Notes Towards An Anthropology of Burning Man

In the course of advising a student the topic of Burning Man came up. The folk-notion guiding burning man, of course, is that it is a total revolt against our empty modern age and that it provides an opportunity for people to experience ‘their real selves’ and otherwise recover the authentic core of human experience — found, for instance, in primordial ‘tribal’ activities like fire eating and dancing without your shoes on — which has been denied to them by the commodity-padded iron cage of modernity that they live in.

As the following paragraph might suggest, I think of Burning Man as the ultimate in bourgeois extravagance — building a space complete with cars and water and music in the desert like that requires a mastery of technology which is nothing if not modern. Enthusiasm for all things “tribal” seems to me to invoke the most exoticizing of ‘noble savage’ tropes. And of course these days Burning Man requires a ticket, has a department of -motor- mutant vehicles, and even has Burning Man Cops. Worst of all it sinks people’s energy into endeavors which are often politically quietistic. Painting yourself blue and taking a lot of acid and then going back to your day job does not count as smashing capitalism, at least not to me.

That said, I think doing an ethnography OF ‘the Burning Man theory of subjecitvity’ — the culturally specific notions of authenticity and revolt that it embodies — would be fascinating. The entire thing is extremely Durkheimian both in its ‘annual collective effervesence in the outback’ sense but also in the sense that the US alterno scene has a genealogies connection to Durkheim (via notions of potlatch, the college de sociologie, etc. etc.).

But whatever. Perhaps its unfair of me to have this opinion of Burning Man. To each his own. But in my support I offer a random smattering of links to help deflate the tendency to write Burning Man as the Ultimate Postmodern Revolt:

*Here’s a “Bad Subjects”: article on Burning Man from 1995 — very early.

*”Achtung Hippie!: Reflections On The Burning Man Scam”: and a “follow up article”: from the same blog.

*”Confessions of a Burning Man”: is a new documentary I’d be interested in seeing — has anyone else seen this?

More links or ideas would be great — feel free to let me (or Burning Man) have it!

UPDATE: Here are some links from readers —

  • “Burning Man: A Working-Class, Do-It-Yourself Affair”: by Chris Carlsson, Processed Worlds 2.005 04/05
    *”Many More Films About Burning Man”: our commenter rachel reccomends ‘Dust Devils’

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

35 thoughts on “Notes Towards An Anthropology of Burning Man

  1. I’m not an anthropologist, but am a Bman attendee. I’m not a radical burner and can only stand a few days on the Playa. I understand both sides of the argument – but I think your interpretation, in my experience, is a little wide of the mark – and it’s a common perception from people that have never been. With 35K attendees what people bring to and take home from the event varies beyond being off your knockers on acid. It’s easy to make generalisations about a community and thereby miss its complexities and contradictions.

    But yes, it is bourgeouis, and very white. It’s interesting that a ‘radical community’ has so many rules. I also feel that a lot of money is put back into the ‘Community’ that might be better spent on more worthwhile causes. I also think the BMan community can be too focused on itself. I would welcome a debate that didn’t end up being polarised between the pro-/anti BMan factions.

    However, if want a reference, Dust Devils is a great film and came closest to defining my experience.

  2. Chris Carlsson wrote what he (I think half-jokingly—& I may be misremembering this) called an ‘ethnography’ of Burning Man in the final issue of Processed World magazine.

    I totally smashed Capitalism when I was at Burning Man, but boy did I regret it… Can we have a different vanguard at the next revolution?

  3. Now, I’ve heard you went to Reed College (where I’m a Student) & your crack, “Painting yourself blue and taking a lot of acid … does not count as smashing capitalism, at least not to me” sounds like it could serve as an easy dig at your alma mater.

    But seriously, Colleges in America, and especially school’s with reputations (and/or certain structural allowances) for hedonism, carry similar expectations to the Burning Man vibe: a rarified atmosphere–a “wild” time–held more or less apart from the standard arc of bourgeois productivity, in which you are expected to “find” and nurture your “self” before entering or returning to the workforce, where you will be duly expected to promptly sublimate this “true” leisure-self.

    I guess that’s cynical. Maybe the drugs and the new agey mythos are just there to help you cope with the fact that your true self is one drawn to day glo wigs and pilot goggles.

