The Bakken, Petroculture, and the Anthropocene

Last week, like many folks, I’ve been thinking a good bit about science and the humanities. The march for science has prompted some of this, but so has some recent reading on petroculture and the Anthropocene for my graduate historiography seminar. I read Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement (2016); Bob Johnson’s Carbon Nation: Fossil Fuels in the Making of American Culture (2014); Dipesh Chakrabarty’s seminal “Climate of History: Four Theses,”; Bruno Latour’s “Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene,” and Timothy LeCain’s “Against the Anthropocene: A Neo-Materialist Perspective.”

All of these are fine works by people a good bit smarter than me. 

They’re fueling my thoughts right now on how to bring my long-term research in the Bakken oil patch, which primarily focuses on workforce housing, into a meaningful conversation with recent work on petroculture, agency, and the Anthropocene. It seems like many of these authors write with sweeping perspectives and gestures, and this makes sense because the scale of the Anthropocene and modernism pushes historians to think on both expansive time spans and immersive levels of culture. In particular, they interrogate agency in ways that sever it from the immediacy of human experience. The agency of the Earth, for example, is not something that can always been encountered in a life time, a century, or even a millennium.  Climate change, geology, and even the place and aspect of the Earth in its orbit around the sun contribute to our experience of life at widely varying degrees of immediacy. We may encounter the impact of climate change in our lifetime, but the history of climate change and the role of climate and human actions on shaping our world unfolds over many generations. As several of these scholars have noted, the time spans involved in understanding these phenomena and the complexities of agency alone challenge conventional historical methods.

My work in the Bakken, in contrast, has been much more granular and detailed and focused on a tiny sliver of modernity and petroculture as well as a small window into some of the mechanisms that have contributed to the creation of the Anthropocene. My hope is that by doing this on the local level, we can encounter more readily the intersection of modern labor regimes, domestic practices, work habits (and taskscapes), and technologies (as sophisticated as fracking and as longstanding as railroads). Local perspectives push us to articulate the points of contacts between human and non-human actors in the modern world. Further complicating this is the pace of modernity which accelerates experiences and makes certain moments of interaction particularly ephemeral and generates a tension between the dense networks that allow agents to interact and the episodes of interaction.

My current projects have looked to engage this in two distinct ways:

First, in a book that should appear this fall, I’ve tried to describe the Bakken through the perspective of the tourist. Tourism offers a distinctly modern way of viewing the landscape of petroculture. The imagined tourist to the Bakken participates in a way of viewing (the so-called Tourist Gaze) that relies upon both modern technologies of travel as well as modern ways of organizing space, time, and labor. The neatly organized tourist itineraries punctuated by sites of historical importance and bookended by regular meals, accommodations, and packaged amenities. The Bakken tourist is both within and separate from the world of labor, and this reinforces certain ways of organizing experience that produces divisions between what we can see – an objective reality – and who we are. By making this dichotomy known and apparent, we make the barriers between ourselves and the world susceptible to increased scrutiny. The divisions between the tourist and people, sites, and events that the tourist sees is not so radically different from the division between our gaze as humans and “nature.” And this division has been the target of so many recent critiques of our modern fate and the Anthropocene.     

My research in the Bakken offers that opportunity to bring in human voices, not at the level of society or even in some other meaningful aggregate way, but at the level of the individual. Next year, my colleague Bret Weber will publish a massive collection of interviews with residents of the Bakken. While these interviews are wide ranging and don’t speak to a single moment or issue, they offer an immediately human perspective on petroculture and the mechanisms that have shaped the Anthropocene. If the Bakken provides a circumscribed spatial context to dig deeply into petroculture and place, then the interviews offer a human scale for the interaction between people, extractive industries, and the landscape. The challenge will be to see if I can extract (pun intended!) petroculture and the workings of the Anthropocene at the level of the individual interview and trace our own place in the late modern world in the Bakken workforce.

Book Day: Haunted by Waters

Please do join me in congratulating David Haeselin and his students in the Writing, Editing, and Publishing program at the University of North Dakota for their first collaboration with The Digital Press: Haunted By Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997.

The book is now available for FREE download from The Digital Press’s page. Originally we had decided to release a teaser for the book during “flood week,” but for some crazy reason, David Haeselin and I decided to accelerate production to get the digital version of the book out this week. So it is READY.

