Bakken Babylon: Stegner, Barger, and Junger

Last week, I started to work on a little article for a special section of Near Eastern Archaeology that proposed a contemporary spatial displacement where Babylon, broadly construed, and the Bakken oil patch of western North Dakota somehow became transposed. I propose that this kind of spatial ambiguity is anticipated, in part, by works of fiction that have recently come to recognize the problems with geography that beset the modern world, and, in part, by Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia which hints that oil and dust might have certain agential powers designed to resist and even subvert the ambition of the imperialist territorial state.

I posted a draft of the first part of the paper here already

The connection between the Bakken and Babylon is necessarily imprecise as is so often the case in situations of spatial displacement, but this doesn’t mean that there aren’t historical situations that anticipated the current conditions. The most intriguing of these relates to the American author and historian Wallace Stegner who not only lived in North Dakota for a time as a child, presumably the city of Minot on the outskirts of the Bakken, but also wrote an account of the discover of oil in Saudi Arabia: Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil. The American oil company ARAMCO funded Stegner’s work in 1956 as an effort to promote an image of the company as a force for development in the Middle East and as a harbinger of new forms of hegemony that relied less on old models of military or diplomatic imperialism and more on the promotion the mutual, if asymmetrical, benefits of capitalism. By the mid-1950s, Stegner had established himself as a sensitive interpreter of the arid landscapes of the American West, and in 1954 had published his classic account of John Wesley Powell’s expedition down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon. These credentials appealed to ARAMCO executives who enticed Stegner to write a literary history of the discovery of oil in the Arabian peninsula. 

Among the characters features in Discovery! was Thomas Barger, who grew up in Linton, North Dakota and studied geology at the University of North Dakota. After graduation, he set out to Saudi Arabia in 1938 where he worked for Standard Oil and Aramco as a geologist. During this time, his team discovered the massive Ghawar oil field which has accounted for nearly 50% of Aramco’s oil production. Barger goes on to become the CEO of Aramco in the 1960s. He’s not the only North Dakotan involved with Aramco. Frank Jungers served as president and CEO of the company from 1971 to 1978 during which time the company transitioned from American ownership to ownership by the Saudi Arabian government.

The connection between North Dakota and the world’s largest oil company may well be coincidental, but the development of the Bakken oil patch certainly presented a shadowy parallel to the situation in the Middle East. While the 1970s boom in North Dakota almost certainly represented a response to the 1970s OPEC embargo which sought to penalize countries who supported Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The 1950s North Dakota boom was likely stimulated by nationalization of the Iranian and Iraqi oil industries in the early 1950s and growing demands by the Saudi government to share profits and control over Aramco profits. 

Thus, on an individual level and an economic and political level the history of North Dakota and its oil industry seems oddly entangled with the oil industry in the Middle East. The delicate threads that trace the global reach of oil binds the arid landscape of the Northern Plains to the oil rich formations of the Persian Gulf.

These strands are significant for the archaeology of climate change because they demonstrate how traditional practices in archaeology with their commitment to spatially defined sites, cultures, nations, and regions, encounter challenges when faced with places that follow the flow of oil. Negarestani’s Dr. Hamid Parsani recognized the relationship between nomadism and oil and how oil provided a conduit through which desert-nomadism follows. The practices of contemporary nomadism, traced in preliminary and inadequate ways by such works as Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland (2017), define both the landscape created by the Bakken oil boom and the traditional movement of desert-nomad.

The recognition of new petrolandscapes or petroleumscapes defined by the movement of oil and the movement of people create new topographies and places that defy conventional spatial arrangements. These new landscapes in some ways anticipate the topographies, geographies, and ecologies that will suffer more directly from the impacts of global climate change.

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