Localness and Tourism in the Bakken Oil Patch

This weekend, I started getting some ideas on paper for a conference paper that I’ll be delivering next month at the Northern Great Plains History Conference on a panel on the Bakken. My paper is part of my ongoing efforts to adapt my research on the Bakken to the larger discussion of global petroculture. Despite the fact that my book with Bret Weber is due out in less than a month, I’m still struggling to argue that tourism represents a useful way for understanding the economy of extractive industries (and perhaps late capitalism in general) in the 21st century. 

At the same time, I’m trying to make my writing style – especially for conference papers – a bit more accessible and maybe even personal. A long time ago, when I started this blog, I really wanted to work on writing in a more conversational way, but over the past decade (!!) the pressure to write for academic publication has slowly wrung any life from the turgid prose that regularly appears on this blog.

[That all being said, and after reflecting on Gary Hall’s Uberfication of the University, maybe there is something to be said for the scientistical and relatively anonymous character of academic prose which forms a barrier between the reader and the individual writer and protects a kind of professionalism in an era where personal brands are taking on growing influence.]

In any case, here’s the start of my paper for the October 5th conference:

“The Bakken Gaze: Tourism, Petroculture, and Modern Views of the Industrial Landscape”

My paper today is part advertisement and part confession. The advertisement is for my soon-to-be-published book, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape, by my friends at North Dakota State University Press.

The confession is a bit more involved, but it involves my efforts to locate my research as the co-PI on the North Dakota Man Camp Project with larger trends in petroculture.

I started writing The Bakken during a little break during my sabbatical year on my blog, as a way to think critically but also playfully about my regular trips to the Bakken from 2012 to 2016. I wanted to find a way to describe they dynamism of the Bakken while taking into account my interest in landscapes, settlement, and the role of the modernity in shaping our world. At the same time, I was working on too many other things and lacked sufficient discipline to produce a sustained, book-length argue, so I wanted to have some ready-made structure for my ideas. To that end, I adopted the from of the traditional tourist guide which offered itineraries for the curious traveler. It gave me a structure into which I could compose my observations.

As I worked on this project more, my thought became increasingly influenced by the anthropologist, Tim Ingold’s idea of taskscapes. Taskscapes are landscapes shaped by repetitive actions that range from the long term indications of intensive agricultural work to the ephemeral paths in the snow linking university buildings in the winter or the momentary bustle of cars and students at the end of a school day. As I poured over my notes and photographs and then visited the Bakken with various drafts of the guide in hand, I became increasingly attuned to the movements associated with the oil industry as well as our movements as we visited workforce housing sites throughout the region. I came to recognize the parallels between our movement in the landscape as we stayed in mancamps, stopped at truck stops and convenience stores and crisscrossed the dirt roads that provide access to wells, drill rigs, pipelines, rail sidings and other work sites in the region. While I’m not particularly inclined to compare our work to closely to that of people working in the Bakken, we nevertheless encounter a taskscape with similar features.

The final bit of focus came from a comment that the series editor, Tom Isern, made on an early draft of our work. He recommended that we avoid using the word “local” to describe longterm residents of the Bakken. This was, in some ways, the final piece of the puzzle for me as it pushed me to think about the nature of localness in the Bakken. As a scholar who regularly studies communities and landscapes associated with the pre-modern world (particularly Greek and Roman antiquity), I associated localness with having a sense of place in the landscape. For me, intense familiarity conferred a kind of intimacy that made space into place and connected a community or an individual to a particular landscape. The sense of place is key to being local.

Critics of the modern world have questioned whether this kind of place-making is still possible. The most famous expression of this is Marc Auge’s concept of non-places. Auge argued that non-places were characteristic of super-modernity. They are uniform, generic, independent of the particularities of culture or geography, and limit in substantial ways the development of an “organic social life.” While these may seem deeply negative traits of the modern world (and, indeed, Auge saw them as such), they are also some of the very features that allow diverse communities and groups to integrate. My use of the word “local” to describe long-time residents of the Bakken effectively separated these people from the modern world of oil boom. I located them in place, whereas the rest of the landscape that our book described was anchored in the time of taskscape.

The shift from space – that is localness – as a defining feature of communities in the Bakken to the more universal measure of time reflects a long-standing desire for communities to be modern. (A cynic might even go so far to suggest that the presence of indigenous communities in the region with identities deeply connected to a particular spatial context (as is evident in the meaning of the word indigenous) offered a racial motivation for avoiding the term “local.”) In a world that is increasingly emphasizing the global, being local is a liability.

More to the point, the long-term white, European communities in the Bakken are, to some extent, the product of the same forces that created the most recent oil boom. In the late-19th century, coal powered trains opened the prairie to organized settlements and town popped up (and disappeared) across a neatly organized grid. The names of towns preserve not some archaic sense of place, but the names of railroad magnates and promoters. The difference between the residents of these towns and the new arrival to work in the Bakken boom is primarily temporal. Both groups were depended upon fossil fuels, produced for markets distant from the region, and experienced the contingencies of the global economy, and both groups inscribed the landscape with marks of modernity. By eliminating the term “local” from our guide to the Bakken, we conflated the experience of long-term residents with folks who came to the Bakken in the most recent boom.

This is bring us to tourists and tourism…

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