Grounding the Anthropocene: Sites, Subjects, Struggles in the Bakken Oil Fields

Grounding the Anthropocene: Sites, Subjects, Struggles in the Bakken Oil Fields

A report from an Antipode Foundation International Workshop

Bruce Braun, Mat Coleman, Mary Thomas, and Kathryn Yusoff


Figure 1: Outbound oil train idle at the Williston train station, June 2015. Photo: K. Yusoff.

The windswept plains of western North Dakota are experiencing a dramatic geological and social restratification, where surface and depth, past and present, inside and outside, are folded together, producing new subjectivities, new economies, new natures as well as new political spaces that extend throughout and beyond the region. As most readers will know, this is a result of the huge boom in fracking-based oil production in the Bakken formation, which encompasses parts of the Dakotas and eastern Montana as well as southern Saskatchewan and eastern Manitoba in Canada. Although oil has been extracted from the Bakken since the 1950s, it has only recently become one of the most important oil producing sites in the continental US. Whereas a decade ago less than 100,000 barrels per day were being drawn from the Bakken, in 2015 oil production in the region surpassed 1.2 million barrels per day. Moreover, recent estimates suggest that the North Dakota portion of the Bakken holds nearly 20 billion barrels of recoverable oil, which means that there is more recoverable oil in North Dakota than in the entire federal Gulf of Mexico offshore waters.

During a field visit to the Bakken during the summer of 2014, we became interested in thinking critically, and collectively, about the Anthropocene as an analytical concept. We felt uncomfortable with how many scholars were using the term, coined a decade ago to describe the emergence of a new geological epoch in which not only is human activity so profoundly changing earth environments that a permanent record will be left in the earth’s geological strata, but in which by annihilating their own milieu humans are also seen as fast on the road to extinction. We brought divergent interests to our time together in the Bakken, but something we shared from the outset was a concern that the Anthropocene – in its growing appeal and reproduction across academic disciplines and the media – carries with it foundational constraints that curtail political thinking and doing.

A key concern that emerged that summer, prompted by the spectacle of massive natural gas flares on the prairie at night, as well as by numerous other everyday details of the boom frontier in action, is that much that is written about the Anthropocene conflates planetarity with generality. Planetary thinking is necessary, especially at the scale of changing earth systems, but slippage between planetarity and generality can lead to a fixation on the global scale and space of geophysical epochal change at the expense of what we see as the Anthropocene’s groundedness in specific contexts. Consider a dominant assumption that the Anthropocene is generalizable across space, and that, moreover, the global is the context and scale at which epochs change.  Such an assumption is at work in the famous ‘tipping points’ proposed by the Stockholm Resilience Center, which set nine planetary boundaries for anthropogenic impacts on the environment that humanity must not cross if it is to remain within its ‘safe operating space’. This example illustrates the political response arising from the urgency implicit in the Anthropocene conceived solely at the global scale; the political challenge of anthropogenic impacts is so broadly scaled that solutions appear impossible and disaster inevitable and imminent. Moreover, Anthropocenic global space is writ through with human agency while non-human nature, ironically, is figured as context and outcome rather than dynamic force.


Figure 2: There are more than 8,000 unconventional wells in operation in the Bakken. Photo: K. Yusoff.

A second major problem posed by the presumed generality of the Anthropocene is that it skirts the issue of subjectivity insofar as the period is typically cast in terms of the agency of a globalized ‘Man’ moving and shaping ‘Earth’. Key here are the two main ways in which the avenues of human agency are posed – toward either catastrophe or redemption. Both are future-oriented at the expense of the here and now. On the one hand we find a dominant apocalyptic vision of future global environmental disaster, figured as an inevitable yet always-receding political, economic, and ultimately biological ruination. On the other hand is a redemptive narrative that poses humanity’s eventual salvation (perhaps via ruination) through adaptive technologies and governance, geo-engineering, or, more loftily, the success of climate politics. Each assumes, crucially, an abstracted account of human sovereignty over a passive earth and looks beyond the present to a world in ruin, or to a world saved. What this means is that there is very little sense in the Anthropocene literature that different subjects are positioned in different ways with respect to humans’ geologic reordering of time and space in the here and now. Indeed, the great irony in much of the Anthropocene research is that it does not attend to the lived everydays which constitute it, nor to social differences like sex, gender, race, class, and nationality, even as it puts humans at the center of the analysis. When people figure at all it is mostly in Malthusian terms of an aggregate mass of reproducing and consuming bodies, and the challenges that population growth and growing economies pose for resource and energy use, food supplies, waste and chemical production, and so on.


Figure 3: A number of natural gas processing facilities and pipeline networks have been built over the past 2 years in response to state limits on flaring. Photo: K. Yusoff.

In June 2015, with generous funding from the Antipode Foundation’s International Workshop Awards, we convened a group of scholars, representing diverse interests and expertise on oil and the Anthropocene, in Williston, North Dakota, to witness what was happening in the region. We rode out overnight to the Bakken on the Empire Builder Amtrak line from Minneapolis/St. Paul, and from there we drove the region to observe fracking and productive well sites, so-called man camps, acres and acres of new real estate development, junk yards, fields full of idle fracking and drilling equipment, bars and bookstores, regional museums, and rail yards. We visited Williston’s impressive new recreation center which is celebrated locally as serving to the needs of families in the otherwise male-centered oil fields, heard reports on current issues in Williston from the Economic Development and City Planning Offices, and spoke with individuals in and around Williston with ties to the oil industry and boom.


