Date of Degree

9-2021

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Anthropology

Advisor

Vincent Crapanzano

Committee Members

Gary Wilder

Jeff Maskovsky

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Asian Art and Architecture | History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology | Social and Cultural Anthropology | Urban, Community and Regional Planning | Urban Studies and Planning

Keywords

urban studies, temporality, chinese history, haunting, immaterial

Abstract

Contemporary urbanization in China is marked by speed, repetition, and similitude, key features of what I call spectral urbanism that also attends to the presence or absence, to recursivity and deferral. The mass development of empty, outmoded, and seemingly abandoned modern ghost cities in China’s borderlands come to be used as evidence of an interruption or lack in the veneer of Chinese modernity. The contours and quality of stalled development are measured, read in objects of the built environment that have yet to fulfill their anticipated function: vacant buildings, quiet roads that lead no one to empty parks, homes which house no bodies. The scale, velocity, and acceleration of these ruinous landscapes have become constitutive features of Chinese capitalism, placing the ghost city at the fore of discussions about “neoliberal autocracy,” “economic authoritarianism,” and “post-socialist” capitalist ecologies. Instead, I suggest that ghost cities act as indexes of a future endlessly deferred, the material referent of particular historical configurations subject to constant revision, to strategies of forgetting. In landscapes marked by disappearance, loss is the affective register that marks this time. Losses, however, are rarely equally distributed.

“Moving Mountains” is both a metaphor for material velocity and practice of terrestrial erasure in China’s industrial north – the excavation, removal, and movement of vast quantities of land at a scale that is terraforming the loess plateaus and steppes of its strategic resource frontier into a landscape marked by profound/resonant/abiding absence. The obliteration of land and lives at the earth’s surface finds its Uncanny double in the inverted mountains of emergent subterranean frontiers – an underground topography of fluorescent rivers, anaerobic bacteria, and hydrocarbon particles created in the toxic devastation of mining rare earths. Contractions of life—displaced peoples, tainted water supplies, drying riverbeds, mineral wounds—are accompanied proliferation, plenitude, an abundance of toxic aeLife. These twinned processes, that of erasure and creation, presence and absence, are defining features of chronopolitical experiments in contemporary China—forms of prolepsis whereby the transformation of space is a means of engineering time.

Drawing on the insight that landscapes are not just given but produced through entanglements of human and more-than-human assemblages, this paper reads the topography of Inner Mongolia—a province situated in China’s semi-colonial periphery—as an archive holding a repertoire of chronopolitical forms, material substrates of empire, accumulation, violence, and trauma. Throughout the twentieth century, this region has provided the ground for anxious stagings in the state’s campaigns to enact modernity, from the years following agrarian collectivization during Maoist socialism to its current designation as a special economic zone (SEZ) for national urban, financial and environmental experimentation. Today, it is the center of the rare earths mining industries producing 95% of the global supply, a key commodity chain that makes green technology possible. In Baotou and Ordos, where extreme environmental degradation resulting from the mining of mineral ore and rare earths processing competes with demand and massive infrastructural investment over the use-value of broken land, the region confronts and conjoins the twinned contradiction of imminent environmental collapse and long-term interest in urban futures. Through an analysis of state planning documents and records, blueprints, satellite images, maps, and other evidentiary devices, I examine the North China Plain as a geological palimpsest indexing competing, outmoded, foreclosed, and recursive futures; and work to excavate the traces, residues, and afterlives that haunt this earthly archive as a collection of signs and symbols made simultaneously present and absent.

Tracing the way urban, futural, and environmental ecologies are read through sand, coal, rare earths, water, concrete, and steel by architects, urban designers, government officials, mining engineers, prospectors, geologists, and migrant communities, we can observe how the sedimentation of material substrates gives form to political time in Inner Mongolia. The multiplication of empty cities amidst disappearing lakes, moving deserts, and stilled rivers provides an occasion to understand how profound contractions of life in the North China Plain are accompanied by the proliferation of other kinds, forms, and classifications of (toxic) life—from the algal blooms, autochthonous microbes and archaea bacteria spreading across fluorescent tailings ponds at mining sites to the amplification of cancerous cells and petrochemical traces housed in our bodies and in the land.

Seeking to make sense of a place that is at once disappearing and coming into being, I examine mineral capital, spectral urbanism, and the immaterial dimensions of the materiality. These processes, these uncanny uncertainties of presence, link official state futures with its promises of infinite economic development to the endlessly deferred, present absence of recursive futures that have shaped China’s long twentieth century.

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