Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis is a pioneering effort to insert South Africa?s largest city into urban theory, on its own terms. Johannesburg is Africa?s premier metropolis. Yet theories of urbanization have cast it as an emblem of irresolvable crisis, the spatial embodiment of unequal economic relations and segregationist policies, and a city that responds to but does not contribute to modernity on the global scale. Complicating and contesting such characterizations, the contributors to this collection ...
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Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis is a pioneering effort to insert South Africa’s largest city into urban theory, on its own terms. Johannesburg is Africa’s premier metropolis. Yet theories of urbanization have cast it as an emblem of irresolvable crisis, the spatial embodiment of unequal economic relations and segregationist policies, and a city that responds to but does not contribute to modernity on the global scale. Complicating and contesting such characterizations, the contributors to this collection reassess classic theories of metropolitan modernity as they explore the experience of “city-ness” and urban life in post-apartheid South Africa. They portray Johannesburg as a polycentric and international city with a hybrid history that continually permeates the present. Turning its back on rigid rationalities of planning and racial separation, Johannesburg has become a place of intermingling and improvisation, a city that is fast developing its own brand of cosmopolitan culture.

The volume’s essays include an investigation of representation and self-stylization in the city, an ethnographic examination of friction zones and practices of social reproduction in inner-city Johannesburg, and a discussion of the economic and literary relationship between Johannesburg and Maputo, Mozambique’s capital. One contributor considers how Johannesburg’s cosmopolitan sociability enabled the anticolonial projects of Mohandas Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. Journalists, artists, architects, writers, and scholars bring contemporary Johannesburg to life in ten short pieces, including reflections on music and megamalls, nightlife, built spaces, and life for foreigners in the city.

Contributors: Arjun Appadurai, Carol A. Breckenridge, Lindsay Bremner, David Bunn, Fred de Vries, Nsizwa Dlamini, Mark Gevisser, Stefan Helgesson, Julia Hornberger, Jonathan Hyslop, Grace Khunou, Frédéric Le Marcis, Xavier Livermon, John Matshikiza, Achille Mbembe, Robert Muponde, Sarah Nuttall, Tom Odhiambo, Achal Prabhala, AbdouMaliq Simone

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“An extraordinary exploration of what is so often left out of accounts about cities: what is beneath and what is at the edge. It goes where much of the urban scholarship leaves off or, rather, trails off. The authors’ project to write Johannesburg into today’s history will serve as a compass to enable researchers and writers to engage other cities that have been left out of history or given a narrow colonial presence.”—Saskia Sassen, author of Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages

“Taken together, the essays in Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis offer radically new ways of thinking about this complex city, as well as many hints about emerging or re-emerging cities elsewhere. The essays challenge dominant models of urbanism and demonstrate with force and subtlety how African cities in general and Johannesburg in particular outpace urban theory. Each essay ‘de-scribes’ the city now in order to envision the city to come. In this volume, we hear—over the droning clichés that still circulate about the African city’s ruin and decadence—another note, another cadence.”—Ackbar Abbas, author of Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822381211
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 10/3/2008
  • Series: a Public Culture Book
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 6 MB

Meet the Author

Sarah Nuttall is Associate Professor of Literature and Cultural Studies at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER), University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. She is the author of Entanglement: Literary and Cultural Reflections on Post-Apartheid (forthcoming) and an editor of several books, including Beautiful/Ugly: African and Diaspora Aesthetics, also published by Duke University Press.

Achille Mbembe is Research Professor in History and Politics at WISER. He is the author of On the Postcolony and La naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun and a co-editor of Le politique par le bas en Afrique noire.

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The Elusive Metropolis

Duke University Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4284-7

Chapter One

Aesthetics of Superfluity


If there is ever an African form of metropolitan modernity, then Johannesburg will have been its classical location. The idea of the metropolis in European thought has always been linked to that of "civilization" (a form of existence as well as a structure of time) and capitalist rationalization. Indeed, the Western imagination defines the metropolis as the general form assumed by the rationalization of relations of production (the increasing prevalence of the commodity system) and the rationalization of the social sphere (human relations) that follows it. A defining moment of metropolitan modernity is realized when the two spheres rely on purely functional relations among people and things and subjectivity takes the form of calculation and abstraction.