Figure 4: Workshop at the MonDak Heritage Center, Sidney, MT. Photo: K. Yusoff.

We then convened in a workshop at the MonDak Heritage Center in Sidney, Montana, on the western edge of the core oil-producing counties in the Bakken, to think through what we had experienced, and how to move forward as a group. The following conversation was recorded at one of our workshop sessions in MonDak, on June 27, 2015. We ‘passed the baton’, and each spoke in turn about a key phrase or term that could characterize our impression of the region. The text has been transcribed and collectively edited. Our workshop participants include (in order of appearance below): Thomas Davis, Max Woodworth, Sabrina Perić, Mario Blaser, Jessica Lehman, Mat Coleman, Morgan Adamson, Anna Zalik, Bruce Braun, Myra Hird, Kendra Strauss, Susan Dewey, Mary Thomas, and Kathryn Yusoff. (Bios for participants follow the text.)

Tommy: Since arriving in the Bakken, I’ve been thinking a lot about exemplarity. How does a specific town or region become exemplary of something else? How do we scale up from the Bakken to broader questions of extraction economies, petro-capitalism, or the Anthropocene? When we think about Williston as an example, what does it exemplify? Is it exceptional in some ways, is it unique? The stream of documentary films, long form journalism pieces and photo essays in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post and the multiple museum exhibits on the Bakken all suggest that this area is at once exceptional and exemplary. The stories of extraordinary wealth and opportunity out here during the Recession implied that some vestige of American prosperity and individualism remained alive in this new petrostate. The twice-told tales of workers relocating from desperate circumstances and finding opportunity, if not actual money, in the Bakken would suggest that a boomtown is indeed unique. Yet, those stories also relay the precarity of labor and bodies, the rise in human trafficking, and other forms of violence and dispossession. If progress and crisis, wealth and deprivation are fused together in these boomtowns, then we might say they are exemplary of any other form of extractive capitalism. The attention devoted to the Bakken in the media and the art world might suggest that it is exceptional, a bewildering curiosity. On the other hand, our fascination with this area might very well be a partial recognition that the unimaginable wealth and catastrophe of a boomtown is simply capitalism amplified and laid bare. We turn to these boomtowns not because they exist outside of the way we understand everyday life, but because they cast into relief the dispossessions and coercions that are part and parcel of capitalist history.

But that too raises old methodological problems. If we make Williston exemplary, do we risk only seeing here reflections of another general concept: extraction economics, capitalism writ large, the Anthropocene, or something else. And, whatever we take Williston to be, is there a dialectical way that Williston might transform whatever general historical, economic, or geological conceptions we bring to it?

So, these are just very quickly some of the things that I’m thinking about, and as I said these are all methodological problems. In a way, this is the old problem of how the particular goes back to the general. But, what is the general? Is it the Anthropocene? Is it capital? In the boom and bust of these areas is there room for a ‘normal’, as the urban planner put it to us?

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Figure 5: New sidewalks and streets were laid before the price of oil plummeted, leaving housing development land empty of construction. Photo: M. Thomas.

Max: Something that comes up in research I’ve conducted on frontiers is some confusion about the places, spaces, and natures of frontiers. Ever since Frederick J. Turner first propounded his frontier thesis of American history, the frontier has circulated in popular and scholarly discourses as a vague metaphor of untrammeled and unsettled spaces brimming with resources. As many critics have noted over the years, this manner of conjuring empty spaces through evocations of the frontier is a kind of cultural tic but one that retains links to the profoundly racist and chauvinist processes of continental conquest and settlement. Yet, the regionalist notion of the frontier remains a potent one, and certainly it has become affixed to the ways Williston and the Bakken are talked about today. There is also, however, another important strain of recent critical geographical work on frontiers that uses the concept within largely Marxian political-economic models seeking to explain the generalizable nature of global capitalism and the site-specificity of its spatial margins.

In the Bakken unfolding transformations propose some ways to think through both these approaches to frontiers and ways that they, in fact, overlap. At one level, there is an unmistakable resurrection of the classical regionalist frontier notion in this place. Excitement around the fracking industry that we’ve observed in the media but also among regular people is replete with casual mentions of the frontier, invoking something quintessentially American as well as raising the prospect of riches awaiting a new wave of bold and acquisitive people. To the extent that a popular idea of the frontier conotes emptiness, abundance, and under-utilized resources, it provides important ideological cover for the dispossession, uneven benefits, labor precarity, and massive-scale resource exploitation that currently defines this place. But what Williston also shows very clearly in light of the slowdown in drilling over the past year is the instability of a regionalist idea of the frontier. Places are not always frontiers; they become frontiers through a convergence of historical forces. This would seem implicit in the kinds of rush to frontiers that such spaces have ignited over the years. The temporal dimension of the frontier is key, in other words. And this, I think can link the regionalist idea of the frontier to the one which views frontiers in terms of a structural expression of capitalism. The ephemeral qualities of the frontier – the excitement always abates as profits or resources diminish – underscores its peculiar space-time and helps explain the unusually intense sense of impatience and anxiety as change unfolds with staggering speed. The fear of missing the wave would seem to militate against any attempt to bring control to the space, as evidenced by the oil spills, the wasteful flaring, train derailings, and the struggles of the city planning department. And yet, this lack of control is precisely why Bakken can be what it is.

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Figure 6: A deserted homestead on the prairie. Photo by M. Thomas.

