“Imagine you are put upon a desert plain, a space which is so vast and blank that only your initiative can make of it a place. Imagine it is swept by fearsome winds and scorching temperatures, and only by your effort can you make of it a home. Imagine you're surrounded by thousands of other people, that together you form a city, and that within this teeming city there is nothing that's for sale. These challenging conditions represent the chief appeal of our utopian experiment.” – Larry Harvey, Burning Man Founder. "La Vie Bohème – A History of Burning Man” There’s such a thick layer of meta-discourse at Burning Man that it’s almost impossible not to live the event in a strange quasi-experiential/quasi-theoretical state. Sure, sometimes it’s suspect that so much time at Burning Man is spent talking about what BM is (try this strategy on a first date), but the event confronts you with such a dense irreality that you can’t help but examine the infinite stimulations unfolding around you.
At its most fundamental and facile, Burning Man is the acting out of Rousseauist primitivism, but with better art and music than they had in the 18th-century Geneva that Jean-Jacques so drearily loved.
Civilization ultimately corrupts: the artificial social rituals we partake in every day destroy human liberty by slaving all our interactions -- exterior manifestation of our selves -- to the desire of others.
Ok, so maybe Burning Man is not the best example of getting past all that. But Rousseauist primitivism, the idea of the ideal existing in nature and outside of civilization is there. In all the desert's dusty, temperamental, dehydrating glory.
While early Romanticism is, in this regard, a sort of starting point for the Burning Man ethos – sidestepping the ideal city and individual of the Renaissance – other influences extend forward and backwards in time, much of it coming from the 60s avant-garde and later punk polemics and aesthetics.
Dominique pointed out that this kind of event really hasn’t existed at this scale (and level of popularity) since the medieval carnival. Burning Man is definitely a Bakhtinian universe where social roles are, if not quite turned upside down or exploded, twisted in configurations novel to vast tracts of the outside world.