restricted access Celebrating the Abject
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Celebrating the Abject
Zoo City. Lauren Beukes. Angry Robot Books. 416 pages; paper, $7.99, eBook, £5.49.

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Grime, detritus, and the thrown away mark a particular contemporary South-African aesthetic. It has a Dada feel: walls of old, crumbling concrete lined with obscene graffiti and a desire to shock; broken and dirty things, everything a bit out of place, or with no place; the disoriented and disorienting. One might find Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) atop a pile of rusty metal piping and dirty plastic bottles. We encounter this aesthetic in works like Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City, the photographs and video work of Roger Ballen and Pieter Hugo, and Mike Berg’s art direction in the film District 9 (2009). The dreck we encounter is also distinctly fleshly, organic, an embrace of decay. It revels in the underside of capitalist hyperconsumption—the planned obsolescence of objects lead to swirling collections of garbage in dumps, sewage drains, and stagnant puddles.

On one level, we could interpret this aesthetic of trash as metaphor for a “disintegrating ideology of colonial whiteness” in South Africa. The aesthetic seems to welcome the death of the past, yet there remains a whiff of nostalgia for the rotting and once-loved objects, disguised behind a self-conscious retro style. As Achille Mbembe writes of contemporary Johannesburg:

In the wake of the collapse of apartheid… the collage of various fragments of the former city are 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.

The political that marked the Dada movement is noticeably absent from this new aesthetic. Its world is multicultural, but it turns away from the history of apartheid and the struggle to end it. It’s as if the art is looking right through it. But it’s a window yellowed the “sulphuric colour of the mine dumps.”

Instead of racial segregation, the new aesthetic is marked by a focus on class. The movement called “Zef” is a new claim to an old derogatory term for working class Afrikaaner culture. A culture reviled and shamed as uncouth and vulgar, a South African “white trash,” as it were, is now celebrated.

Revitalization of the folk has historically been part of white supremacy’s claims to national identity and the right to dominate. But in the new aesthetic of whiteness, as in the personae of the musical group Die Antwoord, the affirmation of class belonging, and experience of exclusion, is aligned with blacks. But instead of a political alliance, it makes this alignment a celebration of the abject, the weird and grotesque. Animals abound, paired with humans or in incongruous relationship to their surroundings. We are put in a carnie mood, but a distinctly sepulchral one.

Lauren Beukes’s Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning second novel, Zoo City, reflects this aesthetic. It is named for a futuristic, apocalyptic slum in a fictionalized Johannesburg, as much a character in the book as is our protagonist, Zinzi Lelethu December. Bombed-out cars dot the streets lining the gutted, decomposing highrise buildings of what could be contemporary central Johannesburg and the former mining dormitories now occupied by the poor and disenfranchised. The ’hood is peopled with prostitutes, transvestites, and boys who lounge on doorsteps. This edgy urban underworld is fairly safe narrative terrain. We are surrounded by the familiar romantic appeal of a (pre-revolutionized) lumpenproletariat. But centering the story in the world of the criminal and outlaw, the dregs of society, is perhaps a relief from the moral sentimentalism of antiapartheid and its creation of heroic, properly proportioned figures. But it tries to forget apartheid; rather than in a world hierarchized by race, or by a rural/urban demarcation, Zoo City is colorblind. Zinzi is college educated, from a middle class home (her fall was from grace), and Beukes refuses to announce the race of the characters she introduces. There are moments of explicit political context, but they are all situated outside: in the history of Zinzi’s boyfriend, Benoit, a survivor...