopic level privatisation of the economy spawns this colonisation of the personal Lifeworld, as social things move into the realm of individualised dilemmas (42).

It is interesting to note how BM’s principles (in particular “Radical Self-Reliance”) evoke this fracturing of identity as identities and realities multiply in the BRC. Furthermore, the spectre of neoliberal labour conditions on “the Playa” kicks down the door for consumer culture’s entrée. Consumer society “technicises” the project of the self as a series of problems having consumer solutions with reference to expert advice (Slater 86), BM provides that solution in the form of a transformative experience through “Participation”, and acolytes of the BM festival can be said to be deeply invested in the “experience economy” (Pine & Gilmore): “We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation” (“Ten Principles”). Yet, while BM rejects consumption as part of “Decommodification”, the event has become something of a playground for new technological elites (with a taste for pink fur and glow tape rather than wine and cheese) with some camps charging as much as US $25,000 in fees per person for the week (most charge $300) (Bilton). BM is gentrifying, or as veteran attendee Tyler Hanson put it, “Burning Man is no longer a counterculture revolution. It’s now become a mirror of society” (quoted in Bilton). Neoliberalism and “new individualism” are all around at BM, and a reading of space and spectacle in the Uchronian structure reveals this encoding.

Figure 2: “Message Out of the Future by Night” (also known as “the Belgian Waffle). Photo: Laurent Chavanne (2006). Reproduced with permission.

“Long Gone Hippies”

Republican tax reformist Grover Norquist made his way to BM for the first time this year, joining the tech elites. He subsequently proclaimed that America had a lot to learn from BM: “The story of Burning Man is one of radical self-reliance” (Norquist). As the population of the BRC surges toward seventy thousand, it may be difficult to call BM a countercultural event any longer. Given parallels between the BM ethos and neoliberal market relations and a “new individualism”, it is hard to deny that BM is deeply intertwined with counterposing forces of globalisation. However, if you ask the participants (and Norquist) they will have a different story:

After you buy your ticket to Burning Man to help pay for the infrastructure, and after you pay for your own transportation, food and water, and if you optionally decide to pay to join a camp that provides some services THEN you never have to take your wallet out while at Burning Man. Folks share food, massages, alcohol, swimming pools, trampolines, many experiences. The expenses that occur prior to the festival are very reasonable and it is wonderful to walk around free from shopping or purchasing. Pockets are unnecessary. So are clothes. (Alex & Allyson Grey)

Consumerism is a means to an end in an environment where the meanings of civic participation and “giving back” to the counterculture take many forms. Moreover, Thornton argued that the varied definitions of what is “mainstream” among subcultures point more to a complex and multifaceted landscape of subculture than to any coherent agreement as to what “mainstream” actually means (101), and so perhaps our entire discussion of the counterculture/mainstream binary is moot. Perhaps there is something yet to be salvaged in the spaces of participation at BM, some agonistic activity to be harnessed. The fluid spaces of the desert are the loci of community action.

Jan Kriekels, founder of the Uchronia Community, holds out some hope. The Belgian based art collective hauled 150 kilometres of lumber to the BRC in the summer of 2006 to construct a freestanding, cavernous structure with a floor space of 60 by 30 metres at its center and a height of 15 metres (they promised a reforestation of the equivalent amount of trees) (Figure 1). “Don’t mistake us for long gone hippies in the desert”, wrote Kriekels in Message Out of the Future: Uchronia Community, “we are trying to build a bridge between materialism and spiritualism” (102). The Uchronians announced themselves as not only desert nomads but nomads in time (“U” signifying “nothing” and “chronos” or “time”), their time-traveller personas designed to subvert commodification, their mysterious structure (nicknamed the “Belgian Waffle” by the burners, a painful misnomer in the eyes of the Uchronians) evoking a sense of timelessness.

I remember standing within that “cathedral-like” (60) structure and feeling exhilarated and lonely and cold all at once for the chill of the desert at night, and later, much later, away from the Playa in conversations with a friend we recalled Guy Debord’s “Thesis 30”: “The spectator feels at home nowhere, for the spectacle is everywhere.” The message of the Uchronians provokes a comparison with Virilio’s conceptualisations of “world time” and “simultaneity” that emerge from globalisation and digital technologies (13), part of the rise of a “globalitarianism” (15)—“world time (‘live’) takes over from the ancient, immemorial supremacy of the local time of regions” (113). A fragmented sense of time, after all, accompanies unstable labour conditions in the 21st century.

Still, I hold out hope for the “resistance” inherent in counterculture as it fosters humanity’s “bothersomely unfulfilled potentialities” (Roszak, Making 16). I wonder in closing if I have damaged the trust of burners in attempting to write about what is a transcendent experience for many. It may be argued that the space of the BRC is not merely a spectacle—rather, it contains the urban “forests of gestures” (de Certeau 102). These are the secret perambulations—physical and mental—at risk of betrayal.

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Keywords


counterculture; Burning Man; self-reliance; neoliberalism; new individualism; spectacle; hippies



Copyright (c) 2014 Mario George Rodriguez

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