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Development and Displacement in Global China
By Carlos Rojas, Ralph A. Litzinger
Duke University PressCopyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
TRACES OF THE FUTURE
Beijing's Politics of Emergence
Lu Hao's installation Duplicated Memories (2008) presents two versions of Beijing. One, on the ground, is a large (about eighty square meters), backlit, contemporary transportation map of Beijing's Old City (see image on the cover of this volume). Another, hovering in the air, consists of Plexiglas maquettes of the Old City gates, most of which were demolished by the 1970s. Lu shows the past not as buried under the city, but rather as hovering above, a ghostly reminder that replicates, complements, and challenges the everyday practices of moving in the city. Lu, who had previously replicated the Tiananmen Gate as a Plexiglas fishbowl (Fish Bowl/Tiananmen, 1999), imagines the Old City gates not in concrete architectural terms but rather as shimmering artifacts that require the viewer to look up and away from the city map and renegotiate one's place in relation to the city and its double. When the installation moved to the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal in Shenzhen in 2009, it was accompanied by video art projected around it, further duplicating the urban environment within additional media.
Lu's artwork is symptomatic of the discourse on Beijing's modernization since the late 1990s. The capital has undergone massive demolition, construction, and gentrification, and its skyline has been redefined by brand-name landmarks. The visitor to Lu's installation is asked to imagine Beijing's past, present, and future as defying the onslaught of material destruction and converging, in a remedial gesture, in collective memory. As in other quickly developing cities, a prevalent trope for representing Beijing and imagining its redemption is that of the palimpsest. Like erased ink surfacing onto scraped sheepskin of the palimpsest to show traces of earlier writings, goes the claim, so do earlier urban patterns affect citizens' perceptions of the present. The palimpsest is a tool for the spatialization of memory — that is, it places the passing of time within a narrative intelligible through reference to the transformation of space. By espousing the idea of the palimpsest, urban dwellers can easily anchor their identity in time and space, resulting in their empowerment as self-conscious subjects.
Although I acknowledge the transformative potential of the palimpsest and related metaphors, I propose that they can also manipulate collective memory by allowing the citizen to be subsumed by hegemonic formulations of subjectivity. The figure of the palimpsest seems on its face to offer a location-specific and historically coherent self, but in stressing the layering of time and space the metaphor is often employed to justify the fragmentation of experience and temporal disorientation, in effect introducing collective amnesia. This cover-up is motivated by capitalist interests and has immediate on-the-ground implications. The palimpsest adds a veneer of historical continuity that expedites the commodification of sites and their integration into neoliberal economy.
This chapter explores the ideological and material apparatuses of visualizing the historically layered city, as manifest in present-day Beijing. I start by historicizing the concept of spatial and temporal overlaying and eliciting its critical potential and fault lines. I use for a case study the reconstruction and gentrification of Beijing's Qianmen district in 2008 to show how street spectacles have redefined the temporal significance of the built environment. Buildings, billboards, and digital screens have formed contiguous media in the service of urban utopia. Mourning the disappearing cityscape, and the so-called culture of disappearance, is complemented by what I call the politics of emergence — celebrating new construction and projecting an anticipated future onto the perceived present. Urban discourse in the service of real estate developers fashions the city as a palimpsest bearing traces not only of the past but also, more importantly, of the future.
The implications for fashioning Beijing as a palimpsest bearing traces of the future are tangible and material. I have argued elsewhere that visual practices have accompanied urban development in China and shaped it. Texts, images, maps, and buildings coalesce in creating chronotopes — imaginary space-and-time frames for interpreting places and their historical significance (Braester 2010a). Screen cultures have facilitated the redaction of city plans, the redefinition of public spaces, and the reassessment of cultural heritage sites and political monuments.
