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SF, Infrastructure, and the Anthropocene: Reading Moxyland and Zoo City

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2016


This essay probes the relationship between nature and infrastructure in Moxyland (2008) and Zoo City (2010), SF novels by the South African writer Lauren Beukes. I show, in one vein, how “nature” and “infrastructure” are not at all opposed in the way that ecocriticism and urban studies often suggest; in these speculative fictions, nature and infrastructure coincide, such that “nature” becomes coextensive with everyday life in these texts. At the same time, the essay uses Moxyland and Zoo City to explore a problem I take to be fundamental to literary and environmental studies in Africa, namely the place of African texts and contexts in the rapidly growing body of work on the Anthropocene, humanity’s new geologic age. Not only do these novels suggest yoking discourse on the Anthropocene to the new materialisms of scholars such as Jane Bennett or Bruno Latour, but the manner in which they do so can help us think about how to make the concept accessible to literary form.

© Cambridge University Press 2016 

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1 Simone, Abdoumaliq, “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg,” Public Culture 16.3 (2004): 407429 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Beukes, Lauren, Zoo City (New York: Random House, 2010), 61 Google Scholar.

3 See, for instance, Dickson, Jessica, “Reading the (Zoo) City: The Social Realities and Science Fiction of Johannesburg,” The Salon: Imagining Africa’s Future Cities 7 (2014): 6778 Google Scholar; Bethlehem, Louise, “Lauren Beukes Post-Apartheid Dystopia: Inhabiting Moxyland ,” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 50.5 (2014): 522534 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Alexander, Phoenix, “Spectacles of Dystopia: Lauren Beukes and the Geopolitics of Digital Space,” Safundi 16.2 (2015): 156172 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Graham, Shane, “The Entropy of Built Things: Postapartheid Anxiety and the Production of Space in Henrietta Rose-Innes’ Nineveh and Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City ,” Safundi 16.1 (2015): 6477 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 On the Anthropocene as a stratigraphic concept, see Steffen, Will, Crutzen, Paul J., and McNeill, John R., “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?Ambio 36.8 (2007): 614621 CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. For important accounts of the Anthropocene in postcolonial studies, see Chakrabarty, Dipesh, “Postcolonial Studies and the Challenge of Climate Change,” New Literary History 43.1 (2012): 118 CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Baucom, Ian, “History 4°: Postcolonial Method and Anthropocene Time,” The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 1.1 (2014): 123142 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Matthew Omelsky gestures toward the notion of the “African Anthropocene” in an article on what he terms “postcrisis African science fiction,” though the importance of yoking “Africa” and “the Anthropocene” together is left unexplored. See Omelsky, Matthew, “After the End Times: Postcrisis African Science Fiction,” The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Inquiry 1.1 (2014): 3349 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Morton, Timothy, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013)Google Scholar. For other versions of this argument, see Jamieson, Dale, Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed—and What It Means for Our Future (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Brace, Catherine and Geoghegan, Hillary, “Human Geographies of Climate Change: Landscape, Temporality, and Lay Knowledges,” Progress in Human Geography 35.3 (2010): 284302 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Garrard, Greg, Handwerk, Gary, and Wilke, Sabine, “Introduction: ‘Imagining Anew’: Challenges of Representing the Anthropocene,” Environmental Humanities 5 (2014): 149153 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Beukes, Lauren, Moxyland (Auckland Park, South Africa: Jacana Media, 2008), 4 Google Scholar.

7 See Steffen et al., Anthropocene.

8 Beukes, Moxyland, 29, 110.

9 Bethlehem, “Inhabiting Moxyland,” 527.

10 On Mpe’s novel, see Hoad, Neville, African Intimacies: Race, Homosexuality, and Globalization (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 113126 Google Scholar and Dannenberg, Hilary, “Narrating the Postcolonial Metropolis in Anglophone African Fiction: Chris Abani’s GraceLand and Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow ,” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 48.1 (2012): 3950 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the links between Welcome to Our Hillbrow and the broader cultural archive of the neighborhood, see Kruger, Loren, Imagining the Edgy City: Writing, Performing and Building Johannesburg (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 168184 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Hillbrow is also a key site for Simone in “People as Infrastructure.” On race and immigration in Hillbrow more generally, see Morris, Alan, “Race Relations and Racism in a Racially Diverse Inner City Neighbourhood: A Case Study of Hillbrow, Johannesburg,” Journal of Southern African Studies 25. 4 (1999): 667694 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Beukes, Zoo, 207.

12 The displacement in question is not merely metaphorical. As one prisoner explains after receiving a tapir as his companion animal, “The guards said she was still covered in jungle mud when they found her,” suggesting that animals are literally transported from the wild to the city in which they are forced to live. See Beukes, Zoo, 81.

