An Archaeology of Structural Violence

This weekend, I read Michael Roller’s An Archaeology of Structural Violence: Life in a 20th Century Coal Town (2018). It’s a pretty compelling book that considers the history and archaeology of Lattimer No. 2 (later Pardeesville), Pennsylvania from its origins as a company town for a local coal baron to its late 20th and 21st century history as a community struggling to adapt to changing economic realities. The book is pretty complex and it contributes to quite a few of my ongoing research areas from life in boom and bust communities to archaeology of the contemporary world, borders and immigration, and the role of modernity in creating contemporary labor regimes.

While this book deserves a formal review, I simply don’t have time this week (and it’s really short enough that it deserves to be read in full). So here are some of my key take aways:

1.  Immigrants and Identity. The residents of Lattimer No. 2 largely consisted of Southern and Eastern European immigrants and their status as immigrants had a significant effect on their economic and social status. Roller linked the late-19th century process of national building and borders as a key step in defining the status of these groups. During the process of immigration, individuals lost identities bound up in their social and political status in the old country, and entered the US as individuals defined by their passports and their names inscribed on ship manifests, immigration ledgers, and, ultimately employment paperwork. Following the work of Giorgio Agamben (and others), Roller understand this transformation as a key step in creating the modern individual as “bare life” who the state can transform through a new set of political and economic relationships experienced in part through the immigration process. 

Organized labor in Pennsylvania coal country and the role of the state in suppressing the power of labor to resist the economic imperatives of mine owners represented another step in the process of redefining the social and political status of residents of Lattimer No. 2. In this context, the Lattimer massacre, when the local police supplemented by deputized mining company managers opened fire in striking immigrant workers killing several and wounding many others. Efforts to break the power of organized labor reinforced the atomized economic and political status of labor in relation to the mining companies. This prepared the way for the late-20th century, post-coal economy in the region where casual, light industrial jobs came and went based on the vicissitudes of global capital.

Ironically, this economic volatility not only led to large scale out-migration from Pennsylvania coal country, but also encouraged the arrival of another wave of immigrants from South America and the Caribbean who took advantage of the low cost of housing and availability of unskilled work. Like the Italian and Slavic immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th century, these groups have also been met with xenophobia and discrimination.

2. Corporate Town and Shanty Town. Lattimer No. 2 was originally a company town owned the local coal company. Neatly arranged duplexes lined the main street of town and provided housing for employees. On the outside of town, however, recent immigrants constructed and adapted a small group of shanties. The residents of this community represented local surplus labor who found occasional work around the fringes of the increasingly mechanized coal mining process. Roller’s excavation of a privy and several other plots in this former shanty enclave demonstrated that the residents of these ad hoc were not only marginalized economically in their relationship to the coal industry, but also geographically in relationship to the traditional, corporate owned housing of the main town.

The artifacts recovered from excavations around this shanty town reveal the way in which these individuals were integrated into the local, national, and ultimately global economy. Roller unpacks the significance of the increasing presence of goods produced through industrial practices in the shanty town assemblage more fully in an article published last year in Historical Archaeology. I discuss that article here.

Over the same period that more and more manufactured goods appear in the Shanty town assemblage, the shanty town itself undergoes significant architectural changes as it shifts from a series of closely spaced and related ad hoc structures to nearly organized properties sold as real estate and, today, to the appearance of a typical American suburb.

Roller’s work on the Shanty Town certainly shed light on my work in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota where we documented both formal, corporate owned workforce housing sites and more casual RV park-type camps. The latter, it would seem to me, shared many of the characteristics of the Lattimer No. 2 Shanty Town with their abundance of ad hoc structures, adaptive strategies designed to make life in North Dakota more comfortable, and residents who as often worked in services that supported the core extractive industries of the Bakken oil boom. 

