Page Proofs for The Bakken

Working as both a publisher and an author has given me certain insights into the tricky final stage of the publication process: page proofs. Ideally, as a publisher, page proofs are a chance to catch little niggling problems that crept into the typeset publication during layout. In reality, as both a publisher and an author, page proofs are where any issue that slipped through the editing process leap from the page in high relief. The line between “minor edits” and “totally rewriting the entire damn article” at the page proof stage is much finer than the one might expect.

Bret Weber and I spent this weekend going through the page proofs of The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape which is due to be published in October. There are not a few things that I noticed from the typeset text:

1. Grammar. One of the biggest challenges with this book was trying to write in a somewhat more accessible style. While the excellent copy editing offered by the NDSU Press caught most of the grammatical errors, there are always a few that slip through (and readers of this blog know that my grasp of grammar at a practical level is tenuous at best). My favorite errors at the page proof stage were the use of “seep” and “disembark” as transitive verbs as in “a pipeline seeped oil” and “the train disembarked the passengers.” Fortunately, these were easy problems to fix.

2. Style. The biggest issue that became visible at the page proof stage was the infelicities in my style. I do three things so consistently that I need to make a little note and keep it next to my laptop. First, I use the same word over and over and over in a way that would make a boxing commentator blush. This “appeared” in page proofs and was a relatively easy fix. Second, I need to vary sentence structure more consistently. I have a tendency to being sentences with introductory participial phrases, noun clauses, or phrases using the word “while”: while this, then that. This is more challenging thing to wring out of a text at a late stage of the editing process. Finally, as one of the earlier readers of this text pointed out, I use too many adverbs (and when I’m in the zone, I use the same adverb multiple times in a paragraph and, in at least one instance, used an adverb in both a participial phrase and with the main verb in the sentence. Adverbs are easy to cut.

3. Place, Space, and Time. When we were writing the guide, we tried to do three things. First, introduce readers to the Bakken landscape. Then try to trace the history of various places in the Bakken, from the vanished town of Temple, ND that served as an important entrepôt for oil during the first boom in the 1950s to the largest volume Cinnabon store in the U.S. at the start of this decade. Finally, we try to engage the temporal aspects of contemporary Bakken boom. The idea of contemporaneity, in fact, doesn’t really apply to the Bakken at present because the landscapes is in constant flux especially (and perhaps because of) both the rapid expansion and equally rapid the downturn in oil prices and the slowing of drilling and fracking activity in the region. 

The question that kept running through my head while reading our book is whether we captured this dynamism in a recognizable way? Did our use of verb tenses consistently distinguish between things that are visible and those that are no longer visible? 

As I worked through the final copy of this work, it struck my just how complicated this project could be and how relatively naive we were in our effort to use the tourist guide as a genre to capture modernity in the Bakken. At the same time, re-reading the work energized me to continue to develop this approach to understanding the Bakken landscape and recognizing the problems present in the page proofs – grammatical, stylistic, and otherwise – will hopefully contribute to what I’m doing as a writer and a historian.

Acknowledging the Help with the Bakken Guide

I got page proofs this week for my book with Bret Weber: The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape which will be out this fall from NDSU Press

We have an excellent cover, thanks to the designers at NDSU and Andy Cullen’s photograph:

Bakken Cover

We also had the immense pleasure of writing our acknowledgements for the book. It is one of the most fun things to do at the end of a book writing process because it acknowledges all the other folks who contributed to making a book possible.

So here’s our thanks (and look for it in the book which will be out in about a month):

This book received generous support from various grant programs at the University of North Dakota and in the Department of History in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Department of Social Work in the College of Nursing and Professional Disciplines. These included a collaborative research grant that funded our first trips to the Bakken, an Arts and Humanities grant that funded subsequent processing of data, and support from the Cyprus Research Fund in the Department of History.

