Three Things Thursday: Survey, Oil, and Mild Anarchism

Every now and then, life happens in threes and that makes me wonder whether I’m blogging about my life or I’m simply living out a series of blog posts. In some ways, I suppose, it doesn’t matter, but it sure makes three things Thursday a bit easier.

My next few days will be focused (such as I can at all these days) on these three things:

Thing the First

My old survey buddy David Pettegrew has put together an article that offers a preliminary analysis of the Medieval material from the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey. This is a pretty exciting piece for two reasons. First, at some point in the distant past, it was originally intended to be a chapter of his soon to be completed book on the material from EKAS. When it dropped out of that volume, it wandered a bit in the wilderness before he found a home for it. 

Because these are hectic times for all of us, and writing about archaeology in the best of situations often takes a village, I offered to help get this article into final shape. One of the things that I’m working on is adding hyperlinks to the EKAS data in Open Context. This will allow the reader to drill down into the data from the article text, validate David’s arguments, and ask new questions from the raw material. This could mean looking at the data spatially in new ways, aggregating new assemblages based on material fro the same survey unit, or even connecting this data to other publicly available data sets. 

With David’s permission, I’ll share some of the linked assemblages new week.

Thing the Second

Last year, I wrote a short piece on the archaeology of petroleum production. My buddy Kostis Kourelis is pretty sure that the archaeology of oil will be next big thing. Oil is not only the quintessential modern hyper object, but also represents a type fossil for supermodernity. My article mostly just scratched the surface of the potential of an archaeology of oil as a key component of archaeology of the contemporary world as well as the kind of critical archaeology that offers new ways of understanding the modern age.

Part of the reason for this is because the article is destined for some kind of handbook of the archaeology of plastics. In fact, the editors and reviewers patiently pointed out, my article needed to connect oil and petroleum production to plastic more explicitly throughout. This was a fair point and I’ve been nibbling away at their helpful comments. 

In many ways, their urging that I connect petroleum production to plastics was more than just appropriate for the volume, but also useful for reconsidering oil and petroleum production as the definitive phenomenon of the supermodern world. The ubiquity of plastics in our everyday life is just one example of oil’s central place in our contemporary society. That said, plastic manufacturing and petroleum production rely on shared spatial footprints. The profoundly toxic sites of petroleum refineries attract similarly toxic petrochemical manufacturing plants that churn out the stock from which most new plastics are made. These plastic pellets then find their way into the world through some of the same infrastructure as our gasoline, heating oil, and other forms of petroleum that we use as fuel. In other words, plastic and oil share more than chemical DNA, but also leverage the same infrastructure that allows both to be always at hand in the contemporary world. Stay tuned for a plasticized draft.

Thing the Third

The third thing that I’m working on with a mid-February deadline is the revision of an article on a class that I taught as the centerpiece of the Wesley College Documentation Project. The article celebrated (I admit) the prospects of a “mildly anarchist” pedagogy that undermined the increasingly bureaucratized nature of both the modern university and archaeology as an industry. It attempted to embrace many aspects of slow, punk, and anarchist archaeology. Unfortunately, it also appears to have captured some of the more traditional elements of writing about archaeology as well. Namely the congratulatory nature of so many fieldwork publications that elevates the archaeologist from the deeply collaborative space of archaeological knowledge making to the august heights of heroic truth teller. 

This, of course, was the opposite of what my paper was intending to accomplish. I was hoping to celebrate the remarkable creativity that occurred over the course of a spontaneous, place-based, research program freed from much of the administrative oversight that can stifle the simply joy of wandering an abandoned place, thinking about the past, and working together to make sense of a building and its history.

That all said, the reviewers were probably doing me a favor by telling me to temper my congratulatory tone and do what I can to ground my excitement for the project in the dusty and incomplete world of reality. The last thing I want to do is to alienate a reader or conform to some kind of stereotype of ego-driven, tenured, middle aged, truth teller. Stay tuned for an updated and tempered draft. 

Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience in 200 Words

Readers of this blog know only too well the multi-year odyssey to write a survey of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. And many of you know that this was pretty bumpy.

It turns out the retraining myself as an Americanist was not a straightforward process and coming to understand the nuances of archaeology of the contemporary world in the context of American historical archaeology (as well as the myriad related and intersection disciplines that fortify this approach) was probably biting off more than I can chew.

