Burning Man LIVE

The 10 Principles in Modern Times (IRL & in VR)

Episode Summary

Larry Harvey wrote the 10 Principles 18 years ago, after the Man had been burning for just as many years. The 10 Principles weigh in at only 412 words total, and yet their interpretations and translations develop and deepen the global community. This is a deep dive into how the 10 Principles apply in modern times, in real life and in virtual reality. Stuart talks with: Athena Demos, a 15 year Burning Man organizer and Producer of BRCvr Stephen Raspa, Associate Director of Community Events for Burning Man Project This talk reveals dynamic facets of the text.

Episode Notes

Larry Harvey wrote the 10 Principles 18 years ago, after the Man had been burning for just as many years. 

The 10 Principles weigh in at only 412 words total, and yet the interpretations and translations develop and deepen the global community. 

This is a deep dive into how the 10 Principles apply in modern times, in real life and in virtual reality.

Stuart talks with:

This talk reveals dynamic facets of the text.









Episode Transcription

MICHAEL VAV: Welcome to Burning Man Live. I’m not Stuart Mangrum. I’m not Andie Grace. They’re out in the desert somewhere. I’m the third half of our podcast team, Michael Vav, here to introduce Stuart’s recent talk in front of a live audience, in virtual reality. He speaks with Athena Demos, a 15 year organizer in BRC VR and LA, and Steven Raspa, Associate Director of Community Events for Burning Man Project. 

What you are about to hear is taken from their conversation about Larry Harvey’s 10 Principles, which were written 18 years ago, after the Man had been burning for just as many years.

The 10 Principles weigh in at only 412 words, and yet their interpretations and translations serve to develop and deepen the global community. This is a deep dive in how the 10 Principles apply in modern times, in real life and in virtual reality.

This was recorded in BRCvr, so the little noises you hear that sound like popping bubbles, each one is an avatar in the audience pushing the love button. Imagine hearts floating out of avatar heads every time you hear that sound. Or imagine you’re in a cartoon bubble bath with Stuart, Raspa and Athena. Whatever floats your toy boat. 

With that, let’s dive in.

ATHENA: My name is Athena. Aunt Athena in BRCvr. And the first Saturday of every month, I host a discussion about the principles of Burning Man. And today I have two very wonderful guests for you.

I was the regional contact for Burning Man in Los Angeles for 15 years producing events, teaching newbie orientations, as well as bringing in people into the Burning Man community.

With me today, I have Steven Raspa. Steven is a founding member of the birding regional network committee and the regional events committee. He is a passionate advocate for the arts, and culture. He is Associate Director of Community Events for Burning Man, and he often speaks about the 10 Principles and their application to community development and urban planning. Hi, Steven.

RASPA: Hi, Athena.

ATHENA: And then we have Stuart Mangrum. Stuart has been part of the Burning Man world since 1993. When he volunteered to publish the playa’s first newspaper, the Black Rock Gazette.

Over the years he's participated as an artist theme camp organizer and has held year round staff positions in communications and education. He serves as the Director of the Philosophical Center for the Burning Man Project. And where you are today is the virtual manifestation of the Philosophical Center. 

The first thing I'd like to do is talk a little bit about the history of the principles. Where did they come from? When did they come about and why do we even have them? Stuart, do you want to give us a little bit of the, who, what, where and why of the principles?

STUART: Good morning. Good evening. Good afternoon. Wherever you are. Where to begin this story? A lot of people are surprised to find out that unlike most self-respecting cults, I mean, movements, Burning Man did not start with a credo. I know a lot of people think that Larry Harvey, our founder, must've just woken up one morning and said, “I'm going to start a movement.” And then the 10 Principles just sort of popped out of his forehead like Venus from the brow of Zeus. In fact it was the other way around the event had actually been going on for 18 years before what we now know is the 10 Principles were ever written down.

And the reason is, the why behind it, was that around that time in the early 2000s, that's when what we now think of as the Regional Network was first starting to come together. People were going to Burning Man, having a great experience, and saying, “Hey, I want to take this home to my local community. I want to create an event that's like Burning Man and I want to get your official sanction.”

Okay. The sanction part was where Larry kind of freaked out. He told me later, he was like, “They wanted me to write them a press release.” You know, like “for immediate release: Burning Man sanctions Flipside in Texas as an official Burning Man event.”

Instead of that, he wrote the 10 Principles. He basically gave them the source code, if you will, for what Burning Man is. He made Burning Man into an open source event. So the first thing to know about the principles is that, as he liked to say, “They're descriptive rather than prescriptive.” They are based on observation of the community after it was fairly mature and based on the behaviors that showed up the participant behaviors.

It's under 500 words total, which is pretty brief for a man who was not known for brevity.

Another observation that's key is that they are all actions. They're not values. People refer to it sometimes as the ethos of Burning Man or a value set. And they're really not. If you look at them carefully, Burning Man at no point is telling you what to believe or what to feel or what to think.

