References and Reading

For “Cultural Sustainability and Burning Man” I developed a decent body of reference materials and I’ll share them, if you’re nice… 

Oh, okay…!×298.jpg

“The Gift” by Lewis Hyde discusses group formation and relationships created amongst a gift economy, which is one of the. Hyde’s analysis of other communities which explicitly practice gift giving as part of their culture offers an academically sound framework for the discussion of this idealized cornerstone of Burning Man culture. Readings regarding the un-sustainability of current population growth and consumption patterns (Erik Assadourian’s “The Rise and Fall of Consumer Cultures”, Wendell Berry’s “Faustian Economics” and Bill McKibben’s “Deep Economy”) provided further scholarly references for the point of departure from current mainstream cultural dogma that Burning Man culture advocates and offers.

When one is a part of Burning Man culture, by attending a ‘burner’ event or dedicating oneself to living the principles in everyday life, one may be removed from many of the definitive structures of ‘normality’. This may occur by literally retreating into a dusty desert, or by taking an exodus of the mindset and sense of self that has been previously constructed. Whatever the extent, Victor Turner’s “Liminal to Liminoid in Play and Flow and Ritual” supplies a rigourous and respected discussion of personal and philosophical expansion and transition, or what I had previously thought to be only hippy chatter.

Noyes, Dorothy. “Group,” The Journal of American Folklore 108 (1995): 449-478.
Noyes’ article, “Group” discusses the “impossibility” of a “neat definition” of the title term in a 1995 edition of the Journal of American Folklore dedicated to keywords of the field. As pioneers in this field now known as Cultural Sustainably, the slipperiness and yet imperative of creating and sharing definitions is of import. Noyes’ discussion of the fact “that groups are not homogenous,” is of great use to my discussion of the dramatically diverse Burning Man community and her description of fieldwork closely mirrors my initial interactions within this group, as does her assertion that “long and patient self-insinuation” is required for the practice – an investment I could not say I have yet fulfilled. The author’s own assertions and references to Ben-Amos, Burke and Hymes and Turner work to present a well textured understanding of ‘group’ and ‘identity’. Noyes concludes with a defeatist discussion of commodification, market society, the Situationists and the possibility that study of these is self-sabotaging which provides me with ample inspiration for the discussion of the counterculture which Burning Man is a part of.
Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books, 1993.
Geertz begins the introductory chapter to this book with what I believe is a description of the ideas “upon the intellectual landscape” which the counterculture of the 1960s and Burning Man are manifestations of. In a stroke of consoling honesty, Geertz states what I have suspected: “Anthropological writings are themselves interpretations… fictions, ‘something made’, ‘something fashioned’”, enabling me to pursue this research topic without the impossible aim of absolute understanding of the vast and varied culture and community of Burning Man. Geertz goes on to recognize the incoherence that is necessary for something so complex as a cultural system and the vast restrictions of our understanding of such an intricate entity, ending with the gross and gorgeous admission that “cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete” and the advancement of the field is defined by “better informed and better conceptualized” studies that propel scientific debate, providing an appropriate framework and objective for this endeavor.
Costello, Donald P. “From Counterculture to Anticulture,” Review of Politics: America in Change: Reflections on the 60’s and70’s, Vol. 34, No. 4, (October 1972), 187-193.
Costello’s 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. Discussing the prophetic, hopeful, warning and descriptive natures of the films, Costello questions what is next for this movement, acknowledging the intrinsically complementary nature of documentary and fiction and linking nicely with Geertz’ discussion of the field of cultural anthropology.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Though short, this article stimulated a great deal of the ideas I hope to explore in my paper. Williams’ presentation of the concepts of emerging, dominant and residual cultures first inspired me to look for echoes of the Burning Man culture amidst other social movements. The chapter’s discussion of the “incorporation” of the emergent paradigm particularly fueled my suspicion of Burning Man’s rapid growth of popularity (I wish I had time to access Thomas Frank’s “The Conquest of Cool” to explore this further for this project) and created my interest in differentiating “dominant” and “popular” cultures. Williams’ description of the potentially dramatically distant “social location of the residual” inspired my postulation that Burning Man is merely the current articulation of an alternative paradigm that was more prominent before industrialization.  Finally, the introduction of concept of social spaces initially ignored by the dominant as fertile spots for dissent which are then slowly transformed to be included in “ruling definition of the social” is directly applicable to my research topic. My concern for the applicability of author’s Marx-steeped assertions to the diverse community I am working with focus is alleviated as Williams states that the struggle of emergent society is distinct from that of the rising class.
