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  • “It’s the Third World Down There!”: Urban Decline and (Post)national Mythologies in Bonfire of the Vanities

The symbolic order of American nationalism has been profoundly fissured by socio-economic transformations which connect local cultures in the United States to the global system. “Globalization” has become a catch-all term for diverse restructurings characterized by the acceleration of global flows of people, capital, and information. 1 This acceleration has propelled what Frederick Buell describes as “the movement from a period of globally disseminated nationalism, which reinforced the construction of national identities as objects of faith and focuses for social organization, to a period of globalism, in which the stereotypical national culture has become increasingly strained, fractured and demystified” (144). The idea of a “national culture,” once deeply encoded in the concept of the American Creed as civil religion and in its master narrative of exceptionalist ethnogenesis, has lost its power to describe a collective, national experience and evoke a shared historical consciousness. This idea has not simply disappeared, however, [End Page 93] for it has come to form an important imaginary focus in public perceptions of the accelerated decline of the United States in the uncertain era of postnationalism. One of the most significant symbolic sites of this perceived decline is the American city and more especially the extended metropoles which have come to be known as “global cities.” 2

The American city has long been “an abstract receptacle for displaced feelings about other things,” and narratives of anti-urbanism can be traced from at least the mid-nineteenth century (Marx 210). As Robert Beauregard has shown, though, it is not until the mid-1940s that “a fully developed discourse on urban decline” (75) emerges in the United States, one that has been expanded and elaborated upon to express wide-ranging social contradictions and antagonisms in the last fifty years. 3 The discourse of urban decline is tied to the material conditions and transformations of urban society, but it is also a symbolic screen for national concerns. As Beauregard observes, the discourse “functions to site decline in the cities. It provides a spatial fix for our more generalized insecurities and complaints” (6). This spatial fix has served to mediate generalized anxieties about the dissolution of the national culture. The core of the American city has been radically transformed in the last twenty years, with “white flight” to the suburbs, decentralization of economic enterprise, the privatization of public spaces, and the concentration of a new urban “underclass” changing the spatial, cultural, and political form of the city. Many commentators now argue that the “city” as a synthetic totality has lost coherence and legibility; it has been ruptured as a coherent sign as it has imploded into fragmented spaces and exploded into metastasized urban agglomerations. 4 And yet, urbanism continues compellingly to define the condition of American society as a whole and is the symbolic locus of ideological debates and moral panics about problems of crime, drugs, homelessness, immigration, and demographic change. The decentering of the culture of the core the city provides a spatial fix for a postnational crisis of urbanity itself.

This crisis of urbanity, as a register of postnational concerns in American society, has become an important issue of representation in American literature. In the last twenty years, literary conceptualization of the city has reflected its postnational transformations, its restructuring in both material and imaginary ways. A potent example is the [End Page 94] urban writing representing “new ethnicities,” the work of writers voicing the concerns of migrant communities which have strong local and global consciousness of their identities. This writing, challenging ideological assumptions inscribed in the discourse of urban decline, is redefining ideas of territory, place, community, and culture in new urban cores. 5 My main textual focus in this essay, however, is a novel which strikingly promotes the discourse of decline in its singular effort to reproduce the totalizing vision of the classic realist novel as the most adequate form of literary response to the complexities of urban change at the end of the twentieth century. Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, published in 1987, clearly fails in this effort, but this...

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pp. 93-111
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