The describe actions in the world, the way of being. Take Leaving No Trace, for instance. You can scratch the surface of a behavior, like Leaving No Trace, and you can probably see a value pretty close to the surface. You might say that while somebody is Leaving No Trace, they must put a value on the ecology, right? But it's also possible that they might just have been shamed into it, that they got tired of their friends yelling at them for dropping cigarette butts, and they might be just doing it just to conform.

Right. So, you can't assume that you know what somebody's belief system is. But you know, ultimately, it's the beauty of the 10 Principles, it doesn't really matter. I don't care what you believe as long as you act in a certain way. 

The fancy word for that - and I learned this from my friend Caveat - is orthopraxy. It’s consistency of practice, rather than orthodoxy consistency of belief. If we act in these particular ways together, we found that it makes it easier for us all to have an awesome time, right? And to have a transformative experience.

You know, that idea that they expressed in actions.

Also, if you look at it, they're all ongoing actions. There's a lot of present participle language: Leaving No Trace. It's not Leave No Trace. It's not a commandment, despite what my friend DA likes to say and get everybody riled up by chanting Leave No Trace, Leave No Trace...

It's about Leaving No Trace. And to me, the significance of that. It’s not a checklist item. It’s a practice. It's something you can keep trying to get better at.

Another thing to keep in mind is that they are extremely interdependent. As Larry liked to say, “Nothing less than all 10 will do.” That's important because sometimes you'll see people well taking one principle out of the kit and using it as a hammer to beat on somebody with. For instance, you may have been beaten with the Decommodification stick. And if you're doing it that way, you're probably doing it wrong because that ignores the interrelationships between the principles.

There are both synergies, and tensions. Synergies for instance, think about being self-reliant and how that relates to Gifting. Only when you've taken care of all your own needs do you have a surplus and have the capacity to give something to somebody else. There are also tensions between the principles that might seem at first glance to simply be contradictory - like Radical Self-Expression sometimes butts up against the Civic Responsibility. Your freedom of speech may not be what I want to hear, or I can take hearing.

Those tensions and those synergies are not bugs in the system. Those are the system. So if you think about the 10 Principles as just being a textbook, it's really more of a dictionary. It is a vocabulary for us to use when we're describing what we do and we don’t like, what does and does not feel like Burning Man.

And the last thing I'll say is that they're not the world, right? The 10 Principles are not the be-all-and-end-all of our existence. Or to quote my friend Caveat again, “They're not exclusive goods.” Meaning, if you think of something else that's really important to you as a value, as a behavior, that doesn't mean that it necessarily belongs in the 10 Principles. 

The 10 Principles, once again, describe behaviors that help us get along and have an awesome time together in camping trips in the middle of nowhere. They don't necessarily contain the entire universe. If you want to add the 11th principle, go ahead. And lots of regional groups and events have Consent, which is a practice. Gratitude, which actually is not, it's more of a value. The South Africans down in AfrikaBurn have “Each one teach one.” That's fine. 

And some of us have our own, I certainly have my own. My 11th principle, or actually my zero with principal, because I think it's the hub from which all the others are spokes is: a sense of humor because if you can't laugh at it and yourself, then you're definitely doing it wrong.

ATHENA: Stuart, I love the idea of having your own personal central principle that all the rest of the spokes off of. Thank you for the history. 

Steven, I know you were part of the group that reviewed the principles when Larry wrote them and you often speak about them as they relate to Burning Man.

RASPA: Yeah. Stuart has done a wonderful job sort of touching upon the things that are important for me that people know.

There's about five things that I like to really stress. 

One is that they were indeed written to help the culture scale.

Two, they were descriptive of the best parts of the culture that had arisen over many years, but they also tried in some ways to describe things that were implicit to the experience of gathering every year and burning the Man and doing all the things we love.

The third is that there's really a poetry to them and a great depth. They go well beyond the surface and they were written with a kind of poetry to the words that sometimes it's difficult to translate, honestly, into other languages, unless you've got a poet really thinking about the implications.

Four is: They were indeed written to inspire critical thought. And as Stuart pointed out there is an interdependence and trade-offs among them so that people have to think.

Fifth, Larry did not like the 10 words to just appear as 10 words. In fact, I got into a bit of an argument with him once, because I was saying we should put the 10 Principles up at the entry into Black Rock City, so people are thinking about those words as they enter. And he said, “Look, they should have read that before they came. And the 10 words on their own are just words. I want them to really read those principles and think about them.” So a pet peeve of mine sometimes is when people just shorten them so much that there isn't that wonderful tension that requires critical thought, for every person to think, “How does this relate to me?” and “What is the balance between for example, my Radical Self-Expression stepping on somebody else's Radical Inclusion?”

Also, I think it's really nice to know that Larry didn't want to write anything down. I, and others on the committee at that time, kind of besieged him and said, “We have all these wonderful volunteer Regional Contacts and members of our community going out in the world saying, ‘How do we talk about this crazy thing? What do we say? And we want to organize our own events. So, how can you guide us?’” 

So he wrote these with great trepidation because he didn't want to risk things feeling like dogma. But we all wanted to provide a tool for a global network that was emerging quite spontaneously and asked for some guidance and tools.

