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: Pollen, Climate, and Grass

Today will be a hectic day toward the end of a hectic week. As we enter the “frog days” of summer, I think I’m feeling the start of the fall semester looming. 

As a result, all I have this morning is a very short three things Thursday, but maybe there’s a bit of thematic unity that extends across my posts this week!

Thing the First

My long time collaborator and friend, Dimitri Nakassis, sent some of his WARP colleagues a link to “Mid-late Holocene vegetation history of the Argive Plain (Peloponnese, Greece) as inferred from a pollen record from ancient Lake Lerna” by Cristiano Vignola, Martina Hättestrand, Anton Bonnier, Martin Finné, Adam Izdebski, Christos Katrantsiotis, Katerina Kouli, Georgios C. Liakopoulos, Elin Norström, Maria Papadaki, Nichola A. Strandberg, Erika Weiberg, and Alessia Masi in PLOS One.

As the title suggests, this article reports on the analysis of pollen in cores taken from bed of the now-drained Lerna Lake. It’s pretty technical, but offers a very readable “Interpretation and Discussion” section which offers some perspectives that while not entirely unsurprising are nevertheless useful: 

“During the Early Byzantine period from ca. 1480 to 1120 BP (470–830 CE) the increasing percentage and influx values of Pinus and Quercus robur type evidence the expansion of both pinewoods and oakwoods in the Lerna pollen catchment area. The Olea curve displays a severe drop and PI significantly increases, together with Artemisia, Cichorieae and Plantago undiff…pollen and archaeological data point out a reduced human pressure in the uplands and a more local food production in the plain, where olive groves contracted and pasturelands expanded following the collapse of the Eastern Roman control on the Balkans.”  

Thing the Second

It’s pretty rare that I’ll link to a book published by Springer on this blog, but I’ll make an (open access) exception today. I’m very much looking forward to reading Perspectives on Public Policy in Societal-Environmental Crises: What the Future Needs from History edited by Adam Izdebski, John Haldon, and Piotr Filipkowski.

The book, as its title suggests, look directly toward the relationship between environmental policy and history. More importantly, this book uses quite a few examples from Greece and the Medieval period, and includes chapters relating to how we narrate and tell stories about environmental history. I’m looking forward to checking this out over the next few days.

Thing the Third

As promised, this is a short post today, and the final thing for this “three thing Thursday” is a link to an essay by Judith Fetterley called “In Praise of Grass” which appeared last year in NDQ.  

It’s a brilliant little reminder that our lawns are both living things and vibrant ecosystems even if they’re very much cultivated by humans. 

Three Things Thursday: Corinth, CHAT, and Climate

Over the next week or so, I need to work on three different projects, each of which have their own charm, but are less connected to each other than I would like. 

Thing the First

Today is a Corinthia day and as soon as this post is done, I’m heading over to Google Docs to work on a an article that tries to bring together a good bit of recent and historical research on the archaeology of the Late Antique Corinthia. I’ll certain share this piece when it’s done, but for today, the goal is cut about 1000 words and make it a bit less scrappy, in general. 

As part of this, I’m very much looking forward to the long anticipated publication of Elena Korka and Joseph L. Rife’s On the Edge of a Roman Port: Excavations at Koutsongila, Kenchreai, 2007–2014 which is apparently due out sometime in the next month or so! They’ve also released a significant dataset via Open Context which you can view here

Unfortunately, we won’t have time to integrate their data or analysis into our piece, but it’ll be really great to see it out.

Thing the Second

A couple years ago, Rachael Kiddey and I were named inaugural editors to a new CHAT book series. CHAT is the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory group. We are working to put out our first volume which is a publication related to the festivalCHAT conference.

We need to put together an introduction to that volume over the next week or so and get the entire thing ready to be sent out for review with a hope that it can see publication by the end of the year. Our paper, which we haven’t started, will consider how the festival analogy informs the contemporary and historical archaeology. In particular, I’m interested in the role of the ephemeral in archaeology and perhaps in the way that our modern view of festivals represent an expression of the commodification of experience characteristic of Late Capitalism. Archaeology of the contemporary world (and to a certain extent historical archaeology) has the capacity to document experiences in ways that allows for us to capture and assess the working of Late Capitalism.