Sabrina: I’ve been thinking about frontiers lately too – but I like taking the whole frontier idea and layering a deep cultural element into it. The frontier is certainly an economic state, but in resource frontiers, humans and environments are transformed by industrial culture. Over the past few days, I have been thinking quite a bit about how ideas of ‘the wild’ and ‘wildness’ construct frontiers and their persistent features. When environments and people are categorized as ‘wild,’ we often think of them as untouched, unspoiled and in their raw form. In Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Frazier Nash writes that “as for wilderness, we have seen it as the unrecognized and unnamed environmental norm for most of earth’s history, created as a concept by civilization.” Nash suggests that wilderness is never truly wild – there is no nature that is not at the same time culture. But taking Nash’s idea one step further into the Bakken, we might think that of wilderness not only as a concept created by civilization, but as an actual physical environment that is also culturally constructed throughout the frontier histories of extraction.

Our drive on the first day in the Bakken got me thinking about this ‘wild’ environment. We stopped at the side of the road somewhere, where there was some structure – a gas plant, I think – behind the buttes. And alongside the road, there were so many wildflowers all around, of varying sizes and colors. A few of us got out of the car to take photos. The wildflowers were beautiful, and (seemingly) presenting a scene of contrast: we see buttes and wildflowers as somehow different and separate from the gas plant behind them. Flowers are supposed to be wild and natural, reminding us of the incongruity of concrete and metal amongst a sea of buttes. But standing in a field of flowers in North Dakota, I can only remember my research sites in the North, in the Yukon. One of the earliest lessons I learned in the delicate regions of discontinuous permafrost is that everything takes a long time to grow. Except wildflowers, which seemingly grow with abandon in the subarctic. However, the irony is that wildflowers themselves only grow in areas that are greatly disturbed. There has to be either a natural disturbance, such as a forest fire, or a human disturbance, like building roads or clearing meadows. When you drive along the Alaska Highway in late July, a continuous stream of fireweed follows you on either side of the pavement. But those beautiful purple-pink flowers now grow because they are a response to the disturbance of the highway itself – a large-scale mid-20th century military project, meant to connect Allied troops, and to support the burgeoning oil industry linking northern Canada and Alaska. What is wild and what is manufactured is always necessarily linked. The sight of North Dakotan wildflowers, perhaps growing in response to an industrial plant, reminded me how that idea, the cultural idea of what is wild – wildflowers, wildpeople or wildanimals – is constantly being situated at the center of this frontier. But does this necessary wildness constitute an essential frontier identity, or simply a response to massive extraction?

Are all wild things necessarily human manufactured and directly responding to human activity and presence? I don’t mean to say, like the Anthropocene does, that humans are at the centre of all frontier activity. But rather, I think it’s important to note that on all of these historical and contemporary frontiers, there have never been such clear distinctions between nature and culture, between what is wild and what is manufactured. So, for me, the centrality of the frontier, and the cultural image it evokes in us, begs us to ask the question: how has this frontier convinced us of the wilderness in this place? How do we come to believe what the frontier tells us about ‘wild places’? And why do we ignore how seductive wilderness appears in this industrial world?


Figure 7: Sitting Bull statue at Williston State College. Photo by K. Yusoff.

Mario: I was looking at that plate on the statue of Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake) that we saw in the college at Williston [Williston State College], where it said that he was the last Lakota to surrender. I remembered that I had once read a quote by him that spoke of his and his people’s love for the land. So I looked it up online and found this:

“Behold, the Spring has come; the earth has received the embraces of the sun and we shall soon see the results of that love! Every seed is awakened and so has all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being, and we therefore yield to our neighbors, even our animal neighbors, the same right as ourselves, to inhabit this land. Yet, hear me, people, we have now to deal with another race – small and feeble when our fathers first met them but now great and overbearing…They claim this mother of ours, the earth, for their own and fence their neighbors away; they deface her with their buildings and their refuse.”

In the American West frontier, what figure can be more iconic than the wild ‘Indian,’ now venerated and romanticized as the ‘ecologically noble savage’ of yesteryear? Build in contrast to ‘us,’ as an ethereal figure, it is easy for us to forget the materiality of this attachment to the land. These quotes do not reflect simply a ‘philosophy’; they emerge from very specific ‘infrastructural’ affordances. And, this is what has been going on in my head through this trip. What kinds of infrastructures of attachment and detachment to this place (and others) are there? What kinds of attachments and detachments do they foster? I am thinking of infrastructures as material-semiotic assemblages, not simply ‘hardware’.

So, going back to Sabrina’s and Max’s point about how the ‘frontier’ is made as a wild space, I cannot avoid thinking of the rows of trailer homes we have seen and the ephemerality of it all. These are structures of detachment that go hand in hand with the narratives of frontier as a place to go to become rich and leave. But, I heard in the words of the city planner who spoke to us their intention to create structures of attachment to the place as well. I am thinking of the new family houses, the unbelievable recreation center, and so on. And these also go linked to narratives of frontier as a promising land, but in this case to stay and not just to make quick money. And yet, I wonder the strength of the attachments these infrastructures foster. I heard the story of this guy (I think it was another city planner) from a farming family in the area, who nevertheless, as soon as he retired, took off to live somewhere else. This made me think that the infrastructures that made this place an agricultural ‘frontier’ before somehow did not produce attachments strong enough that would move people to question the consequences of the fracking boom on the land; rather, they fostered a relationship to the land that would allow people to embrace fracking to make money and then move on. I think there is something to ponder about how infrastructures associated to promises of human well-being and improvement (like the idea of making Willington a manufacture center with money from oil) foster tenuous attachments so that when the economic tides turn down, you pick up and leave somewhere else where you will find the same infrastructures that will allow you to again pick up and move when the promise bust, and on and on. Of course, who cares for the ‘in-transit’ place? This perhaps is one of the ways you do the Anthropocene. What infrastructures are then needed do something else?

