The Metropolitan Melancholia project, led by Mellon Research Fellow for 2015-2016 Ed Charlton, sought to map the contemporary cityscape in terms that spatialise the condition’s associated feelings of loss, abjection and implacability.
Melancholy retains a prodigious tradition in humanist thinking across time. From its Ancient beginnings to its present articulation in postcolonial and critical race theory, it is a condition that has bred prodigious reflection on the very power of thought itself. As this project contended, however, it is also a feeling buried deep within the very structures of the city. Insisting that it extends well beyond the terrain of the individual, the pathological and the psychogenic, Metropolitan Melancholia aimed to institute an alternative way of reading melancholy, one that is especially attentive to the condition’s social and spatial dynamics. More specifically, it proposed to re-map the contemporary city in terms of its underlying topography of loss. As such, it thought beyond the architectural pursuit of enjoyment that often motivates the aesthetic experience of the modern city in order to appraise the more profound melancholic structures of feeling that also condition the urban sphere from below. However, this project was aimed not just at a diagnosis of melancholy’s feelings of loss, abjection and implacability, but, more crucially, at the ways in which the condition simultaneously elicits new modes of radical engagement within the urban sphere.
Comparative in its ambitions, this project began by examining key sites drawn from within the deracinated inner urban centre of present-day Johannesburg. In a city fixed at an interval between its violent apartheid past and its non-violent democratic future, this melancholic lens was deployed to uncover the inscriptions left upon the contemporary city by its particular history of racial segregation and exploitation. More specifically, through close analysis of recent works of creative non-fiction writing, film and public performance, this project aimed to provide a critical account of the increasing sense of atrophy and ennui that presently afflicts the city. In so doing, it elaborated upon the types of critical consciousness available within this seemingly torpid, melancholic space.