  4. First: I have no idea what you are talking about with regards to my alma mater. I am unaware of any photographic evidence and deny all involvement in any of the activities in which I am rumored to have participate 🙂

    But more seriously, I think Undergrad’s point is a good one — while my snarky 3 paragraph post can’t possibly due justice to the complexity of an event with a long history and tends of thousands of people (as rachel points out), one claim that I would be willing to defend is that despite some participants sense of its utter uniqueness, Burning Man is like a LOT of things we have in the ethnographic record. This was the point of my sly (or not so sly) reference to _Elementary Forms of the Religious Life_ — in many ways (and perhaps most important ways) Burning Man is an utterly mundane example of a phenomenon that we see all the time. The idea of ‘wild college life’ being another apposite exampe.

    Of course this observation isn’t meant to take away from whatever emotional significance people take away from Burning Man — after all, marriages happen all the time but mine still matters to me more than all the others I’ve attended.

  5. Hi,

    As an anthropologist AND one-time attendee (1999) I have to agree with Rachel that the critique was uninformed.

    The above-maligned enthusiasm for the tribal is more correctly an enthusiasm for community. And really, what is wrong with that? Further, I dislike it when anthropologists set themselves up as ‘gatekeepers’ to the primitive…ahem.

    There is an incredible amount of creativity that goes on, and considering how many people are there, a very kind and pleasant space.

    Go first, judge later.

  6. I think Burning Man resembles theme parks and historically fairs and carnivals. I don’t get the reference to anti-capitalism. Or it is obvious to me that the rebellion is not of that sort.

    The Bad Subjects essay lists a number of culturally distinct groups brought together, so the openness of the Burning Man community structure is apparent.

    I think Burning Man is a last gasp of effort to this sort of theme park theory. It sounds boring to me. Tacky concepts of art. Nothing special except the crowd to look at. I’d be surprised if there were still tens of thousands doing this in ten years. Or that it would reach the mid century mark in longevity.


  7. Three comments:

    1. Just because the ideas and premises underlying activities that people see as resistance have a lot in common with the ideas and premises underlying the things they see themselves resisting doesn’t mean you can discount the effectiveness of their activities: as cultured subjects it stands to reason that people would try to act (resist)in ways that are meaningful to them and that this would mean that their actions share a lot of assumptions with other members of the society in which they live. It is only within a functionalist framework which assumes that cultural forms are shaped in order to effect social reproduction that the similarities between resisters and those they resist would necessarily imply the failure of ressiting activity. (This is not meant to suggest anything about the effectiveness of burning man.)

    2. Of course “tribalisms” of various sorts are more a part of our culture than resembling any other (“primitive”) culture. So what? One imagaines the same (in reverse) is true of (say) Ipili notions of “modernity” which hardly means those notions and the ways people act on them are without effect in the Ipili world.

    3. Stallybrass & White (_Poetics and Politics of Transgression_) have this to say on the carnivalesque that seem relevent to Burning Man and other periods of “wildness”:

    bq. It actually makes little sense to fight out the issue of whether or not carnivals are intrinsically radical or conservative, for to do so automatically involves the false esentiallizing of carnivalesque transgression … The most that can be said in the abstract is that for long periods carnival may be a stable and cyclical ritual with no noticable politically transformative effects but that, given the presence of sharpened political antagonism, it may often act as catalyst and site of actual and symbolic struggle (1986:14).

  8. Nice discussion here, as usual.

    Besides the Durkeim, how about a little American historicism, looking at Burning Man in light of other West-coast traditions of getting funky in the woods, like the rainbow family or the Oregon country fair? Both of those annual traditions seem (AFAIK) to have incubated relatively permanent communities of people practicing avowedly radical and occasionally unhypocritical forms of lifestyle resistance.

    (Congrats on the job, Mr. Rex!)


  9. OK this is a long one:

    Jeff hits the nail on the head. One of the big questions for me as someone rooted in these west coast countercultural traditions is to what extent Burning Man can be seen as a bourgeoisification or depoliticization of them. There complex currents at work here which include situation Burning Man in terms of the SF counterculture node or the slightly different Northwest node. Such a history would have to go back at least to the growth of New Age on the west coast and focus on how the scene in the Bay Area was changed by and influenced the growth of the current post-Internet boomers who (imho) fuel a lot of the burning man stuff. It could be I’m just bitter my own version of this stuff wasn’t the one that won out.

