"In Any Crystalline Land": The Poetics of Human/Mineral Worlds in Eastern Mongolia
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"In Any Crystalline Land": The Poetics of Human/Mineral Worlds in Eastern Mongolia


Abstract"In Any Crystalline Land": The Poetics of Human/Mineral World in Eastern Mongolia by Jessica Madison Pískatá

“In Any Crystalline Land”: The Poetics of Human/Mineral Worlds in Eastern Mongolia concerns the intersections of human/mineral worlds as they are mediated through poetic genres and practices. This dissertation focuses primarily on the Dariganga area of Sükhbaatar Province, a grassy volcanic field in the southern steppe just north of the Gobi desert and near the border with China. In the steppe and Gobi regions of Mongolia, and Dariganga in particular, geological forms are deeply involved in social life, and human interactions with worshiped mountains, stone cairns, mineral deposits, slag heaps, and mines are such that these forms take on their own kind of life. Making relations across such vast difference necessitates a way of communicating realities that may be confounding to secular modern academic language and ways of knowing, especially in translation. Dariganga poets, performers, scholars, and enthusiasts thus employ the capacities of poetry to create different paradigms of rationality and representation. The description and analysis of this dissertation is based on two years spent working as an English teacher in Sükhbaatar Province from 2011-2013, and 18 total months of participant observation, interviews, and collaborative translation undertaken in Ulaanbaatar, Sükhbaatar Province, Dariganga sum district, Dornogovi Province, and Erdenet City from 2015-2018. I primarily worked with poets, heritage scholars, performers, and religious pilgrims who identified themselves as having strong affective relations with particular geological forms. As worshiped mountains and stone cairns are ubiquitous across the Mongolian landscape and accelerating mineral extraction projects drive the country economically, politically, and environmentally, this was a very common sentiment. While intimate human relations with mineral forms is not unique to Mongolia, the longstanding intensity of human/geological relations here has afforded people the capacity to understand and articulate these relations in a uniquely clear and representative manner. Each chapter of this dissertation revolves around a concept built from a specific Mongolian term, drawing together various practices, modes of transmission, and sedimentations of shared human/mineral sociality. I foreground Mongolian concepts to highlight the ways in which my interlocutors’ understanding of geological liveliness confounds and outpaces representations of the animate non-living by the North Atlantic academy. From theories of classical animism to certain works from the ontological turn, the animating force within non-living things, whether “taken seriously” or not, has largely been defined as an ethereal quality distinct from materiality. This allows for non-secular entities such as ghosts, spirits, and deities, but not living rock. In Mongolia, while there are indeed distinct “air-like” or “invisible” spirits, ghosts, and deities that inhabit geological forms, restricting our analysis of geological sociality to the realm of religion of animism suggests an overreliance on a Christian ontology that disaggregates an immortal, ethereal soul from a mortal body. For my interlocutors in Mongolia, mineral landscapes and geological forms are very much animated, though not exclusively by spirits, nor by the mistaken application of biological life. Instead, the liveliness perceived in these geological relations is very much part of their materiality and the materiality of people’s interactions with them: treading, piling, touching, pulling, digging, engraving, and mapping. The liveliness of a worshiped mountain, for example, is an attribute of the mountain itself: its ability to compel humans to action, to invoke obligation, to create fortune, to heal and to reproduce itself through human creativity and language. To express the ineffable complexities of this liveliness, many of my interlocutors turn to poetry, citing its capacity to create new paradigms through juxtaposition, contradiction, pattern, sound, and surprise. Poetry, like the lively geology it describes, is immaterial language in material form. This liveliness is also taking place in the context of multiple modernizing projects that sought and seek to domesticate the non-human and separate Nature from human Culture. Since the 17th century, Buddhist domestication projects interpellated landscape forms and entities by linking them to religious taxonomies and architectural projects that placed them under the purview of the Mongolian Sangha and, in the early 20th century, a theocratic Buddhist state. Socialist modernization projects throughout the 20th century attempted to physically separate Nature from Culture with stone walls by building “Culture Houses” in rural centers, moving cultural practices like poetry, art, music, and dance indoors. In contrast, the banning of explicitly religious activities allowed for new small-scale practices to form, creating new intimacies between individuals and geological relations. The acceleration of industrial mining during this era mirrored pre-existing practices of piling stone to generate fortune and blew it up to the national and international scale. After the Democratic transition, the chaos and uncertainty caused by neoliberal shock treatment and the lifting of religious restrictions caused a mass awakening of landscape spirits, an explosion of shamanic practice, a rush of temple construction and the mandating of mountain worship ceremonies by law. Just as much as these livelinesses are appropriated by capitalism, they also gleefully participate in it while always also remaining beyond its reach. This series of modernities have sedimented over the years into a mineral palimpsest of human/geological relations which can only be conveyed and understood through similarly complex and kaleidoscopic poetic genres, practices, and performances.

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