Ceterum Censeo / by Bryce Hidysmith

Myself, exhausted in front of one of the murals at Center Camp that I desperately hoped was a joke. Note the Ram Dass quote on the arm, and the fact that it wasn't actually an Aztec reference. Photo by Becca Levy.

Myself, exhausted in front of one of the murals at Center Camp that I desperately hoped was a joke. Note the Ram Dass quote on the arm, and the fact that it wasn't actually an Aztec reference. Photo by Becca Levy.

< Soundtrack: All of No Man's Land is Ours - Einsturzende Neubaten, New York City in the Future - Angels of Light >

“By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange.” 
― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Note: I am less well-versed in the specific organizational structure of Burning Man than I would like to be, and so this post is more of a collection of notes and initial thoughts than anything like a coherently fact-checked analysis of BRC. I have likely conflated the jurisdictions of various organizations, but I am also rather certain that it was worth thinking through these thoughts and publishing them here as part of my journal rather than attempting to do a perfect, academic level organizational analysis. This post is the beginning of my process of study, rather than the end, and I value the capacity of an intellectual community to engage in public thought at varying levels of epistemic validity, something that Sarah Constantin and Benjamin Hoffmann for instance have been extremely good at in writing. The companionship of them and others like them has proven to be a bolstering element that has allowed me to recently maintain a level of epistemic bravery that I would not otherwise have, but an analysis of the ways in which minds falter in disciplinary societies that use shame as the negative feedback method of choice is a distinct and much longer subject deserving of its own post, and in fact likely a book length work at one point in the future.


September 4th, 2017: 

I made it back early from Burning Man yesterday with a hell of a lot of dust in my lungs, retching every time I tried to speak. And now, about thirty minutes ago, I found out that someone walked into one of the burns. I don't want to speculate as to why; it's not my place. Still, Black Rock City is the kind of place, after all, where the ouroboros is not seen as an inherent symbol of the evil of self-consumption. It's the sort of place where the gnostic tendencies of taking the feeling of enlightenment and figuring it out as you go along have taken the majority of the population, rather than the just internal consistency of logos. I could see someone thinking that it was alright if things just made local sense, rather than consistency throughout all scales of behavior. The term Default World itself, implies that there is a ruleset that exists at Black Rock City that does not in the real world, rather than the traditional Metropolis and BRC being expressions of the same ruleset with different optimizations. Thinking on this burned man's death and the fact that I can empathize with the train of reason that led him to his fate, I have no clear notion of whether or not its right to post the rest of this. I wrote it before learning, edited it after. The photo of me in front of the mural of the human sacrifice was taken on Wednesday, before watching a friend's hook suspension. It seems more fitting to follow a path of consistent publication than obfuscation and self-censorship in times of trouble and pain. Without one's mental ability to triangulate perception with thought and word there is little hope for error correction in signal processing, and thus little hope that will we be capable of coordinating action to endure until tomorrow. It doesn't make it less difficult or less spooky, though it does likely make the process of conscious deliberative thought even more necessary in these trying times. 

It is necessary, then, to put this deliberative process to the topic of less diligent methods of finding or manufacturing truth. The gnostic, synthetic, personally localized enlightenment of Burning Man is of course, the realm of the participants—or, perhaps, more pejoratively the observers as I heard a number of staff call them. It seems as though the two demographics that are drawn to the dirt rave are those that end up with DPW or one of the art crew that just want to demand that the world makes sense, or those that come for some sort of vaguely religious experience in Oceania's pagan capital. I'm not sure if that latter category counts among it the Russians wandering around with no context for the whole thing, just playing around to the crowd best as they can, but I liked them if only because I could plausibly narratize them as just exploring, similar to myself.

