Why does Burning Man have no literary culture?


This dictionary has a lot of words in it, but picking a “word of the day” is not a literary culture.

John Curley once wrote that many of the world’s greatest photographers come from around the globe specifically to take pictures at Burning Man.  It’s obvious why.  Burning Man has pioneered a unique visual aesthetic.

Look at a picture:  there’s no question that it came from Burning Man.

It’s not just photography.  Look at sculptures, or installation art:  there’s no ambiguity which are in a “Burning Man” style and which aren’t.  Some people at Burning Man may do other things (God bless ‘em) but Burning Man has still pioneered a distinctive look in the fine arts that many imitate but no one else really owns.

Architecture?  Same thing.  Fashion?  You betcha.  Sure you’ll find people in all kinds of outfits out on the playa … but when we talk about “Burning Man fashion,” we all know what we’re talking about.

While the arts at Burning Man are very diverse, the fact remains:  for years Burning Man has been the center of major new trends in all the visual arts, and is still going strong, its distinctive influence only growing.

What about music, though?

That’s more complicated.  However many of us wish it were different, Burning Man definitely has a distinct sound:  a week of throbbing dubstep is practically synonymous with “Burning Man.”  Again, not the only thing you’ll hear out there (I for one sing sea chanties, and Adrian has been evangelizing mash-ups for years), but definitely a signature.  If someone says “Burning Man music” that’s what most people think of, and everyone knows it.

Unlike with the visual arts, however, I don’t think a serious case can be made that Burning Man is pioneering this sound.  In fact, it’s fairly derivative of rave culture and club music.  Sure, many of the world’s greatest DJs come to Burning Man to perform, but where the photographers are coming to take pictures that they couldn’t possibly take anywhere else in the world, the DJs are coming to do exactly what they do elsewhere for an audience.

It’s probably fair to say that Burner culture has an influence on that music, but we’re not leading the aesthetic.

That’s a pretty big jump down in influence from the visual arts to music.  And when you get to the written word the influence disappears entirely.

Burning Man has no signature writing style, derivative or otherwise.  For all the hundreds of books and articles that have been written about Burning Man over 26 years, for all the scholarly papers, the blog posts … no particular verbal style has emerged.  Saying “that’s like something you’d read at Burning Man” is nonsensical.  Could be anything.

Burning Man has no particular style of poetry, no particular authorial “voice.”  The Great Burning Man Novel has yet to be written – let alone to inspire others to write under its influence.

Why is that?  Why does Burning Man have such an advanced visual aesthetic … one that truly is influencing the whole world … and absolutely no literary culture at all?

I’m honestly asking here.  I don’t know.  I’m hoping someone can tell me.

I do have a few ideas to put out there, for what it’s worth, but nothing that adds up to a theory.  Here we go:

Visual Arts are often more collaborative

A single person can’t build the Man, or the Temple;  a single person can’t build the massive sculptures we take for granted, or be their own troop of fire dancers.  These kinds of visual projects need teams, they need communities, and so are well suited for the kind of culture Burning Man is and aspires to be.

Writing can be done collaboratively but … well … other than collections of stories and essays, can you name one great book that was written collaboratively?  Where a group of people got together and said “what’s the right word to put here?”  It doesn’t work that way – at least not well.  While there are forms of writing that are more social than others, writing as compared to the teamwork needed to construct massive installations and sculptures and architecture is a solitary pursuit, and thus perhaps doesn’t go well with Burner culture.

Reading and Writing aren’t really something we do at Burning Man

Not only is the experience of creating literature a more solitary process, but the experience of reading it is generally more solitary as well.  The archetypal novel, after all, is read quietly to oneself in a comfortable spot for hours on end.

There are, of course, poetry readings in which words are digested out loud – and Burning Man has those.  There’s even a regular spoken word series at the Center Camp Café stage.

But even these are harder to experience than most visual arts.  Want to see the temple?  Show up any time, day or night.  Stay as long as you want.  Chat with your friends.  Write something on the wall.

