Humberto Braga’s latest article, How and Why “Conscious” Festivals Need to Change, has been causing a stir recently. He assembles many of the popular criticisms of Burning Man and “Festival Culture” at large, claiming that there is a dangerous hypocrisy at work, that transformational festivals are inadequate because they apparently have not produced any meaningful political change, and could in fact be reinforcing the sinister political agenda of mainstream culture.
Of particular note is this clip of Marianne Williamson’s talk at Lightning in a Bottle 2011. Williamson claims that “the system” would love these sorts of festivals because they’re “not saying ‘fuck you!’ to anybody”. She goes on to illustrate the important difference between the transcendence festival-goers crave, and the powerful sense of denial that can often masquerade as that transcendence. She admits that it’s not her or anyone else’s place to “tell you what to do”, only that we must not use these festivals as another way to turn away from the rampant injustice and suffering in the world.
Considering the state of the world, many of us can certainly agree that denial is useless, and the time for direct action is now. However, festival culture does not in itself constitute a sociopolitical movement. A transformational festival should be no more or less political than a neighborhood potluck. Festivals are not designed to orient their attendees toward a specific agenda. No matter how obvious it may be to so many of us that problems like child poverty and military-industrial exploitation require urgent solutions, festivals like Burning Man cannot and should not frame themselves as rallies for political change, “progressive” or otherwise.
Festivals like Burning Man are incubators for a very specific process. We’re supposed to have giant parties where we assemble from miles around to meet in a temporary place designed to produce mind-blowing ballets of synchronistic encounters and heart-shattering crescendos of boundary dissolution, giving us the fresh perspective we need to re-create ourselves as complete human beings. This process is apolitical, and we’ve been doing it since the beginning of civilization. Nobody’s supposed to live at the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the Athenian senate didn’t suddenly agree on everything just because they had all made the same pilgrimage.