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Public Culture 16.3 (2004) 373-405

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Aesthetics of Superfluity

It is altogether impossible to live at all without forgetting.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations

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 upon 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 [End Page 373] 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.1

This study is highly speculative. It uses the notion 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 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.2 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 [End Page 374] 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.3

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 postapartheid 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...