reactionary futures: petrofiction and after oil

This is the text of a conference paper I delivered at the Canadian Association of Cultural Studies in Waterloo, Ontario January 18th, 2014. I would like to thank the organizers of the conference and my co-panelists Imre Szeman and Adam Carlson.

This paper has two epigraphs:

Because capitalism is compelled to be revolutionary in order to subsist, it is not beyond attempting to facilitate by itself the dissolution of oil geoculture even as it is enamoured of the massive surpluses that accrue from scarcity and oligopoly. Thus, while one must acknowledge the emergence of peak-oil speculative fiction like Kunstler’s World Made By Hand…it too is not beyond the prospect of a missed encounter when one considers how contemporary oil companies are attempting to reinvent themselves as the key to a green future.
 — Peter Hitchcock, “Oil in an American Imaginary”

The promise of the future underwrites and legitimizes the bad faith of the present. What makes speculating about energy futures productive is that it highlights all the more powerfully the political fantasies in which literature currently indulges.
 — Imre Szeman, “Literature and Energy Futures”

Peter Hitchcock’s response to Amitav Ghosh’s seminal 1992 essay “Petrofictions” seems to extend a desire found there—not simply for fiction of the oil encounter, but for what one could call petrorealism. In Ghosh’s analogy, the oil encounter does not produce an equivalently rich corpus of novels as the spice encounter (Hitchcock cleverly suggests that sugar and coffee are two commodities that could also function analogously to oil). Indeed, the desire for a realistic petrofiction is fed by both Abdul Munif’s Cities of Salt quintet (1984-1989), discussed by Ghosh, and Upton Sinclair’s Oil! (1927), elaborated by Hitchcock. For Ghosh, the slow and careful details of Munif’s story make it stand out, for instance the oil developers from the U.S. are never named, and instead they are simply referred to as the Americans. Hitchcock’s reading of Oil! also rises and falls in beat with Sinclair’s realistic portrayal of the beginnings of U.S. oil production and dependence. Contra Ghosh, Hitchcock figures oil’s centrality to the American political and cultural imaginary, placing Oil! and Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation There Will Be Blood (2007) as bookends of America’s century; though he posits that “it is oil’s saturation of the infrastructure of modernity that paradoxically has placed a significant bar on its cultural representation” (81). Thus, the dearth Ghosh identifies is not of fictions that figure oil as central to their narrative projects, there are plenty of oil disaster scenarios novels and oil documentaries, but of realistic petroficitons.

To investigate this peculiar brand of what Ghosh and Hitchcock call petrofiction, and the subsequent lack of petrorealism, I take up James Howard Kunstler’s 2008 post-oil novel, World Made by Hand, which simplifies social relations into manageable units and explores a world that has technologically regressed by over 150 years. The novel’s social dimensions present an odd incompatibility between ecological concerns and other emancipatory politics, which I treat as two related forms of desire for a future based on freedom, equality, leisure, plenty, and fulfillment. Here, I will elaborate the ways that this world made by hand operates, peering into its social world and asking what its global imaginary cannot represent. Such a reading of Kunstler might potentially help to situate the limits of this form of imagining and depicting the future after oil within the broader project of identifying, engaging, and periodizing cultural forms as fragments of energy cultures.

Writing on the correspondence between energy and literature, Patricia Yaeger pauses to wonder, “Are the gas station’s empty pumps a premonitory metaphor for resource anxiety, […] Or is an empty gas station just an empty gas station—the halted traveler’s bad luck, the writer’s reality effect?” (306). Rather than the individual confronted with driving on fumes in the hopes of reaching another open gas station, World Made by Hand meditates on the collective response to running entirely out of fuel. In his 2011 article “Farewell to the Drive-In Utopia,” Kunstler’s reflects on a kernel of the ethical-political project that underwrites World Made by Hand:

There are a lot of ways of referring to American-style suburbia, but these days I favor the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. You can say that because it's clear that we are not going to be able to run it in a very few years ahead as the nation's oil supply gets more restricted and we have to face the disappointing reality that so-called alternative energy will not come close to offsetting our oil losses. Suburbia therefore represents a living arrangement with no future. (82)

This lack of a plausible way forward is also the motivating crisis for World Made by Hand, which is arguably as much a project to jump start the perceived dying engine of futurity as it is an answer to the question ‘where will we end up after oil?’