We benefited from innumerable conversations with our collaborators, especially Richard Rothaus and Kostis Kourelis whose thoughts shaped much of this work. Carenlee Barkdull, Aaron Barth, Sebastian Braun, Bob Caulkins, Julia Geigle, and Ann Reed shared their perspectives and time in the Bakken. John Holmgren, Kyle Cassidy, Ryan Stander, and Andrew Cullen, whose photographs enliven this book, sharpened our view of the landscape and people through their keen photographic eye. Jim Mochoruk, Cindy Prescott, Thomasine Heitkamp, Nikki Berg Burin, Kyle Conway, Clarence Herz, and Chad Ziemendorf also brought significant insights to our work. Tom Isern and the anonymous peer reviewers saved us from numerous errors of fact and analysis and contributed to the depth and breadth of this guide. The workers, residents, friends, and strangers who welcomed our exploration and inscribed the Bakken landscape through their lives and work deserve pride of place in this book.

Needless to say, all existing errors in this work are our own.

Bricolage and Performance

I was intrigued by Katy Soar and Paul-François Tremlett’s recent contribution to the World Archaeology issue on counter-archaeologies. They examine the material culture and space of the Occupy Democracy demonstration in London in 2014 and the “Disobedient Objects” exhibit in the Victoria and Albert Museum during the same year. 

For the authors “protest objects” represent both embody Lévi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage to describe the opportunistic re-use of everyday objects as objects supporting protest. Tents, camp chairs, banners, tarps, and other objects drawn from everyday life become protest objects when situated in relation to both political spaces (in this case, the Parliament) and amid a particular set of performative gestures. The protesters used these objects to perform their critique of democracy (or whatever). The police and “heritage wardens” tasked with keeping the area around Parliament “authentically heritigistical” (or something of that sort) performed their critique of the demonstration by removing and destroying these objects. In short, the relationship between the diverse assemblage of objects associated with the Occupy Democracy protests in London and a range of performative gestures create meaning.

The nearly contemporary exhibit of “disobedient objects” at the Victoria and Albert transformed these same objects into artifacts of the protest. Severed from the immediacy of performance, the objects nevertheless served to evoke the spirit of the Occupy movement by standing in for the absent performative relationships that gave them meaning. At the same time, the exhibit succeeded in “othering” these objects by locating them within the foreign performative confines of the experience of the museum. For the authors, this exhibit transformed the tradition of museum display at the Victoria and Albert from one based on the formal qualities of an artifact to one based on its use. The museum offered a hybridized perspective that relied on the utter banality of the “disobedient objects” to highlight meaning generated through their performative context.

This move by the museum (and this article) to re-contextualize these disobedient objects in a way that allows for their investigation and interrogation reminds me a good bit of what I was trying to do with my tourist guide to the Bakken. The modern space of the museum, the academic article, and the tourist guide provides a performative context for objects that both re-presents some aspect of their original performance as well as opening up those relationships for examination. To my mind, this move is fundamental to modernity and echoes, for example, our ability to both be part of “nature” and to isolate it for study.  

The banality of the objects used by the demonstrators and their transformation to protests objects and then, through re-exibition at a museum to disobedient objects, likewise informed my ongoing study of everyday objects used in construction of temporary domestic space in the Bakken. Shipping pallets, cable spools, camping chairs, gas grills, scrap wood, and generators contribute to everyday life in the Bakken through a network of performative relationships and other objects. By locating the research – as tourist – within this network of relationships (that in some ways define dwelling), we acknowledge the artifice of our gaze as part of the world that defines and recognizes these objects.


Fragments of Ivan Illich in the Bakken Oil Patch

Over the past week or so, I’ve been making my way slowly through Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality (1973) over the last few weeks, and it has really helped me refine (let’s say?) some of my ideas on work in the Bakken and (wait for it…) slow archaeology.

For Illich, the expansion of technology, professionalization, and institutions have undermined the fundamental conviviality of human society. This conviviality involves making space for independent creative acts and a commitment to work that modern, industrial society has stripped away. Illich sought to promote tools that allowed individuals and communities equal access to productive processes. His classic case study is learning: convivial tools allow for a freedom to experiment and encounter without institutional sanctions or limits whereas non-convivial tools limited access, reinforce the exclusivity of knowledge, and develop expertise and restrictive institutions like schools, factories, and professions. Technocratic society promotes inequality among its members through tools that grossly amplified the labor of the individual through increasingly technical means. Thus, the individual’s labor became increasingly estranged from their access to the rewards of the system which institutions meted out unevenly and in ways that were increasingly distinct from the work of the individual. The rise of fossil fuels accelerated the dominance of non-convivial tools and created a hard break between individual work and effort and consumption. 

During my research in the Bakken oil patch, I consistently noticed this curious curious tension that I was at pains to understand or describe. On the one hand, extractive industries especially modern fracking and deep drilling, represent an apex of industrial technologies and have value not in anything visible or tangible, but in the monetary reward that individuals receive for their work and society received from fossil fuels. In other words, the individual is separated from the fruits of work by myriad institutional and technological barriers ranging from the complexities of the modern financial structure of extractive industries to the hidden infrastructure of drill bits,  pipelines, and wells. Opportunities for expression within these institutional frameworks are profoundly limited for the safety of the worker, the efficiency of the process, and the control over the product. Worker wear uniforms, live in company housing, come to the area exclusively to work, and have hyper specialized skills.

There are, however, more convivial spaces in the Bakken, particularly in the informal workforce housing sites where some of the same workers (or the workers who support them) live. Amid the deeply unconvivial space of extractive industries that feeds the dense network of unconvivial tools that dominate the exclusionary space of modern society, there are these informal, ad hoc, convivial space for living that stand out as a space of resistance against the very regimentation of society that petroculture demands and requires. For example, these camps are filled with ad hoc mud rooms often built of found material present throughout the industrialized area. These rooms expand the living space of the RVs where workers live, protect the door from the cold and dirt of the patch, and offer an opportunity to show off individual building skills. These are expression of conviviality and the ideas for these improvised extensions circulate via conversation at these camps and stand in contrast to the more regimented life and work on the oil rigs.

This contrast produces a chilling irony. Advocates for the Bakken oil patch have presented it as a pathway to energy independence. If we follow Illich’s thought, however, the need for the fossil fuels produced from the Bakken constitutes a much more densely constituted web of dependence. 

Despite romantic views of the American West as a space for rugged individualism, the reality of work in the Bakken is more consistently manifest as the “wage earners frontier” with oil patch worker depending on a dense web of government, capital, and institutions to thrive. In fact, the risks associated with oil field work, the structured spaces of workforce housing, the technocratic organization of 21st-century extractive industries, and even the increasingly conspicuous collusion of the state and the oil companies locates the oil patch worker (as well as any consumer of fossil fuels) amidst multiple and rarely competing systems of control. Parts of this system from the economic networks that fund the work to the infrastructure that moves oil and water throughout the patch are conspicuously occluded as if to hide these patters of dependency. In fact, little about the Bakken and the Bakken oil boom constitutes genuine independence, but the space of man camp provides a rare exception.

It is hardly surprising that local government has cracked down on both mudrooms and informal workforce housing sites, and promoted superficially tidier superficially tidier apartment blocks that despite their more rational and regular design are now unoccupied. The result is a simple case study for Illich’s ideas. The informal conviviality of RV parks in the Bakken produced housing that was flexible, dynamic, cost effective, and left little impact on the landscape. The less convivial constraints of modernity produced produced a superficially more humane and rational housing system that has, at least for now, failed and will cost communities and future workers into the future.

Fragments on the Tourist Guide

I had to write up a little bit of the backstory for my forthcoming Bakken book, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape. (Fargo 2017).

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It’s a bit conversational:

This book has a messy backstory. It derives fundamentally from the North Dakota Mancamp Project which is a cross disciplinary project focused on documenting the social and material context for workforce housing in the Bakken. Over 5 years we visited Western North Dakota regularly, talked to people there, wrote about our experiences, and made arguments for the character of housing in the 21st century and in extractive industries. Our familiarity with the Bakken led to numerous inquiries from the media, other scholars, and the general public concerning both our work and the Bakken more broadly.

One morning, while writing my blog, I decided just to start writing a tourist guide to the Bakken. This was a genuinely spontaneous project in which the writing preceded any real thinking about what this might entail or even the purpose of the book. Over a few months, on the trusty blog and then on the longform writing site of Medium, I wrote the basic narrative of this guide and got feedback from people both in the region and around the world.

At the same time this was taking shape, I was working with Kyle Conway to produce the edited volume, The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota. I was also working on a paper for Historical Archaeology that set out some of the main conclusions from our work in the Bakken. These two projects helped me solidify the idea that my work in the Bakken was both about the place, that is Western North Dakota, but also about the idea of modernity and something that scholars have increasingly called “petroculture.”

