Burning Man - The American Frontier revisited in Acoustic Space

Master's Thesis, 2010

121 Pages, Grade: 100%

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1.1. Introduction
1.2. M. McLuhan’s legacy - approaching mankind’s history with the study of media and consciousness (figure/ground; acoustic/visual space)
1.2.1. Revealing the inner workings of the human brain - it is plastic*
1.2.2. The Two Hemispheres*
1.2.3. The Phonetic Alphabet*
1.2.4. Figure and Ground*
1.2.5. Man’s perception of space*
1.3. Frederick Jackson Turner and “the significance of the frontier in American History” - a short summary and analysis on the impact of his theory

2.1. A short historical introduction into the ‘frontier’ counterculture of San Francisco - a prelude to the Burning Man Festival
2.2. Seeing the Beatniks and 1960’s from vanishing point
2.3. The Diggers: a countercultural group with a legacy that reaches Burning Man
2.4. After the demise of the hippie movement - the countercultural scene of the late 1970’s and early 90’s - a prelude to the Burning Man Festival

3.1. 1986 - 1990 - The early Beginnings in San Francisco - a pagan ritual of the social frontier grows popular
3.2.1. 1990 - An outcast idea moves to the Frontier and finds its Promised Land
3.2.2. The city as jest - the development of civic institutions - the early 1990’s
3.2.3. Black Rock City - utopia of the rearview mirror?
3.2.4. The growing culture of theme camps
3.2.5. Playa names and new identities
3.3.1. The year 1996 - the demise of the Wild West
3.3.2. F.J. Turner on the different types of frontiersmen and the call for legislation as a means to preserve democracy
3.3.3. The opposing frontiersmen John Law and Larry Harvey and the development of the
Black Rock City grid.
3.3.4. From the circle to the square back to the circle..
3.4.1. After 1996 - the closing of the Frontier - rules, borders and community..
3.4.2. Black Rock City - Decentralized Cohesion and the city as a cultural ghost

4.1. Art within the paradigm shift of the electric age
4.2. Burning Man - mass-consumerism in post-TV culture where everyone becomes the producer
4.3. Ritual and Religion - the transcendence behind juxtaposition and the absurd

5. Conclusion.

6. Bibliography


Ever since I saw the first documentary on Burning Man in 1998, I have been fascinated by this alien-type of absurdist event. Since then, I made it to the playa three times and always feel overwhelmed by the beauty of the desert and the beauty and humor of Black Rock citizens. With this work I hope that I can give something back that the Burning Man community has given me.*

First of all, I want to acknowledge that I would have never made to the playa three times without the huge support of my parents: So I say VIELEN DANK! Secondly, I would like to thank Larry Harvey for offering me more than three hours of his time and listening to a German trying to talk like McLuhan. I also do thank John Law for being an inspiration to research through the rich countercultural scene of San Francisco. I want to thank Alex for initiating the idea for this project, and Brian for his advice and his patience to listen to my ramblings. I also would like to thank Keith, Micha, Martin and Bjorn for their support in the editing process.

1.1. Introduction

Burning Man is a counter cultural phenomenon that happens annually in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. At the end of summer, during the week before Labor Day, thousands of people make their pilgrimage out to the desert to be part of a community its members recognize as a real city - they call it ‘Black Rock City’. Today, the festival has a history of almost 25 years and has become America’s most outstanding event for artistic expression and celebration of a new sense of community. With more than 50,000 participants, the event has grown out of a grass roots movement into an attraction to which people from across North America and all parts of the world travel.

Numerous articles, academic research papers and books have been published and dozens of documentaries have been filmed on Burning Man. Black Rock City’s distinctive culture, its celebration of radical self-expression, art and alternative community has attracted the attention of writers, scholars, journalists and filmmakers in the same way as the growing number of Burners - the term used for people who frequent the festival. The complexity of the festival allows an abundance of interpretation, for example, that it is not only an arts festival or a countercultural underground movement or just ‘the biggest party on earth’ but that it is indeed a veritable ‘city’ - with roads, street signs, radio stations, newspapers, a hospital, an airport, its own police force, etc. - and its own distinctive culture. The culture of Burning Man is a celebration of artistic expression with an emphasis on experience, ritual and participation.

Burning Man exemplifies two histories that will be the focus of the discussion - the history of the American Character and the history of Western Man.1

First, Burning Man needs to be explained as a specific American cultural phenomenon that is a continuation of the most important theme/myth in American History: the American Frontier. This frontier was essential in the construction of the American Character and therefore, Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis ‘The significance of the frontier in American History’ will be discussed. He was the first author to write on the American Frontier and point to its significance in producing the American Character. This theory will provide the framework behind the history of Burning Man, which unfolded in the remotest corner of today’s mainland America, the Black Rock Desert. Out there, in an environment isolated and hostile to any human settlement, a group of people found their ‘promised land’ where they could proceed with their annual ritual of burning a wooden effigy, which they called the ‘Man’, undisturbed by the authorities that forced them to abandon their ritual in San Francisco.

The desert provided the perfect setting to play with ideas of an alternative society for a community that had grown out of the strong heritage of counter cultural movements in the San Francisco Bay Area. They gathered under harsh and primitive circumstances at the final frontier and, eventually, the irony of a countercultural civic community that builds its own city became real. It is a story of people who tried to survive in one of the most hostile environments, a call for radical self-reliance and the sense of community that comes with survival; it is the story of unlimited freedom where almost any kind of behaviour was possible; it is the story of guns, outlaws and the abundance of free land; it is the story of streets and city borders and the establishment of law and order through rules and civic institutions and finally, it is the story of the quest for new identities - individually and communally. In short, it is the re-enactment of the American Frontier.

The history of Western Man, the second theoretical perspective on which this thesis is founded, is explained through McLuhan’s theory on media. He offers an understanding of western civilization over the last 3000 years that explains the significant change that is currently unfolding through the electronic media environments. The disintegration of the Greeks tribal culture through the phonetic alphabet, the explosion of visual perception caused by the ‘Gutenberg Galaxy’ and the re-emergence of acoustic perception through all forms of electric media are important points in Herbert Marshall McLuhan’s theory. Furthermore, the thesis will relate these concepts to Burning Man and explain how the festival embraced new modes of play, participation, organization, artistic expression and ritual. Embedded in this analytical framework, ancient symbols and pagan ideas (for example, the archaic burning of a wooden effigy and temple), the city structure, the no-commerce-philosophy and the on-going play with religious concepts will provide a broader and deeper understanding of Burning Man and the cultural consequences for the whole of western society. Burning Man, like no other event, exemplifies current changes in western society that require an explanation through the study of media. The term media will therefore be used in the broadest of senses to include language and any man made tools. One of the most important authors in media studies, McLuhan, will be used in argument and provide the theoretical framework to approach Burning Man as an event of the 21st century, the century of the ‘Global Village’ or what he later preferred to call the ‘Global Theater’ with all its ramifications for the individual and society.

Although McLuhan did not provide a fully comprehensive structured philosophy, his legacy was a new understanding of history and culture. Therefore, this thesis will discuss and explain his field approach on media theory, which juxtaposes different styles and borrows from many different fields of studies, for example, anthropology, neuroscience, perception psychology, communications, information engineering and, most importantly, all forms of art.

In the first chapter, I will introduce the most important themes of McLuhan’s theory. Secondly, I will explain the basic arguments of Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis on the American Frontier. These theories will serve side by side as tools for the analysis. In the second chapter, I approach Burning Man through a discussion of its historical precedents - that is, the countercultural movements of the San Francisco Bay area since the mid-1950’s to the early 90’s. In the third chapter, I will proceed by describing the beginnings of the festival, first at a beach in San Francisco, later in the Black Rock desert where its 20 year long history constitutes a re-enactment of the frontier myth. In parallel discourse, the countercultural movements of San Francisco and the Burning Man Festival will be discussed as symbolic manifestations of new modes of perception and awareness that are related to the technological changes of the 20th century. Therefore, in the fourth and final chapter I will specifically explain how the culture of Burning Man indicates how Western society in general is undergoing major changes that are caused by media of the electronic age.

