Last night my friend Kitty and I had an interesting conversation about the premature burning of the Man - his first comment, via email, was "The Burner in me is pissed, but the asshole is laughing," a comment that really encapsulated the whole incident for me.
In thinking about this and dicussing it, there are a lot of issues that need to be sorted out - the individual actions of Paul Addis, the "comment" he made about Burning Man, the attitude of the former in-crowd (as exemplified by Addis' letter to the SFWeekly in 2002, the general moanings of the Piss Clear crowd, and many of the comments on SFGate about the story), and the general rise of Burning Man from a freakfest in the desert to what has now become an institution backed by a non-profit. My own take on all of this is that a) Addis is an asshole playing through on his Hunter S. Thompson fantasies b) his action nonetheless was insightful, provocative, and an accomplished bit of performance art c) the old-skool crowd will hold him up as a hero even though his actions will not, in any way, substantially change the things that they like to gripe about d) Burning Man has not, as so many would like to believe, "jumped the shark," but it is is facing some very serious questions about how it will configure itself going into the future. Let's break these down a bit, shall we?
A) Paul Addis is an asshole playing through on his Hunter S. Thompson fantasies
Everything Paul Addis has put into the public sphere - his 2002 letter to the SFWeekly editor, his account of messing with the cops and emerging triumphant in the SoMa literary review, his one-man show about Hunter S. Thompson, his statement on the Laughing Squid blog - lead one to the conclusion that he is simply another would-be macho stud in possession of an outsize ego that leads him to believe that he's the righteous one and all the rest of us are dunderheads. I'm sure he's the sort who would read Nietzsche and think that he's an ubermensch. That would probably be tolerable, if it wasn't for the fact that he basically destroyed something that had been created by other people, and for which they had other intentions. It might be perceived as an radcial act of self-expression, in, say, the manner or the Dadists or anarchists, but, in fact, many of those people were, at the personal level, assholes as well. Let's put this in the perspective of anarchism, however, since that's what so many people associate with Burning Man. Even in that perspective, he's an asshole. In The Temporary Autonomous Zone by Hakim Bey, the touchstone work for events like Burning Man, Bey draws an analogy for the TAZ with a dinner party, an analogy set up by another anarchist writer. The idea is that you create a space for people to come and interact in whatever way they choose, but a certain degree of mutual respect governs the proceedings. Now imagine that someone came to your dinner party and broke all the plates as "an act of radical self-expression." Maybe it would be a statement, but he would still be an asshole.
B) Despite being an asshole, Addis pulled off a provocative piece of performance art
Addis has single-handedly gotten everyone, here, there, and everywhere, to talk about the meaning of his action. That's the point of performance art, and in this respect, Addis has pulled off something significant. However, it was only through the destruction of something held dear to many other people that he accomplished this. I'm reminded of Stockhausen's comments on the destruction of the WTC: it was Satan's greatest work (I'm paraphrasing). Blow something up and people will talk about it; that doesn't mean it's a laudable, or ethical, undertaking.
C)All the old-skool people will hold him up as a hero, but it won't make any real difference
As I said originally, you can burn the man but you can't burn Burning Man. For years now the "original" people have been bitching and complaining about how Burning Man is now corporate, has all these rules, is filled with "outsiders," blah blah blah, and everybody points to 1997, the year of the smiley face, as the watershed year. Well, you know, you can't keep it all closed system forever, people, and when you tap into the the unconscious of the American people and provide them with a place to live out their fantasies once a year, they're going to come in droves. And when somebody dies at your event (as has happened on at least three occasions I know of), you realize that you need to protect yourself from getting the pants sued off you; hence, you form a Limited Liability Corporation. As an LLC it's also a lot easier to deal with government entities, like the BLM, with whom Burning Man is in a constant struggle for control. As for the rules, there are ten of them, and I don't see anything in here that prevents anybody from expressing themselves in whatever way they want, save for no guns, no driving, and no dogs. All the rest of it amounts to "don't be stupid and don't fuck things up." All the old-skoolers lament that they can't shoot guns, blow things up, or drive fast across the playa anymore; in short, they can't act like macho assholes anymore. Somehow I don't feel much sympathy for that position. What is perhaps most galling, however, is that what this all boils down to is the loss of insider, special club status for these people - they had somethign exclusive, and now they don't have it anymore. Yeah, there are a fair number of yahoos who show up every year, and I don't like them either, but there are also lots of people who work all year to come out there and do something special, and to reduce them all to "weekend hippies" is just bullshit. In many ways, the event is really a catalyst that brings people together for those other 51 weeks of the year - my own camp starts working in January, and it's that experience of working togther, and creating something out there on the playa, that is the essence of Burning Man for me. You can burn the man early, but that won't take away the experience that I, and so many others, have had.
d) Burning Man now faces some tough questions about its future
I think that this may be the event that serves as the break between the BM of the past and the BM of the future. You could already see that in the attempt to bring a socially active focus to the event this year. This seems like the last attempt on the part of the old-skool to make a statement about what they feel BM has become, and after this I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see the guns, tits, and bombs crowd defect in a mass way - after all, now that one of their own has been busted and charged with felony arson, that would have to be seen as the biggest sell-out of all. It's a philosophic conundrum, and the BM organization doesn't have an easy way out; I'm pretty sure they don't really have a say in whether or not Addis is charged and tried, but they will be seen as violating their own tenet of radical self-expression when he is prosecuted. On the other hand, if Addis isn't prosecuted, they run the risk of opening the box for a beast they already barely have under control. I dunno what the solution is; it's going to require taking a very nuanced position, but I don't think the Hunter S. Thompson afficianados are really about nuance.
Meanwhile, check out the comments over at Laughing Squid.