Writing Wednesday: Some Fragments

I’m juggling a few projects lately and that always keeps me on my toes and excited to get to work in the morning.

Right now, I’m working with Rachael Kiddey to edit the inaugural volume in the CHAT book series. It’s a collection of papers from festivalCHAT which was an online conference held in 2020. I’m also finishing a book review that’s probably due October 1, and most importantly, I’m finishing revisions on a paper that I wrote about the “Bakken Babylon” for a special section to appear next year in Near Eastern Archaeology on the archaeology of climate change.

One of the critiques of this paper was that it was a bit hard to understand what I was trying to do. While I saw this as a feature, the editors of the special section suggested that it might be understood as a “bug” by the audience of NEA who might not expect a contribution that blurs the line between fiction and criticism. This was a fair observation and I decided to add an introductory paragraph that sets up a bit more explicitly what I was trying to do.

Here’s the new introduction and this introduction is followed by a link to the paper as it now stands.

This article is an experiment. Its origins are in my decades of work in the Bakken oil patch of western North Dakota and my nearly two decades of field work in the Near East, primarily Cyprus, although this work is more clearly influenced by the former than the latter. During our time writing and thinking about the Bakken, we recognized similarities between the materiality of extractive industries in North Dakota and in the contemporary Near East. In some cases, the same companies operated in both places, such as Haliburton and Schlumberger. In other cases, the same individuals worked in both places and recognized the similarities in modular force housing and daily routines. The similarities between extractive industries in both places paralleled the global reach of contemporary climate change. This understanding encouraged us to consider whether modern geographies that support the borders of nation states, our understanding of regional practices and the discipline of archaeology itself impaired our ability to imagine climate change on a global scale. Archaeologists have already contributed to multi-site approaches designed to trace the impact of climate change in different regional contexts. While comparative and multi-site approaches to provide windows into the history and impact of climate change, they often remained linked to regional narratives and economic and demographic networks informed by traditional political geographies.

This paper will explore the potential for more “planetary” approaches to understanding climate change which complicate and obscure modern geography. In fact, this article will embrace certain aspects of the fictional universe imagined in Reza Negarestani’s philosophical novel, Cyclonopedia, which follow the trail of an Iranian archaeologist, Dr. Hamid Parsani, who located oil at the center of a radical cosmology with roots in Near Eastern antiquity. This wildly speculative and painfully obscure text provides a kind of sandbox to where I combine some of my experience in the Bakken with a planetary view of Babylon informed as much by Bruno Latour and Dipesh Chakrabarty view of planet approaches to climate change as the recent fictional works in speculative realism. The goal of this article is less a clear method or even a roughly defined approach and more of an inducement to more radical ways of thinking necessary to understand the industrial landscapes of the contemporary Bakken and Near East within the planetary history and consequences of the looming climate catastrophe.

Here’s a link to Bakken Babylon, part 1 and Bakken Babylon, part 2.

Bakken Babylon, Part 2

Yesterday I posted the first part of an article that I have written about the Bakken as Babylon. It’s for a special section in Near Eastern Archaeology dedicated to the archaeology of climate change and edited by Omur Harmansah and Katie Kearns. In my post yesterday I’ve included links to earlier drafts of this piece. 

As is so often the case with academic writing, this piece is less finished than it is done, but I do hope that it is somewhere in the grey region between thought provoking and entertaining… 

Bakken Babylon (part 2)

Dustism

There was ample motivation to take even more unconventional approaches to understanding the contemporary Bakken oil patch in relation to contemporary climate change. Human created climate change is transforming our world. Extreme weather, rising sea levels, and faltering seasonal patterns are already producing droughts, flooding, and massively destructive storms that capture headlines for their economic and human costs. Less visible, but every bit as significant, is the slow violence inflicted on the other living things on the plant as we accelerate toward an inevitable series of mass extinction events (Nixon 2011). With the existential consequences to anthropogenic climate change well known, it is more than appropriate for archaeology to shift toward understanding planetary networks of agents and situations that created increasingly violent climatic conditions. Thinking about the wide range of agents acting on a planetary level provides us with some insight into how geography and cartography can appear increasingly fluid against the backdrop of planetary crisis.

A brief digression on dustism, a term introduced in Negarstani’s Cyclonopedia, provides a chance to understand how Parsani’s view of material and agency create the affordances required to make the Bakken and Babylon interchangeable. Parsani understood “dustism” as “the earth’s clandestine autonomy” which converts and subverts solar energy, or solar capitalism, into swirling, eddying, and irresistible clouds of matter that resist human control. Parsani argued, perhaps spuriously, that dust in Middle Eastern religions is pure and immaculate and its only when it begins to coalesce and clump that it becomes “an abomination.” This abomination in Parsani’s convoluted cosmology merges the autonomy of the earth with the fluidity of material to produce a mess. This mess — mud, oil, foaming muck — fertilizes the world and supports production, growth, and creation even as the sun continuously seeks to dry it out and return it to inert purity of dust. In this formulation dustism provides a framework that Bradley Fest understands to support a system of hyperobjects including dust and oil which exist beyond the temporal and spatial scale of human existence (Fest 2016). In Parsani’s narrative, the viscosity of oil allows it to become the narrator as it binds the disparate power of dust which seeks to continuously revert to its primordial and timeless form.

This is obviously obscure, but dustism is useful for understanding an archaeology of contemporary climate change. It embodies the “radical materialism” (Boscagli 2014) necessary for apprehending systems that operate in ways that remain unpredictable. Dustism and dust itself, like oil, lubricates the narratives that connects North Dakota’s Bakken to Babylon. The ubiquity of dust in the Bakken has, of course, attracted scientific research. One the one hand, the Bakken and Three Forks deposits of shale oil likely represent organic material trapped beneath thin layers of sand deposited by Quaternary dust storms. In contemporary North Dakota, truck traffic creates billowing dust clouds that mark the path of the region’s straight section line roads. Research during the height of the oil boom documented the impact of dust associated with oil development on vegetation, including crops, near roads as well as working conditions in a region long characterized as having three season: snow, mud, and dust.

Dust does not just operate at the scale of geological time and the contemporary in North Dakota. Dust serves as a historical link between the Bakken and the Middle East. For example, Frank Jungers, the North Dakota born Aramco (Arabian-American Oil Company) executive started his memoir which tells the story of his journey to Saudi Arabia and his future career, on his family’s Regent, North Dakota farm amid the swirling storms of the 1930s dust bowl (Jungers 2014). He compares the dust that ended his North Dakota childhood and sent him west to Oregon to the dust of Arabian deserts and framed his career in the oil industry. As Parsani would say: from dust to dust.

A parallel trajectory appears in Wallace Stegner’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), which opens in North Dakota. Stegner spent part of his childhood in North Dakota on the edges of the future Bakken oil patch. The novel’s main character, Elsa, described the main street of the town of Hardanger as “a river of fine powder.” Dust punctuates the early pages of the novel and defines the forlorn town, the hard ground of the North Dakota prairie, and the footsteps of Elsa’s future husband, Bo Mason, at the baseball diamond. Whether Stegner deliberately anticipated Parsani’s concept of “dustism” or not remains unclear, but the appearance of dust early in the novel emphasizes Elsa purity and innocence. Stegner seems to understand dusts’ ability to transition from pure to toxic after a stranger offering to pay for his drink in gold dust inspires Bo Mason to embark on his nomadic journey throughout the American West in search of wealth and status. Dust is more than a metaphor in Stegner’s fictional town or in Junger’s life, and is as ubiquitous a feature in the Bakken oil patch as in Parsani’s Babylon.

For Jungers and Parsani and as we will see, Stegner, the combination of dust and oil contribute to the formation of self-organizing assemblages. These assemblages are global in scale and draw both human and non-human actors into their orbits. They also accelerate a kind of persistent nomadism that both reflects the geopolitical instability created by global climate change and relies on the mobility of populations that coalesce around the tension between dust and oil. Parsani recognizes the petro-nomads who travel from oil well to oil well drawn by oil. To their number, we might add another North Dakotan and Aramco executive, Thomas Barger whose journey from North Dakota to the Arabian peninsula in the 1930s and then from desert outpost to desert outpost likewise followed the lure of oil (Barger 2000). In the 20th and 21st century Bakken the petro-nomads likewise coalesced around the sources of oil and sought to navigate the dust from rural byways, agricultural harvests, and droughts that seems constantly to escape control. It is worth noting that there has been an outpouring of recent scholarship on dust in the Bakken that seems to appear as if to resist or even challenge the flow of oil and the arrival of the petro-nomads.