The realization that I was really thinking and writing about the modern world, rather than just the Bakken, and tourism represents this key element in the making of the modern world. In fact, the “tourist gaze,” to use John Urry’s famous phrase, represented as vital an aspect to creating the modern world as the rise of fossil fuels. In fact, the two are deeply intertwined with our modern way of viewing the world and tourism being propelled forward first by steam and then oil powered vehicles which allowed the new middle class to enter a world of travel and leisure. This allowed the middle class to expand the world that they called their own through both recognizing themselves in others around the globe, but also subordinating what they saw to the realm of experience, exoticism, and leisure.

Applying the lens of tourism to the Bakken, then, offers an opportunity to see the modern world as if it were a strange place filled with wonder. The Bakken embodies our age of fossil fuels and tourism while hinting at a future age of hypermobility set against oft-competing views of apocalyptic and nostalgic dreamscape. 

The Bakken Bookshelf

One of my long simmering projects is to pull together a bibliography of works relevant to the study of the Bakken oil patch and the most recent boom. Part of the challenge facing the state of North Dakota is a remarkably fragile historical memory. Events even in the recent past tend to give way to political rhetoric, economic contingency, and social expediency. While some of this “blind eye toward history” is commendable because it allows us to avoid a kind of fatalism that traps the state in its past, it can also be crippling when it prevents us for anticipating challenges.

The Bakken bookshelf has another goal, as well, and this is to encourage the state to engage more fully in recent conversations on petroculture and the impact of oil on politics, economics, the environment, society, and culture more broadly. I’d love for the bookshelf to come to include some teaching material – whether syllabi or just reading lists – to guide teachers, students, and the interested public through this material. 

Here’s how I imagine some basic organization. The works fall into four categories:

1. New Research. 

I’m really excited that my colleagues Kostis Kourelis, Richard Rothaus, Bret Weber, and I published our first journal article on the North Dakota Man Camp Project in Historical Archaeology (hit me up for an offprint, if you want one!) In many ways, it’s the evolution of work that I had published in the volume that I edited last year with Kyle Conway, Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota. what prompted me to write about this today. I’m also anticipating the appearance of my The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press 2017) and Bret Weber’s Voices of the Bakken (The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, 2018) which will be a curated and lightly-edited collection of interviews from our work in the Bakken. 

These works could be joined by some recent research from across the state including Matt Jones recent dissertation in criminal justice at UND titled, “Anomie in the Oil Patch?” and Clarence Herz’s 2013 M.A. Thesis on the history of petroleum exploration in North Dakota prior to 1951, as well as the various white papers published at NDSU (e.g. Nancy Hodur’s and Dean Bangsund’s reports on the oil and gas workforce) and various other organizations. In addition to these academic works, there are significant contributions from non-academic works like Lisa Peters’ Fractured Land: The Price of Inheriting Oil (Minnesota State Historical Society Press 2014) or even Richard Edwards’ Natives of a Dry Place (South Dakota Historical Society Press 2015).

2. Historical Research.

There are some fantastic historical documents available on the Bakken  From Robert B. Campbell, ed. The Williston Report: The Impact of Oil on the Williston Area of North Dakota” (1958) to D. Schaff’s 1962 M.A. thesis, “The History of the North Dakota Oil Industry,”  Robert Chase and Larry Leistritz’s “Profile of North Dakota’s Petroleum Work Force, 1981-1982,”  and John P. Blumle’s The 50th anniversary of the discovery of oil in North Dakota (ND Geological Survey 2001).

As we develop the bookshelf project more, I hope that we can excavate a slightly more substantial list of significant historical research on oil in the specific context of North Dakota.

3. Official Documents.

One of the interesting things about researching oil both in North Dakota and on a global scale is that there is a good bit of official discourse about extractive industries ranging from debates in the legislature to technical reports like William M. Laird and Clarence B. Folsom Jr.’s North Dakota’s Nesson Anticline (ND Geological Survey 1956) or cit. While it is clear that official documents and research will blur into each other, with documents like the City of Ray’s Comprehensive Plan (2015) fitting as easily into one category as the next, but to collate these documents in a single place would be come a useful resource. 

