The playa at sunset. Photo by Kevin Tang.
My friend Barton and I arrived in the Black Rock Desert at peak of the mid-afternoon heat. As he slowly navigated the car along the dusty pathways that give shape to Burning Man’s concentric circles of camps, flame-throwing sculptures, and dance floors, a shirtless man with a Merlin beard ran into our path, frantically waving his arms. “Stop!” he yelled at us. “You need to stop!” Barton hit the brakes and rolled down his window. The man leaned up against the car door, looked us each in the eyes, and said, “Before you go any further, you need to pull over and have a shot of whiskey with me.”
Such was our introduction to the gift economy of Burning Man.
Describing the event to the uninitiated is a challenge. Burning Man is weird, and not only in the countercultural, body-paint-and-naked-cartwheels kind of way. The principles that it aspires toward–and, to an impressive extent, succeeds at enacting–are ones that you rarely see embodied in such an enormous form. Every year, 50,000+ people gather in northwestern Nevada on a stretch of desert so bleak that it is literally free of indigenous plant and animal life (save, I’ve read, some microscopic shrimp that appear from somewhere during flash floods). For roughly a week around Labor Day, this pop-up community is home to art on a massive scale, to all night dance parties, and to a functioning gift economy. With the exceptions of ice and coffee, nothing is bought or sold during your week on the playa. Even barter is considered gauche. Instead, gifts of food, drink, art, hugs, etc. are given freely. On Saturday night, the eponymous Man burns and then on Sunday, the Temple–an architectural marvel that would be on postcards were it located in a permanent city–goes up in smoke.
Media portrayals of Burning Man tend to focus on the week’s outlaw aspects. And yes, public nudity and the scent of pot smoke can be pretty ubiquitous. To focus on the sex and drugs, though, is to miss something more radical at play in Black Rock City (the name Burners give to their pop-up community). Burning Man isn’t only a debauched week-long party, though it certainly is that. It’s also an experiment in community and a challenge to educational institutions and practices that divorce us from direct experience.
When I write about the affective education offered at Burning Man, I’m not talking about the innumerable discussion groups, lectures, and workshops that happen there every day of the festival. These are a part of the educational picture, but they aren’t its focus. The affective education is broader, more of a shift in disposition than the attainment of any specific technical know-how. By choosing to plant yourself in a hostile environment (scorching heat, frequent windstorms, no cell phone service) you are struck by an immediacy of experience, in both senses of the term that Hakim Bey articulates in his essay “Immediatism“: “immediately (at once) & immediately (without mediation).”
The two are connected, of course. When your mind is focused on the moment–the playa dust that has turned your hair as stiff as hay, the surprise of stumbling on a 30-foot-tall metallic octopus spouting fire from its tentacles–you don’t have time access the normal schemas that tell you how you’re supposed to feel or react. And conversely, direct and unmediated experience–live events that engage you rather than passive entertainment that sedates you–orients your awareness toward the moment at hand.
These immediate experiences and the gift economy that helps provide them (someone spent thousands of dollars and god knows how many hours to bring you that octopus) provide a setting for Burners to feel a model of creation, knowledge sharing, and mutual aid that isn’t based on the capitalist model of production and acquisition. Not to study this alternative model. To feel it. Reading books of social theory, dissertations on the organization of gift economies, or blog posts on Burning Man can only go so far in helping you get it. Entering a space that organizes itself around immediacy, creativity, and openness shifts things from the realm of conjecture and intellectual exercise into the realm of lived, actualized experience. Here, at least for a week, is a world where you’ll find yourself helping a stranger hoist their sculpture into place, because why wouldn’t you? And where someone will hand you a piece of freshly baked bread, because they have it and you want it. You see–and maybe participate in–hours of labor that aren’t dedicated to any financial incentive, but to providing joy to others. You know that these are feasible models of organization not out of some tender-hearted liberal conviction, but because you have experienced them yourself.
What you see in action are behaviors that mainstream economic theory would insist on calling irrational. Within the capitalist framework, we are trained to think it foolish to give away our labor and our property without explicit expectation of recompense, and especially to give away these things away to strangers. Most Americans don’t experience this kind of communalism outside of the well-defined confines of the family. At Burning Man, you get to live it out on the scale of what amounts to the third largest city in Nevada.
It’s not that differences in social status don’t exist in Black Rock City. They do. But by and large, a person’s reputation corresponds to what they’ve contributed to the festival. The creativity they’ve put into building a pirate ship art car, the hours they spend pouring drinks at the Petting Zoo bar, the sweat they expended to put together the city’s infrastructure; these are what earn respect and admiration. Even with grants from Burning Man’s organizers, most of the large scale projects do wind up costing their creators a good deal of cash. It’s not the cash that is hoarded and spent on oneself that inflates a Burner’s reputation, though. No one thinks you’re cool for arriving in a plush, expensive RV. But if you’re some tech millionaire who drops thousands to transform a bus into a fire-breathing dragon or build a neon Colosseum to host dance parties, it will earn you respect. Like the potlatch system devised by the First Nations peoples in the Pacific Northwest, status is derived from what is given back to the community, not what is acquired for oneself.
Cynics will point out that Burning Man isn’t really an antidote to consumerism or to a society obsessed with acquisition. After all, aren’t we just buying a bunch of stuff before we go out into the desert to give it away to each other? Isn’t it all just playing pretend? The answer is yes. We are playacting, pretending we’re already living in the world we want to live in. Where I differ from the cynics is that I think this playacting is more valuable than self-deluding. It is important for people to have the opportunity to feel the joys of communal, creative living, and to see that it is possible on a deeply impressive scale. Some attendees do come to Black Rock City for a week, gawk at the freak show, and go home unchanged. But many–perhaps many more–don’t leave their experience on the playa. Stories abound of people finally gathering the courage to leave unfulfilling careers, to end unhealthy relationships, and to pursue the lives they’ve always aspired to in the wake of Burning Man. People realize that their option set is wider than they’ve been conditioned to believe, and they find a community that will be there to support them. (A whole social network has risen around Burning Man, with parties, gatherings, and “regional burns” taking place around the country. San Francisco is the epicenter, but Burner scenes can be found all over.) Few will argue that Burning Man will on its own usher in an Age of Aquarius, but as a means, space, and culture to conceive of personal and sometimes community alternatives, it has real value.
For people concerned about education, Burning Man reminds, yet again, about the power of affective experience. A shift in feeling or disposition is oftentimes more significant than a growth in a specific body of knowledge. The creation of environments, of lived spaces that are conducive to creative thought and action, to communal feeling and conviviality, and to a feeling of investment and control over our own lives and the world around us–this is maybe the greatest work educators can pursue. And since Burning Man has these qualities in spades, it makes sense for the educators to give it the attention it deserves.