Tabatha and I are headed to Burning Man in less than five days. One of the things she’s looking forward to is seeing the Temple.

The Temple of Flux has a lot to live up to after last year’s Temple, The Fire of Fires, with its intricate, carved lattice walls, and its column in the middle that shot up bursts of fire every few minutes at night, illuminating the temple and filling our ear drums.

One of the things she’s worried about is seeing the Temple burn.

It is funny for me to hear her say that. I am truly a Burning Man virgin no more. Anyone who’s been to the playa knows, the Temple is like the Man: they both must burn.

Impermanence is part of what makes Burning Man so special. Each year’s incarnation of Black Rock City will exist only once. Theme Camps reign for years and then retire. New ones spring up. Burners come and go. You will never again ride down those streets, as except for Esplande, the center ring, all the streets are re-named each year. It’s dust in the wind.

But words aren’t much help in describing this. And Tab worries that it will actually be physically painful for her to watch the beautiful Temple burn down.

This urge to want to bottle experiences up and revisit them forever is one that is familiar to all of us: it’s commodification and consumerism at its finest.

How many times do we hear a song on the radio, and immediately rush to find out who it’s by and what it’s called, so we can repeat the experience? How often have you seen a great coat on a stranger, and approached them to ask them where they bought it, so you can also have this wonderful coat and look fab for all your friends and lovers?

And while of course to some degree this impulse to preserve is instinctual–guard the nest, hoard the food, build shelter to keep us consistently warm–it is also the by-product of the programming we have in the TV shows we watch, the ads we see, the way people behave around us.

Wheter it’s a Record Label, a Clothing Line or a Chain Restaurant, all consumer goods manufacturers rely upon our desire for repeatable experiences. They rely upon the fact that we are really, really good at seeing something cool, and wanting it for ourselves.

As long as you desire a commodity, YOU’RE IN LUCK! You can BUY the CD, nab the coat.

NO VENDING AT BURNING MANBut at its heart, an event like Burning Man is about DE-COMMODIFICATION. You cannot buy ANYTHING at Burning Man except ice and coffee at Center Camp. No other vending is allowed. No advertising is permitted. They even encourage you to decorate over any corporate logos on your rented U-Haul.

And it goes further than that. Remember, a commodity is a mass-produced unspecialized product. Now, you will “see” people in dusty jeans and generic clothes at Burning Man, but you will not notice them. Who you will notice are the people in the completely unique, hand-made, spent-hours-sewing-or-gluing-together outfits. And try as you might, you can’t repeat their outfit. Because they don’t sell it at the local Target.

But who cares? Yes, making your own stuff is cool. Buying other people’s stuff is kinda lame. But is there something worse than wanting to be able to use money to satisfy ALL your desires? For buying your way into a regularly repeatable experience?

I think there is.

Another concern of new Burners is not seeing everything. But. There is simply no physical way to meet each of the ~50,000 people, see all of the ~800 theme camps (this is just the official, REGISTERED theme camps, people), or admire all of the hundreds of pieces of playa art. And as many veteran Burners will tell you, setting out to see “everything” will mean you miss soaking up the immediacy of the moment.

And that’s what’s worse: in our constant quest for a REPEATABLE EXPERIENCE, we miss out on the moment. Everyone understands how this is, when you’re at a concert and you can’t help but take photos or videos for “later” or “for Facebook.” So you want your friends to see the thing that YOU didn’t see, since you were busy recording. I am as guilty of this as anyone. I even snapped some photos at the last Madonna concert I went to–and friends can attest to just how little I’d want to miss soaking up every minute of Madonna.

But what are we turning into, as a society, if we are worried that we cannot repeat experiences? If we really, truly CANNOT put the camera down, cannot keep ourselves from Shazam-ing that song on the radio, if we can’t see an incredible outfit and not ask, “Where can I buy that?”

I think it means we are turning our lives and our worlds over to the makers of commodities. And with that, we lose the desire to LEARN to make our own things. Or fix that broken A/C. Or figure out how to take apart your computer.

In “The Story of Stuff,” one of the things that Anne Leonard mentions is that in the 1950’s, the wanted to turn consumption into a RITUAL. Into a religious experience that gave us MEANING. She quotes Victor Lewbow, 1955:

And this is one of the million reasons why I am going back to Burning Man. And this is why I want to bring Burning Man back into my life, to my friends, and back to my beloved city. Because the spirituality of consumerism leaves us feeling empty. But art? And community? And IMPERMANENCE and SPONTANEITY? Those are things to soak up, to gain strength from, to fill you up inside.

And that is why, above all, THE TEMPLE MUST BURN!!!

6 Responses to “On Commodities, Impermanence, and Burning Man”  

  1. 1 Tabatha

    On the subject of impermanence and this grasping we, as a culture, seem to demonstrate toward experiences, objects, and even people, it is indicative also of a base lack of trust. A fear that it won’t come again. It is this lack of trust that drives our ever frantic desire for more.
    I thought it would be painful to watch the temple burn because I anticipated my sense of wonder at it, its beauty, its significance, then I imagined losing it.
    Goodbye, temple.
    I’m not alone in the sense that I don’t want to lose anything; I want to keep, to repeat, then commemorate, make more, italicize, frame, then keep again.
    Transience inspires in me feelings of loss and the intrinsic belief that loss is a negative thing to be avoided at all costs, and then mourned when it is unavoidable.
    But to let go willingly and consciously is a leap of faith. It’s scary, but it’s beautiful; it becomes a joyous experience in itself, and it is my goal next week in the desert.
    As Emily Dickinson so aptly wrote, “That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.”
    So, to the Man (and temple), Burn.

  2. 2 Rob

    Does going to Burning Man once a year allow you to believe that you’re taking a stand against consumerism, shortly before heading back to the normailty of spending the rest of the year living under its spell?

    Kind of like how I can rid myself of the guilt of losing touch with people from my past by adding them as friends on facebook, knowing that I am still “in touch” with them, but I never have to go to the effort of actually communicating with them?

  3. 3 am

    Hey Rob,

    Thanks for the comment! An insightful question.

    I do think this is often very true. Although coming back from Burning Man is not an easy thing to do — people generally don’t LEAP back into the “default world,” they limp. They mourn the loss of the desert. Burning Man’s NYC decompression party described the feeling here: “We have experienced something nearly impossible to explain, yet the cosmic shifts inside of us are not reflected in the world around us. Friends, family and co-workers expect us to be the same, but we are not the same. We long to escape the confines of our daily existence, but we’re stuck in the patterns of our lives for another long year.”

    So, yes. Eventually, you fall back into your old life. Which includes buying things to fulfill us.

    But there is another piece to it. And that is the piece that inspires you to do life a little differently beyond the desert. For me, it was about art and creation.

    I’m a perfectionist, and I always felt if I couldn’t do professional-level art, why bother. But there was tons of art at Burning Man that was, you know, sub-par. But someone made this intense effort to not only craft the piece, but inspire others to volunteer to help build it, to then take it apart again and figure out how to haul it out to the middle of NOWHERE in Nevada, and then inspire people AGAIN to help them re-assemble it, not to mention NAIL IT into the ground with 12″ rebar so the crazy winds and dust storms wouldn’t blow it away. And that art meant something to that person. And probably thousands of others on the playa who saw it. And that is ALL that matters.

    So, last year, I painted more. Because it’s about creation, not about whether I can sell it at auction or hang it in a museum.

    And I learned how to make a propane cannon. Because I was so floored by all the fire art I saw.

    And I bought a crappy old bike and rode it everywhere in the months leading out of Burning Man.

    And it was a really, really big part of what gave me the courage to quit my job.

    So, you are right, in part. Some of it does fade. But.

    It’s not a rationalization. It’s not what I do to atone for sins of the other 51 weeks.

    I constantly ask myself “how can I bring Burning Man into this project?” It’s a sense of wonder and freedom and fearlessness and generosity and EUPHORIA. It’s something that imbues my life.

    Nothing you bring to Burning Man will come back the same. Your clothes will be dusty. The alkaline in the dust will fade the fabrics. Metal will rust. Hats will get shredded in the wind. Nothing that you bring to Burning Man will ever be the same again–and that includes you.

  4. 4 Mike Hedge

    hey! neat post. see you on the playa =)

  5. 5 Random

    Arrived here through a random series of links from your HTML5 work – You are an inspiration, the world would benefit from more people with your outlook!

  6. 6 admin

    Thank you for your kind words, I really appreciate your note!

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