Want to see a poetry reading?  You have to show up exclusively when it’s happening, and the best way to experience it is to sit or stand quietly for a prolonged period of time.  Well, okay, it doesn’t have to be quiet necessarily:  if it’s especially awesome you’ll be shouting like a hyperactive Greek chorus … but that’s a best case scenario.  What you can’t do is talk with your friends, turn your back and go do something else and then come back later, or zone out.

Visual arts can be experienced on your schedule, at your level of engagement, and even be consumed passively.  Literature of the communal kind cannot.  You have to be an active participant at a specific time and place – even if being “active” in this case means sitting still and listening.

The way visual art is experienced is more conducive to Burner culture and Burning Man’s logistics.

There are exceptions, of course:  if you want to see the Man burn you need to be at a particular place at a particular time.  But that kind of event is a mainstay of Burner culture.  What would the literary equivalent of that be?

Nothing comes to mind.

Like attracts like

Burning Man was originally centered around an icon:  a literal wooden man burning on a beach.  All kinds of people can (and did) say “that’s cool, I want a piece of that,” but the people most eager to participate in the creation of startling visual images will be people interested in startling visual images.  It may be that Burning Man developed an extraordinary visual aesthetic over 26 years because people were doing extraordinary things with visual images at its beginning – and that it didn’t develop any kind of literary culture because that’s not what people were doing back when.  Like attracts like.

A literary culture takes longer to develop

I don’t know why this would be, exactly, but maybe it does.  If only we could know whether primitive homo sapiens were exchanging poems around the camp fire before they were painting cave walls.

Sheer coincidence

Can’t rule it out – though I find the idea unsatisfying.  But could be.

Any and all of these could be true, or not.  In any case, the important question is probably not “why hasn’t Burning Man developed a literary culture thus far?” but “is one going to develop in the future?”

If not, why not?  Will we be missing something important?  Is this gap relevant?

If so, what will it be like?  What would a Burning Man literary aesthetic be like?

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization.  Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat grew up wanting to be a Russian novelist, but the closest he ever came was getting personally insulted by the first democratically elected president of Poland. Now the volunteer coordinator for Burning Man's Media Team (itself a volunteer position), Caveat has been messing with Burners for the last five years, and has a hard time believing some of the stuff they've let him get away with. He is a publisher at Omnibucket.com, served as editor of Chicken John’s philosophical autobiography “The Book of the Is,” and archives his publications and personal blogs at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

75 thoughts on “Why does Burning Man have no literary culture?

  • It didn’t attract much attention at the time, and I doubt it answers many of the questions posed by this debate, but curious cats might be interested to see the results of my collaborative writing project from 2011, First Degree Burns: Transmissions from the Playa.

    Basically, I recruited about 40 volunteers from around the world to transport same number of notebooks out to the playa, all with one directive: Write something and pass along. Of those 40 notebooks, about about a third of them eventually showed up in my mailbox, the contents of which I scanned into PDF files. Drawings, stories, poems, chili stains — you name it, it’s in there!

    Anyway, I’d post the links, but there are 7 total and that’s about 6 too many if I read the forum guidelines correctly. If anyone would like to see them, just holler at arthur (dot) graham (dot) pub (at) gmail (dot) com.

    Report comment

  • Back in 2003 I became captivated by the idea that Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Palm at he End of the Mind” captured the essence of the theme concept – The Realm of the Wholly Other – and HAD to be there on playa…. This led to a rather ill-fated but fun installation. The story can be found at http://www.sharktown.com/burningman03b/html. From there you can click on a link to the resulting correspondence with Lady Bee, which may be sort-of illuminating. (:o)

    Report comment

  • As an author of five published novels, I’ve participated on the Word Stage in Center Camp. For the Metropolis theme I read from a novel in progress THE LAST HOTEL about a residential hotel in NYC 1979. These readings are never publicized and have an audience of whoever happens to around, awake or asleep. I would like to participate in creating a more cohesive literary community.

