How Burning Man Helped Create 'Fight Club'
Now more famous for scalpers, environmental hypocrisy, and corporate-sponsored D-list celebrities desperately trying to appear to be simultaneously hip and relatable while arriving on private-chartered planes to promote their Instagram account, there was a time when Burning Man was an intimate, quirky, little cadre of weirdos and outcasts on a fixed income. Before exhibitionism was a respectable career path, Southern Californian kooks gathered on the beach to burn an effigy of a wooden figure and celebrate the simple joys of creativity and individuality in complete obscurity.
Transplanted to the deserts of Nevada and now charging a hefty fee, the casual get-together has lurched slowly into an exclusive, international lifestyle brand for tastemakers and tech bros, with tickets selling out in half an hour. It would seem pretty incredible to even suggest, but from the paltry embers of the yearly bonfire came the anarchic, anti-consumerist novel Fight Club, the generation-defining film, and a much more iconic dorm-room poster.
Long before it became the favored spot for uber-privileged millionaires on Adderall, the Burning Man festival was birthed from the minds of a counter-culture collective called The Cacophony Society, a branch of the defunct San Francisco-based Suicide Club. Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk joined in the '90s, drawn into the subculture that locked up people in trunks to drive them into the middle of nowhere at night for fun. Palahniuk, a member of the Portland chapter, indulged in chaotic activities designed only to test your mental limits and better judgment. The Day-Glo pacifiers and wine-mom dancing came later.
Burning Man was first held by ex-members of the aptly titled Suicide Club, who embraced climbing the Golden Gate Bridge and rappelling up buildings as rituals to spark dormant emotions and creative energy. In the 1970s, they sneaked into Nazi Party meetings and held black-tie parties in laundromats. Anything for a lark. SantaCon, another offshoot of The Suicide Club, more explicitly mocked the hollowness of consumerism, while the Cacophony Society mostly favored dangerous pranks to remind people of their own mortality. It was also inextricably linked to public nudity. It was San Francisco, after all.
A particular specialty of the Suicide Club pranksters was defacing billboards to form absurdist or sarcastic alterations. The Suicide Club thought of it as a philosophical statement and called it détournement. Today we just call it trolling. Charles Manson was painted into advertisements for blue jeans by the Billboard Liberation Front. Apple's "Think Different" ad campaign was lampooned to mock the Dalai Lama as much as the pretentious corporation itself. Not hard to see the roots of Palahniuk's fictional Project Mayhem.
Fight Club's themes of men leading aimless lives, slaving to buy crap they don't need to impress people they don't like, all in order to fit in at any cost, were all there. Docile, distracted, sedated, comfortable, and neutered (literally in the case of the character of Bob), Palahniuk saw a society of young men that didn't have a culture, identity, or quest in life other than "celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy's name on my underwear."
The Fight Club aesthetic was born, and with it, a ton of idiots who missed the various points of the book/film, among which is to not mindlessly mimic others, follow trends, or spout corporate slogans as mantras.
The meteoric rise of Fight Club, quite ironically, echoes the popularity of the Burning Man gathering. Starting as a $50 short story that bankrupted its rinky-dink publisher, Palahniuk's completed novel took hold of the imagination of everyone who read it. The trajectory from underground, nihilistic adventure to faux-leather, sweatshop-manufactured Halloween costume was complete. Who are we kidding? It was inevitable from the start. Street-cred and authenticity are the ultimate commodities. In their own way, Burning Man does keep the freak flag flying. Publicly toting around your used tampons for several days in a Ziploc bag while battling heat exhaustion and venomous spiders while high on ketamine is precisely the sort of thing that would make the Cacophony Society and Tyler Durden proud.
Top Image: 20th Century Studios