A few weeks ago while on my ritual morning doom scroll, I quickly recognized the familiar signs of a Twitter frenzy and squinted through the glare as I tried to piece the details together. By the looks of it, the influencers and celebrities at Burning Man had been left stranded in the wilderness, after torrential rains turned the annual Dionysian rave out in the Nevada desert into a mud-bogged disaster. The enthusiasm online was totally justified because this was the perfect social media event. It provided an outlet for our morbid fascination with catastrophe while allowing us to revel in the misfortune of the more wealthy and privileged. The schadenfreude was palpable.
To put this into context, Burning Man originated in the mid-80s as an effort by a group of 35 friends to spend time outside the confines of modern-day capitalist society. For a week, they would camp out in the desert with nothing more than the bare necessities, living in tents and freely sharing their resources. They aimed to create a space where all were welcome, and where through self-reliance and communal effort, they could temporarily be free from the need for money or material things. They focused on gifting, self-expression, and art (alongside lots of drugs and sex) which all culminated in the burning of a wooden effigy, a ritual that can be interpreted as the destruction of the systems of authority (the Man) that rule over us.
However, this dramatically changed as the event gained popularity and eventually grew to the 75,000-strong festival we know today. It costs anywhere from $900 to $20,000 to attend, with lavish RVs and luxury trailers available for the Silicon Valley billionaires, celebrities and online influencers who use the event as a networking opportunity. Consequently, Burning Man has evolved from its austere and idealistic beginnings into a first-class opportunity to go on a wild, luxury getaway, while simultaneously conveying the impression of “roughing it” at a spontaneous gathering in the wilderness.
This year’s scenes of desolate campsites littered with mud-soaked tents, or of Chris Rock making his escape in the back of a pickup truck, contrasted starkly with the ruggedly glamorous images synonymous with Burning Man. This is crucial because the glossy, highly curated set of images we had come to expect is just as, if not more important than the lived reality of those who attend the event. In short, Burning Man isn’t an authentic experience but the representation of one.
This transformation would have come as no surprise to the 20th-century French philosopher Guy Debord, who in his 1967 work ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ stated that “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation.” Put differently, in a modern capitalist system, we are no longer merely after material goods, but the images they represent. We can see this in the ads all over every street, bus, or YouTube video. Nike isn’t just marketing a new pair of sneakers, but what the Nike brand represents, through images of victory, perseverance, athletic success etc. Despite being blatantly obvious, this strategy successfully sells us the lifestyle and reputation that things represent instead of the things themselves (as an iPhone user, I can attest to this). The resulting society is one in which representations have taken precedence and are commodities in their own right. Nothing is immune from this commodification, not even authenticity itself. Or as Debord put it, “There remains nothing, in culture or nature, which has not been transformed, and polluted according to the means and interests of modern industry”
This depressing thought is exactly why Burning Man 2023 holds such a special place in my heart. It isn’t just the schadenfreude or the idea that we might see a return to the original structure of the event because I have no interest in wilderness survival. Instead, my satisfaction comes from the fact that, for this year at least, the long, omnipresent fingers of capitalism failed to exploit this one piece of culture.
Junior Ian Rubimbura is a contributing writer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.