So I hope that people will know that, and not mistake them for 10 commandments. That wasn't the intention.

ATHENA: Thank you, Steven.

So now Steven, you have a really interesting position within the Burning Man organization. Stuart talked about the principles not being a checklist or a rule book. But in your role, you often have to make the call on whether a regional burn is compliant enough with the principals to call itself a Burning Man event. And now we have these virtual burns. So how does that work? 

RASPA: Well, it's not just me making these decisions. We have an officializing team and we have a Regional Events committee. So when there is a new event or, even in this case, a new platform, we do have conversations about, Does it reflect well on the culture? Does it embody the principles and what things come up? And as you mentioned that sometimes there's trade-offs.

For example, I'm recalling now an event in which the organizers came to me. They said, “Hey, we have this really great property, there's water fountains that are included there. We actually want to tell people not to bring plastic water bottles, and instead to bring refillable drinking containers that they will carry with them. It will reduce plastic. Is that okay?” So there you have a perfect example of something that's very high on Leaving No Trace and environmental stewardship, but perhaps lower on Radical Self-Reliance.

Although they still got to bring their container and think about the relationship between the two. So we said, “Yeah, that's great, actually.” These things exist along a spectrum. 

For the online worlds, there's lots of interesting trade-offs and things to think about. For example, Decommodification I think is quite important because it's very easy in an online world in which we've been trained almost to self promote, that not realizing it we could risk commodification with just a click.

Or in the case of Immediacy. It's easy to kind of go channel surfing. Whereas when you're in the company of somebody in physical reality, you're in front of them and really confronted by the moment that the two of you are creating, and it might be rude to go turn your back on somebody. And so you're likely to be a little bit more present. 

These are things I think we all have to think about as a community. We have to ask ourselves if we're theme camp, how are we creating a meaningful experience for one another that's really a gift and not just maybe promoting our specific brand identity? It's those kinds of trade-offs that I think are quite interesting. But also in the online world, Radical Self-Expression is possible for a whole bunch of amazing and brilliant artists that have been working in online mediums and technology that haven't had a forum in our dusty, messed up, wonderful, away world.

So I love seeing this new platform or canvas for Radical Self-Expression for members of our community. And certainly a powerful and wonderful thing is there's way more Radical Inclusion in this online world that can even remove some of the economic barriers. So more and more people. I mean, we'd like what a hundred thousand people last year that experienced the online world. That's larger than Black Rock City. So hooray for that.

ATHENA: Well, okay, we're done. You went through all the principles. Just kidding.

RASPA: Sorry about that. There's never a short answer. So much more, so much more we can say about every principal.

ATHENA: Everyone has a favorite principle. It's challenging for other people, or it speaks to your heart. What is your favorite principle and why?

RASPA: Gifting, because it's such a fundamental part of our culture of abundance and really in stark contrast to the consumer society, which so often reduces things to “What do I get out of it?”

ATHENA: Perfect. And Stuart, what is your favorite principal and why?

STUART: Oh, they're all my children, Athena. I can't possibly pick one without dissing the others. No, I would say, though: Decommodification. For a lot of reasons. 

I was very intensely involved back in the nineties as an organizer. And then I went away. And then 8 or 9 years ago, Larry Harvey called me up and asked me to come back and join the circus again. And that was actually the first time I had read the 10 Principles, and Decommodification stood out to me because it expressed a lot of the trickier values that I know that were present back there when I first started going to Burning Man.

It had a legacy as a Cacophony Society event, which was very much outside the commercial mainstream. Cacophony actually had a sister organization known as The Billboard Liberation Front that I was a part of, that was very explicitly out there screwing with capitalist messaging.

And the society I grew up in, in 20th century America, was so deeply saturated with economic behaviors and with branding and messaging and advertising that the opportunity to step outside of that, even for a moment, and to experience each other as actual human beings and not simply as economic actors, is really the most magical thing about Burning Man. 

And I think that enables so much of what we think of as Playa Magic. When you meet somebody for the first time, your first thought is not, “What is this person trying to sell me?” 

So that's why. That and the fact that “decommodification” is basically a made up word that Larry just coined himself. So it's a neologism.

ATHENA: I love that Steven is Gifting and you’re Decommodification because I believe that the two need each other, one cannot exist without the other. You literally have to de-commodify your gift in order for it to actually be a gift. If the gift has a commodification, it's not a gift, it's a transaction. You're expecting something in return. Those two are intertwined in a synergistic way. 

STUART: Athena, it's only fair to turn the tables. What's your favorite principle?

ATHENA: Communal Effort. I love when a group of people, somebody comes up with an idea and it's so large that they are incapable of doing it themselves. And they pull people together. I believe that Communal Effort makes most of the other principles happen because you Radically include people into your project and they all can participate and express themselves through this larger project that they're creating.

STUART: Alright. 

ATHENA: And with that, I would like to start talking about each one of the principles. We are going to read it, talk about how it applies to the physical world and how it applies to the virtual world. Why not start immediately with immediacy. 

Immediate experience is in many ways the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves in the reality of those around us participation in society and contact with the natural world, exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute this experience.

RASPA: I'd love to point out that there were originally nine principles.

STUART: No, that's not possible. There’s gotta be ten!

RASPA: Nine principles originally. Larry, again, we twisted his arm. He had to write something.

He thought about what were the best parts of the culture, and came back with nine of them. This one was not among them. And so we chided him. We joked with him. We said, “What? You couldn't come up with ten? Ten is a nice round number. What do you mean you couldn't come back with 10 commandments?” We were joking. The next. He said, there is a 10th and it's so obvious and so fundamental and it's immediacy. 

And without being in this state of being present with yourself, your interconnectedness with others and the natural world around you, that in some ways the others can't even unfold.

This was the one that almost didn't get written down and then Larry became most excited about. 

ATHENA: It can be something as simple as being present to the conversation that you are having in the moment or the fun activity in the moment or going on a world hopping tour and following somebody to a world that it's just a fun exploration, it's like the Playa Crawl. We just randomly go with a group of friends out into the Playa. “Oh, what's that shiny thing?” And you go out there and you have that experience in your present to the now. For me, that's immediacy.

STUART: To me, it's the most Zen of all of the principals. It does harken back to the old “Be Here Now” - the notion of presence, of being actually there. I think it does enable a lot of the genuine interaction. 

To me, it's really about authenticity, and not running on your macros. Not running on your programs.

We spent so much of our lives going through motions we have created for ourselves. To me, this means actually busting out of that. And it also hearkens back to, back in the the suicide club was called “Into the Unknown,” in the Cacophony Society it was known as a “Zone Trip,” where you would basically go to a place that you might already be familiar with, but erase all that your preconceived notions and try to experience it as if it were for the first time again. and of course, the first trip out to the Black Rock in 1990 was in fact a “Zone Trip” - famously involving drawing a line in the dust and having everyone get out and ritually jump over it, being told that “On the other side of this line, everything is going to be different.”

How we maintain that freshness of perspective is one of the big challenges in the practice of immediacy.

ATHENA: I love that. So think about in your lives, where Immediacy comes into play and how you can be more present to the artists, to the art, to the avatars, to the performers, and have a good time. 

Radical Self-Expression.

Burning Man encourages the individual to discover exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.

Radical Self-Expression is interesting in technology because when we pulled a whole bunch of hammer and nail artists onto a virtual platform, they could not be radically self-reliant and they still need help.

They need world builders in 3d modelers, and people in the gaming space to help bring their art into VR. But we teach people. We teach people as much as we can about the technology, so that they can be more radically self-reliant.

RASPA: In a way that summons the same thing that the whole punk movement was about in a lot of ways: Do It Yourself, DIY. Rely on your inner resources and whatever you can to find what you can do as a person.

I think it's worth also dissecting the word Radical. Radical comes from the Latin root Radix, which means root, the root of things. It's not just extreme, though we certainly love extreme forms of things in our culture and pushing things to new frontiers. Here it's really taken it down to the basics and seeing what you can do as a person. 

And in other countries and languages where the word Radical can be very threatening, I've noticed with interest that sometimes they just drop it. But I think it would be a better translation in other languages to say ‘fundamental’ or ‘authentic,’ rather than drop the word entirely because it emphasizes something.

STUART: Yeah. Or “innate.”

RASPA: Oh yes. I would agree with that. “Innate” is good, Stuart.

STUART: Larry, for all of his charm, he was a bit of a 19th century man and a 20th century body. And so he did write it specifically with that notion of “Radical.” It actually means from in your heart, from in yourself. So these three principles that all begin with the word “Radical” are the closest we have to actually expressing values rather than just actions, right? 

If you're radically inclusive, it means that you in your heart of hearts are open to and compassionate about other people.

If you are radically self-reliant, it means that you in your heart are dedicated to trying at least to take care of yourself so that others don't have to. 

Radical Self-Expression is also, I think, the one that may be translating with the most challenges into other cultures. As I've talked to people from around the world who've adopted the principles, or are trying to live a principled life, it's become clear to me that this one is not just uniquely American, it's very distinctly Western American. And Burning Man shows up in this principle as being a phenomenon of the west, where there's a scrappy self-reliance to everything that you do, as opposed to say, the social democracies of Western Europe, where they kind of scratch their head a little bit over this one. They lean more into Communal Effort.

ATHENA: Some people take it so far that they become radically independent. Whereas Radical Self-Expression says I I have my own inner resources and I'm able to do for myself. And therefore I have enough to share with others. radical independence basically says, I don't need you. Yeah.

STUART: Yeah. As Larry said it, he never meant to me that we're going to weave our own tent fabric and create our own homespun cloth. It was more about being able to care for yourself so that you can share with others.

ATHENA: Gifting.

Burning Man is devoted to the act of gift giving the value of a gift is unconditional gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

RASPA: Many people just think of gifting in a very, like “Here's a thing” way. That can be in some ways a departure from the essential richness of gifting. For me, gifting requires someone asking of themselves, “What are my gifts and how can I best share them with others?” That's a deeply internal way of processing of Gifting, but it also requires listening and observation of others in some ways to spot opportunities to be generous in meaningful ways. That requires a contemplation of others. 

So for me, Gifting is a relationship between one's self and others. And this principle is just so much deeper than just giving someone a physical trinket, though, of course, that can be very nice and humorous under the right circumstances. 

The gifting of your time, your presence. Running over to help somebody as their intent is flying away and saying, “Actually, I can help you with this because I'm really good with putting up tents,” or “I have a better way to do the stake thing.” And I mean, that kind of generosity of being, or someone sharing something and they're being vulnerable and you're holding space for them to really hear it.

This is again also where there's an overlap between maybe Gifting and Radical Self-Expression and even the interrelatedness of Communal Effort and its most basic building block between two people. But it can be with whole groups. Anyway, there's a whole richness to Gifting.

I had a problem at one point, when I observed that many in our culture, including myself, felt like I had to show up with a bunch of things in my pocket, or even worse, we're ordering things online that would end up being disposable weird tchotchkes. And I think it's important to say that the most beautiful forms of gifting come from other places than “stuff-ness.”

But I do love it. it does call into question what is our own essential gift that we must give to ourselves and by giving to ourselves, we give to the world. And how does that relate to how we interrelate and how does that relate to creating an entire economy and a culture of abundance?

So it's rich and deep and beautiful for me.

ATHENA: I love it, Stuart.

STUART: Well, the thing that you pointed out earlier, the relationship between Gifting and Decommodification, and actually I would cluster Communal Effort in there too, as what I would say, the radical economics of Burning Man, it kind of gets back to that same notion of how do we bust out of this century of economic behaviors that have been layered over everything that we think and everything that we do - that systemic capitalism. Gifting is a huge part of that. 

It's also interesting to me that it's one that basically has to be a learned behavior. People have to be in Burning Man environments for awhile before they actually kind of get it. The reason is that Gifting in our everyday lives has been super commodified.

Think about the reciprocity of gift giving. If somebody gives you a more expensive gift than you gave them, or if someone didn't give you a gift last year on the list. We're all doing a little bit of internal math of reciprocity in our gifts.

So that ability to give freely and generously to a stranger or to a friend is something that takes some breaking out for many people.

ATHENA: Yeah. Needing even a thank you, needing something in return, commodifies it.

STUART: Turns it into an exchange.

ATHENA: And sometimes the greatest gift you can give is merely receiving the gift given.


In order to preserve the spirit of gifting our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

STUART: Some of the key words in this are that we create environments. I think it's a tacit acknowledgement that when we are not in environments that we control, we swim in a sea of commerce. We swim in a sea of capitalism and exploitation. To me, that's a caution that as we create these virtual worlds. The internet is not a world that we created. Unfortunately, it's impossible to control, for instance, influencers who want to exploit Burning Man culture to sell their own personal brand.

But in these worlds, just as in the event spaces that we've created, we do have the power. These are created environments. We do have the power to suppress or completely leave behind those notions of a brand and product and economic relationships with each other.

ATHENA: Yeah. Exactly.

RASPA: For me, the word that always jumps out is the word transactions. For example, in my daily life, if I'm going into a cafe or something and I'm getting a cup of coffee, am I slapping the money down on the table and just expecting my cup of coffee?

Or am I looking the person in the eyes and saying “Hello,” and having a nice experience, and is there a relational aspect there? 

So beyond just thinking in terms of ‘is there money involved’ - and there isn't a distinction between thoughtful commerce, which is a part of the experience and commodification. How can there be a humanist response to something that might normally be transactional and soulless? Part of decommodification is substituting authentic human relationships for transactions, and not even seeing the people involved.

STUART: A very common misperception is that this is an anti commerce value. and in fact, in one of the iconic versions of the 10 Principles, as I've seen this principle is expressed simply as a bag of money with a line through it. And that's absolutely not.

We can't exist without commerce; it's existed as long as humans have. And honestly, when we did the caravansary theme in 2015, 14 something, that was very explicitly what we talked about: Commerce is absolutely essential. You know, a commerce in ideas, a commerce and culture, a commerce in exchange, but not that monetary transaction. They don't have to be linked. 

RASPA: I have seen members of our community try to translate this into other languages, as you pointed out, it's a hard word to translate into other languages because it was a made up word: decommodification. 

STUART: Yeah. 

RASPA: So often it gets translated as “no commerce,” and it's… You know, I had lengthy conversations with Larry because I used to love to fantasize for example, and push the conceptual limits. What if there, for example, there was a gift market instead of a stock market? What if we lived in a world in which there was complete and utter generosity of being and..? And he'd be like, “Yeah, Steven. Look, that's a little bit of a pipe dream there. We exist within the larger world.” And, I would want to push things to “No, it’s possible. We can do it.” And I still in my heart of hearts, think, yes, it is possible and we can do it. But how do you pay the rent and all those sorts of things that come up?