One such moment is epitomized by the instrumentality that labor acquires in the production, circulation, and reproduction of capital. Another moment is to be found in the way that the circulation of goods and commodities, as well as the constant process of buying and selling, results in the liquidation of tradition and its substitution by a culture of indifference and restlessness that nourishes self-stylization. Yet another is to be found in the ways that luxury, pleasure, consumption, and other stimuli are said to affect the sensory foundations of mental life and the central role they play in the process of subject formation in general.

This study is highly speculative. It uses the notion of superfluity to revisit the biopolitics of Johannesburg as a "racial city" and its transition to a metropolitan form. In the wake of the collapse of apartheid (an insidious form of state racism), the collage of various fragments of the former city is opening up a space for experiences of displacement, substitution, and condensation, none of which is purely and simply a repetition of a repressed past but rather a manifestation of traumatic amnesia and, in some cases, nostalgia or even mourning. In the process, an original form, if not of African cosmopolitanism then of the performance of worldliness, emerges. It is structurally shaped by the intertwined realities of bare life (mass poverty), the global logic of commodities, and the formation of a consumer public. Today, the nervous rhythm of the city and its cultural pulse are made up of an unrepentant commercialism that combines technology, capital, and speculation.

As I use the term here, superfluity does not refer only to the aesthetics of surfaces and quantities, and to how such an aesthetics is premised on the capacity of things to hypnotize, overexcite, or paralyze the senses. To my mind, superfluity refers also to the dialectics of indispensability and expendability of both labor and life, people and things. It refers to the obfuscation of any exchange or use value that labor might have, and to the emptying of any meaning that might be attached to the act of measurement or quantification itself, insofar as numerical representation is as much a fact as it is a form of fantasy.

But the abolition of the very meaning of quantification, or the general conversion of number into fiction, is also a way of writing time, of forgetting and remembering. Moreover, I argue that the post-apartheid metropolis in general, and Johannesburg in particular, is being rewritten in ways that are not unlike the operations of the unconscious. The topography of the unconscious is paradoxical and elusive because it is bound to several distinct modes of temporality. So is the psychic life of the metropolis. This psychic life is inseparable from the metropolitan form: its design, its architectural topographies, its public graphics and surfaces. Metropolitan built forms are themselves a projective extension of the society's archaic or primal fantasies, the ghost dances and the slave spectacles at its foundation.


Johannesburg began as a mining camp of tents and corrugated iron buildings during the Witwatersrand gold rush of the late nineteenth century. As South Africa was consolidated as a white supremacist state, Johannesburg developed into a colonial town. Like every colonial town, it found it hard to resist the temptation of mimicry, that is, of imagining itself as an English town and becoming a pale reflection of forms born elsewhere. Johannesburg's earliest settlers did not experience a sense of having genuine ties with the world surrounding them. To a large extent, this tradition of mimicry continues to determine if not the language of the city today, then at least part of its unconscious. This might explain the level of "falsehood" many analysts identified in Johannesburg's cultural life: what appears alternatively as a mélange of and a deep antagonism between provincial and cosmopolitan ways.

That the city started as a tabula rasa did not mean that the new could be inscribed upon it without reference to a past. As in every settler colony, the past was to be found elsewhere, in the myth that Johannesburg was a European city in a European country in Africa. It was a tabula rasa, too, in the sense that, with the displacement of earlier frontiers of accumulation (land and cattle), Johannesburg became the first site on the continent where capital, labor, and industry came together. In contrast to what happened in other regions of Africa, here the extraction of primary resources did not necessarily lead to marginalization within the global economy. People's experience of the market was constantly disciplined and brought into line with formal and, most often, coercive institutions. Money was one such institution, but so were numerical and legal frameworks for the valuation of people, property, contracts, and credit (see Posel 2000). Early on, the city was inscribed within increasingly wide networks and complex, long-distance interchanges and transactions. In the process, a distinctive commercial civilization emerged that was based partly on race, in particular through the sale of people as property. In this way, Johannesburg became a central site not only for the birth of the modern in Africa, but for the entanglement of the modern and the African-the African modern. But even cities born out of mimicry are capable of mimesis. By mimesis, we should understand a capacity to identify oneself or establish similarities with something else while at the same time inventing something original (see Halliwell 2002). More than any other African city, Johannesburg has evidenced this capacity to mime. In the process, the city has developed an aura of its own, its uniqueness. The mimetic structure of Johannesburg is still evident in the city's contemporary architectural forms or, more simply, in its mania for wealth, for the sensational and the ephemeral, for appearances.

From its beginning in the late nineteenth century, Johannesburg has always imagined itself to be a modern city. Early on, it developed along utilitarian and functional lines, with a clear delineation between the zones of work, living, recreation, and transportation. It had its own newspapers, its horse-drawn trams, its solid stone buildings, its stock exchange, its banks, post offices, telephone exchange, railway stations, and various social clubs. Later on, it built its galleries, parks, and museums.

The modern city has a number of characteristics. It is, above all, the product of capitalism. In the South African case, industrial capitalism grew out of diamond mining in Kimberley and gold mining in the Main Reef of the Witwatersrand. This is why Johannesburg is also known as "gold-reef city" or Egoli (City of Gold). One can still see traces and markers of this early history in contemporary Johannesburg's landscape, scenery, and folklore. It is not uncommon to drive down a Gold Street, a Quartz Street, or a Nugget Street, just as it is easy to see remnants, here and there, of the machinery that lowered miners below the surface and hauled up ore. From the airport highway, one can still see the slagheaps not far from the very center of the city, those manmade hills in ochre colors, "the mine-dumps, the refuse of stamp-mill and cyanide-tank, the ghosts of the mines' earth gazing down on the world they left behind."

As Marx showed long ago, capitalism is not simply a mode of production and accumulation; it also involves flow and motion (Marx 1073: 186). Capital depends on the circulation of commodities, understood here as both labor power and the means of production and exchange (see Braudel 1982). The material life of cities is made up of people and things, of images and signs. After 1873, when silver was demonetized in Europe, gold became the foundation of the global economic system or, in any case, its primary means of exchange. The discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand in 1886 immediately triggered a gold rush, not unlike the ones in California in 1848 or Australia in 1851. Within a few years, what had been until then a small mining camp experienced a population explosion.

Migrants to Johannesburg came from all corners of the earth. They included Cornish "hard-rock men" and Australian miners, Scottish and American engineers, bankers, lawyers, adventurers, gamblers, schemers, criminals, and fortune hunters, journalists, sex workers, refugees, thousands of impoverished Eastern Europeans (including Polish and Russian Jews fleeing persecution), Frenchmen, Italians, and Greeks. Many dreamed of fast and easy riches. Others simply wanted to escape lives made wretched by misery and debasement. They were joined by criminals, vagabonds, hustlers, musicians, and other marginal figures (van Onselen 1982). Whether rich or poor, many had bought into an idealized lifestyle that surrendered unreservedly to the world of things-wealth, luxury, and display (Wheatcroft 1985).

Like other modern cities, Johannesburg was founded within the sphere of superfluity. Marx refers to superfluity in the context of a broader discussion on money and commodity value. For him, it is the particular usefulness of the commodity, whether as a particular object of consumption or as a direct instrument of production, that stamps it as money. But the opposite can also occur: a commodity "which has the least utility as an object of consumption or instrument of production" happens "to best serve the needs of exchange as such." Such is the case with precious metals. From the outset, says Marx, "they represent superfluity, the form in which wealth originates" (1973: 168-69). But for Marx, superfluity also pertains to "the sphere of satisfactions and enjoyments," to the "world of gratifications" and "fleeting pleasures." As for money and wealth, they not only have sensuous qualities, they can also be seized and lost in the same manner. Wealth, in particular, does not appear only in material and tangible forms. For wealth to be realized, it has to be constantly thrown back into circulation. More important, it has to exist in the subject's head as "a pure fantasy" (Marx 1973: 204, 232-33).