3. Historical Archaeology and the Archaeology of the Contemporary World. Roller is deliberate in his understanding of Lattimer No. 2 and Pardeesville as a contemporary community that continues to struggle with the structural violence of its legacy as a corporate coal town. The most obvious example of this is the systemic alienation of its residents from the close knit communities that existed in Southern and Eastern Europe prior to immigrant and the reconfiguration of these relationships through organized labor, the church, and life in the Lattimer No. 2’s Shanty Town.

The collapse of the mining industry and the rise in more casual labor constantly reinforced the primacy of the individual in the social and economic regime of the modern world. Projects like urban renewal which led to the clearing of many of the ad hoc structures from Pardeesville and affordable housing in nearby Hazelton, further eroded collective strategies to enjoy life and survive economically in the volatile economy of Pennsylvania coal country. This kind of structural violence ultimately did little to improve the quality of life for residents of this region, but did produce a pool of low cost labor of periodic utility to global capital.

The book does much more than these three points indicate and it is well worth the time to give it a read!

A Book by its Cover: Sixty Years of Boom and Bust

About 4 months ago, I imagined this summer as a series of three or four week blocks during which I’d work on one or two tasks. Now, six-weeks into the “new normal” my summer has become an exercise of juggling a bunch of overlapping deadlines. 

Among the more exciting of these deadlines are a series of book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota scheduled to appear in August, September, and October.

I’m particularly excited to get back to working on a book that’s due out in September: Kyle Conway’s edited volume Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota 1958-2018. It will be a particularly significant contribution to the growing “Bakken Bookshelf,” and contains articles by most of the leading scholars on contemporary North Dakota and the oil boom.

After a few weeks of going back and forth on cover design, I can now say with some confidence that we have a cover.

Sixty Years Cover AM1 01

We also have a finalized text for the back of the book:

In the 1950s, North Dakota experienced its first oil boom in the Williston Basin, on the western side of the state. The region experienced unprecedented social and economic changes, which were carefully documented in a 1958 report by four researchers at the University of North Dakota. Since then, western North Dakota has undergone two more booms, the most recent from 2008 to 2014. Sixty Years of Boom and Bust republishes the 1958 report and updates its analysis by describing the impact of the latest boom on the region’s physical geography, politics, economics, and social structure.

Sixty Years of Boom and Bust addresses topics as relevant today as they were in 1958: the natural and built environment, politics and policy, crime, intergroup relations, and access to housing and medical services. In addition to making hard-to-find material readily available, it examines an area shaped by resource booms and busts over the course of six decades. As a result, it provides unprecedented insight into the patterns of development and the roots of the challenges the region has faced.

Here’s a link to its table of contents.

We’re very eager to share advanced copies of the book with anyone who might be interested in writing a review or a blurb.

Book Proposal Regrets

Over the past month or so, I’ve been working on a side project that has slowly taken on a life of its own — as most side projects do. The project is titled Work Force Housing: Man Camp 11, and it’s the product of almost 5 years of documenting one particular workforce housing site. The vast majority of the book consists of images, but I also included a few interviews with residents and management conducted over the years. 

Yesterday morning, I took the manuscript and sent it along to an open access press that I very much respect. It was done in a pretty spontaneous way, and while I’m not disappointed that I submitted the manuscript to this press, I wonder whether my proposal contextualizing the work was not entirely what it could have been. 

Here’s a little bit on the manuscript (and if you’re interested in seeing a copy, drop me a line on Facebook, The Twitters, or email!).

The project was designed along three axes. 

First, I’ve had a long standing interest in the Bakken oil patch which has resulted in a number of publications which range from formal articles in journals and books to more experimental efforts to explore the landscape in critical and reflexive ways. At the same time, I felt like we had only scratched the surface of the data that we collected from the field. The most haunting dataset that we had was the collection of almost 10,000 images taken from various workforce housing sites across the region. 

