From Radical to Routine Chapter 2 – Background

From Radical to Routine: Burning Man and the Transformation of a Countercultural Movement

Chapter 2 :    Background

The following is the second background chapter of my Masters of Cultural Sustainability Thesis, presented to Goucher College in January 2016. See the first introductory chapter here. Subsequent chapters will be published to this site each week.

2.1    Burning Man and Avant-Garde Arts Movements

Yesterday’s weirdness is tomorrow’s reason why. – Hunter S. Thompson[1]

Burning Man is a contemporary iteration of a lineage of subversive subculture through The Cacophony Society and the Suicide Club, which were strongly inspired by The Situationist International and Dada avant-garde movements, among others. In order to assess the state of Burning Man culture today, it is necessary to understand the revolutionary and revelatory ideas from which it emerged.


Dada (1916 – present)

Dadaism arose in war-time Europe and continues to be expressed in post-punk efforts and contemporary pop culture phenomenon today (i.e. flash mobs, Santacon and street theatre). Dada attempts to destroy old-fashioned values and bourgeois culture to “be new and unrestricted”.[2] As Eram puts it, “Dada is pure dynamite, it mocks attempts to grasp it, and it is perennially rediscovered and in use by the discontented young.”[3] And according to Glazova, the Dadaist practice is sometimes surreal, always absurd and constantly challenging experiences, naturally eliminating boundaries and borders of beliefs, and making room for the visions, art and actions that are beacons for social transformation.[4]

This viewpoint concurs with Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, which states that, “Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality. Man is a social product.”[5]

Ortner goes on to interpret the Berger and Luckmann triangle to say, “Society is a system, that the system is powerfully constraining, and yet that the system can be made and unmade through human action and interaction.”[6]

Building upon Dadaism’s commentary on the unnecessary and excessive limitations and restrictions of mainstream social structures and orders, Codrescu created his “Posthuman Dada Guide”, a guidebook/Dadaist performance piece for the 21rst century ‘posthuman’, “to give young people solid intellectual, historical support for saying ‘screw you’, which is what they do anyway, even unsupported by serious scholarship,” and “to remind older people, too, that refusing war and thinking radically new thoughts are vastly preferable to institutionalizing the little we think we know.”[7] As a rebellious art movement born of the frustration of war, in Dadaism everything is sacred and profane, intensely important and simultaneously inconsequential, from bureaucratic nonsense to human life. These tenets of cultural questioning were obvious in the pre-Burning Man efforts of The Suicide Club and Cacophony Society that utilize détournement and recuperation (discussed below) to venerate the mundane and undermine and criticize the sacred (e.g. zone trips and culture-jamming).

A Dadaist refusal of ritual comes into play as definitions and dogmas are ideologically absent from Burning Man. Evoking a participatory epistemology, Burning Man participants are all welcome to create their own meanings related to their enacted and dialectical experiences, because as with Dada, a lot of the experience and art of Burning Man is “made up of paradoxes, concealing and revealing meaning at the same time,” as Dadaist commentator Anna Glazova  puts it.[8]


The Situationist International (1957-1972)

Burning Man’s ideological links to The Situationist International, a European organization of social revolutionaries that was active 1957-1972, can be found in some of the Situationist International’s main concepts:

  1. Détournement – turning the capitalist systems expressions against itself, i.e. using corporate logos and slogans as pranks that undermine the marketer.[9] Playing amidst Terry Turner’s concepts of anthropological theory and activism, the Situationist International’s notion of détournement takes the inventions of dominant culture and puts them to different uses. [10] This is at the core of the culture jamming and the Billboard Liberation Front-type antics that defined The Cacophony Society’s actions and Burning Man’s early days.
  2. Anti-capitalism – creating ‘situations’ of “play, freedom and critical thinking”, and [11]
  3. The construction of situations that unify ‘art and life’ – Radical Self-Expression, one of Burning Man’s Ten Principle, invites inspired and artistic life. Relating this practice to the theory of Cultural Sustainability, Rory Turner discusses the participatory nature of reality: “We live amongst self- and co-created structures that are the results of our unconscious habits; we consciously and unconsciously produce social life through our actions. We are actors on a stage where our actions contribute to the creation of the stage itself. Therefore, things can change and culture is emergent, multiple, hybridized.”[12]


The San Francisco Suicide Club (1977-1983)

