Consensus, Collaboration, Hierarchy, Authority and Power

[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.]

Consensus and Collaboration

Photo by Vertumnus
Photo by Vertumnus

At every level of its organization, Burning Man employs consensus making and creative collaboration. Consensus means that everyone who is party to a discussion agrees to a course of action. For a decision to be adopted, everyone must give his or her consent. This does not mean that everyone agrees that a particular decision is the best decision. It simply means that they have all had a chance to participate, to recognize and address the issues, and to understand how and why the ensuing steps came about. When consensus has been achieved, the group agrees to align with the decision, and to work together to implement it as effectively as possible. This process only works if people share basic values and operate in a climate of trust that is rich in shared information.

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Commerce & Community: Distilling philosophy from a cup of coffee …

[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.]

Center Camp Café, 2005 (photo by Brad Templeton)
Center Camp Café, 2005 (photo by Brad Templeton)

Sometimes the exception to a rule can deepen understanding of a principle. For example, some critics of Burning Man insist that by allowing coffee sales in our city’s Center Camp Café we violate a tenet of our non-commercial ideology. They say that this is evidence of deep naiveté or demonstrates hypocrisy. My reply is that we’ve never espoused a non-commercial ideology. To be against commerce is to oppose the very existence of civilized life. Even hunter-gatherers engage in trade in order to survive.

When most people say that any thing or act is too commercial or has been commercialized, very few of them mean to say that the practice of commerce is necessarily bad. Instead, they are expressing the feeling that something essential — something that should never be bought and sold — has been commodified. This is why we have always been careful to use the words commodify and decommodify.

Our annual event in the desert is meant to provide an example of what can happen in a community when social interactions cease to be mediated by a marketplace. Until quite recently, all societies have provided many different kinds of rites and rituals – set apart from daily life – that rehearse and reaffirm certain core spiritual experiences that are held to possess an unconditional value.

For example, in the culture created by Burning Man, the value of a gift, when rightly given and received, is unconditional. Nothing of equivalent value can be expected in return; this interaction shouldn’t be commodified. Likewise, love – the love of a parent for a child – should never be commodified. This, too, is an unconditional value, hedged round by a kind of sanctity, and can never be measured in dollars and cents. (more…)

How The West Was Won: Anarchy Vs. Civic Responsibility

[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.]

Legends of America, by James Cole, 2008 (photo by Stewart Harvey)
“Legends of America” by James Cole, 2008 (photo by Stewart Harvey)

During our early history in the desert, in the mid-90s, there was a lot of infighting about what the event was for—that struggle culminated in 1996. It concerned what our city was for, and who the entire event belonged to. We started out on the beach in 1986 as a small group of people that I came to call the Latte Carpenters. These were carpenters with a liberal arts education. I was friends with a builder named Dan Richman, who was an artist, though he didn’t pursue it, a talented painter who played flamenco. He convened a little salon of sorts at his house. He’d play the guitar; we’d drink and joke and talk about philosophy and art. It was a little bohemian scene, and that’s how I met Jerry James, with whom I built and burned the early versions of the Man.

Around 1989, members of the Cacophony Society turned up at our beach burns. Cacophony was somewhat amorphous; a “randomly gathered” network of eccentrics united by a publicly distributed newsletter that always stated, “You may already be a member.” Anyone could do events; these were often pranks, or might appropriate a feature of the urban landscape as a venue for guerrilla theater. For some, this was inspired by Dada, and for others it eventually came to be defined by the writings of Hakim Bey, chiefly a book entitled TAZ [Temporary Autonomous Zone]. In the early 90’s, this was widely adopted as an intellectual framework throughout the San Francisco art underground. It seemed to partially explain what was occurring, and that is why this particular book is so frequently referenced in regard to Burning Man. (more…)

Introduction: The Philosophical Center

[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.

We Found Ourselves!
Porta-potty graffiti, 2013 (photo by Alexander Shalashniy)

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. (more…)

Why Not Implement Identity-Based Ticketing?

In the wake of 2012 ticket sales, a number of people have called for Burning Man to implement an identity-based ticketing system (non-transferable, name-on-ticket). There are valid points on both sides of this question, and it is something we have thought about and discussed at length. Putting aside the many challenges inherent in executing an ID-based ticketing system, the case may certainly be made that not-transferable tickets might better serve the needs of ticket holders if they are simply regarded as individual consumers of a service or a product. But this approach ignores the complex and interdependent social fabric of our community.

As things stand now, participants are free to bestow tickets on their friends, lovers, campmates or family members — on anyone who they believe should come to the event. This form of ticket distribution often occurs spontaneously and is independent of any authorizing agency. It is an extension of the gift giving ethic that informs our culture. Furthermore, the chief argument advanced in support of identity-based ticketing is that such a system prevents profiteering by scalpers. But we have found that little more than 1% of ticket sales can be attributed to scalping in 2012. Even in the face of scarcity, a vast majority of ticket buyers appear to have honored a social compact that values persons over profit. Burning Man is an experiment in community, and in 2013 we will continue to invest our faith in that community.

[Editor’s Note: If you do sell your ticket, we ask that you sell it at face value, and if you’re buying one, to find one to purchase at face value.]

Welcome to Metropol – The Story of a City


Black Rock City, 2007
Black Rock City, 2007

[This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

According to my dictionary, a bohemian is “a creative person, as an artist or writer, who lives a free, unconventional life.” When bohemians gather, they tend to form ‘scenes’ — loosely knit societies that often coalesce around a meeting place; a salon, a club, a neighborhood or bar. Burning Man emerged from just this sort of boho scene in San Francisco. Such scenes have given rise to avant-garde and counter-cultural movements that have profoundly influenced the evolution of modern society. However, just as frequently, the interactive and communal aspect of these scenes has proven fragile and short-lived. Seen against this background, Burning Man may claim one novelty: it is the first bohemian scene to turn itself into a city.

This city that seldom sleeps, a place in which the pulse of life is so distinctly urban, isn’t powered by a traffic in commodities. Although the theme camps lining Black Rock City’s streets resemble retail outlets, they function to distribute gifts created by our city’s citizens. Likewise, many of our city’s services, such as the ritual lighting of street lamps, or the informal transit system provided by art cars, are contributed by Burning Man participants as acts of self-expression. This preoccupation with aesthetics, personal initiative, communal effort and the sharing of gifts is exactly what might be expected of an urbanized Bohemia. (more…)

The Streets of Black Rock City

BRC Map 2008For richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, the romance of the road is a quintessential American dream. For Americans, cars have always represented independence, self-expression and the mythos of mobility. And yet, like any love affair, relationships with cars are fickle and results are mixed. The story of the American car industry, an oddly expressive combination of heavy manufacturing and show business, has always been a narrative of boom and bust. From the days of the iconic cowboy riding off into the sunset, to commuter gridlock and the rising price of gasoline, who a people are and how they get to where they’re going is a tale of destiny. This year’s street names, laid out in alphabetical order, showcase this history. It is a story about politics, economics and technology, as well as the vicissitudes of love.
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