These images differed from the extraordinary photographs taken by professional photographers and artists that have been the subject of any number of exhibitions and publications. I’m neither a professional photographer, nor a particularly skilled one. The goal of our photography (and video), however, was to document workforce housing in a way that might be useful for the arguments that we sought to construct as archaeologists and historians. As a result, my photographs often focused on the reuse of objects, like pallets, on expressions of individual identity through ad hoc architecture, on the evidence for everyday life, and on the relationship between units. The photos also tended to follow my movements through the space of Man Camp 11 often circling a unit to photograph it systematically or, as in the case of the video stills, moving slowly up and down the rows of units. 

To my mind, the combination of photographs as documentation of the objects of study and as documentation of our method, movement, and time created a distinctive, if not unique, encounter with the space. Unlike many of the more formal photographs of workers, the Bakken, and workforce housing our photographs and stills are less frozen moments in time and capture the fuzzy moments of encountering the space of the camp. This distinguishes our work, then, from the efforts of more accomplished photographers to document life in the region as we present most of our archive which, in turn, reveals our methods and work.

Second, I’ve become increasingly interested in scholarship that is not the typical academic argument. For example, Bret Weber and I have recently produced a little article titled the Bakken Hundreds, which experiments with the very short, paratactic arrangement of sources. Some of my interest in these forms of writing has developed from growing fascination with jazz music. I’m not proposing that my work can achieve the level of sophistication and artistry of jazz, but I’m fascinated by the way in which musicians arrange concepts, solos, snippets of melody, and rhythm to offer an argument or interpretation. For some musicians this involves stripping a well-known song down to its barest melodic or rhythmic elements. For others, this involves expanding the potential of a melody into new directions and exploring new possibilities. Tone, tempo, timing, and the interplay between the musicians themselves allow them to continuously reinterpret a piece of music evidence. 

The arrangement of photographs, interviews, and video stills is my first public (well, if it’s published) efforts to take a standard form of archaeological evidence – the photograph – and experiment with it not through visual manipulation, but through juxtaposition with other photographs and texts. To be clear, this isn’t some innovation on my part. I’m following the lead of other archaeologists and scholars interested in archaeology of the contemporary world. At the same time, I feel like this work is unique in that it exposes so much of the archive and captures the spontaneity at the moment of argument building in the field. To return to jazz, some of what I’m trying to capture is the kind of blowing sessions that happen when musicians explore concepts and produce interpretations together live. 

Third, I hope this work fits into the growing scholarly interest in affect. Our “Bakken Hundreds” project sought to identify passages in our notes, interviews, and images that evoke emotion and capture in their brevity and arrangement something of the experiences of the Bakken. Whether our goal is to recreate our encounters or simulate our memories of these encounters through texts is difficult to know entirely. 

All the same, the use of images to engage the emotional registers of life in the Bakken follows a larger trend of seeking to find new ways to engage the anthropocene, capitalism, and a world where global encounters threaten to reduce our spaces of interaction into a series of homogenized non-places.

While obviously this proposal is more personal and conversational than a formal proposal would have been, it iincludes things that I’d like to have said when writing about our manuscript. 

Not much I can do about it. Alea iacta est.

Work Force Housing, The Bakken, and Photos

Like many people, I’ve been at loose ends over the last 6 weeks or so. While I’ve been trying to remain disciplined, this hasn’t always worked out. This week, for example, I started to play around with the 10,000+ images that the North Dakota Man Camp Project collected over the last 7 years. I learned this morning that it was some kind of Digital humanities day, so maybe I can pretend that I planned to do this to celebrate, you know, the digital or the humanities or something.

I’ll admit that the more I’ve played with little projects like this, the more I’ve thought about starting a little press of my own to publish various vanity projects. For example a couple of years ago, I scanned and compiled a collection of letters written by Edward P. Robertson of Wesley College in Grand Forks, ND from 1935. You can download it here for free.

Along similar lines, I started to compile the documentary photographs that my colleagues and I took in the Bakken. The photos are all from a single camp, which we’ll call Man Camp 11.

