The Invention of Johannesburg

A conversation with Achille Mbembe and others about underground spaces and the vertical and racial segmentation of the city


Fields of Knowledge
  • Memory
  • Philosophy / Theory
  • Politics / Economics
  • Public culture

Organizing Institutions


Contributing Institutions

Department of English, University of Pennsylvania


Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, African Studies Center and the Departments of Romance Languages, University of Pennsylvania

Opens to public



4017 Walnut
Philadelphia, PA 19104


50% Formal - 50% Informal

Slought is pleased to announce "The Invention of Johannesburg," a conversation with postcolonial theorists Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall on Thursday, October 22, 2009 from 4-6pm. The event will be moderated by Lindsay Bremner of Temple University with Rita Barnard of the University of Pennsylvania as respondent.

"In many senses, there is no metropolis without a necropolis. Just as the metropolis is closely linked to monuments, artifacts, technological novelty, an architecture of light and advertising, the phantasmagoria of selling, and a cornucopia of commodities, so is it produced by what lies below the surface. In the case of Johannesburg, the underground is not simply a technological space emptied of social relations. It does not exist only in an abstract realm of instrumentality and efficiency. In fact, it always was a space of suffering and alienation as well as of rebellion and insurrection. The French equation between underground space and revolution or insurrection (the dream of radical equality evidenced in the signifier of the Catacombs) holds in the case of Johannesburg. [...] Johannesburg clearly shows that one of the characteristic features of a metropolis is an underneath. [...] The underground is not to be understood simply in terms of an infrastructure and various subterranean spaces (sewers and drainage systems, underground railways, utility tunnels, storage vaults and so on). The world below (the underworld) is also made up of lower classes, the trash heap of the world above, and subterranean utopias. Like the nineteenth-century European city, the vertical and racial segmentation of the Johannesburg urban world was given structure and order by what it relegated beneath. As far as Johannesburg is concerned, more than the surfaces of the vertical city with its skyscrapers, the underground seems to hold the keys to unlocking the secrets of its modernity."

--Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall, "Introduction: Afropolis," Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis (2008)

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Achille Mbembe was born in Cameroon and obtained his Ph.D in History at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1989 and a D.E.A. in Political Science at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques (Paris). He was Assistant Professor of History at Columbia University, New York, from 1988-1991, a Senior Research Fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., from 1991 to 1992, Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania from 1992 to 1996, and Executive Director of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (Codesria) in Dakar, Senegal, from 1996 to 2000. Achille was also a visiting Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2001, and a visiting Professor at Yale University in 2003. He has written extensively in African history and politics, including La naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun (Paris, Karthala, 1996). His publications include On the Postcolony, an English translation of which has been published by the University of California Press, Berkeley, in 2001.

Sarah Nuttall obtained her D.Phil at Oxford in 1994, lectured in English at the University of Stellenbosch from 1997 to 2001, and has been a South African Rhodes Scholar. She was a Visiting Professor at the Institute for English and American Studies at the University of Salzburg, Austria, from March to June 2000, a Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, from January to March 2001, and a Visiting Professor in English and African American Studies at Yale University from September to December 2003. She is co-editor of Text, Theory, Space: Land, Literature and History in South Africa and Australia (Rautledge, 1996); Negotiating the Past: The Making of Memory in South Africa (OUP, 1998); and Senses of Culture: South African Culture Studies (OUP, 2000), editor of Beauty and Ugliness: African and Diaspora Aesthetics (2004) and author of a forthcoming volume of essays on South African Literatures.