That all said, this project has made some headway and as part of the pre-publication paperwork, I’ve been asked to put together a 150-200 word summary of the book. Here’s my current draft:

The Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience

This book is the first synthetic study of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. This emerging field uses archaeological methods to describe, interpret, and critique the material culture and landscapes dating from mid-1970s until the present day. The Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience begins in the New Mexico desert with the excavation of Atari cartridges from the Alamgordo landfill. It situates this work in the tradition of Bill Rathje’s Garbage Project, more recent work on the archaeology of consumer culture, and media and digital archaeology of the 21st century. 

The second half of the book takes the reader to the Bakken oil patch in Western North Dakota. By comparing the Bakken to modern industrial spaces and the region’s workforce housing migrant camps, military bases, homelessness, modern cities, and college campuses, the book explores the intersection of contemporary productive landscapes and landscapes of control and resistance. The archaeology of contemporary consumption and production situates the American experience in a global context and emphasizes the planetary consequences of our everyday lives. 

~

Wish me luck as I bring this project in for a landing!

More on the Grand Forks Greenway

One of the down sides of struggling with work/life balance issues is that even the most mundane things that I do have the potential to slide from “life” to “work.” For example, volunteering on the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission as the Commission’s archaeologist has fueled my interest in the history and materiality of the city. Walking my dogs along the Grand Forks Greenway, has spurred me to think more carefully about how the Greenway and the Red River of the North shapes not only the city’s past, but also its present relationship with its surroundings.

Sometimes these two interests coincide, such as when I find myself collaborating with another commission member, Paul Conlon, on an integrity survey of the 1950s era flood mitigation features in the city. It appears that most of these features were removed during the construction of the far more substantial post-1997 flood walls. Despite this disappointing discovery, Paul’s research and my rumination have led made it hard for me to shake a potential paper idea especially as I walk the dogs on the Greenways scenic paths.

IMG 8378

Right now, the paper is still at the “slowly crystalizing idea stage” which means that I have a title: “Cold War, Consumer Culture, and Climate Change in a North Dakota City.”

If I had to start to write the paper today, rather than, say, work on my syllabi for the spring semester, I’d start the paper with an overview of recent work on the environmental history of rivers with special attention to the goals of mid-century hydraulic programs such as the Pick-Sloan as well as more local initiatives designed to both protect communities and to provide water for recreation and irrigation. For the local situation, Kathleen Brokke’s dissertation will be an invaluable guide. She touches on the role of suburban sprawl and the growing desire for burgeoning urban communities to harness local rivers for recreation, but her work remains an expansive view of Red River region rather than an intensive one. Moreover, it appears that she doesn’t connect suburban sprawl of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s to the region’s growing role in the Cold War. 

My goal with this imagined research wouldn’t be to re-produce Brokke’s expansive environmental history of the Red River, but to zero in on the relationship between the river and the city of Grand Forks. In particular, I’d be interested in understanding how efforts to control the Red River in Grand Forks in the 1950s emerged alongside the transformation of the city itself as it grew into its post-war form and its growing role as an important regional “front” in the Cold War. The vulnerability of Grand Forks to flooding should be understood in the context of the construction of the Grand Forks Air Force base in the 1950s, the expansion of the University of North Dakota in part due to its capacity to harness federal grants and to serve military veterans, and the influx of new residents drawn to the city by its post-war amenities and opportunities.

The Cold War, post-war consumer culture, and the long-term, geological history of the Red River provides three key vectors for understanding not only the history of Grand Forks, but also the form that this investment in controlling the flow of the Red River took. As I’ve noted a few times in the past, the form of the post-1997 flood walls themselves speak both to long-standing attitudes toward natural forces especially on the Great Plains and the role that the Army Corps of Engineers plays in attempting to exert control over “nature” in these contexts. 

This opens our work to a fourth vector that I would love for our article to explore. This vector would foreground the role of landscapes of control in the “late-modern” world. I have this idea that it might be a way to interrogate attitudes toward the Anthropocene. This is immediately relevant to the situation of the Grand Forks on the Red River of the North as six of the ten worst floods in history have occurred in the 21st century. More than that, the flood control systems put in place after the 1997-flood offer a visible, daily reminder of the separation, or even alienation, of humans from their natural environment. A subtle paper might observe that the flood walls, which evoke military fortifications, offer only on perspective on the relationship between the town and the river. Less visible, but every bit as important is the network of pipes and pumping stations that not only connect the city to the river for drinking water and the disposal of run off, but also prevent the river from reclaiming these same connections to flood the city. In other words, the very landscape of flood control in the city emphasizes the need to protect the community from the river itself while hiding away the deeply interconnected relationship between the city and the water. 