Thing the Third

Finally, I have a very short paper that I’m going to write for an issue of Near Eastern Archaeology which focuses on climate change. I’ve blogged about this a bit in the past (most recently here) and I’m chomping at the bit to get writing it, mostly because I think it’ll be fun, but I need to stay focused on other things.

As part of this project, I got a copy of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (2021) which I can’t wait to read and maybe, just maybe, I can start on it this weekend!

Roman Climate

As I get old, one of my great weaknesses as a professional is becoming more and more apparent. As my always modest synapses have slowed down further and my limited pool of energy has gotten shallower, I find myself increasingly driven by deadlines rather than genuine curiosity about the past (or the present or the world). This summer, for example, has become a prolonged exercise in shooting the wolf closest to the sled and this is both unrewarding and exhausting.

As an antidote to this tendency, I still try to read things that capture my interest or that contribute to a broader understanding of the past. As I look at the prospects of teaching a class on the “End of the Roman Empire” (or some such thing) in the spring (alas another deadline), I’m feel an even greater sense of urgency to read and think more broadly about the past (or at least Late Antiquity).

At present, I have a “back of the napkin” idea how to organize my class on the End of the Roman World and I won’t burden this blog post with that kind of nattering, but I do want to include at least a week on Roman and Late Roman climate. The archaeology of climate, climate change, and its impact on society has long drawn my interest. The challenge, of course, for antiquity is that the paleoclimate data is hard to understand. Not only does it involve understanding the science of climate, but also a certain amount of statistics, sampling, and regional geography. 

Over the weekend, I read “Settlement, environment, and climate change in SW Anatolia: Dynamics of regional variation and the end of Antiquity” by Matthew J. Jacobson, Jordan Pickett, Alison L. Gascoigne, Dominik Fleitmann, and Hugh Elton in PLOS ONE. I was initially drawn to this piece because I noticed that the region was not only near Cyprus, but that some of the points that define this region were further from one another than they were from northwest Cyprus where I work. I’m not especially sanguine that data from southern Anatolia is likely to correlate directly to the climate conditions during Antiquity on Cyprus, and one of the authors discouraged me from thinking that way via the twitters

At the same time, this article offers some remarkable conclusions that suggest, for example, that the Roman Climate Optimum, which some scholars have treated almost as a given, might not be as obvious in the regional level climate data as big picture discussions of the Roman world have tended to assume. In fact, in this articles’ SW Anatolia study area, there was no evidence from the RCO in the climate data and it was impossible, then, to correlate the increase in agricultural activity, building, or trade during the Roman period with a milder regional climate. Indeed, this is consistent with data from across the Eastern Mediterranean more broadly. The Early Byzantine period (350-600) shows a predictable increase in settlement and a more or less continued investment in urban areas. That said, there’s little in the way of climate data from this specific region to correlate these investments and expansion of settlement with a pan-Mediterranean situation. Instead, there appears to be a regional patchwork moisture levels for example that likely contributed to the prosperity of the period, but perhaps did not represent a single transformative agent in the development of this period. 

As a result, the contraction of settlement and seeming decline in prosperity in the Middle Byzantine period does not emerge as the result of climate change, but similar to Roman and Late Roman prosperity, part of a more complex group of political, military, social, and environmental influences.

Returning to my class, this article has some real advantages for classroom use. Some advantages are clear, but go without saying, such as the robust footnoting and careful historical and archaeological contextualizing. Others are tacit, such as its open access status!

So, I’ve added it to my list! 

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.

Writing about Pompeii in the Age of Catastrophe

The last couple weeks have been a real struggle for me personally and professionally. I’ve been sort of drifting through my days in a post-COVID fog and have found it incredibly difficult to focus enough to write anything longer than a few sentences. This is particularly intense in the afternoons when I start to fatigue. I remain optimistic that this will pass eventually, but it has led me to shift some of my limited attention from longer and more concentration intensive work like revising book chapters to shorter work. In an effort to make a virtue out of a necessity, I prepared this short response to a pair of poems published in Shawn Graham’s Epoiesen last year. I wrote a rough draft of it last week, but after some reflection on Mark Bould’s recent book, The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture (Verso 2021) and an assist from Sarah Bond on Twitter, I was able to expand my short post into something a bit more substantive. Shawn has graciously accepted my response and I look forward to it appearing over at Epoiesen later this year. 