Here’s the cover of the book that I mocked up. It’ll probably just be digital.

WFR CoverDraft 1

Most of the photographs are mine which accounts for their rather mediocre quality. In this mediocrity, however, I like to think that there’s a bit of authenticity. I switched after a couple of years from a 35 mm camera to a micro four thirds camera meaning my images changed proportion and requiring me to lay out my pages in a different way. 

MC11 DRAFT 1

MC11 DRAFT 2

I also started to play around with some of the video that Richard Rothaus captured during our time in the Bakken. I converted one of every 100 frames into a still, and I really like how they create a sense of motion.

Layer 52

Layer 53

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Layer 55

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I then put them together on the page.

MC11 DRAFT 6

I’m also thinking about collating these photographs with some of the interviews we did.

MC11 DRAFT 7

Because it’s my book, I get to feature my truck:

MC11 DRAFT 3

There are some really great aerial photographs of the county taken almost every year from 2012-2018. I think these could be really great chapter header images. More than that, like the stills from the Richard Rothaus’s videos, these images show the passage of time.

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 31 42

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 32 55

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 33 53

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 34 35

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 35 21

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 36 05

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 36 56

Anyway, I’m not sure what exactly to do with this project other than to keep plugging away on it. There are some basic elements like page numbers that I’d like to incorporate, but haven’t really figured out how to do that in a way that I think looks cool. 

If any of my readers are publishers and interested in this kind of thing, drop me a line… 

Upton Sinclair’s Oil and John Sayles’s Yellow Earth

It took me a while to figure it out, but now that I’ve (finally) finished reading Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, my understanding of John Sayles’s novel Yellow Earth is much better. 

For folks who lack the Wikipedias, Oil! was published in 1926-1927 and today is perhaps more famous for controversy surrounding a rather chaste sex scene which got the book banned in some cities than its plot or its message. The book loosely follows the life of Bunny Arnold who is the son of an increasingly wealthy oilman in California. It is set against the backdrop of the early-20th century oil boom in Southern California and the  corruption, exploitation, radicalism, and glamour of early 20th century America.  Over the course of the book Bunny grows up and become more and more “woke” through his interaction with workers in the California oil fields, his university education, and his friendship with Paul Watkins, a labor organizer and eventual communist. Despite Bunny’s wealth, he becomes a radical social justice warrior who by the end of the book dedicates his life and what’s left of his father’s fortune to the founding of a socialist labor college.  

The charm of the book largely comes from the characters that conform to the rigid stereotypes. The corrupt businessmen are rabidly corrupt; the beautiful actresses are extraordinarily beautiful; the pious and idealistic communists, socialists, and labor union organizers are delightfully rigorous. Even when Sinclair draws on real characters he manages to preserve a sense of satire which is nowhere more visible as in his thinly veiled depiction of “Sister Amee” in the character of hypocritical evangelist Eli Watkins. A gently fictionalized reference to the Teapot Dome scandal offers another historical anchor for the novel.

Sinclair’s satirical novel leans upon these stereotypes as a way to critique both capitalists and radicals alike. Yellow Earth is its sequel. Like Oil!Yellow Earth similarly relies on a cast of stereotypical characters whose interactions are anchored loosing in a muder-for-hire scandal surrounding Tex Hall, one time chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota’s Bakken Oil patch who encouraged oil development on reservation lands. In fact, on my first read, I was not a little offended by Sayles’s cartoonish depictions of Native Americans, Bakken oil workers, opportunistic grifters and the like.