The flood walls, of course, contribute in strikingly visible ways to the modern ontological distinctions that locate in separate categories the “natural” and the “cultural,” “human,” or “man-made.” Scholars who have engaged with the Anthropocene as not only a term useful for defining a new geological epoch shaped by human actions, but also an ontological challenge to the view that human activities represent a separate category from the affairs of nature. The challenge of contemporary, anthropogenic climate change, then, is a direct critique of the Grand Forks flood walls themselves and their militarized station dividing the unruly power of the Red River of the North, for the neatly organized settlement of Grand Forks.

It strikes me, then, that post-war efforts to harness rivers and to control the flooding in Grand Forks offers a particularly compelling example of the way in which mid-century consumer culture created new landscapes that sought to reify the division between humans and nature by making visible the power of humanity to bring it under control. To be clear, the post-war generation was not the first to do this—gardens culture, for example, long celebrated the ability of individuals to present nature in aesthetically, economically, and politically productive ways— but the mid-20th century marked the first time that humans could manipulate the landscape on such a massive scale. Archaeologists of these decades refer to this capacity as a hallmark of supermodernity in which nowhere on earth escapes the human intervention. No expression of this is more dramatic than the ability to spit the atom. This capability plays a key role in the creation of Cold War landscapes in the American West. These landscapes not only relied on the atomic power of the post-war “military-industrial-academic” complex for its national relevance, but also demonstrated how the confidence unleashed by the atomic age could introduce new levels of prosperity and security for at least some Americans and some of their allies.

Of course, the promises of prosperity and security appear increasingly illusory in light of growing evidence for climate change. Perhaps here is where the efforts to control the flow of the Red River through Grand Forks offer the most poignant or even useful metaphor. The division between the town and the natural spaces of the Greenway, while compelling in our daily lives where it is easy (and even necessary) to imagine nature held at arm’s length, is no more absolute than the collapsing ontological division between humanity and the wider relational network in which we live on Earth. 

Thomas Barger and the Archaeology of Oil

This past week, I was doing some light research at UND Chester Fritz Library’s Department of Special Collections and for various, almost random reasons, was scrolling through the finding aid for John Barger’s papers.

In those papers, I noticed an entry for Box 1, Folder 31: “Greek Inscriptions Deciphered” by Thomas Barger. I knew Thomas Barger, John’s brother, from my Bakken Babylon paper. Thomas Barger was the North Dakota born and educated CEO of Aramco (Arab-American Oil Company). I knew something about from Wallace Stegner’s book Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil where he appears as one of the first American “petro-nomads” who helped discover the massive Ghawar oil field in the 1950s. By the 1960s he had become the CEO of Aramco and helped the company develop into one of the largest oil companies in the world. 

He was well-known in the industry as a hands-on leader who understood the discovery, extraction, and processing of oil and the men, women, and families who did this work. He was recognized both for his possibly misguided efforts to encourage home ownership among his Saudi employees as well as his ability to speak Arabic and respect for Arabian history and culture. I was not, however, aware of his interest in archaeology.

The publication that appeared in John Barger’s papers was a short update about finds from the Nabatean outpost of Meda’in Salih in northwestern Saudi Arabia which appeared in 1969 in Archaeology magazine. Barger had published an earlier report on this site in Archaeology in 1966. The 1969 article revealed the decipherment of a Greek inscription by Glen Bowersock associated with the Third Cyrenaican Legion traditionally stationed at Bosra, but in this case standing guard over the trade routes at the very edges of the Roman world. This inscription found its way into Thomas Barger’s personal collection and which in 1969, he turned over to the Harvard Semitic Museum which, in turn, transferred it to the T.C. Barger Collection at the National Museum in Riyadh in 2001. The inscription’s nomadic route from Meda’in Salih to Boston and back to the Arabian peninsula reversed the route of Barger’s own travels to the Arabian desert.

This is a nice example of how contemporary petronomadism, a term coined, I think, by Reza Negarstani in his Cyclonopedia (or perhaps Gilles Chatelet in his To Think and Live Like Pigs [1998]) traces both the economic landscape of the Middle East and the archaeological. This is similar to an observation offered by Rachel Havrelock in her “The Ancient Past that Oil Built” in the context of the Iraq Petroleum Company’s Kirkuk to Haifa pipeline in the 1930s. 