Here’s what I have to say:

Pompeii has an enduring place in our modern cultural imagination. Excavations at the site, and their often grisly discoveries, have come to stand in for any number of modern situations from the intimate pain of personal heartbreak to horrors of the Shoah, industrialization, and the looming climate catastrophe. I’d like to propose Mary K. Lindberg’s poems on Pompeii continue in this tradition.

The release of Cate Le Bon’s latest album titled Pompeii coincided with my reading of Lindberg’s poems and spurred my reflection. Le Bon’s album while refined, cohesive, and thoughtful, is not a concept album, and it doesn’t seem to connect with the site beyond including a song of the same title. In this song, however, Le Bon evokes a longstanding trope associated with Pompeii through a swirl of reverberating synths:

Get dressed
You’re a mess
You’re a sight Did you dream about Pompeii?
Your eyes always give it away
Cities built on monumental rage
Getting lost in the seminar…

The idea of dreaming about Pompeii invokes Sigmund Freud’s well-known treatise, Delusion and Dream: an Interpretation in the Light of Psychoanalysis of Gravida (1907) which interrogates Wilhelm Jensen’s novel Gravida (1903) through the lens of psychoanalysis. The main character in Jensen’s novel, Harold, an archaeologists, fell in love with an ancient relief carving which he calls Gravida. After a dream about the destruction of Pompeii and Gravida’s demise, he traveled to the site and while there, he saw a woman who looks like Gravida, but was alive and well. The woman was, in fact, Zoë Bertgang, a former neighbor of Harold’s on whom he had a childhood crush. Freud in his treatise, Delusion and Dream, excavated Harold’s dream of Gravida and argued that it was, in fact, a manifestation of his sublimated love for his former neighbor who he just happened to encounter in Pompeii. Thus, Harold’s passion for the Gravida relief and archaeology as a discipline was an expression of his repressed passion for this woman. Zoë understood this and cured Harold by at times imitating Gravida and at other times gently directing Harold’s attention from his fantasy to reality. Freud’s work both revealed his longstanding interest in excavation as a metaphor for bringing the complex working of the unconscious mind to light and demonstrated the utility of his psychoanalytical methods for considering works of literature.

It is hard to escape this long Freudian shadow when reading Mary K. Lindberg’s first poem, “Book Lover.” The narrator in the poem is a freedman, Aristo, who survives the first shocks of Vesuvius’s eruption, but dies in the pyroclastic flow the next day. He was a librarian whose love for books surpassed that for even his family(or perhaps the family of his former master who also perished in the eruption. He was found by excavators still clutching his keys to the library. In another poem, “The House of the Deer,” a wealthy Roman family hoped to escape Vesuvius’s eruption by seeking shelter in the boathouses by the sea. As they fled they grabbed jewelry and coins, but in the end, even with their worldly goods, they died among the fishy nets of boats. Like Harold’s desire for the sculpted Gravida, the characters in Lindberg’s poems appear to displace their desire for family, safety, and home onto material things even as Pompeii crumbled around them. In both poems, Lindberg includes figures rushing about with pillows tied to their heads as if begging the reader to reflect on our dreamtime displacements. These desperate figures seem to embody our own pillow-headed efforts to capture our dreams as they flee the probing fingers of our conscious mind and solidifies the dream-like quality of the poems which capture individuals at the moment of crisis.

Reading these poems and listening to Cate Le Bon’s oneiric voice ask “Did you dream about Pompeii?” begged me to consider how “cities built on monumental rage” had became “lost in the seminar.” Primo Levi’s haunting poem “The Girl-Child of Pompeii” (1978 [1984 in Italian and 1992 in English]) offered a depressing clue. The poem juxtaposes the plaster cast of a child who died in the eruption of Vesuvius while clutching her mother with Anne Frank and the famous Hiroshima blast shadow of the girl jumping rope. This poem was brought to my attention by Joanna Paul’s chapter in Pompeii in the Public Imagination ((2011) edited by Paul and Shelley Halles). Pompeii’s monumental rage has made it a timeless vessel for the past horrors of the Holocaust and the looming anxiety of the nuclear age: “Since everyone’s anguish is our own | We live ours over again…” Cities built on rage reverberate across the centuries suffusing the seminar with displaced anxieties.

The anguished dreams of Le Bon, Lindberg, and Levi jarred me. I’ve never been to Pompeii, but I nevertheless feel like the city looms over our contemporary world in a million cautionary tales. Perhaps Malcolm Lowry’s short story, “Present Estate of Pompeii,” published in the Partisan Review in 1959 offers a perspective on Pompeii’s appropriate to our present time. In the story, Roderick MacGregor Fairhaven and his wife travel to Pompeii by train where she insistently takes her husband on a tour of the site. Roderick is distracted and finds the site’s “tragic because almost successful — effort at permenance.” And, in keeping with the Pompeii’s status as a place of displaced dreams, Roderick noted that “it looked sometimes as though the Romans here had made all their dreams come true in terms of convenience, wicked and good alike.” Pompeii was an ancient city reshaped by modern priorities.

The dream transported Roderick back to his home in British Columbia where his cabin stood across the bay from an oil refinery. As the Italian tour guide escorted him and his wife around Pompeii, Roderick recalled the violent explosion of oil tanker Salinas as it unloaded its cargo at the refinery. Mark Bould in his new book, The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture (2021) argues that most contemporary fiction manifests our displaced anxieties about climate change. Lowry’s story appears to anticipate this. The ancient and ruined convenience of Pompeii collided with the mechanism of convenience in the contemporary age as the flames from the burning ship subsided and the ship itself slipped away sparing the refinery an even greater calamity. The dead sun of Lindberg’s Pompeii and Lowry’s sun “as the fiery hub to a gigantic black-disked wheel tired by a rainbow” of spilled oil traced the calamity’s global proportions. The ruins of Pompeii were the ruins of the refinery and the ruins of convenience, wealth, and arrogance. Pompeii, whatever else it was, can, or could be reminded Roderick that “Man had become a raven staring at a ruined heronry. Well, let him deduce his own ravenhood from it if he could.”

As the specter of the global climate change looms over contemporary society, the site of Pompeii takes on new meaning for contemporary writers and readers. It is impossible to escape the tragic futility of convenience, wealth, and “the countless words of thinkers who tried to understand human nature” in the face of horrible power of nature. The best we can do is displace it onto powerless, if not uncooperative sites like Pompeii. Restoring Pompeii reveals a city saturated with Levi’s recurrent anguish, Le Bon’s rage, Lowry’s ravens at the heronry, and Lindberg’s imperceptible move from the end of life to the beginning of death. Pompeii always reminds us of the final and inescapable end.

As Lowry’s Roderick departed the city he abruptly asked the question that perhaps haunts anyone who thinks about Pompeii for more than a moment: “What it amounted to was a feeling that there was not going to be time. Did you want to harrow yourself looking at what had been only temporarily spared, at what was finally doomed? And Roderick could not help but wonder whether man too was not beginning to stand, in some profound inexplicable scene, fundamentally in some such imperfect or dislocated relation to his environment as he.”

Fiction for History

Last week, I listened to my first audiobook: Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. It was lavishly produced (I think) and featured numerous actors and accents to enliven a story with a genuinely global reach. It is worth reading (or listening to). 

The book tells the story of climate change the role of a ministry established by the Paris Climate Agreement and designed to represent future generations as well as all those living entities on the Earth that could not speak or represent themselves. What interested me more than the plot (which is a Robinsonian plot if there ever was one) was the way in which Robinson wrote the book. It consisted of 106 chapters, most of which were short. Some chapters were narrative, others were vignettes, some were short research briefs, and others were odd first person descriptions of various inanimate objects such as blockchain or a carbon molecule. As a result, the book had a intriguing rhythm to it (especially as an audiobook). Robinson did not rely upon the rather typical (especially in science fiction and fantasy) device of intertwined parallel narratives (and, indeed, Robinson used in, say, his book Red Mars), but rather produced a book that is fragmented, constantly interrupted, and comprised of related, but non-narrative fragments.

