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From Dust to Dreams

Unraveling the Social Fabric of Burning Man

Olivia Florence

📅 2023-08-17

Countries all over the world, particularly the United Kingdom and the United States, have experienced a boom in music festivals (Packer, 2011). Music festivals have throughout history been seen as transformative experiences, with festivals such as Woodstock claiming to be the height of Americas 1960's counter-culture movement (Rojek, 2014).


However, festivals nowadays include far more than just music; these weekends indulge in all the arts, encourage spontaneity and freedom, often with a deep yearning for a sense of community (Sharpe, 2008). One such music festival aspires to be even more: a utopian project that tries to embody utopian ideologies through its function and context. This festival is known as Burning Man, although its followers prefer it to be recognised as an 'experience' as opposed to a music festival. This event was born from a loosely aligned global movement seeking transformation, encouraging society to move away from mainstream thinking (Kozinets, 2004). The event is unique in the intensity of its communal mindedness and attempt to make a long-lasting impact on society over a short-term period (Clupper, 2007). However, Burning Man's utopian ethos has been undermined by consumerism and capitalist opportunism (Kozinets, 2002). Perhaps, the event is nothing more than a commodified idea, used as an escape valve, and not the utopia it claims to be. This essay will firstly use Erik Wright's theory of emancipatory social sciences to determine whether sociological utopian theories can be applied to Burning Man as a utopian project. This highlights Burning Mans failure to overcome obstacles without undermining its ideological framework. Secondly, by exploring philosopher Ernest Bloch's understanding of social utopia encompassing all things transformative it builds the notion that even if Burning Man does not fit perfectly with Wright's theory of a 'real utopia', it is still utopian in its transformative function. Both these utopian theories help us gain a deeper understanding of utopian projects such as Burning Man.

Talking about Utopian Spaces and Complexities of Healing

Burning Man is an annual week-long experience that has been running for 34 years and is located in the Black Rock Desert, Nevada. Geographically, it is positioned in a wide-open space in a wilderness area, far from societal rules, norms and expectations. The event has become an oasis for individuals who are seeking to escape the corporatised shackles of modernity (Kovacik, 2015). Its nirvana-like charm serves as amnesty from judgement and encourages people to embrace and explore their innermost identities (St John, 2018). Although it has started charging a fee ranging from £250 to £1200 per ticket, it was established as a non-profit organisation (Kovacik, 2015). The utopian elements of Burning Man's mission have also come under regular review. The event developed and promotes 10 principles; radical inclusion, gifting (the act of giving fellow 'Burners' items), decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leave no trace, immediacy and lastly participation (Burning Man, 2015). It does not require a permanent commitment but rather an obligation to dedicate a week to art, community, self-exploration and gifting others, suggesting that the afterglow of the event will be reflected into the daily lives of its participants.

Burning Man follows an ancient tradition of festivals that temporarily suspend or invert the conventional social order. Early versions of carnival (133 B.C.) were about temporarily placing the poor and oppressed in positions of power (Sargent, 2010, p,12). Take for instance, the Roman festival of Saturn, Saturnalian, a display of gluttonous and orgiastic excess that also celebrated the momentary restructuring of power dynamics: masters waited on their servants, the poor were fed by the rich and at times, even pardoned of their debts (History, 2018). Slaves were even permitted to disrespect their masters, without consequences. Additionally, similar to Burning Man's concept of "gifting" (the exchange of gifts in lieu of money), or gifting without any reciprocation, Saturnalian also promoted the day of giving (Dolansky, 2011). However, the comparisons between the role of ancient festivals such as Saturnalian and Burning Man only emphasise the importance of historical context. These occasions often involved and encouraged a multitude of factors that include social, cultural, economic, spiritual and political functions within society (Larsen, 2011). Perhaps its ultimate role is to highlight the ideals of a utopian play space and how its experimental ways pave the way for a better future, which brings us to the question: What is utopia?

According to Wright (2011), utopianism can be best understood as the contrast between sociology and physics. Physics is something that exists outside our mind's perception, it existed before we discovered it. Thus, the limits of possibility of physics are independent of our knowledge of these limits. Unlike physics, an individual's beliefs about what possibilities there might be (e.g what lies beyond capitalism, social norms and consumerism) affects what possibilities there are. Therefore, our societal imagination sets the limits of achieving utopia (Wright, 2010). In order to understand Burning Man as a utopian project it is imperative to study the nature of its limitations as well as its unintended consequences.

Erik Wright claims that in order for a utopian project to be attainable one must understand the world as it is and diagnose the issues in the world (Wright, 2011). Burning Man rejects mass consumption and currency and relies on the removal of ownership and material possessions. It is angled this way to bring about a more equal community (Kovacik, 2015). Creating a space where money no longer has a purpose allows the attendees to use their imaginations to create things to exchange. The second signifier of a utopian project, according to Wright (2010), is that the project has to envision coherent and viable alternatives to the diagnosed problems with the 'default' world. Burning Man's principles appear doable and were developed and moulded around the issues identified, such as expelling any source of economic currency that is used outside of the event. The third criteria that must be met is understanding the obstacles and dilemmas in transformation and therefore formulating a recipe for achieving the envisioned utopian state. All of these steps are necessary in order to qualify the project as a true utopian project. Burning Man at a glance seems to meet Wright's measures for envisioning a real utopia, however as the event evolved over time it proved difficult to overcome the practical obstacles it faced without undermining the meaning and principles of the event itself. Burning Man fails to meet the third criteria and therefore in Wright's view it is an unachievable utopian project. As its popularity increased and as it embraced a diverse range of alternative visions, the original utopian plans slid into an amalgamation of inconsistent ethoses and mainstream ideologies, such as business for profit, which radically altered Burning Man's original structure and meaning. This is the event's unintended consequence.

