The Burning Man Book

I’ve blogged about Burning Man in the past, and my remarks on what an anthropology of Burning Man might look like have now been made nicely obsolete by the new book Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind The Burning Man Event by Katherine Chen. This slim volume from University of Chicago Press is, I believe, a revised version of the author’s dissertation, which was based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork with Burning Man organizers.

I have to admit I’m a little ambivalent about the book — on one hand, it is an ethnography. Of Burning Man. On the other hand Chen’s area of specialty is organizational sociology, a field that I’ve always somehow found vaguely dissatisfying (as one sociologist dryly put it to me: “Organizational sociology? The sound of me not caring can be heard from space.”). While I don’t doubt the validity of approaches in this area (they are doubtlessly taken far more seriously by Important People than anthropologists are) I find the approach ethnographically thin, with a tendency to render social reality somewhat diagrammatically, with abstracted authorial voices.

Chen’s book is definitely written in this genre — the book takes as a case study the maturation of Burning Man from its inception to its current state. She treats the event as exemplary of a successful organization that has ‘grown up’ successfully. What she is particularly interested in is the way that Burning Man has blended collectivist practices and bureaucratic ones to find a ‘sweet spot’ which allows the organization to flourish: neither an underorganized anarchy that cannot carry out the complex logistics of the event, nor a soulless machine that kills its corporatizes it to death, Chen paints the Burning Man organizers successful in their search to build an institution that will ‘serve us rather than rule us’, and recommends it as a model to others.

The tone of the book is extremely sober, and the ethnography very careful and, as far as I can tell, competently executed — so although I’m not a fan of the genre (and can’t really appreciate the volume’s significance to scholarship in that are) I can’t take anything away from the book. Given the possible salaciousness of the topic Chen is remarkably restrained (something I’m not sure an anthropologist could manage). The story Chen tells is of organizers wrangling volunteers and planning meetings, not people rolling around naked in the desert. Given the way that she quotes — extensively — real people and uses their real names, it makes sense for Chen to adopt this prudent tone.

The meat of the book on the event’s organization is nice for the counterbalance it provides to ideas that Burning Man is a purely spontaneous event where stuff just happens (an idea that I think has become less and less common over the past ten years that I, at least, have known about the event) but it’s not exactly the sort of thing you’d give to undergraduates to read about ‘the culture of burningman’. I can, however, see it serving as the core of what could be a semester long exploration of the event that relied on other readings, videos, etc.

So if you are interested in how organizations and social movements work, or if you are into Burning Man, Chen’s book is definitely for you. If you’re interested in a ‘way of life of a people’ ethnography you might be a bit disappointed. Still, given the topic and competence with which the book is written I think this is a book anthropologists ought to know about and take a look at.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at