Gary Warne, Adrienne Burk, David Warren and Nancy Prussia founded The San Francisco Suicide Club in January 1977 after the group lived through a “terrifying adventure” of traversing the seawall under the Golden Gate Bridge as 30-foot waves assaulted them.[13] The surprise survival activity inspired them to form a club to encourage members to ‘live each day as though it were their last’ by “creating events and experiences that would challenge their deep personal fears, and expand their knowledge and understanding of their world and those in it.”[14] The name of the Club was inspired by the Robert Louis Stevenson stories of a group of men who are intent upon losing their lives. Far from wanting to die, members of the real life Suicide Club were people who wanted to lose the narrative of the lives that were expected of them and live beyond what they perceived as the unnecessarily restrictive boundaries of contemporary society.

The agreement between the founding members of the Suicide Club states:

Members must agree to set their worldly affairs in order to enter into the REAL world of chaos, cacophony, and dark saturnalia, and they must further agree to live each day as though it were their last, for it may BE. The club will explore the untraveled, exotic, miasmal, and exhilarating experiences of life: deserted cemeteries, storms, caving, haunted houses, Nazi bars, fanatical movements, hot air ballooning, stunts, exposés, impersonation. The Club will be ongoing for the rest of our lives.[15]

Living each day as if it was his last was not just a metaphor for Warne. The principle instigator and leader of the Suicide Club had a terminal heart condition that promised to cut his life short, and which may have influenced his appetite for experimentation. Hailed as a genius and visionary by many passionate San Franciscan subversive subculturists, Warne brought the idea of the Suicide Club to life as a Spring 1977 class at San Francisco State University’s fee-free Communiversity, a part of the then-budding Free School Movement. The Suicide Club was played out as an ongoing calendar of events with no philosophy or purpose attached. In their terms, a Suicide Club event, most commonly a group adventure, infiltration or stunt, is an “experience to be appreciated and embraced as a chance to be fully awake and alive, on the world’s terms, not necessarily your own.”[16]

The diverse group of fringe-dwelling fun seekers that participated in the class included the people who would go on to create the Cacophony Society and Burning Man and other culture jamming efforts. Self-proclaimed prankster, John Law, joined the Suicide Club at age 18 and went on to be a founding member of the Cacophony Society and Burning Man. Referring to The Suicide Club and the Free School Movement he says, “In a society that had grown increasingly alienated and divisive, it taught cohesive, shared experience. It championed exploration and adventure in a culture increasingly subdued by media. Its basic intention, to confront the fears that limit human action, was an antidote to the anxieties perpetrated through politics and television news. While students in traditional universities might forget the facts learned in required academic classes, the lessons learned in The Suicide Club empowered participants for life.”[17] The curious, creative and connected shared experiences Law describes as Suicide Club activities were playful explorations of liminal spaces and experiments in alternative culture creation that required the complete commitment of all involved for the game to work. (The game of Communitas.)

The Suicide Club disbanded in 1982 after the size and complexity of the experimental experiences got too big for the waning numbers and energies of its members. The next year, Warne died of a heart attack at age 35.


The Cacophony Society (1986 – present)

In 1986, former Suicide Club members regrouped to form the San Francisco Cacophony Society. This new subversive fringe group was defined by “whimsical audacity and brazen action” in pursuit of “shared experiences outside the pale of mainstream society.”[18] The Cacophony Society was more open and had a much more public presence than The Suicide Club, “You may already be a member,” is a common catchphrase for the group, indicating how easy a whimsical approach to lived experience can be.

The Cacophony Society staged events and invitations to experience the city as a “playground,” to exercise imagination and creativity, and to push the boundaries of reality. Actions included replacing teddy bears on a toy store shelf with animals stuffed with concrete and tags that read “Life is heavy and hard,” a formal dance held in a coin laundry, and the institution of the contemporary urban activities of the Urban Iditarod, Salmon Run (dressing like fish and running against the tide of competitors in major urban running races) and Santacon among many other and continuing activities.

Cacophony Society activities reflect Situationist tactics of creating opportunities for humans to “interact together as people, not mediated by commodities,” amidst “moments of true community [and] the [subsequent] possibility of a future, joyful and un-alienated society.”[19] Long-time Cacophony member Carrie Galbraith and co-author of Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society says, “I embraced the Cacophony concept as I understood it: any idea can be brought to life and acted out. All events are valid, all alternate realities can be embraced and believed, all stretching of the boundaries between reality and imagination can be tested.”[20] (See Appendix I for Stuart Mangrum’s 12 Steps to Cacophony.)

Cacophony Society events went further to say something about how segments of society alienate each other. “’We are the outcasts’ [their actions proclaim], but look at yourself, you don’t fit in either.’ And really, who would want to?”[21]  Embracing opportunities to face (and therefore defeat) fear and expand conceptions of reality by viewing the world and its structures as a play environment are running themes of the active philosophies of the fringe dwellers of Dadaism, The Situationist International, The Suicide Club and The Cacophony Society. And these characteristics of this at once both residual and emergent culture have come to meet the mainstream in the form of Burning Man.

In this way, the idea for, and initial iterations of, Burning Man came from an anti-conformist quest for curious living that was often pursued by those who did not fit in with mainstream society for whatever reason. Founding Member, John Law describes the Cacophony Society as “a group populated by geeks and nerds, myself included – a group of misfits, even more so than The Suicide Club.”[22] Which is what makes Burning Man’s popularity among the power players of contemporary mainstream society noteworthy and piques my suspicion of the culture’s authentic continuity.

In a personal interview, John Law described the following four cornerstone concepts of what he believes is good about the Burning Man event. “They’re such powerful concepts that they resonate even with all of this detritus clinging to it. That’s why Burning Man is what it is… there’s still a core that resonates which is an important thing. They [the Burning Man organization] are doing their best to kill it, but it’s still there,” Law says.[23]

  1. The Suicide Club’s philosophy and culture

According to Law, this is defined by Garry Warne’s “12 Chaotic Principles” and The Suicide Club’s organizational structure that allowed participation to be optional and for participants to self-select roles, rotate leadership, set specific scenes and make agreements.

“They were trying to experiment, to see if you could have an organizing core where people could do absolutely anything that they wanted to, within the structure… they had a newsletter, and the newsletter editor rotated every month, so sometimes they were really cool and other times they were barely legible. Anyone could do an event, and they would present what anyone else needed to do to participate. You had to agree to do it, everything was based on agreements, we had to agree to how we were going to set the stage to play. Once you made the agreement, then you could do anything within that structure. So, I did a lot of climbing events, so that was one of the rules. But if you didn’t like my event, you could come back and do the event yourself, put it in the newsletter and do it with different rules. That was the structure that they set up and it worked really well. And with that many event organizers, it was wild.”[24]

  1. The Strugatsky Brothers’ “Zone” and Carrie Galbraith’s Zone Trip concept

In Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, Carrie Galbraith explains, “The concept for the Zone came from my infatuation with the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, specifically Stalker and the book it was based on. In Cacophony, we took turns leading the others on Zone Trips, where you didn’t know where they were taking you. For the first one, I just put an event write-up in the newsletter. ‘We’re going to the Zone. Meet at my place at 11 p.m. on Friday night. We’ll be back on Sunday.’”[25] Zone Trips were created by the self-selected participants who agreed to play along with these extended moments of disbelief in order to experience life beyond the pale, in a self-created liminal experience.

To this point, Chicken John Rinaldi, director of the San Francisco Institute of Possibility, showman and member of the Los Angeles Cacophony Society and Burning Man participant since 1995 says, “The point forever and always is that you’re trying to push the idea that the sacred space truly is ‘The Zone’… it’s the place where anything can happen. It’s the place of great discomfort, an intention mixer, where you’re not really sure what the intentions are; it feels good and it’s exciting, but it feels weird and you’re not confident that you know exactly what’s going on. That’s ‘The Zone’”.[26]

  1. Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone theory

In 1990, Hakim Bey (Peter Lamborn Wilson’s pseudonym) coined the term ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’ to describe an essential ingredient to the preservation of autonomous uprisings and the socio-anarchistic movement’s success.[27] According to Bey, a Temporary Autonomous Zone (T.A.Z.) is, “a liberated area… where new ways of being human together can be explored and experimented with… [located] in the cracks and fault lines in the global grid of control and alienation, a T.A.Z. is an eruption of free culture where life is experienced at maximum intensity.”[28] The concurrent development and expression of Bey’s thoughts and call to “create spaces of freedom in the immediate present whilst avoiding direct confrontation with the state,” demonstrates Burning Man’s place as part of wider call for cultural change and social evolution.[29] Law remembers discovering Bey’s work in 1991, “I think it was the second year out in the desert [1991], and we were like, ‘Wow, this is what we’re doing, this guy’s writing about what we’re doing with intellectual constructs.’”[30]