On a more local level, one imagines that the work done to support extractive industries here in North Dakota has contributed to the discovery of similarly interesting archaeological landscapes. In that sense, the work of Barger in Saudi Arabia has parallels in his home state of North Dakota where pipelines, roads, rail projects, and refineries have created a contemporary window into both a modern present and historical past.

Three Things Thursday: Dark Heritage, Sports, and Funding Archaeology

For a long time, I resisted the idea that Thursdays were the new Fridays. After all, I still got up and went to work on Fridays so Thursdays just seemed like Thursdays to me. In fact, Fridays and Wednesdays also often seemed like Thursdays too. Thursdays are weird that way.

Recently, however, I’ve started to feel more and more relieved when I make it to Thursday evening (or even Thursday morning) knowing that most of week is behind me and I just need to keep doing what I’m doing and I should be able to bring myself in for a successful landing. 

In the spirit of that, I offer a few musings on this unapologetically random Three Things Thursday.

Thing the First

A couple people on my social media feeds posted links to an article by Suzie Thomas titled ““Dark” Heritage? Nudging the Discussion” from Heritage & Society. (H/t to Morag Kersel for sending along a copy of this article!).

I’m generally drawn to discussion of dark tourism and dark heritage partly because of my work in the Bakken Oil Patch for which my colleague Bret Weber and I produced a tourist guide. I remain pretty proud of this book particularly because I feel like it was one of the few times when I put my penchant for more experimental ways of thinking or talking about the landscape into something as substantial as a peer reviewed book.

One of the things that emerged from my efforts in this book is a more expansive view of both tourism and heritage. Thomas’s article on Dark Heritage and its association with violence focused on attitudes toward World War II remains in Finnish Lapland. We need not associate violence exclusively with warfare, however, and as we become more and more aware of the violence associated with climate change in the 21st century, it is tempting to expand the concept of “Dark” Heritage to encompass heritage associated with the slow violence of climate change on a global level.

In this context, then, perhaps our work in the Bakken represents a tentative step toward a “Dark” Heritage of the Anthropocene. When we consider this in relation to the emerging discipline of the archaeology of the contemporary world, it becomes hard to escape both the collapse of perspectives offered by both the study of heritage and archaeology, and the suffusing of this muddied discipline with concerns for various forms of violence on the global scale. The archaeology of areas like the Bakken contribute directly to how we understand the process and violence of global climate change on a local level

Thing the Second

It’s baseball season and it’s also politics season with both the playoffs underway and the midterm elections looming. This has gotten me thinking about how the two situations leverage our partisan attitudes and world views to intensify the experiences. For sports fans and voters, the outcome of a particular election or series represents the confirmation of a particular understanding of the world. At its best, these scenarios become classic conflicts of good versus evil; at their worst, a political victory by our opponents challenges our faith in human goodness in the same way that a victory by the Mets would. 

As I mulled the parallels between political and sporting partisans, I thought back to Robert Coover’s book, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., which I read a few years ago and very much enjoyed. The set up for the novel is J. Henry Waugh created a fictional baseball league whose outcomes and game play were based on dice throws. Henry had played the game for over 50 seasons and had become quite attached to the finely crafted reality that this league embodied. This all broke down, however, when a rising star was struck and killed by a hit ball. This was not only a profoundly unexpected outcome, but one that caused Henry’s fantasy world of the Universal Baseball Association and real world of his career, personal relationships, and daily life blur in ways that make the reader more and more uneasy.

It’s really a remarkable book that offers particularly compelling insights into our contemporary political situation. As the finely crafted worlds of political partisans and pundits have become increasingly vouchsafed by the statistical realities of the ballot box, many people are finding it harder and harder to discern the difference between the world that politics creates and the world in which we have to live day to day. 

As a commentary on this, I’ve started to think about creating a website that celebrates the victories of my favorite teams. Rather than following the action in the NBA or the NFL with an eye toward the real outcomes of games, I would create a narrative where readers could follow a teams ups and down confident in the knowledge that their team will prevail in the end. 

Thing the Third

Finally, as readers of this blog invariably know, it is becoming more and more challenging to generate funding to support archaeological work both for US based projects and on a global scale. As a result, scholars are turning to unconventional and innovative ways to generate the funds needed both to study the past, but also to ensure that students have a chance to learn about the discipline of archaeology and places, people, and communities that it studies and benefits.

Along these lines, check out the innovative work done by The Boğsak Center for Archaeology and Heritage in Rough Cilicia. They’re doing good, but hard grassroots archaeological development focused (appropriately enough) on quarries in this region and they’re looking for donations to allow them to continue to document, study, and present their work.

