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Burning Man Journal
All The News That's Fit To Burn: 1998 Summer Newsletter

Editor: Larry Harvey
Production Manager: Marian Goodell
Design and Layout courtesy of: Ms. Rusty Blazenhoff
Contributing Writers: Stuart Mangrum, Maid Marian, Darryl Van Rhey
Printing: Scott Pratt and Curtiss Printing
Distribution: Brien Burroughs
Photos: Rick Egan, Steve Noreyko, Mark O'Neill, Aaron Young
Thanks: Miz Jewlez

What is Burning Man?
by Stuart Mangrum

What is Burning Man? At times it seems to be one of those questions that can only be answered with another question, the intellectual equivalent of standing between two mirrors. After five years of writing about it, I feel less certain than ever that I actually understand it. I have, however, learned quite a bit about what it is not — mostly from the failed attempts of other observers to reduce it to journalistic simplicity. Perhaps the answer can be found deductively, through a process of elimination. If we're willing to burn down a few misperceptions, maybe we can light a trail to the truth.

Burning Man is not a religion.

What self-respecting New Age cult would operate with no priests, no tithing, no doctrine, not even a shared belief in a higher power? Burning Man employs ritual, but it is ritual removed from the context of theology. Unhindered by dogma, ritual becomes a vessel that can be filled with direct experience. Burning Man is about having that experience, not about explaining it. In fact, if you can explain it, you're probably not paying attention.

Burning Man is not a rave.

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Neither is it a rock concert, a jazz show, nor an opera, even though all those musical flavors may mingle on the Playa. Unlike a rave or a concert, Burning Man is not a spectacle/commodity that can be experienced passively. That's the real meaning behind the "No Spectators" tag: not to draw lines of exclusion, but to remind us of our mutual agreement to entertain each other.There is no "official" bandstand, just the vast empty stage of the desert, with no proscenium to separate the audience from the players. You are the show.

Burning Man is not a love-in.

Though it's occasionally mistaken for a hippie event, Burning Man has little in common with the '60s counterculture other than a strong belief in communal effort, a shared respect for the Earth, and a tolerant attitude. Burning Man is a community of activists, not starry-eyed dreamers. Its aesthetic owes more to the Postmodernists than the Romantics. If someone takes their clothes off in the desert, it's no more a political statement than it is an invitation to sex. It's just another mode of experience. Get over it.

Burning Man is not a product.

Since you have to buy a ticket to get in, it's easy to mistake Burning Man for a consumer event. But there's no vending, so you have to bring everything with you. And there are no trash cans, so you have to haul everything out with you when you're done. In fact, Burning Man is so unlike a consumer event that it's been compared to a potlatch: a ritual reversal of the laws of acquisitiveness wherein a person's worth is measured not by what he gains, but by what he gives away.

Finally, Burning Man is not free.

It is extraordinarily expensive to put on and has never turned a profit. The ticket price pays for permits, insurance, toilets, transport costs, hundreds of hired services, thousands of printed pages and the infrastructure for an entire city. The fact that it has survived at all for these 12 years is a testament to the love, devotion and financial support of caring individuals. If you haven't yet bought your tickets, please don't wait another day.