Image by Levi Walter Yaggy, 1893. “Geological Chart.” David Rumsey Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries.

When palimpsests are invoked, it is typically for the way composite surfaces index intertextuality. In their succession, layers of writing superimposed over partially erased or effaced texts come to stand for the multiplicity of temporalities suggested in Reinhart Koselleck’s (2018) geologic concept-metaphor “sediments of time.” But what if, rather than through the depth of accumulation, time propels a momentum of engulfment, enfolding “in the backward shadow of its coming negation” (Zee 2017, 223)? What is possible when we think palimpsests beyond ècriture, that is to say, less as hermeneutic artifacts to be interpreted or read, but through the twinned acts of emergence and submersion, this very instant of present absence. In landscapes sutured into being at the seams of their undoing, time is a register of envelopment, recursion, and involution, and palimpsests name the way matter is made simultaneously absent and present. A palimpsest’s untimeliness condenses and refracts that moment a trace reappears and makes itself known, affixes and demands our attention to matter out of place (Gordon 2008). In post-Reform China, as spectral cities are called forth from ruptured earth and sit atop the inverted mountain-scapes of open pit mining that make them possible, accretions of concrete, rare earth minerals, and toxic tailings enunciate the erasure of an unsettled past and the sedimentation of a neoliberal time voided of historicity through the totalizing narrative of state futures. Palimpsestuous landscapes.

Urbanization in contemporary China connotes speed, repetition, and similitude; key features of what has been termed hypermodernity (Virilio 1986). The material referent of proleptic state futures, modern ghost cities challenge a supposedly immutable horizon, signaling China’s increasingly vertical economic progression. Cities encased in metric tons of concrete and steel provide an exemplary ordinary medium for the profane monumentality of the CCP’s chronopolitical aspirations. The decelerations, interruption, and lack necessary to global capital’s infinite economic development are measured through objects of the built environment that have yet to fulfill their anticipated function: vacant buildings, empty roads that lead no one to quiet parks, homes that house no bodies. In their halted infrastructure, simulacra architecture, and resounding emptiness, cities are monuments to the always already hauntedness of official futures providing an ancillary to state capital’s self-referential insistence of its own certitude. The geomorphology of palimpsest landscapes have not only become constitutive features of contemporary China’s punctuated development and deferred futures, but a kind of excess constituting a symptom of mineral capital’s accumulation in the use-value of disappearing land, placing the modern ghost city at the fore of discussions about “neoliberal autocracy,” “economic authoritarianism,” and “post-socialist” capitalist ecologies.

Drawing on the insight that landscapes are not just given but produced through entanglements of human and more-than-human assemblages, the palimpsest topography of Inner Mongolia (IMAR)—a province situated along the loess plateaus of the North China Plain and a former seat of the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo (Koga 2016)—accretions of empire, failed utopias, and accumulations of mineral capital are inscribed, effaced, and remade anew. In Baotou and Ordos, the center of China’s rare earths mining industries producing 95 percent of the global supply, mineral ore is the key commodity of a toxic supply chain that makes the green technology driving environmental protection in the West possible. Catastrophic land loss and extreme environmental degradation resulting from mining mineral ore and processing rare earth metals competes with massive urban investment over the use-value of always-already compromised land. In a region that confronts and conjoins the immanence of environmental collapse to the longue durée of urban futures, resurrecting territorial orders through which the government works to pull its unruly peripheries and ethnic minorities into the centrifugal embrace of the state, outlying provinces are inscribed, effaced, and fashioned anew into a strategic resource frontier that is part of the nation’s mineral patrimony (Klinger 2018). The earth is remade into its own afterimage, a palimpsest landscape where we can witness the sedimentation of outmoded futures that have yet to come to pass and will surely have happened again. Here, the earth is an archive and its form is stratigraphic (Mueggler 2011).

Naming a genre of infrastructural engineering and terraformation organized around catastrophic land loss, “moving mountains” (Bai, Shi, and Liu 2014) captures the scalar force of the PRC’s capacious proleptic politics and the profound disquiet of disappearing earth that underwrites accelerated urbanization. In its tendency toward dissolution, submersion, and subsequent emergence as a futurist city, the violent poetry of a mountain’s capacity for simultaneous absence and presence forms the chronopolitical lexicon for the state’s spectral spectacular futures. In China’s industrial north and emergent strategic resource frontier, urban development taking place above ground adjoins toxic mining practices taking place beneath. The landscape here is captured to a momentum of temporal recursion terraforming the loess plateaus and highland steppes of Inner Mongolia into a ghostly repository of advancing cityscapes and infinitely receding state futures. The obliteration of land and lives at the earth’s surface cleaves an uncanny double, an inverted mirror image whose frontiers and mountainscapes provide the terrain for a subterranean topography of fluorescent tailings ponds and underground rivers created in the toxic devastation of mining rare earths. Profound contractions of life—displaced peoples, tainted water supplies, drying riverbeds, mineral wounds—accompany the violent accumulation of absence and other plenitudes linked to the amplification of loss punctuating the surfaces of the Earth. Here, the belowground marks a boundary for emergent umwelten: toxic lifeworlds, proliferations of anaerobic bacteria, and the passage of multiplying hydrocarbon particles into the earth and in our bloodstreams. In this inverted underside, a subterranean mirror image reflects and refracts the incorporeal materialities (Grosz 2017) shaping and shaped by China’s sedimented pasts, mineral present, and recursive futures.

Today, rare earths elements dispersed throughout the Earth’s upper mantles from the luminescent tailings’ ponds of Baotou’s mines to the Pacific seabed and further still, the selenic cratons of the moon (Klinger 2018) conjoin the subterranean topographies of Inner Mongolia’s mines to other mineral, earthly, aqueous, and atmospheric palimpsests—a temporally and materially distributed geologic ontology (Gell 1998) undoing the fallacy that matter is secondary to form (Oxman 2010). Thus, to examine life at the limits of form is to map the presence of absence and other uncertainties. It is through excavation, when enacted as a form of recognition, that the traces, residues, and afterlives that haunt this earthly archive are made visible, legible. In landscapes subject to constant revision, to strategies of forgetting, loss is the affective register that marks this time. Losses, however, are rarely equally distributed.


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