Jessi: Memory is a word and a concept that comes to mind for me regarding the Bakken. I’m thinking especially about the work that we see being done here to remember and narrate the past in such a way that what is happening now makes sense. And I was also observing efforts to narrate the future in a way that seems congruous with what’s happening now. I think that so much remembering and forgetting, and so much temporal narration, goes into making meaning in a place like this. I see the work that people here do to produce these narratives, this temporal meaning-making, from the small-town museums and that kind of thing to the discourses of the development and planning officials. But, it’s also kind of what we’re doing as scholars, in a lot of ways, in thinking about and creating narratives around the Anthropocene. For me, a lot of times, I end up using the Anthropocene as a kind of shorthand for the current moment. I think a lot of the intellectual work we do is perhaps a similar effort to what we see here, although perhaps with different ends. The development of the Anthropocene concept is also, among other things, an effort to narrate the past in a way that makes sense of the present. This work can be read as an effort to put various temporalities into meaning-making relationships with the present at a conjuncture when previous processes of memory and forgetting are beginning to no longer make sense.

Mat: Before we came here, I read Wallace Stegner’s 1954 book, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian. Although the book is primarily a biography of John Wesley Powell, Stegner approaches Powell by talking about the competing modes of representation within the settler colonial. Stegner doesn’t use this term, obviously. For instance, although Stegner reviews in detail Powell’s transformation from a geologist into an ethnographer of Native Americans, there’s little critical in the book about how ethnography as such is part and parcel of the colonization and settlement of the West. That the West is somehow ‘open’ for Powell’s geologic and ethnographic surveys is hardly problematized; neither is the linkage between survey and dispossession. Nonetheless, Stegner does look carefully at two different settlement lenses on the West: as a site of bounty, prosperity, and facility, where things will come easily for settlers on a frontier that is seen as analogous to the eastern seaboard; and, as a site of struggle, where the practice of western settlement discloses, in practice, the limitations of assumptions about appropriate forms of political and economic development, and administration, developed by area specialists in Washington, DC. These are two contrasting modes of representation, remote and immediate, and of course Stegner doesn’t traffic in the facility and bounty narrative. He emphasizes instead practical struggle and the site specificity of bodies and places, and in particular he draws readers’ attention to settlers’ disregard for the problem of water scarcity and aridity. I do want to emphasize Stegner’s narrow lens on settlers, though. Native Americans feature primarily in the text as ethnographic objects for Powell.

What about the Bakken as an oil frontier? I see something analogous going on in the Bakken: representational struggles over what the region is and what it will be, struggles over representation which (again) replay facility, prosperity, and boom versus struggle and bust – and which of course crowd out a host of practices and realities somewhere in between boom and bust. Mario has asked us to consider the infrastructures of attachment that are helping bind a new generation of settlers to the oil frontier, simultaneously erasing the precarity of the whole enterprise as well as ‘detaching’ the landscape from prior settlements, inhabitants, uses, etc. Also prior busts! That’s basically what I have in mind here. What are the representations of the boom frontier that are in play in the Bakken, which are core to how the Bakken is understood from the coasts, and how do they work to attach a new generation of oil settlers, outsiders as well as ‘locals’, to this place? As well as loosen other attachments, or perhaps more strongly, erase other attachments? Sort of like, what should be the representational infrastructure to attach to this landscape? How can we theorize these struggles as constitutive of the new American energy frontier? What’s the connection to settler colonial representations about the West as a site of bounty, or struggle and scarcity? Representational struggle is core to the frontier economy, as in yesterday when we saw city officials struggling over: is it boom, or bust, or is it just business as usual, just normal?

Morgan: The first word I was thinking about is genre. I’m drawing on Lauren Berlant’s understanding of genre as that which organizes attachments and expectations in the unfolding of experience. In other words, genre is a set of pre-established forms which help provide a structure to narrate both the present and the future. As Berlant demonstrates, these generic forms sometimes prove inadequate to the situation at hand, and I think this is certainly the case in Williston. The frontier and the narrative of the boomtown seem be the persistent genres that are projected onto Williston from the outside. However, many of the people who live in Williston seem to be narrating a very different generic experience: the ‘American dream’, for lack of a better term. I’m interested in the ways that attachments to certain genres, both within and outside of Williston, are not only inadequate, but ultimately serve to betray or undermine us – those living through the vast domestic expansion of fossil fuel extraction in the past few years.

Another related term I’ve been thinking about is speculation. How does financial speculation also provide a kind of genre for narrating experience and future planning in Williston? How does speculation work with existing genres while also destabilizing them? What are the affective dimensions of the speculative commodity market in a place like Williston? The volatile global financial flows circulating through Williston dictate the ways that inhabitants must manage expectations and either resist or capitulate to narratives about their futures as they are tied to the projected price of oil. Thus speculation is a practice that everyone – from commodities traders to city planners to oil workers – must constantly be involved in.

