Oil and Tourism in the Bakken

I learned last week that my Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch has been accepted for publication. It received two more or less positive peer reviews, a good editorial review, and the endorsement of an established, but up-and-coming press. 

I now have about a month to make some serious revisions to the manuscript and to prepare maps for each of the seven tourist routes through the Bakken. The biggest challenge will be to revise the final section of the guide which is a more scholarly treatment of landscapes, tourism, and archaeology. In keeping with ideas that I began to hash out in my work on “slow archaeology,” I focused on the intersection of archaeology and modernity but instead of relating it archaeological methods, I consider how archaeology can help us to understand the dynamic landscape of the Bakken.

I make this move using a bit of puckish trickeration. Archaeology intersects with tourism to transform the past into our modern concept of heritage, which can then be commodified and monetized. This parallels the role extractive industries play in transforming geological formations into fossil fuels available for the market. Tourism binds the two together as the Bakken landscape – for both the tourist and worker – depends on oil to structure our interaction with it. 

I recent book titled After Oil from the Petrocultures group at the University of Alberta emphasizes the link between oil and the foundation of modern society. Oil is not just another commodity or resource, but also a key structuring element in our economy, political culture, and society. For the conclusion of my book, I play with Dean MacCannell’s idea that tourism (particularly self-guided tourism) provided a quintessentially modern way to organize bourgeois dominion of the world through the creation of highly mobile tourist class, and mash it up with growing interest in the archaeology of the modern (and even contemporary) world. Tourism in the Bakken (and, perhaps more broadly, industrial tourism) offers the tourist a chance to subject their own world to the critical scrutiny of the “tourist’s gaze.” Through this process, the Bakken gains a kind of authenticity – produced ironically from the tourist expectation that their encounters with the wider world exist outside the influence of tourism. In other words, tourism, particularly in places where tourists are not expected, plays directly to our modern, Western, 21st-century ways of viewing the world. What’s more exciting is that by authorizing this kind of industrial, contemporary tourism, we’re offering glimpse of the founding acts of modernity in the production of fossil fuels. Without oil, tourism, the tourist class, and our modern world would not be possible.

By re-appropriating the founding moment of modernity through the tourist gaze, we confront the complexities and contradictions necessary to produce the energy that our world – including the act of tourism – requires. In other words, we creating a way for modernity to look at itself in the mirror. 

These ideas are complex and require a familiarity with both the discourse of modernity and the more specialized critiques of industrial archaeology, archaeology of the contemporary world, and tourism. The series editor requested that I revise the final section of the book significantly and, instead of offering an academic critique, make it as accessible to a wide audience as the rest of the book. After a bit of grumbling (to myself) I decided to start that process this weekend. Keep an eye out for revised and clarified text!

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