In order to give full credit to the complexities and cultural ramifications of the event, this thesis approaches Burning Man in a variety of ways. First of all, I participated in the event in 2000, 2007 and 2009. Therefore, I was able to talk to many participants of the festival and could see the changes that had taken place throughout that period. Secondly, I personally interviewed Larry Harvey (quotes from the recorded interview will be included), the founder and current director of the festival, in October 2009 and talked with him about the themes and significances of Burning Man in historical and cultural contexts. Thirdly, I conducted a telephone interview with John Law who was also main organizer of the event until 1996 and who provides a critical perspective on the development of the festival into the large scale event of today. Finally, I researched numerous articles, academic papers and books that have been written on Burning Man to attain a broad perspective on the festival. Anthropologist, ethnographers, art theorists and Cultural and Religious Studies scholars are at the forefront of publications on Burning Man and their conclusions reflect that the festival can be understood as a microcosm in relation to the macrocosm of Western society.

1.2. M. McLuhan’s legacy - approaching mankind’s history with the study of media and consciousness (figure/ground; acoustic/visual space)

[…] when dealing with the megatrends of history, and human behaviour in general, it is better to analyze the broad implications of movement patterns rather than a particular event. (McLuhan, 1989: 40)

Herbert Marshall McLuhan was an unorthodox scholar who approached mankind’s history through the study of media. Although he is famous for his utterances on how media and communications influences man in general, his work essentially deals with the study of human consciousness and man’s notions of space and time. “Spatial perceptions are not absolute but are culturally constructed.” (McLuhan, 1989: 10) He developed concepts explaining the connection between media and consciousness and how media changes human perception and cognition. However critics suggest they lack an analytical, philosophical framework. One scholar even described McLuhan’s legacy as “Unthinking Modernity.”2 However, McLuhan’s work provides the basis for understanding humankind’s history and the enormous shifts of today’s world of technological innovation and cyberspace that force a new awareness on mankind. At the core of his theory were his investigations into different modes of human perception that correlate to the different processing modes of the two brain hemispheres. Therefore, I will introduce McLuhan’s concepts of visual/acoustic and figure/ground through a short neurological inquiry into the human brain.

1.2.1. Revealing the inner workings of the human brain - it is plastic

At no period in human culture have men understood the psychic mechanisms involved in invention and technology […]. (McLuhan, 2001: 385)

Today, humankind has reached the point in history where for the first time it can fully become aware of the processes involved in our cognition and perception. It is increasingly becoming clear how our perception of reality is culturally biased and that these biases are not just habits that we internalize through acculturation. Our brain itself is modified and undergoes structural changes depending on the culture, or more specifically, the influences to which it is exposed to. To determine these influences and to bring them to our awareness will be one of the major tasks of current and future generations. At the same time, we need to become aware of how our consciousness and perception is influenced and framed based on the inner structure of our brain, as well as the interplay of our senses. McLuhan points out that “[h]umankind can no longer, through fear of the unknown, expend so much energy translating anything new into something old but must do what the artist does: develop the habit of approaching the present as a task, as an environment to be discussed, analyzed, coped with, so that the future may be seen more clearly.” (McLuhan, 1989: VIII)

Neuroscience has discovered that the brain is not at all a static structure which, once it has grown to its full size, will not change. In fact, the brain can change drastically and modify to new circumstances. This is called the plasticity of the brain and it becomes evident when a severe change in our ability to interact with the world has occurred, for example, the loss of one of the senses due to an accident.

When we lose a sense - hearing, for example - other senses become more active and more acute to make up for the loss. But they increase not only the quantity of their processing but also the quality, becoming more like the lost sense. …deaf people intensify their peripheral vision to make up for the fact that they can’t hear things coming from a distance. People who can hear use their parietal vision, whereas the deaf use their visual cortex, at the back of the brain. Change in one brain module - here a decrease in output - leads to structural and functional change in another brain module, so that the eyes of the deaf come to behave much more like ears, more able to sense the periphery. (Diodge: 295)

As revealed in the book The brain that changes itself, the human brain has an amazing capability to restructure - and this goes hand in hand with the interplay of the human senses, because the brain has a tendency to adjust to the new circumstances by balancing and finding an equilibrium in synesthesia. This will become important when we later discuss media - understood as extensions of man - because all media not only extend capabilities beyond the normal ratio of human senses, but they also numb or hypnotize the extended sense.3

However, the brain also changes in its biological structure when, for example, reading is taught to children. (Diodge: 295) It alters and enlarges the visual modules of the brain. Experiments show that “each medium creates a different sensory and semantic experience - and, we might add, develops different circuits in the brain.” (Diodge: 308) Moreover, each medium stimulates different parts of the brain, depending on its own character and structure. For example, hearing induces stimulation on the right-hemisphere whereas reading on the left- hemisphere. Herein lies one of the most fundamental discoveries on which Marshall McLuhan’s work is largely based, namely that “[t]he entire world, past and present, now reveals itself to us like a growing plant in an enormously accelerated movie.” (McLuhan, 2001: 385) He was certain that through all our media, which are an extension of our central nervous system, man has reached a point in history where he becomes conscious of the inner workings of his consciousness itself. All of a sudden, he is able to see and understand the progress of his development, based on the assumption that the explanation of human progress lies in the very nature of consciousness balancing and restructuring itself due to cultural changes of sense ratio.

Media, by altering the environment, evoke in man unique ratios of sense percptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act - the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, men change. (McLuhan, 1996: 41)

1.2.2. The Two Hemispheres

We must once again accept and harmonize the perceptual biases of both (the right and the left brain - added) and understand that for thousands of years the left hemisphere has suppressed the qualitative judgement of the right, and the human personality has suffered for it. (McLuhan, 1989: 4)

The two hemispheres of the human brain have two distinctive and opposite ways of perception and cognition processing. The left-hemisphere modes of cognition and processing, which dominate in Western cultures, are responsible for logical and intellectual thinking. This sphere processes everything in visual terms and is therefore regarded as the sphere of the ‘eye’. All knowledge in science is based on the left-hemisphere’s analytical, mathematical, sequential processing which tends to be detail oriented. It perceives in quantitative measures and is responsible for reading, writing and naming. (McLuhan, 1989: 5)

illustration not visible in this excerpt

In contrast, the right-hemisphere is the receptive sphere (the left is the active one), responsible for emotions, creativity and holistic processing. It is regarded as the spatial and tactile hemisphere, which has the ability to recognize patterns and complex figures and comprehend simultaneously. It perceives in qualitative measures and undertakes facial recognition. Finally, its musical and acoustic mode of perception makes it the sphere of the ‘ear.’ (McLuhan, 1989: 54)

Interestingly enough, the history of mankind has so far been a dualistic one. The Occident has perceived reality mainly in quantitative measures and visual terms whereas the Orient and other non-literate cultures perceive more qualitatively and holistically. Even today it becomes evident how perception differs depending on our cultural background.

These experiments and many others like them confirm that Easterners perceive holistically, viewing objects as they are related to each other or in context, whereas Westerners perceive them in isolation. (Diodge: 302)

The question remains why there is such a difference. Why is it that Western Man adopted this mode of left-hemisphere thinking whereas other cultures have a preference for right-hemisphere modes of perception and cognition?

1.2.3. The Phonetic Alphabet

Western history was shaped for some three thousand years by the introduction of the phonetic alphabet, a medium that depends solely on the eye for comprehension. The alphabet is a construct of fragmented bits and parts which have no semantic meaning in themselves, and which must be strung together in line, bead-like, and in a prescribed order. Its use fostered and encouraged the habit of perceiving all environment in visual and spatial terms - particularly in terms of a space and of a time that are uniform, c,o,n,t,i,n,u,o,u,s, and c-o-n-n-e-c-t-e-d.