  1. William Binzen’s Desert Site Works (1992-1994)

According to Law, this long-durational living art work is “where Larry [Harvey] got all of the philosophy for the intentional community and art in the desert. Desert Site Works was not being merely entertaining, like a television, it was about radical participation, involving people’s five senses to move them off of their normal orientation in life.”[31]

Binzen defines his “experiment in living art” as, “an experiment in temporary community. We are made up entirely of artists, in multiple disciplines, performers, musicians, and back seat philosophers ready to stand up and talk. Here, in the desert, there is no human audience for our spectacle – we play for ourselves, or to find ourselves, or for amusement, or invention. This is about art as self-discovery, personal and interpersonal healing and the conjuring of new life-ways, new modes of being and becoming, and sharing culture.”[32]


2.2    Burning Man and The Ritual Process

The Liminal and Liminoid

Famed anthropologist, Victor Turner coined the term ‘liminality’ in his seminal anthropological treatise, The Ritual Process, in reference to the in-between time, amidst the ritual when the definitions, expectations and rules of the former world or state of being have been lifted or released, and the new designations and meanings of the imminent world are yet to be imposed.[33] In this space, “social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt.”[34] The resulting ambiguity and “dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.”[35] The liminal is necessary within and for the structured, whereas the liminoid is the optional experience that is electively undertaken; “One works at the liminal, one plays at the liminoid.”[36]

More than just a state of limbo, liminality, “a time and place of withdrawal from normal modes of social action, can be seen as potentially a period of scrutinization of the central values and axioms of the culture in which it occurs.”[37] Thus, the integration of liminality within a cultural framework enables the structure to be dynamic, self-reflective and revolutionary. Burning Man events offer liminal spaces in contrast to mainstream society; they can be experiences that teeter on the edges of mainstream reality and are ripe with the potential of transformation and possibility, and opportunities to dream and realize the level of self-imposition of dominant socio-philosophical boundaries.

Suicide Club founder, Warne’s ideas on the rise of empowered play and adventurous living over the limitations of fear, are expressed in his essay, “Carnival Cosmology”. The following selected excerpts describe the process and cumulative effects of his own rituals of facing his fears and experiencing unconventional events amidst liminal spaces. Warne’s words describe the curious, empowered and wondrous approach to life that The Suicide Club, The Cacophony Society and Burning Man were all born from.

“I have been exploring a world of adventures, exotic locales, mystic essences, confronting my fears was the immediate goal, the predominant focus of the explorations and challenges. Now…, my fears have become wafer like and crumbling, shadows of their former selves. Now I find fear only a final, non-evolving image… that prevents me from entering into a visionary dialogue with whom I could become.

Fear is a freeze on the future, the filter or floodgate that stops our imaginings; something within us that stops us from becoming more powerful and loving… We were here to play, if nothing else, here to play with the world and other people.

“Other possibilities are becoming much more apparent. The world is becoming a total play environment and I am becoming something else entirely. The future is no longer on a circuit like the news, entertainment something an entrepreneur plans as I expectantly read the notices in the bleached parchments on the corner stands. It is an imagination away.”[38]

Whether or not it was his heart condition that gave him the courage and drive to push his life experiences past the edges of social expectations and into the shadows of absurdity and chaos, it was Warne’s living example that attracted others to this lived philosophical quest. And despite the fact that my own experiences of Burning Man and Burning Man culture commenced 29 years after Warne’s death, I am reminded of my own revelatory ritual moment by his essay.

–     –     –      –     –

It happened in a portable toilet at Burning Man 2011. Deep into my fifth night at Burning Man, in this space, where the simply biological nature of life is ritualistically repeated no matter the wider physical or social context, I found myself in between worlds and in a liminal space. After struggling to work with my own transmuted wardrobe of thick coat over favorite vintage one-piece swimsuit, tall boots, el-wire light strings wrapped around my body, goggles and dust mask around my neck, shoulder bag with provisions to sustain life for a hearty hike; I found familiarity. Within the hard plastic booth that was my own for a brief moment, I could hear the echoes and see the shadows of the plethora of inventive flame effects, massive art installations, pounding sound systems, seething masses of cyclists and creative citizens of Black Rock City that surrounded me. This space provided a break from the world that I had, until a moment ago, been forced to realize as not just possible, but achieved. It was like a reverse Schrödinger’s box. I was genuinely unsure if opening my cubicle door would reveal a return to the cacophony of Burning Man, or an awakening from this richly chaotic experience that came from beyond my imagination. Of course, both results are inherently possible. And the outcome of the experiment remains up to my subjective interpretation and my perception.

It was at this moment that I came to realize the extent of my ability to author my life experience. I felt full of love and gratitude for every decision that I had ever made in my life, because it had gotten me to right there and then – sitting in a portable toilet in the Nevada desert in the middle of an immersive social experiment that I could not have conceived of without experiencing it. I knew, through direct and immediate experience, that my perceptions up until now had been unnecessarily restricted. And just like the “Welcome Home” I received a few months earlier at the Michigan Burning Man Regional event, my imagination was inspired to unlock and expand to perceive more than what was now proved to be a mundane understanding of reality. It was clear that it was up to me, if I would be alive or dead, awake or asleep, muted or on fire, when I released myself from the box.

This surprise personal revelation that I experienced at Burning Man echoes the form and function of the carnivalesque efforts of the Dadaists, Situationist International, Suicide Club and Cacophony Society. These experiments of experience amidst the fringe and emerging elements of society prompt empowerment of the individual and an escalated questioning of the status quo.

Author and independent scholar, Erik Davis presents liminality in his discussion of Foucault’s ‘heterotopia’ as “a place where otherness is allowed to run riot. So, an example, with qualifications, is a place like Burning Man, particularly early on when there were less cultural ideas of how you were supposed to behave… It’s always an evanescent point where people come together and there’s a kind of open-ended questioning. It’s like, ‘We don’t know what our social interactions are going to be, we don’t know what subjectivity is going to be, or how our connections are going to happen now,’ and I think that there’s a part of us that really seeks that because we recognize in that the possibility that things can be other than what they are. That the world doesn’t have to be the way that it is.”[39]

And this recognition can give way to taking actions outside of the norm too. According to Rinaldi, “Living outside of convention is the most important thing that you can do,”[40] and that is the form of social life that many say Burning Man provides the environment for.

“In the early days of Burning Man, watching people have ‘aha moments’ was like one a minute.” Rinaldi explains that an experience that begs the questions, “‘What else don’t we know?’ – that’s absolutely an ‘aha moment’. When you experience this door opening and there’s a hallway with 50 other doors in it and each of those doors is a hallway with 50 an on and on…” that is a breakthrough moment.[41]

It just so happened that for me, this door opened on to Burning Man.



Burning Man’s lineage of subversive action is fueled by deeply personal experiences that create rich and addictive revelations but, it is the shared experience of these occurrences and understanding of their lessons that creates the culture in question.

Liminal occurrences eliminate structural hierarchy for their moments of ‘time out of time’, and it is within these spaces of organic equality and camaraderie that communitas emerges. As Victor Turner defines it, “Communitas is the being no longer side by side (and one might add, above and below) but with one another of a multitude of persons… communitas has an existential quality; it involves the whole man in his relation to other whole men.”[42] Fight Club author and Portland Cacophony Society member, Chuck Palahniuk describes the liminal rituals he enjoys writing about as events which “people enter into with a completely flat social status; nobody is any greater or lesser than anyone else, and everyone enjoys each other’s company and there’s a sense of communitas.”[43] The unstructured and organic character of communitas represents “the ‘quick’ of human interrelatedness” and could very well be thought of as “the ‘emptiness at the center’ which is nevertheless indispensable to the functioning of the structure of the wheel.”[44]

Communitas is best considered in relation to structure; it emerges when structure is absent, or momentarily in question.[45] Communitas has a “spontaneous, immediate, [and] concrete nature, … as opposed to the norm-governed, institutionalized, [and] abstract nature of social structure.”[46] However structure and anti-structure cannot function properly without the contrast and balancing effects of the other. “Exaggeration of structure may well lead to pathological manifestation of communitas outside or against ‘the law’,” Turner rationalizes, while, “Exaggeration of communitas… may be speedily followed by despotism, over-bureaucratization or other modes of structural rigidification… Therefore, communitas cannot stand alone.”[47]

Invoking the ideas of the liminal space of ritual experience, the Suicide Club description includes the all-caps text, “DIVEST YOURSELF OF EXPECTATIONS, SOLIDARITY IS A NECESSITY, PLAY IT OUT TO THE END”.[48] Releasing one’s definitions of possibility enables new experiences to be realized, and that was the quintessential point of the Suicide Club. The commitment to collective action and remaining in the game until it ends creates a sense of communitas and social bonding.

It is clear that Burning Man can act as a liminal space for the creation of communitas to contrast the structured and well-defined experience of the dominant cultural establishment. However, “it is the fate of all spontaneous communitas in history to undergo what most people see as a ‘decline and fall’ into structure and law.”[49] Therefore, as Burning Man has become more established, incorporated and conventional itself, it is important to note where and how experiences of the odd, the unfamiliar, the liminal, and the challenging to the status quo are found. And considering Burning Man’s relationship with the status quo necessarily asks, is Burning Man becoming more conventional, or is the conventional becoming more like Burning Man?

In addition to the historical pattern of institutionalization that Turner describes, the growing population, and subsequent diversity of motivations and ways of understanding and enacting the experimental culture of Burning Man, are also threatening the experience of communitas and the profound possibilities of a widely shared liminal and ritual experience within Burning Man. And it is this questioning of the prevalence of that sense of deep camaraderie in today’s experience of Burning Man that underpins the cultural sustainability issues of the event and community as discussed in the section, ‘Burning Man: Still Subversive or Simply Sold Out?’.


2.3    Burning Man and Counterculture

In 1968, Theodore Roznak published an article describing “a culture so radically disaffiliated from the mainstream assumptions of our society, that it scarcely looks to many as a culture at all but takes on the alarming appearance of a barbaric intrusion.”[50] A year later, Roznak published the best-selling The Making of a Counter Culture and coined the term now used to describe the vital role of opposition that large-scale social movements play in our world. Now classic treatise, The Making of a Counter Culture analyzes what others saw as chaos, and Roznak describes as “a youthful opposition to the ‘technocracy’” that he said was “at the root of problems such as war, poverty, racial disharmony and environmental degradation”.[51]

Considering common descriptions and definitions of counterculture, it is easy to see that Burning Man is borne of this subcultural arena. Social anthropologist Jentri Anders observed the desire for the following freedoms in her study of counterculture: freedom to explore one’s potential, freedom to create one’s Self, freedom of personal expression, freedom from scheduling and freedom from rigidly defined roles and hierarchical statuses.[52]

Donald Costello’s 1972 essay discussing the films Woodstock, Easy Rider and A Clockwork Orange as “the best films of the counterculture” demonstrates the point that the counterculture of the 1960s (and I argue Burning Man) is an iteration of a much larger social impetus than one decade or one label can contain.[53] Discussing Woodstock (the film), Costello says, “The young of the 60’s had contended that their culture was based not on exploitation but on love, not on violence but on peace, not on restraints but on freedom. Woodstock showed them that that was true. Their culture was communicated from one to the other not by mind and words but by sights and sounds. Sensations, feelings, intuitions, spontaneity reigned. To receive the message of the culture, then, required not sharpening the reason but expanding the consciousness.”[54] The experience of going to Burning Man is commonly compared to Woodstock, and despite many obvious differences, the ideals and description of culture that Costello presents demonstrates the similarities of these two events that both value direct experience and liberty over the banal realities of mainstream life.

Cultural incorporation

Williams’ presentation of the concepts of emerging, dominant and residual cultures in Marxism and Literature can be used to describe how Burning Man culture echoes other previous and current social movements. Williams’ discussion of the “incorporation” of the emergent within the dominant paradigm explains how parts of previous countercultural movements have been subsumed into mainstream cultural parlance, while other aspects seem to reverberate through subsequent cultural attacks as the new culture struggles to move beyond incorporation; with Burning Man being one of these revivals. Williams’ description of the potentially dramatically distant “social location of the residual” inspires my postulation that Burning Man is a contemporary and established articulation of an alternative paradigm that will continue to emerge in new and more challenging ways.