    Report comment

  • Perhaps this discussion is just neglecting the oral aspect of our word based culture. These oral tradition are the roots of modern literary culture.

    The Burning Man oral tradition is strong (and girthy.) Almost any repeat offender can relate to the process of settling in / adjusting to the playa’s social atmosphere each year. This is largely because there is a strong and idiosyncratic style to Burning Man’s oral communication tradition.

    Report comment

  • I hoped to participate in an open mic at center camp, to share my own readings and ruminations, but the scheduling fell away and I was pushed back more than once. Hardly a surprise. I went to deliver mail and never made it back and shrugged off my later “performance” time.

    In most instances, the mic was given over to music.

    I’ve never met a writer who was a writer.

    Report comment

  • I’ve only been to one Burn to date. I can’t say I saw, heard, felt, smelled, tasted, or sensed anything to make me wonder why there wasn’t some written imprint of the experience too.

    But I think I’d go to Center Camp for an open mike session or two and hear what people are trying to capture in words about it and see if it makes me wonder why there isn’t more of that too.

    At least so long as it doesn’t cut into my playing in the dirt time or regress into writer’s workshop shtuff. Get enough of that on the rest of the planet.

    Report comment

  • Hi Caveat–

    So glad you’ve brought up this topic. I’m the organizer of the magazine, KEROSENE, that was mentioned in an early comment on this post. KEROSENE is, essentially, collaborative writing. Although each person wrote his or her own story or poem, for me as the organizer, the real beauty of it was how these many stories illuminated each other collectively. KEROSENE was uncurated–fully inclusive, anyone who offered a piece was published. At first I (and some others) were worried we’d just get a mishmash and a lot of junk. But as things revealed themselves, it was the mix that was truly interesting. KEROSENE was offered as a magazine but also as a literary kiosk at Center Camp. The kiosk was there 24/7 so anyone could read it. People were also asked to write new pieces and offer them through a mail chute in the kiosk (I was supposed to create a KEROSENE supplement with them and have been lazy about getting it together). And there was a web posting of KEROSENE, although in a difficult format that I wish I had done differently. Wanna see? Go to http://www.brcnyc.com/kerosene.html

    Was there a specific “Burner” writing style? Nope, I really don’t think so. And shit, I sure wouldn’t want that, either. When we all start to sound like each other, then I think things start to suck. Plus, is there *really* a Burner art style? The art projects run the gamut–for instance, what is similar about the zip tie project that the German newbies brought to the play in 2012 and, let’s say, the giant Kokopelli construction that was the New Mexico 2012 CORE project? Or the small fire-breathing metal dragon robot that I saw attached to the top of a gate at a camp on Esplanade and, for instance, the giant octagula star built out of wood by Philly Burners for their CORE project? Maybe snark is a Burner writing style but if so, let’s let it die a simple death.

    Because I was creating KEROSENE, I heard about more of the literary things going on at the Burn. People were offering writing workshops and readings around the playa. Although I didn’t see any libraries on the playa in 2012, I saw two in 2011. The most incredible Burner literary art in 2012 were the Captain’s Logs on the pirate ship. I took the time to sit down and read them cover to cover. They were beautiful and well worth the time. Sure, people were outside dancing under the burning sun, but inside the ship, it was quiet and shady as I read. People thought I was a mannequin as I sat so still, and they took pictures of me and were shocked when I moved. A little boy told me his grandfather told him that if you read too much, your head will fall off and he wanted to sit around and watch me read to see if mine did. I call this Burner literary culture!

    One things about literary projects is that Burning Man Org doesn’t fund literary magazines or printing projects the way they do art projects… and it’s expensive to print. I definitely think they should rethink that policy. I offered KEROSENE in three formats–printed, kiosk and website. This year, as I’m poor, if I do KEROSENE at all, I’ll do the kiosk and webbie and save money on printing (even though it really was a beautiful printed book).

    As for KEROSENE, I thought it made a very small splash at the Burn in 2012 and, since I’m not even sure I’m going this year, I’ve held off on putting out a 2013 call for writing. But this conversation is heartening. I do think KEROSENE needs to keep going–not just in 2013 but for many years to come. Then Burning writing will develop. I’d love to communicate with anyone on Burning writing. ESPECIALLY, IF YOU’D LIKE TO TALK ABOTU HOW TO GET KEROSENE BACK TO THE PLAYA IN 2013 (possibly without me being physically present) I WOULD LOVE TO TALK TO YOU: KeroseneKrew here: KeroseneKrew (at) gmail.com.

    That aside, if we want Burning writing to grow, then we need to talk. Thanks so much, Caveat, for getting the conversation going in a good public venue.

    Dusty hugs,

    Report comment

  • There are a few hardships in writing about Burning Man. Faulkner once said that every novel must have conflict. Truthfully there is not much conflict at festivals… on the surface. I know many of us realize that the celebration of life and seeing the world as a festive environment can greatly change the way the world works through changing perspective. For this reason the festival is the solution for many, and in being that we discover a way to solve all problems away from the playa. The playa and the occurrences on it can even be the tip of movement if you like, the higher lifted and light layers which lack the weight of what Burning Man attempts to solve within it. It does not have within it is poverty, hunger, and suffering (though it does have love pangs). Again this all does not occur because these things are not allowed to enter the small time at Burning Man. Well done people.

    That being said, I am sure that there are many who think or even are working on writings. A great novel, a philosophical inquiry into the way of life, a cultural masterpiece may even be in the works, but for it to have any real literary power it must look at the question of conflict and ask what conflicts does Burning Man have and approach.

    One last tid bit. The people of Burning Man and the world will love a piece of literature, because 40+ weeks of the year we are not at Burning Man. As we know the culture and presence of Burning Man is not only on the playa, it is at our homes, our parties, it is in our dreams and permeates through our entire consciousness. With time a literary work and maybe a few will arise each as unique as the countless experiences on the playa.

    Enjoy the Day,
    Cherish the Night

    Report comment

  • I believe the children of Black Rock City will create the literary culture, if they haven’t already. Those Burners born into the culture, who have visited BRC every year of their lives, will write the novels.

    I imagine a ‘Catcher in the Rye’ set in our ephemeral desert city. It may be a scathing critique of the old order, the expression of a rebellion against the Burning Man culture represented by the founding generation (Larry Harvey, et al).

    Caveat, look to the under 20 crowd, your friends’ kids, and you may be pleasantly surprised at what they are creating.

    Report comment

  • Now I’m thinking that Burning Man does have a literary culture, a social, evolving part of what makes it what it is. There’s the 10 principles, BM newspapers distributed on playa, this blog, eplaya, books and articles, shared personal writings, etc. Writing may not be the first thing most people, including most burners, think of when they think of Burning Man, but it’s there and it’s important to the experience for those of us who write and read. As I said, I don’t see a unifying style, but that’s not surprising. Our writing style develops long before we’ve heard of Burning Man and that style likely continues largely unchanged as we start attending burns. As part of a shared experience, writings may share similar topics, jokes, concerns, etc., that may be relatable to other burners. There’s also a style difference in forums (eplaya, books, etc.) but it can all rightly be considered part of Burning Man’s literary culture.

    Report comment

  • I think burning man dose have a literary culture it just dose not, as of yet, have a place to show case it. I see bits and pieces of literature here and their. Here are a couple of poems for your amusement.