The project is a great example of a kind of local, civic-minded, public, digital humanities project. The students, who had no memories of the flood, explored the archives, the earlier literature on the flood, and constructed a book that spoke to the social memories of the flood that they encountered through their time at UND and in Grand Forks. So the book is both a reflection of their experiences and a contribution to the mediated memory of the flood.

Download it today! 

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The Northern Great Plains History Conference and the Bakken

Next fall, the Northern Great Plains History Conference will be in Grand Forks. So my colleagues and I put together a panel proposal on the Bakken.

Here it is:

The 21st-century Bakken Oil Boom in Historical Perspective

While the Bakken Oil Boom may have gone into momentary abeyance, its long shadow continues to extend over both the economy and the cultural and political imagination of North Dakota. The papers in this panel consider the technological innovations that led to the increase oil production and population, the historical context for violence in the region, and the structure of the Bakken work force as a manifestation of the 21st-centurty concerns with precarity. The final paper presents a broadly synthetic attempt to frame the Bakken at the intersection of late modernity, petroculture, and the tourist’s gaze upon an industrialized landscape. These papers offer a distinct local and early effort by historians to understand the history of the Bakken Boom and to reflect on contemporary and future challenges facing the state.

North Dakota’s Super Boom:  How Fracking Changed Production in Bakken
Clarence Herz, Department of History, North Dakota State University

From Prohibition to Safe Harbor: Reflections on the Past, Present, and Future of North Dakota’s Commercial Sex Laws
Nikki Berg Burin, Department of History, University of North Dakota

Tales of Murder and Mayhem: Historical Violence in the Bakken
Richard Rothaus, North Dakota University System 

Aliens in the Bakken: Precarity and Workforce Housing
Bret Weber, Department of Social Work, University of North Dakota

The Bakken Gaze: Tourism, Petroculture, and Modern Views of an Industrial Landscape
William Caraher, Department of History, University of North Dakota

 

A Forthcoming Book from The Digital Press: Haunted by Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997

With any luck and a little concentration, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will release two books next week. I already mentioned the first book yesterday: Corinth Excavations Archaeological Manual. Today’s book is a bit more close to home here in the Red River Valley: Haunted By Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997, edited by David Haeselin and the advanced writing, editing, and publishing class in the English Department at the University of North Dakota. Here’s a sneak peek at the table of contents!

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Here is press release that the class prepared announcing the book:

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is proud to announce the publication of Haunted by Waters, an anthology written, collected, and edited by Dr. David Haeselin and students from the writing, editing, and publishing certificate program in UND’s English department. Including new additions from various contributors and archival documents, this anthology explores the Greater Grand Forks area twenty years after the devastating Red River of the North flood of 1997.

As the twentieth anniversary of the Red River flood approaches, many citizens of Grand Forks have pushed the disaster to the back of their minds. People have since moved on, their houses rebuilt and their minds focused on the present. Grand Forks stands as a model of recovery for this reason: the city managed to recover and grow stronger. 

Scheduled for digital publication on April 20, 2017 (with a print version available from May 1, 2017 via Amazon), Haunted by Waters offers readers a new chance to explore how communities came together to face of the historic disaster, how they recovered, and, for the first time, the composition of the community that survives the disaster two decades later. 

Many University students are almost oblivious about the flood. If anything, they notice the monument standing proud and mighty near the Greenway, but few take the time to read the plaque or even approach the monument. They glimpse at it and then move on with their lives. Haunted by Waters offer readers the chance to slow down, to notice, to create a sense of memory. According to Dr. David Haeselin, the collection hopes to give these students all other readers “the occasion to look backward so that they can look forward.”

Janet Rex, librarian at the Chester Fritz, asks in her poem included in the book: “How can one convey disaster? The spaces of loss. Nothing flows so smoothly as water oozing over land, creeping through the grass, seeping into windows, cellars, filling streets like rivers, basements like pools.” Haunted by Waters tries it best to answer not just that question, but it also asks: what kind of Grand Forks do we want to see in the future? This collection provides new ways to enter to the historical conversation while also considering what it means to live in the Red River Valley today as workers, as neighbors, as authors, as professors, as students, and, most of all, as citizens. Twenty years later, these voices have more to say. 

A book release event is scheduled for Thursday, April 20 at 6:00 p.m. at Rhombus Guys Brewing Company, 116 S. Third Street. This release is being planned in coordination with the city of Grand Forks’ twentieth anniversary observation. At this event, student editors will discuss their experiences editing the book and how building their sense of memory about the flood has changed the way they see Grand Forks and the University.

