Some Fragments on Time and Place in the Bakken

I had the real pleasure of listening to my colleague Sebastian Braun present some of his research in the Bakken last night. His paper looked at the complex relationship between global capital, extractive industries, and local (and, particularly, indigenous) communities in the Bakken. The talk was good and well attended. The conversation afterward was thought provoking.

Since this is stuff that I’ve been working on lately, I thought I’d write down some of my ideas in as straightforward a way as possible here.

It was particularly useful to hear Sebastian talk about the relationship between the Bakken oil play, the frontier, and the local experience. This has become one of the more vexing issues in my recent efforts to articulate the impact of workforce housing (i.e. man camps) on the region and our understanding of global trends in settlement in the 21st century. 

So far, I’ve argued, like Sebastian, that the Bakken represents both a historical and a contemporary frontier. Historically, Western North Dakota – a semi-arid grassland – never supported a large population, had limited resources available for commodification, and stood well away from established centers of population, industry, and commerce.  This remains true even today. Last night, Sebastian made the interesting point that the contemporary frontier may be as much beneath the ground as across its surface with hydraulic fracturing representing the newest way to commodify natural resources in the region.

Any argument for the Bakken’s peripheral location implies the perspective of the core, but in the 21st century localizing the core is not at all easy to do or clear. The old national cores of the 19th and early 20th century or of the first wave of globalizing capitalism have largely receded from immediate importance (although the Bakken is peripheral to these locations as well). In their place, we have the oddly decentered (and dislocated) cores presented by transnational corporations and their myriad (often obscured) subsidiaries. In short, the core is no longer a particular place, but a concentration of authority, capital, and technology that can be deployed in the periphery very quickly. 

If we can accept that the core is a “non-place” (that is outside of any clearly understandable spatial relationships; a shinny office tower in Houston can be for a company incorporated in Delaware), then the periphery becomes merely the area or field in which the core articulates its authority. Peripheries become non-places too. We have noticed this “on the ground” in the Bakken as Type 1 man camps tend to be nondescript modular units that are as at home on the North Dakota prairie as in anywhere in the world (or are equally alien in all places). The same might be said for the massive drill rigs that can be disassembled, shipped around the world, and reassembled for their task and operated by the same crew. 

The collapse of place is vexing for the archaeologist who assume that social relations occupy recognizable spatial perimeters and transform “space” (which is empty) into “place” which has meaning. The place making exercise also has a temporal dimension in that it relies on time to deny the contemporaneity of object in order to make it accessible for study. This temporal displacement is typically the first step in the historical or archaeological project. We have to recognize something as an object of study and “space” must become place (that is, instilled with social, historical, temporal or other relations) to be knowable.

Traditionally, the work of the nation played a central role in creating places even if it was the nation as refracted through local agents. And the disciplines of archaeology and history developed in parallel (and in collusion with) the nation and emphasized and contributed to similar place-making activities. In other words, history and archaeology are very good at making meaning from place, but not as good at understanding the transnational non-places at the contemporary periphery.

This is where Sebastian’s talk last night really got my attention. When I asked something along these lines, he pointed out that people still worked, lived, loved, and played in the Bakken. These individuals have agency within a world that struggles against the commodification of everything and the alienating spread of the new core. So the ongoing lives of people in the Bakken – from the contingent workforce to the longtime residents – present a desperate strategy to stability their own places. 

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