    Deep playa plunge

    Be careful in the deep playa, something has been awakened
    It was the middle of the night and my mind was altered
    With the energy of the evening pounding
    Foolishly I decided to do a deep playa plunge
    I hit the esplanade then passed the man
    The music, lights, and art slowly settled behind me
    My two wheels floating me into the abyss
    I raced on to parts of the playa that few go
    How far out was I one mile, two?
    The darkness spilled out before me
    The tone of the night still playing in my head
    Suddenly the wind started molesting me with it’s dirty fingers
    Then the sand reached up and grabbed my tires
    I fell over and when I arose I could see it… off in the distance…something?
    What is that?
    The soiled wind shielded it from me
    Is that art? Or… my mind and eyes strained
    The wind shifted and I could see it was moving in a ghostly way
    I looked around for others…only darkness
    It suddenly turned and started to move towards me
    As if.. as if it sensed my presence
    I felt a primal fear, something is wrong
    I tried to ride away but the playa keep griping my tire and the wind pushing me down
    Closer and closer it came I could feel it’s presents
    After I hit the ground the third time I rolled over and looked up
    It loomed over me
    It reached down and grabbed me
    I tried to get away but to no avail
    Like the terrible beast it was it devoured me whole
    I had confronted my own reality

    By Dr. Realz

    Stay dusty

    To all the virgins who have been de-flowers
    To all the one two and long timers who have been re-dusted
    you got your kicks your fix, your attitude recomplexed
    You will try to explain to others
    but unless they have been they just won’t get
    not a spectator but part
    we build nothing from not
    what proof do we have?
    we burnt all art!
    did that really happen!
    let’s go back and see..
    sorry you will just have to wait another year to be
    keep dusty bitches

    Dr. Real’z

    Report comment

  • This might be Burning Man literature:

    default story:

    the chakras expounded:

    annnd an outline for a book called DUBSTEP:


    – The Prince of Neptune
    theprinceofneptune here: theprinceofneptune (at) yahoo.com

    Report comment

  • I think of Burning Man as having a literary element. Like many who have already posted I see the graffiti on the Temple to be a form of our collective story, and one that literally burns and gets released back into nothing. Is the burning of our collectively written book (the man, the temple, etc.) not an intense statement? If book burning is meant to destroy knowledge is our act then possibly finding empowerment and knowledge through the immediacy of life and not through others words? An interesting thing for me to ponder.

    Also, if the emerging form of Burning Man literature is experienced like we experience the playa, is it possible that we would not notice the difference and only outsiders would see?

    Report comment

  • Great question that opens the doors inside. But right here, on this comment page– behold the writing! How we write 2013. The writing of the posts here and the various opinons and insights are the parts that equal the sum of social media literary work. I make my living writing advertising. I also write my personal work. For me, the visual, the image is more potent than language. Language is becoming, in some ways, obsolete–or at least evolving. And there are all types of language-visual, cinematic language, musical language. It’s extremely, extremely hard to capture a mind changing, consciousness elevator like Burning Man–because it’s a state of mind and states of mind are just hard to present That’s why most films that try, say, to capture the previous eras, the 50’s Beats, 60’s, just come off corny. The only person in my opinion who did capture the 60’s mind/consciousness renovation was Tom Wolfe in Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. But he did it cinematically and even with sounds, not just words and his words were electric…he used his eye. But there are so many wonderful thoughts and sentences here–maybe this is the book.

    Report comment

  • I don’t know much about righting or literary styles. All though, all the writings have been diverse in directions of spiritualness, emotions, concepts, directions, sarcasm, defiance & FREEDOM! All, are just pointers in the end, as they. If I somehow, someway, somewhere were to write…”Don’t put your cell phone in your front pocket. Because it will destroy T-Cells and you’ll end up with a low sperm count.” Is that a literaty style or is it just a pointer, as to what is…or what could be. Look to the pointers, which could in turn become the style/essence of what we’re looking fir. I perfer symbols. Instantly revieling feeeling/thought. ‘BM. Helping you, to help yourself. How may I help you?’

    Report comment

  • Wow! Thank you for this blog. I am a writer, and I am always boggled that the literary arts are the one thing that seems to be missing from BM, and I have been wondering how to change that.

    Just yesterday I spent some time wondering how to receive an art grant from BM for writing. I have some ideas, but none of them would actually have much of an impact ON playa. I have never made it to any readings at Center Camp. In fact I can’t remember attending anything at any pre-set time during BM. OMFG I missed Infected Mushroom!!!

    Anyway, as a writer, the idea I have brewing could be fairly impactful off Playa, and not just to Burners. But is it grant-worthy? I can’t think of any art projects awarded grants that were literature based.