There is room for ethical commerce in how we even create our spaces. As we've tried to do, like, you know, we have nice relationships with the people that bring our, our port-a-potties and everything. They're part of the family. We try to have meaningful relationships with even all of the Federal agencies that we have to interact with, the police and everyone, so that it's not just a transactional experience because that would suck.

STUART: Another way to understand it more deeply is to parse out that word, you know, at the heart of decommodification is the word commodity.

And not every product is a commodity. If you look it up, a commodity is a product that's basically had all the soul sucked out of it and is freely swappable for any other of the same thing. So in some cases, really all it takes to turn a commodity into. Not a commodity is to put a story around it or to put a relationship around it.

My feeling is that this principle is the warning to at the very least to not treat each other as commodities, to not treat each other as buyers and sellers, or possible markets.

RASPA: Yes, yes, yes. And so important because we're living in a world in which we've turned ourselves into products. I think this is a rich… We could spend an hour on this. Oh my God.

ATHENA: We could spend an hour on this. Putting value on the uniqueness of each one of us and not treating the avatar version of us as it's just a cartoon. We're real. This is me.

Civic Responsibility. 

We value civil systems. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavour to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with the local state and Federal laws.

RASPA: With this principle, there was something very aspirational which really contemplates, and values our relationship with society as a whole. And I love the promise that in many ways our culture has for hacking society and offering better versions of it. But there's also something very practical here.

That last part it's very practical and one of the requirements of all official events, for example, and I think even of the platforms, is that they observe laws and things so that people, when they volunteer, don't end up getting arrested and it's a safe container for people to express themselves and be themselves.

And it also points to a larger strategy of working with the system to, in some ways, evolve it from within. The bigger aspirational part is society, society, society. What is our role? How do we create our own version of it?

ATHENA: I like to say that we're moving from society into humanity, 

RASPA: I love that.

ATHENA: ...evolving from society into humanity.

STUART: It's easy to kind of fixate on that last sentence, you know, in the larger sense, this really is about citizenship and about extending your personal responsibility.

RASPA: Yes. I'm excited, Stuart, you're bringing up the word “citizen.”

STUART: Citizenship is really at the heart of this. It's not just obeying the law, it’s being a participatory member of your community and accepting responsibility for shared leadership.

You know, part of the origin of this is in fact in having to obey the laws laid down by the state and the fed, but also part of it is in a realization that in Black Rock City, we essentially were a civic authority and we had a responsibility to ourselves and to each other to help take care of each other.

That's why we have Black Rock Rangers. It's why we have medical facilities, and all that. It's stepping up and accepting that personal and collective responsibility of being a civic entity.

ATHENA: Radical Inclusion 

Anyone may be part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. There are no prerequisites that exist for participation in our community.

STUART: I'll just remind everyone that this is another one of the Radicals. This is describing not really an institutional behavior, but an individual behavior, that each of us in our hearts maintains a value of acceptance and compassion, and of being open to new people and new experiences.

RASPA: You know, this is the welcome mat that we all lay out as a community. And I think there's a little bit of a challenge that goes with this: How to make others feel welcome - even as we move through the world - how to create welcoming spaces.

I also want to add that sometimes I've seen people use this as almost a weapon to say, “you can't stop me from coming and I will do what I want,” this has been used as a form of aggression sometimes. And so while everyone is welcome to come and have these experiences, it doesn't mean that if they come and they threaten people or they create a threatening environment, or they just want to sell things or they say, screw the other principals that they get to be there. 

Eviction is an appropriate response to somebody that comes with a sense of entitlement, more perhaps poignant at this moment in time where there are various strains of COVID going around the world.

Some members of our community that are organizing gatherings and are trying to set health requirements such as wearing masks or whatever it might be. Have a right to ask, and to follow local health and safety codes. And if people aren't willing to follow what the local group organizes, then it doesn't mean that they can come.

I mean, we're in a global pandemic, so this is a point of tension right now. How do we remain inclusive and also have health and safety standards? It’s hard. 

ATHENA: Yeah, it's a really complicated one. Civic responsibility. We have to be responsible to our community, to our civil society, and including people that aren't willing to take on their own civic responsibility. It’s a sticky sticking point. Definitely is a difficult one right now.

RASPA: Yeah. There's sort of an unspoken thing that comes with Radical Inclusion and that is that you agree to play, along well with others as the container has been formed. And that can change in subtle ways, but, you know, we sort of agree that we're going to honor all of these principles and it's not just about Radical Inclusion alone. 

ATHENA: Yeah. None of the principles exist as a solo. They're all together in one room. It's not just Radical inclusivity, but it's the other nine with it.

Communal Effort. 

Our community values, creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art and methods of communication that support such interaction.

RASPA: I love the potential and power of Communal Effort particularly when it is combined with Gifting and Radical Self-Expression. This is the one that really makes me think we can do anything together when we join all of our unique talents, perspectives, and energies, and agree to work together on solving problems or creating even just pure joy and imagination.

So this is the one that has an exponential and magnifying effect, to the whole experience. Amen.

STUART: I'll just say that while it is possible to attend Burning Man events or go to a Burning Man space and simply be an observer, for a certain segment of the population, they trip over into Participation in into Communal Effort, and that's really the magic. That's really what makes it possible. Burning Man is not about having an experience. It really becomes for most people about creating an experience.

You look at an organization like Burning Man Project that has around a hundred year-round employees and thousands and thousands and thousands of volunteers who build that city.

That's kind of magical, but as my friend, Harley DuBois says: that's really what our job is, is to create those opportunities for those people to do that work and to look back on it and see what they have created.

ATHENA: Radical Self-Expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others and in this spirit, givers should respect the rights and liberties of the receipt.

RASPA: Sometimes people forget that last bit, respecting the rights and liberties of others. This one I've also seen weaponized, unintentionally, perhaps sometimes by people just being like, “No, my right is to absolutely say anything that comes out of my mouth,” and if that is threatening or harmful to another human being, there's a line there.

I also want to say that often Radical Self-Expression gets reduced to an aesthetic concept. It goes much deeper than that. No one needs to get dressed up to express themselves and I'm somebody that loves dressing up, because it helps you sort of shift my frame; it's a way that I can express myself creatively or even just how I feel or want to feel, so I love that aspect of it. But sharing your skills, your knowledge or your orientation, sharing jokes, again, if you love, if your passion and your art is cooking and culinary arts, then making an amazing dish for others, that falls under Radical Self-Expression. 

I think a pitfall here to be careful about is that in all of our efforts to sort of be fabulous and to embody the culture, that we not make other people that are new to the culture feel like they have to go out and buy a fabulous coat to fit in because that's not the idea at all.

Larry sometimes starts about a tyranny of aesthetics, which is that people might feel that they have to look a certain way to fit in, for example. This principle goes well beyond aesthetics.

STUART: I think that one of the great powers of a Burning Man experience is its ability to help people kind of deconstruct their notions of what art and creativity are.

Once again, it kind of goes back to commodification. So many of us have creative instincts or grow up all of our childhoods plus our adulthoods being told that we can't do that, that you got to get a day job, that you can't go to art school. You can't do any of that. 

So I think that realization of the freedom to actually express what's in one's own heart, that Radical, notion whatever it is - and even for those people who already are in creative industries, the ability to not think about the market, to not write a book, to be a bestseller, to not write a song, to be top of the pops. But to really express what's inside of you is to me what the innate power of this principle is.

RASPA: Thank you for saying that Stuart. I like to remind people that if “Radical” refers to, as you said, innate, or as I said earlier, fundamental or authentic, that this really has to do with showing up authentically as you really are, and there's a vulnerability that goes with this, not just being a peacock.

ATHENA: We say Radical Self-Expression and a lot of times you think of you as a single entity, but sometimes that self is a group. It's the group self, a collective, troop, crew, the team can be the expression of more than one.

RASPA: It would be simpler to explain that that's a little bit more about Communal Effort, but I love that you are raising the question of what the self means. Is it “self” with a small S or is it “self” with a capital S, and where do our boundaries of self lie? Are they defined merely by our skin or by our ideas, our energetic output, the impact we have on others, our interrelationships.

I really believe in an expanded sense of self, but I think practically speaking this is an inward principle that is saying, “Who are you? Who do you want to be? How do you want to show up in the world?” And there's an invitation here to explore. If you're not feeling like you're really who you want to be, who might you want to try being? What version of your possible self? Because we are all an infinite number of possible selves, in a way. And at the same time, there's something that makes us uniquely and fundamentally ourselves. So yeah, this is another principle which you could go real deep, so I love that you're raising question about what does self mean? And that is the right question.

ATHENA: Thank you. Everyone has to make that decision for themselves, really. 

RASPA: There's definitely lots more we could say about this principle, but let's go on to Participation.

ATHENA: Participation. Our community is committed to a Radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change whether in the individual or in society can occur only through medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play through actions that open the hearts.

The one phrase: “We achieve being through doing.” We actually call ourselves a Do-ocracy. People say to me, “How did you become the regional contact for Los Angeles?” I was doing it. I was doing the job. I got recognized for the job that I was doing. You be from doing. You get a being from the doing, and that's part of participation.

RASPA: I really agree with you, Athena. The things that I've always jumped out to me here also are that we achieve being through doing, and we make the world real through actions that open the heart. There's an experiential emphasis that runs through our culture. Our community is formed through shared experience, often under conditions of shared hardship, where we have to come up with solutions. We used to phrase this as no spectators, but then we had a long and lengthy conversation. Many of us still love no spectators, but we decided to phrase it in the positive way instead of the “no” way. And it ended up coming out as participate

In the Nordic region, they don't like the word participant. They don't like the word volunteer. They call everybody a co-creator, so sometimes there can be a difference between the nuance of the word even participant and what that conjures.

But I think the essential message here with this principle is: get in there and help create the experience, and be in a sense through.

STUART: To me this is kind of the gateway principle from which all the others must spring. It's sort of a prerequisite for all the rest. Burning Man is after all a verb. You're not doing it. And to me, back to the Cacophony Society where it was not about reading or observing or watching; it was about doing.

I still think that's the key. And that's what actually enables the magic, the transformative magic. It's quite possible to go to Burning Man and sit around and watch all the other people doing stuff. But for a certain percentage of people, a switch gets flipped in their brain and they're like, “I need to do that.”

We call it the sophomore syndrome sometime, that in your freshman year, you might just go and be goo-goo-eyed over all of the crazy art, but for a certain person, they're like next year, “I'm going to come back and I'm going to make art. I'm going to do that thing.” And that is the gateway. That’s the first step on a path to personal transformation is actually doing it rather than looking at it.

ATHENA: We actually had that happen in here. They're like, “Oh, I came last year and it inspired me to do something this year.”

STUART: There's no greater sign of success. Burning Man, as we know, has not grown by marketing and advertising. It's grown by exactly that.

RASPA: I also want to point out the phrase that’s in here “everyone is invited to work,” because we found that society is often created through shared work. And “everyone is invited to play.” You know, many of us that have been involved with Burning Man for many years, joke that there's an 11th principle of Radical Self-EnFUNment, that you can't forget the fun, and Stuart I know you feel strongly about this also.

But I do love that there is this invitation to play. Everyone is invited to play in a way, could be a part of inclusion, but it ends up here as examples of how you can participate.

ATHENA: Leaving No Trace. 

Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities. Wherever we gather, we clean up after ourselves and endeavor whenever possible to leave such places in a better state than we found them. 

In VR, that's kind of difficult, right? We don't litter. We do have programmed litter where you pick it up and you throw it away and then it spawns back. Thank you, Marshmallow. It's a lot of fun. In Burning Man we call litter - MOOP (Matter Out Of Place).

STUART: Our understanding of this one, I think, has evolved over time. You know, it did start out very, specifically about not leaving trash or MOOP behind on the pristine wasteland of the Black Rock Desert. But as the culture grows, matures and spreads around the world, we're spending a lot more time thinking about our impact beyond the proverbial trash fence. That's really the interpretation that's behind Burning Man's very ambitious sustainability initiative to become carbon negative by 2030.

So as participants in this culture, I think we all have opportunities every day of our lives to leave the world in a better state than we found it. And, we should take those seriously, not just when we're wearing our fuzzy boots.

RASPA: Well, you pointed out my pet peeve. People don't read that last line, that we endeavor whenever possible to leave such places in a better state than when we found them. Many people argue, “Oh, why isn't it ‘leave a positive trace?’” You could phrase it that way, but it was written this way and includes both cleaning up after yourself and leading someplace in a better state, whether that is energetically through positive relationships that you have formed with people around that space or involved. That could be neighbors. It could be relationships with city officials that later lead to placing more art in public spaces. 

It definitely can mean, and often does, leaving a place physically cleaner than it was. I was just talking to organizers of a Regional event that took place on a beach and they left the beach so clean that everybody was so happy with them afterwards and said, “It's the cleanest it's ever looked.” That's the way we roll as burners. 

However, there is an energetic version of that. If you are a jerk to somebody, at a local event or whatever, that's negative energy that you have left behind. This is where I think it can apply in the online realm. How can you think about creating a better state of being than when you first arrived?

Along with this, I think it was written as Leaving No Trace because, what was the central ritual that we do? We build and burn a man. So there is something about ephemerality that is built into this principle. That's where I think subliminally perhaps it was included with language like “we're committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities.”

And I would argue that it is through that focus on ephemerality, that then it resists the urge to own, possess or commodify even the whole culture.

It often gets looked at only from an environmental perspective, but there's also something that I find poetically beautiful. Don't cling to the experience. Embrace ephemerality.

And if you go really deep with it, that can be a way to really live your life. But yeah. It's always in a sense, been both this combination of ephemerality and leaving someplace better than it was.

ATHENA: Thank you, Steven. Stuart, would you like to add anything about Leave No Trace?

STUART: No. I think Raspa took that on a beautifully and elegantly philosophical note. Thank you so much. 

ATHENA: Fantastic. Let's close this out.

STUART: Thank you. Good job. 

RASPA: I want to thank everyone for thinking about these principles, and going a little deeper with them. They are rich and interesting and really meant to inspire personal thought and critical thinking. Enjoy them, make them your own, and it's really a fascinating subject to think about how these principles and just taking our culture works in an online world, especially. And welcome to all the newbies out there.

ATHENA: Yes. Welcome home. Thank you, everyone for coming, listening and learning. Have a great rest of your day, wherever you are on the planet. And we will see you soon in the digital depths.

MICHAEL VAV: Thanks to Athena Demos and Steven Raspa, and to Stuart Mangrum, the host of this show, and the Executive Make-It-Happener. Our Story Producer is Andie Grace. I am the Technical Producer and Story Editor Michael Vav. 

Thanks to Retro for voicing this episode’s intro.

Burning Man Live is a production of the Philosophical Center of Burning Man Project. You put this podcast between your ears because people put pesos into a pail at donate.burningman.org. 

Questions? Answers? Trivia? Write us at live@burningman.org


Thanks, Larry.