Petro-Nomadism

Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain tells the story of Bo Mason’s nomadic search for prosperity and the American dream and offers a framework for his account of the discover of oil in Saudi Arabia: Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil. (Salameh 2019; Vitalis 2007) 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 featured in Discovery! was Thomas Barger. Barger 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 embraced life as petro-nomads and he traded the dust of small town Linton for the dust of the Arabian desert. The results of his nomadism was a version of the proverbial Big Rock Candy Mountain of Stegner’s great American novel: 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 and paved the way for another North Dakotan, Frank Jungers, whose dusty childhood in North Dakota led him to serve as president and CEO of the company from 1971 to 1978. 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. 

A peripatetic, petro-nomad, Thomas Barger anticipates the recursive arrival of the contemporary Bakken nomad who came to Western North Dakota in the second decade of the 21st century to develop its oil fields. Parsani’s Middle Eastern petro-nomads point to the rise in late-20th-century nomadism on a global scale critiqued in the US as “nomadland” and globally marked by the proliferation of camps and detention centers. A critical engagement with Parsani’s dustism and petro-nomadism, historical connections, and the capacity of oil to create viscous new geographies sustains the conflation of North Dakota with the Middle East and perhaps more specifically Babylon. The planetary distribution of oil and dust supports the entanglement of North Dakota’s oil industry with the oil industry in the Middle East. Oil and dust bind the arid landscape of the Northern Plains to the oil rich formations of the Persian Gulf. Oil lubricates the movement of dust-covered petro-nomads and the narratives the we tell about them.

Conclusion

Dr. Hamid Parsani’s talk proposed new forms of geography that leveraged new forms of narrative lubricated by the oil, traced by petro-nomads, and saturated with dust. These new ways of thinking about the relationship between oil and space reflects the planetary scale of contemporary petroculture and informs how we approach history and archaeology. These new narratives break down the modern geographies that structure archaeology and define regions such as the Near East. In its place have are emerging new geographies where once distinct places disappear, shift, and superimpose themselves amid a contemporary cartography of climatic crisis. To confront this condition, archaeology as a discipline has to continue to embrace its global remit and work itself out of the regional silos that support conventional narratives. As climate change in the past and in the present represents a matter of existential concern, it seems apparent that archaeology must investigate more thoroughly the kind of spatial transpositions proposed by Dr. Parsani’s unconventional talk. If the Bakken was Babylon, even for a brief period at the height of its oil boom, then it provides an unexpected window in the viscous reality of contemporary planetary change.

Bakken Babylon, Part 1

I know that I’m late today, but I’m working on a deadline that has already passed. The deadline is a for a short paper that I started to put together in the spring and like so many projects of mine lingered in the queue until slightly after the last minute.

The good news is that the paper is mostly done and, in my humble assessment, fun. It is called “Bakken Babylon” (or something like that). You can read my false starts and stumbles here and here.

But below is the first part of the draft that I’ve settled upon. Part two will drop tomorrow!

Bakken Babylon

Introduction

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 presented a provocative paper titled “What if the Bakken is Babylon?” In it, he opined that global climate change confirmed an obscure theory that his research had pointed toward many years before: the Bakken oil patch in Western North Dakota and Babylon shared more than the same first and last letters of their names. Dr. Parsani indicated that a careful reading of Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia (2008) revealed that oil itself had the capacity to lubricate modern narratives including those constructed in contemporary 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.” This echoed the growing recognition that modern human culture is a form of petroculture, and this suffuses our geography, history, and imaginations. Our dependence on fossil fuels and their connection with contemporary climate change provokes new ways of thinking about the past, the present, and the future.