Check out what they’ve done so far here.

And since I know some readers of this blog have a soft spot for hard places like Rough Cilicia, considering helping this remarkably team out here.

Oil, TVs, and Babylon

I’ve been working on revising my paper on the Bakken and Babylon and it just so happens that I’ve also read two pretty great things that contribute directly to these efforts. This was not really intentional, but not entirely coincidental either. 

First, I really enjoyed my colleague Kyle Conway’s piece in the International Journal of Cultural Studies: “Reading oil (back) into media history: The case of postwar television”. The article is short and manageable while still making an interesting point. The rise of the television in the 1950s and 1960s depended on oil (and other carbon based forms of energy) in the manufacturing of cabinets, the transporting of TVs to market, and as the center piece of electrified and increasingly synthetic living room. This is true also of vinyl records, plastic taps and CDs, and synthetic material boom of the post-war decades that fed both our thirst for oil and the growing need for infinitely customizable and profoundly disposable consumer culture. Or as the kids say: plastics.

I read this alongside Alejandro Varela’s The Town of Babylon (2022) which was short listed for a National Book Award. The town in the book, which I think is otherwise unnamed, might well refer to the Long Island town which was the backdrop to Nick Mirzoeff’s Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture (2005). In fact, Mirzoeff’s and Varela’s book begin in oddly similar ways: Mirzoeff described himself at on an exercise bike at a gym witnessing a man “pumping an elliptical trainer” and Varela’s main character, Andres, walked along the sidewalk-less road to his high school reunion. Both Mirzoeff and Varela situate their characters bodily in relation to the spectacle of Babylon. In Mirzoeff’s case this allows him to observe how we witnessed the start of the first Gulf War and in Varela’s, this is his encounter with his high school classmates at a reunion. In both cases, there physical activity of the observer helped the author to reify their character’s detachment from the mis-en-scène, on the one hand, and perhaps allude to the pointlessness of their character’s actions in relation to their environment, on the other. Both books seem to suggest that Babylon is more to be seen than experienced. 

Thus the television in Conway’s article is more than simply part of a petroleum drenched assemblage of plastics, electrical current, and expectations. The television becomes a key tool in creating the kind of alienation experienced by Mirzoeff’s authorial narration and Varela’s Andres who drifts through his hometown while struggling to reconcile his past with his present circumstances. In this way, the alienation experienced after the fall of the Tower of Babel continues to define our encounter with Babylon whether that be visually, literally, or figuratively. Conway’s article reminds us that our modern Babylonian exile is mediated by carbon based energy, material, and experiences. Our markers of social status — cars, television, suburbs, (including our bodies as Bob Johnson’s Mineral Rites: An Archaeology of the Fossil Economy [Baltimore 2019] or Scott W. Schwartz’s The Archaeology of Temperature: Numerical Materials in the Capitalized Landscape [2022]) — exist in the same reality as the war in the Middle East and the flow of oil through Iraqi pipelines, fracked wells in North Dakota, and coastal refineries.

What makes this especially challenging for us is that the former works to preserve our detachment from the latter. 

Quantifying Citations

One of the goals that I had in revising my book manuscript over the past year was to cite more women authors.This was partly in response to critiques from peer reviewers, but also because it is the right thing to do. Citational politics is part of academic life and the growing interest in quantitative assessment (various indices, impact factors, and so on) means that it’s not just about appearances and giving credit where it is due, but it also has direct financial consequences. 

The distribution of citations in my original manuscript was pretty disappointing with only 35% of the works in the bibliography having at least one woman as author and 77% having at least one man. This is obviously not what I set out to do when I started writing this book and it appears that an assessment of the book as very white and very male was a fair one and one that I took to heart.

After I made a series of substantive revisions over the last year, I was excited to run the numbers on my bibliography again and see whether my revisions improved the situation.

Sadly, they did not. While I increased the percentage of references with at least one woman as author to 40%, I also increased the number of references with at least one man as author to 84%. 

This was pretty demoralizing to realize. When I dug deeper into my numbers, I did notice some reasons for optimism.

First, for citations dating to 2020 or later, 48% of the citations have at least one woman author and 67% have at least one man. 

For citations dating to 2015 or later, this number stays roughly stable with 46% of my citations having at least one woman author and 67% having a man.

For citations since 2010 and 2000, the percentage of references with at least one woman author stays relatively stable at 42% and 40% respectively and 73% and 70% respectively for references with at least one man as an author.

