Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Burning Man

This is a little exercise in trying to sort out how other people might look at a picture. A little exercise in stepping into the shoes of others to imagine how they might read a photograph. Also, a little fun with Burning Man.

We all know about Burning Man, right? Big Art Thing in the Nevada desert, they build a big wooden sculpture of a man and burn it down at the end and everyone goes home.

There's a lot going on out there, I guess. There are 70,000 stories at Burning Man, these days. What we see out here in the real world, though, is a decidedly partial view. It is a highly visual take on the thing, which is itself increasingly a visual thing. While there may be whole subcultures for whom radical self-expression is singing opera, that's not photograph-able particularly, so we don't see it. Also, I doubt that it exists as a significant feature.

Over the last decade, Burning Man has become more and more visual, it's been more and more about the pictures, the pictures one can perform for, the pictures one can take. In the last few years, reliable internet and cellular data has become a feature, and to nobody's surprise a massive influx on social media influencers have shown up. Product placement is apparently A Thing at the supposedly de-commodified Burning Man event, and so on. Naturally, the organizers are fighting back in a variety of ways, definitely not including killing off internet access.

Ok, so what. The dominant visual coming out of Burning Man is the hot young woman dancing or doing yoga in the desert. In second place, enormous shitty art that looks pretty much the same year to year, which appears to be essentially jungle gyms suitable for hot young women to drape themselves over.

A little digging around reveals that this is not an entirely accurate description of Burning Man's actual visuals. Turns out there are chubby people, there are men, and there are a few non-white people lurking around the place. Not, I guess, a lot, but some. If you inspect the backgrounds of the pictures of hot young women, you can see some of these people riding bicycles in the distance, sometimes.

The beautiful young woman at Burning Man is an archetype. Let us consider the girl first, and then the photograph of her (the photograph is also an archetype, and is arguably The Brand of Burning Man).

The girl wears effectively a uniform. There are likely to be wings, there is likely to be glitter, there is likely to be some sort of headdress. There will be very little fabric. She will wear shoes, but often very little else. Sunglasses or chic goggles. It is a combination of minimum practical covering, and set of faintly outré accessories, all of which look much the same from this girl to that girl. She is extremely fit, she probably does a good deal of yoga (and in the picture she is often in a yoga pose) or dances.

In her real life, she probably finds herself passed over for better jobs, she probably finds it difficult to get people to listen to her in meetings, and so on. This is not her fault, it is simply the way it is for most women today, and especially for young attractive women. Professionally, she gets the short end of the stick more often than is strictly fair.

On the playa, in her uniform, she joins a privileged class. Everyone looks at her (at any rate, everyone photographs her, and very little else) and attends to her presence. In the gifting economy of Burning Man, she likely receives rather more gifts than do plump middle aged men. She gets to ride in the cool art cars, she gets to swing in the cool swing, and so on. Here, she is a sort of princess. If she is even slightly aware, she knows that she is the embodiment of Burning Man's image, she is what people expect when they attend the event.

Looking at her picture, we can know only a few things about her. She is pulled out of her usual context, she dressed and in all other ways placed into the role of an archetype, and therefore we can only know of her what we know or can guess about the archetype. She is young, she is fit, she is a little bit vain, she is in that moment a kind of princess, a sort of ruling peacock in a temporary city of 70,000. Her pose reveals that she has practiced posing.

We know also, and this distinguishes her from fashion models, porn stars, pretty girls taking selfies at home, and all the other pictures of beautiful young women: she will be at Burning Man next year, and if not actually her, a pack of indistinguishable substitutes. We know when and where to find her. For a few thousand dollars, we can be there too.

This, to me, seems to give her an almost unique kind of availability.

But what about the picture of her? Any one of the 100s of 1000s of such pictures will do.

