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.

Environmental History at the Northern Great Plains History Conference

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a couple sessions at the Northern Great Plains History Conference in Fargo. Each year that I end up attending this conference, I invariably return home with a head swimming with new ideas and perspectives. 

This year, I managed to only make it to two sessions: one where I presented with the other editors of state journals, and the other on environmental history. This latter panel got me thinking about two long simmering projects on my overloaded academic hot stove.

First, I was completely fascinated by Kathleen Brokke’s paper on the environmental history of the Red River Valley. It was poetic and sweeping and managed to draw me into the complexities of the tall grass prairie, the wooded river and stream banks, and even the more recent shelter belts, ditches, and fields of the Red River Valley.

I have to admit that didn’t quite grasp relevance of her work until it intersected in my head with David Vail’s paper on the Great Plains Agricultural Council’s work in the 1950s. Vail demonstrated that the administrative logic and pubic presentation of the GPAC aligned with the same national security priorities present in such programs as Civil Defense. In the 1950s, fear of another dust-bowl type drought and the potential for both short term and long-term damage to agricultural outputs (and food security) motivated large scale research and policy making from the executive branch of the US government. The most visible example of this was the personal involvement of both President Eisenhower, who toured the most vulnerable agricultural areas of the Great Plains in the 1950s, and former President Truman who was active on GPAC as an advisor. 

This helped me realize that the efforts to tame the flow of the Red River of the North through the city of Grand Forks in the 1950s was part of a larger program associated with the post-war and Cold War restructuring of American society and its landscape. It was interesting to hear about the series of dams built in the 1950s to control the flow of the Missouri and Sheyenne Rivers for irrigation and power. At the same time, the city of Grand Forks, which had started to expand to the south following emerging trends in suburbanization remained susceptible to flooding from the Red River. The devastating Red River flood of 1950 prompted a new set of flood walls constructed by the Army Corp of Engineers to protect the downtown of the growing city. At around the same time, the US Air Force started construction on the Strategic Air Command base at Grand Forks. 

The development of shopping centers, malls, housing developments with large lots, modern churches, schools, and recreation facilities contributed to the creation of the post-war city that manifested the privileges of convenience, consumer culture, and the steady growth of the “butter economy”. Of course, this growth also included features like bomb shelters and new forms of architecture inspired by military installations (e.g. not only brutalism, but also more broadly modernist forms of architecture that embrace the coarse textures of concrete and fortified facades that imitate gun slits).

The 1997 flood wall, constructed by the US Army Corp of Engineers no less, mimics the forms of military architecture with its solid concrete walls (textured in an ashlar pattern) and long stretches of substantial earthen barriers. Thus by the end of the 20th century the Red River itself was subjected to militarized forms of discipline which served to protect the vulnerable consumer culture that emerged on Grand Forks’s expanding urban grid. Thus, environmental history, the Cold War, and Civil Defense intersected in the developing landscape of Grand Forks in ways that I wouldn’t have considered fully had I not enjoyed a couple of papers at the Northern Great Plains History Conference.

New Book Day: The Library of Chester Fritz

It’s homecoming week at UND and we have a homecoming themed book for New Book Day! It’s the first book in what should be a pretty exciting 2022/2023 publishing season!

CCF COVER Single

Brian R. Urlacher’s, The Library of Chester Fritz, is the first novel published by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, but is very much in keeping with our focus on the history of the state, our campus, and the region’s remarkable characters.

More importantly (especially to anyone without a real connection to North Dakota or UND), the book is a good story. Urlacher’s novel weaves his story into the real journals of Chester Fritz to produce chimerical narrative where Fritz’s words, Urlacher’s story, and the landscape of early 20th century China combine to create a world where the line between truth and fiction is so blurry as to be almost indistinguishable.

If that sounds pretty cool to you, you can download the book for FREE from The Digital Press website or buy it for the low, low price of $7 from Amazon. Remember being a paperback copy offers more than just the fine sensation of holding a paper book in you hand, but also supports The Digital Press’s mission to publish more open access books in the future!

https://thedigitalpress.org/the-library-of-chester-fritz/

If you’re still on the fence as to whether to download a free book, I offer a slightly more dramatic version of the book’s plot below:

Fate has entangled a library, a businessman, and the future of humanity. A trail of documents left behind by an eccentric businessman, traveler, and philanthropist Chester Fritz is the only way to understand the urgent danger. This book brings together Chester Fritz’s journals and follows his travels through war torn China and his ascent to the heights of global capitalism.

As World War II plunges the world into chaos, Fritz and his traveling companions wrestle with what to do and what forces are too dangerous or too dark for humanity to wield. But something must be done, and the decision will fall to Chester Fritz.

Thank you, as always, for supporting The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and, if you like this title, do share your enthusiasm over twitter (@digitalpressund) or Facebook.

If you don’t like this title, that’s ok! It was FREE. And I’m pretty sure we’ll publish something that you DO like later in 2022-2023 season!

The formal press release is below and you can download the book’s full media kit here.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Time is Running Out!

The Chester Fritz Library holds the secret of its mysterious donor and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Anyone who has spent time on the University of North Dakota’s campus knows it to be an enchanted place. A new novel takes this feeling to the next level.

The Library of Chester Fritz, is the debut novel by Professor of Political Science, Brian R. Ulacher. This daring and imaginative work hints that the power of the UND campus might go far beyond its well-kept gardens and collegiate Gothic architecture. Urlacher’s novel traces the travels of former UND student and benefactor, Chester Fritz, through early 20th-century China and speculates that his experiences on this journey introduced him to a powerful, and dangerous, secret.

Chester Fritz’s journal a version of which was published by the University of North Dakota Press in the 1980s and describes his work and travels in China prior to World War II. Fritz was born in Buxton, North Dakota and attended UND before heading to the West Coast and then abroad to make his fortune. In 1950 and 1969, Fritz made sizeable donations to UND which funded the library and auditorium that bear his name. Urlacher built from this manuscript and developed his story in a way that integrates seamlessly with Fritz’s own words. The result is a chimerical narrative where Fritz’s words, Urlacher’s story, and the landscape of early 20th century China combine to create a world where the line between truth and fiction is so blurry as to be almost indistinguishable.

Urlacher points out that Fritz’s journals themselves offer more than enough fodder for the imagination. He said, “I’m fascinated and frankly perplexed by Fritz’s choice to travel across China in 1917. He was utterly unprepared when he set his course through the heart of a civil war in which warlords, bandits, and crusader armies vied for every inch of territory.”

In Urlacher’s novel, Fritz’s mysterious experiences abroad become entangled with his monumental library at the heart of the UND campus. Urlacher explains that he was inspired by the Chester Fritz Library: “I’ve spent a lot of time just wandering among the stacks. I’m not sure if other people experience this, but I get a static tingle in libraries. Something about massing books, each representing a lifetime’s worth of experience, in such close proximity is powerful. There are so many stories about books being more than just pages, and libraries being more than just buildings. When I sat down to start world building, there was never a question of where to anchor the story. It had to be the Chester Fritz Library.”

Urlacher noted that something of Chester Fritz’s spirit lingers on our campus, observing, “Fritz had this unshakable optimism, and it comes through in his journal. He writes with an understated North Dakota humor, which is makes for very charming prose.”

Like all books from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, The Library of Chester Fritz is available as a free download or as a paperback book from Amazon.com.

 

Horace Woodworth and UND

Last week, the university newsletter published a little story on some building foundations discovered on the campus quad during recent renovations. These buildings were hardly unexpected as were part of the early 20th century campus plan that the mid-century plan overlaid in a clumsy fashion.

They even included this handy map showing the two campus plans superimposed on one another. Like it not, we continue to work on a campus shaped by its mid-century plan despite the sometimes dramatic updates made to individual buildings.  