The participants seem to mostly using the whole affair as a way of using the city as a method of conspicuous consumption to display a quaternary set of sexual characteristics to facilitate mating in a time when skill is less clearly a marker of intragenerational success than control of capital. This is not unreasonable, this era is a strange time when sexuality and capital have been so thoroughly conflated through fetishistic strategies that one requires a giant light-up brain-car to get laid rather than just a bitchin' camero. Yet, there is a great deal of spiritual plausible deniability outside of the more STEM oriented or cynically trollish camps. The Man this year was built into some sort of shrine like housing with a glowing plastic egg that looked rather like a buttplug beneath it. Feather-clad festival goers kept moving in to touch reverently. I spent a long time standing atop the upper balcony, watching women try to use forced laugher as therapy while men from the upper balcony shouted at them about how much they loved them for unclear reasons. The friend of mine that I was walking with that night later sharpied ANTHROPOLOGIST on our field jackets so that we could explain why we weren't partying. Quite frankly I was tired of feeling like I'd offended people who wanted to flirt with a sense of unity or use such a claim of a sense of unity to flit. I was there to try and study the systems in play—nothing more, nothing less. I was happy to do work that came my way; I was not looking to be entertained. Still, I was reasonably detached, and happy for it. 

I remember one of the projects on the Playa, a tower of perhaps thirty-five feet with five or so chairs connected to heart rate variability sensors that supposedly measured the "coherence" of the audience, leading to the song that the pillar played being played faster and more clearly. I spoke to a woman who was standing around to claimed to work on the project. She said a bunch of vague things about how being in a state of coherence was good, and that our collective coherence was powerful. "WE are POWERFUL" was the quote I remembered, said in the same vague tones usually employed to show how getting people to realize how "empowered" they are is a good thing, without concrete descriptions of the type, use, and abuse of said power. One must think of the troubling characteristics of psychosomatic unity and identity non-specific compassion without provisions for modulation by truth, communication, or beauty. I looked at the computers that the sensors were hooked up to, and the predominantly drug driven variability of the participants was such that there was little to no regularity between the heartbeats, leading to the causality of the sensors being spurious at best. The total lack of correlation between heartbeats should have slowed down the song far more than the relatively speedy rate that it was playing at. The whole sense of unity was fraudulent, and if I'd opposed it in conversation it would have likely started an argument. Regardless of whether or not this specific, lite-cybernetic fradulant instantiatiation of this in-group phenomena was resonant with the discernment of the whole population, this same desire to belong and not rock the boat is the clear thing that the vast majority of the camps appear to be unified around. A desire for an extended family—a tribe, if you will, if that does not invoke periods of anthropology long out of fashion. 

Perhaps group identity is inherently adaptive in all contexts, or we are simply in a period where the memory of group coherence is still strong enough that we who come from the bleached, content-free, landless populations that a man like Steve Bannon would call Globalist Cucks are willing to entertain the possibility of cutting one out of whole cloth. When taken seriously, the cult of the Man has the armature of a religion without the content of one. It's a sort of hajj for whiteness; a celebration of detachment from context. The Playa Provides is a completely farcical saying, and exists only to obfuscate the relative abundance of the participant population's social graphs. Only in an environment where commerce is banned, the ground is largely worthless, and there is genuine risk from dehydration or a lack of shelter is it possible to create such a space of scarcity without poverty. Even then, there's still a great deal of zero-sum trading going on, only its mostly about sexual or leveraged investment capital rather than momentary money. This is fine by me; I'm not the sort of Puritan who seeks to impose my trade norms on the whole world, only suggest that they might work a bit better on the whole. The trouble is that there's always this odd cover-up when you talk to the observers, where they attempt to speak of connection to universal humanity or art, both concepts that are only ever invoked when someone seeks to cheat by relying on ineffable, uncommunicable, subjective experience. The legend of such ineffable experience is still frequently potent enough to trick the mind into a physically non-instantiated sense of connection, as in the case of the Heart Monitor piece mentioned above. 