Anna: Capital or entities that represent capital make it their business to imagine the future and project certain ways of understanding how markets will unravel, which then end up predicting outcomes. Some work I’ve done on Shell Oil scenarios was about this, and they’ve actually been able to do projection to some extent. The work that we do as academics is also about understanding how the past has shaped the present, so the long historiography of the frontier and the debates about whose relationships or what agents were important. Jason Moore, who is a geographer and environmental historian, has done work, in a sense, on pre-capitalism, but under early imperialism he looks at how ecologies were reworked through extractive regimes like sugar and silver at once, and the ways in which they destroyed local ecologies in parts of Peru and Bolivia. So, if we were to take what we have been talking about, and look at the longer historical trajectory, it would still be within the Anthropocene in the sense that it’s not pre-human relations. The dynamics have shaped how the geology of the region changed over time, that might have involved kinds of relationships with nature that were really even pre-colonial—so that might involve an archeological timeframe. We need to think about how that landscape has been shaped, and then how people are projecting the future of the landscape.

Yesterday in the Financial Times was a story about how there haven’t been as many mergers and acquisitions in the oil industry as was expected. But, the article also asked, if oil prices go up, can we expect sufficient discipline from American frackers to prevent a crisis from dropping again, or will they all try to produce too quickly (i.e. the law of capture)? They’ll compete against one another, and the prices will drop. The nature of this kind of frontier capitalism is an undisciplined capitalism that doesn’t understand what all of the big oil leaders understood when they created cartels to control the flow of oil to insure that they are not producing too much and driving the prices down.

Bruce: Like Anna, I’ve been struck by questions of temporality. Williston is often talked about in terms of ‘booms’ and ‘busts’, where the former is simply assumed to be followed by the latter. The agricultural boom followed by decline, the 1950s and 1980s oil boom followed by decades of stagnation. In the first days of the current boom journalists would juxtapose pictures of the oil boom alongside ruins from earlier booms with a not-too-hidden message: the future of this place is ruination. There seemed to be a perverse pleasure in anticipating the ‘bust’, in revealing the naivety of local leaders and migrant workers who imagined a future of ‘development’, ‘prosperity’, ‘stability’, but which we astutely diagnose as cruel optimisms. In doing so, do we too quickly ascribe a telos to oil development in Williston? Despite our own non-teleological understandings of time and history, do we presume to be able to tell the story in advance?

It is in this context that I was struck by the city’s new focus on ‘logistics to markets’. Futurity is being attached to infrastructure, not oil. This marks a change from just a year ago, where the official narrative was about a ‘steady-state’ oil economy that would stretch 30, 40, 50 years into the future. What intrigues me is that oil is now being seen as a time-limited and volatile development path that nevertheless provides the conditions of possibility for other futures. A new airport is being planned. Road, railway and communication improvements are being made. New networks are being established. The city has developed a relationship with the Port of Vancouver, Washington. All this has been made possible by royalties from oil and called forth by the physical need to ship oil and all the products necessary to produce oil, but oil is no longer the future imagined. Rather, it is what gives Williston its future. It is seen to give Williston a comparative advantage over other Midwest cities and towns, an advantage that can be augmented and exploited. And, ironically, oil – which has until now been juxtaposed against agriculture – is being rebranded as that which allows a return to agriculture, albeit in a new way: specialty crops, food manufacturing and lentils in particular, the development of each made possible by ‘logistics to markets’. This is new and old at the same time. After all, at the end of the 19th century, in the great age of railroads, infrastructure and speculation went hand in hand.

But alongside these speculative futures another temporality that also struck me. To mention the end of the 19th century returns us to the issue of ruins. Just as a future is being imagined in Williston, so also is a past. The landscape is littered with the ruins of white settlers – old farmhouses and barns, abandoned buildings with false fronts, long closed post offices and abandoned train stations. We may think of these as waste or detritus, but there is immense value to these ruins, and they are frequently referenced. On an earlier trip, a farmer talked about his care not to disturb the foundation stones of the long empty family homestead. And about the importance of the old post office still standing on the side of a road, the last reminder of a long abandoned village site. In the next breath he talked about finding Native American artifacts. The equivalence was striking. Through the ruin a settler population attaches itself to land and asserts its ‘indigeneity’. Kai Bosworth has been writing recently about ‘autochthony’ in South Dakota – the way that farmers and ranchers establish and naturalize their sovereignty as if it is rooted in the land. Further north, in the midst of the oil boom in North Dakota, the ruin serves a similar function, grounding the settler in the land, as if from the land, and as the noble defender of land and culture against the very same oil industry from which they obtain royalties, and from the racially and economically diverse workers who have flocked to North Dakota.


Figure 8: Rusted containers litter the area’s landscape. Photo: K. Yusoff.

Myra: What Bruce just said about these reminders of abandoned village sites reminds me of Gaston Gordillo’s Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction, in which Gordillo argues that ruins aren’t waste. Ruins have a memory and attachment: ruins are in this sense remembered. I am interested in things that are specifically managed so that they are not remembered, those things to which we desire no further attachment, those things we want to forget.