    So maybe it’s not a Burner “style” of writing we looking for. If anything, it’s probably the most individual aspect of Burner culture-just look at the comments on this page. What I question is how to bring the litarary arts into the actual grant process and recognize individual literary projects that might even reach beyond that one week in the desert. Lots of BM projects are istalled off Playa. Writing could be as well.

    Literary grants are awarded every year from various insututions-private, educational, governmental. Nevada has a dedicated jackpot grant for Literary Arts. While BM might not deny they wouldn’t consider a grant for a writing project, I wonder how much of a possibility it actually is.

    By their own definition, The Event has grown beyond the scope of one year. It has become a culture, one they hope to spread year-round. It seems to me writing could be a wonderful opportunity to open that door. Personally, I would LOVE to see the Org select a writing project for a grant.

    Thank you for starting this disucssion!


    Report comment

  • I went to burning man 2012 and gifted readings from leaves of grass. I set up a poetry stop next to the bus stop. Anyone who stopped heard a reading from leaves of grass 1945 edition and I gifted them the page from which I read to them. the people who I shared this spiritual literary experience have I hoped taken their page home and thus this copy of leaves is now distributed across the globe. This could only happen at burning man. Please stop by at the poetry stop at the bus stop from 1 to about 3 and experience it with me.

    Report comment

  • one – wrote/sent an art grant (“spines”), slept epically, & now finally time to jot notes under caveat’s article.

    two – wrote/sent an art grant that won’t bend cargocult, but hopes poems are upped and stomached atypically.

    three – suppose/want a library camp, with banker’s lamps, long tables, thesauruses, smoking okay, but no talking, shh…. (dear “courtney sherwood”: wanna?)

    four – those blunt sentences aren’t art, nor are essayists ever moving. (hyperbole! (apology.))

    five – post-mod needn’t be gobbledygook, poem forms not rickety and stanzaic. fluxus is us, if anything is. (dear “parker east”: hat-tip!)

    six – drove past entry lane for fertility, sad to not see signs describing theme with a script, usually visionary and anticipate it, a prose “laureate” ought to write that welcoming, or was larry harvey feeling sick?

    seven – toastmasters? debate teams? sudden salons, “nuck name” knuckle-tattoo games, “island style” poetry slams (happens at seattle’s regional). even book-animists must have funerals for paper’s impermanence.

    eight – b. brumitt with plastic placard gig: still can be done (brilliant!), but adapt to what will stick, or be cool when taken down, then make more, just like great graffiti-ists.

    nine – i did! i do! proud loud me! me! narratives: i accept your ego, but come to burn mine, or at least mutate it, keeps coming back.

    ten – ego sculpture floored me: charring golden babies, guns and praying-hands. not really literary, but total poetry.

    Report comment

  • Hey there just wanted to drop into the conversation and say that one of the goals of the new camp my “brother” and I are starting this year — The Royal Safarians — is to bring back some power to the written word, gather the voice of the Playa, and give a place of quiet to hash out some thoughts 1950s style (via Royal Safarian typewriters).

    As a writer who attended BM last year for the first time, I have to say I didn’t really stumble across too many venues (or people, for that matter) devoted to the literary arts. Yet, there’s power in words. how they’re arranged on the page (or the playa), word choice, the subtleties of silence between sound. It’s our mode of communication, —advanced yet archaic, ritualistic yet primal — and there’s such a profound value to sharing thought on paper that I don’t understand why we don’t see more spontaneous literature.

    I’ve got a lot more thoughts to process on the matter, and hopefully they pan out by the time BM comes around so I can bring some fresh ideas to the playa, through the Royal Safarians, and see if we can help bring some literary minds together and make something beautiful. :D

    Report comment

  • After going over a number of the blog posts on your web site,
    I really appreciate your way of blogging. I book-marked it
    to my bookmark website list and will be checking back soon. Please check out my web site too and let me know your opinion.

    Report comment

  • Leave a Reply