Burning Man – Decommodification

sunset350From the Burning Man website: Decommodification: “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.”

To begin with, here is a post I made on my LJ in 2006, prior to going to Burning Man for the first time:

Burning Man is touted as a no-commerce event. It’s also viewed as a hippie/freak oasis miles away from the “default world”. The closer it gets to the event, though, the more grumbling I hear from people who are a little cynical about the ideals, because there is an insane amount of commerce going on.

I’m travelling light, because I’m only taking what I can get on a plane. Some people take furniture and generators and stages and art that towers into the sky. I can’t imagine what their bill is like. My tally is high enough though – ticket to Burning Man, airfaire, shipping containers, two nights hotel in Reno, rental car for a week, new tent, new sleeping bag, special tent stakes, random camping gear, try-to-survive-in-the-desert stuff (lotion, vinegar, nasal spray, eye drops, aloe, sun screen, lip balm, etc.), a gazillion glow sticks, blinkie toys, a new fire toy, aaaaaand all-new-clothes-including-five-pairs-of-new-shoes. This is the single most expensive experience in my life. Hmm. Maybe the tour of Europe, but my parents paid for that.  :-)

So, yeah, lots of commerce.

I’m not cynical, though. I never thought of Burning Man as making a particular statement about buying and selling. I might very well have communist leanings, but Burning Man doesn’t really fit into that for me. I just see it as taking a breather from commerce and especially advertising. Just because you want a break from something doesn’t mean you think it’s bad.

Commerce is everywhere. Advertising is nearly background noise. I find it cool to be going to a place where you bring everything you need, so there’s no need to sell it to you. And if there is something you need or want, you just have to ask for it, and it will probably be provided. Anytime a bunch of people gather together out in the middle of nowhere, it’s to try something different. Not being surrounded by advertising is definitely something different, and I really enjoy it for a few days.

If the Burning Man environment happened all the time, I would probably pay lots and lots of money to visit a place where glow sticks, people on stilts, techno, and shit on fire wasn’t allowed. I would consider that a very valuable experience. It’s the same for commerce and advertising.

And how about now, after more Burning Mans and more regionals? I’m still convinced that the decommodification is a valuable experience. For just a few days, I get to spend time in an environment where nothing about me or what I do or what I have is for sale and no one is trying to sell me anything of theirs either. It’s refreshing.

A friend of mine recently tried to convince me that burns are quite commodified after all. That I give of my time and effort at burns and these things are my commodities or the commodification of myself, and that even if I’m not exchanging them for money, I am exchanging them for other people’s participation in creating the burn. I didn’t fare very well in this conversation, because I didn’t have a quick definition of commodity off the top of my head. Was anything I had and offered to another person a commodity? That seemed strange, but, honestly, I wasn’t sure of the definition.

Now, at home, I can look in the dictionary. The second definition my dictionary gives is “Something useful or valued.” Okay, fine. That seems to be what my friend was talking about. The rest of the definitions seem much more specific, though, and more in line with the usual use of the word. “An economic good.” “An article of commerce especially when delivered for shipment.” “A mass-produced unspecialized product.” “Convenience, advantage.” My dictionaries second definition not-with-standing, fuck you for wanting to equate my helping a friend build their tent with someone selling bottled water.

My effort to give to another may be a useful and valued thing, but it is fundamentally different than a mass-produced item, or an effort of mine that I sell at a set or auctioned price. I give it because I want to give it, not because I want something in return. And there is where decommodification dovetails with gifting, which I’ve already written about. Once you refuse to sell the things that you have or buy the things that you need, the desire to share the things that you have and the ability to get the things that you need is still there. You get what you need and give what you have even when money, mass-production, trading, bidding, and the other trappings of what we think of when we think of commodification are removed from the equation. How fucking awesome is that?

My clearest example of this was at Alchemy 2008, when I was living out of my van. I only owned the barest minimum of things – only what fit in a van. I was beyond poor; I was closer to destitute. However, since my van was my whole house, I had a lot of items with me that other people didn’t. All week, I found myself giving away toilet paper, batteries, kitchenware, and other random items. I was not overflowing in riches, yet in an environment that didn’t try to sell to me and didn’t try to buy from me, I felt a constant desire to share what I had with those that wanted it.

Now that is a valuable and useful thing.