Mobility and North Dakota

This weekend, I binge read Tim Cresswell’s On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World (Routledge 2006). I was familiar with his Place: A Short Introduction which I read a few years back alongside Raymond Williams’ Border Country. The book is as good an introduction to mobility as I’ve ever read, and it should be required reading for anyone living in North Dakota.

The introduction is particularly useful for understanding the social issues facing the state of North Dakota. He makes clear that mobility is both a product of modernity, but also something that – for both historical and political reasons – seen as a threat. For example, the tourist or the mobile worker is expected element of the modern world where travel for work or pleasure is common. At the same time, there persists a distrust of certain kinds of mobility. Refugees, vagrants, and “drifters” continue to be stigmatized as individuals who lack commitment to a place. Cresswell recognizes mobility then as a central and politically charged element in the discourse of modernity and explores its intersection with such diverse expressions as dance, photography, airport architecture, and women’s suffrage. Mobility becomes a way of talking about the contradictions that core of modern experience and the impetus to move embodies both the pace of modern capital (and Marx’s (and David Harvey’s) that time obliterates space) and the growth of what many critics have called the carceral landscape (riffing as it were on Foucault’s carceral state).

Cresswell could have just as easily considered the role of fossil fuels in the construction of modern mobility. They both make travel and the shrinking of the world possible and require a kind of urgent globalization as extractive industries relentlessly search for new resources. The need to move fossil fuels – oil, gas, and coal – from the ground to refineries and markets has attracted attention lately. In some ways the movement of fossil fuels via pipeline, train, truck, and ship reflect another aspect of their problematic character in the modern world.

Here in North Dakota, the intersection of mobility, politics, and fossil fuels demonstrates the political uses of mobility in our modern discourse. Recently, supporters of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) have called the protestors camped at Cannon Ball river “outside agitators” and using their purported lack of connection to the place as a way of delegitimizing their protests. At the same time, the (albeit somewhat faded) vitality of the oil industry in western North Dakota relies on workers from outside the region to extract the oil, build the pipelines, and maintain the infrastructure in the Bakken oil patch. These workers, of course, are not universally embraced as the antithesis of outside agitators and often seen as threats to the stable life in the small rural communities across the western part of the state. In an effort to replace the mobile workforce with a more permanent one, community leaders have resisted and discouraged the use of crew and man camps in the region preferring to invest in the construction of houses, condominiums, and apartments. In sum, outside agitators and workers are threats even if they contribute in a meaningful way to the economic or ecological future of the state. The risk, it seems, is in their mobility tempered by political expediency.

As an aside, the media can enjoy the irony of the DAPL protesters enduring the polar vortex in their temporary protest camp which for some embodies the a fleeting nature of the protest in the face of the inevitability of the pipeline. The same media was far less attentive, smug, and ironic in their reporting of oil workers huddled in substandard housing while working to extract oil that keeps so much of the country warm. 

My experience of the Bakken oil patch was one of unmitigated movement and I chose the genre of the tourist guide to represent this sense of movement in the landscape. I wish I had been more familiar with Cresswell’s book while I was working on the guide!

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