In the Situationist International’s establishing pamphlet, Report on the Construction of Situations, Guy Debord describes official culture, or the culture that receives social legitimation or institutional support in a given society, as a “rigged game” [55] in which “conservative powers forbid subversive ideas to have direct access to the public discourse, and where such ideas are integrated only after being trivialized and sterilized.”[56] This sanitization of destabilizing ideas and actions is akin to the process of cultural incorporation that befalls countercultural movements. This process, also called ‘recuperation’, robs the dissenting movement of its teeth, then absorbing the superficial elements of the defiant effort  into mainstream society, in order to exploit them as “new flavors to old dominant ideas.”[57],[58]

Counterculture is, by definition, “inherently unstable”, meaning that it must be adaptive and dynamic to remain true to its essential nature.[59] Costello claims that Easy Rider was made “by members of the counterculture for other members of the counterculture, and it was a warning… that the values of the counter-culture were becoming indistinguishable from the values of the mainstream… In the self- discovery scene, Captain America’s words, “We blew it,” are clear in meaning; and they are a warning for a counterculture that cannot really be counter if it accepts the values of the dominant culture into which it enslaves itself. “[60]

The culture of Burning Man is likely the prey of cultural incorporation by popular culture; Burning Man culture is now well represented in mainstream media, superficial expressions of this culture have come to play roles in marketing strategy for ‘edgy and cool’ capitalist pursuits, and it is estimated that for the past three years, 40% of the population of Black Rock City have been new participants. As Clifford puts it, the “commodification of identities and traditions” is “integral to a late-capitalist or post-modern world system of cultures,” therefore this is an indicator of the process of incorporation of Burning Man culture by dominant capitalist culture. [61] This process or instance is not unique or novel.

Burning Man cultural commentator Caveat Magister comments that, “Modernity not only does not offer a way out, it actively struggles to pull other systems in, appropriating and ruining them. Each one becomes a fad that other ‘winners’ in modern society spend a great deal of money on (Yoga mats! Kabbalah! Zen retreats! And now… yes… Burning Man!), missing the point that by the time whatever-it-is becomes a commodity it is no longer an alternative to the system: it is a part of the system.”[62]


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Next week in Chapter 3 – Burning Man: From Chaos to Community…


Larry Harvey (Burning Man Founder): What finally occurred in ’96 was a question about two different visions of what Burning Man should be. Should it be civilized? Or should it be, essentially, a repudiation of order? If it’s a repudiation of order and authority, and you’re the organizer and it involves thousands of people, what does that mean for you? What kind of a moral position is that to be in?*

“We just have to face some realities,” Goodell continues, “Our hearts might be somewhere else, but we are necessarily a business because actually that’s a pretty powerful vehicle to be utilizing in order to navigate and be heard,”** she said in 2009, seeming to suggest the principles, ideals and ‘hearts’ of Burning Man were already necessarily distanced from its organization’s actions.

Entities operating within this space of hybridity and organizational experimentation (like Burning Man) are susceptible to incorporation into the prevailing patterns they seek to discover alternatives to. The particular point of danger is when the organization’s focus is on surviving as an entity, rather than meeting a particular current need or goal, or continuing the experiment. If the focus is on the experiment, rather than the existence of the entity, the failure or demise of the happening should be just as valid a result as continuing circumstances of success.

“Is it appropriate for administrative governing bodies to manage or direct culture, especially one of inventive ambition? Can creativity be authorized?” asks Doherty.***
* Wieners, Hot Mess
** Dust and Illusions
*** Doherty, Burning Man Grows Up



References and notes:

[1]Hunter S. Thompson, The Curse of Lono (Bantam Books, 1983)

[2] Anna Glazova, Dada and Constructivism,

[3] Cosana Eram, “The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess (review)”. Modernism/modernity, Volume 17 Number 3 (The Johns Hopkins University Press: September 2010).

[4] Glazova, Dada and Constructivism .

[5] Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality. (New York: Doubleday, 1967),61

[6] Sherry B. Ortner, “Theory in Anthropology Since the Sixties”. Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan. 1984), 159

[7] Andrei Codrescu, Q&A with author Andrei Codrescu, (Princeton University Press, 2008) Accessed 24 November 2015

[8] Glazova, Dada and Constructivism

[9] Douglas Holt and Douglas Cameron, Cultural Strategy: Using Innovative Ideologies to Build Breakthrough Brands, (Oxford University Press: 2010), 252

[10] Terry Turner, “Anthropology as Reality Show and as Co-production: Internal Relations between Theory and Activism” in Critique of Anthropology Volume 26, (2006), 15

[11] Holt and Cameron, Cultural Strategy, 252

[12] Rory Turner, Week Three

[13] John Law, Memorial Gathering for San Francisco Suicide Club Co-Founder David Warren (1935-2009), 29 December 2009,

[14] Ibid.

