Apartments and Social Class

My boy Dan Harmon resonated with me yet again in his latest recording of Harmontown. It’s a tiresome song, I know, but the man, as I am actively objectifying and mythologizing him, speaks to me. He was reminiscing about his former days when he was barely getting by and living in an apartment building with a standard cast of characters, also known as neighbors, the colorful others that are decidedly not you, not like you, never will be like you, never will be as good as you or as capable as you in making it out of there and never going back to endure their idiosyncratic insanities (which might be characterized as conditioned neuroses that emerge due to repressive systems in their society). One of these characters was a morbidly obese, absurdly talented operatic singer who shared his voice unashamedly within their little world. Until one day when a Scottish character – with echoes of Mike Myers’ parodic Scot in the Austin Powers series – chimed in and demanded, “shut up ya fat bastard!” And so the man was never heard from again (in Harmon’s experience). From this anecdote, Harmon swiftly skewered capital society and its imposition on the poor.

It’s called living with other people. It’s a thing that they have done to us that’s part of a class system. When you’re poor, you share property with other people that you don’t even own, so what would be a really dangerous thing to happen in that case is everybody getting along, but they call them apart-ments. Think about it…we’re so trained to hate each other for being poor.

Property is integral to the American Dream, and it was encoded into our cultural DNA by our ancestors’ belief in free conquest and the domination of nature and of all the people we refused to acknowledge as part of our humanity. We were a unique breed, bent on our manifest destiny; the Others were not of our species, and therefore not deserving of our rightful claim to the land and everything we might reap from it. And so we set them apart.

We are still setting each other apart, engaged in a hyper-Darwinist struggle for scarce resources because we are stupidly sold on the idea of infinite, eternal abundance. That through our cutthroat, self-interested competition, we will all somehow emerge with the accumulation of stuff and wealth that is part of our inalienable rights as American citizens. We have inherited this Dream, and there is no amount of historical or current evidence that can negate its reality. (How the label “dream” itself isn’t enough to make us question its truth is beyond me.) If we work hard enough, we’ll get what we want, and we deserve that reward, dammit!

And so, filled with this foolish but curiously buoyant hope, we endure our plight. We endure our neighbors. We endure abject poverty, or middle-of-the-road, never-quite-good-enough wealth and advantage, optimistic that the windfall is on its way for us. We endure others’ success, envious but confident that they will one day be us. Or rather, we will one day be them.

No matter. The fact is, we remain pointed in the direction of Nowhere, oriented toward a Great Nothing, confusing it with Everything. We beat on because we are well-trained citizens. Accepting the world as it is presented to us, we know of no other way to live. Although it is fairer to say, as I was using the term before, that we endure.

Endurance is the American experience, and it is sold as a virtue. But patience is a virtue only for those who can afford to wait. Patience is a boon to the already powerful, to those benefitting from the status quo. Yet our patience and endurance is at odds with our inexhaustible effort. We keep working and working to no end. And therein is our problem. We think we’re working under a noble teleology, but we are headed toward the accumulation of things at the expense of meaningful relationships, wherein we put ourselves front and center, and objectify everything else, stuck in the tragic I-It mode that Martin Buber lamented as our learned perspective.

When will we learn to stop enduring life apart and start experiencing it together?

This is not a spiritual question. Physical and social reality, constrained by legislative imperatives and market initiatives (to grossly reduce the matter to a few vague concepts), preclude such naive transcendence, and so instead of following some version of “The Way” and thinking that we’re making people’s lives better, we have to work to change the very real conditions in our society that force us apart in the first place. Self-enlightenment as a primary end is hegemonic complicity. It’s choosing to become a bystander, saving yourself and abandoning everyone else.

Apart-ments then are not just physical spaces. They are America’s psychological place.

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