Liam Kennedy, Race and Urban Space in Contemporary American Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000). Pp. xii + 178. £45.00 and £16.95. ISBN 0-7486-0969-5, 0-7486-0952-0.
Liam Kennedy's new book on race and the city is a smart, tough and intellectually sophisticated account of a subject which nevertheless remains conceptually uncertain.
Despite being a theoretical tour de force, his introductory chapter, "The Miasma of Urbanisation," anticipates many of the contradictions that emerge later on. Taking issue with the classic tradition of American urban studies, which described the city as a site of civic unity, Kennedy argues that the "new urban imaginary" is less collectively transparent.
In particular, race emerges in these readings as "an eruptive force in the symbolic order of the city," rendering its contours much less legible and easy to identify than they used to appear to Lewis Mumford and his acolytes. Kennedy then proceeds to trace this failure of "legibility" through a series of texts in different media concerned mainly with New York and Los Angeles: Wolfe's novel The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), Schumacher's film Falling Down (1992), the photographs of Camilo Jose Vegara, and various other works.
The obvious problem here is that the representation of "urban space" in itself fails to provide a sufficient analytical framework for these issues of racial occlusion. This leads to a severe thematic disjunction within the book: although distancing himself from the totalizing theories of urban culture that were prevalent in the Modernist era, Kennedy appears unwilling to abandon the idea of the city as a potential source of explanation for the works he discusses.
He describes "space" as "a modality through which racial relations of domination and subordination are naturalized"; however, any consideration of how this "modality" is necessarily constructed through interaction with other domains-either geographical entities such as the province or suburb, or more abstract centres of political and economic capital-is noticeably absent here. To his credit, Kennedy always seems uneasily unaware of such lacunae, and in the concluding chapter he writes incisively about the "widespread loss of coherence in the idea of the city as a synthetic totality and crucible of nationhood."
Within a "postnational" context, as he acknowledges, cities like New York can no longer represent themselves as symbols of American exceptionalism. Again, though, this kind of theoretical astuteness raises the question of why he would want to keep circling back to a reified idea of urbanism as compulsively as eighteenth-century writers on landscape returned nostalgically to images of neoclassical pastoral.
Kennedy notes how advocates of the "new urbanism" tend to be underwritten by "discourses of neotraditionalism, environmentalism and communitarianism," and, despite the perceptiveness of many of its readings, similar kinds of ghosts seem to hover around this particular project as well.
Overall, then, this might be described as a book with many interesting local features but a rather regressive sense of architecture. It should also be said that, given the amount of visual material discussed here, it is most unfortunate that the Edinburgh University Press could not stretch to including any photographs by way of illustration.