Burning Man Demystified (Part 2)

This continues my writing about Burning Man from yesterday. Who knows how many parts, exactly, this will have, or how many days the writing will take. Since, as I wrote yesterday, Burning Man is the most important event in contemporary America, I want to give it its due.

The people

Burning Man attracts a predominantly white crowd of people, divided between young men and women, and baby boomers. It’s a shame that their isn’t more racial diversity: this is a product of subculture demographics (hip-hop culture is barely present at all, whereas there are a lot of hippies) and economic inequality.

You don’t have to be rich to go to Burning Man; it’s possible to devote a lot of time to the festival, helping out with food and construction, and thus earn yourself a free ticket and/or room and board. Nonetheless, most of the people who attend are middle-class or wealthier. The simple reason is that Burning Man requires you to take a lot of time off work, and involves a lot of specialized gear. Most people don’t need backpacks with water pouches in their daily lives.

There are some wonderful older people at Burning Man who bring experience, practical wisdom, and a different perspective to the event. There are also some buffoons who are living out a confused idea that the Sixties never yielded to the Eighties: they walk around naked and addle themselves with psychedelics. There are some older roughnecks, too — more on roughneck culture later. In any case, I hung out with the younger crowd.

The young people are conspicuously beautiful. They eat healthy foods, and many are vegetarian or vegan. They work out in gyms, go dancing frequently, and spend time outdoors: backpacking, traveling, biking, and so on. Most of them practice yoga and/or meditation, at least occasionally. People who live this way are often beautiful; the banality of the crowd on a given city street is a function of ill health, stress, and poverty.

There is a high concentration of certain professions at Burning Man: you are very likely to encounter artists, designers, entrepreneurs, “health food” businesspeople, scientists, engineers, lawyers, and intellectuals of different sorts. It is a petri dish for creativity in design, visual arts, and the performing arts, and artists and troupes who perform gratis at Burning Man often get picked up to do more commercial work. Simmering just under the surface of the assumed identities is the reality of a strange confluence of dropout culture and yuppie catharsis. (Burning Man has acquired a slight flavor of the cowboy-style retreats that certain corporations hold dear. But this does not detract from the fun.)

If you are me, it is impossible to meet people in bars, at Mountain Goats concerts, at clubs, at coffeehouses. You can go to these places, and see people you’d presumably like to meet, but unless you’re going to try to make a move there’s not a whole lot beyond ordering another beverage to do. It turns out to be like going to a human zoo: DO NOT TAP ON GLASS. IT CAUSES STRESS TO THE ANIMALS. At Burning Man, I met dozens of people, of all professions, genders, and ages. It is a friendly place. There aren’t that many friendly places.

“Burners” dress the way that rockstars and movie stars dress, only for (sometimes) less money. My wardrobe is heavily involved with grey and black T-shirts, and blue denim, but that’s a compromise with uncertainty, an act of prudence. There is no prudence to what burners wear: it is colorful, revealing, elaborate, and witty.

All of the white subcultures of American life are represented: Goths, punks, hippies, ravers, “roughnecks” (by which I mean faux white trash). The big difference between Burning Man and a place like Brooklyn, which also has a lot of young people who do culture, is that Burning Man is not that close to hipster culture. The fastidiousness and obsessiveness of hipsterism don’t work in the dirty and chaotic desert. There are very few rock shows; certainly nothing on the level of a Coachella or a Pitchfork Music Festival. Also, the openness of the “playa” (the commons portion of the desert) makes elitism more or less impossible.

Which is fine with me, as it is now glaringly obvious that hipsters stand for nothing more than the exercise of taste, and use taste as an opportunity for cruelty.

* * *

Burning Man is, far and away, the most respectful, generous, and well-regulated intentional community I have encountered. Over the course of the week, many people came to our tent and stayed in our shade, and we gave them food, water, and drinks. Once a couple of kids came who had taken Ecstasy, and the girl was having a bad reaction. We let her throw up and looked after them until they were feeling better. We gave away gallons of water, boxes of food and lip balm and soap, and shared freely with each other. This was not exceptional behavior; our camp was not on some “Best of Burning Man” list, though it was an amazing camp. This was the norm.

We received massages, fresh watermelon, champagne, incense, a parasol, and countless other gifts of food and souvenirs. Burning Man claims that it does not support the use of illegal drugs, or public acts of sex, and this is 100% true. It is nonetheless a sexually charged environment. I saw only consensual behavior and a very high standard for communication and respect. I did hear of a few instances of mild verbal harrassment; I could count these on one hand after eight days among a crowd of 40,000.

Burners do not litter. They camp out on a completely flat, homogeneous patch of cracked earth, and they are so conscientious that they pick up pieces of sleeping bag fluff and safety pins when they go. Crews of volunteers sweep the playa for leftover pieces of litter — these are very often beer bottles, beer caps, or beer cans. I saw less than ten pieces of litter during my stay, and nothing larger than a beer bottle. This is how a festival of such incredible excess manages to get multi-year licenses on Federal land.

* * *

The two most dominant cultures at Burning Man, at present, are hippies and ravers, or more properly elements of both of those cultures. This is because Burning Man is a communal event and has ambitions to be a sort of religious community, and the ideals of spontaneous unity that make it possible are close in spirit to the old Love Generation (the hippies) and the new Love Generation (who really, really like Paul Oakenfold and early Chemical Bros.).

However, the diverse nature of the event has served as a corrective for some of the disappointments of these two subcultures. The regressive style of some ravers is almost completely absent: I saw no pacifiers, and only a couple of grade-school backpacks. Not only do the dancers and DJs avoid looking like toddlers, there aren’t many teenagers at Burning Man, so there isn’t the uncomfortable prospect of seeing really young people taking big risks. There is a lot of countercultural warmth, but the costumes emphasize glamour, and the imperatives of hedonism and survival tend to overshadow New Age fuzzy thinking.

There were a lot of hugs, and a lot of smiling people. That much stayed the same. This was worth getting used to. The Goths contributed a certain amount of enjoyable black leather; there was an occasional whipping post; and there were modified cars that had giant Grim Reapers attached. I won’t make any judgements, since for some reason Goth culture always produces the same reaction in me that most people have for puppy dogs: “Isn’t that cute! They’re so sullen and adorable!”

However, a number of people informed me that the hippies and ravers are new colonists, and that the “real” Burning Man was something else entirely, something to do with the big signs that now read “The use or possession of firearms anywhere on these grounds is prohibited.” Something to do with bourbon, cowboy hats, and loud whooping sounds. I encountered this other Burning Man too: and it will have to be its own entry, because the implications don’t stop at the edge of the festival. Nor do they start in Nevada; in fact, though I can trace them through Faulkner and Robert Johnson, through the Hell’s Angels and Hunter Thompson and the Doors, through Johnny Cash and the Bada Bing strip club, I doubt I can ever come to the end, except through an act of refusal.

More soon.