EssaysRaceTheory & Practice

The Social Condition and the Ghetto

Jeffrey Goldfarb and Iddo Tavory (recently joined additionally by Tim Rosenkranz) have been trading pieces in this forum toward sketching the outlines of an existential sociology based on a concept they call “the social condition.” The social condition, if I understand them correctly, is the intrinsic potential for our lives and our projects to come up against impasses. Borne from the complexity of our existences as social beings, it is the impossibility of overarching, unproblematic narratives. It is the inevitably of indeterminacy and irreconcilability.

Tavory’s take on the social condition seems to focus this insight on the role of illuminating the crises of lived experience. He offers poignant examples of individuals unable to realize ideals, confronted with the fundamental impossibility of doing so: the ideals are eroded in the very act of seeking them. He finds in this situation both tragedy and comedy, and he uses it to shed light on the Absurdity of human existence.

Goldfarb introduces a more political dimension to the notion of the social condition. Goldfarb speaks of crises of ethics in political action, of the contradictions inherent in the attempt to realize a normative, pluralist, democratic society. He suggests that there is pragmatic potential in acknowledgement of the social condition; for example, he has told us that he may write about the instruction such acknowledgement provides for political actors to act with humility.

As an emotional human being, I am moved by Tavory’s poetic take on the social condition; as a concerned resident of a fraught world, I am inspired by Goldfarb’s political version. And I am also enriched in one other way: I finally have a name for a series of contradictions I have been considering myself, as I search for the available routes toward the best possible world. And I believe that in my own work, I have uncovered one more approach to the social condition: an analytical and even explanatory one.

I have researched the connection between jazz, as a Black American art form, and ghettoization, as the material experience of Black Americans. My initial consideration was the connection between real people and disembodied abstractions. Where Black material life underwent a trajectory beginning with spatial segregation into ghettoes and social stigmatization by the majority living outside them, so was their capacity for musicality forced out of professional classical circles and forced to find its expression in a unique musical form that became the property of the disincluded — and was ridiculed for it. in other words, while Black Americans were ghettoized spatially and materially, so were their cultural objects. Those aspects of their lives that were meant to transcend the vulgarity of subjugated existence were put through the same process, resulting in a collapse of the meaningful distinction between real and ideal on the way to a near-totalized oppression.

But I uncovered something else in this research. In examining the parallel trajectories of physical ghettoes and jazz music, I recognized a painful irony. The process of separating out a people, and their cultural objects, from the rest of society, and ascribing to them a devalued status, produces solidarity among them. This solidarity transforms objects of stigmatization into objects of pride: ghettoes became homes, jazz became the pre-eminent Black contribution to culture. And it is precisely this re-valuation that makes these objects desirable to other elements of society again.

When the ghetto becomes a home, its residents take pride in it, and it is the positive outcomes of this civic pride that allow ghettoes to become unique destination spots full of cultural desirability.

Similarly, the music of ghettoized people, as it is defiantly developed into a major artistic achievement, attains symbolic status and attracts the participation of well-meaning others who, as it turns out, are often white. In other words, the very representatives of the racial category that ghettoized Black Americans in the first place turn out to be the ones who re-appropriate those spaces and objects in the name of post-racialism; and this re-appropriation is predicated upon the social outcomes produced originally by the ghettoization. In this cruelly ironic circular process, the Black American is saddled with a double indignity. And it is precisely the attempt to respond positively to the first indignity that creates the second.

Here, we have an example of the social condition not just offering an illumination as to the character of life or a guideline for political action. We have, instead, the social condition explaining the existential experience of gentrification. It is the presence of the social condition that sets up the possibility of gentrification, the second indignity. It is in the irony of the ghetto transforming into a home, of a devalued art form transforming into a major cultural contribution, that their dilution through appropriation by others comes not as a relieving correction but rather a second injustice. It is the presence of the social condition, in the historical outcomes it influenced as well as the existential experience of injustice for which it serves as the foundation, that makes it possible to understand deeply the problem of gentrification.

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Zachary Sunderman

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