Doherty, Brian. This is Burning Man: The Rise of the New American Underground. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2004.
Though much more academic and literary work has been published since 2004, Doherty’s “This is Burning Man” is still heralded as the quintessential book on the event, the community and the history of both (and served as my personal introduction to them too). The author weaves interviews and personal accounts into an intimately informative and surprisingly objective description and history of a counterculture that is not without controversy, politics and factions. Despite accounts that vary dramatically from ‘official’ descriptions on the Burning Man website and may seem critical of key Burning Man organization and original members, all of those I have talked to from within the movement praise Doherty’s work as an essential study guide, causing me to give merit to the history presented.
Jones, Stephen T. The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture. San Francisco: Consortium of Collective Consciousness, 2011.
Jones’ book is a poor presentation of the varied groups that make up the community of Burning Man as the title suggests, resulting in an undesirably personal account of the author’s interaction with the Burning Man event, organization and community in San Francisco. Heavily made up of/padded by editorial and journalistic contributions to the San Francisco newspaper of which Jones is an editor, the book lacks a unifying tone (or font) and the diversity of the community that I have personally encountered is disappointingly absent. But I keep this book as key reference because Jones does a great job presenting literally (in the literal sense of the word) beautiful turns of phrase to describe the ether that is the ‘it’ that Burners seem to ‘get’, and what Burning Man ‘is’.
Chen, Katherine K. Enabling Creative Chaos; The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Chen’s “Enabling Creative Chaos” is an intense discussion of the benefits and pitfalls of bureaucratic and collectivist approaches to organization. Chen applies considers these frameworks for an analysis of the distinctive and hybridized approach to business, volunteer/community building and the expression of responsibility and expectations that the Burning Man organization has taken in order to sustain the unique culture of this society. Though it could be used as an organizational management and negotiation handbook, “Enabling Creative Chaos” also describes a social structure and discusses how the fringe, marginal or unorthodox character of the community has been protected while interacting with conservative and conformist entities like the federal authorities that issue the annual permit for the Burning Man event. Chen reflects on nine years of experiential research, personal experience and genuine group participation to pen this contribution to the community of Burning Man.
Harvey, Larry. “I Am, We Are, It Is”. Reality Sandwich. 22 August 2011. Accessed 15 August 2012.
In this blog post, an expansion of a 2002 talk, Harvey reflects on the abundance, immediacy and constant offering of nature and references Hyde’s “The Gift”, Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” and an exhausting personal account of a trip to Vegas to highlight Black Rock City’s (the site that is created by the Burning Man event) gift economy as the critical response to, and vital element of distinction from, dominant culture. After extensive discussion of REDs (retail entertainment districts), Harvey proclaims that Burning Man is the hyper-commodification of experience “turned inside out”. Harvey claims the growth of Burning Man has been purposefully slowed in order to “culturally assimilate people, so they wouldn’t just come looking for a party… we knew that they’d destroy us if we didn’t slow it down.” Harvey expands upon the title of the piece, explaining that “I Am” is the sense of inner reality and authenticity that Burning Man provides a space for, “We Are” refers to a sense of unity and bonding through endeavor with others out there and “It Is” completes this progression to create a culture in which a “feeling that outside this circle there exists some greater gift that everyone is joined together by as they give to it”. Finally Harvey offers a brief description of his inadvertently meaningful act of building and burning an effigy on Baker Beach in 1986 that spawned it all.
“What is Burning Man”. Burning Man. Accessed 16 August 2012.
This site is a great introduction resource, if a possibly a bit overwhelming, for those with very little background information on Burning Man (the event, community and organization). Basic info on event location, the importance of art and the spread of the culture and formation of outreach organizations is discussed while ample links to further historical and glossary information pepper the text. Offering a descriptive essay, timelines and biographies of organizational leaders, this site offers insights into the description and definitions the organization is promoting.
“Ten Principles”. Burning Man. Accessed 16 August 2012.