A series of oblique references to Sinclair’s Oil! however makes Sayles intent clear. Bunny Skiles, for example, is the scheming con-man Brent Skiles’s wife. At the end of the novel she boards a train headed for Southern California to meet with a lawyer not only to arrange for a divorce from the steroid-raging Skiles, but also to secure her share of his is assets. Undoubtedly this lawyer is the same individual who represented the Arnold family after the death of the patriarch at the end of Oil! Other references abound. Brent Skiles, for example, is clearly a reference to the shadowy Ben Skutt who in Oil! who helped the oil companies break strikes by infiltrating unions, inciting violence, and, at one point, pretending to be a communist in order to have the unions declared illegal. Similarly the real estate agent J.C. Hardacre in Oil! Reappears as the petroleum geologist Randy Hardacre in Yellow Earth. In one of the more painful efforts to connect the two books, the exotic dancer with a good heart Jewelle alludes to the Jewish radical Rachel Menzies who Bunny marries toward the end of Oil! The characters do not map neatly onto one another, of course, but enough cross references exist to make clear that two books are in dialogue with one another.

Sayles replaces the loping, leisurely pace of Oil! with the frantic, compressed time of the Bakken oil boom. Yellow Earth takes place over just one year marked the pregnancy of Fawn over her senior year in high school. Sayles swaps out the painfully earnest radicalism of Paul Watkins for the Ayn Rand and steroid-fueled hyper capitalism of Brent Skiles. Some of the power of Yellow Earth comes not through the story and characters but as a commentary on how far the Bakken oil boom and our 21st century attitudes toward capital, profits, wealth, extractive industries, and speed have come from from the days of Sinclair’s Oil! Unlike Sinclair’s novel, where the lines between the radicals and the oil industry are drawn in blood and violence, Sayles blurs morality throughout Yellow Earth.  There are characters who appear to be good and characters who are undoubtedly evil, but they don’t align. There is no confrontation here and, as a result, no real resolution. As oil prices decline at the end of the boom, the profiteers get increasingly desperate and the characters who have come to make their money slowly disperse in search of the next opportunity.

It may be that by foregrounding this indeterminacy, driven as much by the complexities of the global oil market as the doings of any individual or the corruption of their business, Sayles’s work responds most clearly to Sinclair’s novel. Sinclair located his characters at the center of the oil industry and largely in control of their own fates. For Sayles, the characters in his novel wrestle as much with the oil itself and the vagaries of a global market as they did one another. There is a constant sense of the Bakken as periphery and no matter how much Ayn Rand Brent Skiles read and despite Harleigh Killdeer’s claims of “sovereignty by the barrel” the oil itself controlled the outcome of events. 

Leia Nilsson is a wildlife biologist in Yellow Earth, who has come to study a prairie dog coterie. She gives the critters classical names: Odysseus, Ajax, Niobe, Hera. A drilling platform ultimately displaces this little community of prairie dogs and Leia contracts Jett to suck the rodents from their burrows so she can relocate them across the road. Despite this displacement, the prairie dogs continue to play out their daily lives, struggle with one another for dominance, and mate. Even the most superficial reader will catch that the story of the prairie dogs is the story of Yellow Earth. The prairie dogs might, at best, be the Watkins family in Oil! Unlike Sinclair’s Watkins family, who find their own way and ultimately negotiate their own fate against the backdrop of capitalism, oil, and world events, Sayles’s prairie dogs and characters are simply actors on a stage for whom choice only appears to matter. 

Three Thing Thursday: Greeks, Roads, and Oil

For whatever reason, I’m having trouble getting myself into gear over spring break and have been jumping from one thing to the next all week. It’s predictable, then, that today blog post will be a dreaded “three things” rather than a more sustained consideration of one issue, topic, question, or publication. What’s the biggest bummer is that I wanted to write more about each of these three things. Maybe I can next week, but for now, here’s a sampling of what I’ve been up to.

Thing The First

If I had all the time and energy into the world, I’d publish a little volume featuring the work of Byzantine and Late Antique archaeologist outside of the Mediterranean basin. David Pettegrew and Kostis Kourelis would appear in it, of course. This week, I was really happy to receive a copy of Pennsylvania History 87.1 (2020) which is co-edited by Pettegrew and includes an article by Kourelis and Pettegrew on the Greek communities of Harrisburg and Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the early 20th century. 

