I’ve suspected for a while that overuse and casual abuse would turn “transformational” from a jargonny term-of-art into a meaningless buzzword. The trajectory was clear.
The moment I realized it had happened was so much worse than I’d ever imagined. It came at a party last month, when I read the label of a bottle of really terrible wine.
“This embodiment of elegance,” the label told me, “is no mere wine; it is a journey to another dimension – a transformative experience.”
Yeah, we’re done.
“Transformative” and “transformational” were useful words at one point, words which sometimes did good work . But because Burning Man is hard to describe we leaned on these words too heavily, and eventually even came to frequently confuse an effect that Burning Man culture has (it transforms people) with a primary characteristic of the thing itself (what’s Burning Man? It’s “transformational.”)
I can’t really blame what happened next on “inspired-by-Burning-Man” festivals like Lightning in a Bottle and Further Future. (Part of what the media now calls “Transformational Festivals.”) I want to, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t. The fact that they overused-to-death a word that we overused-to-injury is unfortunate but understandable. Nobody looked at them funny when they used it and said “wait, what? You’re what?” They said “oh, right, transformation, I’m big on that,” and maybe bought a ticket.
Nor was it just festivals: I used to work for a university that had a program in “Transformative Social Change” and advertised as being a transformational education … as if any education worth a damn doesn’t change you in some way. And now … wine.
Although I suppose, if you think about it, booze really could be the original “transformative experience.” I could see it.
When the same word can equally well describe Burning Man, Further Future, a bottle of wine, and a post-graduate degree … is it really describing anything anymore?
But this is what marketing language does. This is what it is. It streamlines thought the way a steamroller flattens rocks. Everything becomes a buzzword, until eventually sincere and meaningful communication is impossible. To call Burning Man a “transformative experience” was never completely accurate to my mind, but it did fairly well delineate something meaningful. Now … we certainly have the moral high ground if we want to keep using the word, but I wonder if we’re not better off dropping it.
Because if we’re talking in buzzwords … even if they weren’t buzzwords when we started … we’re going to have a harder time reaching people in an authentic way.
We usually think of Decommodification as involving abstract units (money) and visual symbols (brands), and the effort to keep Burning Man decommodified has been focused on eliminating financial transactions at Burning Man events and keeping logos out of everything we do. That’s all for the good. But I’m going to suggest that in this new era for Burning Man, when people are actively looking to tap into “the Burning Man market” and some son-of-a-bitch is eventually going to publish a “10 Principles Guide to Managerial Excellence,” we need to think about whether our language is decommodified too – which starts by being simple, straightforward, and as much as possible jargon free.
Now I want to emphasize here, emphatically, that I am not suggesting that there should be any restriction on speech at Burning Man events, or that some language is “wrong.” I am 100% against the imposition of any such code, and if there were such a code I would break it in public. (Any attempt to limit speech would be especially problematic given how full Burning Man is of satire, whimsy, and parody. So unless someone wants to start demanding sincerity, they’re shit out of luck. And if they do want to demand that, they’re shit out of Burning Man.)
But even without offering any advice, it is still worth thinking about the way that language itself can undergo a process of commodification, and worth thinking about how we react to that in our own lives.
I’m not going to pretend to know what this could mean to you. Honestly I have no idea what it means to me, except that it seems like the more I start talking in buzzwords, the more checked out I am of my day-to-day life. It reminds me of Orwell’s warning that:
“When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases, one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church.”
Perhaps jargon and buzzwords are enemies of immediacy, too. The more we dive into it them the more we turn ourselves into machines (thus commodifying ourselves) and the more we tune out of the moment.
To the extent that Burning Man has trouble describing itself, it’s because we are trying not to use language that turns either you or us into machines. A team of marketing experts could easily come up with an amazing pitch for Burning Man … but that kind of efficiency would demand that we turn at least part of our brains off. Exciting language is easy if you’re willing to nod and smile at bullshit.
The struggle to explain Burning Man in simple and accessible terms is worth something. Even if we have to reinvent it over and over again. Maybe especially if. That struggle is our guard against dehumanization, delusion, and narcolepsy. At the risk of making everyone’s job harder, I think we need to put “transformational” and “transformative” away now, because they’ve gotten too easy. The marketing gurus have them, and turned them into a pill they hope will make you shop in your sleep.
About the author: Caveat Magister
A member of the Burning Man Project's Philosophical Center, Caveat served as the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca from 2008 - 2013. He is presently working with Burning Man's education department on a cultural studies curriculum for Burning Man culture. Caveat is the author of the short story collection A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City, which has nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) Burningman (dog) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs