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Report from Burning Man: Playa del Fuego

Nicolas Powers Jun 15, 2005

I walked to it and stood in its shadow. We spent money to come here and play in the nude as new veterans are returning from Iraq, crippled. Burning Man is apolitical. Even though most goers are liberal to Left, political responsibility frustrates pleasure, and it is pleasure, decadent First-World hedonism, that is assumed to be political in and of itself.

The DJ played a “700 Club” show in which Pat Robertson interviewed a Christian conservative who went to Burning Man. “Pat, I saw a man point his ass to the sky and tell God to kiss it,” he said to Robertson, who replied, “Praise Jesus.” He listed orgies, drug-fueled dancing and obscene art. They agreed that Burning Man threatened America.

Yet the secret of Burning Man is that it is a product of Judeo-Christian capitalist culture, not the end of it. The joy of radical self-expression could not exist without the rules that deny it. In a theological reversal, Burning Man exposes the idolatry of Robertson, because fetishizing rules doesn’t guarantee goodness. Burners break rules to release desire from shame, to expose the banality of sin. They may tell God to kiss it, but they also search for God in each other.

Why do Burners have to be segregated from society to feel connected to each other? It seems that we need to not be seen, judged and punished to allow a full acting-out of our desires. Hidden at Playa del Fuego, we let alienated desires transform us into who we wanted to be. Strangers fed each other. A sauna was built and kept going all night so people sore from dancing could relax. Drum rhythms lifted Vietnam vets, scarred and limping from war, to wave their hands in ecstasy. I saw people leaning over fire, smoke whispering around their hands. A man offered me mushrooms. He didn’t want money and scooped some into my palm. I had been “gifted.”

Gifting is the core of Burning Man. Its founder Larry Harvey emphasizes that what’s important in any economy is the social bond it creates. In Marxist theory we each sell labor for money and in the process acquire false consciousness, because we are alienated from our labor and from each other. Gifting destroys false consciousness because you don’t give what you earn but what you create and what you are. It does not define the other by what they have of value to exchange but by the value of exchanging experiences. It is why Burning Man denies vendors entrance – money would ruin it.

Harvey wants Burning Man to exist beyond its borders. Yet if it is to be more than a Saturnalia festival, a brief eruption of creativity, it must be surrounded by a sustainable economy in which common needs are met. Burning Man needs Socialism. In his 1998 speech, Harvey used the cliché of black ghetto kids creating hip-hop as an example of real connective American culture that Burning Man is continuing. Yet black ghetto kids can’t afford Burning Man. When Harvey went to the desert to avoid police, he abandoned any chance for social change. The attendees who followed him choose temporary poverty, but until they connect with those forced into permanent poverty, it will be another escapist utopia of the white liberal elite. Burners know this; for all its radical self-expression, hardly any art offers political critiques. White skin privilege and class subsidize Burning Man’s existence.

I also ask if my questions hide another, silenced one. Surrounded by unbuyable love, I ask, “Do I deserve this?” For me, a politicized man of color, it’s hard to trust free beauty because all the freedom one achieves in America comes with such a price. Gifting is an emotionally vulnerable act. It created a feeling that, along with the mushrooms, spread buoyant joy through my body. Some unknown man gave me freedom from myself for a night. I stumbled about laughing and crying because I was breathing air that flowed from a sky circling the earth. Yes, I do deserve this, I thought, and so does everyone else in the world, including black ghetto kids. As I danced around the fire I hoped that for a night we’d dance in the streets of New York, around a fire that burned real authority, not just its effigy. The final gift to give is a revolution.

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