On the other hand, one looks to the participants who do a different method of cheating, invoking irony for much of their participation, perhaps as a method for justifying lack of imagination, sunk-cost fallacy, or envy to those who can take the silliness seriously. The city is still shaped like itself, and if one chooses to go incognito it should be for a reason, even if that reason is simply enjoyment of something that one must narratize as ironic for the purposes of keeping one's honor. As with most-all forms of strategy, the trouble with being a troll is that one can quickly become a perfected second-order version of the thing that you sought to troll through imitation. There's a point when you meet a certain kind of hipster, and you go to a monster truck rally and drink cheap beer, and its very, very unclear if it was all a joke, but you had fun anyway even if you don't feel a need to do it again. There's also a remarkably good side to all of this, namely the fact that much of this ironic detachment powers the desire to join the various municipal service worker cosplays that actually power the majority of the project. The jobs that actually do things that build the world are not terribly high status in this day and age, and being able to narratize them as art or just a joke is a remarkably good way to get people who would actually be good at them to join up instead of attempting a sort of cool detachment and ignoring the opportunity and need to do good work. This seems intimately related to the fact that the population that doesn't take things ironically can only actually engage in behaviors that are advantageous on a group scale by forcing themselves to, by, for instance, going to burning man and dropping a lot of cash, time, and effort. Irony, when benevolent, provides the necessary plausible deniability for people to shrug off the psychological damage of being shamed. 

These three invocations—irony, art, and humanity—are methods within Anglosphere and much of Western culture by which one can reject the need for consistency at multiple scales and instead embrace a willfully myopic perspective in a locally socially rewarded but in fact largely globally detrimental fashion. They are a particularly kind of diffuse lie that breaks the adaptive capacity of a group slowly, leading to their consistent toleration even though they don't make a lick of sense. They are methods by which we exploit our tendencies to tolerate short-termism by suggesting that the short-termist strategies are similar to previous long-term strategies of ironic detachment, aesthetic communication, and intercultural extensibility, even though the modern invocations of such strategies have little or nothing to do with the previous versions on the whole. It seems as though the presence of these behaviors suggests that we—the detached, global class—live in a time where our cognitive processes are on the whole much less our own than previous largely landless classes. I cannot speak for other classes position psychologically in this regard remotely as well, but the emergence of these phenomena is highly concerning. It's the kind of scenario that makes it make sense to build the bones of a city every year only to tear it down and start again next time because that's genuinely the best option, given the constraints. 

It is understandable that we seek to cheat our way out of the problems we have found ourselves mired in. This is especially true when those methods of cheating are validated by others suggesting that they worked for them, and public opinion suggests perhaps you just didn't try hard enough or that such methods not working for you would suggest a deep deficiency in one's character. There is a deep emptiness in the Postmodern West. We can feel the lack of content in messages every day and seem to only get by through fanatically suggesting that there is indeed content through a capacity of overdeveloped apophenia, or constantly commenting on how weird everything is, fetishizing it, and not thinking too hard about the implications. The death of Christianity as we knew it historically and its resurrection as an effeectively neopagan phenomenon centered around the cult of the macho-generic god of vague goodness Jesus! appears to have created a scenario where there next to no internally consistent narratives to latch onto. If you don't feel like buying into Jesusism and you're under 40, it is increasingly difficult to find an ideology that isn't a death cult in one way or another. Deep ecology environmentalism is good cover for omnicidal maniacal hopes of the unthinking laws of nature to take over instead of the grace of intelligent life, rather than assuming that the rejection of intelligent stewardship of nature by intelligent life is the problem. In parallel, most privilege politics assume that its impossible to wield power in a way that isn't evil. Almost everything else besides those two that isn't an ethnoreligion is just an attempt to market some sort of product, even if that product is the Mao Tse-Tung Hour. Rarely is the self interest of those ideologies rationally integrated so that one's self-interest can be the same as the group. The dreams of Smith or Rand have been abandoned as impossible, not just a little bit tricky to engineer right, leading to a situation where the world is assumed to be a zero-sum game, and the moral thing to be done is to lose. Even those who intend to win the zero-sum game have a propensity to pretend to be trying to lose it, for the cameras at least. 

Religiously, on playa, this emptyness is compensated by ironic Catholicism—one cannot underestimate the number of fake confessionals on the playa still able to give out the dopamine hits without the piety—unironic but poorly implemented Buddhism, and the sort of Old Testament Hindu-Pagan consensus that thinks that burnt oblations and public sexuality are the way to go. It is, in a way, an absence of worldview. Having a worldview hasn't been incentivized for a long time. Instead, people have a propensity to implement a strategy of membership in the right in-group, much of the time using the strategies of false universals described above.  Synchronized intelligences attempt reward those agents similar to themselves, effectively granting their clones resources even if their clones are only partial. Pure nepotism is, in short, a post-labor evolutionary strategy, where looking high-status in the world is the thing that grants one the resources for life rather than having one earn them through action. I would think that the vision of a city constructed in a few months by people entirely outside of the usual business of building cities would get people to realize that labor is the means by which one makes the world, rather than fitting in with a given union of privilege. Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case for most of those that I saw wandering around who weren't directly involved in Gate, DPW, the Power Crew, Media Mecca, Census, Artery, BMIR, and so on. The world of the event is simply something rather like court or mob politics, where the sense of group-feeling is enough to justify any expenditure of resources or level of illegibility. The other sharpied Anthropologist remarked, at some point, of the work of Robert Trivers on the behavior of birds to cheat and not sound alarm calls, allowing themselves to outcompete their brethren until their social units are eaten by predators. One must think of this attempt to exploit group-feeling instead of labor as a similar phenomenon akin to a Ponzi Scheme, or, perhaps, the more keen and obfuscated version of such a strategy that Bernie Madoff managed to pull off. The flocking behavior of hordes is a kind of fraud, its just unclear as to if the chief, the hungry crowd, or a self-reinforcing process containing both is to blame.  

The good works of art that I saw out in the middle of the outer rim of the playa were not the ones that attempted to play at sharing some ineffable enlightenment or moralization. They were things like the Temple of Gravity, a sequence of small Tesla Coils at the Institute Village that were used as amplifiers for an electric violin, or even the indulgent forgery of the Tree of Ténéré, which I liked in spite of myself if only because it was so convincing at distance in the morning sunlight. They simply showed the possibilities of material, of artisanship, and of visceral sensory experience. Perhaps the best piece of art is still the wise-crowd of flocking vehicles and stages, each of which individually I am usually disgusted by but in totality is one of the sights to be seen: a wonder of the modern world. Even the barest coordination of a bicycle traffic jam is beautiful, even if the individual agents are on the whole very badly coordinated with themselves. The beauty that I saw were objective, physical phenomena which individuals could witness and share an authentically similar experience, noting differences in the things they noticed rather than being gaslit into an assumption of similarity. The in-groups then emerge through the process of interfacing with reality—a process which can be verified by each member of the group on their own terms. Volunteerism is only possible when the total group-verification process is containable within the perceptive capacities of each individual within the group. 


The world of Burning Man the urban production project, rather than the event, is a competent technocracy that is able to exist in a scenario with little or no margin of error due to the keen perceptive capacities and grit of its population. That is not to say that mistakes do not happen, rather that mistakes seem to happen frequently but have a tendency to be fixed. Shame does not appear to be the primary tactic used in error correction. Guilt, another way of saying that one has a desire for things to be better than they have been, seems generally used as the method of discipline. 

One must think about how the archaeological record of this will look, where the traces of this strange city that gets build every year are scattered all over the world and yet there is likely nothing remaining on the playa itself, only some stashed equipment in the outpost of Gerlach. The population that builds the city every year are damn good at asking the world to make sense at the maximal human scale. A single subsystem of a city is too large for an individual human to understand, but the semi-lattice structure of individual agents collaborating can maintain the library of knowledge sufficient to make such a subsystem function. The coordination of such subsystems becomes the total system of the city. The complexes of the New York Subway, the Beijing Police, or the Valparaiso Port are all organisms unto themselves, but exist in a crosshatched fashion just as HEAT and DPW have distinct but related responsibilities.

The production of a city is an inherently biomorphic process, a second order effect on the biological needs of humanity as tempered by the search-function of human language. The key is making sure that the individuals who produce the simple systems that grow into complex, nonlinear, living structures still have the will, support, and authority to manage the production of the city. Provided that locally to the size of a system trackable to an individual skill is rewarded with status and command, and that the systems that are trackable to individuals are coordinated in such a way that they are able to exchange information about their capacities and needs while maintaining trust and good faith, the city survives and grows and perhaps even finds itself capable of entering into trade relations with politeia further afield. It is this process why BRC doesn't get a cholera outbreak or a wildfire spreading through tents every year. 

Security is the art of making nothing happen, and the fact that BRC is secure enough against disasters that would likely wreck it is testament to the strength of its culture to both prevent and create. Perhaps one builds a pyramid because one loves the geometry, but really one builds a pyramid to show off the fact that you had the sort of civilization that could build a mountain from scratch. The same is true of the kind of culture that can build a city from scratch and then tear it down. Certainly, BRC is hacked together quite a bit slapdash, but it still functions. Even London started out as a military trade camp, with the walls of the City Of remaining as reminders of that early era as an outpost of the empire on the edge of the world. The same could be said of my home of San Francisco, where the hulls of ships used as construction kludges are still found beneath skyscrapers to this day.

Though some elements on the scale of buildings must be centrally planned, living cities are not designed. Rather, they are grown. While BRC is certainly built upon a tree, its street-grid serves more as a method of hanging chaos upon a degree of consistency that can accommodate rapid adaptation than the lifeless regimentations of those High Modernists cited in Alexander's paper. There is a great distinction between the navigability of Hausmann's Paris and the sterility of the Plan Voisin. One needs only some decent landmarks and the will and tenacity of a few thousand to build a city. It seems that we should do it more often, perhaps in such a place where it won't have to be torn down. I have to admit that the greatest draw for my return was navigating the city's radial layout on bicycle, using visual recognition to navigate a changing environment adapted to the needs of individuals by leaving creative energies uninhibited. It seems as though the clear strategy for the construction of new cities is the creation of enough elements of consistent navigation that the generative chaos of human life can build to specifications. The argument advanced by James Scott and others that organizational planning must by necessity be similar in tactic at every scale from the local to the operational, strategic, or even transhistorical seems farcical in light of the human tendency to gain a profit of action by adaption to collectively accepted parameters at least temporarily until more locally specified solutions can be found, as well as the existence of communication limitations from base physical law and anatomical constraint. The alternative strategy, then, is the deployment of simple systems that can provide profits of economy and systems of collective navigation that can then develop the incomprehensibly complex semi-lattice structures championed by C. Alexander, Jane Jacobs, and so on that are the source of the strength and beauty of our cities. 

So, ceterum censeo, at least a second Black Rock City must be grown, perhaps in some territory that could generate some proverbial milk and honey from the organisms that might dwell on its soil. Black Rock has been good for wandering in the desert with one's people, testing the difficulties of coordination and honor among friends, strangers, and enemies. It is necessary for it to become replicable—perhaps even autopoetic. A decent city should not be a special occasion, justified only by the symbolic value of telling everyone that you'd been there on your grand tour. The central questions then are where to put it, who to seed it with, and what it will produce to trade with the world. Perhaps one can produce an Alexandria after Christopher. Perhaps its export might even just be coordination, the ability to take the proper action giving a set of constraints. That seems a bit akin to the sort of City on a Hill that a version of Reagan who lionized computer science or mathematics instead of Christianity family values would claim America could be. While it might be melodramatic, embracing the discipline of substrate independence might actually be the method by which one could build such a light for the world.