This article is an effort to explore 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 (2017) and China Mieville (2009). 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. Dr. Parsani’s work proposed that the proliferation of oil over the last century has introduced new geographic possibilities lubricated by the viscous globalism of fossil fuels which simultaneously reinforced certain political, cultural, and topographic boundaries while dissolving 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 (2014). 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.

Bablyon

There is only one explicit reference to Babylon in the Bakken: Williston is called the Babylon of the Bakken in Gary Sernovitz’s book on the “shale revolution” (2016). The connection between Babylon and the Bakken evokes a larger discourse of Babylon that is global in scope. The coincidence between the excavations at Babylon and elsewhere in the Near East and the emergence of industrial capitalism in the late 18th century produced what Nick Mirzoeff has called “Babylonian Modernity” (2005). For Mirzoeff, Babylonian Modernity represents the decadence, alienation, and complexity that exists at the heart of the modern experience. As early as the 19th century Babylon became a metaphor for rapidly expanding, industrial, urban metropolises such as London or New York City. It also stood in Black Christianity and Caribbean Rastafarianism as the place of exile and separation from Zion. The global displacement and alienation experienced by Black communities in the Americas made possible the development of the modern, globalized economy. In this context, Babylon embodied forces of colonialism, capitalism, and the state which sought to preserve economic and racial inequality in the name of political stability. Thus, Babylon could represent, on the one hand, the oppressive forces of the state and capital which sought to control the labor of displaced Afro-Caribbean and Black workers and the unfettered and dystopian results of unfettered modernity on the other. Critics like Mirzoeff and Runions who have traced the significance of Babylon in contemporary political discourse, however, recognize that despite Babylon’s modern guise, it is not entirely free from its ancient past. The First and Second Gulf Wars and US occupation of Iraq brought the literal site Babylon to our living rooms with stories of the looting of antiquities set against regular reports of human violence and skyrocketing price of oil.

In the context of a global Babylon, Parsani’s paper may seem unnecessarily specific in its effort to connect a spatially displaced Babylon specifically to the Bakken. That said, it is hard to deny that Bakken oil boom certainly evoked images of an American Babylon in the media. Media attention focused on the sudden wealth acquired by oil workers as well as the risks that they undertook doing the dangerous work of drilling, fracking, and transporting oil. The regular media attention to strip clubs, drug use and abuse, Ponzi schemes, and environmental abuses of the Bakken contributed to a view of the region as a zone of unchecked capitalism and immorality (Caraher and Weber 2014). The viscous fluidity of oil carried Babylon to the Bakken and hint at the origins of new cartographies and familiar moral narratives. It encouraged us to drill deeper into the narratives, cartographies, geographies, and chronologies that connect Babylon in its many forms to the modern Bakken. Parsani’s paper seemed to induce us to see these displaced places as key objects of study to understand the planetary consequences and history of contemporary climate change.

Three Things Thursday: Early Christian Greece, Mineral Rites, and Jimmy Carter

I’m taking a real, honest to goodness vacation over the weekend. In fact, I’m going to vacation so hard that I’m not even taking a laptop! I reckon the last time that I vacationed without a laptop was in 2000 or 2001 when I was living in Athens.

To celebrate this unlikely situation, I’m going to offer a very short Three Things Thursday:

Thing the First

It’s pretty rare that I get genuinely excited about a new archaeological discovery and even less frequently that I get really excited about a discovery in the Late Antique Peloponnesus, but I was genuinely thrilled after reading Nikos Tsivikis’s recent article in the Journal of Epigraphical Studies 4 (2022), 175-197, titled “Christian inscriptions from a third and fourth-century house church at Messene (Peloponnese).” You can download it here.

This article provides some pretty solid evidence for a late-third century house church that continued in use into the fourth century. Tsiviki’s argument is grounded in both epigraphy and excavation evidence although the levels are primarily dated on the basis of numismatic evidence. The building is a modified urban villa in the city of Messenia and the inscriptions record the presence of a reader and then a bishop who provided a mosaic for the modified room.