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota serves “to publish timely works in the digital humanities, broadly conceived. Whenever possible, we produce open access, digital publications, that can attract local and global audiences” and the Writing/Editing/Publishing program at UND aims to teach its students “to produce and edit documents for diverse purposes in a variety of media and contexts.” Together, Haunted by Waters has been created by its editor(s) to embody these ideas while expanding the breadth of knowledge of the Red River Valley region’s history.

 

Layout Week at The Digital Press

Some deadlines you have to respect more than others. On April 17th, Grand Forks remembers the first day of the massive 1997 Red River flood that reshaped most of the town and shaped the community’s memory.

On April 20th, The Digital Press will release a new book edited by David Haeselin of University of North Dakota’s English Department and produced by a year long course in Writing, Editing, and Publishing in that department. The book is called Haunted by Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997, and students, most of whom were not alive in 1997, shaped the content to help them grasp the significance of the flood. The book brings together essays by community leaders, interviews, historical documents, and other reflections on the flood to create a work that looks both to future memories and the past.

I have almost nothing to do with the content in the book, but I am doing a good bit of the layout. I have a few draft templates prepared and I think that they look pretty good:

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I played around a bit with a wavy line both under the chapter titles and under each page number which I located in the margins of the book rather than at the top or bottom. The text is set in Jansen (which I think is appropriate for a book with a bit of a somber tone) and the headings are in Avenir which I thought just looked right against the more formal Jansen. 

This is definitely not a link to a preview page.

And this is definitely not a preview of the cover:

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The University of North Dakota Budget Crisis in the Classroom

At a meeting a week before spring break, one of the student representatives expressed concern about the University of North Dakota budget crisis impacting teaching (and learning) on campus. He noted that low faculty morale and a lack of confidence in university leadership did little to motivate learners and had become a distraction. I think this must be true, but I’m also not sure what anyone can do about it. The entire campus community is being impacted by the budget cuts, and so it is hardly surprising that it is seeping into the classroom.

[This is the sixth in a series of blog posts on the UND budget crisis go to part 1part 2part 3part 4, and part 5.]

In my graduate historiography class, we’ve embraced the opportunity to discuss the impact of the budget crisis, in part, because it impacts the academic careers of the students in the class. Because our graduate program was de-funded, there will be very few courses available for our M.A. and D.A. students in the next year or so, and we will admit no funded students next semester. In other words, these students will witness a lull in our graduate program that will directly impact their education.

After some discussion, we decided that the best response from this class could be some kind of apologia or manifesto defending graduate education in history and the humanities more broadly. We agreed to open to make our work one to the public, first through a series of critiques by faculty and graduate students in our department and then to the wider community for comment. This work would fit into both a broader discussion of public humanities (for the students) and as part of a wider effort to document the impact of the budget cuts “on the ground.”

I read the first draft of their work this weekend with great interest. It’s pretty good, and my point in this post isn’t to call the students out on their work, but to note a few trends in their work that I think characterize the current budget situation at UND.

1. Causal Confusion. One of the most striking things about their work is the confusion about where the budget cuts that impact them originated. Most students blamed the legislature for the reduced funding to higher education, but some vaguely blamed “the administration.” What was consistent is that none of the students entirely grasped the process of budget cutting on campus and the various levels of responsibility and accountability. This suggests that the administration’s efforts to communicate how the budget cuts worked have not made it to the level of the students most effected by them.

While it is easy to say that my students needed to dig a bit deeper to understand administrative processes and the like, it is nevertheless an interesting situation that the regular drumbeat of communication from the administration did not appear to shape their views. Whether this reflects a commitment to a “post factual world,” a bit of lazy research, or a failure of the administration’s communication strategy (or a bit of all three) remains difficult to know right now.

2. Historical Context. The other issue that was a bit disappointing to me was the lack of historical context for these budget cuts. While the first draft showed a broad awareness that similar budget cuts had taken place elsewhere and that cuts to the humanities fit within a pattern that oscillates between seeing universities as workforce training and being seen as places to build civic identities and common values deeply rooted in the humanities. What was absent was any effort to locate these cuts in the history of the state or the university. 

These aren’t the first budget cuts at UND, and there is plenty of evidence available for how the university has dealt with similar cuts in the past. More importantly, there is a long pattern of attitudes toward the larger mission of higher education both at UND and across the state available both in published works, like L. Geiger’s history of the university, and in the university archives. 

