Man Camps as Non-Places

It seems sort of fitting to be sitting in an airport and wondering whether man camps in western North Dakota qualified as non-places. The generic quality of the Type 1 camps, in particular, would find parallels with Marc Augé’s theory that spaces of transience like airports and motorways or generic spaces like shopping malls or hotels that provide experiences that are devoid of any character that would allow someone to identify these spaces as a particular place as distinct in time or space. Airports are the best case study as they adopt an intentionally generic design that is neither familiar nor unfamiliar, they function nearly 24 hours a day in a perpetual twilight, and they typically lack distinct spaces that allow an individual to make a meaningful and persistent connection with his or her surroundings.

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Some of the most generic Type 1 camps share these features in that they have almost no distinguishing features that connect them with their surroundings. As I have noted before the rooms in these camps have few distinguishing features and look like small hotel rooms. The units themselves are regular and monotonous. Interior halls are long and without natural light. Food is served in brightly lit dinning halls and many provide food around the clock to accommodate the various shifts. They are even set on a bed of gravel to isolate the residents from the mud, snow, and earth of the North Dakota prairie.

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Adding to this, is the transient nature of residents who tend to pass through Type 1 camps while they work for three or four weeks straight and then return home or to at least some place else. David Harvey in his Condition of Postmodernity recognized these kinds of flexible spaces as necessary to support the unfettered flow of global capital in our late modern (or “supermodern” in Augé’s terminology) age.

As I sit in the Peoria airport, looking at the attractive, but otherwise bland concourse and watching uncomfortable and fatigues travelers make the best of their surroundings, I can’t help think of the experience of working the Bakken and living in a Type 1 camp. My colleagues who have been more attentive to the human (rather than material) aspects of life in the Bakken remarked consistently on the austerity of life in Type 1 camps. Reflecting on their comments, I wonder whether the idea of non-place captures some of the experiences that my colleagues articulated.

This is my 50th post on the North Dakota Man Camp Project, for more on our research, go here.

One Comment

  1. W. Phillip Strand April 18, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Interesting presentation of the concept of the “non-place.” As I considered Bill’s description of an airport (great example of a non-place), my mind ran to the rather obvious contrasts of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century passenger rail stations and termini.

    If memory serves, the last built of these monumental edifices was the Los Angeles Union Station completed in 1932. The contrast (to a non-place such as an airport) is even more striking when one adds to the mix Grand Central Terminal (NYC), Chicago’s Union Station, and Washington, D.C.’s Union Station (all completed well before 1932), all very clearly “places.”

    Can one link a “public space” only with a non, non-place? Were there non-places in antiquity? The Byzantine East? Medieval Europe?

    Great article, Bill! Thank you…
    Phil Strand

    Reply

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