[15] Elaine Molinari, “David Warren and the Suicide Club” in Guidelines., Accessed 24 November 2015. see Appendix I for a list of the Suicide Club’s 12 Chaotic Principles

[16] Bob, Legacy, 20 May 2013, Accessed 24 December 2015

[17] John Law, Communiversity: The Free School from the 70’s That Changed the Way People Play: Chronology and history of The Suicide Club’s “free university” at San Francisco State (2015). Accessed 24 November 2015

[18] Kevin Evans, Carrie Galbraith and John Law, Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, (San Francisco: Last Gasp, 2013), xi

[19] Situationists – an introduction, Accessed 24 November 2015

[20] Evans, Gallbraith and Law, Cacophony, 59

[21] Jac Zinder, “The Cacophony Society’s Carnival of the Absurd”, LA Weekly, Vol 16, No. 35, (1994) qtd in Evans, Gallbraith and Law, Cacophony, 112

[22] Mark Beers, Who the hell is John Law? An interview with prankster John Law. 14 December, 2014. Accessed 24 November 2015

[23] John Law, Personal Interview 4 September, 2013

[24] Law, Personal Interview

[25] Brad Wieners, “Hot Mess” in Outside Magazine. (24 August 2012). Accessed 24 November 2015

[26] John Rinaldi, #44 A Conversation with Chicken John (part2) Produced by YouTube. (1 May 2009), Accessed 24 November 2015

[27] John Jordan, Theory: Temporary Autonomous Zone, Accessed 24 November 2015

[28] Ibid.

[29] John Jordan, Theory: Temporary Autonomous Zone

[30] Law, Personal Interview

[31] Ibid.

[32] William Binzen, “Inside ‘Desert Siteworks’”, quoted in Tales, 76

[33] Turner, Ritual

[34] Agnes Horvath, Bjørn Thomassen, and Harald Wydra, “Introduction: Liminality and Cultures of Change” in International Political Anthropology 2.1 (2009),3–4

[35] Ibid.

[36] Victor Turner, Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play (1982), 55

[37] Turner, Ritual, 167

[38] Gary Warne, Carnival Cosmology, posted 3 January 2012. Accessed 24 November 2015

[39] Erik Davis, TECHGNOSIS, Technology and The Human Imagination: Jason Silva and Erik Davis. Produced by Shots of Awe. YouTube. 18 March 2015. Accessed 24 November 2015

[40] John Rinaldi, Personal Interview 4 April 2012.

[41] John Rinaldi, Personal Interview 4 April 2012.

[42] Turner, Ritual, 126, 127

[43] Chuck Palahniuk, Chuck Palahniuk and the SF Cacophony Society: Creating Culture from Mayhem. 23 September, 2013. YouTube. Accessed 24 November 2015

[44] Turner, Ritual, 127

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Gary Warne, The San Francisco Suicide Club Description. 2 February 1977. Accessed 24 November 2015

[49] Turner, Ritual, 132

[50] Elaine Woo. “Theodore Roszak dies at 77; scholar coined the term ‘counterculture’”. Los Angeles Times. 14 July 2011. Accessed 19 August 2012. Accessed 24 November 2015

[51] Woo, Theodore Roszak

[52] Jentri Anders, Beyond Counterculture, (Washington State University Press, 1990)

[53] Donald P. Costello, “From Counterculture to Anticulture” in The Review of Politics, Vol. 34, No. 4, America in Change: Reflections on the 60’s and 70’s (October, 1972), 187-193

[54] Costello, Counterculture, 188.

[55] Lisa A. Lewis, The Adoring audience: fan culture and popular media. (Routledge, 1992), 31

[56] Debord Report 2,10

[57] Debord Report.2, 10

[58] Chasse, Elwell, Horelick and Verlaan, Faces of Recuperation

[59] Theodore Roszak, When the counterculture counted, 23 December 2001, Accessed 24 November 2015

[60] Costello, Counterculture, 189-190.

[61] Clifford, Taking Identity Politics Seriously, 110-111

[62] Caveat Magister, “What I’ve learned about Burning Man from reading ‘Culture and the Death of God.’”, The Burning Man Journal 6 April 2015. Accessed 24 November 2015

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