Fragments on the Tourist Guide

I had to write up a little bit of the backstory for my forthcoming Bakken book, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape. (Fargo 2017).

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It’s a bit conversational:

This book has a messy backstory. It derives fundamentally from the North Dakota Mancamp Project which is a cross disciplinary project focused on documenting the social and material context for workforce housing in the Bakken. Over 5 years we visited Western North Dakota regularly, talked to people there, wrote about our experiences, and made arguments for the character of housing in the 21st century and in extractive industries. Our familiarity with the Bakken led to numerous inquiries from the media, other scholars, and the general public concerning both our work and the Bakken more broadly.

One morning, while writing my blog, I decided just to start writing a tourist guide to the Bakken. This was a genuinely spontaneous project in which the writing preceded any real thinking about what this might entail or even the purpose of the book. Over a few months, on the trusty blog and then on the longform writing site of Medium, I wrote the basic narrative of this guide and got feedback from people both in the region and around the world.

At the same time this was taking shape, I was working with Kyle Conway to produce the edited volume, The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota. I was also working on a paper for Historical Archaeology that set out some of the main conclusions from our work in the Bakken. These two projects helped me solidify the idea that my work in the Bakken was both about the place, that is Western North Dakota, but also about the idea of modernity and something that scholars have increasingly called “petroculture.”

The realization that I was really thinking and writing about the modern world, rather than just the Bakken, and tourism represents this key element in the making of the modern world. In fact, the “tourist gaze,” to use John Urry’s famous phrase, represented as vital an aspect to creating the modern world as the rise of fossil fuels. In fact, the two are deeply intertwined with our modern way of viewing the world and tourism being propelled forward first by steam and then oil powered vehicles which allowed the new middle class to enter a world of travel and leisure. This allowed the middle class to expand the world that they called their own through both recognizing themselves in others around the globe, but also subordinating what they saw to the realm of experience, exoticism, and leisure.

Applying the lens of tourism to the Bakken, then, offers an opportunity to see the modern world as if it were a strange place filled with wonder. The Bakken embodies our age of fossil fuels and tourism while hinting at a future age of hypermobility set against oft-competing views of apocalyptic and nostalgic dreamscape. 

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