The line, the continuum

- this sentence is a prime example -

became the organizing principle of life. “As we begin, so shall we go.” “Rationality” and logic came to depend on the presentation of connected and sequential facts or concepts. (McLuhan, 1996: 44)

Like no other script, the Phonetic Alphabet is like a mathematical code of the spoken language. No other script achieved this level of abstraction. The Phoenicians’ alphabet was not yet a ‘complete phonetic’ alphabet when the Greeks adopted it. It consisted only of consonants - the vowels were left out and had to be filled in by the reader. In the process of adapting this technique of phonetic script into their own language, the Greeks (probably merchants who had contact with Phoenicians) used signs for weak Phoenician consonants that did not exist in Greek language, for their vowels. Due to the fact that Greek culture had an emphasis on poetry and music, they also used signs for the different pitches of vowel sounds - something no other culture had done before and thus all scripts were syllabic or ideographic which requires greater participation from the reader to complete its message. It is in the very character of the phonetic script code where we can identify the cradle of Western culture. (McLuhan, 2008: 54-61)

The phonetic alphabet enhances and stimulates left-hemisphere processing by its uniform, continuous and sequential character. However, to fully understand the workings of the phonetic alphabet, we have to understand how the alphabet achieves this level of abstraction in contrast to other scripts.4

1.2.4. Figure and Ground

In order to grasp the difference between the distinctive forms of perception of the two hemispheres, we need to look at the difference between figure and ground. In general, as we have seen before, the left-hemisphere processes information by concentrating on detail. It perceives with the eye, which means that it has a tendency to only ‘see’ objects rather than background. This becomes obvious when we look at the paintings of ancient Japanese and Chinese artists and their love for the ‘space within’. The space between objects for them has played a more important role than the objects themselves - what they tried to achieve is to let the beholder fill in the ‘space within’ and therefore behold the ‘hidden’ ground. In stark contrast to Western art, especially Renaissance and later periods where the objects or the people were ‘objectively’ represented leaving no space at all for the beholder to fill in, the suggestive art of Asia is the very opposite. (McLuhan, 1989: 72)

Edgar Rubin brought the difference between figure and ground to attention through his Gestalt Psychology. He was the first to demonstrate the difference between figure and ground by drawing pictures that could be seen or rather processed in two distinctive ways.5 The two faces facing each other and, thereby, forming a vase is probably the most famous one.

illustration not visible in this excerpt6

In general, people who are left-hemisphere dominated tend to see the figures than the background – their perception is exclusive rather than inclusive. New scientific findings in Neuroscience conclude that even the most basic activity such as ‘seeing’ or looking at an object is culturally biased. “Easterners see through a wide-angle lens; Westerners use a narrow one with a sharper focus.” (Diodge 302) Hence, when Easterners look upon a picture with various objects on it, they see the relation of the objects in their position to each other – one could just say they observe the pattern – whereas Westerners will rather remember individual objects after having been exposed to such a picture for a specific amount of time.

Just taking a look into a Chinese ideogram and its inner workings, it becomes clear why we see so differently. “For the ideogram is an inclusive gestalt, not an analytic dissociation of senses and functions like the phonetic writing.” (McLuhan, 2001: 92) In the phonetic alphabet, the gap between figure and ground operates on a high level, because it makes a clear distinction between the sounds and written words – language being the ground and the written visual code the figure. Hence, the visual sense has been given the power to control the ear or as McLuhan has put it ‘an eye for an ear’.

Like no other script, or media, the phonetic alphabet implies that language is something superimposed on the world. In contrast, an ideographic script, for example, seems to de-emphasize such a duality between thought and words, between meaning and reality. Instead it encourages the view that thought is (part of) reality, because the ideographic character still retains components of the real world and, therefore, does not make this clear distinction between figure and ground – the ground remains part of the figure (script). What you have left in the phonetic alphabet are only figures without ground. Moreover, visual abstract figures highly stimulate the left-hemisphere mode of perception and cognition. Therefore, McLuhan concluded that a figure without ground is logic. Logic is nothing more than cutting the figures off the ground and stringing them together into a tight web. (Das Medium: 15, 21)

The left-hemisphere paradigm of quantitative measurement and precision recently re-explicated by some neurophysiologists, depends on a hidden ground which has never been thoroughly discussed by scientists in any field. That hidden ground is the acceptance of visual space as the norm of science and rational endeavour. (McLuhan, 1989: 21)

This new logic inherent in the phonetic alphabet gave the Greeks a powerful tool to detach themselves from nature and conceive the world in visual terms, which is what we call rational (McLuhan, 1989: 21, 59). Hence, Euclidean geometry, the cornerstone of Western mathematical and analytical thought was entirely based on the assumption that objects - now conceived as detached from their ground - were rationally detached from people, making man capable of becoming the ‘objective observer’. Comparing the four Euclidean axioms with philosophic syllogisms of the Eastern tradition, for example Buddhism, it becomes evident that although objects are also ‘objectively’ conceived by the observer, they still remain part of the observer, because how they are seen depends on the beholder’s state of mind. In Asian traditions, the paradox relationship between observer and the observed remains a dynamic one, because the relationship is understood as being in constant flux. This is in contrast to Western tradition where it is static due to left-hemisphere dominated perception. (McLuhan, 1989: 65, 66)

The impact of the phonetic culture has been elaborately explained by McLuhan in his most important books The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media. He writes that “…the separation of the individual from the group in space (privacy), and in thought (“point of view”), and in work (specialism), has had a cultural and technological support of literacy, and its attendant galaxy of fragmented industrial and political institutions.” (McLuhan, 2001: 116) Regarding literacy, he especially refers to alphabetic literacy. Although any form of writing enhances the ‘eye’ and therefore visual perception, “…phonetic writing, alone, has the power of separating and fragmenting the senses and of sloughing off the semantic complexities.” (McLuhan, 2001: 364)

When the Greeks adopted the technique of the phonetic alphabet, their tribal culture collapsed and a society which praised individuality, entrepreneurship and democracy emerged.

1.2.5. Man’s perception of space

The alphabet separated and isolated visual space from the many other kinds of sensory space involved in the senses of smell, touch, kinaesthesia, and acoustics. Abstract visual space is lineal, homogenous, connected and static. (McLuhan, 1989: 59)

Western Man lives in the left-hemisphere bias of visual space, where everything has to have continuity and linearity. His notion of cause and effect, derived from the lineal and continuous form of visual space, made him become the objective scientific observer who cuts off all his other senses from his visual experience. When everything is perceived in continuous relation, the interval or the space ‘in between’ is filled by rational logic. The opposite can be said about Asian Man, for whom the space ‘in between’ is what constitutes reality. In the Asian tradition, art is about ‘the principle of suggestion’ where the viewer has to become part of the art piece himself. It is in the beholder’s mind where the space ‘in between’ is filled and the art piece is completed. (McLuhan, 1989: 65, 66) That is what reflects the essence of Eastern philosophy and art, where the art of flower arrangements is about harmonizing the space in between them. Lao Tse said that the space between the axle and the wheel is what constitutes the wheel. (McLuhan, 1989: 63)

Therefore, non-literate or oral cultures live in acoustic space.7 Acoustic space is the space perceived by the right-hemisphere. Its characteristics are non-homogenous and discontinuous where the “resonant and interpenetrating processes are simultaneously related with centers everywhere and boundaries nowhere.” (McLuhan, 1989: 45) For example,

American Indian traditions are spatially based rather than temporally based. Indian people lived their lives in accordance with the cycles of nature. While Western scientists see space and time as two distinct dimensions of reality, Indian cultures value their association with their homelands and other patterned the organization of their villages and their ceremonies to the spatial movements of the sun and stars in the world above. (Kidwell: 13)

Therefore, creation is understood “in a constant creative flux that requires continual participation” that is guaranteed through prayers and rituals. (Kidwell: 36) Therefore, past and future is not perceived in terms of a historical past and a distant future of progress, but rather an all-at-once cyclical concept of destruction and renewal. (Kidwell: 154) This is most obvious when it comes to how language constructs these beliefs. Native American languages do not have the same features of time as linear construct. In the Hopi Indian language, for example, there are “no words, grammatical forms, constructions or expressions that refer directly to what we call “time.””8

It is still a controversial issue as to whether language is the basis for any concepts of time. Since Noam Chomsky established his theory of an immanent human language capability that structures time, colors and numbers, amongst other things, most scientist have rejected the notion that language forms the basis to understand reality. However there is new evidence that Chomsky’s theory is wrong, including most basic linguistic construction such as recursion. New published findings by Professor Everett from University of Manchester argue that there is evidence which will demand a new approach to understand the human capability of language. He bases his argument on his observation of an Amazonian tribe. The Piraha tribe which reportedly cannot conceive of number at all, also has no words for colours, nor for a past or future.9