4. Petroculture.

Finally, there is an expansive and growing body of academic work on petroculture. The work is situated at the fertile intersection of literature, history, social sciences, and technical and scientific disciplines. At its best, petroculture creates a bridge between individual consumption practices, extractive industries, global economics, and the consequences of modernity. Winnowing down this work into a body of essential texts is a challenging prospect, but, in some ways, the key component of making The Bakken Bookshelf relevant outside our region and state.  

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.

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


Three Thing Thursday: Cities of Salt, Digital Practice, and Borders

Maybe I’ll make a habit of this over the next few months. Or maybe not. (I’m tempted to be one of those bloggers who releases shorter posts throughout the day. In fact, I’m tempted enough to write those posts, but not as tempted to push them out over the course of the day.)

Anyway, here are three unrelated things that are flitting through my addled mind.

1. Abdelrahmen Munif’s Cities of Salt should be required reading in North Dakota. The novel describes the disruptions experienced in an unnamed Middle Eastern country with the discovery of oil. It begins in a verdant oasis which is destroyed and, then, moves on to a dreary coastal town where the American company houses Arab workers, many displaced from their previous homes in the oasis, in a series of man camps. The first camps were tents set up along the beach in neat lines and after they worked to construct an American-style town to accommodate the American workers, they were moved to a series of barracks where the lead used in the tin roofs dripped down on them during the day as it melted in the sun. Both the American-style town and the various camps for the Arab workers were set apart from each other and their surrounding by barbed wire and access control points. Munif set these in contrast to the oasis, which despite being a physically distinct environment from the surrounding desert, nonetheless saw the constant flow of caravans and other movement that emphasized its integration with the rest of the world.

While I haven’t finished the book, Munif provides a dynamic and deeply social portrayal on the way that extractive industries can disrupt the interplay between society and the environment. (For more on this, see my Tuesday post.)

2. The Character of Digital Practice. I spent a little time yesterday afternoon and last night fiddling with a paper that some colleagues and I will give at next week’s Society of American Archaeology annual meeting. One of the things that my co-authors, Derek Counts and Erin Averett, have really prompted me to think about some of the binaries that shape how we think and talk about archaeological work. For example, the distinction between data collection and analysis, between data and interpretation, between being in the field and being in the lab or in the office, between doing and thinking. These binaries both reflect long-standing philosophical divisions between, say, mind and body, here and there, and describing and interpreting, but they also represent differences in experience between being hot and dirty and tired in the field and being clean and rest and cool in one’s office or coordinating team leaders and trench supervisors on the ground and running statistical analysis on a dataset.

It is easy enough to characterize these binaries as false and unhelpful. For example, we understand that certain assumption, expectations, and structures of digital data collection directly shape the kind of archaeological interpretations and knowledge that we make. At the same time, these divisions are real and they do shape our approach to the tools – digital or otherwise. For me, negotiating this tension seems to be very close to the heart of how we understand digital practices in field archaeology. While I am always quick to lump all aspects of archaeology together as “interpretation and knowledge making,” I think that this kind of lumping might be reaching the end of its usefulness in the case of understanding digital practices in the field. Digital technologies do present ways to break through certain binaries, of course, but they also exist in a particular place and moment of archaeological practices.

3. Borders. Yesterday, I had the real pleasure of hearing Viet Thanh Nguyen speak about his work, including his 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Sympathizers. As a Vietnamese-American writer he talked a good bit about how various borders – physical, literary, and economic – served to define the limits of how a minority author could express himself or herself. He talked about how he worked to defy literary expectations and instead of writing, what he called “little brown realism,” he sought to write in a more self-consciously literary style. It was a novel written by a minority and the son of refugees that wasn’t a minority novel. 

He likewise discusses the roles of borders in defining groups and impeding movement while acknowledging that his family’s experience as refugees from Vietnam was made possible by Cold War politics and the favorable optics of the United States accepting refugees from a communist country. He also recognized that this kind of permeability of borders with information, culture, animals, tacos (yum!), and capital crossing from one country to the next. This permeability of borders, for Nguyen, held forth the future of the world where borders don’t exist. At worst, humans would flow like capital and best like culture.


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.