The article draws primarily from census data to paint a picture of the changing Greek communities in those towns and their divergent trajectories. The broader argument is that the tendency to emphasize Greek communities in major urban areas (Chicago, New York, et c.) obscures the fact that most Greek communities were small. More than that, these small Greek communities developed according the vagaries of these locales. The city of Harrisburg with its higher rents and involvement in the City Beautiful movement saw a very different kind of Greek community than the city of Lancaster. The Greek community in Harrisburg was more male-dominated and slower to include families although perhaps slightly more affluent, and these features most likely delayed the organization of a Greek church in the city which further slowed the development of this community.

Pettegrew and Kourelis construct their images of these two communities from the scrappy evidence provided by the census and their broad understanding of trends in these two cities. Their ability to paint vivid pictures from fragmentary evidence almost certainly derives from their years of patient work with the fragments of the Late Roman and Byzantine periods in Greece. 

(I couldn’t find the article online yet, but a few of the articles from the special issue are available here for free!).

Thing the Second

A good bit of our work on the Western Argolid Regional Project has focused on roads through our region. As a result, I’ve been trying to digest anything that drifts across my desk about roads in the Eastern Mediterranean. A couple of weeks ago, I spied Peri Johnson and Ömür Harmanşah’s “The Political Ecology of Roads And Movement: The Yalburt Yaylası Archaeological Landscape Research Project 2018 Season” from The Archaeology of Anatolia, Volume III (2019). Ömür Harmanşah has quietly established himself as one of the most insightful readers of the Mediterranean landscape and this article with Peri Johnson reflects his careful sophistication.

Johnson and Harmanşah consider the roads through their survey area in Central Anatolia from both a diachronic and decentralized perspective. In other words, they were not as concerned with the well-known roads through their area in particularly well documented periods and more interested in the ways in which local communities in their area interacted with one another and the wide region. By decentering their research and engaging with local communities, they were not only able to discover neglected roads and routes, but also associated sites. 

Their work and the situation in their survey area has close parallels with ours in the Western Argolid where in the Inachos valley formed the major route through our area throughout the ancient and into the modern period. At the same time, it has become clear that a number of significant routes linked sites in our survey area in ways that did not follow the dominant interregional road along the valley bottom. 

Thing the Third

I read John Sayles’ new book Yellow Earth this weekend. I really want to write a more substantive review of it, in part, because I really wanted to like it more than I did. Here are a few quick observations.

First, a colleague of mine mentioned once that most novels these days are really just short stories cobbled together. This book is that with plots and characters that come and go, intersect obliquely, and sometimes just fade away.

Second, Sayles does some interesting things with time. The book begins in the early days of the Bakken boom and ends just as the bust begins. For the characters, however, time passes at different rates. For two of the characters, their final year in high school traces the trajectory of the boom. For another, it occurs over the course of her pregnancy. For another still, it follow the construction of a house, the life span of a strip club, or the travels of a Mexican migrant from the border to North Dakota. The varying times at play during a boom is fascinating.

Third, the book navigates a difficult space in that one of the main characters is modeled after Tex Hall, the well-known and controversial former chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes. This means Sayles spends much of the novel writing a number of Native American characters. While I don’t necessarily want to imply that his depiction of these characters was somehow inappropriate, instead, I’d like to acknowledge the ethical complications associated with this move and with depicting and understanding the complex attitudes among the Native American community to the oil boom.

Fourth and finally, for now, I still rankle at the depiction of the Bakken as the Wild West. I understand and appreciate the drama and the moral ambiguity latent in the concept of the Wild West, but I worry that this depiction somehow naturalizes the situation in the Bakken and undermines a reading that recognizes a series of very deliberate choices that allowed corrupt practices to prevail. 

Bakken, the Anthropocene, and Climate Change: An Abstract

A few months ago, an old friend Ömür Harmanşah nudged me to submit an abstract to a workshop panel he was organizing at next year’s annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research titled “Archaeology and Climate Change: New Challenges to Fieldwork in the Middle East”. I wrote up a little speculative blog post on it a few weeks ago. 

Now, after some conversations with my colleague Bret Weber and a draft abstract, I concocted something. The title is not very good, but I have until the end of the week to get that straight. More than that, this is for a workshop session so the paper will be very brief and mostly serve as a an initial point of departure for a larger conversation.

The Bakken, the Contemporary, and the Global. 

Many scholars have argued that the “oil crises” of the 1970s initiated a new period in global capitalism. Deregulation, privatization, and a deepening faith in the market as the arbiter of meaningful policy produced an environment in which goods, people, and capital flowed and pooled at a global scale. While today it remains possible to talk about nation states, the “Global” North and South, the Middle East and the “West,” and various other regional, ideological, political, and economic identifiers, these often terms reveal as much about global systems as they do local situations. Indeed, the interplay between the local and global anticipates an archaeology of the anthropocene, climate change, and the 21st century.

From 2013-2018, the North Dakota Man Camp project has studied temporary workforce housing and the industrial landscape of the Bakken Oil Patch in Western North Dakota. Our research in the Bakken traced the flow of capital, technology, oil, and most importantly people through the landscape of Western North Dakota. This paper makes a speculative comparison between the Bakken and the archaeology of the contemporary Middle East as a way to reconsider the spatial and temporal scales necessary to understand global capitalism, an archaeology of the contemporary, and the anthropocene.

Three Quick Things on a Snowy Monday

The sound of snowblowers woke me this morning because despite everything in town being closed someone just had to remove the snow at 6 am. 

Since I’m up and at my laptop, here are a few quick things for over the new year holiday.

First, I’ve finished the paper for the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting next week on legacy data. I struggled with this paper a good bit because I tried to wed my practical experience of working with legacy data to my somewhat underdeveloped interest in time. The results were predictably messy, but I feel instinctively like this line of thinking is heading somewhere. Here’s the paperHere’s the abstract to the paper. I’ve posted ideas (with a little help from my friends) here, here, and here and a draft here.

Second, I’ve started to do layout on Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in
North Dakota, 1958–2018 edited by Kyle Conway. A few years ago, I had this idea of a “Bakken Bookshelf” which would include links to significant books on the Bakken. At the center of the “bookshelf” would be a trilogy of books: The Bakken Goes Boom, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (from our friends at NDSU Press), and, now, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust. I’d like to think that these three books – whatever their limitations – form the cornerstone for any academic engagement with the Bakken oil boom.

More than that, these three books provide a nice testimony for why regional presses matter. As far as I can tell, there has been no book length academic publications on the social conditions, history, and experience of the Bakken oil boom published outside the Northern Plains. Without NDSU Press and The Digital Press (and it’s predecessor, The University of North Dakota Press), the Bakken would have received far less scholarly attention. For a bit more on Sixty Years of Boom and Bust go here.

Finally, a few weeks ago, I took a flyer and bought a novella published by a small press, Soft Cartel Press. The book, Craig Rodger’s The Ghost of Mile 43 is bizarrely wonderful, and if you have the time to read its 80 some-odd pages, you should. The narrator writes with the stilted diction of film noire voice over (which for better or for worse, serves the plot just fine), but the descriptions of abandonment are really quite remarkable. In fact, the entire book stands more as a meditation on the abject and the archaeological than as a vehicle for a narrative (much less a plot).  

The Bakken Hundreds (Almost Final)

Over the last few weeks, Bret Weber and I have been working to refine our “Bakken Hundreds” piece for a volume called Archaeology Out-of-the-Box. 

Since our invitation to be part of the volume was pretty vague, we took advantage of the freedom to do something a bit different. We previewed an earlier draft here a couple of weeks ago, here’s the final draft.