In contrast, these findings would suggest that McLuhan is correct when he says that spatial perceptions including time are culturally constructed. (McLuhan, 1989: 10) Therefore, the notion of history conceived in a distant linear past and the notion of a future reflected in the concepts of progress, evolution and development are constructs born out of the Renaissance period and which are also apparent in the linguistic structures of European languages. “The English language, in fact most Western languages, suggest through their tense structures, that reality can only be contained in the concept of a past, a present and a future…” (McLuhan, 1989: 40)

In contrast, the properties of visual space are “continuous which is to say infinite, divisible, extensible and featureless […] connected (abstract figures with fixed boundaries, linked logically and sequentially but having no visible grounds), homogenous (uniform everywhere), and static (qualitatively unchangeable).”(McLuhan, 1989: 45) Time, especially with the invention of print, is conceived in a linear order with a distant past, present and future that gave man the idea of history and progress. Progress, however, is a concept of the “nineteenth-century mind. Progress literally stopped with electricity because you now have everything at once. You don’t move on from one thing at a time to the next thing. There is no more history; it’s all here. There isn’t any part of the past that isn’t with us, thanks to electricity. […] Speed, huge speed-up, means there’s no more past. Now, there is no more history.”10

1.3. Frederick Jackson Turner and “the significance of the frontier in American History” - a short summary and analysis on the impact of his theory

American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West. (Turner: 32)

Ever since Frederick Jackson Turner first lectured and later published his text The significance of the frontier in American History in 1893, it has remained as one of the most important and influential works on the subject of the American Character. Turner pointed out that the frontier has not only been a myth in the American mind with all its associations of free land, wilderness (as an earthly paradise and as well as a place of darkness and savagery that had been celebrated by authors like James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain before Turner’s thesis) and land of opportunity, but that the frontier with its ongoing movement westward has been the very place of Americanization: “The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization.” (Turner: 33)

Turner argues that the essence of the American character will not be found in the colonies of the Atlantic coast line but in the Great West. The early colonies at the Atlantic coast line were still European in their character. Throughout the first colonization period, they developed from a primitive form of industrial society to a manufacturing civilization accompanied by the rise of civic institutions and representative government quite similar to, or one might even say offspring of, their European roots. The settlements of the Atlantic coast developed in a similar fashion to most other nations, because development was restricted to a certain era. (Turner: 32) However when pioneers moved away from the coast line to settle in the ‘hinterland’, thus moving to the first of several frontier lines, they began to move steadily away from their European heritage. The hinterland of the coastline settlements was the first of a series of frontiers that lay beyond the ‘fall line’11 which was characteristic throughout the period of the western expansion and movement. (Turner: 36) In the 17th century the fall line was the hinterland of the coastline settlements, in the 18th century, the Appalachian Mountain Range, in the 1st quarter of 19th, the Mississippi, in the middle of the 19th, the Missouri (omitting California, Utah and Oregon) until the end of 19th, when the fall line was the Rocky Mountains and the line of the arid lands. (Turner: 36-37)

At these fall lines, the experience of the American Frontier would shape the American Character that distinguishes itself not only from its European heritage but also from the early beginnings of American settlement at the Atlantic Coast line. The further away from the Atlantic Coast line, the more American the participants of the frontier experience would become. (Turner: 34)

At “[…] the meeting point between savagery and civilization” (Turner: 31), European man had to adopt Indian ways to survive, because “at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails.” (Turner: 33) Over 300 years of westward expansion, frontiersmen and women brought with them social, economic and political traditions and customs that were of no use at the frontier. The frontier required simple survival skills, association of the settlers based on equality leaving behind all complex social activities. At the frontier, the struggle for survival in the wilderness, the adaptation of primitive forms of living and the eventual formation of new civic institutions grown out of that struggle meant a steady movement away from the European heritage for the individual and the community. “Thus the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines.” (Turner: 34)

The first of such a distinctive area that became truly American was the ‘middle Region’, which people today refer to as the Midwest or the American heartland. “The middle Region was the first real America” because it lay west of the Appalachian mountain range - the first of a number of geographical boundaries in the westward expansion movement - and therefore its isolation furnished its specific American tendencies. (Turner: 51) In the beginning of the settlement of that region, pelt hunters and backwoodsmen like Daniel Boone were the first who crossed the Appalachian mountain range. What followed was an influx of pioneers who often had to fight the Natives using guerrilla war tactics they had learned from them earlier on as foes or allies in wars against other colonial powers. They cleared the land and raised settlements that later became villages and towns. (Billington and Ridge: 194)

Daniel Boone’s frontier of today’s Kentucky, that suddenly had become accessible because of the discovery of the Cumberland Gap, was not the first frontier experience of American settlement. However the discovery of the Cumberland Gap was significant in the way that it opened up a new frontier zone that lay beyond a fall line and therefore demanded new means of transportation and communication to connect with the East, thus accelerating American development.

The frontier as a zone of escape from the restrictions of civilization and society has been in the mind of the earliest English settlers. Outcasts, such as Anne Hutchinson and religious groups that did not conform to the Puritan ideals of the mid 17th century Massachusetts theocracy moved west to the frontier zone of what today is Rhode Island. (Miller: 13) Throughout the history of the US, the frontier as an area of freedom and liberty attracted rebels and outcasts. In fact, the Puritans were themselves such a group when they left England in order to establish the theocratic state they had envisioned. Many religious groups later followed, for example, the Quakers who established their own state in Pennsylvania. But also within the US, groups that did not comply with mainstream society moved to the frontier to settle with their communities in the isolation of the Great West and to be able to practice their religious beliefs freely. The most famous example of such groups are the Mormons who, in 1847, moved far west into unsettled territory (at that time the frontier line was in the arid plains of Kansas and Nebraska) and planted their community in Salt Lake Valley.

After the closing of the frontier in the late 19th century there were voices that expressed concern about what might happen when the frontier had vanished. Turner argued that “[l]legislation is taking the place of the free lands as the means of preserving the ideal of democracy.” (Turner: 155) Others were more concerned and asked if “…the government, which (it was fondly believed) had been kept on an even keel by the escape of discontented elements through a frontier "safety valve," could prevent "radicals" from gaining control?” (Billington and Ridge: 692) These concerns were justified considering that the American character has an anarchistic tendency. The experience of the frontier made people cherish simplistic forms of life and be ‘self-reliant’ such that as a consequence “…individual liberty was sometimes confused with the absence of all effective government.” (Turner: 53) The frontier as a mythic place of absolute freedom, the connection to nature and simplistic forms of living has been in the minds of anarchist personalities and groups throughout American History.

Henry David Thoreau was very influential amongst the transcendentalist movement in the mid 19th century. He is well-remembered for writing about the Resistance to Civil Government. He encouraged civil disobedience in order to make political statements, but most importantly, his work calls for “the necessity for individual self-realization.” (Howe: 247) For the individual, it was absolutely necessary to be independent and self-reliant in order to find ones own full potential. Thoreau said that the chief hindrance to achieving this goal is society. For two years, he turned his philosophy into practice and moved to the woods, built himself a log cabin, planted a garden and lived mostly in solitude. Although he did not live at the frontier (he lived not far away from his town where he grew up and could visit and receive friends) he essentially lived the solitary life of a backwoodsman and created his own frontier experience.12

To create a frontier is not something exclusively American. Turner himself pointed out that it is not so much a geographical area than an idea. (Turner: 61) However, his argument was that the frontier and its expansion westward over a period of more than 300 years was the most decisive aspect in shaping the American Character. He pointed out that even though for most settlers the frontier experience did not last longer than a generation before moving to the next frontier in the Great West13, it did have a lasting impact.

The works of travellers along each frontier from the colonial days onward describe certain common traits, and these traits have, while softening down, still persisted as survivals in the place of their origin, even when a higher social organization succeeded. The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. (Tuner: 59)

Although physically the frontier did vanish, it remains the most important myth in American culture, particularly, in popular culture that is reflected in the Western movie genre, Books, Music, etc. and is also widely used as a metaphor in American political rhetoric. American Presidents have often used the frontier in speeches and referred to new frontiers that they claimed needed to be conquered, for example, social and economic frontiers to ensure that the American Dream is kept alive or John F. Kennedy’s announcement that outer space and the moon are the next frontier that required the whole nation’s effort in order to be explored.

A hundred years after its first publication, “Turner’s essay is the single most influential piece of writing in the history of American history” wrote John Mack Faragher in a newly published edition of Turner’s essays. (Turner: 1) In his own days, Turner argued against the historical viewpoint in American Studies that saw the protestant Anglo-Saxon heritage and slavery as the primary themes that had influenced and shaped America and focused on the frontier as the primary perspective in which to understand his nation’s history.

The frontier myth, however, was not something new to the American public. Since the first settlements at the Atlantic coast, the frontier myth was a metaphor for the ongoing struggle of survival and expansion that served as a nation’s ideology since the early colonial days. (Slotkin: 15) By the mid 19th century, the American people had already embraced the frontier myth to the extend that the defeat of General Custer and his Army in the Battle of Little Big Horn, ‘Custer’s Last Stand’, “…was for a generation a metaphor of disaster…” and a devastating blow for the American public. This exploded the frontier myth of the pre- industrial age in which civilization had always succeeded over savagery. (Slotkin: 13)

Nevertheless, the frontier myth remained important and with the rise of mass media, its function as a metaphor for self identity and self assertion grew even further. Over the years following Turner’s publication and the widespread acceptance of his frontier theory, many Western historians (as they were called by then) followed Turner’s footsteps and did not question its main paradigm. Herbert E. Bolton claimed that the west was everywhere and that Turner's west should have been called the north. He preferred the frontier of the Spaniards who had pushed it all over the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico into the inland. Another historian, Walter Prescott Webb, at first saw the West in the arid plains and the desert, and later in the all three continents of the new world.14

Ray Allen Billington who had embraced Turner’s thesis published his first edition of a detailed analysis of the Westward Expansion in 1949. In the book, he described how the social mobility of the West, with people constantly moving westward, not only had the impact that they did not feel attached to their homestead as much as in other cultures and nations but also elaborated on how social mobility affected the American attitude towards hierarchy:

If the pioneering experience fostered political participation, it also accelerated the emergence of a social democracy that was even more typically American. This came naturally to a frontier people who lived amidst daily examples of the potential equality of all men. Class lines based on old wealth meant little in a land where the local ne'er-do-well might be transmuted into the town's richest citizen by a fortunate mining strike, the humble landowner transformed into a millionaire with a lucky real-estate speculation, or the local barmaid elevated to the peak of society's pyramid by marrying the village banker. (Billington and Ridge: 687)

He summed up that the frontiersmen and women not only steadily grew more independent with every new frontier they settled on, they also adopted character traits that were distinctively American: “the westerners were materialistic, mobile, versatile, innovative, wasteful, optimistic and nationalistic.”(Billington and Ridge: 690)

Many of the later historians criticized Turner’s approach depending on their historical perspective - often related to a political one - for instance, his theory’s capitalist agenda, the lack of elaborating on the role of women at the frontier or its generalization of a geographical area that rather calls for a regional approach. (Brinkley: 444) Today, we could also argue against the arrogant and rather imperial view of Turner and his contemporaries who perceived the Natives as savages living in an inferior stage of human evolution which morally justified conquering and taking their ‘free land.’ For example, Turner cites the Italian economist Loira (analise della proprieta capitalista, ii, p.15) who says that a land with no history such as the US exemplifies the course of universal history, ignoring the fact that the American continent was inhabited by millions of people whom often had highly sophisticated cultures and histories. (Turner: 38)

Nonetheless, Turner was aware that history always changes with the changing historical perspective of the present and that his work was a first attempt to understand American History on the basis of the movement and expansion of the frontier. Critics of later periods unconsciously forgot that their rejection of Turner’s theory was still a reaction to it that had more to do with social, economical, political attitudes or moral values than with an objective and justified judgment. In American history today, Turner is still omnipresent. (Turner: 229 -230)

In summary, Turner and his contemporaries saw American History mainly as a history of Western civilization that was dominated by ideas of progress. What Turner and others identified as the savagery of the Native Americans could also be interpreted as a lack of left- hemisphere-processing, an absence of rationalism, individualism and perception of history as a linear process. In the first chapter, I explained how Naturv ö lker15 such as Native Americans most commonly had very sophisticated philosophical systems in which they perceived history not in a linear but rather in a circular manner. Nevertheless, at the time Turner made his argument, it was generally assumed that Western man brought civilization to the Americas and that the Natives had neither culture nor a sense of history. They were savages and thus the land was free to be civilized.

It is also interesting to note that I see comparisons in both Turner and McLuhan, even though their theoretical perspectives differ - Turner wants to explain American History whilst McLuhan tries to come up with a comprehensive explanation of the last 4000 years. However, both try to incorporate a variety of sources that broadens their perspective without reducing or challenging their major assumptions.

2.1. A short historical introduction into the ‘frontier’ counterculture of San Francisco - a prelude to the Burning Man Festival

San Francisco is “the focal point of the creative frontier mentality and the farthest you can get on the frontier.” (Law: 32:30)

In order to understand the history of the Burning Man Festival, it is necessary to give a short account of the history of San Francisco, because, as Larry Harvey, the initiator of the Burning Man ritual has said it is “ the only city out of which a Burning Man Festival could have emerged.” (Harvey: 1:47:00)

The physical frontier disappeared in the late 19th century. However, Turner pointed out that its myth would remain to play an important role in the American psyche. Outsiders, anarchists, rebels, people who questioned the morals of mainstream society and mistrusted authority, who in the days of the Westward Expansion movement would have sought refuge at the frontier, now had to find new means to live free of the constraints of society within society. Although the Gold Rush of the so called 1849ers turned San Francisco from a small village to a city - the first urban center on the West Coast - and thus transformed it from a simplistic frontier community to a complex metropolis, the frontier mentality remained and became a striking feature. In terms of Turner’s frontier thesis, San Francisco grew quickly into an urban city and thus ceased to have the characteristics of a frontier town. However the physical frontier wilderness remained for another 40 years, and in the case of San Francisco, lay in the East. Therefore, the isolation of San Francisco as a city and the only metropolis west of the Mississippi certainly paved the way for the city’s non-conformist culture.

In the second half of the 20th century, this non-conformist culture of the San Francisco Bay Area16 would become apparent in countercultural movements as well as in innovative ideas in technology and entrepreneurship that, eventually, would have a worldwide impact. After World War II, like so many others before in the history of the American West, nonconformists from the East sought adventure and refuge in the city.

[…] I wanted to get to San Francisco, everybody wants to get to San Francisco and what for? In God’s name and under the stars what for? For joy, for kicks, for something burning in the night. (Kerouac, 2007: 281)

Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road is the most iconic literary work of the Beat Generation. Before his book was published, Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and important figures of the Beat literary movement from New York had moved to San Francisco in the mid 1950’s where they met with Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso and other writers and poets of the West Coast. In October 1955, the Six Gallery readings with the first public reading of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl marked “[…] the night of the birth of the San Francisco Renaissance Movement” (Kerouac, 1976: 13) that established San Francisco as the countercultural hub of the 1950’s. Kerouac’s famous character Dean Moriarty in On the Road who also appeared in some of his other novels, was based on his friend Neal Cassady, a central figure in the Beatnik movement. Ginsberg’s Howl was also inspired by and a tribute to Cassady with whom he had a love affair for many years - “N.C., secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver.” (Ginsberg: 128) Cassady was an inspiration for many writers and poets of the Beat Generation for his spontaneous, rebellious and passionate attitude to life that he lived restlessly and by all means ‘non-conforming’ to the moral standards of the 1950’s (he openly had homosexual relationships, used drugs such as Marijuana, Benzedrine and sometimes opiates, had a long history of criminal offences and served some time in prison). Therefore, he lived all what the Beat Generation stood for and became its impersonating icon. Moreover, Cassady’s legacy would reach into the countercultural movement of the late 1960’s that explicitly started in San Francisco Bay.

Ken Kesey, author and key figure in the Psychedelic movement that preceded the hippie era wrote The day Superman died, a short story and tribute to Cassady who had died in 1968.17 Kesey had met Cassady in the early 60’s in San Francisco Bay when he organized his first LSD parties in Perry Lane.18 Kesey’s parties will play an important role in the history of the counterculture movements of the 1960’s, specifically the Psychedelic movement. They stand as a direct link between the Beatnik movement of the 50’s and the hippie movement of 1960’s that was an expression of the aspirations of Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and many others of the Beat Generation. They stood as examples to break with the moral restraints, the ‘social frontier’ of Post War America. Cassady and Ginsberg would become part of Kesey’s psychedelic scene, Ginsberg would also play a part in the hippie and anti-war movement.

Secondly, Kesey who was introduced to LSD through a government program, believed that the drug opened the door for self-liberation and promoted the use of the drug. In 1964, Cassady joined Kesey and his followers, the Merry Pranksters on their ‘epic’ road trip to the East coast, documented by Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Cassady drove the colorfully painted Bus Furthur most of its way to New York where Kesey met with Timothy Leary (who later also became a central figure of the psychedelic and hippie movement) to discuss the use of LSD as a means to change society. At that time, LSD was still legal and was the new frontier in the study of the subconscious in which Timothy Leary as a researcher and scholar was heavily involved in. The trip that has also been interpreted as a reverse of the westward movement in American history would have major ramifications for the hippie movement because it made the use of LSD widely popular - due to Tom Wolfe’s popular book and, because, on their trip, the Merry Prankster would give the drug to anyone who was interested in it. (Cavallo: 110-11)

Interestingly, according to journalist and author Eric Davies, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were the most influential psychedelic ancestors to Burning Man.

[T]he Pranksters’ memorable Acid Tests were improvisatory fetes that deployed low-tech multimedia, a ragged carnival of thrift-store fashions, and fusions of performance, participation and prank. Kesey’s famous bus Furthur is about as Burning Man as the ‘60’s ever got […]. (Davis: 24-25)

Finally, the Electric Kool-Aid Acid test happenings would draw a scene of artists, intellectuals and musicians who would become key figures in the following hippie movement. For instance, “Jerry Garcia […] and the Grateful Dead were integral components of the acid tests […]. Their live music performances were at the center of a barrage of light designs, film projections, electronic sound manipulations, and experimental drugs, all of which fused together to make the acid test a truly mixed media event.” (Cateforis: 103) Others like Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and bands like Jefferson Airplane who would also perform, were at the happenings that would eventually draw media attention.

In late 1966, LSD became an illegal drug in the state of California. By this time, the psychedelic movement and the Acid gatherings began to attract large crowds of people. On the day the California state legislature banned the drug, the Love Pageant Rally took place in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park next to the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood which would become the epicenter of the hippie movement. Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as well as the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin were among the hundreds of participants. (Tomlinson: 297) In January 1967, a much larger gathering, the Human Be-In with up to 30000 people took place in Golden Gate Park which drew nationwide media attention and was the starting point for the summer of love in San Francisco. (Tomlinson: 299) The free concert would showcase many of the bands that would become cultural icons of the hippie era and epitomize the new culture of ‘love and peace’, for the hippie movement would become famous. “Along with [the] local rock bands, Gary Snyder, Jerry Rubin (both local popular writers), Allen Ginsberg, and Timothy Leary attended the event, advertised as a “Gathering of the Tribes.” (Grogan: 271) At the same time, protests groups against the war in Vietnam became part of the movement that was driven by students of Berkeley and Stanford (the two major universities of the Bay Area). (Stevens: 329)

To sum up, after World War, the San Francisco Bay Area slowly developed an alternative ‘scene’ that was driven by intellectuals, authors, musicians and students. Whilst initially still local, it would grow to become a massive national movement with San Francisco as its ‘epicenter.’

2.2. Seeing the Beatniks and 1960’s from vanishing point

Television completes the cycle of the human sensorium. With the omnipresent ear and the moving eye, we have abolished writing, the specialized acoustic-visual metaphor that established the dynamics of Western civilization. (McLuhan, 1996: 125)

The major cultural shifts that started in the 1950’s and culminated in the hippie movement of the late 1960’s are easily understood when we consider the impact of Television. TV was the medium that reversed the dominance of left-hemisphere perception in Western man’s history: “In television, images are projected at you. You are the screen. The images wrap around you. You are the vanishing point. This creates a sort of inwardness, a sort of reverse perspective which has much in common with Oriental art.” (McLuhan, 1996: 125) It is no coincidence that the Beatniks were fascinated with Eastern philosophy and art. The appreciation for Jazz and Bebop is correlated to the new writing techniques of the Beatniks, especially the favouring of improvisation and stream of consciousness.

Film and radio were media that already abolished old modes of linear narrative and their point of view. (The telegraph was actually the first of many such inventions which undermined the linear, sequential, mechanical, one-thing-at-a-time order. Moreover, all media based on electromagnetic waves or light waves give way to an instantaneous, all-at- once as in acoustic space perspective.) However it was TV that quickly became the most popular medium, accessible to every household that had a tremendous impact on the American psyche. It gave way to new forms of perception that collided with the rational environments of print culture - the bases of American democracy.

Television demands participation and involvement in depth of the whole being. It will not work as a background. It engages you. Perhaps this is why so many people feel that their identity has been threatened. This charge of light brigade has heightened our general awareness of the shape and meaning of lives and events to a level of extreme sensitivity. (McLuhan, 1996: 125)

As with all new media, most people are unaware of the impact of a new medium, especially those cultures and societies who are the first into which a new medium is introduced. McLuhan repeatedly said that one of the most striking features of human history is that we are generally unaware of the ramifications of a new media. We are numbed by the experience of seeing ourselves extended. “It goes without saying that the universal ignoring of the psychic action of technology bespeaks some inherent function, some essential numbing of consciousness such as occurs under stress and shock conditions.”19 TV ‘inflicted’ a new sensitivity and awareness on the public and, specifically, the young generation. Therefore, the political unrest of the late 1960’s to the Vietnam War which was also significantly triggered by the uncensored media coverage of war that embedded journalists showed on American TV, is no coincidence.

The young today live mythically and in depth. […] Many of our institutions suppress all the natural direct experience of youth, who respond with untaught delight to the poetry and the beauty of the new technological environment, the environment of popular culture. (McLuhan, 1996: 100)

Therefore, TV gave way to the clash of the generations in the 1960’s. The popular culture had dramatically shifted by the new electric environments that became part of everyday American life. The African American acoustic musical sensibility that was introduced through the new media of radio, the record and electrically amplified sounds - first Jazz and then later Rock n’ Roll - was the best example of a new sensibility and appreciation of art forms.

2.3. The Diggers: a countercultural group with a legacy that reaches Burning Man

One group that was also present and had a big influence in shaping the image of the Haight-Ashbury hippies were the Diggers. (Grogan: 271) The Diggers derived their name from a group of poor English farmers with the same name, which, in the turmoil of the English Revolution in 1649-50, had formed an anarchist type of community that rejected the notion of property. The Diggers in San Francisco also pursued ‘anarchist’ type of ideals of a society free of property, which they demonstrated by giving away Free Food and setting up Free Stores. They were opposed to the “premises of culture based on profit, private property, and power. Most importantly, “[t]he Diggers combined street theater, anarcho-direct action, and art happenings in their social agenda of creating a Free City.”20 Their ideas were symbolic for the hippie era and would remain extremely influential for other groups that would later emerge after the hippie movement’s eventual decline in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. Their legacy of ideas will set the pretext of what would become a major theme of the Burning Man Festival.

Essential to their concept of guerilla street theater was inspiring people to think about social and political issues and giving a new perspective to issues of concern in a very direct and often satirical way. The Merry Pranksters had also used similar tactics to shed the constraints of social norms. They had given themselves new names and wore costumes in order to seek new identities, and they performed street theater acts that were in the category of pranks - most often during their acid test happenings. (Wolfe: 56) Some of the meaner pranks included giving out LSD without letting people know that they were taking it. (Wolfe: 241 - 53) The Diggers, however, took this attitude to a new level.

At the height of the summer of love, tens of thousands of young people from all over the country came to San Francisco in the hope of being part of the new Love and Peace movement and expanding their consciousness through the use of LSD. This was incubated by Psychedelics like Ken Kesey through his Acid test happenings and Timothy Leary who had formed a new LSD based religion called the Neo-American Church and assumed a major role as spokesperson of the LSD movement. (Stevens: 284) Additionally, the media coverage of the Human Be-In’s and flourishing hip counterculture of the Haight-Ashbury brought nationwide attention to the neighbourhood and, consequently, tourists would do tours in buses and cars through its streets to get a glimpse of the ‘strange’ new hippie culture.

The Diggers who “were the conscience of the Haight” reacted in creative fashion. (Stevens: 321) Not only did they establish a Free City collective that provided all kinds of free services to the influx of young people, they also staged pranks to subvert the attention of the tourist and police. The Diggers originated from a theater group that sought to engage the public through free theater in parks and streets. However, the Diggers had the ideal of “[…obliterating] the distinction between art and life, and between actor and audience.” (Doyle: 85) Therefore, they ‘staged’ a form of theater they called life-acting that was founded on the assumption that “part of all theater involved the wilful suspension of disbelief by those who participated in [.]” (Doyle: 85) and that promised theater would affect “[…] the consciousness of participants in the same way as did LSD, dissolving one's prior cognitive map of reality in order to open up new possibilities.” (Hodgdon: 73) But in contrast to many of the psychedelic mystics of the time who had the idea that society would change from within through the use LSD - once everyone had an LSD experience - the Diggers attitudes “were more social oriented than revelatory.”21

In the early fall of 1966, they started distributing leaflets that critiqued all mobile bohemians of the time, such as famous local artists like Michael Bowen who organized the Human Be-In’s, Jefferson Airplane, the local rock band soon to become a major success, as well as LSD ‘guru’ Timothy Leary. (Hodgden: 1-2) A public critique from within was something that the hippies of Psychedelphia (a term that some used for the Haight-Ashbury) were unaccustomed to. (Hodgden: 3) Their next move was to give out Free Food they had scavenged or stolen and then cooked. This act of redistributing the essential goods of survival – food - was an open attack on the hierarchies of capitalist and liberal society set by private property and money which they saw as the means that deprived humans of their liberty. (Hodgden: 37)

In December 1966, they set up their first permanent happening or ‘non-stop’ stage, they called the Free Store. The Free Store was open 24hs throughout the week where people could get free hot coffee, free food, free books and were free to use a washing machine and dryer. (Hodgden: 40) Later the store would also offer other goods like clothes. Essential to the message of the store was to encourage the potential ‘customer’ to join in shopping and “to invoke the cultural expectations of customers about commercial spaces and the attendant social relations [.]”(Hodgden: 45) Therefore, props and signs in the store would play with these expectations. In a published pamphlet [presumably March 1967] the Diggers offered an explanation to their intentions:

Diggers assume free stores to liberate human nature. First free the space, goods and services. Let theories of economics follow social facts. Once a free store is assumed, human wanting and giving, needing and taking, become wide open to improvisation.

A sign: If Someone Asks to See the Manager Tell Him He's the Manager.

Someone asked how much a book cost. How much did he think it was worth? 75 cents. The money was taken and held out for anyone. "Who wants 75 cents?" A girl who had just walked in came over and took it.

A basket labeled (sic) Free Money.

No owner, no Manager, no employees and no cash-register. A salesman in a free store is a life-actor: Anyone who will assume an answer to a question or accept a problem as a turn-on.

Question (whispered): "Who pays the rent?"

Answer (loudly): "May I help you?"22

According to Peter Coyote, one of the leading members of the Diggers and later famous Hollywood actor, the store would sometimes achieve its intended purpose. Once, a middle-aged woman came into the store and Coyote observed how she clandestinely put clothes into her bag. When he approached her and said she does not need to steal anything because it is all for free, she, at first, rejected that she was. He then pointed to the sign about the manager and said "I know—but you thought you were stealing. You can't steal here because it's a Free Store You can have the whole fucking store if you feel like it. You can take over and tell me to get lost." Later he helped her in choosing a few more items and a week later, she showed up with baked goods and put them on the counter for free exchange. (Hodgden: 46)

In their later efforts, the Diggers social efforts would also include Free Legal Services, Free Concerts with local bands, a Free Medical Clinic that “was pioneering in treating drug abuse problems” and, in the wake of the summer of love, they tried to set up a Free Hotel but the project failed due to the city’s bureaucrats. (Perry: 131) Besides the anarchistic motivated endeavourers to provide free services to the community, they also staged sophisticated public theater acts that required sometimes hundreds to thousands of participants. One of them was the Intersection Game which was announced through the distribution of thousands of handbills that called out to meet at a specific time at a crossroad in the Haight-Ashbury.

The Intersection Game was set out to reclaim public spaces - the Intersection, the streets, the crossroad - that, in the eyes of the Diggers, had fallen victim to the predominance of the car and traffic - which had more and more consisted of tourists that toured through the neighbourhood as a spectacle. On a late afternoon, they set up a 13 foot yellow ‘frame of reference’ on the southwest corner of the intersection of Haight and Ashbury. Two giant puppets that impersonated two famous local political figures (Robert Scheer and Jeffrey Coleman who had both run for the same seat in the recent congressional election and represented oppositional political viewpoints - Scheer was a left-wing journalist and had challenged the incumbent ‘status quo’ congressman Coleman23 ) would constantly walk back and forth through the frame and argue about what is ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ and, at the same time, would encourage the many joining participants also to walk through the frame. Additionally, miniature versions of the frame with an attached string that people could wear as talismans were distributed. (Doyle: 83)

On the distributed Diggers’ leaflets it said that “the public is any fool on the street” which referred to one of Marshall McLuhan’s probes that stated: “An informed public is its worst enemy.” Further on the leaflet it said:

Public enemies watch reality — don't change that dial — an eventful new season of enemy spectacles FREE FRAME OF REFERENCE to be worn around the neck, carried, displayed Watch the D I G G E R news!24

The whole act was meant to raise awareness that one’s ‘frame of reference’ or ‘consciousness’ can be changed and social hierarchies can be renegotiated. As hundreds of participants walked through the frame and across the intersection, the entire traffic would come to a halt. Soon, police officers showed up and did not know how to react other than to arrest the two puppet holders and a few other participants who did not obey the order to not block “a public thoroughfare”. On the contrary, they declared that they are “the public.” Eventually, the police left the scene with hundreds of people still walking, standing and later dancing on the street until late in the evening. (Doyle: 84-85)

The activities of the Diggers involved many of such public happenings that would draw attention to hierarchies and functions of institutions of society. Although the group would eventually split up and the Free Altamont Concert in December 1969 would mark the end of the hippie era25, their legacy of creatively challenging society’s moral standards and hierarchies would prevail and be a major influence for other countercultural groups to come.

[…] The San Francisco Diggers’ experiment [fashioned] a communitarian utopia by means of guerilla theater that performed a new set of social relations within distinct geographical boundaries. It was the New West’s answer to the City upon a Hill. During their twenty-one-month tenure, the Diggers in effect improvised a play whose plot concerned how one community could be transformed root and branch into an alternative to the rest of American society. (Doyle: 91, italics added by the author)

Doyle is referring to another major American myth connected to Puritan Errand. The “City upon the hill” is also one of the most important historical themes that constitute the American Character and ‘American Exceptionalism’. It goes back to the early Puritan sermons by John Winthrop, governor of the newly founded New England colony of Massachusetts during the 17th century, wherein it was declared that the Puritans had founded a commonwealth that would serve as a model for the corrupt world. (Brinkley: 38) Perry Miller pointed out in his famous essay ‘Puritan Errand into the Wilderness,’ that the covenant failed its initial purpose after the reinstitution of the English monarchy in the late 17th century because the monarchy was seen as a symbol of corruption. Therefore, the influence of the Puritans in the American Character also faded. However, Sacvan Bercovitch later pointed out that the rhetoric of the puritan sermons - the American Jeremiad - remained very influential in all social, religious and political thought and debate in America.26

Meanwhile, one may also explain the Diggers’ activities in terms of a frontier mentality that inspired them to reject the rules and values of capitalist society, transgress its social constraints by starting a communitarian utopia in the frontier zone of the formerly frontier city of San Francisco and declare the Free City. (Doyle: 81) Not only did ‘free’ for the Diggers stand for costing nothing as well as liberated from social conventions, it was intrinsically connected to the frontier myth. Peter Berg in an interview states:


* re-edited chapters were copied from the author’s essay “The Self and the other - a media approach to the encounter between Native Americans and Anglo-American settlers in the colonial period.” Department of English and American Studies. Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. August 2009)

1 Western man will be used as a generalized term that refers to all societies and cultures that are driven by Western thought since the Greeks invented the first complete phonetic alphabet as opposed to Oriental and primitive cultures. See: McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy. University Press of Toronto. 1962, p. 51 -71.

2 Judith Stamps and Glenn Wilcott quoted in: Cavell, Richard. “McLuhan in Space”. in At the speed of light there is only illumination : a reappraisal of Marshall McLuhan. Moss, John and M. Morra, Linda (eds.). Ottawa: Univ. of Ottawa press, 2004, p. 170.

3 The term media is understood in the broadest sense. All man-made tools are media and extensions of man. The hammer is an extension of the fist, the knife of the nails and teeth, the wheel of the feet, writing is an extension of the eye, and language is an extension of man himself. “The first humanoid uttering his first intelligible grunt, or “word”, outered himself and set up a dynamic relationship with himself, other creatures, and the world outside his skin. Speech entails competition. It is also a tool to reconstitute nature into working synthetic models, to translate one form onto another.” (McLuhan, 1989: 93) In the evolution of man’s extensions, the computer marks a final stage where man has extended his consciousness. What is important to note here is the reciprocal relationship between man and media: “…technologies, like words, are metaphors. They similarly involve the transformation of the user insofar as they establish new relationships between him and his environments.” (McLuhan, 1989: 8).

4 Chart-diagram of brain functions, taken from: McLuhan, M. & Powers, B. The Global Village. Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 54.

5 About the Gestalt principles. July the 14th 2010: <http://graphicdesign.spokanefalls.edu/tutorials/process/gestaltprinciples/gestaltprinc.htm>.

6 Also taken from the website on Gestalt principles. July the 14th 2010: <http://graphicdesign.spokanefalls.edu/tutorials/process/gestaltprinciples/gestaltprinc.htm>.

7 I would like to point out that McLuhan often uses the term ‘non-literate’ indiscriminately in reference to cultures who do not use the phonetic alphabet, even if a culture uses a script. Though writing in general enhances visual perception, for ex. the Chinese ideograph, it is only the phonetic alphabet that completely isolates visual from auditory cognition.

8 Benjamin Lee Whorf quoted in Kidwell, Clara Sue; Homer Noley; George E. “Tink” Tinker. A Native American Theology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001, p. 94.

9 An article on Professor Everett’s research on the Piraha Tribe: Davies, Elizabeth. “Unlocking the secret sounds of language: Life without time or numbers.” The Independent. Science section. Saturday, 6 May 2006. Accessed on July the 17th 2010. <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/unlocking-the-secret-sounds-of-language-life-without-time-or- numbers-477061.html.>.

10 McLuhan quoted in: Benedetti, Paul and Nancy DeHart (eds.) Forward Through The Rearview Mirror: Reflections On and By Marshall McLuhan. Ontario: Prentice-Hall Canada Inc, 1996, p. 184.

11 The term fall line (also called ‘fall zone’) refers to the geological fall line where an upland region and coastal plain meet. In the beginning of American settlement this geological fall line that can be observed almost throughout the Atlantic coast constituted the barrier between settled and unsettled area of the early colonies. Turner generalizes the term using it for all geographical borders that were natural barriers for American westward expansion, for example, mountain ranges or rivers are fall lines too.

12 Alger, Jamie. Thoreau’s Frontier. 2007. Accessed on April the 30th, 2010.: <http://mcc-enh341.pbworks.com/Thoreau%27s%20Frontier>.

13 Turner specifically used the term ‘Great West’ to distinguish between all other terms that were used before that had signified various areas depending on each period of the Western expansion in which they had been used. For example, the Northwest was for a long period of time the area of today’s Midwest. The term ‘Far West’ referred to areas in the Rocky Mountains and further to the Pacific.

14 Wilbur R. Jacobs, John W. Caughey, and Joe B. Frantz. Turner, Bolton and Webb : Three Historians of the American Forntier . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965.

15 I specifically use the German term here to emphasize that the English term ‘primitive people’ is not only derogative, but also leaves out the fact that such cultures do relate very differently to their environment. They generally have an acoustic awareness that enables them to perceive nature holistically. As M. McLuhan has pointed, Western man cannot perceive nature because his senses are imbalanced. (McLuhan, 1989: 132) His visual bias allowed him to see himself outside the framework of nature from his fixed point of view. Hence, the German term Naturv ö lker which translates into “people who live in nature.”

16 Discussing the history of San Francisco and its cultural influences on counterculture in general and specifically on Burning Man can only be done in a broader context, for it is necessary to take the whole San Francisco Bay Area into our historical consideration. Indeed, it is not possible to do otherwise, because the region of the Bay is intertwined and connected at all levels. Especially when it comes to countercultural movements of the 1960’s, the universities of Berkeley and Stanford will play an important role. Of course, having spoken of the frontier mentality in technological innovation and entrepreneurship, Silicon Valley is its epicenter. As in the day-to-day language, there are three ways to refer to the area: San Francisco Bay, San Francisco Bay Area or just Bay Area. I will use San Francisco specifically when we talk about the city.

17 Ken Kesey. The Day Superman after died. Northridge, California: Lord John Press. 1980.

18 Tom Wolfe, author and journalist wrote the novel The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test that would make ‘Ken Kesey and the Merry Prankster’ cultural icons. The book has also been called a non-fiction novel and is the first exponent of New-Journalism, „ a term that Wolfe himself […] coined“ (Cateforis: 103) that became popular through his work and others like Hunter S. Thomson.

19 McLuhan quoted in: Benedetti, Paul and Nancy DeHart (eds.). Forward Through The Rearview Mirror: Reflections On and By Marshall McLuhan. Ontario: Prentice-Hall Canada Inc, 1996, p. 119.

20 The diggers archives. June the 5th, 2010. <http://www.diggers.org/overview.html>.

21 Peter Berg, one of the important members of the Diggers in an interview in April 29, 1982, accessed through the diggers archive website on the 18th of June <http://www.diggers.org/oralhistory/pb_jg_0482.htm>

22 [Peter Berg], "Trip Without a Ticket: Don't Pay for Your Copy,", ca. March 1967, authorship and date assigned by Doyle, "Diggers," 473. Eric Noble, Digger Archives, assigns the date of 28 June 1967; Accessed through the Diggers Archives on the 15th of May. <http://www.diggers.org/digpaps68/twatdp.html.>

23 On Robert Scheer, accessed on June the 20th, 2010 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Scheer>

24 The Diggers Archives. Accessed on June the 20th, 2010 <http://www.diggers.org/digger_sheets.htm>

25 The chaos of the Altamont Speedway Free Festival where one of the members of the infamous Hell Angels motorcycle gang killed a man in the audience symbolically represents the demise and disillusionment of the Love and Peace values of the hippie era. Interestingly, the Diggers as well as Ken Kesey and the Merry Prankster were friends with the motorcycle gang and together collaborated in many activities. Michael Lydon gives a descriptive account on the day of the concert: Lydon, Michael. “The Rolling Stones”- At Play in the Apocalypse”. in The Portable Sixties Reader. Charters, Ann (ed).New York: Penguin Books. 2003, p. 306 - 316

26 The Puritan Errand and the prevailing myth of “the City upon a Hill,” see: Miller, Perry. Errand into the Wilderness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1956. Sacvan Bercovitch. The American Jeremiad. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 1978.

121 of 121 pages


Burning Man - The American Frontier revisited in Acoustic Space
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (English Department)
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Ronny Diehl (Author), 2010, Burning Man - The American Frontier revisited in Acoustic Space, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/156660


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