Since 1949, Beijing has been imagined through various chronotopes that have fashioned its future as lying on its doorstep. The national and municipal governments have provided idealized images that prescribed the normative uses of space. To emphasize the urgent need for urban reform and the authorities' adequate response, plays and films have portrayed the change as taking place overnight, thereby skirting the painful process of demolition-and-relocation. The prescriptive chronotope and the chronotope of instantaneity, as I have called them, have been transformed more recently into the postspatial chronotope, which abolishes material space altogether by bringing social interaction to virtual environments and augmented reality. The temporal merging and telescoping implicit in these practices are now made more explicit. The conceptual matrix for Beijing's space-time in the twenty-first century, under the aegis of the politics of emergence, fashions the present as a placeholder for things to come. The protocols of engaging with public space are seen as the ghostlike effigy of what is yet to emerge. Current spatial practices can be understood only insofar as they are palimpsestic traces of a utopian future.
The discourse that identifies the urban texture as a palimpsest mummifies the past and fetishizes the future. The nostalgia for historical splendor, and its mirror image in yearning for grandeur to come, covers up for a troubled present. Claiming that the present is knowable only as the future's past obfuscates the immediate functions of capital. The spatial and temporal fragmentation of the present — the violent denial of its representability — is the byproduct if not the intended result of subjecting the built environment to market economics. Developers lionize the city as a historical spectacle in order to fashion space as a site of unachieved promise. The logic of concealed potential and intrinsic incoherence belittles the significance of the readily visible urbanism as shaped by neoliberal policies. The politics of emergence diverts attention from the city at hand as the spatial articulation of unchecked capitalism. Populating the present with specters of past and future temporalities serves the dominant economic and political powers.
In pointing out the inviability of utopian claims in present-day Beijing, I do not dismiss them as simply naïve or insincere. The unquestionable propagandistic use of spatial and media practices notwithstanding, these practices are symptomatic of the failure of the historical imagination under the current social and economic conditions. David Harvey (2000b) has described the New Urbanism as "degenerate utopias." The New Urbanism creates gated and surveilled theme park–like, self-contained bubbles, based on a quasi-mythical historical view of the city. Modernist idealism has been reduced to utopia by architectural design, dedicated to facilitating commodity culture.
Palimpsest and Simulacrum
The idea of the palimpsest, as applied to the modern city, has defined urban thought throughout the twentieth century. A short history of the concept may explain its attraction for urbanists as well as the dangers in its uncritical use. The notion that the city exists simultaneously at multiple symbolic and material levels may be traced back to Babylonian cosmology and the rabbinic vision of Celestial and Earthly Jerusalems. In the nineteenth century, the palimpsest became a common metaphor for human consciousness and for history (McDonagh 1987). Sigmund Freud first connected the palimpsest to the urban layout, comparing Rome and its layered history with the human brain, "in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one" (1962: 17; see also Freud 1959). Since Freud, the urban palimpsest has carried an implicit analogy to modern subjectivity.
Michel de Certeau brought the term to wide use when he denoted a place laden with memories as a palimpsest (1984: 109). In his famous "Walking in the City" as well as in the seminal essay "Ghosts in the City," Certeau fashions the built environment as a cipher made of historical layers. Following Walter Benjamin, Certeau focuses on the flesh-and-blood individual walking the city among a noisy, sweaty, and heaving crowd, and he privileges that individual over the abstract constructs of "the geometrical space of urbanists and architects" (1984: 100). The two spatial forms interpenetrate, and the modern citizen's task is to make sense of their simultaneous existence. The palimpsest-like nature of sites renders them, in Certeau's words, into "fragmentary and inward-turning histories, pasts that others are not allowed to read, accumulated times that can be unfolded but like stories held in reserve, remaining in an enigmatic state" (1984: 108; see also de Certeau 1998). Certeau opposes planners' attempts to begin with a clean slate that avoids a necessary ambivalence in understanding space. Instead, he presents walking in the city as an act of textual reading that excavates hidden narratives. The people walking the streets become citizens and gain their subjectivity from telling the city's stories. Walking in the city is a Heideggerian act of constituting one's being-there. The ability to extricate meaning out of space and make the city livable depends on citizens' self-conscious acts of invoking the past.
Certeau's idea of the palimpsest might be seen simply as rejecting idealized spaces and as emancipatory of ideological totality: It benefits the subject who teases meaning out of the unsaid and unbuilt, divulges the deeper structures of the city, and frees the citizen to create a cognitive map (Buchanan 2000: 121–122; Jameson 1991: xi, 51–52). Even David Harvey, who identifies the palimpsest with a capitalist construction of "social forms ... in the images of reciprocity, redistribution and market exchange," seems to ignore his own reservations and describes the urbanist's task as that of preserving the palimpsest: "Urban designers ... face one common problem: how to plan the construction of the next layers in the urban palimpsest in ways that match future wants and needs without doing too much violence to all that has gone before" (2009: 245; Harvey 2000a: 27–28). Probably the most sustained interest in the emancipatory potential of the palimpsest is found in Andreas Huyssen's Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Huyssen cautions that the recent "memory fever" may facilitate collective amnesia. For Huyssen, the palimpsest is a critical tool that responds to unreflective nostalgia (2003: 1). The palimpsest, in his view, enables spatial inquiry and at the same time privileges visual media as the means of such investigation.
And yet the concept of the urban palimpsest can both counter and support hegemonic discourse. Certeau, amid his enthusiastic endorsement of the urban palimpsest as an ideological tool, warns against using the palimpsest for a selective, fetishizing representation of the city as a showcase of the past. Fashioning the urban environment as a palimpsest might turn the city into a museum, one that "conceals from users what it presents to observers ... pull[ing] objects away from their everyday use" (1998: 138; see also Buchanan 2000: 19–21). The excavation and uncovering must be taken up by the citizen, not presented in preprocessed form, ready for consumption. Inquiry into the palimpsest must avoid turning the city into an idolized object, an immutable exhibit.
Christine Boyer, inspired by Pierre Nora, adds a warning — perhaps too dystopic — about the palimpsest's role in distorting memory. Rather than enhancing collective memory, the concept of the palimpsest ends up creating a disconnect between past and present. Insofar as monuments, restored sites, and artworks purport to function as "environments of memory," they do so only to satisfy a touristy gaze, one that does not take root in everyday activities but rather caters to the commodification of sites (see Boyer 1994: 339). The palimpsest is used to refer uncritically and ahistorically to invented traditions.
Boyer follows the bathos of Jean Baudrillard's criticism of contemporary urbanism, in which the latter identifies the "end of representation and implosion ... of the whole space in an infinitesimal memory, which forgets nothing, and which belongs to no one" (Baudrillard 1994: 71). For Baudrillard, the city is not the sum total of its pasts and presents. It does not retain memory or contain the figure of redemption. One may add: In its failure to produce a functional space, the urban simulacrum is abetted by the logic of the palimpsest, which may easily recede into infinite replication of the site, an aporia that voids referentiality and defers indeterminately spatial and temporal specificity.
The Baudrillardian critique of the mimetic order in urbanism has brought forth alternatives to the palimpsestic city. In tribute to Baudrillard, Edward Soja defines the contemporary city — the "postmetropolis" — as a place guided by the nonrepresentational logic of the simulacrum. In this "simcity," "simulations of a presumably real world increasingly capture and activate our urban imaginary and infiltrate everyday urban life" (1997: 27). Also taking his cue from Baudrillard, Marc Augé has historicized the transformation of spatial semiotics in the "supermodern" age. Augé designates sites that resist spatial and historical specificity as "non-places." Whereas place "is never completely erased," the contemporary, devalued non-places are "never totally completed; they are like palimpsests on which the scrambled game of identity and relations is ceaselessly rewritten" (Augé 1995: 79). Augé leaves his remark at that, but it carries important implications: The palimpsest is oriented toward the future as much as toward the past; it is part of a dynamic discourse, which must generate time and again imaginary spatial matrices to avoid recognizing the spatial uniformity created by globalization. Insofar as the palimpsest is still useful for conceptualizing the city, it is by drawing attention to how the city is restructured to skirt the burden of the past and refer to the future alone.