Of course, textual evidence tells us that there were Christian communities in Greece from the first century AD, but archaeological evidence for pre-Constantinean Christianity in Greece has been pretty thin on the ground and comprised mostly of wishful thinking. In fact, there’s precious little indisputable material evidence for fourth century Christianity in Greece. This building will change that and provide the first archaeologically secure (at least to my knowledge) evidence for third (perhaps optimistically) or early fourth century (almost certainly) Christianity in southern Greece. This is exciting.

Thing the Second

I’ve been enjoying Bob Johnson’s Mineral Rites: An Archaeology of the Fossil Economy (Baltimore 2019). I’m not finished the book, but I appreciate his efforts to trace the significance of the fossil economy from the oil fields to the hot yoga studio. His efforts to demonstrate the deep entanglement of fossil fuels and our modern world is perhaps not entirely unexpected, but Johnson offers very readable and highly “textured” (to use a word from the book’s blurb) descriptions of how fossil fuels shape our daily lives. Johnson weaves fossil fuels into the story of the Titanic, various efforts to understand the human equivalency of fossil fuel energy, and a brilliant comparative chapter that considers the difference between Lewis and Clark’s journey and our modern road system. I’m still working my way through his study of the reality TV series Coal and the modern novel.    

Years ago, my buddy and collaborator Bret Weber suggested that we write a paper or an essay that tracked a drop of oil from the well to the atmosphere. Because I’m kind of a jerk, I rolled my eyes and said something jerk-ish about that idea. Years later and after giving it more and more thought, I think it’s really brilliant. In fact, I think Johnson’s book provides an appealing model for how the life of that “drop” of oil could be traced through our system and how much “life” it provides.

Thing the Third

There are a couple cool things from North Dakota Quarterly this week. First, I’ve posted over on the NDQ a poem by David Starkey which will appear in a forthcoming collection from the author. It’s a pretty nice little poem that features a cigarette as a prop. As I say in my post, I like poems that feature things.

There’s also this blog post about the time that NDQ published some of Jimmy Carter’s poetry. For some reason the pages of this issue were scanned or processed out of order so you have to scroll back from the first page, but do check out Lane Chasek’s post here and follow his link to NDQ 60.1 where we feature four of Carter’s poems. Then scroll backward from the first poem to read the three others.

Bakken Babylon

When I first started working on Cyprus, in 2003 or so, and maybe up to 2008 or 2009, it was pretty easy to avoid being in constant contact with professional colleagues while “in the field.” With COVID accelerating our adoption of technology that allows for remote work, this year I feel like I’m constantly connected to my other responsibilities, for better or for worse, and entangled with other timelines and situations in other places.

This is not a complaint, necessarily. I like remaining involved in my various projects and hearing from colleagues and collaborators when I’m abroad. As I mentioned last week, the intensity of work during field seasons contributes as much to being exhausted as being away from home, eating different food, and having a new routine. Being in contact with my colleagues is a nice way to introduce a bit of home cooking and balance to my life when abroad.

Tomorrow, I’m going to meet with the editors and contributors to a special section of Near Eastern Archaeology on archaeology and climate change. This derived from a panel held at ASOR a number of years ago where I presented some of my research on the Bakken and suggested that it  could contribute to larger discussions on man-made climate change. At the end of the panel, which was quite stimulating, I felt concerned that my research didn’t really fit into what the other papers were trying to do. I was less interested in the climate change in the Near East, for example, and more interested in the social processes associated with the oil industry as a kind of surrogate (or a lens) through which we can consider contemporary climate change.

As part of the zoom conversation tomorrow afternoon, we’ve each been asked to talk for one minute on our proposed papers. I’ve been mucking about with mine over the last few months and have posted some fragments (which you can follow here). For my 1 minute precis, I need to wrangle these into something more coherent. Here’s my current plan:

My paper will use Reza Negrastani’s Cyclonopedia, a work of speculative fiction which offers a brilliant, if obscure meditation on the materiality of oil and the oil industry in the Near East, as a kind of cypher to unpack the relationship between the Bakken and Babylon. This aspect of my paper will be (hopefully) playful, but also have the goal of showing how oil conflates the Bakken and the Near East.

It sets the stage for the second part of my paper which makes this conflation a bit more explicit not only by tracing concepts like “dustism” (and the preoccupation with dust) between the two places but also figures like Thomas Barger, Frank Jungers, and Wallace Stegner whose work connected North Dakota with oil in the Persian Gulf.

The final section will suggest that this conflation of the Bakken (or North Dakota) and Babylon not only emphasizes the globalization of the concept of Babylon, which reverberates through critiques of capitalism and colonialism (and their role as the backbone of oil, climate change, and modernity) as well as a global approach to Near Eastern archaeology.

The Archaeology of Oil Production

I took advantage of the snow day to finish up a chapter that I’m preparing for some kind of volume on the Archaeology of Plastics. My paper was on the archaeology of oil production and it was a nice chance to pull together a bunch of things that I had noticed while doing field work in the Bakken and writing up some of that work.

Without sounding too satisfied, I think this is one of the better things that I have written over the last few years on oil. It’s mostly just a summary, but I feel like it brings together some diverse threads and sets a course of what the archaeology of oil could be in the future.  

Here’s the paper’s abstract:

This chapter surveys broadly the archaeology of oil production with particular emphasis on work in the United States. The first section of the chapter explores efforts to designate sites associated with the discovery, transport, and refining of oil and their related workforce heritage status in the US and elsewhere. The second section considers how the distinctly liquid character of oil produces diverse and dynamic “petroleumscapes” that integrate the various phases of oil production and consumption. The notion of the petroleumscape and other similar ways of understanding human and archaeological landscapes associated with oil production is then applied to the Bakken patch of Western North Dakota in the final section. This area experienced a number of oil booms starting in the 1950s and culmination in the early 21st century boom at which time a team of archaeologists with the North Dakota Man Camp Project documented both workforce housing in the Bakken and the industrialization of the rural landscape.

Here’s a link to the paper.

Dustism, Petro-Nomads, and Oil

This week, I’m shifting a bit of my attention to a paper that I hope to submit to a special section in Near Eastern Archaeology. It paper is tentatively titled “The Bakken and Babylon” or something like that. I’ve posted two other fragments of this article here and here.

Today’s fragment considers the concept of “Dustism” in Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia (2008) and juxtaposes it with a few case studies from the Bakken that I developed in the previous section of this paper. I’m slowly coming to terms with this paper and looking to make it a bit more interesting than my usual dreck, but we’ll see. The dreck is strong in me… 

Dustism

For Parsani, “dustism” represented “the earth’s clandestine autonomy” which converts and subverts solar energy, or solar capitalism, into swirling, eddying, and irresistible clouds of matter that resist human control. Parsani notes that dust in Middle Eastern religions is pure and immaculate and its only when it begins to coalesce and clump that it becomes “an abomination.” This abomination in Parsani’s convoluted cosmology merges the autonomy of the earth with the fluidity of activism to produce a mess. This mess — mud, oil, foaming muck — fertilizes the world and supports production, growth, and creation even as the sun continuously seeks to dry it out and return it to inert purity of dust. In this formulation dustism provides a framework that Bradley Fest understands to support a system of hyperobjects including dust and oil which exist beyond the temporal and spatial scale of human existence (Fest 2016). In Parsani’s narrative, the viscosity of oil allows it to become the narrator as it binds the disparate power of dust which seeks to continuously revert to its primordial and timeless form.

This is obviously obscure, but dustism strikes me as crucial for understanding an archaeology of contemporary climate change. It embodies the “radical materialism” (Doherty 2014, 376) necessary for apprehending systems that operate in ways that remain unpredictable. The theory of dustism resonates in North Dakota and the Bakken. For Frank Junger, the North Dakota born Aramco executive, his journey to Saudi Arabia and his future career begins when his family departs his Regent, North Dakota farm amid the swirling dust storms of the 1930s dust storm. In his memoirs, he compares the dust that ended his North Dakota childhood and sent him west to Oregon to the dust of Arabian deserts that framed his career in the oil industry. As Parsani would say: from dust to dust. A parallel trajectory appears in Wallace Stegner’s early novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, which opens in North Dakota. The novel’s main character, Elsa, described the main street of the town of Hardanger as “a river of fine powder.” Dust punctuates the early pages of the novel and defines the forlorn town, the hard ground of the North Dakota prairie, and the footsteps of Elsa’s future husband, Bo Mason, at the baseball diamond. Whether Stegner deliberately sought to anticipate Parsani’s concept of “dustism” or not remains unclear, but the appearance of dust early in the novel when emphasizes Elsa purity and innocence. Dusts’ ability to transition from pure to toxic when in contact with liquid also shatters the stranger who paid for his drink in gold dust inspired Bo Mason to embark on his nomadic journey throughout the American West in search of wealth and status. Dust is more than a metaphor in Stegner’s fictional town or in Junger’s life, and is as ubiquitous a feature in the Bakken oil patch as in Negarestani’s Babylon.

For Parsani and Negarestani, the combination of dust and oil contribute to the formation of self-organizing assemblages. These assemblages are global in scale and draw both human and non-human actors into their orbits. They also accelerate a kind of persistent nomadism that both reflects the geopolitical instability created by global climate change and relies on the mobility of populations that coalesce around the tension between dust and oil. Parsani recognizes the petro-nomads who travel from oil well to oil well drawn by oil. Thomas Barger’s journey from North Dakota to the Arabian peninsula in the 1930s and then from desert outpost to desert outpost drawn forward by oil. In the 20th and 21st century Bakken the petro-nomads likewise coalesced around the sources of oil and sought to navigate the dust from rural byways, agricultural harvests, and droughts that seems constantly to escape control. It is worth noting that there has been an outpouring of recent scholarship on dust in the Bakken that seems to appear as if to resist or even challenge the flow of oil and the arrival of the petro-nomads.

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.

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.

I Like Short Books: The Anthropocene Unconscious

As anyone who has read this blog knows, I have grown weary of big books, proposing big ideas, and written by big name scholars. They stimulate debate, in part, because of their ambition and their flaws which is a consequence of their length. Of course, an overly long, complicated, and problematic book often attracts the kinds of readers and critics that leads to wider awareness and stronger sales. When I’m done a long book, I often feel like it not only monopolized my head, but my interest in the book contributes to the publication of other books that will, in turn, monopolize my head and the heads of others. 

One way, for me to get out of this dreadful cycle, is to just read a small book and talk about. This weekend, I read Mark Bould’s The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture (Verso 2021). Superficially, the book is a response to Amitav Ghosh’s famous observation in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago 2017) that the modern novel, with its preoccupation with the mundane and even internal lives of characters, has proven itself uniquely incapable of helping us understand and think through climate change. Bould argues cleverly that this is a choice on our part as readers and critiques as well. If we chose to read the modern novel as a commentary on climate change, it can be in much the same way that applying a queer lens to a piece of literature both opens new ways of thinking about plot, character, and setting and mitigates against a heteronormative view of the world.  

He then goes on to apply the lens of climate change to a range of both popular and classic literature including (so very cleverly) Ghosh’s novels which he reveals to offers perspectives which can provoke productive insights into climate change and its consequences ranging from rising sea levels to displacements, changing notions of home, and a growing sense of alienation from a world that we can never recover. Similarly incisive critiques of everything from J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) to the Fast and the Furious film franchise make the case that everything may well be about climate change. In fact, for Bould the climate catastrophe lurks throughout the modern unconscious and factors into the very anxiety that makes the reflective and banal world of the modern novel so gripping. 

This got me thinking about history and archaeology, of course, and how our preoccupation with periods of rise and collapse in the past saturates our confidence in the inevitability of our own society’s inevitable demise. Of course, it wouldn’t be hard to see in this a kind of Freudian death drive or a deeply fatalistic awareness that our efforts to avoid short term catastrophe through violent and aggressive war just represents their conversion into the long term destruction of our species through the market. Because we lives with the expectation that every boom has a bust, we find ourselves unwilling or unable to imagine a sustainable future. 

Bould makes this sweeping argument in about 140 generously spaced pages that took me a couple of hours to read. This gave him plenty of room to dive as deep as was necessarily into individual works and to reiterate his larger points without belaboring them or indulging in distracting displays of erudition. There is plenty to chew on here as we face down the end of the world.