Urban and Urbanization

Dispossession as depotentiation

This paper proposes a theory of urban dispossession as depotentiation. ‘Depotentiation’, as I employ the term, indicates the diminishment of imminent capacities, affects and potentialities. I propose this formulation to both complement and critique Harvey’s dominant notion of accumulation by dispossession as the commodification of the urban commons and to contribute to conceptual developments on the stratified and affective dimensions of eviction. The evictions in my study operate in liminal urban spaces where there are no ‘commons’, but rather incomplete and fragile processes of ‘commoning’ and high levels of mobility and precarity. This paper draws on ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2011 and 2019 in inner-city Johannesburg in unlawful and other informal occupations, frequently termed ‘bad buildings’, ‘hijacked buildings’ or ‘dark buildings’ and other low-income accommodation. These are sites of extreme precarity and liminality, endurance and potentiality, where tens of thousands of inner-city residents, South African and foreign-national, live without essential services and subject to the constant threat of eviction or deportation. Dispossession of their residents operates not only through the commodification of an urban commons but also through the diminishment of urban potentiality.

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Volume 39 Issue 6

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