The Ten Principles are heralded by many (mostly newish) members of the Burning Man community as holy tenants, but although they were brought back from a big sandy place by a guy with a beard, the principles are not commandments for acceptable behavior for community members, though they seem to be believed to be so for many. The Principles are currently the closest thing to a clear, widespread description of what Burning Man is and most importantly they are the ‘official’ line. The Principles were created to guide the development of the Regional Network of Burning Man events and are the result of one member of the Burning Man organization’s attempt to describe the commonly underlying elements of a ridiculously diverse group of people and what may be essential to creating a space that would attract ‘burners’.
Caveat Magister. “Who the Hell are Burners Anyway?”. The Burning Blog. 5 April 2012. Accessed 14 August 2012.
Caveat Magister’s blog post is what the best attempt to come to a clear description of what is means to call oneself a member of the Burning Man community I have found. Caveat references incomplete adherence to the Principles and presents examples of the radically different people, camps and activities one may find at the Burning Man event (i.e. Barbie Death Camp, hula hooping, Thunderdome) working up to a definition stating that it is made up of action and personal experience, not words and description and inherently independent, creative and messy (but we clean up after ourselves).
Rinaldi,”Chicken” John. Interview by author. Video recording. Oakland, CA. 4 April 2012.
One of the original artists who were around when Larry Harvey brought his man out to the Black Rock Desert along with the Cacophony Society in 1990, Chicken John distanced himself from the Burning Man organization (and sometimes the community) after the tragedies of the 1996 event (and subsequent responses to these events by certain members of the organization leadership). A staunch critic of the organization and community, Chicken is a radical artist who staged an (pseudo?) attempted coup of the Burning Man organization in 2005 by calling for artists to boycott the main event and join his “Borg2” theme camp (at the event) in order to bring attention to the way the event had shifted from being the platform for extreme, profound and perverse art it once was. A perpetual performer, my evening with Chicken yielded insights into the nature of the beginnings of the event and community with a severely separate story from that of Burning Man organization employees and the establishment’s website.
Jones, Stephen T. “State of the Art: As Burning Man approaches its 20th year, Bay Area artists are staging a revolt that goes to the soul of the mega-event.” San Francisco Bay Guardian. 2005. Accessed 19 August 2012.
Jones’ timely story includes interviews with Chicken regarding the reforms he was then demanding of the Burning Man organization in order to pull the event back to focus on radical art. This time of cultural challenge and shift is well documented as Jones discusses the birth of the concept of a Burner “community”, illuminating the factions and divergent purposes of the event desired by core group members and event participants. Chicken’s leadership challenge explores the artistic curatorial control the organization exercises and begs the question of what effect this control has on the identity of the event and its participants. A good basic timeline of the event is presented too.
Barnes, Rosalie. Interview by author. Video recording. San Francisco, CA. 3 April 2012.
Barnes convenes the Burning Nerds googlegroup, a small society of those pursuing academic work in relation to the Burning Man event, organization and/or community. With Harvard post-graduate qualifications regarding education, learning and the mechanics of the mind, Barnes is among those in the organization who are consciously considering the continuation and spread of the event and community. Barnes provides a young burner’s (she’s been attending since 2000) and insider’s perspective on the recent and imminent shifts of the community and how the organization has responded/is responding to or influenced/been influenced by these.
Chase, Will. “Intellectual Pursuits at Burning Man”. The Burning Blog. 15 August 2012. Accessed 19 August 2012.
In her interview, Barnes comments that in order for her to manage education in relation to Burning Man, research and reporting and a body of work must be developed first. I include Chase’s list of the intellectual pursuits that will be presented at this year’s imminent event as proof that this form of involvement and contribution is increasingly popular and relevant to many burners’ personal pursuits as well as the sustainability of the culture from both grassroots and organizational standpoints.
Styn, John “Halcyon”. “Halcyon’s Burning Man Tips & Tricks #12: ‘Artists’”. 16 August 2012. Accessed 19 August 2012.
Finally, Styn’s recent video blog post reminds the reader of what this giant fight for survival, expensive pain in the ass and stressful scholarly presentation preparation is all about. Concluding by saying, “Burning Man is not a place, Burning Man is a community. Welcome home!,” long-time burner (since 1996), lay community leader and frequent contributor to online Burning Man discussions, Styn’s point of view influences many.


  1. I fully support the Gift economy!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.