Kunstler’s Petrofiction

James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand(2008) contains a particular conservative logic common to post-apocalyptic fiction and environmentalist writing that can either be taken up as a maintenance of the status quo (i.e. “humanity can survive, if only things could stay a particular way”) or as political signs of warning (i.e. “if we continue along this path, this destruction is what will come”).

This conservative logic can be detected in James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand (2008), which imagines a post-petrol world in which human beings live peaceably in harmony with nature by regressing to a pre-oil dependent life, effectively Kunstler forecasts the apocalypse as a solution to the ills he attributes to oil dependency and its attendant technologies. In a recent issue of the PMLA, the question of the relationship between oil and literature is further probed by Michel Ziser and Imre Szeman, respectively. Ziser gestures to a number of recent fictions that take on the same problematic addressed by Kunstler: “Later novels, as well as recent documentaries and feature films, have taken up this pessimistic vision of oil-induced apocalypse under the specter of climate change and high-tech imperial warfare… these ask us to acknowledge the connection between the oil age and its problematic surpluses—economic, political, environmental, sexual, aesthetic, and even religious—and to consider the human effects of its eventual passing.”[i]Ziser connects one type of surplus, oil, with a whole variety of others through “oil-induced apocalypse” fiction, thinking of the fiction as a way to measure the effects of such a breakdown. Kunstler’s novel makes the suggestion that in order to save the world oil production and consumption must stop (something most of us would be hard pressed to disagree with). Szeman picks up where Ziser leaves off by strengthening the connection between oil production and cultural production such that he argues for a periodization not based on national or historical periods, but on the dominant mode of resource extraction.[ii]Ziser and Szeman’s way of reading reveals a problem with Kunstler’s reasoning: World Made by Hand posits societal and technological retrogression as a solution to the degradation of the planet, rather than tracing our “petroculture” to its roots in capital’s dependence on and need for limitless expansion.[iii]

From the perspective of either the maintenance of the present or the apocalyptic politics of catastrophism,[iv]the conservative logic of post-apocalyptic fiction functions as a containment strategy. Each such approach to the disaster situation or the catastrophic scenario has a tendency to fall doubly short of a complete solution—both within the world of the text and as a solution to a real world problem. On the level of the plot, though post-apocalyptic fiction sets out to resolve a historical contradiction, it stops short by selecting the wrong problem (e.g. focusing on technological advances rather than the economic force driving them). Rather than imagining a relatively new historical situation, these fictions seem doomed to play out older, residual narratives, like the return to pre-industrial society in Kunstler, which may not be well-suited to engage with the present. Put another way, post-apocalyptic fiction tends to grasp at symptoms.

Ideology in post-apocalyptic fiction manifests itself somewhere between false immediacy and false consciousness, showing up in the return to simpler relations in Kunstler. World Made by Hand politically attempts to change how people behave. The logic of post-apocalyptic fiction resonates with Kunstler’s political bid—that describing and elaborating a different mode of life will give reasons for people to reflect objectively on the current situation and, crucially, change because of it. The problem that arises here is that post-apocalyptic fiction, like so many other cultural forms today, still assumes the link between knowing something and doing something about it. What’s more, presuming this type of connection means that post-apocalyptic fiction actually works to contain unmanageable contradictions rather than resolving them. Kunstler’s attempt may be off track, masking social relations and obscuring, for example, the imperative of growth under capitalism, but that is not to say it cannot teach us something about its point of intervention—post-apocalyptic fiction may hide social relations, for instance, but it also still depicts them. The takeaway is that even as they cover over and contain contradictions World Made by Hand present signs and symptoms of this containment. The question of how to move from knowing that to doing something about it is left wide open.

[i] Michel Ziser, “Oil Spills,” in PMLA 126.2 (March 2011): 323.
[ii] “This special Editor’s Column asks what might happen if we frame cultural and intellectual periods and the literatures they encompass not in terms of movements (e.g., modernism), nations (British modernism), or centuries (eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth . . .) but in relation to dominant forms of energy. A crude, perhaps too literal form of materialism, but a suggestive one nevertheless, and not just in the aha! manner of all thought experiments. A periodization organized around energy draws much needed attention to one of the key conditions of possibility of human social activity: a raw input—energy—whose significance and value are almost always passed over, even by those who insist on the importance of modes and forms of production for thinking about culture and literature.” Imre Szeman, “Literature and Energy Futures,” in PMLA 126.2 (March 2011): 323.
[iii] Petroculture is a periodizing term used most prominently in the research cluster of the same name at the University of Alberta which studies “the socio-cultural aspects of oil and energy in Canada and the world today.” See Petrocultures.com (2012) www.petrocultures.com (accessed on 29 Sept 2012).
[iv] Catastophism is a politics that bases itself around the shock or fear of catastrophe. It can be taken up either by the left or the right, through in CatastophismLiley and others argue that appeals to the threat of disaster always serve a conservative agenda. See especially Eddie Yuen, “The Politics of Failure have Failed,” 15-43.

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