Again, my inclination is not to blame the students for this oversight, but, of course, as historians you would imagine that they’d have attacked the problem using their historical toolkit. Instead, students were drawn into current rhetoric which sees these cuts and unprecedented and approaches the problem of the budget cuts in a fundamentally ahistorical way. This frees the administration to act without any kind of commitment to historical practices, processes, or (with all due caveats) tradition. It is difficult to make the case that history matters without engaging history fully in diagnosing and assessing the problems and potential solutions.

3. Petroculture. One thing that I did notice right in the background of many of the contributions to this effort is the looming specter of oil and some linked the budget shortfalls and budget cuts on the decline of oil prices. A subtle strand throughout the work is that history and historical thinking would have helped the state and the university better anticipate and adapt to the mercurial fluctuations in oil prices.

It is curious, though, that unlike many places in the world where oil has had a major impact on the local economies, none of the humanities institutions in North Dakota have yet to promote or develop a sustained interest in petrocultures. Petrocultures or Oil Humanities describes any number of approaches to economy, history, literature, or culture of oil production and consumption across various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. They absence of a focus on oil and the humanities in North Dakota has left the state unprepared to engage the challenges of the oil economy and petroculture. As the state prepares itself to be even more accommodating to extractive industry, there is greater pressure for scholars and students of the humanities to provide a critical foil to these developments. 

Tourism, Enclosure, and Extractive Industries

About a year ago I submitted a manuscript to a university press that purports to be a tourist guide to the Bakken oil patch. Longtime readers might remember some of the posts here that fed into this project, and while my publisher wanted me to pull down most of the content produce prior to writing the book, I’m still producing content.

This weekend I read big chunks of Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard 2011). It’s really good. The book made me understand some things about my own work that I probably didn’t get when I wrote my tourist guide. It’s not enough to make me want my manuscript back, but enough to make me want to start to build a new scaffolding around that texts that makes it less “clever” and make more sense.

(I have to admit that I was too enamored by the gimmick of a tourist guide and its quaint generic conventions, and not thoughtful enough about what I was trying to do with the genre and the gimmick.)

Nixon brought to my attention work by Jamaica Kincaid, Njabulo Ndebele, and June Jordan, who explicitly connected tourism with practices of exclusion (and race). For my purposes, I’m more interested in the link between tourism, exclusion, and labor. Tourist resorts in the Caribbean and game lodges in South Africa each depend upon practices associated with exclusion. They not only limited where tourists can (or should) go but also hides from sight the places set aside for the labor that allows for tourists to have a tidy experience. Tourists, in effect, come to place and extract from it an experience built in part upon local labor (or, in some cases, natural beauty). Moreover, tourists are short term visitors who arrive, are shuttled to their destination, and whose encounter with their environment is strictly managed.

In my tourist guide, I make an effort to reframe our encounter with the Bakken as tourism but I’m not sure that I understood how deep these parallels extended. Workforce comes to the Bakken to extract oil and in doing so encounters the landscape and the place in a strictly managed way. The worker in the Bakken experiences the partitioned encounter between the secure confines of workforce housing and the clearly delimited worksite. In many cases, the worker has very little to do with the relatively unstructured world of longterm residents in the Bakken counties. As with most extractive industries, the workers engagement with the landscape leaves both physical scars and waste as well as social disruption in its wake. To be fair, the oil industry in the Bakken also provides wealth and opportunities to the communities that it impacts, but these opportunities come at a cost of dependence on outside capital and workforce at least for the foreseeable future. And since transnational oil companies do not come to North Dakota (or anywhere) to share their revenues, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where the communities impacted by the Bakken boom are left better off than they were prior to the most recent boom. Evidence for this comes from communities impacted by extractive industries around the world  which have shared only unevenly in the benefits of oil and shouldered most of the short and longterm environmental, economic, and social burdens. The controversial protests associated with the Dakota Access Pipeline and the recent budget short falls (and ensuing fiscal chaos) at the state level clearly point in this direction. 

The same, of course, can be said about tourism. The tourism industry thrives on the low labor costs, neatly managed (and insulated) experiences, and outside capital. The social, economic, and political costs of this structured dependency are well known.

Three Things Thursday

I know, this is getting to be kind of lame, but whatever… I have a few fun little posts for this week that I’ll bring together here.