I’m interested in the ways in which waste is constituted and itself creates complex interacting strata. We might think of Williston in terms of layered and intersecting waste strata, all of which are designed to be invisible, to not attract attention, and to not be remembered. There is a material strata (perhaps we might think of this as an undercurrent) of waste. Williston’s public works website displays at least half a dozen companies dealing with, and profiting from, the creation of vast amounts of radioactive and otherwise toxic forms of waste. We know that extractive processes produce far more waste than sought-after resources: oil and gas is the least of what is being taken out of the ground in Williston’s surrounding landscape. All of this waste is circulating in a material strata. And this strata is no longer confined to the mining and fracking extraction processes of primary resources. Some engineers and entrepreneurs are exploring the material feasibility and financial profitability of excavating urks, which are a city’s material infrastructure – all of the pipes, cables and so on – that are built layer upon successive layer underground as communities are formed and transformed over time. There’s an initiative, especially in some regions of Europe, to excavate these urks because in the case of some copper and other metals, at least as much and sometimes more resources exist in our cities’ infrastructure than remains untouched in the ground. So, as the amount of primary resources decreases and the prices of certain resources increase, it may become profitable to mine our underground infrastructures despite the logistic challenges.

This material strata intersects with (we might say flows with and through) a human waste strata. The man camps, taverns, strip clubs, caffeine drive-thrus and take-out joints are filled with what Zygmunt Bauman has described as wasted lives. Men make their way to Williston as a last resort, seeking salvation from their debts and past lives (as the film The Overnighters documented, Williston attracts a disproportionate number of child sex offenders, who have difficulty finding work elsewhere). Sex workers, adult entertainment, girlfriends, mothers and wives also circulate within this strata, most often surviving for short times before they leave town. Within this strata, a rhetoric of salvation prevails, persuading the transient population that their failure is simply opportunity wasted.

There are certainly also intertwined corporate, government, and economies waste strata here, with big oil and gas company logos stretching to the horizon, a local chamber of commerce attempting to re-brand Williston less as a frontier town and more as a permanent long-term investment-worthy community, a railway station through which oil tankers stretching beyond what the eye can see move oil and its waste away, and so on. A complex cultural waste strata entwines contradictory mix of American pride with tribalism (one man’s tattoo at the local rodeo show said ‘united we fall’), memory, endurance, faith, and pragmatism.

Then there is a question of the circulation within and between these various strata. What waste (material, cultural, governmental, human, symbolic) gets removed from Willison? These layers of waste, these strata, are largely invisible; strata we forget or don’t see. These waste strata are thus the antithesis of the ruin that we seek out, photograph, and remember.

Kendra: Something that’s interesting here is the tension between ruination and creation, and I was thinking about redemption and Kathryn’s work on life. The Bakken is a site of producing the raw stuff of life: food and fuel. Ruins, as Bruce and Myra suggest, memorialize and naturalize the modes of production and appropriation particular to the settler colonial regime, in some cases romanticizing and exoticizing indigenous and pre-colonial modes of life and livelihoods, but ultimately privileging the productive opening up of the frontier. Waste is part of this process, and through it waste itself is redeemed. The redemption happens, the town is brought to life through a particular infrastructure, which is the infrastructure of social reproduction, and through labor, through hard work, through people who ‘want to work hard’. It is in this sense that the dialectical nature of the concept of social reproduction under capitalism is revealed. Activities, sites and relations of social reproduction stabilize and redeem a regime of accumulation, but in the same way that the commodity relation obscures relations of appropriation (of surplus), the organization of reproductive labor is obscured even as ‘the family’ and ‘the home/homestead’ are valorized. In this movement between ruination, redemption and creation, only certain kinds of reproductive labor are recognized, as Susan and Myra point out.

What feminist critiques of political economy (Gibson-Graham, or less directly perhaps Berlant’s work) have highlighted is that even understanding social reproduction dialectically can fail to capture – or perhaps represents as a false totality – the forces involved in this movement. They exceed, methodologically and conceptually in the way Tommy highlights, capital as a social relation. Or at least they exceed our frameworks for thinking about capital as a social relation. What Mario calls infrastructures of attachment and detachment are enduring in part because their constitutive relations overflow, exceed or endure beyond our normal frames for understanding socio-economic processes. The optimism of Williston, of hard work and the nuclear family as the stabilizers and raison d’etre of the fracking economy, can be understood as cruel optimism in the face of what is portrayed as the reality of the Anthropocene. Berlant writes, in the introduction to Cruel Optimism, that “cruel optimism…is cruel insofar as the very pleasures of being inside a relation have become sustaining regardless of the content of that relation, such that a person or world finds itself bound to a situation of profound threat that is, at the same time, profoundly confirming”. But, as Bruce asks, are we right that we know the future? Is the Anthropocene concept itself a cruel optimism, undergirded by an assumption that diagnosing and naming this conjuncture elevates the threat and negates the confirmation?

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Figure 9: A “temporary” housing site with a sign alerting drivers to watch for children. Photo: M. Thomas.

One of the things that’s really interesting about research on precarious employment is that it shows that no matter how much money you make, the stress associated with the condition of uncertainty is not ameliorated by the wage. This idea of redemption through permanence is therefore constantly undermined by the precariousness of infrastructures of employment, of waste, and of social reproduction. Infrastructures imply stability, futurity, but can themselves be highly precarious or tenuous. The tension between those things, it’s another frontier that’s constantly being overcome, or that constant attempts are being made to surmount. Such attempts are integral to capitalism, as accumulation is itself a process fraught with precariousness (the systemic nature of crisis).