This introduction is below followed by a link to download the entire paper.  

The Bakken Hundreds

The Bakken Hundreds describe seven seasons of archaeological fieldwork in North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch (2012-2018). The North Dakota Man Camp Project focused on workforce housing through archaeological documentation and authorized interviews. Here, the co-authors alternate 100-word statements from project notebooks, interviews, and publications loosely following Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart’s composition style in, The Hundreds (2019). Our assemblage reveals the material and social conditions of the Bakken by emphasizing the frenetic, dreamlike, precarity of boom times. For entries with specific dates, we also include the West Texas Intermediate Crude oil price per barrel as a rough indicator of Bakken prosperity.

Here’s a link to the entire paper.

The Bakken, Petroculture, and Climate Change

A year or so ago, I was reading a good bit on petroculture and the Anthropocene. I had begun – in a back of my napkin kind of way – to trace a research trajectory that led from our work in the Bakken a larger discussion of petroculture and climate change. At some point, other projects encroached on this work and before too long, like so many ideas, this one slipped into the background.

Last week, an old friend asked whether I might consider contributing a paper to a panel on archaeology and climate change in the Middle East. As I was saying that I didn’t really have anything on that particular topic, he nudged me to consider something that connects my work in the Bakken to the larger issue of climate change.  A dim light bulb flickered to life.

I don’t have a paper yet (to be clear, the panel hasn’t been accepted!). In fact, I don’t even have an abstract, but I do have a few ideas.

1. Movement. It seems like many of the situations present in the Bakken anticipate the challenges posed by climate change. The arrival of temporary workers in a fragile and sparsely populated landscape anticipates, at least in form, the movement of climate refugees from settlements made vulnerable from changing and volatile weather patterns, rising sea levels, and the redistribution of resources.  

2. Logistics and Scarcity. The presence of oil workers in the Bakken also anticipates the paradox of logistics that is so essential to understanding the future of human society on a changing Earth. European settlement in Western North Dakota is fundamentally the product of petroculture. It was driven by the expanded reach of rail and facilitated by gasoline-powered cars and trucks. The Bakken became a place for large scale agricultural practices before it became a place defined by the sustainable extraction of oil.

Today, the challenge facing oil extraction regularly face the difficulties of moving this oil to refining and the market. The investment in infrastructure, from pipelines to additional rail capacity, defines the Bakken boom as much as the number of barrels per day. Our networked world, then, depends upon petroleum driven logistics. As climate change increasingly challenges and compromises the logistic networks that constitute our modern world, how will a world “after oil” support resilient communities in what appears to be a far more volatile climate regime? How will concepts of the local and global shift? 

3. The Present, the Past, and the Future. Readers of this blog know that I’m inordinately fond o Amitav Ghosh’s observation that in the 21st century, the poor are experiencing the future first. In my time working the Bakken, it seems to me that the model of hypermobility and precarity offered by work in the oil patch anticipates a less stable economic, political, and climactic future. This isn’t to suggest that workers in the Bakken are poor by any global standard, but to suggest that the lifestyle demanded of the workers in extractive industries foreshadows a less stable world.  

The workers in the Bakken (and in any community defined by the precarity and instability of extractive, seasonal, and “just in time” work) have begun to redefine domesticity and the material character of social life. The response to this adaptation from many outside those working in the oil fields has been complex and largely negative. In fact, much of the response from both permanent communities in Western North Dakota and the national media remains shaped by nostalgic views of middle class aspirations from land and home ownership to the nuclear family defining a place of residence. In many ways, the economic status of the oil workers – many of whom earn middle class salaries for their work – maps onto critiques of the global poor and historical working class.  

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In short, a paper on the Bakken and climate change might extend my interest in petroculture to a social critique of the culture of climate change. I realize that my observations today are rough around the edges, but I have time and can’t escape the feeling that there is something here, if I just keep playing with ideas enough.