Bakken Goes Bust

First, everyone should go and read my buddy Kyle Conway’s recent work on the Bakken. He and I have been talking lately about producing something that discusses how the Bakken Goes Bust. In many ways, this is a follow up and expansion of our 2016 edited volume, The Bakken Goes Boom (2016).

So far, he’s written two posts with the hope that other people chime in, but as we’ve discovered, things are never that easy. So we’ve chatted a bit about a virtual conference on the topic, and I think that might work, but we’d have to figure out exactly how to structure it. 

The UND Writers Conference

The UND writers conference is the highlight of every spring here in the North Dakotaland. Even when I don’t love the theme or the speakers, the event is amazing. This year, I do like the them “Citizen” so check out the program and plan to wander over to UND’s campus. Here’s the director talking about this year’s conference.

It looks great.

American School of Classical Studies at Athens Annual Meeting

One of the strangest and (sometimes) wonderful things about archaeology is that archaeological knowledge disseminates in a wide range of ways. The annual meeting of the foreign schools in Athens is one of the bests ways to learn about ongoing archaeological work as each school summarizes the work of its projects over the course of the year. This information comes out in advance of international conference papers, published reports, peer-reviewed articles, and, certainly, final publication. There is something profoundly local about the practice of the annual meetings and the practice of presenting the results of the year in Athens ties the provenience of objects and the location of sites to the public venue where results and analysis are first disseminated.

I remember the first times I went to the annual meeting and the feeling that I had “insider” information that was not immediately available to people living outside of Athens. There was a feeling that archaeology was about being in that place.

 Of course, technology has changed this (and I thought about this change in a more systematic way here). You can watch the American School of Classical Studies’ Annual Meeting live stream here. It’s tomorrow at 7 pm EET (or 11 am CST). 

Altas.ti and the North Dakota Man Camp Project

For the past few years, I’ve been fretting about how to begin to analyze the large body of relatively unstructured data collected from our research in the Bakken oil patch. This includes thousands of photographs, hours of video, interviews, and various notes. Most of our preliminary analysis has drawn upon our field notes and selective and impressionistic readings of the data that we collected. This is not to suggest that our analysis is wrong, but it lacked a certain amount of nuance in part because we were overwhelmed by the quantity of data that our methods produced.

The issue is partly because we decided early on to collect data at the regional level largely because we we were not entirely sure what our sites would look like and how to best document them. After a few trips, however, we had identified over 50 workforce housing sites across the region that clearly housed workers associated with the oil boom, had a diversity of units (generally RVs) and approaches to life in “the patch,” and showed signs of change through time. We then used photography and video to document these sites over the course of numerous short field seasons of only a few days. The resulting archive captured the dynamism of the Bakken oil patch through time and a remarkable level of detail about individual workforce housing sites and units.

Over the summer, I had a few fascinating conversations with a Colorado Ph.D. student, Erin Baxter, whose dissertation research used Atlas.ti to organize and analyze photographs that formed the only historical record of a century-old excavation by Earl Morris in the American southwest. She explained to me how she used the software to track various features of the excavation through multiple photographs. Atlas.ti also made it easier for her to organize and analyze the photographs including certain features or chronological indicators that would allow her to reconstruct the history of the excavation. (I’m sure it much more complex than what I described, but that was my take away!) 

This prompted me to write a little grant and get a copy of Atlas.ti (which isn’t cheap!) and to begin to use it to code my photographs from the Bakken. This week, I ran a pretty basic trial of 70 photos taken in October 2014. These photos produce the following list of codes which correspond either to features or conditions visible in the photographs:

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The code list is still in a bit of flux and will undoubtedly be expanded, but after even just 70 photos, it is a pretty good summary of objects and conditions associated with workforce housing in the Bakken.

The photographs that produced this code list are group according to date and camp number and when possible by unit in a camp. This will allow me to consider changes through time and across different camps while also controlling for our tendency to take more photographs of particularly interesting units or units with substantial number of associated features and objects. While we are not coding images to produce explicitly quantifiable data, it looks like we can use the grouping function in Atlas.ti to allow us to document the distribution of features proportionately across our study sites.

Finally, Atlas.ti will also allow us to code video and text which we can also group according to site. With any luck this allows us to connect more explicitly our evidence from interviews and systematic video with our photographic documentation. 

So, stay tuned as I explore how Atlas.ti can create a more nuanced image of workforce housing during the Bakken boom.