Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The kitsch of survival

with 4 comments

Bomb Shelter

A few weeks ago, The New Yorker published a fascinating article by Evan Osnos on the growing survivalist movement among the very rich. Osnos quotes an unnamed source who estimates that fifty percent of Silicon Valley billionaires have some kind of survival plan in place—an estimate that strikes me, if anything, as a little too low. (As one hedge fund manager is supposed to have said: “What’s the percentage chance that Trump is actually a fascist dictator? Maybe it’s low, but the expected value of having an escape hatch is pretty high.”) Osnos also pays a visit to the Survival Condo Project, a former missile silo near Wichita, Kansas that has been converted into a luxury underground bunker. It includes twelve private apartments, all of which have already been sold, and which prospective residents can decorate to their personal tastes:

We stopped in a condo. Nine-foot ceilings, Wolf range, gas fireplace. “This guy wanted to have a fireplace from his home state”—Connecticut—“so he shipped me the granite,” [developer Larry] Hall said. Another owner, with a home in Bermuda, ordered the walls of his bunker-condo painted in island pastels—orange, green, yellow—but, in close quarters, he found it oppressive. His decorator had to come fix it.

Osnos adds: “The condo walls are fitted with L.E.D. ‘windows’ that show a live video of the prairie above the silo. Owners can opt instead for pine forests or other vistas. One prospective resident from New York City wanted video of Central Park.”

As I read the article’s description of tastefully appointed bunkers with fake windows, it occurred to me that there’s a word that perfectly sums up most forms of survivalism, from the backwoods prepper to the wealthy venture capitalist with a retreat in New Zealand. It’s kitsch. We tend to associate the concept of kitsch with cheapness or tackiness, but on a deeper level, it’s really about providing a superficial emotional release while closing off the possibility of meaningful thought. It offers us sentimental illusions, built on clichés, in the place of real feeling. As the philosopher Roger Scruton has said: “Kitsch is fake art, expressing fake emotions, whose purpose is to deceive the consumer into thinking he feels something deep and serious.” Even more relevant is Milan Kundera’s unforgettable exploration of the subject in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which he observes that kitsch is the defining art form of the totalitarian state and concludes: “Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” This might seem like an odd way to characterize survivalism, which is supposedly a confrontation with the unthinkable, but it’s actually a perfect description. The underling premise of survivalism is that by stocking up on beans and bullets, you can make your existence after the collapse of civilization more tolerable, even pleasant, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. It’s a denial of shit on the most fundamental level, in which a nuclear war causing the incendiary deaths of millions is sentimentalized into a playground for the competent man. And, like all kitsch, it provides a comforting daydream that allows its adherents to avoid more important questions of collective survival.

Family Fallout Shelter

Survivalism has often been dismissed as a form of consumerism, an excuse to play Rambo with expensive guns and toys, but it also embodies a perverse form of nostalgia. The survivalist mindset is usually traced back to the Cold War, in which schoolchildren were trained to duck and cover in their classrooms while the government encouraged their parents to build fallout shelters, and it came into its own as a movement during the hyperinflation and oil shortages of the seventies. In fact, the impulse goes back at least to the days after Pearl Harbor, when an attack on the East or West Coasts seemed like a genuine possibility, leading to blackout drills, volunteer air wardens, and advice on how to prepare for the worst at home. (I have a letter from John W. Campbell to Robert A. Heinlein dated December 12, 1941, in which he talks about turning his basement into a bomb shelter, complete with porch furniture and a lamp powered by a car battery, and coldly evaluates the odds of an air raid being directed at his neighborhood in New Jersey.) It’s significant that World War II was the last conflict in which the prospect of a conventional invasion of the United States—and the practical measures that one would take to prepare for it—was even halfway plausible. Faced with the possibility of the war coming to American shores, households took precautions that were basically reasonable, even if they amounted to a form of wishful thinking. And what’s horrifying is how quickly the same assumptions were channeled toward a nuclear war, an utterly different kind of event that makes nonsense of individual preparations. Survivalism is a type of kitsch that looks back fondly to the times in which a war in the developed world could be fought on a human scale, rather than as an impersonal cataclysm in which the actions of ordinary men and women were rendered wholly meaningless.

Like most kinds of kitsch, survivalism reaches its nadir of tastelessness among the nouveau riche, who have the resources to indulge themselves in ways that most of us can’t afford. (Paul Fussell, in his wonderful book Class, speculated that the American bathroom is the place where the working classes express the fantasy of “What I’d Do If I Were Really Rich,” and you could say much the same thing about a fallout shelter, which is basically a bathroom with cots and canned goods.) And it makes it possible to postpone an uncomfortable confrontation with the real issues. In his article, Osnos interviews one of my heroes, the Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, who gets at the heart of the problem:

[Brand] sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, How do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”

Survivalism ignores these questions, and it also makes it possible for someone like Peter Thiel, who has the ultimate insurance policy in the form of a New Zealand citizenship, to endorse an experiment in which millions of the less fortunate face the literal loss of their insurance. But we shouldn’t be surprised. When you look at the measures that many survivalists take, you find that they aren’t afraid of the bomb, but of other Americans—the looters, the rioters, and the leeches whom they expect to descend after the grid goes down. There’s nothing wrong with making rational preparations for disaster. But it’s only a short step from survival kits to survival kitsch.

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. James Gunn says in his summer SF class that SF authors often have one theme: how to make the world a better place. For Asimov, the world would be a better place if we put telepathic robots with programmable ethics in charge. For Sturgeon, the world would be a better place if we just loved each other a little more. For Heinlein, the world would be a better place if we got out of the way and put the competent men in charge. As you so eloquently observe, “It’s a denial of shit on the most fundamental level, in which a nuclear war causing the incendiary deaths of millions is sentimentalized into a playground for the competent man.” Lord, yes, and as much as I admire Heinlein, his competent man in the form of Hugh Farnham was a real jackass. “Lifeboat rules” was an excuse to bully his son and the others in the shelter. That he (and they) survived is pure luck, but we are lead to believe that we need the omnicompetent men (and it’s usually white men) to save us all from ourselves and the ravening hoards. I like competence, and we need more of it in DC, but there are many types of competence: empathy is too often overlooked. Thanks for this blog post. Provocative as always.

    marieguthrie

    February 8, 2017 at 2:09 pm

  2. @marieguthrie: One of these days, I need to dedicate a whole blog post to Farnham’s Freehold—but I don’t think I’m quite ready to go there yet.

    nevalalee

    February 8, 2017 at 8:53 pm

  3. It’s a complex work, a terribly flawed work. I can give RAH points for the attempt to address race, but to make the obvious pun, he bombed. Too much was too autobiographical (Grace’s alcoholism was based on Leslyn’s alcoholism and mental collapse) and maybe that blurred his thinking. There’s much there to like (construction and stocking of shelter, post-bomb survival, Karen’s death). But the second half of the book….yes, there is much to dissect. There’s an entire article there, and maybe an entire issue of The Heinlein Journal. I would welcome your thoughts when you are ready.

    marieguthrie

    February 9, 2017 at 4:42 pm

  4. @marieguthrie: I like a lot of the first half, and the second half makes more sense if you see it as a response to some of Campbell’s thoughts on slavery. It’s still misconceived, but less inexplicable. But as you say, there’s a whole article to be written there.

    nevalalee

    February 19, 2017 at 8:08 am


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: