The Elusive Metropolis


a Public Culture Book

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Book Pages: 392 Illustrations: 24 illustrations Published: October 2008

African Studies, Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Sociology > Urban Studies

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


Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis is a benchmark text as a study of a city, a metropolis, in all its aesthetic, lived complexity.” — Lindy Stiebel, Transformation

“Taken together, the contributors to this edited volume . . . give Johannesburg a new visibility as a complex and vibrant city with a distinctive cosmopolitan culture all its own.” — Martin J. Murray, African Studies Review

“The essays, both academic and anecdotal, are penetrating and evocative.” — Nicole Devarenne, Modernism/Modernity

“The strongest contributors to Johannesburg remain those who combine expert knowledge of city history and current policy with street-level experience and the imagination of its future. . . . The volume offers illuminating snapshots and essays that render Johannesburg less ’elusive’ than it might have seemed to readers new to the city.” — Loren Kruger, Research in African Literatures

“This is a rich contribution to the literature on Johannesburg. The format of the pieces ranges across formal academic articles, opinion pieces, autobiographical accounts, interviews, and even an email exchange. Although some writing is of a more suggestive, imaginative, and exploratory nature, much is rigorous and well substantiated.” — Richard Ballard, African Affairs

“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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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

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.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

Introduction: Afropolis / Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall 1

1. Aesthetics of Superfluity / Achille Mbembe 37

2. People as Infrastructure / Abdoumaliq Simone 68

3. Stylizing the Self / Sarah Nuttall 91

4. Gandhi, Mandela, and the African Modern / Jonathan Hyslop 119

5. Art Johannesburg and Its Objects / David Bunn 137

6. The Suffering Body of the City / Frédéric Le Marcis 170

7. Literary City / Sarah Nuttall 195

Voice Lines

Instant City / John Matshikiza 221

Soweto Now / Achille Mbembe, Nsizwa Dlamini, and Grace Khunou 239

The Arrivants / Tom Odhiambo and Robert Muponde 248

Johannesburg, Metropolis of Mozambique / Stefan Helgesson 259

Sounds in the City / Xavier Livermon 271

Nocturnal Johannesburg / Julia Hornberger 285

Megamalls, Generic City / Fred De Vries 297

Yeoville Confidential / Achal Prabhala 307

From the Ruins / Mark Gevisser 317

Reframing Township Space / Lindsay Bremner 337

Afterword: The Risk of Johannesburg / Arjun Appadurai and Carol A. Breckenridge 349

Bibliography 355

Contributors 375

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4284-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4262-5
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