Bakken Babylon

Over the weekend, I started working on a paper that I hope to submit to a special section of Near Eastern Archaeology edited by Catherine Kearns and Ömür Harmansah on the topic of archaeology and climate change in the Middle East. It is based on a panel that I contributed to at the ASOR annual meeting a in 2020. Here’s a fairly late version of that paper.

For the published version, though, I want to do something more creative and exploratory. Rather than arguing that North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch and the Middle East share certain characteristics, features, and even individuals and that this makes them similar, I want to argue that they are, in some sense, the same place. To do this, I want to playfully invoke Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia and weave a kind of story about its main character Dr. Hamid Parsani giving a paper in Fargo. In this paper, he argues, provocatively, that Babylon has become dislodged from its spatial confines and reappeared at least momentarily in North Dakota. The paper will go along invoking evidence that Babylon itself is not only on the move, but that understanding this allows us today to construct new ways of thinking about climate change that recognize its global scope. 

Here’s what I’ve written so far:

At a conference convened in Fargo, North Dakota at l’Institut pour l’étude du Dakota du Nord several years ago, the controversial Iranian academic Dr. Hamid Parsani opined the global climate change confirmed an obscure theory that his research had pointed toward many years before: the Bakken and Babylon shared more than certain linguistic affinities. Dr. Parsani indicated that a careful reading of Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia revealed that oil itself had the capacity to lubricate narrations including those of cartography:

“The cartography of oil as an omnipresent entity narrates the dynamics of planetary events. Oil is the undercurrent of all narrations, not only the political but also that of the ethics of life on earth.”

The capacity of oil to fuel, pun intended, petropunk interpretations of the Bakken informed by the geographical theories proposed by radical cartographers such as Renee Gladman and China Mieville. Their works have concerned themselves with certain cartographic irregularities where two or more places exist simultaneously in the same space or, alternately, places themselves have become completely unmoored from their spatial coordinates. In some cases, populations have simply adapted to these situations such as the situation in Beszel/Ul Quoma where the residents of two cities superimposed on one another have simply learned to “unsee” one another during their everyday lives and the state otherwise maintains the spatial boundaries that persist between places associated with one or the other city. In the case of Ravicka, the occasional tendency of places to become dislodged from their spatial coordinates entirely has led to the development of state entities tasked with documenting these situations. While Dr. Parsani’s work did not address these situations directly, it is seems likely that the proliferation of oil over the last century has lubricated this unprecedented spatial dynamism and after first reinforcing the political, cultural, and topographic boundaries of places has dissolved them. In this situation Babylon and the Bakken despite the differences between their locations in the historical narratives that support conventional political geographies have become so thoroughly elided to be indistinguishable in many ways.

This has significant consequences, of course, for our understanding of global warming, climate change, and archaeological interventions designed to understand the past, present, and future of these processes.

Parsani’s paper began with the familiar refrain that the place of Babylon had become unmoored by antiquity and this unmooring became all the more visible during the events of the two Iraq wars. As Erin Runions has shown these wars combined figurative and literal concepts of Babylon to inspire messianic and popular support for the US invasion. The opulence and immorality associated with Hebrew Bible’s description of the Neo-Assyrian city of Babylon on the Euphrates River in central Iraq which was the site of the Babylonian Exile, had become secondary to the imposing figure of the Whore of Babylon whose appearance in the Book of Revelation indicated that the place of Babylon has already broken free from its spatial confines and occupied Rome and Jerusalem. The appearance of a beast with ten horns and seven heads at the end of days would destroy the whore of Babylon and reduce its city.

By the 21st century, Babylon had taken on many guises. It had become the handmaiden of modernity, capitalism, and political violence, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a kind of messianic metaphor for the force of evil in the world. Thus, in the Iraq War, the moralizing and messianic message found a home in the stories of the abuses of Saddam Hussain’s Bathist government in Iraq and this further wrenched the place of Babylon free from its Mesopotamian origins. That Babylon would end up in Western North Dakota, in the Bakken oil patch of all places, is neither completely unexpected nor entirely implausible.

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