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Figures of the metropolis
Sarah Nuttal

Sarah Nutall, In Literary cityJohannesburg, the Elusive Metropolis, pp 198-199.

A propos des figures de la ville de Johannesburg.

« In the last decade or so, an international body of scholarship on the city has turned for inspiration to, but also begun to critique, the writing of Michel de Certeau and Walter Benjamin. It has returned  to these writers as a way of trying to name neglected urban spatiality’s and to invent new ones, to unearth emergent city figures to connect that which has been held apart, to draw out the city’s theatricality, it’s improvisations, it’s ironies. De Certeau’s key insight was that people use cities by constructing who they are, producing a narrative of identity. They make a sentence or a story of particular places in the city, and the city is not available as an overview – the city is the way that it is walked ».


« Benjamin’s figure of the flâneur (the esthetic bohemian, drifting through the city like a film director) invites us to « read the city from its street-level intimations, to encounter the city as lived complexity, to seek alternative narratives and maps based on wandering » (Amin and Thrift 2002 : 11).
For Zygmunt Bauman (1996), the figures which populate the Western metropolis, in addition to the flâneur, include the tourist (from whom the city is a spectacle) ; the player (who knows the rules of various urban games) ; the vagabond or vagrant (who moves at the borders of the establishment through the practices of transgression) ; and the commuter (who treats the city as a place you enter, park work and leave – an autopolis). Interestingly, he fails to include the figure of the sex worker, and like most theorists of the city, he seems uninterested in what a gender-related city consciousness – the experience of the flâneuse, among others figures – would look like. African cities suggest a number of others figures, which could be read back into european cities as well : one would be the figure of the sâpeur – the figure of spatial transition, operating in the interstices of large cultures, participating in a cult of appearance, especially expensive clothing ; a mobile individual who, following Janet MacGaffey and Remy Bazenguissa-Ganga (2000), creates ramifying networks extending through time, space, and multiple cultures as he circulates between cities. Others (…), include the figure of the migrant worker, the aging white man, the « illegal immigrant », and the hustler ».

Much of the emergent work I have discussed above tends to overstate the city as a space of flow, human interaction, and proximate reflexivity. Although the figure of the flâneur draws important links between space, language and subjectivity, it fails to consider whether the transitivity or transitioning of the contemporary city, based on an endless spread and multiple connections, is best grasped through the trope of wandering/wondering – or requires other imaginary means and underestimate the extent to which striating openness and flow are a whole series of rules, conventions, and institutions of regulation and control, a biopolitics ».

Amin, Ash and Nigel Thrift. 2002. Cities:Reimagining the Urban.Cambridge : Polity.
Bauman Zygmunt. 1996. From pilgrim to tourist – or a Short History of Identity in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. S. Hall and P.du Gay, 18-36. London : Sage.
MacGaffey Janet and Bazenguissa-Ganga Remy. 2000. Congo-Paris : Transnational Traders on the Margins of the Law. Oxford : James Curry.

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