Friday, August 31, 2007
It Was a Pleasure to Burn
The titular "man" at this year's incarnation of that annual celebration of ridiculous latter-day hippiedom known as the Burning Man festival has gone up in flames. Normally, this wouldn't be a big deal, given that the very name of the gathering should clue you in to the fact that at some point, the big guy's gonna get torched -- but as it turns out, this year the fire was set somewhat unofficially, four days before its scheduled immolation date, by a 35-year-old San Francisco performing artist. (San Francisco police were no doubt immediately advised to be on the lookout for -- everyone.)
Apparently, this act of juvenile subversion is drawing attention to what some critics claim is the lack of subversion at the once-hallowed Burning Man festival. While many are furious that one idiot performance artist with a box of matches ruined what had been a very carefully planned schedule of mushroom ingestion designed to ensure maximum peakage at the appropriate time, others say that this singular act celebrates what the festival has always been about: unpredictable, unfiltered radicalism.
Those falling into the latter group are part of a growing movement of former Burning Man fans who are now fiercely critical of what they see as the recent dilution and corporatization of the annual gathering in the Nevada desert.
They say the whole thing has lost touch with its roots -- that it's "sold out" (and stop me if you've heard this one before -- a thousand times over in fact).
It goes without saying that the watering-down, no pun intended, of Burning Man was all but inevitable.
Nothing truly audacious can stand in our culture, not when our culture has become so monstrously adept at assimilating all forms of rebellion until they become completely meaningless and utterly impotent. Prepackaged, homogenized non-conformity is as close as your local Hot Topic. Agitation is fashion. Defiance is a slogan. Insurrection is product placement. The revolution is not only televised, it can be Tivoed and enjoyed at your convenience.
Anything deemed "cool" can go from internet circulation, to Cafe Press t-shirt, to MTV Spring Break, to frat boy pick-up line, to panic-inducing parental warnings on cable news in a matter of a few days.
By the time you've made the 20 minute drive to that hot new club, it's already been vacated by the very crowd from whom you learned about its existence in the first place.
Subversion, in this day and age, is almost impossible.
There's no better proof of this fact than the lengths that those determined to be rebellious now have to go to simply to make their stand. Admittedly, many of the neo-60s dingbats who attend festivals like Burning Man apparently don't know or don't care that their particular counter-culture statement has been done to death; it practically has its own uniform by this point, the same one it's had, with few variations, since the first hippie grew a beard and put on a dirty t-shirt 40 years ago. Now though, the few among our delicately oppressive society who feel that they have to stand out, even among the larger set of alleged free-spirits, are finding that they have nowhere to turn; it's literally all been done. This is what leads desperate clowns to stick rats in their pants while covering themselves with chocolate syrup, and insist that what they're doing is "art."
This is what led someone to burn the Burning Man, the symbol of counter-culture itself.
In the end though, it accomplished nothing. The Burning Man is already being rebuilt in time for tomorrow's authorized ritual of rebellion.
Life goes on, as planned.