This style of writing got me thinking (once again) about how dependent we have become as academic authors on FORM. In fact, most academic books in my field are essentially the same form as most other academic books. This is convenient because it allows us a scholars to digest them quickly and focus our attention more on matters of evidence and argument than on the book’s organization or, for lack of a better word, narrative. This is appropriate because most academics have the skills and knowledge necessary to evaluate evidence and argument not only based on their internal arrangement (which as I’ve said tends to be more or less the same with every book), but also and more importantly based on the relationship of the evidence and argument to other external pieces of evidence and other arguments. As a result, it is pretty hard for someone who is not familiar with evidence and arguments at the core of a particular field to assess the validity or significance of an academic book or argument.

When historians and archaeologists attempt to adapt their writing to more popular audiences, we tend to default to forms of linear narratives derived from popular fiction and journalism. This produces texts that are familiar to a wide audience and that follow predictable arcs which tend to emphasize various kinds of heroic discovery or other tragic or comedic forms of emplotment that modern fiction (and non-fiction) has honed to a fine and familiar point. Authority in these works tends to rest, then, not on the quality of the story (although a fine storyteller can make even an old tired story come alive again), but usually on the authority of the storyteller. This is as much because a popular (that is non-scholarly) audience will probably struggle to assess the validity of specialized evidence (or be uninterested) as the form of the book is so typical and familiar to be rather indistinguishable from other books. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the argument or setting or time is the same, but that the general organization of the narrative follows a common and predictable trajectory populated with characters recognizable from elsewhere in our media saturated landscape.

In short, academic writing tends to be conservative whether intended for other academics or for a popular audience. This not only makes our work familiar and easy to digest and assess, but also supports our claims to a seriousness of purpose. When academic authors stray too far from the conventional forms, they are frequently accused of not being sufficiently serious or professional in their approach and this makes it easier to dismiss their arguments.

Robinson’s book, of course, is fiction and therefore removed from the constraints that shape scholarly work. By blending research and narrative, Robinson creates space to consider the social, political, and economic situation of a near-future existentially challenged by catastrophic climate change. The disrupted narrative embodies the poly-vocal (and at times cacophonic) discourse that emerges at the end of the world.

At the same time, the main narrative that runs through the book is a retelling of one of the most familiar stories in the world: the Gospels. The main character is Mary, a diplomat, who transforms the Ministry for the Future into a major force for global change. This occurred after a conversion experience. She is taken hostage by Frank, a man who survived a catastrophic Indian heat wave that killed 20 million people by sheltering in a pond surrounded by thousands of Indians who were dead or dying. This horrific baptism led Frank to period of wandering (in deserto) and growing radicalism that culminates in his abduction of Mary.

Maybe Mary is more like Jesus. Or maybe she is more like the Virgin. In some sense it doesn’t matter because she’s a familiar character whatever her analogue is in the Gospel narrative. She is surrounded by  apostles, who make up her staff, and include figures who are like Peter, Thomas, and the others (even if there is no conspicuous Judas) and some of whom become martyrs for the cause. Her Ministry (pun intended) introduces new laws designed to address not only the deteriorating situation but also to create new institutions that will replace those that are no longer adequate for the new world. To make sure that the daft reader, distracted and disconcerted by a narrative interrupted by fragments, digressions, and changing perspectives, doesn’t miss the explicitly millenarian arc, the final scenes of the book take place on Mardi Gras, the last big party before the rigorous preparation of Lent. This leads the reader to understand that this is not even the beginning, but really the end of the end, and the moment when the real hard work in anticipation and in preparation for the Resurrection starts.

Robinson’s book is a hard, serious, and uncomfortable read. It asks hard questions: are we ready to think about our future differently now or will we have to experience unthinkable horrors to make the necessary changes? 

As importantly, do contemporary academic and popular narratives have the necessary power to change hearts and minds? Or do we have to find new ways to communicate new ideas?