Photo by Ashley Steel via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped.
So you’re in this space where what you do is most important, and you get to do—maybe even have to do—what is most important to you. But what is all this for? What is the overarching purpose of Burning Man?
You can try to answer that question, but it’s an abstract one that tends to vanish in the particulars of the experiences that people have. Because it turns out that when you give people the option of making meaningful choices about what’s important to them, and you facilitate those choices, you lose the ability to push people in a teleological direction because liberating them to make their own choices means you cannot then tell them what those choices must be.
Burning Man serves no purpose, so it gives you the option of ﬁnding yours. While the people in Burning spaces may very well have speciﬁc agendas they are promoting, the space as a whole does not and never can—no matter how sensible and good a given agenda may be.
Many people go to Burning Man in the hope of changing their lives. Which, great, if you want to do that. Burning Man has an extraordinary record, going back more than thirty years, of dishing out transformative experiences that let people become who they want to be. Happens all the time.
But that’s not what Burning Man’s “for.” That’s not what it’s about, designed toward, or attempting to achieve. If Burning Man doesn’t change your life, that doesn’t mean you did it “wrong.”
If Burning Man isn’t like therapy, it also isn’t like a museum, where you ideally should leave more ediﬁed and edumacated than you came in. Camps people establish may have educational agendas, just as they may have transformative ones, but Burning Man itself has no educational agenda. A burner who knows six of the 10 Principles isn’t doing any “better” than a burner who knows four, or one who says, “Wait, ten what now?”
The 10 Principles of Burning Man
- Radical Inclusion: Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
- Gifting: Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
- Decommodification: In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
- Radical Self-Reliance: Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise, and rely on his or her inner resources.
- Radical Self-Expression: Radical self- expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is oﬀered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.
- Communal Effort: Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote, and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.
- Civic Responsibility: We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state, and federal laws.
- Leaving No Trace: Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.
- Participation: Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.
- Immediacy: Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.
Burning Man’s not even like an amusement park, where the damn thing clearly isn’t working if people aren’t having fun. Most people are absolutely fucking miserable at least some of the time at Burning Man. I’m guaranteed— absolutely guaranteed—to have at least two major existential crises that week. Those aren’t the “wrong” parts of Burning Man, the “bad” parts—those are just Burning Man. Burning Man doesn’t exist to give anybody a good time.
It’s not here to change you, improve you, educate you, give you pleasure—Burning Man has no purpose. Burning isn’t a thing we do to reach some other goal. It is simply a thing we do for its own sake.
And once you take the question of utility away—once you stop asking what Burning Man is supposed to be “for” and the kind of experience you therefore need to have if you’re going to do it “right”—you take the whole notion of eﬃciency oﬀ the table and shove it to the corners of your life. Because if Burning Man has no purpose, it can’t be achieved any more eﬃciently.
Burning Man is an “eﬃciency third” culture as much as it is a “safety third” culture. Once you put eﬃciency—that master virtue of business consultants and tech entrepreneurs and time management seminars—way down on the priorities list, things don’t collapse into mediocrity. On the contrary: they get really potent.
When there is nothing to gain, nothing to be pulled toward, everyone gets to do what they really want to. For a week you’re stuck, trapped, with having to decide what’s really important to you right now, in this moment, with no way to win.
It is only at that point that many people start to change their lives and learn new things and take what may very well be the world’s greatest master class in social transformation—and many other people dance their asses oﬀ all night, teach strangers how to make necklaces, sing pirate songs, or build giant mazes. Burning Man absolutely empowers people to go out and change the world and rebuild areas hit by natural disasters and help refugees—if that’s what they want to do—but no more so than it empowers people to build a giant space whale, or create an art car that serves fresh grilled sandwiches, or pretend to be the world’s worst encyclopedia salesman. Most people end up building communities of some kind, not because they need to but because they really want to.
Practicality is simply not the point, and eﬃciency is only valuable to the extent that it improves the experience you’re actually having rather than the experience someone thinks you ought to have.
It just so happens—and what a lesson for the rest of the world this is—that when intrinsically motivated people have a fun and meaningful time doing something that is important to a community, it often ends up going a lot better than if you put eﬃciency ﬁrst. That’s a valuable insight, one that constantly inspires people, year after year.
But it only “works” because it can’t possibly “work.” Burning Man is an engine of possibility because it has no point. It’s what we do for its own sake that matters. Once you start doing that, it’s no longer pointless, but “pointfull,” supersaturated with meaning and purpose.
Excerpted with permission from The Scene That Became Cities: What Burning Man Philosophy Can Teach Us About Building Better Communities by Caveat Magister, North Atlantic Books, 2019.