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February 21, 2008

Pollan and Taubes and Kunstler

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* Michael Pollan thinks that, where food and eating go, we ought to learn how to trust our instincts. I think that's good advice where art and culture more generally go too.

* Gary Taubes discusses carbs, fat, and bad dietary advice at the Stevens Institute of Technology:

* Standup intellectual James Kunstler takes a break from Peak Oil to deliver a fiery talk about American urbanism and suburbia:



posted by Michael at February 21, 2008


Kunstler sounds like just another city-dwelling elitist using a slightly different, newer dialect.

Ah, but now I caught his reference to Stalin and Pol Pot-- so maybe his dialect isn't that new after all.

His aggressive non-verbals are pretty un-charming too (tone of voice, hand gestures, etc.).

Let's keep this kind of stuff where it belongs, eh? In smoky Parisian cafes, for the purposes of seduction or plain fun.

Posted by: Alan on February 21, 2008 8:10 PM

Something I've wondered on my visits to Sydney: is domestic orthorexia supporting that city's extensive dine-out industry? The affluent who fear the addition of butter, salt, starch etc to their foods at home now get their fix of these things by dining out. When your fridge is full of expensive sludges such as rice-bran oil "spread" and organic, light soy "milk", you need a restaurant!

In my youth I briefly mis-managed and cooked in a popular French restaurant. It was our practice to cook fish, steaks etc in cheap grease, which was then discarded, then sauces/deglazes were finished with plenty of fresh butter, cream etc. No wonder the customers came! They tone things down a bit these days, but the pitch is the same: give 'em what they're not getting at home.

Health food is, of course, unhealthy. Unfermented soy, uncooked bean-sprouts, fussy margarines made from the latest miracle oils, the soaking/cooking water from dried beans...these would be some horrors that come to mind. With these two eyes, I have seen Organic Lite Soy poured into a steaming cup of rich, single-estate Assam. I recently made a cannellini-bean soup for friends. They recoiled visibly when I sprinkled on the parmesan and olive oil. You have to do these things out of sight apparently. Thank god I didn't add freshly sizzled bacon!

And have you noticed that carbon-dioxide is starting to occupy a similar position in the minds of some educated people: something harmless, necessary and abundant is now to perceived as a toxin and is to be avoided and "captured" in all sorts of expensive and fussy ways.

Remind me again what education was for?

Posted by: Robert Townshend on February 21, 2008 8:38 PM

Alan -- Really? Kunstler loses me some when he goes off on Peak Oil, though for all I know he's 100% right about it. But when he talks about the disaster of postwar American development I'm with him 150%. Man, for a rich country we sure have shown a knack in the last 50 years for building ugly. I like his hyperbolic manner too, alternating between rabble-rouser and comedian. He's really good, it seems to me, at getting people to register how they're being treated by buildings and spaces, and what those buildings and spaces are expressing. Many Americans seem not to register such things at all, so I'm glad he's out there driving the basics home so vividly. You didn't chuckle at any of his laugh lines? I could listen to him spritz about architecture for hours ...

Robert - That's a funny comment. Fear of real food ... What a weird development, eh? Do people think they'll live forever if they drink low-fat soymilk? Dish me up a serving of that cannellini bean soup please -- and don't spare the bacon.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 21, 2008 8:57 PM

I know a guy who works at the Fort Leavenworth US Army Command and General Staff College. He claims this is where our next big operation will be. Trying to get resources before the Chinese do. Kunstler makes a compelling Peak Oil case. I just hope we can chug on for another 20 years or so before things get ugly.

It has been seen as a fig leaf for US troops in Africa, which could be poised to defend strategic interests like oil in, for example, Nigeria. In Ghana, the US president tackled the issue even before he was asked about it, saying there were rumours that he was coming here to build military bases - this he described as "baloney". China is busy building bridges and investing in infrastructure across the continent, in return for oil and minerals to fuel its rapidly expanding economy.

Posted by: KC on February 21, 2008 9:51 PM

I think economists would tell you that Kunstler is completely wrong about peak oil and its effect on the US economy. I think its very clear in his writing that his ideas about peak oil are an overblown justification for his other opinions about how society should be run.

But as to urban design - man, if every city official was sent a copy of A Pattern Language and City Comforts and the rest, it won't be a day too soon.

Posted by: cure on February 21, 2008 10:13 PM

That was fantastic. Kunstler just enunciated everything I've been feeling about modernist urban design for the last 35 years. It sucks. I'm a refugee from the big city and I'm not going back.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on February 21, 2008 10:44 PM

Kunstler makes a few good points, but he shouldn't use "Peak Oil" to do it. Almost no one who are actually familiar with petroleum reserves buys it. And I must say, I agree with Mr. Townshend; Kunstler's manner makes me WANT to disagree with him, ever when I agree with what he is saying, and his obvious contempt for ordinary Americans mirrors that of the Urban Renewal fanatics who did so much to ruin America's cities. Give me Jane Jacobs any day...