In his study of capitalism and the structures of everyday life from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, the French historian Fernand Braudel defines the sphere of superfluity as a complex area of daily life located beyond the sphere of poverty and necessity. He associates superfluity with luxury, rarity and vanity, futility and caprice, conspicuous spectacle, and even phantasm (Braudel 1981: chaps. 3 and 4). A mode of relation to objects, superfluity is manifested in domains as varied as the consumption of food and drink, houses and their interiors (types of furniture, floors, walls, ceilings, doors and windows, chimneys and fireplaces, furnaces and stoves), and costume and fashion.

In contrast to Braudel, Hannah Arendt (1966) invokes the notion of the superfluous to refer to situations of misery and destitution. She argues that many European immigrants who settled in South Africa were unemployed in the societies they came from. As such, they belonged not to an actual active army of labor but to a class of superfluous men. Once in Johannesburg, they formed a mass of human material ready for exploitation. Indeed, it was believed in the nineteenth century that only the conquest, settlement, and exploitation of overseas territories could permanently solve the problem of superfluity.

For Arendt, it is a remarkable paradox that, in South Africa, the purported solution to superfluity was initially a rush for the most superfluous raw material on earth: gold (King 1867). Gold, Arendt wrote (1966: 188), hardly had "a place in human production" and was "of no importance compared with iron, coal, oil, and rubber"; instead, it was "the most ancient symbol of mere wealth." In its uselessness in industrial production, she concluded, "it bears an ironical resemblance to the superfluous money that financed the digging of gold and to the superfluous men who did the digging."

If the capital, technology, and expertise for mining came mostly from Riga, San Francisco, Hamburg, Kiev, or London, most of the "superfluous men who did the digging" were "migrant black workers without rights and with little choice but to sell their labor cheaply," Hermann Giliomee writes (2003, 323). They flocked to the Rand from as far away as Basutoland, Mozambique, and later on from Rhodesia, Nyasaland, and Zambia. Here, superfluity was not a matter simply of numbers or of surplus populations. In fact, if anything, there was never enough labor power at the beginning of the industrial revolution in South Africa. This is why, from the start, a dense nexus of overlapping and interweaving threads connected migrancy and modernity in South Africa (see Moodie 1994; Comaroff 1992: 155-80). Through the movement of bodies, superfluity came to be based on not only the prominence of money, credit, and speculation but also the obfuscation of any use value black labor might have had. Such obfuscation was itself a mode of rationality closely related to the circulation of capital. But contrary to most Marxist analyses (see Harvey 2001: 314), the circulation of capital is predicated not just on class relations but also on human investment in certain forms of racial delirium.

Delirium and the Racial City

It is by now a commonplace to assert that the city of Johannesburg grew in connection with both the forces and relations of production. Less well understood is how relations of race and class determined each other in the production of the city. It can be argued that race here became, in and of itself, both a force of production and a relation of production. As such, race directly gave rise to the space Johannesburg would become, its peculiarities, contours, and form. Space became both a social and a racial relationship, one that was additionally inherent to the notion of property.


Excerpted from Johannesburg Copyright © 2008 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Afropolis
Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall
1. Aesthetics of Superfluity
Achille Mbembe
2. People as Infrastructure
AbdouMaliq Simone
3. Stylizing the Self
Sarah Nuttall
4. Gandhi, Mandela, and the African Modern
Jonathan Hyslop
5. Art Johannesburg and Its Objects
David Bunn
6. The Suffering Body of the City
Frødøric Le Marcis
7. Literary City
Sarah Nuttall
Voice Lines
Instant City
John Matshikiza
Soweto Now
Achille Mbembe, Nsizwa Dlamini, and Grace Khunou
The Arrivants
Tom Odhiambo and Robert Muponde
Johannesburg, Metropolis of Mozambique
Stefan Helgesson
Sounds in the City
Xavier Livermon
Nocturnal Johannesburg
Julia Hornberger
Megamalls, Generic City
Fred de Vries
Yeoville Confidential
Achal Prabhala
From the Ruins
Mark Gevisser
Reframing Township Space
Lindsay Bremner
Afterword: The Risk of Johannesburg
Arjun Appadurai and Carol A. Breckenridge
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