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Reviewed by:
  • Johannesburg: the elusive metropolis
  • Lindy Stiebel (bio)
Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe (eds) (2008) Johannesburg: the elusive metropolis. Durham and London: Duke University Press

One of the joys of Johannesburg: the elusive metropolis is that it is a book that does not need to be read sequentially: in fact, starting at the back is useful, for the Afterword explains its provenance and poses one of its central questions. Appadurai and Breckenridge, the latter being one of the founding editors of the journal, Public Culture, in which a slimmer version of this book first appeared in 2004, summarise the risk a book of this nature takes: by focusing on the 'aesthetics of the everyday', does this project 'somehow evade, elude, or cheat the real [issues] of money and power, of inequality and suffering'? They pose this central question and then summarise the editors' answer: 'We will not wait, they argue, and we cannot afford to wait, to defer the writing of Africa until that day (perhaps some sort of Day of Judgement from the Hague, Geneva or Davos), when the world shall declare that Africa has now officially been allowed the privilege of having an everyday' (353).

And they haven't. Johannesburg: the elusive metropolis hurtles straight in to creating a different kind of kaleidoscope through which to view this powerful African city. The editors' method is that of 'identifying sites within the continent, entry and exit points not usually dwelt upon in research and public discourse, that defamiliarise commonsense readings of Africa' (9). With specific reference to Johannesburg, the editors have not followed earlier trends in discussing this city. Rather than focus on the city in terms of racial divisions as in apartheid era studies, or expound on functionalist accounts of improving the city as in some post-apartheid texts, this book looks at Johannesburg as the premier metropolis in Africa, characterised by 'ceaseless metamorphosis' (18), and 'elusive' by virtue of 'the multiplicity [End Page 120] of registers in which it is Africa (or perhaps not at all, or not enough); European (or perhaps not, or no longer); or even American (by virtue of its embeddedness in commodity exchange and its culture of consumption)' (25). They stress the importance for this mining town of the underneath, the below surface, the underground which, whether made manifest in crime, sickness, opaque linkages or nervous energy, essentially fuels what happens on the surface.

In order to guide the reader into the maze, the editors have structured the book into two sections: the first section contains seven academic chapters to provide 'a set of concepts for reading the contemporary metropolis' (26). Among these concepts are notions of 'superfluity' and excess in the metropolis as expounded by Achille Mbembe; 'people as infrastructure' in Abdoumalie Simone's chapter; a look at 'stylizing the self' as observed in youth culture in one of Sarah Nuttall's chapters; the relationship between the metropolis and nationalism occasioned by both Mandela and Gandhi's links to Johannesburg as discussed in Jonathan Hyslop's chapter; the engagement of Johannesburg artists with the 'problem of mediation' in David Bunn's chapter, and the painful notion of the suffering body in the chapter outlined by Frederic Le Marcis. This last mentioned chapter is fascinating for Le Marcis observes how, contrary to the healthy body assumed in most literature about the city (the flaneur, stroller, wanderer), his focus is on the suffering HIV/AIDS body moving about Johannesburg in search of treatment, shelter and finally a grave, the ultimate underground: 'I show how, far from being immobile, the sick body moves and travels' (171).

The second section of the book is called 'Voice Lines', perhaps recalling Chatwin's Songlines, the stories of which call a landscape into being. Here, Johannesburg speaks for itself in short snatches using a variety of styles (journalism, emails, interviews, essays, 'walking conversation'). The authors of these soundbites are similarly various – journalist, returnee exile, student, architect, playwright – as are their topics. These range from John Matshikiza's dispatches about his movement across the African continent, coming home eventually to roost in Johannesburg: 'My forebears built this ugly city but were never allowed to make it their own. I...


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pp. 120-122
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