Beijing: Palimpsest City
Despite growing reservations among key thinkers about the city's function as a system of signification through superimposed temporal and spatial references, Chinese urbanists have emphatically fashioned cities as exemplars of semiotic layering. China's major cities have been branded, by developers and countercultures alike, through invoking the logic of the palimpsest. As Beijing undergoes rapid demolition and construction, the prevalent discourse has stressed the capital's changing façades. Popular and scholarly books about the city's architectural history, anthologies of old photos of buildings long gone, street displays of former layouts, stage plays showing semi-extinct ways of life, fiction films and documentaries recording the disappearing cityscape — all these have created a cartography that juxtaposes Beijing's past and present (Braester 2010a). The term palimpsest (chongxieben) is rarely invoked explicitly, and when it is, it is mentioned mostly by urbanists — usually foreign architects who have set up shop in Beijing. Yet the implications of the urban palimpsest — viewing the built environment as a set of layers awaiting excavation — have dominated public discussions and urban practices.
The most prominent critic to address the temporal coding of Chinese urbanism is Ackbar Abbas, who has advanced a postmodern semiotics informed by Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillard, and Paul Virilio. In Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, Abbas observes Hong Kong culture gearing up for the 1997 handover to the PRC. Hong Kong as people knew it was about to disappear, and they were looking to quickly invent a past for themselves. In following essays, Abbas explores the spatial and temporal signification in other Chinese cities, including Beijing (Abbas 1997, 2003, 2008). For Abbas, the Chinese city at the end of the twentieth century is a sign without any fixed signifier, defined by its inherent unpredictability, an urbanism that is essentially unknowable, paradoxically rooted in the not-here and the not-now. The urban environment constitutes, so to speak, an aporia of the sublime: one unrepresentability couched inside another, a temporal unknown represented through another. Abbas is interested in the multiplication of referents and often invokes the term overlaying. But for him the superimposed elements do not reaffirm each other. Instead, Abbas focuses on the reference-less, the patently fake, and the façade, and he regards the new Asian city as an exemplary "any-place-whatever" (Abbas 2008: 243–244).
Excerpted from Ghost Protocol by Carlos Rojas, Ralph A. Litzinger. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments vii Introduction. Specters of Marx, Shades of Mao, and the Ghosts of Global Capital / Carlos Rojas 1 Part I. Urbanization 1. Traces of the Future: Beijing's Politics of Emergence / Yomi Braester 15 2. The Chinese Eco-City and Suburbanization Planning: Case Studies of Tongzhou, Lingang, and Dujiangyan / Robin Visser 36 3. Hegel's Portfolio: Real Estate and Consciousness in Contemporary Shanghai / Alexander Des Forges 62 Part II. Structural Reconfigurations 4. Dams, Displacement, and the Moral Economy in Southwest China / Bryan Tilt 87 5. Slaughter Renunciation in Tibetan Pastoral Areas: Buddhism, Neoliberalism, and the Ironies of Alternative Development / Kabzung and Emily T. Yeh / 109 6. "You've Got to Rely on Yourself . . . and the State!": A Structural Chasm in the Chinese Political Moral Order / Biao Xiang 131 7. Queer Reflections and Recursion in Homoerotic Bildungsroman / Rachel Leng 150 Part III. Migration and Shifting Identities 8. Temporal-Spatial Migration: Workers in Transnational Supply-Chain Factories / Lisa Rofel 167 9. Regimes of Exclusion and Inclusion: Migrant Labor, Education, and Contested Futurities / Ralph Litzinger 191 10. "I Am Great Leap Liu!": Circuits of Labor, Information, and Identity in Contemporary China / Carlos Rojas 205 References 225 Contributors 243 Index 247
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"China offers itself as perhaps the most obvious case for critical neo-Marxian analysis on account of its peculiar socialist-capitalist hybridity. Highlighting this hybridity, the contributors provide us with a vivid, subtle, and reflexive framework to delve into several pressing issues about Chinese society, economy, and culture in the post-Reform era. With sophistication, elegance, and incisive conceptualization, Ghost Protocol never loses sight of the world's influence on China or China's growing influence on the world."
"Ghost Protocol treats Chinese development as a fluid and contested process and challenges simple and schematic views about contemporary China. Shedding light on confusing issues about China's socialist past and 'capitalist' future, it contributes to debates about transformations of socialism and capitalism. The book provides a compelling lens to examine socialism as societies and communities attempt to protect ordinary people from the destructive, fictive commodification of labor, land, and money."