The Bakken, Petroculture, and the Anthropocene

Last week, like many folks, I’ve been thinking a good bit about science and the humanities. The march for science has prompted some of this, but so has some recent reading on petroculture and the Anthropocene for my graduate historiography seminar. I read Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement (2016); Bob Johnson’s Carbon Nation: Fossil Fuels in the Making of American Culture (2014); Dipesh Chakrabarty’s seminal “Climate of History: Four Theses,”; Bruno Latour’s “Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene,” and Timothy LeCain’s “Against the Anthropocene: A Neo-Materialist Perspective.”

All of these are fine works by people a good bit smarter than me. 

They’re fueling my thoughts right now on how to bring my long-term research in the Bakken oil patch, which primarily focuses on workforce housing, into a meaningful conversation with recent work on petroculture, agency, and the Anthropocene. It seems like many of these authors write with sweeping perspectives and gestures, and this makes sense because the scale of the Anthropocene and modernism pushes historians to think on both expansive time spans and immersive levels of culture. In particular, they interrogate agency in ways that sever it from the immediacy of human experience. The agency of the Earth, for example, is not something that can always been encountered in a life time, a century, or even a millennium.  Climate change, geology, and even the place and aspect of the Earth in its orbit around the sun contribute to our experience of life at widely varying degrees of immediacy. We may encounter the impact of climate change in our lifetime, but the history of climate change and the role of climate and human actions on shaping our world unfolds over many generations. As several of these scholars have noted, the time spans involved in understanding these phenomena and the complexities of agency alone challenge conventional historical methods.

My work in the Bakken, in contrast, has been much more granular and detailed and focused on a tiny sliver of modernity and petroculture as well as a small window into some of the mechanisms that have contributed to the creation of the Anthropocene. My hope is that by doing this on the local level, we can encounter more readily the intersection of modern labor regimes, domestic practices, work habits (and taskscapes), and technologies (as sophisticated as fracking and as longstanding as railroads). Local perspectives push us to articulate the points of contacts between human and non-human actors in the modern world. Further complicating this is the pace of modernity which accelerates experiences and makes certain moments of interaction particularly ephemeral and generates a tension between the dense networks that allow agents to interact and the episodes of interaction.

My current projects have looked to engage this in two distinct ways:

First, in a book that should appear this fall, I’ve tried to describe the Bakken through the perspective of the tourist. Tourism offers a distinctly modern way of viewing the landscape of petroculture. The imagined tourist to the Bakken participates in a way of viewing (the so-called Tourist Gaze) that relies upon both modern technologies of travel as well as modern ways of organizing space, time, and labor. The neatly organized tourist itineraries punctuated by sites of historical importance and bookended by regular meals, accommodations, and packaged amenities. The Bakken tourist is both within and separate from the world of labor, and this reinforces certain ways of organizing experience that produces divisions between what we can see – an objective reality – and who we are. By making this dichotomy known and apparent, we make the barriers between ourselves and the world susceptible to increased scrutiny. The divisions between the tourist and people, sites, and events that the tourist sees is not so radically different from the division between our gaze as humans and “nature.” And this division has been the target of so many recent critiques of our modern fate and the Anthropocene.     

My research in the Bakken offers that opportunity to bring in human voices, not at the level of society or even in some other meaningful aggregate way, but at the level of the individual. Next year, my colleague Bret Weber will publish a massive collection of interviews with residents of the Bakken. While these interviews are wide ranging and don’t speak to a single moment or issue, they offer an immediately human perspective on petroculture and the mechanisms that have shaped the Anthropocene. If the Bakken provides a circumscribed spatial context to dig deeply into petroculture and place, then the interviews offer a human scale for the interaction between people, extractive industries, and the landscape. The challenge will be to see if I can extract (pun intended!) petroculture and the workings of the Anthropocene at the level of the individual interview and trace our own place in the late modern world in the Bakken workforce.

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