UND campus map WEB

My post today is less interested in changing plan of campus and more interested in the figures commemorated in these early buildings. In particular, I was very pleased to see that Woodworth Hall once again appeared on our campus (only to be reburied). As the story reports, Woodworth Hall was built in 1910 and stood on campus until it was lost to a fire in 1949. It featured classroom, a 400-seat auditorium, a small gymnasium for women, and faculty offices for the education (in its various guises on the early UND campus). The building is usually credited to end of Webster Merrifield’s term as University President although it was built in the first years of Frank McVey’s term as president.

Image 34

The building was originally named Teachers College, but then renamed after Horace B. Woodworth in 1912. I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed that the article by the UND’s media team didn’t even mention the building’s namesake. Woodworth was one of the first members of the influential early cadre of UND faculty sometimes called the “Merrifield” faculty. He was hired to teach Mathematics, Physics, and Astronomy, which he had nearly no qualifications to teach other than a series of degrees from East Coast institutions and time as a pastor at a Congregational church in Iowa. By the mid-1890s, however, his interest had shifted toward history and he published one of the first “histories” of the state (which had hardly existed long enough to require or deserve a proper history): The Government of the People of the State of North Dakota, published by Eldredge and Brother in Philadelphia. By 1902, he achieved the rank of Professor of History and was the first faculty member at any North Dakota institution to earn this distinction. By the time of his retirement at UND he had emerged as both one of the most respected faculty members on campus and a kind of campus conscience who helped the young institution chart its course through the turbulent turn of the 20th century. 

It is interesting to notice that with the disappearance of the building named for him on campus, his memory has faded as well. One wonders whether this kind of forgetting is useful for institutions as each generation tries to mould the university to its own standards and priorities or whether when we forget figures like Woodworth, we lose a bit of what gives an university its gravitas in contemporary society.

I wrote some more about Woodworth here and in my history of the UND history department here.

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.

Book by its Cover: The Library of Chester Fritz

As the semester looms, I’m working to wrap up some publishing projects with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and North Dakota Quarterly including two new novellas. One is entering typesetting soon but the other is almost ready for prime time!

The first should be out in time for homecoming at the end of September: The Library of Chester Fritz by Brian R. Urlacher. It’s brilliantly entertaining piece of University of North Dakota-themed Gothic horror! 

As a little sneak peek, here’s the current, almost complete, cover draft.

CCF COVER pdf 2022 08 10 05 24 01

Curious? 

Drop me a line in the comments if you want to see an advanced copy!

Photo Friday

I’m slowly getting into shape this summer in preparation for a long ride toward the end of the month.

The process has been a bit more painful than I would have hoped and while I’m still looking forward to the longer ride, the training is not entirely enjoyable. I did take a couple of nice photos of another bridge over the North Marais River.

IMG 7854

IMG 7860

It’s a pretty bridge.

The Other Hampsten

Like most Americans, I’m up early this morning to watch stage Stage 12 of the Tour de France which ascends the famous Alpe d’Huez while keeping an eye on the USA-Zimbabwe cricket match in the Men’s T20 World Cup qualifier

Americans have a particular interest in Alpe d’Huez this year because 30 years ago, “the Other American”, Andy Hampsten, won this stage and is the only American to have ever won this iconic climb in the Tour de France. Hampsten is particularly special to me because because he grew up in Grand Forks, North Dakota where I now live. In fact, last weekend, I rode some of the very same hills that I imagined Hampsten training on.

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This post, however, is not about Andy Hampsten, but his mother, Elizabeth Hampsten, who taught for many years at the University of North Dakota. In addition to a prestigious career as a scholar and translator, she served for over twenty years on the editorial board of North Dakota Quarterly. As far as I know, she only ever published one article in the Quarterly, “A Reading of Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Arthur” which appeared in NDQ 35.2 (1967). Some 30 years late, she worked with Stephen Dilks to create the first North Dakota Quarterly reader, which you can explore here. A decade after this, some 40 years after her first publication in the Quarterly’s pages, Prof. Hampsten continued  of service on the journal’s advisory board.