Somebody like Povinelli talks about the precariat as “superfluous to the dialectic of capital and labor” (in the systemic sense). They are outside of it. But precariousness is, and has always been for many workers, integral to the dialectic of capital and labor. If we go back to Williston as a site, what is clear is that precariousness in work, and more generalized forms of precariousness of life (which is more Butler’s focus), emerge out of sets of relations that are both general and particular. At the same time, these notions of precariousness and precarity still rely on a particular notion of life, and that’s where Kathryn’s work pushes us to ask the question: What counts in our ideas of precariousness and precarity? Often it is certain forms of life and not others.

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Figure 10: A bar in Sidney, Montana, a town on the western edge of the Bakken. Photo: M. Thomas.

Susan: Everything I have seen during this short trip is identical to what I see in Wyoming oil towns. Wyoming has the United States’ most significant gendered wage gap, which is often justified, as we heard here, by the discourse of “women can’t do the work. They’re not strong enough, they’re not tough enough”. This dominant narrative erases the many complicated ways in which women do do the work, often while simultaneously performing the work of sexual and social reproduction. In Wyoming as in the Bakken, this work experiences a significant erasure through masculinized dominant narratives of the West, and the labor that physically and culturally shapes it.

Women migrate to the West for money, for freedom, for opportunity, just like the men do, although their labor does not enjoy the same protections as the men’s. This is particularly true of women in the sex industry, who work indoors with few protections and significant stigma. Their male clients indisputably face danger working in the oil and gas fields, but they do not need to consider the risks of sexual assault, police harassment, or even murder – all of which are business as usual for women who meet clients for sex in remote locations.

Women who earn a living through the sex industry in remote rural areas must be prepared to fight, sometimes physically, for their right to work. A few years ago I spent a week with some women who were working in an oil town bar that functioned as a makeshift strip club with nearby trailers used as clandestine brothels. The women consistently emphasized the need to be ready to fight at any moment, including with other dancers and women who might accompany the male clients. One woman, Janea, laughed as she recounted the time she used her stiletto heel to break a woman’s nose after she insulted her, expressing pride in her ability to defend herself in a space otherwise devoid of socio-legal protections for her.

Both for Janea and for sex workers generally in more remote areas of the U.S. West, women’s bodies are themselves a battleground for what the frontier means in the dominant narrative. And like Janea in Wyoming, women’s labor actively positions them as soldiers in these battles for the frontier.

Mary: Gender, race, sexuality – these are all central to how we think about the homestead. I’m uncomfortable with just placing Williston in the ‘American West’, because that in a way undergirds a certain understanding of American formations of gender, race, sexuality – but of course this is a place that is now a global homestead, too. I was thinking about this last night at the rodeo, when we were talking about these cute little rodeo kids in their cowboy hats. Were we fetishizing the West? Some of us, not all of us, come from outside the region. We come with a certain lens, and we notice things that are different from where we live, and thus we emphasize that difference at other differences’ expense. The effect of reading some differences and not others is potentially that it is then too easy to think of settler colonialism within the confines of this region, and this national context. The risk is that we don’t account for the African migrant from Seattle who is cutting meat in the IGA grocery story here as part of the process of settler colonialism. We should think about the settler colonial homestead in terms of current regional, national and global migrations, as well as the ways that the process of settler colonialism over time continues to enable the erasure of Native life.

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Figure 11: Heteropatriachy and settler colonialism are celebrated at the Pioneer Museum in Watford City, North Dakota. Photo by M. Thomas.

The new racial and ethnic mix in western North Dakota is still safely represented, however, within heteronormative patriarchy. The city wants to solidify the settling of Williston, the homestead, through heteronormative reproduction and social reproduction, the placement of family’s care. The city is intensely focused on seducing families to settle here, getting the women to Williston as wives and mothers, because settlement becomes permanent through social reproduction in their view. The official language around building a town is about setting down roots, which is still about taking the homestead to its so-called natural progression, which is heteronormative family life, settlement, and literally the infrastructure of homes and housing. Racial ‘diversity’ is welcomed more and more here, but only within the expressed confines of heterosexual and binary gender formations.

We must continue to expose settler colonialism and highlight the ways in which the state facilitates heteropatriarchical homesteading, and we must also trouble the phrase and the placement of its processes. Williston is highly invested in the continuation of the homestead, and that is placed in the American West, but the process of settler colonialism is morphing here. While Native erasure and land grabs fueled by extraction are ongoing, the particularities of these processes need our attention: the geographic, sexual, racial, ethnic, and gender configurations of settler colonialism.

Kathryn: Another kind of erasure in North Dakota is the erasure of geology itself. The only way that geology is articulated is in this popular imagination of geology as this something that is in the blood, coming through a family line of kinship, in a generational commitment to the extraction industry. In this way family becomes almost segmented into a kind of blood politic of fossil fuels via waves of labor. What is striking is the inability to access any kind of relational geology in the space of hydraulic fracking outside of this extractive family blood politic. There are all of these Lego-like frack-pads, and this neatly ordered relationship to the oil extraction through the benign looking infrastructure, and then the oil trains that disperse this around the country. This entire infrastructure looks clean, ubiquitous, kit-like, innocuous in its repetition; ordering a perception of fracking on the surface. And the labor and the bodies that wash up in and around Williston are just kind of passing through, and sometimes getting mangled in the process, travelling various seams of violence. But the actual violence of the geologic processes are not really a part of the conversation. What it means to blow apart the earth in particular ways and with various substances is not really part of the understanding of what is going on. And, there is little attention to the issue of when you bring all this kind of stuff up to the surface, there is a release of all this energy of extraction, that comes up, circulates, and becomes other kinds of violence. That is, this energetic agency of geologic matter releases all kinds of other energies within existing social formations, as well as generating whole new formations in terms of the drug and sex trade. But the aesthetics of these infrastructures are much more discrete. It is an infrastructure that visually insists on order and control.

