Friday, June 24, 2011

You're off your meds again, James

I sometimes read James Howard Kunstler's blog on contemporary life and the post-oil future. His rants are often quite similar from week to week but there are nuggets of insight in thinking. At times though, one thinks his been into the sauce a little much. Between the homophobia and rambling pop-psych this week's post is about today's American men, women and post-oil social norms.

I had an interesting experience with my last two books (World Made By Hand and The Witch of Hebron), which were set in a post-oil, post economic collapse American future and depicted daily life in a way that was quite unlike the way we live right now. I received a heap of criticism from female readers - including peak oil activists - full of consternation that I did not present female characters in the kinds of dominant valorized roles that are favored today: the post-oil equivalent of CEO, news anchor, CIA-Ninja warrior, Presidential candidate. What struck me was their complete failure of imagination. They could not conceive of male / female relations that were different than today's, even in a world that had been turned economically upside down.
     However, this was not inconsistent with the failure of American men to know how to act like men in this anxious moment of history. The choices are pretty unappetizing: be a jobless loser in a "Pray for Death" T-shirt with neck and knuckle tattoos, or a loser in a corporate cubicle, or a loser in that Nevada drone-control bunker, or a loser in the eyes of the family court, or a loser on cable TV. Tom Ball, the man who set himself on fire in Keene, New Hampshire recommended something that sounded a lot like violent revolution, though his tone was eerily measured for someone about to commit the most desperate personally public act. I hope we don't have to go through a convulsion in this land to find out what it means to be a man.
I've read the first of Kunstler's two pieces of post-oil fiction. An interesting read, it nevertheless privileges men in its character development, showing them to be strong and resilient in the face of adversity. His female characters, as he suggests, are definitely not "valorized" and play subordinate roles, often requiring these manly men for security and other needs. Nothing could be further from reality.

In rural places, like the ones in Kunstler's novels, the tough male archetype falls to pieces in times crisis. More often than their identities men are acutely tied into their occupation. When this falls apart, so to do the men, as Alston (2010)empirically demonstrates:
Men are more likely to live and work in their rural commu- nities all their lives while women are more likely to marry in, reinforcing a masculine hegemony in these areas. Masculinity is also determinant because the dominant form of masculine hege- mony is based on a view that men have traditionally adopted a stoic attitude to adversity. While this position has served men well in the past, now, in times of crisis, it causes signi␣cant hardship and pain as men are unwilling or unable to seek assistance and blame themselves for the failure of agricultural production. Despite global economic and climatic conditions being the cause of this failure, men personalise their experience and feel their situation is of their own making. The dominant form of successful masculinity that held great value for them in good times is the very cause of their inability to seek help in bad times.This dominant form of rural masculinity lauds stoicism, rugged individualism and an ability to work through hard times. It prevents more positive adaptations and thus restricts men’s ability to seek help. Many men feel they have failed themselves, their families, their ancestors and their communities because the normative position does not assist them...

Kunstler's ideal men are these stoic individuals. But they fail, as many of us would, when they lose everything. It is the women in these situations who step invisibly into the limelight. They suffer the blows of frustration from their lost spouses, their social networks find external resources to help their men cope, they take on employment to provide some income. Women labour in a thousand different ways to keep their family and men together through the hardship of loss, often, as Alston notes, to great personal neglect. Indeed, Alston makes a tragically compelling argument that unequal gender norms privileging a John Wayne mentality actually harm the ability of people to adapt to the same sorts of crises Kunstler's fantastical men face.

It strikes me that Kunstler's future ideal of patriarchal village life is actually a lament for a fictive past where men were men, and women needed them. In his attempt to describe survival through mass economic and social decline, he fails to appreciate the evidence at hand now, instead choosing to privilege his own misogynistic and anti-feminist stance as a vehicle to rehabilitate his member-ship. The reality is much different as women, possibly to Kunstler's consternation, quite often are the unsung, sacrificing, household ninja-heroes. Yes, gender relations will be much different, they'll have to be, as Alston concludes, if families and communities are to survive.
To address the crisis of rural male suicide it is important that the dominant form of rural masculinity be exposed and interrogated and its shortcomings revealed. This cannot be done in isolation from an interrogation of inequitable gender relations as causative. These relations are now also affecting rural women’s health and their ability to hold things together. These gender relations are unhealthy for both women and men and unless there is more attention to these then both men’s and women’s health and well- being will continue to deteriorate. Thus there is a need to challenge stereotyped behaviour, to critique the way men view themselves and the inequitable gender relations and processes that exist in rural areas. Without this, men will continue to see their future as hopeless and women will lose their strength to keep the family unit together.
Whatever nuanced commentary Kunstler has made in the past regarding a future of decline, he is now paradoxically sounding like some of weaker characters: rambling and distressed old men unable to make sense of the world in which they find themselves.


Cathie from Canada said...

Maybe the future for all of us cranky types is to end up telling the kids to get off our lawns -- and seriously, as I get older I realize how much easier it is to pontificate. Still, his "eyesore of the month" remains amusing.

Boris said...

Cathie, I like his 'eyesore of the month' too.

People do take his fiction scenarios seriously, but they are sometimes fantasy in their descriptions of people's responses to change. It would be interesting to see him build a story incorporating themes from actual research on communities and people in crisis.

Alison said...

World Made By Hand.
Been a while since I read it but as I recall - the women are from Little House on the Prairie; the men from some spaghetti western. Once I got over that, I enjoyed it as a story about those mens' struggle to adapt to a smaller, more immediate world in which there was no certainty of shared consensus what the new rules of survival were. A gritty but loosening world.

I wanted to like his veering off into the mystical at the end, as if the characters' precarious hold on their worldview had made room for it to seep in, but by the time the psychic hive woman showed up, he'd lost me.

Boris said...

Alison, I think the sequel centres on the psychic cake-eating hive woman. I read WMBH too and agree. I found his style a little lacking at times. A better writer might have taken story line and made it much more appealing. The hive woman, if I recall, is a device for demonstrating something about other knowledges that are drowned out in modernity's noise. This could have been done without the vulgar tackiness of a cake-eating queen.

I think he makes a good argument about broad structural shifts in post-oil modes of living and maybe he should stick to that. That said, I usually find him too abrasive my tastes, and his social views are very rightwing: patriarchal, pro-Israel and anti-Muslim.