Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Burning Man Meditation: An Exercise in Solipsism

When I return from the playa I always have this feeling that I’m returning to civilization after several months in the bush; everything is familiar and expected, but I spend a lot of time wondering about why things the way they are, and wondering if they could be different. And, like the explorer who has gone a bit native, I wonder if I’m not more suited to life in the bush than I am life among my civilized peers.

Having made it through my third burn, I’ve given up, in some ways, on thinking of Burning Man as a significant, life-altering, culturally revolutionary event. It is, for me, simply an opportunity to have fun, absolve myself of certain quotidian responsibilities, and experience challenges that are more physical and material than intellectual in nature. For a few days every year I get to swing a sledgehammer and build things with a drill, eat camp-out cuisine and enjoy a beer with my morning eggs without any feelings of guilt. It is ultimately an exercise in solipsistic self-indulgence, and this is the reason why, for me at least, attempting to dress it up with themes and rhetoric that position it as a force of cultural movement ultimately seems hollow.

I think that just about everyone who goes to Burning Man wants to come back to the world feeling that something significant has happened to them, that a question they’ve been asking has been answered, that a new path has opened up before them, and if those things haven’t happened, then the event is a disappointment. I definitely felt that way the first time I went, and to a lesser extent the second time as well. But the problem is that life in the bush can only prove to you something about life in the bush; you can try to bring those ideas and lessons back to civilization with you, but if you try to bring the structures of one paradigm into another, you only generate un-resolvable conflict – I can only be depressed that civilized life isn’t bush life, and, eventually, give up on the civilized world.

Instead of expecting the Burning Man experience to change my life, I’ve come to look at it in the same way as I do New Year’s Eve, as a marker in time that provides an opportunity for rumination and resolution as I try to create change for myself. Having now passed through the portal of a New Burning, I’m ready to act on my resolutions.

This year, I have two things that I’ve been pondering. The first, as you all might expect, is the value of our “scene” and my own role in it. The second, slightly more personal problem, is what I want to be when I grow up.

Regarding the scene, I did have a moment of realization at Burning Man that has helped set my course. Lord Kook was throwing down a great set at Glitter Camp on Tuesday night when I spied PeePlay in the audience and started chatting with him. “Maybe now you can understand why I’m so down on the concept of ‘the scene’” I said to him, to which he replied “The scene is all about money.” Of course this is obvious, but when you’re deep into the scene and the who’s who if it, it’s easy to lose track of this basic idea. So, I realized at that moment that, as much as I enjoy music and DJing and the culture surrounding it, I really don’t like the scene. From this follows my first resolution, to scrap the whole idea of being a scenester, and instead be somebody who champions the things I find really interesting and creative. I had been chewing on this idea well before I left, but it took the experience of trying to be part of the scene, of playing certain games and exploring certain avenues, to make it clear to me (among those certain things, writing for Beatportal demonstrated for me the general emptiness behind so much of what passes for music journalism these days). Burning Man helped put a point on all this for me because, once you’re there, it’s about as anti-scene as you can get.

Regarding the issue of figuring out what I’m going to do with my life, I already had some strong ideas about this before setting off for the Burn, or at least some ways to approach the problem. If anything, Burning Man creates a situation that is much more open than others, one that lets you catch a glimpse of other possibilities, But if I hadn’t already been primed to think about these things, I doubt that Burning Man would have provided me with any kind of crystallizing experience. I went because I already have a dislike of the corporatized, regimented, capitalist world I have to live in on a daily basis, and want to experience something at least a little different for a few days every year; it’s not like going to Burning Man suddenly made me think about things in a way I never had before.

The thing about trips to the bush is that they remove constraints and let things within us come out that are normally hidden or repressed; sometimes those are good things, and sometimes, pretty often in fact, they’re bad. Events like Burning Man don’t change us in any way that wasn’t already potentially there, they just let us get to know ourselves a little better. When the dust has all been washed away, when we’ve settled back into the routine of work, the thing that endures is whatever we’ve learned about ourselves, for good and bad, and maybe the desire to be more of who we are during those few weeks out of every year.

1 comment:

Lord Kook said...

More time in the bush, I say! For science!