The originally free event started demanding attendees to pay for entrance in 1995, albeit at first the fee was only $35 (Kovacik, 2015). It did however mark the inevitable change in the managerial structure of Burning Man, signifying that it was organised, a dramatic step away from its original intention of being unstructured and spontaneous. This rapidly changed the nature of the event, turning it into a festival of profit and commercialism (Brown, 2014). Consequently, attendees began having preconceived ideas of what to expect, morphing it into something predictable and pre-packaged. As 'Burners' began to pay to participate, it became a product to consume as opposed to an extemporaneous happening (Kovacik, 2015). The event slowly turned into a week of mass consumption and self-indulgence with outside capitalist pressures forcing the event to adhere to bureaucratic organisation, eradicating any previous vestiges of a shared ethos and community spirit (Cherrier, 2010). Burning Man's ideologies feed into the idea that shedding itself of layers of daily unwanted additives such as WiFi, technology even running water, will draw its attendees away from mainstream culture, paving a new path of fresh utopian ideals (Brown, 2014). However, the increase in its popularity has triggered a top-down society, where the wealthy are better able to afford the necessities to survive in the desert. Whether it's the attendees posting product placement images on Instagram or fashion models doing commercial shoot in the eccentric make-shift town, the event now appeals to customers who have commodified it and turned its anti-consumerist ways on its head (Gillette, 2015). Wright's theory helps us gain a better sense of how Burning Man both is and is not a functioning utopia. However, the notion of Burning Man as a temporary utopian project challenges Wright's theory of a real utopia in that the function of the event, similar to Saturnalian, is to temporarily create a space in which individuals can explore alternative ways of being. Wright argues that "vague utopias" with no destination will lead society astray (Wright, 2010, p4). In contrast, Burning Man's constant state of flux of modifying itself according to the needs and longings of its participants supports Ernest Bloch's theory of utopias being transformative. For example, Bloch states that he sees music as an imperative utopian function, possibly because of its ability to express that which is unutterable or visually inconceivable (Levitas, 2007).

Garden of Earthly Delights - Frans Vandewalle (1515)

The central focus of Bloch's work of The Principles of Hope (1954) argues that humanity is marked by the experience of lack and longing. He believes that this lack is not something that can be articulated in words but rather through imagining its fulfilment (Levitas, 2007, p,290). In other words, he argues that everything that is able to be transformed in its existence is utopian, that utopia is not a definitive point but rather the constant reorientation towards a better present (Levitas, 1990). His examples are broad and go far beyond the realms of philosophy. He includes in his argument that myths, fairy-tales, alchemy, architecture, fashion and music are all orthodox forms of the social utopia. These forms of utopias are braided through humanity's cultural history and are historically understood as the expression of the desire for an improved way of being (Levitas, 2007, p.290). Burning Man is no different, its interactive artworks, moving dancefloors and creative workshops are all in line with Bloch's understanding of the social utopia. These forms of expression for the desire of a better future could perhaps be better understood as a (secularised) spiritual journey of discovering and questioning who we are, why we are here and how we connect with each other (Levitas, 2007, p.290). Bloch believes that this is part of humanity's perpetual quest for interconnectedness, in essence it is about hope for a better future (Roberts, 1987). In a testament to the event's utopian narrative and its marriage to Bloch's theory on utopia, Burning Man has said to "preview what the twenty-first century will be all about: spontaneous, diverse communities---real and virtual---accommodating individual expression that is more powerful and imaginative than ever before" (Plunkett, 1997) This quote highlights Bloch's theory of the social utopia being a transformative desire for an existence better than now. An example of this can be seen in the events nightly ritualistic burning of huge wooden art works, some standing at 79 feet (Rose, 2016). These burnings take place as a symbol of transition between spaces, it is both physical and metaphysical in its transitionary purpose. A desire that is hard to articulate but easier to feel and express through art, movement and music which is etched into every corner of Burning Man (St John, 2018). Bloch's understanding of utopia can help us understand Burning Man as a transformative experience.

In the opinion of Charles Fourier, utopia "is the dream of well-being without the means of execution, without an effective method" (Levitas, 2007). Burning Man is an event without guidance or method, besides the ten principles which are only loosely enforced. It is fundamentally about having freedom to explore the senses and reassess the structures that contain and control society. In this sense, Burning Man conveys itself as an achievable utopian project in its function. Bloch argues that society should ignite hope in humanity as opposed to fear, which leads humanity into a state of nihilism (Roberts, 1987). Burning Man is not about creating a sustainable community, although that is for some acolytes an important aspect. It is about intensifying and exploring the bonds between people. It is the meaning of Burning Man that allures people, the explorative and expressive notion of hope through art, music, space and the social dynamics of communal living (Bowditch, 2010, p,167). The sociology of utopia shines light not on the glitz and glam of Burning Man, nor the wild attire and sexual demeanour, but rather the function of the event as a transformative space to deconstruct old societal narratives and replace them with beacon of hope for a better future.

The continuous need for events such as Burning Man highlight humanity's unquenched thirst for a questioning of the status quo. If utopia is conceptually understood as a method as opposed to a goal, then perhaps this temporary metropolis offers people a chance to re-evaluate their priorities and limitations. Ultimately, by understanding Burning Man through these various sociological lenses we can see that according to Wright's theory of social emancipation, Burning Man is unable to overcome obstacles such as the encumbering threat of it becoming a product of consumption without undermining its original objectives. However, by understanding it as an individual's innate desire to transform and express, which both Levitas and Bloch argue is an imperative component for envisioning a real utopia, it is arguable that Burning Man fulfils that role for many people.

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