Eco-Chic Burning Man Hipsters

That curious identity politic that mixes neo-primitive fashion, ecological coolness, spiritual openness, upper middle class ambition, multiculturalism, and conscious consumerism can be coalesced under the moniker eco-chic–an elite contradictory expression of social justice and neoliberalism. It will be explored in the conference EcoChic: Connecting Ethical, Sustainable and Elite Consumption, put on by the European Science Foundation in October. The conference organizers see this expressive culture accurately in its rich contradictions. Eco-chic “is both the product of and a move against globalization processes. It is a set of practices, an ideological frame and a marketing strategy.” If you’ve spent anytime in Shoreditch, Haight, Williamsburg, or Silverlake you’ve got some experience with these hip, trendy elites. Ramesh calls them “Burning Man Hipsters.” I’ve been studying new media producers in America and eco-chic describes an important cultural incarnation of these knowledge producer’s value set. As far as anthropology is concerned, meta-categories such as eco-chic, liberalism, or transhumanism that cross cultural boundaries while remaining bound by class, challenge our discipline to revisit totalizing notions such as “culture” and “tribe.”

Eco-chic, like many other socio-cultural manifestations of neoliberalism is rife with contradiction. The fundamental contradiction being that it is a social justice movement within consumer capitalism. The producers of eco-chic goods and experiences are structured by capitalism’s profit motive. Likewise consumers of eco-chic goods and experiences are motivated by ideals that try to transcend or correct the ecological or deleterious human impacts of capitalism. Thus both producer and consumer of eco-chic are caught in a contradiction between their social justice drives and their suspension in the logic of neoliberalism. Eco chic events such as Burning Man and television networks such as Al Gore’s Current TV also express the fundamental contradiction between the social and the entrepreneurial in social entrepreneurialism. How do the contradictions within eco-chic represent themselves in American West Coast’s cultural expressions such as Burning Man and Current TV?

I don’t study eco-chic but it is a reoccurring motif. The specific location for my ethnographic encounter with eco-chic is the annual Burning Man festival that I have been attending since 2001. Combining countercultural ideals and Web 2.0 notions of sharing with ecological mindfulness and new primalism, Burning Man is the quintessential event in North America for the eco-chic radical. Following Fred Turner—and I’ve stated this before–that Burning Man is a ‘sociotechnical commons’—the cultural infrastructure for the digital media industries of California. Burning Man is expensive, catering to the Silicon Valley intelligencia who are eco-chic and have the finances to explore themselves along with 50,000 people at Black Rock City, a temporary metropole we construct for a delirious week of personal expression and community celebration on the barren alkaline plains of a Nevada desert a half-days drive from San Francisco. Thus, like most iterations of cultural and community identity in neoliberalism, Burning Man is rich with contradictions. The economic costs and carbon footprint required to freely express oneself and live briefly in alliance with nature and community and supposedly outside of capitalism, being only the most obvious contradiction.

Ethnographic research requires specificity so I have focused on one manifestation of the eco-chic culture of San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and Burning Man. Since 2006 I have been producing television documentaries and conducting participant observation with the global television network Current TV who has been exclusively covering Burning Man since 2005. Current TV, founded by famed eco-chic Vice President Al Gore, is based on the mission to democratize television production through broadcasting citizen journalism on television screens around the world. Current TV employees, of whom I have interviewed many, express eco-chic values of sustainable coolness as well as a technoutopian idealism about how new media is going to improve democracy and heal cultural and ecological fractions. Thus, like Burning Man, Current TV is full of contradictions, namely the attempt to instigate democratic processes within the most capitalized and hierarchical cultural industry–global television.

How are the contradictions of neoliberalism mediated by an eco-chic culture of media producers, digital designers, and artists spatio-temporally situated between the radically expressive neo-primitive festival Burning Man and Al Gore’s media democratizing global television network Current TV? Both of these sites of cultural production reflect the contradictions that befall the high tech cultural industrial centers of Silicon Valley in the shadow of the countercultural epicenters of San Francisco and the Bay Area. These contradictions can be summed up in the contradiction between doing good and doing well, being ecologically sensitive while being hedonistic, being trendy while being independent, and being a creative producer while also being a conscious consumer. These contradictions don’t fly. As an anthropologist I seek to critically assess these contradictions while exploring the social, historical, economic, and technological affordances that rationalize and valorize eco-chic as a valid cultural identity as well as an impacting consumer movement.

Whether eco-chic, Burning Man, and Current TV are developments of social justice within corporate culture or merely new incarnations of neoliberalism’s sophisticated production of surplus from the social justice energies of people is not an empirical question. Capitalism is fraught with contradictions, the primary one being the drive to enhance life for many while retaining a surplus for the few. The point of this research is to document how these contradictions are mediated at specific times and spaces, namely, early 21st century Silicon Valley and its proxy locations like Hollywood and Burning Man, in accordance with the institutional value sets and technological assemblages of these specific spaces.

On a more meta-level what does it mean for a larger anthropological project when it recognizes these trends in values? Chris Kelty recently talked about how “transhumanism”–that utopian value for immortality through science and technology–continues to appear throughout his research with computer scientists, hackers, and other geeks. He isn’t doing research on “transhumanists” but their values crop up consistently in the course of doing his other work. Eco-chic is like this I assume for many scholars investigating Western liberal elites. It isn’t the focus but the wider socio-cultural context for the research. When I recognize these larger patterns that appear to unify subjects across a field of seemingly disparate scenes I get that rush that I’ve finally found “culture.” Is it, or merely a typification?

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

7 thoughts on “Eco-Chic Burning Man Hipsters

  1. Eco-chic, like many other socio-cultural manifestations of neoliberalism is rife with contradiction. The fundamental contradiction being that it is a social justice movement within consumer capitalism.

    Adam, allow me to suggest that your use of ‘contradiction’ in this context amounts to nothing more than deployment of a radical chic buzzword (for ‘radical chic’ Google ‘Tom Wolfe’). Unless we sneak in the assumptions that (1) social justice is incompatible with people making money and (2) that there are no other reasonable metrics by which to judge when profit-taking becomes exploitation instead of reasonabe return.

    Please consider the possibility that fashionable buzzwords block instead of facilitate thought.

  2. Damn SM for making it impossible to edit comments. Should be ‘reasonable return’.

  3. I would also like to hear more about how you’re defining “contradiction” in this context, and why you feel it’s more appropriate than, for example, “tension” or “competing interests/values”.

    It’s a given, I think, that most people’s value systems are not free of *potential* conflicts or contradictions. What seems to matter more perhaps, with respect to questions of social justice, is the end results.

  4. I don’t want to soften the contradiction by calling it friction. Its baldly incompatible. Whether they know it or are willing to admit it, the underlying desire of many of these movements is some revolution. It isn’t a semiotic problem, or me being dualistic. While the achievements remain partial failures and partial successes there is compatibility with these movements and neoliberalism. But if they were to achieve the success they claim to want in their branded quips and performances then it would be a post-capitalist world–or at least one with a radical democratic function which would out of definition and necessity oppose the division of wealth and labor that characterizes neoliberal political economies.

  5. ‘Baldly incompatible’? Seems more like a statement of religious belief than a serious argument. How about some evidence, logic, or a compelling metaphor.

  6. The post has a bevy of examples. Here is one broken down:

    Consider for instance how starting and operating a semi-alternative cable or satellite television network is a difficult operation requiring a large amount of economic capital as well as the social capital to acquire meetings with executives in order to get carriage on satellite and cable systems from companies that tend to be some of the most politically entrenched, conservative, and elite institutions in the world. Now you hook or by crook you get a slot on Comcast or Time-Warner–and you are going to set up your studio and sit there and daily critique media consolidation, the division of wealth, and government/corporate complicity for your possible viewership of 30 million. If a network like this succeeds it will do so by putting itself out of business. To me that is a wicked contradiction.

  7. Not denying that what you describe are tough problems. The concern is about the sloppy use of ‘contradiction,’ whose strict sense implies that there are only two alternatives and, if one is true, the other can’t be, as a synonym for ‘I can’t see how this can work.’ As it turns out, there is a large literature on this topic (alas, not by anthropologists). The usual move is to introduce a distinction between public and private goods, where the former are supplied in adequate amounts to every one as a matter of justice and the latter are freely traded for whatever the market will bear. The political issue then becomes where the boundary between public and private goods is drawn. Should medical care, for example, or wireless spectrum be public goods? I would say so. Others might disagree or introduce more subtle distinctions, e.g., making emergency trauma care a public good but cosmetic surgery a private good, reserving bandwidth for purposes regarded as public goods but putting the rest up to auction. This is where serious public policy debate begins. Competing utopias tend to be more a distraction than a true contradiction. Calling them one stops, instead ofe encouraging, fruitful discussion.

    That, anyway, is how I see it.

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