References dating to before 2000, however, are a shit show with merely 13% of the references including at least one woman and 91% including at least one man. Some of this can be attributed to the outsized place that Bill Rathje and Michael Schiffer have in both archaeology of the contemporary world and my book, but even then, these numbers are ghastly.

This quantitative work has taught me three things:

First, over the past decade there has been a good bit of conversation about structural biases and inequality. My bibliography is a depressing example of this. Even as I honestly tried to shift the balance toward more work by women, historical traditions of practice in my discipline continue to keep a firm thumb on the scale and my own reading and writing practices. 

As my book manuscript goes out once again for review over the next few weeks, I reckon I will have one more opportunity to work on my citation practices and will continue to try to work to redress what is clearly a shortcoming in my book. 

Secondly, if and when the book is accepted and typeset, I hope that I can do some more sophisticated analysis of the content of the book. After all, it is easy enough to pepper one’s work with some throw away references as a way to shift a bias one way or another. And, of course, this isn’t entirely superficial as various automated reference searches (e.g. Google Scholar) don’t care whether the citation is a “see also” or part of a more in-depth discussion. As institutions look toward i10 and H -indices as measures of a scholars reach and impact, these numbers matter.

On the other hand, a five page discussion of a work may only garner a handful of citations in the text and may only result in a single bibliographic entry. This is particular true for dissertations where authors don’t have as substantial “back catalogue” of work that warrant referencing. I hope to come up with a systematic way to measure how much of my book is devoted to various authors, but since this will be a pretty arduous task, it might make better sense to do this at after the book is typeset and when the final references are established. 

Finally, I still intend to make this data available and include an appendix to my book discussion what I did and what I had hoped to do.

As a start, here’s a copy of my bibliography from which I collected the data discussed above.

And you can read some of my earlier writing and thinking about citations: here, here, and here.

Final Fragments of My Book

I know that I’ve probably taxed the patience of my regular readers by peppering this venerable blog with fragments from my book over the last few years. I did this for lots of reason, not the least of which is to give a window into how the academic sausage is made, to share some of my current research, and to make some more experiment (or at least “mental” writing) public.

I’m coming very close to sending back my revised book manuscript to my very patient editors and I’m adding final touches, checking citations, and wondering whether I did enough to address the not insignificant concerns of my reviewers.

As part of the final tweaking to my introduction, I add the follow paragraphs to try (a bit plaintively, I might add) to explain why the book has the priorities and limits that it does. You can read more about the book  here and my broader research here

Here’s my the very end of my introduction:

Because this book developed organically from the two case studies that appear in chapter one and chapter eight, it is in some ways limited in how it engages the field, in some ways, and perhaps more expansive than one might expect, in others. For example, the field of forensic anthropology or disaster archaeology largely fell outside the scope of my case studies, even though it often involves research that would fall into the fuzzy chronological limits of “the contemporary world” (Gould 2007). It has also developed its own disciplinary discourse and methods over the last three decades (Powers and Sibun 2013). Archaeology of race, gender, sexuality, and identity, while incredible fertile grounds for archaeological research in recent decades, does not appear in this book under distinct headings, but forms an obvious foundation to many of these chapters. As the archaeology of the contemporary American experience continues to develop as a field, I anticipate that it will contribute in significant ways to the archaeology of contemporary race and gender, but as yet, these important areas remain relatively unexplored. My book also presents an American experience that extends well beyond the boundaries of North America and entangles traditional approaches to American historical archaeology with the flourishing field of archaeological contemporary world in Europe. This is in keeping with the approaches championed by groups such as CHAT with its European and American membership, and my own sense that this is the best way to address pressing planetary situations such as climate change and environmental degradation on a global scale. This has then informed my decision to focus the potentially expansive remit of this book in the area where I have.

Of course, it is entirely possible that my reading of the field is wrong and that my oversights represent blinders imposed by my own sites, research priorities, and political anxieties. In fact, I expect that some readers will find this book to be inadequate or simply too idiosyncratic to be useful or helpful. My hope is that these readers, however, will recognize that for whatever its flaws, this book is only the first word in a rapidly developing field and this makes it quite distinct from many of the more narrowly situated works that have appeared in this series. It is my hope that future books on topics such as the archaeology of contemporary race, a queer archaeology of the modern American experience, and the archaeology of gender in the twenty-first century will fill in gaps, shift priorities, and consolidate the field in new and important ways.

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.