13 The claim made here is somewhat different than that made by Fredric Jameson according to which there is, in the postmodern period, no longer any outside to capital. The globalization of capital may presage the end of nature as it is being discussed in this essay, though it is not entirely contiguous with it—as Chakrabarty suggests, the globalization of capital is a key driver of global climate change, but the problem, strictly speaking, is carbon as a form of energy, not capital as a form of social organization. Allowing that late capital is, in essence, the point at which the Anthropocene becomes legible, it still allows for an investment in rural retreat, even if in a highly commoditized form; what we find in Moxyland and Zoo City are worlds in which human agency has so saturated the natural world as to make even the fantasy of rural retreat impossible to sustain. See Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism: or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2012), 4849 Google Scholar. For another argument on the irreducibility of capital and climate change, see Chakrabarty, Dipesh, “Climate and Capital: On Conjoined Histories,” Critical Inquiry 41 (Autumn 2014): 123 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 See Dickson, “Reading the (Zoo) City,” 77.

15 On the concept of “multi-species ethnography,” see Kirksey, S. Eben and Helmreich, Stefan, “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography,” Cultural Anthropology 25.4 (2010): 545576 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Animal familiars are a key aspect of fantasy literature and witchcraft lore in South Africa and around the world. The relationship between humans and their familiars in Zoo City is especially resonant with that charted by Phillip Pullman in The Golden Compass (1995), though Beukes has key progenitors in the urban fantasy literature of Ilona Andrews, Kevin Herne, and Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens (1990). On animal familiars in the South African occult, see Niehaus, Isak, “Witches of the Transvaal Lowveld and Their Familiars: Conceptions of Duality, Power and Desire,” Cahiers d’etudes Africains 35.138 (1995): 513540 CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Jean, and Comaroff, John, “Occult Economies and the Violence of Abstraction: Notes from South Africa,” American Ethnologist 26.2 (1999): 279303 Google Scholar.

17 Heise, Ursula, “Introduction: The Invention of Eco-Futures,” Ecozone 3.2 (2012), 4 Google Scholar.

18 See Chakrabarty, “Postcolonial Studies,” 1.

19 Mbembe, Achille and Nuttall, Sarah, “Writing the World from an African Metropolis,” Public Culture 16.3 (2004): 351 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Beukes, Moxyland, 25.

21 As Bennett explains, her chief interest in Vibrant Matter lies in exploring how political problems might be approached differently if we think about material systems having agencies of their own. Zoo City suggests that not only does a world of vibrant matter open a host of new ethical and political possibilities, but a wide range of new economic possibilities as well. See Bennett, Jane, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 912 Google Scholar.

22 In other words, Zinzi’s description of “Object muti” provides yet another example of how the techno-futurism of Moxyland is in Zoo City transposed into a world of spiritual practices that are no less sophisticated than the material technologies they displace. See Beukes, Zoo, 116.

23 As mentioned in the first section, the “Rural” in Moxyland is represented as a futuristic version of apartheid’s reserves, though in the novel the Rural is less a source of surplus labor than it is a repository of surplus humanity. The penalty for running afoul of Cape Town’s corporate masters—one is kicked off the network that runs life in the city and consigned to the world beyond—therefore recalls the means by which black laborers who transgressed the rules of South Africa’s urban areas could be consigned to the country’s rural bantustans. But it also suggests the extent to which the regime of biopolitical control that orders Moxyland’s dystopian future remains a fundamental part of its capitalist order. For Beukes, in other words, apartheid is no aberration of an advanced capitalist society but rather a fundamental part of it, a possibility that remains inherent in its form. In this sense, both Moxyland and Zoo City enable a critique of the new materialist position according to which coming to terms with the agency of things is itself a political act—a world of agential matter is in these novels entirely consonant with endlessly proliferating regimes of totalitarian control.

24 Beukes, Moxyland, 16–17.

25 Ibid., 101–02.

26 It’s not only the authorities who wield the power of life and death in the novel. When Kendra, for instance, decides that she’d rather not continue to be a walking billboard for Ghost soft drinks, she runs into the problem that the patented nanotechnology has bound itself to her system, making her biological existence into the property of the biotech company leading the research—instead of being disconnected, Kendra is executed by the doctor overseeing her care. See Beukes, Moxyland, 231–33.

27 Beukes, Zoo, 23.

28 Ibid., 127.

29 Both The Shining Girls (2014) and Broken Monsters (2015), set in Chicago and Detroit respectively, are defined by the same dynamic.

30 The philosopher Dale Jamieson makes a similar argument when he writes, “The scale of a problem like climate change can be crippling” to our long-held modes of representation and cognition.” See Morton, Hyperobjects, 15 and Jamieson, Reason, 103.