Posted by: tschafer on February 22, 2008 1:07 PM

Yeah, his manner certainly seems to put some people off. He's deliberately excessive and scathing, of course -- but I guess you either shrink from that or find it great. Interesting to me that Charlton (a performer) enjoys it -- Kunstler himself was a theater major, and he's clearly got a performance thing himself going on. So maybe Charlton enjoys not just the ideas and observations but also appreciates the theater. But maybe people looking for a more even-handed, reasoned-type presentation don't like the way Kunstler carries on.

Anyway, a small point: I'm pretty sure that Kunstler's contempt (such as it is) is meant not for regular people but for the creeps who impose this awful stuff on the rest of us. As for regular people, well, I think Kunstler is certainly exasperated that people don't protest and resist what's being laid on them -- hey, I am too. But I don't think that's contempt. He's working in the Jane Jacobs tradition himself, which is "elite" only if you think that standing up for normal values, traditional pleasures, and healthy growth is "elite." The real elites -- and the ones who are full of contempt for normal life -- are the people who are financing and making the awful buildings and neighborhoods.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 22, 2008 1:40 PM

Oh, Kunstler has lots of contempt for the 'burbs and suburbanites. He'll describe a typical suburban family home, and the people within it, as dysfunctional bordering on psychotic. His portrait of a suburban family vegetating throughout the house while "Skippy" the teenage son is locked in his room polishing his shotgun, gives a sense of his view of the folks who choose to live there.

Still, I laughed as hard as everyone else at "Skippy", so who am I to point a finger?

Posted by: PatrickH on February 22, 2008 3:23 PM

Yeah, PatrickH is right -- that little riff on Skippy with the Uzi and his sister turning tricks across the hall was juvenile and tasteless. It undermines Kunstler's credibility as an arbiter of taste in urban design, too.

Kunstler strikes me as someone who's got the right ideas -- which are traditional enough to be virtually revolutionary in the current environment -- but who doesn't quite have the stones needed to avoid sucking up to his terribly 'sophisticated' audience at TED.

But hey, I agree with Michael on the big picture: the planning scene is so dire that real reform can use every voice it gets, especially at places like TED. And his visuals are devastating: those 'F-you' blank walls at street level are everywhere, and they are brutal expressions of contempt for the little guy. It's too bad Kunstler can't see how his dismissive tone unintentionally echoes that same contempt.

Posted by: mr tall on February 22, 2008 9:05 PM

I really disagree about the contempt thing. Kunstler and his books are populist (though informed-populist) reactions *against* elite misbehavior. He's been an important voice in this battle for some decades. If he satirizes what our landscape has become and what our spaces and buildings have done to us, that's not out of contempt for Skippy and his trick-turning sister, it's out of a vision of what could be. It's a bit of a misapprehension that some people have that satirists (at least the good ones) have contempt for their subject matter. They usually care about it very deeply. Besides, Kunstler is hypervivid, and that's good -- he's got a powerful gift for making people feel and register how they're being treated by the built environment. He doesn't do architecture "apprecatiation." If he were more moderated and polite, he'd never come up with the line about the blank walls saying "fuck you." How would you have him demonstrate the effects of strip malls and barren suburbs on people? I mean, junk food, TV, and awful spaces do have an effect on people. Saying so (and then being funny about it) isn't expressing contempt for those people, it's showing sympathy, if of a rough sort.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 23, 2008 5:17 AM

Hmmmm. No problem with the 'F-you' line; that's effective and true. But that suburbia riff still smells to me of 'these little people don't know what's good for them anyway'. I'm not and have never been a suburbanite, so I don't think I'm being personally biased here . . . .

Michael, you've got a lot more Kunstler context in which to situate his remarks; this talk was my first encounter with his ideas/presentation.

But don't you think he'd be even more effective rhetorically if he acknowledged and emphasized the humanity of the people stuck in those landscapes he deplores? Then his satire could focus on targets who really deserve it.

I suppose you could say he's got to satirize the whole culture that both produces and seeks out life in suburbia, but man, I don't know how many converts out in the burbs themselves he'll ever gain with this approach. Still seems to me he's appealing to elites at the expense of the ignorant proles who don't know better than to live stupid.

Posted by: mr tall on February 23, 2008 9:44 AM

Mr. Tall -- Yeah, I think that's a good point. Kunstler has done an amazing job of getting a lot of people to open their eyes to their environment, and wake up to how they're being crapped on (and what that can do to them), but it'd sure be nice if he could reach even more. It's a toughie, though ... Some people are zombies, some are morons, some are defensive, some simply have no interest. And certainly people ought to be allowed to make their own choices. But what if lots of them are brutalized into stupidity, unawareness, or insensitivity? I mean, there are always people who can't or won't be reached for some reason, and I guess that's OK, such is life, etc. For the rest: There has to be a little cell in there that resonates to start with. Assuming it's there: Do you nourish it? Challenge it? Seduce it? Tease it? Beats me. Kunstler seems to think that if he challenges it and slaps it around some it'll spring to life. That probably works for some people and doesn't work for many more. Any thoughts about how someone might reach those more people and get them to wake up a bit to their environments? I often wish local newspapers would run columns by tough architecture reviewers -- but of course most candidates for such jobs are architecture-establishment propagandists ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 24, 2008 12:20 AM

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