Activists, academics explore Jo'burg's myriad textures
Site of temple, stock market, fortress, library, hub of transport and communications – the city is where humans engage, transact, parade before each other, perform themselves, trade their wares, and build new worlds from old.
As philosopher, literary critic and urbanist Lewis Mumford wrote, the city is the apex of human civilisation, the greatest concentration and complexity of human society.
All through modernity, the city has inspired myriad creative, performative and architectural forms of homage, admiration and expression. Not even Google can agree which are the world’s top cities: New York? London? Barcelona? Johannesburg? Berlin? São Paulo? Shanghai?
But what makes a city great? What gives it its unique vibe and ineffable atmosphere? Is it about how the city has been represented in literature or photography or art that adds to its cachet? These questions continue to provoke discussion among not only artists, photographers and writers, but also urban planners, sociologists, historians and architects.
An ambitious effort to reimagine the city through the lenses offered by Mumford will take place at a workshop to be held at the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (Jias) in Melville from September 9 to 11.
The Performative Urbanisms workshop will bring together academics including sociologists, historians, architects and urban planners as well as urban activists from Australia and South Africa. They will be looking for “a different take on Jo’burg”, says Peter Vale, professor of humanities at UJ and director of Jias. The Wits City Institute, the Melbourne-based international journal of ideas Thesis Eleven and Curtin University of Perth are co-sponsors, with Jias, of the three-day encounter.
Australian sociologist and urbanist Peter Beilharz and Trevor Hogan, an authority on comparative urban studies, are among the international scholars. Vale, Wits City Institute’s Professor Noëleen Murray and others represent local academics.
Beilharz is a research fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study where he is working with a chronicler of Johannesburg, Ivan Vladislavic. Beilharz, professor of culture and society at Curtin University in Perth, has published several books on the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman and an intellectual biography on the Australian art historian Bernard Smith.
Hogan directs the Philippines-Australia Studies Centre at La Trobe University in Melbourne. He and Beilharz are among the founders of Thesis 11, an interdisciplinary journal of critical theory and historical sociology that takes its title from the most famous of Karl Marx’s 11 Theses on Feuerbach, the 19th-century German sociologist of religion and ethics. Marx’s 11th thesis is translated as “philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”.
Maurice Smithers, agent provocateur and lobbyist for the Melville/Bellevue areas of Johannesburg, and the Afrikaans writer Harry Kalmer are two of the Johannesburg-based thinkers who will take part in the first day of the workshop. They and other urban activists will be in conversation with academics about their experience of the city under the theme “The Politics of Urban life: Personal Confessions”. The aim is to open ideas about the city to contesting claims and to its manifold lives.
A session titled ‘Writing the City’ on day two of the workshop is intended to generate discussion about the many ways in which Johannesburg has been described and elaborated in various literary genres. Other panels will debate issues broadly described under the headings ‘Modernity and African Cities’; ‘The Smart City’; ‘Administering and Planning in the City’; ‘Photography and the City’; ‘Hair and the City’; ‘Traders and the City’; and ‘Protesting the City’.
Day two is open to the public and proposals for additional panels may still be accepted. The workshop ends with a meeting at Jias on day three, in which the Australian scholars with talk about their experience and interpretation of Johannesburg with their local colleagues. The group will also plan two publications, one popular and one academic, based on workshop proceedings.
Jill Weintroub is a researcher at the Wits City Institute