Kunstler’s drama of the transition to world without oil throws energy dependence back into the age of wood—neither coal nor the fat of living creatures are employed in the novel. In “Carbon Democracy,” Timothy Mitchell imagines the difference between coal’s “dendritic networks” full of “branches” and “choke points,” and the way oil flows almost like current through “an electrical grid, where there is more than one possible path and the flow of energy can switch to avoid blockages or overcome breakdowns” (408). Mitchell’s figural equivalence neatly demonstrates the double absence in World Made by Hand where Kunstler imagines the breakdown of the global circulation of commodities and resources as the leading cause of civilization regression. Effectively, World Made by Hand stages a post-petrol scenario where human beings come to live in harmony with nature by turning back to a pre-oil dependent life. The apocalypse becomes a solution to the ills of oil dependency and its attendant technologies. The return to a pre-oil, almost pre-lapsarian, narrative, in a logical leap reminiscent of Proudhon’s desire to simply eliminate money, suggests that oil production and consumption must stop in order to save humanity and the Earth—something most on the left would be hard pressed to disagree with and equally hard pressed to enact.

The novel follows the protagonist, Robert Earle, through one eventful summer of his life and what could be considered a turning point for the small community of Union Grove, Washington County, N.Y. The social world of the novel is divided up neatly between four groups: The townsfolk, the New Faithers, the trailer trash, and the plantation workers. The central, seemingly neutral group is the townsfolk. They are led by the protagonist Earle who is a fiddler, carpenter, lover, rationalist, and who eventually becomes the mayor of Union Grove. His carpentry links him to the community, to the novel’s title, and to the resource of choice after oil: wood. That a recent widow’s house burning down acts as a catalyst for Earle to save and subsequently welcome her and her daughter into his home should come as no surprise. Indeed, Earle comes to stand in for municipal life and rational debate. He also acts as a mediating figure between the other groups. One reason that the civic politics he epitomizes have the most potential as a social form is largely because they include professionals and knowledgeable citizenry capable of repairing, rebuilding, diagnosing, treating, and maintaining a healthy population, good shelter, and the democratic process.

The second group encountered in the novel is the New Faithers: a group of refugees from Pennsylvania led by the charming, yet difficult Brother Jobe. The New Faithers are deeply religious; some of their members hail from the military having seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Earle first encounters them as he walks home with his friend Loren after fishing. They learn that the new faith group purchased the old school from the then mayor. The New Faithers slowly convert the building into a veritable rabbit’s warren of rooms. Strikingly they seem to have an obsession with mules (79) as the favoured animal to have in the field—yet another point in the regression to older forms of energy and labour. Brother Jobe and his ilk are not opposed to participating in the life of Union Grove and even help Earle as the story unfolds.

The two remaining varieties of the social are the trailer park and the plantation. The former is lead by Wayne Karp who also runs the dump salvage project and the general goods store. In the first encounter with Karp, Earle describes him as rock ‘n’ roll loving, camouflage-tee wearing, muscled and tough, saying, “on the rare occasions when I saw Wayne, the phrase with his bare hands always echoed in my mind” (42). Earle thus identifies Karp as the central antagonist for his world made by hand. Will it be the carpenter’s hands or the pit fighter’s that shape what is to come? Karp and his followers tend to remain outside of municipal affairs, which becomes a point of conflict in the novel—just after describing Karp, a friend of Earle’s is shot outside of the general store in broad daylight. The murder acts as a catalyst for the complacent townsfolk to form a more cohesive social body and demand justice from Karp—something they fight for over the course of the novel. Indeed, the final social group is introduced because its leader, Stephen Bullock, is the closest thing to an official law maker that they have in the vicinity.

