[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man's 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]
The mission of the Burning Man Project is to seek out Burning Man culture, as it is described by the Ten Principles, and to link these efforts and communities to one another as part of a worldwide network. Nestled at the heart of this non-profit, another institution, the Philosophical Center, will serve as both the conscience and collective memory of Burning Man. Its mission is to foment discourse that examines the Ten Principles. The motto that will guide this is a quote by William James, “Belief is thought at rest.” This ongoing 10 Principles blog series is the Philosophical Center’s public debut.
In an essay included in this blog series, Caveat Magister writes, ”We came to Burning Man because we saw something was happening—we felt its potential all the way down to our bones, sometimes from the other side of the earth—and we were called to be a part of it. Later, maybe, we learned it has 10 Principles, and we started looking to them as a way to aspire to what we were already inspired by.” He is saying that the Principles do not precede immediate experience: they issue out of it. The Principles, in other words, are not an ideology that stands outside of one’s experience. They are a portrait of an ethos; they describe a way of life.
Perhaps the best way to commence thinking about the Ten Principles is to consider their actual language, to engage in a close reading. To begin with, they utterly lack the imperative mood; they are not commands or requests—they do not give permission or withhold it. For example, Leaving No Trace is not a commandment. Although it speaks of what we value, it does not demand allegiance. Agency resides within the actor, not externalized as rules. This assumes these values are internalized, that they arise within each individual as a result of participating in a community, and that we act, in the deepest sense, as a result of who we are.
It should also be noted that the Ten Principles employ the language of prosody. The principle of Participation states, ”We make the world real through actions that open the heart.” Such language often has the property of meaning many things at once, and this is because it is not produced by following a linear series of logical propositions. Instead of explaining, as if unfolding the planes of a box, poetic language does the opposite. It tends to compact perceptions, feelings and ideas—through metaphor, meter and allusion it produces hyper-potent signifiers; it strives to say the unsayable.
The state of mind that this induces may be called irrational, but the heart, as poets say, has reasons of its own. If we contemplate those signal experiences in our lives that mean the most to us —such as falling in love, or discovering a true vocation—we often find that they exceed and transcend any rational standard. Perhaps the two most common things participants say about Burning Man is that it has changed their lives, and that it cannot be explained—one has to be there. Poetic diction strives to capture the flavor, the scent, and the concrete touch of experience that is immanent.
There does exist, however, an essential precept that can guide a critical examination of the Principles. This is expressed in the Burning Man Project’s mission statement, “These Ten Principles are integral to one another, nothing short of all of them combined will really do.” This implies that they are coadapted, that they have evolved as a result of complex social interactions. Each is like a strand of woven fabric in a figured carpet. Or to employ a more dynamic simile, the whole of the Ten Principles is like an ecosystem. This vision of an underlying cultural coherence suggests that before we exclude or disregard a Principle, we might do well to first consider the cascading consequences of its omission.
This way of thinking of the Principles can also deter us from exalting any single Principle by extending its apparent logic in some absolute fashion. If, for example, Radical Self-reliance is held to imply unaided survivalism, how can it possibly correspond to Communal Effort? Philosophy occurs when principles collide, and we should allow these Principles to interpret and interrogate one another. Our philosophy, in other words, is muscular—it depends on the capacity of its assumptions to do work.
The purpose of the Philosophical Center is to serve as both the “conscience and collective memory of Burning Man,” and its mission statement says it will “elucidate the Ten Principles by means of a precedential approach that examines how these principles have been effectively used to solve past problems and answer questions incident to the creation of Burning Man…Such analysis shall also include spontaneous cultural practices and initiatives that have arisen within the Burning Man community independently of any institutional mandate.” This method of inquiry is empirical. It relies on careful observation and pragmatic analysis: it assumes that things are what they do.
This historical approach should lead us to tell stories that will situate these Principles in actions and occurrences. And perhaps the most important story concerns the origin of the Ten Principles. Throughout the second decade of our tenure in the desert, as Black Rock City grew, an ever-increasing number of people wanted to apply its ethos to their daily lives: they needed to keep being as they’d been at Burning Man by doing things with other people. But without the customs and the context of our city to guide them, they sometimes found this to be very difficult. This is when a call arose for some sort of statement, some kind of credo that would help them to recreate their experience.
This is why I wrote the Ten Principles in 2004. In fact, I didn’t really volunteer to write them — I was voluntold. And when they were at last published, a very remarkable thing occurred. Within a community that is so often resistant to any form of central authority, the Principles were met with universal acceptance. Since then, these Ten Principles have been embraced by hundreds of communities around the world, and they have also been adopted the many organizations that are served by the Burning Man Network.
The philosopher William James suggested that the relevance of any idea should be gauged by answering a simple question. What real difference will it make if one believes it? How does that belief affect the way that we conduct our lives? Judged according to this standard, the Ten Principles have proven to be useful, durable and productive; they have enabled us to think and communicate, they have enabled us to act, and they have helped us to project our culture into the world. However, this could cease to happen unless we remain ready to constantly exercise and examine them. This Ten Principles blog offers everyone an opportunity to participate in this discussion.