    So it is interesting to contrast burners with the Permanent Counter Culture in Oregon in terms of ‘hypocritical’ or ‘unhypocritical’ lifestyle resistance — althoguh if we did take this up I’d be leery of the term ‘hypocritical’. Of course none of this speaks to whether or not either of those communities are actually effective political agents.

    uh… there is actually much more to say on this topic but it involves details of commentors Real Lives being involved in these scenes that I know but perhaps they don’t want to spread around here.

    Re: Comet Jo’s comments, 1) you’re right — it isn’t surprising that burners act as they do. That was in fact my point.

    2) yes, imaginations of the other are part of every collectivity that considers itself to be an “us”. You ask: “so what?” My answer: such imaginations become part of a constellation of power which has important effects. If you doubt the power of imaginings of the ‘primitive’ to impact people’s lives in meaningful ways, I’d suggest you come to Waikiki and learn more about the cultural politics and political economy of Hawaii. Alternately, you could visit Porgera, where many Ipili are spending money from an unsustainable resource because they think it _is_ sustainable because of their understanding of ‘the outside world’.

    3) Stallybrass and White are exactly correct that it is no use arguing whether “carnivals in the abstract” as they put it are conservative or disruptive. Luckily we are not talking about ‘carnivals’ in general but one particular event, Burning Man, which obviously we can examine ethnographically in some detail.

  10. Best thing written about Burning Man: Hermenaut # 16, a savage journey to the heart of American participant- observation which involved bringing an actual dunking booth and salad bar to the great festival (not online).

    Rex, I don’t see the point of writing towards an anthropology of Burning (straw: icon and symbol, probably index too) Man without citing a word of native testimony, let alone going there. If it’s “an utterly mundane example of a phenomenon that we see all the time,” why bother? The Deadbeats already covered this eloquently in “one of the greatest art-punk recordings ever”:

  11. /me sighs

    Let me do this slowly:

    1. Thanks for the reference to Hermenaut
    2. I am interested in learning more about what people who have been to Burning Man think. THAT’S WHY I POSTED LINKS TO THE ACCOUNTS OF PARTICIPANTS IN MY POST. That’s why I asked for more information, thoughts, opinions by people who knew more about it then me. That’s why I was interested in learning more about films that have made about it. Honestly.

    It’s true I have no interest in going to Burning Man myself. As for the idea that it is impossible to talk or think about something unless you have ‘really been there’ — well if this is the standard we’re using then we might as well write off (to take a totally random topic) all work on, say, the cultures of the ancient middle east, since all we have left is the cuneiform and ruins — I mean NONE OF US ACTUALLY LIVED IN ANCIENT ASYRRIA. How could we ever know what they thought of felt?

    3. You don’t be surprised to hear that as an anthropologist, I think all aspects of the human experience are interesting even the ones that are mundane.

  12. This argument doesn t work, Rex. There is a difference between the academic disciplines of history and sociocultural anthropology.
    Nonetheless I think one can well do an ethnography that is related to an event one has not participated oneself, BUT that would not be an anthropology of the event but, say, an anthropology of partcipants’ perceptions. A comparable controversial has appeared in the field of games studies.

  13. Wow what a strange idea — and what a bizarre definition of anthropology! I don\’t suppose you\’ve heard of \’historical anthropology\’ or books like \”The Return of Martin Guerre\”? Do you think \”Social Stratification in Polynesia\” isn\’t anthropology because it was a library dissertation? Or Chrysanthemum and the Sword?

  14. Seth, thanks for mentioning Hermenaut’s group-authored “Dunking Booth at Burning Man” essay in this fascinating discussion about fake authenticity, which was the theme of Hermenaut 16 (I was the editor). Little-known fact: I was making fun of the Bad Subjects paean to Burning Man in my own contribution to “Dunking Booth.”

    Rex, if you drop me a line, I’d be happy to send you a copy of Hermenaut 16….

  15. I haven’t participated in Burning Man, nor do I see that one needs to have “been there” in order to analyze and comment; I have attended other fire festivals, both formal and informal. I would suggest that one of the reasons why some people look down their noses at Burning Man is that its transgressive aspects are both celebrated *and* denied, that it is child’s play, avoiding the real consequences that full transgression may set in motion. If we compare Burning Man with the Saturday Night joy-riding rodeos that occur in many European cities – and Presdee does make this comarison, at least in passing, in his book, Carnival of Crime – it becomes clear that at the heart of the latter is the fact that the participants thumb their noses at the law. It is, as Ian Dury’s song had it, a bit of ‘mischief‘.

