One of the most common questions I’m asked by people who know nothing about Burning Man but are considering going anyway is “Do you have a … you know … special name?”
I tell them I do, but that they’ll have to see me on playa to learn it.
Then, almost inevitably, then get concerned. “Will I have to get a new name?”
I always try to picture how that would work: I imagine the Gate looking like Ellis Island, with bored bureaucrats asking people in fishnets and utilikilts “Papers please.” They look over the documents closely, and notice that the “new name” box hasn’t been checked.
“Okay,” they say. “Your name is now Fuzzypants. And his name is Bilge. Congratulations. Move along.”
“I said move, Fuzzypants!”
Actually, we should do that. It sounds fun.
But it’s interesting to me that of all the things people could worry about at Burning Man … “Will I die? Will I get heat stroke? Will I be run over by a bus shaped like a zoo?” … the idea of being given a new name ranks anywhere near the top.
Yet in my experience it does. And while that makes no sense intellectually, I get it viscerally.
I caught a ride the other week with some Burning Man types, and found myself sitting right behind legendary Burning Blogger The Hun. We’d only just been introduced that evening. As the car sped down a San Francisco hill she turned and asked me “Caveat, what’s your real name again?”
And I froze.
“Three months ago,” I said, “I wouldn’t tell you that. For the last six years I’ve worked very, very, hard to keep my Burning Man identity completely separate from the rest of my life, and vice-versa. To know me as Caveat you had to know me *as Caveat.*”
“Really?” she said. “Me too! For years, I was just ‘The Hun,’ and that’s all you got, and all you needed to get, and it was a strict rule. And I really liked it.”
“But,” I said, hesitating, “half the people I saw tonight were calling you Jessica.”
“It just got to be too much, eventually,” she said. “I started doing things on Facebook, and it’s really hard to keep identities separate there, and eventually I came to the point where I wanted to share things with people on both sides of the divide and … so I dropped it. I just said “fuck it,” and connected with everyone.”
“No!” she said. “It totally had to happen. And I have finally come around to the idea that total transparency is the only workable solution. I’ve gone from strict separation to hiding nothing. And I think eventually it’s what you have to do.”
“Yeeeeeeaaaaaaaaah,” I said. “I’m not there yet.”
During my first few years as Caveat my life was compartmentalized so tightly that I was working with Andie Grace at Burning Man and her husband Tom in a “default world” capacity, and it took them a year to figure out they were talking about the same person.
Since then, however, cracks have appeared. A few people learned my identity (San Francisco’s a surprisingly small town), and then I told a few more when they asked: after what we went through together, it would have been insulting not to. One Media Mecca volunteer who I took out to dinner when she was in SF grabbed my credit card from the waiter to catch a look.
My separate identities were already unraveling … and then the roof came down when Larry Harvey “outed” me by quoting me by both names in a speech.
Not that anybody cared that the curtain had been pulled back: not a soul in the world gave a damn that my carefully kept secret was now recorded on video and archived. It wasn’t a big deal, except insofar as it was an honor to be quoted. But symbolically, a threshold was crossed. A door had opened that can never be closed.
There is powerful magic in names, and none of it rational. However irrational the fear virgin burners have that they will be “forced” to take a name, I completely understand it. I’m going through the inverse now: I’m slowly being forced to give it up.
But why does it matter? Isn’t a name just a name? A shirtcocker by any other name would still be exposing his penis.
Maybe, yes, but that’s not the subjective experience.
“The one thing I worry about,” Jessica told me, “is: what happens to The Hun? As soon as people knew my name, a lot of them just started calling me by it, thinking that was more authentic, more intimate, and I’m like: ‘No! I like The Hun! That name hasn’t become any less important to me.”
I’m right there with her.
I’m not sure that anyone who knows me as Caveat would find me particularly different in the rest of my life: there’s no magic switch that’s flipped, no alternate personality that comes out. But … but … three years into my Volunteer Coordinating gig for Media Mecca, I did notice a difference: my writing as Caveat, specifically in my messages to prospective volunteers, was far more aggressively surrealist, far more bizarre, and (when it worked) far more funny than anything I was writing under my born name.
Not than anything I COULD write under my born name – but anything that I WAS writing. Caveat was not a separate talent, but as “Caveat” I was willing to take more chances, to go out on a limb, to swing for the fences.
To those few people who knew both my identities, I started referring to Caveat as “my creative Id.”
That’s not a life-changing thing, but it’s not a small thing either. A separate name, a separate identity, allowed me to tap into a part of my psyche that was otherwise a little too ignored.
As Caveat gradually turns into someone with a “real name,” I wonder what’s going to happen to that.
The predicament of the playa name – whether to have one, how to keep it, how to integrate it into your life – reminds me of the early days of the internet.
In the era of social media, it’s almost required to have a single digital identify that follows you around: that employers can check, that prospective dates can Google, that parents can keep up with. A Facebook page may be performance art, but it’s a show that never closes. Sure there are privacy settings, but the central identity is fairly easy to spot: to point at and say “that’s him,” and all that’s in question are degrees of intimacy.
It’s possible, sure, to lurk in a comments section or troll on a forum, but that’s a small and pitiable kind of freedom compared to the wild west that the internet once represented. To paraphrase remarks made by MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle: identity on the internet used to represent something you could play with, and experiment with, to learn about yourself. Now it has become an often mandatory presentation of self that you make in order to tell the world exactly who you are. It’s gone from a place of optional self-discovery, where you could always disappear when it was done, to an identity that you’re locked into forever.
There are advantages to that, especially for the functioning of an orderly society: but oh what a playground we’ve lost.
The Hun later told me she in fact started her journey to a new identity in that 90’s internet playground.
“It very much came from that idea of experimenting with your identity in an atmosphere of anonymity,” she said. “The process of self-discovery was inextricably tied to the abandonment of the physical, apparent self, the expectations of the outer world, and the feeding and training of the lizard monster Hun.”
Playa names could never provide anything near that level of freedom: you can’t really “re-invent” yourself on the Playa the way you could online. But the symbolism of the gesture is still potent – perhaps more potent than you could ever get sitting at home in front of a screen. You are leaving your home, traveling to a distant and alien land, putting on a costume, removing your old name and answering to a new one in your new community. That’s a magical act, psychologically fraught. If you treat it deeply enough, it will open doors where there were none before.
It did in The Hun’s journey, just as it did in mine. Turning “The Hun” from an internet tag into a playa name was a vital step.
“Eventually The Hun got big enough to stand on her own, and most of that happened through Burning Man,” she said. “I was able to bring that side of myself and connect it with the physical world, and people accepted it. Eventually it grew to become my dominant personality. It was an important process, and without it I would not be nearly as happy or adjusted.”
And then, eventually, if you stick around long enough, you’ll want to connect with the people you meet in a way beyond hidden doors and secret identities.
“The main reason I ‘came out’ was because it was too hard to hide my real self from my mom after she joined Facebook,” said The Hun. “Just can’t lie to the moms. HA. But I was also ready. I had been accepted as myself by a big group of people for several years, and it seemed like I didn’t have as much need to hide.
That’s a perfectly normal process, I suppose. No pilgrimage lasts forever – every hero’s journey requires the hero to come up out of the underworld to share what he has learned.
But there really is something to what people call you. Playa names have … how to put this? … more oomph.
“The side effect of going back to “Jessica” has been really unfortunate,” said The Hun. “I do feel limited by ‘Jessica.’ It isn’t me. It’s a challenge to deal with.“
Perhaps that’s why I’m taking it slowly, even though my “real name” is now an open secret: I’m not up to radical transparency yet. I’m trying to linger in the space where creative Ids play. My fingers digging into the dust, leaving a trail just outside of camp.
is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man was a pretty awful person on the internet in the 1990s. His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com