It’s almost like this geology of the Bakken is imagined as a kind of fetish; an El Dorado of economic boom that is actual remote from the precise geologic processes and modes of extraction that are being enacted underground. Then the oil does all this social, sexual and geophysical ‘work’ on the surface. But, there’s this kind of disconnect between geology as this living thing that has bacteria and force and that is full of all kinds of agencies (when the geologist that spoke to us about the Bakken formation said, “what does oil want?”, he implied that this kind of oil wants to come up to the surface – that it has needs) and what oil becomes in a boom town. We don’t have a language of this process of coming to the surface and yet there is so much anticipation of how this oil will transform this region. So there is a repression in terms of a narrative about that geologic agency that isn’t spectacular; a narrative that is not like the fantastical kind of geologic realism that you have in Jurassic Park. Simultaneously, Jurassic World is screening on Williston’s main high street and at the same time the street is being dug up and new asphalt is being laid on that street and the price of the asphalt either limits or curtails the development of the town roads. And, these two understandings of geologic materiality are on the main street. But, these two conceptualisations of how geology transforms social formations are so far apart that it is difficult to map the connections between these two different imaginaries and their understandings of agency, and yet, it is essential to do so if the material potentials of oil are to be better understood in the context of the geosocial formations of the Bakken.

Finally, I tend to keep thinking about the Anthropocene as a password and not a keyword because a password has a priori coding – you need a language to unlock, you need to know the password in order to pass. So, there’s a pre-structuring and there’s an opening up, and these two are connected in our understanding of concepts. Part of the work is trying to work out what the Anthropocene password unlocks in terms of understandings of geologic imaginations, materialities and agencies here/there.


Figure 12: Waiting at the Williston train station. Photo: K. Yusoff.

Workshop Participants

Morgan Adamson is Assistant Professor in Media and Cultural Studies at Macalester College. Her research interests include critical theory and cultural studies, film theory and history, film and video production, and critical financial studies.

Mario Blaser is the Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He is the author of Storytelling Globalization from the Paraguayan Chaco and Beyond (Duke University Press, 2010) and co-editor of Indigenous Peoples and Autonomy: Insights for the Global Age (University of British Columbia Press, 2010) and In the Way of Development: Indigenous Peoples, Life Projects and Globalization (Zed, 2004). His current research examines how heterogeneous life projects fare under the shadow of the Anthropocene.

Bruce Braun is Professor in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Society at the University of Minnesota. His current research ranges from the politics of urban resilience in American cities to the racial, class, and gender dynamics of extractive frontiers in the United States and Canada, with a specific focus on the Bakken oilfields. He is currently co-editor of the Annals of the Association of American Geographers.

Mat Coleman is Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the Ohio State University. He works on policing, immigration, race, and state power in the US. South. He is interested in security, policing, and logistics in the Bakken. He is co-editor of the Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation series at the University of Georgia Press.

Thomas Davis is Associate Professor of English at the Ohio State University. He is the author of The Extinct Scene: Late Modernism and Everyday Life (Columbia University Press, 2015) as well as published and forthcoming essays on oil aesthetics and insecurity, Henri Lefebvre, Maurice Blanchot, Virginia Woolf, and various aspects of late modernism. He is also part of a collaborative research team studying the geographies and aesthetics of the Bakken.

Susan Dewey, Cultural Anthropologist and Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wyoming, is the author or lead editor of nine books and over 50 articles on feminized labor, sex work, and violence against women. Her two latest books, Policing Street-Based Prostitution: Therapeutic Governance and the Criminal Justice-Social Services Alliance (New York University Press, co-authored with Tonia St. Germain) and Sex Workers and Criminalization in North America and China: Ethical and Legal Issues in Exclusionary Regimes (Springer, co-authored with Tiantian Zheng and Treena Orchard) will be released in Spring 2016.

Myra J. Hird is Professor and Queen’s National Scholar in the School of Environmental Studies, Queen’s University, Canada ( Professor Hird is Director of the genera Research Group (gRG) and Director of Waste Flow ( Hird has published eight books and over 60 articles and book chapters on a diversity of topics relating to science studies.

Jessica Lehman is a PhD candidate in Geography, Environment and Society at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include environmental politics, science and technology studies, and the geopolitics of natural resources.

Sabrina Perić is an historical anthropologist interested in resource extraction and human-environment relationships. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.

Kendra Strauss is a labour geographer and feminist political economist. She teaches in the Labour Studies program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.

Mary Thomas teaches in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Ohio State University in the US. She is part of a collaborative research team examining the geographies and aesthetics of the Bakken, and she also has ongoing research interests on girlhood, juvenile justice, and incarceration in Ohio. She is an editor of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.

Max Woodworth is an Assistant Professor of Geography and International Studies at Ohio State University. His research interests include urbanism in extractive frontiers, the geopolitics of natural resources, and political economies of energy.

Kathryn Yusoff is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Geography at Queen Mary University of London in the UK. Her work focuses on political aesthetics, geophilosophy and environmental change. She is currently writing a book about “geologic life” that examines the genealogies, geontologies and geopolitics of the Anthropocene.

Anna Zalik is an Associate Professor in Environmental Studies at York University in Toronto, Canada. She studies the geopolitics of the oil industry, especially in the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa.