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.


Swami Dearest said...

I like your take on the co-opting (and simultaneous reduction) of radicalism. You put into words so well what I've always felt. On a smaller scale, I used to call it the I'm So Crazy ethic (insert cartoonish eye-roll).

Side note: my best friend used to go to the Burning Man weekends when they were pretty new. She set up a series of tents designed to look like a harem, and served martinis or mushrooms, according to one's preference -- simultaneously embracing and mocking the counterculture festival.

Anonymous said...

Where's the surprise actually?
There's nothing more frustrating and true at the same time as "i'm unique, just like everyone else".
We all try and be different and express our opinions and vieuws in a way that is different of others and then you realize that its all kinda useless, because you can do what you want, it will have been done before and will be done after you too.
We all strive to be different and to be able to put our mark on our surroundings, yet this simple fact makes us exactly identical to all those people we don't want to be.

It's sort of sad that everything that is said and thought nowadays has this 'been there, done that' feeling and that in modern society you cannot truly find something original or meaningfull anymore, it's always the same thing in a different shape.

prophet of ra said...

our brother is at burning man this week.. seeing it on your blog is rather surprising because i had never heard of it before and had no idea that a large group of people outside of those who attend burning man even knew of its existance

Chez said...

Joe actually is an original. God bless him.

Choenbone said...

alas I was to attend this year's festival with said Joe. Unfortunatly, the funds weren't there, so I will have to wait till the next great gathering of the Chobot clan to experience a unique amalgamation of psychosis and pyrotechnics rolled into happy fun fun candy....Can't wait to se you there.

Lorenzo said...

authorized ritual of rebellion. I love that. I've always wanted to go to an event like burning man, mostly for the drugs and hot half naked girls. Drugs and naked girls, what more can a man want?

Anonymous said...


Christine said...

"Don't dare to be different, dare to be yourself. If that doesn't make you different then something is wrong." - Laura Baker

It's the one thing we have left. It's the one thing that will always be a true rebellion. The revolutionaries and iconoclasts of the world didn't worry about finding a group of people to be different with... and neither should you.

Schwa said...

I went once years ago, back when people like Bruce Sterling were touting it as a live-action internet or something, in the days when Mondo 2000 was preaching the new cyber-revolution of smart drinks (I paid eight dollars for Tang and ephedrine?) and house music, and even then people were complaining that it just wasn't the same anymore. How many subbaculturalites does it take to screw in a light bulb? Five... one to do it and four to complain that the previous light bulb was far superior to the current one.

At any rate, everyone knows the true counterculture revolutionary performance art is at Hanging Man:

Chez said...

Christine --

That's a lovely sentiment. Unfortunately, the various means of lifestyle advertising in our culture have become so virtuoso -- so cleverly subtle in how they infiltrate and influence from a young age -- that really, there practically is no one "you" anymore. Leveling that time-tested platitude "just be yourself" at someone is meaningless because from birth we're pulled in so many different directions that there are a million different and relatively authentic "yous" to choose from.

And if there really that many, are any of them truly authentic?

Christine said...

Oh, oh, I have a quote for that, too. (It's a disease, I swear.)

"To be nobody but yourself in a world that's doing its best night and day to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle any human can fight and never stop fighting." - E.E. Cummings

Words have always had a certain power over the human mind, but in this day and age of media saturation, I think they're beginning to lose their effectiveness. Sure, every now and again, that gets proven otherwise, but is it ever in a positive light? No, it's the Dixie Chicks, or Don Imus, or Michael Richards. Instead, the only positive message about being yourself comes from religious videos, and somehow I'm a little wary about their definition of "yourself."

So which "you" should you pick? I could say it's the one that feels true, but that's just as misguidedly naive as going on a meditation retreat and claiming to have found yourself after 12 hours of Tibetan chanting. If "you" were that easy to find, we wouldn't have entire generations going through midlife crises and quarter-life crises and movies like Wild Hogs. It *IS* the hardest battle you're ever going to fight, and if you don't know what you're fighting for...

namron said...

But, Chez, what if they burned a real man? Wouldn't that be unique?
What if it was Dick Cheney?


I've always hated the "find the real me" thing. You are who you are, and it's just that this may look a lot of different ways over your lifetime. You're still *you* just with a new coat of varnish every few years.

I'm not an architect, or a teacher. These are things I happen to be doing, not the essence of what I am.

You are not your Swedish furniture, you are not your fucking khakis. You know the drill...

When I was in high school, I wasn't my leather pants and Ozzy t-shirts and Mickey's Fine Malt Liquor. I just wore that and drank that.

In college, I wasn't a frat guy, I just made aquaintances with that group of friends.

In the 90's, I wasn't that guy doing drugs on your futon and giving strippers backrubs on your living room floor. No, wait, actually, yeah that was me. That kicked ass.

Okay forget all that. Bad analogy.

Jayne said...

Votar's wearing leather pants?!?


When 900 years old you reach, look this good will you hmm?

Alex Barreto said...

2 signs that the counter-culture is no longer counter and simply culture:

Wrangler Jeans used the song "Fortunate Son" in a commercial a few years ago. They edited out the anti-war lyrics and kept only the patriotic, rah-rah parts.

Cadillac is using the song "Punkrocker" featuring Iggy Pop in their current campaign.

Chez said...

Interestingly, Henry Rollins did a really great bit about the Iggy/Cadillac phenomenon on his show a few weeks ago.

His argument was that everyone needs to shut up about how Iggy sold out -- that it's about time these guys who spent their entire careers being robbed finally got paid. Of course that doesn't change the fact that, yes, Cadillac for Christ's sake is attempting to cast itself as "punk."

Swami Dearest said...

The man who has found himself is the man who never knew he was lost, never even considered looking.

Joe said...

For the record, Burning Man isn't ENTIRELY counter-culture. In fact, the most awesome art project I've ever seen took place there, simultaneously speaking out against our oil lust (in tune with 2/3 of America), and consuming thousands of gallons of fuel in mere seconds (also in tune with 2/3 of America). the project was called "Crude Awakening", and involved a 90-foot-tall wooden oil rig, as well as a wee bit of liquid propane. enjoy: