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Echo-Chic Burning Man Hipsters

That curious identity politic that mixes neo-primitive fashion, ecological coolness, spiritual openness, upper middle class ambition, multiculturalism, and conscious consumerism can be coalesced under the moniker eco-chic–an elite contradictory expression of social justice and neoliberalism. It will be explored in the conference Eco-Chic: Connecting Ethical, Sustainable and Elite Consumption, put on by the European Science Foundation in October. The conference organizers see this expressive culture accurately in its rich contradictions. Eco-chic “is both the product of and a move against globalization processes. It is a set of practices, an ideological frame and a marketing strategy.” If you’ve spent anytime in Shoreditch, Haight, Williamsburg, or Silverlake you’ve got some experience with these hip, trendy elites. Ramesh calls them “Burning Man Hipsters.” I’ve been studying new media producers in America and eco-chic describes an important cultural incarnation of these knowledge producer’s value set. As far as anthropology is concerned, meta-categories such as eco-chic, liberalism, or transhumanism that cross cultural boundaries while remaining bound by class, challenge our discipline to revisit totalizing notions such as “culture” and “tribe.”

Eco-chic, like many other socio-cultural manifestations of neoliberalism is rife with contradiction. The fundamental contradiction being that it is a social justice movement within consumer capitalism. The producers of eco-chic goods and experiences are structured by capitalism’s profit motive. Likewise consumers of eco-chic goods and experiences are motivated by ideals that try to transcend or correct the ecological or deleterious human impacts of capitalism. Thus both producer and consumer of eco-chic are caught in a contradiction between their social justice drives and their suspension in the logic of neoliberalism. Eco chic events such as Burning Man and television networks such as Al Gore’s Current TV also express the fundamental contradiction between the social and the entrepreneurial in social entrepreneurialism. How do the contradictions within eco-chic represent themselves in American West Coast’s cultural expressions such as Burning Man and Current TV?

I don’t study eco-chic but it is a reoccurring motif. The specific location for my ethnographic encounter with eco-chic is the annual Burning Man festival that I have been attending since 2001. Combining countercultural ideals and Web 2.0 notions of sharing with ecological mindfulness and new primalism, Burning Man is the quintessential event in North America for the eco-chic radical. Following Fred Turner—and I’ve stated this before–that Burning Man is a ‘sociotechnical commons’—the cultural infrastructure for the digital media industries of California. Burning Man is expensive, catering to the Silicon Valley intelligencia who are eco-chic and have the finances to explore themselves along with 50,000 people at Black Rock City, a temporary metropole we construct for a delirious week of personal expression and community celebration on the barren alkaline plains of a Nevada desert a half-days drive from San Francisco. Thus, like most iterations of cultural and community identity in neoliberalism, Burning Man is rich with contradictions. The economic costs and carbon footprint required to freely express oneself and live briefly in alliance with nature and community and supposedly outside of capitalism, being only the most obvious contradiction.

Ethnographic research requires specificity so I have focused on one manifestation of the eco-chic culture of San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and Burning Man. Since 2006 I have been producing television documentaries and conducting participant observation with the global television network Current TV who has been exclusively covering Burning Man since 2005. Current TV, founded by famed eco-chic Vice President Al Gore, is based on the mission to democratize television production through broadcasting citizen journalism on television screens around the world. Current TV employees, of whom I have interviewed many, express eco-chic values of sustainable coolness as well as a technoutopian idealism about how new media is going to improve democracy and heal cultural and ecological fractions. Thus, like Burning Man, Current TV is full of contradictions, namely the attempt to instigate democratic processes within the most capitalized and hierarchical cultural industry–global television.

How are the contradictions of neoliberalism mediated by an eco-chic culture of media producers, digital designers, and artists spatio-temporally situated between the radically expressive neo-primitive festival Burning Man and Al Gore’s media democratizing global television network Current TV? Both of these sites of cultural production reflect the contradictions that befall the high tech cultural industrial centers of Silicon Valley in the shadow of the countercultural epicenters of San Francisco and the Bay Area. These contradictions can be summed up in the contradiction between doing good and doing well, being ecologically sensitive while being hedonistic, being trendy while being independent, and being a creative producer while also being a conscious consumer. These contradictions don’t fly. As an anthropologist I seek to critically assess these contradictions while exploring the social, historical, economic, and technological affordances that rationalize and valorize eco-chic as a valid cultural identity as well as an impacting consumer movement.

Whether eco-chic, Burning Man, and Current TV are developments of social justice within corporate culture or merely new incarnations of neoliberalism’s sophisticated production of surplus from the social justice energies of people is not an empirical question. Capitalism is fraught with contradictions, the primary one being the drive to enhance life for many while retaining a surplus for the few. The point of this research is to document how these contradictions are mediated at specific times and spaces, namely, early 21st century Silicon Valley and its proxy locations like Hollywood and Burning Man, in accordance with the institutional value sets and technological assemblages of these specific spaces.

On a more meta-level what does it mean for a larger anthropological project when it recognizes these trends in values? Chris Kelty recently talked about how “transhumanism”–that utopian value for immortality through science and technology–continues to appear throughout his research with computer scientists, hackers, and other geeks. He isn’t doing research on “transhumanists” but their values crop up consistently in the course of doing his other work. Eco-chic is like this I assume for many scholars investigating Western liberal elites. It isn’t the focus but the wider socio-cultural context for the research. When I recognize these larger patterns that appear to unify subjects across a field of seemingly disparate scenes I get that rush that I’ve finally found “culture.” Is it, or merely a typification?


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