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Public Culture 16.3 (2004) 430-452

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Stylizing the Self:

The Y Generation in Rosebank, Johannesburg

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Figure 1
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Global cities, like New York, San Salvador, or Shanghai, have served as critical sites for the remixing and reassembling of racial identities. This has taken specific and concrete form in Johannesburg, where, particularly after 1994, the city has become a site for new media cultures as a wide range of radio stations, television talk shows, and local soap operas went on air and magazines were founded. Postarchitectural spaces, like billboards, came to be used to insert products, like cell phones or AIDS campaigns, into youth culture itself. Darrel Bristow-Bovey writes of the city's skyline:

The first time I arrived in Johannesburg by car it was midnight and I was tired. As I skirted the city centre heading north, I looked into the night sky and saw Naomi Campbell. Oh my, she was big. She hovered above me, glowing as though lit from within, etched in the heavens 50m tall, like every fat girl's worst nightmare. . . . A Naomi stretched across one entire side of a twenty-storey building was my first introduction to Johannesburg's peculiar culture of outdoor advertising. . . . Billboards are an intrinsic weave in the fabric of the city, a vital feature of the cognitive mapping that has to take place in order to effectively navigate your way around a city of this size. Each major intersection, each significant route, is marked with a billboard.1 [End Page 431]

Much of what Bristow-Bovey writes about Johannesburg is also true of the main roads through Soweto, where one sees vast billboards dwarfing shacks and lower-middle-class dwellings. Such juxtaposition of media cultures and poverty marks the visual and material dimensions of Johannesburg, generally. This essay is about these urban visual forms, which embody concepts of the urban, of race, and of culture that have much to tell us about Johannesburg as it participates in global cultures of circulation. These visual cultures are the loci of a language of aspiration, a language that, as we will see, both speaks to and silences psychic and material "remainders" beyond the text: crime, economic hardship, and bodily frailties, even death itself, in the wake of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

In discussing urban visual cultures, I pay close attention to modes of stylizing the self increasingly common among young people in the city. By stylization of the self, I am referring to how people seek to transform themselves into singular beings, to make their lives into an oeuvre that carries with it certain stylistic criteria. I am also referring to the emergence of explicit forms of selfhood within the public domain and the rise of the first-person singular within the work of liberation. My focus on self-styling avoids easy equations between the young, postapartheid generation in Johannesburg and a global youth culture. Generation Y cannot be reduced to mere surface(s), nor is it simply a subcultural critique of "official culture." We also need to reformulate the way the local and global intersect in South Africa to understand the innovative, often still unchartered borderlands in which youth cultures give voice to imaginative worlds very different from those of the parental generation.2

The generation I discuss in this essay includes those who have attended racially mixed (model C) schools in the city as well as many who attended exclusively black township schools. I focus specifically on the emergence of a new city youth culture, called Y, loxion culture, or loxion kulcha, centered in Rosebank, Johannesburg, but stretching well beyond this trendy, affluent, and increasingly racially mixed suburb. I show how young people remake the past in very specific ways in the services of the present and the future and how they develop a mode of cultural accessorization in the making of their contemporary selfhood. I argue that accessorization should be understood neither as a Foucauldian biopolitics nor as an epidermal or nanopolitics, in the sense developed by Paul Gilroy.3 Rather, it...


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pp. 430-452
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Archived 2004
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