Looking at the picture, men for the most part will, how to put this delicately, want to fuck her. They may transmute this desire in the interest of practicality, or because they are priests, or for any number of reasons, in to something else. I want to look at her, or I want to talk to her, or She is a harlot and shall burn, or any number of other things. The girl and the picture conspire to present her has a sexual object, and as after a fashion available. You could at any rate go and look at her, or a suitable substitute of her, and maybe if you hit the gym hard for the next year...

What do women think of the picture? Well, for the most part they know what men think of the picture, and this will surely color their understanding.

We could do worse at this point that to go watch John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" Episode 2, starting about 14 minutes in when a somewhat rambling conversation occurs among a group of women regarding the painted nude. They talk about the idea of availability, and of the ways women judge themselves and other women.

Most people, I think, but perhaps women more than men, will recognize her as an essentially sexual object, and will recognize that, on the playa, she is using her sexual power to seize a position, a role, within a privileged class. I imagine that men will see this less clearly, because their vision is perhaps a little hazed. At any rate, it took me a while to recognize that the girl in the picture is in a sense a princess, a ruling-class peacock, and I have my suspicion that this will be intuitively obvious to many women.

Some women will aspire to be that girl, perhaps most will in some way (who does not want to rule, after all?) Some women, a few thousand of them, are that girl. Others, I suppose, will envy her, despise her, judge her. Some will admire her without aspiring to be her.

The basis, though, for their judgement and reaction will be their recognition of this girl as, however briefly, a member of the playa's ruling class. Their reaction will depend, at least to a good extent, on how they feel about the act of using sexuality to seize power in this way.

Men, from whom the power is seized, will generally be in favor. If they were not, they wouldn't be ceding their power and the whole gambit, which manifestly works very well, would not work. Women, watching the action, will have a variety of reactions.

(all this, of course, in extremely broad strokes, individual mileage may and without doubt will vary, etcetera and so forth)

ETA: It occurs to me that I find myself curiously neutral on all this. I do not intend to "slut shame" these young women, I do not intend to denigrate them for using their sexuality to obtain power. I can find nothing either particularly good or bad about this, and as far as I can tell everyone is enjoying themselves. Certainly the portly middle-aged men do not get to ride in the cool swing, but that has nothing to do with the scantily clad young women, it has to do with the (hypothetical) douchey young men who control access to the (hypothetical) swing.


  1. You might enjoy the book The Rebel Sell by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, sub-titled "why the culture can't be jammed."

  2. You forgot the link to, you know, the pics...

    NB: Photography is a visual medium. Show us the damn pics.

    1. Alrighty then... will you be going to next Burning Man and show us how it's done?

    2. Also, no!

      I assume my readers are bright enough to type "Burning Man Girl" in to google.

      I thought about banging a couple of sample pictures in here, but having been the target of a harassing DMCA takedown request (a legal mechanism that is essentially tailor-made for harassment) I'm a little coy about posting other people's photos without a solid reason.

      Here's, there's no reason whatever. This is an archetype, not a specific picture. You can find 10,000 different instances in a few seconds.

    3. The clue's in the link: "/fashion/". So either you got an issue with "fashion" in general, or you have singled out Burning Man "fashion" as somehow specially illustrative of something.

    4. I dunno, man, I wrote a whole bunch of words, maybe there's something in there that would point the way.

  3. The Burning Man version of Jungle Pam Hardy, from drag racing days a few decades ago.
    The more things change, the more they stay the same.
    Or, Same stuff - different day.

    1. Pictures of hot girls are as old as pictures. But each case is a little bit different, it's not all the same. Some parts are the same, other parts are different.

      If you think The Burning Man Girl is basically the same thing as Jungle Pam Hardy, well, we disagree. I just spent several hundred words picking apart what might be distinctive and different about the former, after all.

  4. I doubt she's a member of the playa's 'ruling class' no matter how briefly. She's part of the visual currency of the event and although she may be 'high value' currency (has contemporary attractive qualities which are clearly visible) she only holds one note. The men, as you pointed out, have the control end of the stick.