    Burning Man, on the other hand, strives to be ‘bon enfant’. It also strives to be – at least in principle – without costs. The second principle states that one should give without expecting a return – to quote : ” Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.” Enough to make any anthopologist groan, I would have thought.

    It is one of those middle class utopian projects founded on a memory of childhood, or of what it is felt childhood should be. When they talk about community, they mean that warm, wonderful family that no-one ever really had.

    So although Presdee points out that it is, in essence, delinquent, it is that protected form of delinquency that William Chambliss’s Saints enjoyed. To that extent, it has all the thrills of the Town Hall carnival. The Roughnecks, on the other hand, racing their stolen cars around the estate, and then setting light to them upon the hill, express just those elements of carnival that the Town Hall has been at pains to suppress.

    Please note that I do not wish to argue that the Roughneck version is closer to “true” carnival, or that it is more authentic, more heroic, than Burning Man. I regard both Burning Man and the rodeo as interesting sociologically, but I would no longer be particularly interested in full participation in either of them.

  16. Is anyone here actually an anthropologist? My thirty years in the field has always found me conducting fieldwork and participant observation on the topics I study. The armchair levels of speculation here are hard to fathom. I have attended Burning Man three times over the last dozen years, and would not claim to be an expert, but having actually been there, I would say that almost nothing written here seems to have anything to do with what actually occurs there. This entry seems to be an absurd exercise in academic foolishness and has nothing to do with actualy anthropology.

  17. Now that is self-destructive tosh. If no-one can say anything about an event that they have not actually participated in, then no academic discipline – including anthropology – is possible. All you have left is ‘witnessing’ – and why anyone should fund that, I can’t imagine.

  18. re Rex: “Wow what a strange idea—and what a bizarre definition of anthropology!”

    I ve taken time to reread what I have written above and I agree my statements are fuzzy.
    I checked if by chance a “definition of anthropology” has slipped out unconsciously, but frankly: there is none.

    “I don’t suppose you’ve heard of ‘historical anthropology’..”

    I have heard of “historical anthropology” and still am figuring out what a) these folks do (academically) and b) what distincts them from historians with anthropologic approach.

    ” ..or books like “The Return of Martin Guerre”?”

    I haven’t read that book. Just seen Somersby, u know, and after I learned that the story is based upon a historical episode, that it “really had happened”, I bedan thinking about similar issues as Davis does referring to above linked description. What I would add are dynamics of group action, as it’s not about a single womans actions, but a community that other man returned to from guerre. Does this make me an anthropologist? Certainly not.
    Whether Davis’ book is anthropology or not I leave to the ones who have read it.

    “Do you think “Social Stratification in Polynesia” isn’t anthropology because it was a library dissertation? Or Chrysanthemum and the Sword?”

    Can’t tell. Have neither read Benedict nor Sahlins.
    But once we are offtopic, term ‘library dissertation’ strikes me. I suppose this is a dissertation that has not been ‘published’. (? I searched for ‘verlegen‘ in the sense of what a ‘Verlag‘ does. My confusion is rooted in the fact that a dissertation that is available at a library IS ‘published’ in the sense of ‘available to the public’) But may be a ‘library dissertation’ anyway is something entirely different.

    Do you think I (or someone else, an appropriate training in ethnography and fieldwork given) could conduct anthropologic research on ‘gaming’ without ‘gaming’ oneself?

  19. “Do you think I (or someone else, an appropriate training in ethnography and fieldwork given) could conduct anthropologic research on ‘gaming’ without ‘gaming’ oneself?”

    Ask how the Rosaldos did their ethnographic research on “headhunting”, or how Pierre Clastres did his research on “cannibalism”. Participant-observation is a tricky beast — but whatever it is, it is not solely “participation”.

  20. People know this is a blog right? If it took 18 months of every fieldwork for every single post, this place would be a bit stagnant.

  21. Maniaku’s comment is cute, but it also underlines why blogs have almost nothing to do with academic work. God forbid that anthropologists base statements on participant observation or other forms of research.