Bullock possesses over 2000 acres of arable land, which he maintains well after the breakdown of American society. He offers protection, food, shelter, and purpose in a working arrangement for any who will have it. Because of his social arrangement—organized and divided labour—he is able to accomplish feats that the other groups can only imagine: he generates electricity, runs motors, and produces fine food and drink—hot dogs, hamburgers, mustard, and cider and whiskey. The novel lists his manufacturing accomplishments when Earle and Brother Jobe visit him: “the creamery, the smokehouse, the brewery, the harness shop, the glass shop, the smithy, the laundry” (78). His relation to Union Grove is opportunistic and seems to be based around the exchange of favours. At one point in the story he is able to help the town solve a water issue by manufacturing a number of concrete sewage pipes, for instance, but only after Earle and some of the New Faithers travel to Albany in search of a lost river crew.

Each of these social groupings indicates that civic life becomes a site of synthesis in the novel. The issues of concern are crime, water, the small practice, marital relations, scavenging, the dump, and commercial comings and goings on the main street. Abiding in an older small town means that the necessary building repair can be done by hand, which makes local decisions and efforts into a combination of post-oil and post-capitalist political and cultural imaginaries. Finally, food is produced from limited supplies locally—corn meal, diary, and honey being easily obtainable; while, sugar and wheat are not. The detail provided about food preparation and meal time is some of the most considered prose in the novel, placing food production and sharing, preparing and repast at the heart of the most memorable relationships and encounters.

Unlike the municipal, both cities and the urban in the novel are figured as containers for everything that won’t fit civilly into Kunstler’s retrograde utopia. Their absence also marks an absence of race, an absence of linguistic and cultural difference, and an absence of coal regime era or later infrastructural and architectural problems—large public works, transportation systems, bridges, skyscrapers, not to mention the impending meltdown of nuclear reactors. Union Grove works as a polis because the novel simply cuts off the excess, opening up a rather gaping blind spot. Here is how one of the New Faithers, Joseph, also an ex-marine describes what is left outside the community walls and the narrative:

There’s grievances and vendettas all around at every level. Poor against whatever rich are left. Black against white. English-speaking against the Spanish. More than one bunch on the Jews. You name it, there’s a fight on. Groups in flight everywhere, ourselves among them. I haven’t seen black folks or Spanish in Union Grove so far. You got any, sir? (149)

And, then how Earle responds:

Some black families lived in that hollow down by the Wayland Union Mill, the old factory village. There was a fellow named Archie Basiltree who worked in the Aubuchon hardware store when we first came. The store is gone and so is Archie. Another black man worked on the county road crew. (149)

Though the end of America was purportedly caused by a terrorist attack, there is little mention of the presumably racial fallout of that here. Instead Joseph’s description divides the U.S. along racial-linguistic lines that don’t entirely take geography or politics into account. Instead, for Joseph the urban signifies with racialized identity and thus strife and conflict. Worse, perhaps, for its blunt, naked honesty is the unintentional truth registered by Earle: There were so few blacks, not to mention Hispanics, or other racialized people or groups, that he could nearly count those he considered non-white by name, or face, on one hand. Why is it that the post-oil future has to be a suspiciously white one as well? Why does focusing on ecological problematics, at least for Kunstler but assuredly for others as well, trigger such a sharp return to unspoken racial and sexual hierarchies? If one can accept the apocalyptic conceit of the novel, then what it gives us is a realistic account of how a small community might go about making decisions in the absence of anything but the memory of legal procedures, property law, and civil rights. The problem with Kunstler’s novel is that he banishes cultural and racial difference from Union Grove—something we can all agree is unnecessary. Just as an aside, he actually repeats the move of Ernst Callenbach in Ecotopia (1975) where even in the titular progressive annexed west coast community blacks and racial others were segregated.

In World Made by Hand, Kunstler places a political bid: that describing and elaborating a different mode of life will give reason enough for people to reflect objectively on the current situation and, crucially, change because of it. For Kunstler, it seems the goal is to make an alternative, green-energy future the only logical conclusion, or the path of least resistance, which is precisely how he describes oil bound culture: “The project of suburbia rolled out as any emergent, self-organizing system will under the right conditions. It elaborated itself as neatly as an algorithm” (“Farewell” 83). But, in attempting to picture the return to a previous model of socio-political organization, World Made by Hand contains a particular conservative logic common to post-apocalyptic fiction and some 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”). The hope, for an author like Kunstler, is that the exercise of imagining and formalizing a post-petrol future will lead to a politics, or at the very least, an ethics for moving beyond our current petroculture, a chance to evaluate and proscribe our present difficulties. But, despite its interesting focus on the municipal and civic life, Kunstler’s novel still falls short of even an imaginary solution to the slick contradictions of the twenty-first century.

Ghosh helps us to read through these blind spots to understand the global imaginary of World Made by Hand. In “Petrofictions,” he names two factors that make a proper petrorealism difficult to imagine, let alone produce:

A) There is a difficulty to writing about oil due to its “slipperiness,” and “the ways in which it tends to trip fiction into incoherence” (141); and

B) “The territory of oil is bafflingly multilingual, for example, while the novel, with its conventions of naturalistic dialogue, is most at home within monolingual speech communities (within nation states, in other words).” (142)

World Made by Hand simply doesn’t live up either of these criteria: first, it simply vanishes oil; and, second, it erases non-identity (the social groups appreciate small differences, but each is head up by a visionary, confident male). Kunstler imagines that the potentiality of terrorism causes a major problem for foreign exchange, which severs the U.S. global relations—no one wants to trade with an overly securitized nation that check every single container coming into its ports. The spatial imaginary of the novel is sharply restricted to the U.S., little word from outside the county, less from outside the state, and no word from outside the country. In this post-petrol scenario any actual complications of geo-politics and the global economy are entirely banished.

The novel’s fantasy hinges on the wonder of forgetting the complexities of modernity, of erasing that haunting feeling that the goods of petroculture come at the price of the exclusion of some and the devastation of future generations, of assuaging the liberal guilt at not maintaining one’s locavore diet. The pandering of Kunstler’s novel posits an energy future in which the coordinates of possibility are still delimited by the shortcomings of the ecological imaginary of the present. Thus the title, World Made by Hand, can be read as a name for the attempt to wrest freedom from necessity and to choose the polis over the global Empire. The real take away is that the production of goods can no longer be electrified by cheap energy, instead, what Kunstler makes clear is that labour returns as the dominant force of production—anyone with knowledge of the Canadian tar sands or natural gas extraction knows that it never fully left. Kunstler, thus, envisions an intensely unproductive make-work project that employs absolutely everybody—without cheap and available energy everything must be accomplished by the labourious work of human hands.

Works Cited

Ghosh, Amitav. “Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel.”Incendiary Circumstances. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992. 138-151.

Hitchcock, Peter. “Oil in an American Imaginary.” New Formations 69 (2010): 81-97.

Kunstler, James Howard. World Made by Hand. New York: Grove Press, 2008.

---. “Farewell to the Drive-In Utopia.” Salmugundi 168/169 (Fall 2010/Winter 2011): 82-96.

Mitchell, Timothy. “Carbon Democracy.” Economy and Society 38:3 (2009): 399-432.

Szeman, Imre. “Literature and Energy Futures.” PMLA 126.2 (2011): 323-325.


Yaeger, Patricia. “Editor’s Column: Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power, and Other Energy Sources.” PMLA 126.2 (2011): 305-310.

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