Writing Wednesday: The Bakken Gaze: Tourism, Petroculture, and Modern Views of the Industrial Landscape

I’m continuing to work on my paper for next week’s Northern Great Plains History Conference. I started the paper with a little introduction on Monday, and here’s the second part of it.

With any luck, I can get this wrapped up over the weekend… stay tuned:

“The Bakken Gaze: Tourism, Petroculture, and Modern Views of the Industrial Landscape” (part 2)

This is bring us to tourists and tourism. The same processes that opened Western North Dakota to white, European settlement, also created the modern tourist. The industrial revolution, propelled by the increased use of fossil fuels, transformed the economic landscape of Britain and the U.S. by producing a growing and prosperous middle class. The middle class increasingly committed their surplus capital to enjoying the industrial improvements in transportation via rail and steamship and This produced a growing sense of cosmopolitanism among the middle-class and introduced a world where – to use David Harvey’s observation – the speed of travel and production increasingly compressed space. For the modern tourist, the world was becoming both smaller and more familiar.

The tourist guide became a vital traveling companion for the modern tourist. It organized the chaotic world outside the train station or port into well-defined sites and experiences. Along with the tourist guide came hotels, resorts, and conveniences designed to offer a safe and controlled vantage point for the tourist to survey the world. The railroad brought late 19th and early 20th century tourists to the American west where they could experience nature from the comfort of well-appointed cabins or chalet style hotels that sprung up around the newly-designed national parks. As our contemporary world continues to shrink, we encounter the experience of industrial travel in the familiarity of the modern airport which represents the quintessential example of Marc Auge’s concept of non-places. These liminal, interstitial spaces designed to facility familiar movement is likewise expressed in the landscape of the modern suburb which is defined by its connectivity and convenience. Connected to the urban core by a tangle of highways, dotted with tidy mass transit stops, and replete with anonymous sounding subdivisions, strip malls, and manicured lawns, the experience of suburban life is eliminates the need for localness in the name of familiar convenience. 

At the same time, even the most modern tourist continues to crave the experience of authenticity even if it remains neatly bounded by familiar conveniences. In fact, this tension between convenience and authenticity defined the modernizing character of the tourists’ gaze and affirmed the cosmopolitan position of the tourist and the superiority of the modern world. In the 20th century world, the experience of authenticity might be as limited as a conveniently choreographed luau on the carefully maintained lawn of a Hawaiian resort or as adventurous as a night in a well-prepared Berber tent in the Moroccan desert. The tourist might also find authenticity in their encounters below the surface of their own modern life. World Fairs, for example, represented the quintessential tourist destination of the modern world, allowed the casual visitor a glimpse into the workings of the industrial age through exhibitions for modern manufacturing and technologies. 

Industrial tourism exposed the tourist to authenticity by revealing the hidden mechanisms through which the modern world functioned. The wonders of technology presented at world fairs became a staple of tours of manufacturing facilities and plants as well as monumental industrial installations like the Hoover Dam. In the late-20th century, the rise in ecotourism or even poorism which leads the environmentally conscious or “ethically woke” tourists to experience authentic nature or human experiences ostensibly foreign from their own. As numerous critics have pointed out, the quest for authenticity in the modern world makes for some bizarre ethical compromises.

To return to our tourist guide to the Bakken… 

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