  22. Splinter\’s comment is not based on actual research. Read the blog and you\’ll see that many posts are based on research – primary, secondary, or otherwise. Some people like the freedom to speculate that blogs offer. If you don\’t, I suggest you stick to reading journals.

  23. Orange: a ‘library thesis’ is the term used to refer to a dissertation that is written based on research conducted in a library, not fieldwork. In the United States, it used to be traditional that anthropologists write Ph.D.s based on library work and _then_ go and do field research. This changed after WWII, at which point it became commmon for people to do fieldwork for their dissertation.

  24. Maniaku’s comment is cute, but it also underlines why blogs have almost nothing to do with academic work. God forbid that anthropologists base statements on participant observation or other forms of research.

    In my opinion, to see this blog as ‘academic work’ is kind of the wrong way to frame it. Therefore, whether the question as to whether an ‘academic work’ can take place on a blog is kind of irrelevant (and I think it is, more than anything, a matter of the political and institutional structure(s) that surround ‘academic work’ ).

    Also, please don’t misread me in saying that research is irrelevant. If people who have experience can offer a convincing or credible counter-opinion then that is great*. Nor am I necessarily endorsing Rex’s opinion, I just think it is an interesting topic and he should, you know, be able to write about something outside his direct speciality sometimes. In fact, I might go so far as to say that hyperspecialization in actual ‘academic work’ can be problematic, and a semi-open forum, like a blog, is a relief.

    *Note–I would not consider a post like Stuebing’s to be an example–how could you? It contains neither evidence nor argument–just an appeal to authority and a dismissive tone.

  25. You folks need to get unhypocritical yourselves and do the fieldwork… Burning Man is a phenomenon of high subjectivity/immediate experience that cannot be understood or analyzed accurately without direct experience. It is not Assyria, it is available.

  26. OK, Rex, so it’s all Assyria.
    Ephemera, ephemera, nothing stands still.

    But doesn’t hearsay suck
    when you can collect your own data?
    Nineveh is just 100 m. north of Reno.
    Lots of anthropos and other beings there, in situ.

    Isn’t anthropology the discipline that first challenged
    the ruse of scientific objectivity in human studies?

    Labor Day week, next year.
    Prepare like a boy scout,
    stay present and open,
    and you’ll have a lot to write about.

  27. Stuebing says:

    “Is anyone here actually an anthropologist?”

    I would really like to get into this topic in the future. In my experiences with psytrance festivals in Morocco (I’ve attended two in the past 4 years–does that count?), I’ve really been impressed that this international psytrance community keeps long-term, multigenerational community ties. So whether or not they can be reduced to a “countercultural” ideological grouping, it’s pretty clear that they do form some sort of online and realspace community.

    Now, determining whether or not Burning Man’s attempt to defeat capitalism through barter will succeed is not my major interest. Just the fact that such communities exist and work, however temporarily (Paris Commune, Barcelona?), is a huge burst of hope and a shot of anti-despair, OK? No matter how reactionary, carnivals are still fun, and fun still matters and is necessary, IMHO.

  28. I read a remark that one didn’t have to go to Burning Man to comment on it. Perhaps not in a legal sense, but I would ask somebody who did so, where what confidence he had in his conclusions came from – what kind of science is this that builds theory in the absence of observation?

    Having been there myself, I would agree that the claims made for Burning Man by its boosters tend to be greatly exaggerated, but one of them in particular is not – you do not get any real sense of the experience just by looking at the photos. You get a little more of a taste of it, perhaps, by watching the films, but even then, much of the experience of being there simply doesn’t carry over onto the screen and much of what takes place isn’t even portrayed. In some cases, this is for legal reasons which we need not dwell on, and in others because what is taking place is a kind of comfortable personal interaction that would not remain comfortable or natural with cameras pointing at the participants. Interaction which takes place in real time over a week, engaging all five senses – and good luck to anybody attempting to make a film that does that.

    What we’re left with is the assertion that “just because I haven’t seen something or encountered a description if it, that doesn’t mean that I don’t know what it is like”; In fact, it sort of does. I can understand not wanting to spend the sums required to go to Burning Man itself, but there are smaller events called “burns” run and attended by many of the same people, where you could gain firsthand experience of the subculture. Bring an open mind, and you may have an interesting experience.

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