On Awkwardness – Part I

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Last year I read Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness: An Essay.   I put it on the backburner as something I would write about in the near future because, quite frankly, Schlemiel Theory has been busy with several different philosophers, books, and comedians over the last year. That said, when a friend of mine tagged me in a post on facebook today – about an article written in The New Yorker entitled “The Awkward Age” – I felt I had to, at the very least, read the article and comment on Adam Kotsko’s book, which is referred to in the beginning of the article. While the article is not that interesting, Kotsko’s philosophical, sociological, and historical approach to the phenomena of awkwardness is. His “essay” suggests a few possibilities for schlemiel theory that may or may not be of interest because they tap into philosophical and historical approaches to one of the most notable features of comedy today: awkwardness.

At the outset, the article from The New Yorker cites and makes the following comments on Kotsko’s book:

As the Eskimos were said to have seven words for snow, today’s Americans have a near-infinite vocabulary for gradations of awkwardness—there are some six hundred entries in Urban Dictionary. We have Awktoberfest (awkwardness that seems to last a whole month), Awk and Pshaw (a reference to “shock and awe”), and, perhaps inevitably, Awkschwitz (awkwardness worthy of comparison to the Holocaust). We have a hand signal for awkwardness, and we frame many thoughts and observations with “that awkward moment when…” When did awkwardness become so important to us? And why?

In “Awkwardness: An Essay” (2010), the critic Adam Kotsko dates our age of awkwardness—embodied by “the apparently ontological awkwardness of George W. Bush” and manifested in television shows like “The Office,” “Arrested Development,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”—to the early aughts, with a postwar prehistory. (In short, Kotsko writes, the fifties purveyed capitalism into an ideology of “traditional Christian values”; in the sixties, these values were destabilized by the counterculture movement; the ideological vacuum of the seventies led to the paranoia and nihilism, reflected in the metaphysical being of Woody Allen; in the eighties, pure capitalism became its own value system, sustained by opposition to the Soviet Union; and in the nineties nihilism returned, minus the Cold War paranoia, inaugurating the age of irony.

What caused the shift from irony to awkwardness? Interestingly, Kotsko refuses to blame September 11th, connecting the end of irony less with “a culture-wide turn towards earnestness and patriotism” than with irony having “simply exhausted itself.” My feeling, however, is that we can peg the end of irony to September 11th precisely because of the failure of “earnestness and patriotism” that Kotsko describes. We finally had an “evil opponent” again. Terrorists, like Communists, hated “our way of life.” If we neglected our Christmas shopping, Bush said, the terrorists would win. But, this time, the rhetoric didn’t stick. The U.S.S.R. had been a nuclear superpower, with geopolitical aims comparable, if opposed, to those of the U.S. Al Qaeda was nationless, nihilistic, and armed with box cutters. You couldn’t lump it together with North Korea and call it the Axis of Evil—that didn’t make sense.

The problem with this hasty overview and application of his book is that it doesn’t explain the basis of Kotsko’s reading of awkwardness vis-à-vis philosophy and suggests that Kotsko’s book simply historicizes awkwardness. This is incorrect and misleading.

Yes, the “age” we are living in may be awkward, as the author suggests, but she doesn’t understand why and neither does the reader.   To understand how he historicizes awkwardness, we need to first understand the philosophical basis for his project.

Kotsko turns to Martin Heidegger and then Jean-Luc Nancy to explain the philosophical basis of awkwardness.   Regarding Heidegger, Kotsko notes how the “most fundamental mood” that Heidegger “examines in the context of Being and Time is anxiety”(12).   Through this mood, Dasein (being-there, man) has a “special window onto a question that he pairs with that of the meaning of being: namely, the questions of time”(12). When a person “dwells” in a “mood of anxiety” he or she experiences “time” as an “existential urgency”(12).

Besides being interested in anxiety and its relation to time, Kotsko is also interested in Heidegger’s treatment of another mood; namely “boredom”: “Whereas anxiety provides special insight into the question of time, boredom bears specifically on the question of how humanity is related to animal life”(12).   Drawing on Heidegger, Kotsko notes how boredom – like anxiety – brings out what is “truly distinctive about humanity” since it enables us to be “detached” from “an amazing array of stimuli” (or what Heidegger would call the world). This detachment is what Heidegger would call transcendence.

From here, he notes how, for Heidegger sees anxiety as a more “fundamental mood” than boredom because the mood of boredom is still too connected to the world.   While boredom is a “breakdown in our normal relationship to the world…anxiety points toward the ultimate breakdown of death”(14).

Although Kotsko finds the moods of anxiety and boredom to be interesting in terms of understanding our relationship to time and the world (as well as its breakdown), what he wants to find, most of all, is a mood that will tap into what interests Jean-Luc Nancy most: the meaning of relationship as such.   To this end, he asks the question: what mood can this be. And his answer is awkwardness:

Awkwardness clearly fits the general pattern of insight through breakdown, but unlike anxiety or boredom, it doesn’t isolate the person who feels awkward – as I have already discusses, it does just the opposite: it spreads. (15)

In other words, Kotsko is interested in how awkwardness is a contagious kind of mood. Other people, in relation, can catch it (as it “spreads”) can become awkward.

Kotsko adds that “awkwardness is a breakdown in our normal experience of social interaction while itself remaining irreducibly social”(15). By doing this, he opens the door to a sociological and historical reading of awkwardness which is really about being unable to act “properly” in an (ab)normal situation that one is caught in. He brings in the sociological register of “norms” to explain:

Awkwardness shows us that humans are fundamentally social, but that they have no built-in norms: the norms that we develop help us to “get by,” with some proving more helpful than others. We might say, then, that awkwardness prompts us to set up social norms in the first place – and what prompts us to transform them. (16)

With a definition like this, how can one say that our post 9/11 age is the most awkward one of all as the writer from The New Yorker suggests? With this philosophical and sociological kind of basis, one can argue that any age that is transitional will be awkward.

However, Kotsko is responsible for the title and theme of The New Yorker article’s periodizing since he focuses on the present and the origins of our awkward time. In fact, he entitles the section, immediately after his philosophical grounding “The origins of our awkward age.”

It should be clear by this point that I believe that we are currently in a state of cultural awkwardness. Contemporary mainstream middle-class social norms are not remotely up to the task of minimizing awkwardness, but at the same time, there seems to be no real possibility of developing a positive alternative….There are many possible reasons that such a condition could have arisen in the first decade of the 21st century….but…I believe we must look to the social upheavals of the 1960s. (17)

What follows is a sociological exercise. Since the 1960s challenged, traditional values the norms changed and America had a hard time adjusting. He discusses changes in terms of civil rights, sexuality, experimentation, and nihilism. Woody Allen, according to Kotsko, emerged as “one of the pioneers of awkwardness” in the 1970s because of this radical social upheaval.   And even though things changed in the 1980s because of the Regan Era (which looked to reestablish tradition and norms and “overcome awkwardness”) the 90s, which marks a fall back into instability, gives us Seinfeld.

But, argues Kotsko, “none of the main characters actually sit and stew in their awkwardness, and I’d propose that that’s because they are all essentially sociopaths. They cause awkwardness in others but don’t truly feel it themselves, because they lack any real investment in the social order – instead they merely attempt to manipulate it”(23).

The only exception to the Seinfeld rule is the schlemiel, George: “His sheer patheticness and vulnerability, his lack of the steady income and social status of Jane or Elaine or the strange self-assurance of Kramer, keep him from being completely detached”(23). In other words, he is awkward because he is not successful in a context where others are.

Kotsko argues that the “seeds of awkwardness” are planted here. And that it is after 9/11 that the we become an “age of awkwardness.”   In this age, Curb Your Enthusiasm and films by Judd Apatow illustrate how awkward we have become.   There are two ways, according to Kotsko, that we can approach awkwardness. Either it is “individuals” who create awkwardness, as we see in the US version of The Office (25) or it is a social order as we see in Apatow’s films. He finds the second position to be of greater interest to his project:

If the social order itself seems to be producing awkwardness, let people indulge in awkwardness on purpose as a way of letting off steam. This strategy is on full display in several Judd Apatow films: if men are afraid to leave behind the awkward state of overgrown adolescence and get married, then build in a space for them to indulge in their awkwardly adolescent pleasures. (26)

Besides “letting off steam” and remaining awkward, Kotsko sees awkwardness as a strategy to challenge the status quo, on the one hand, or as an opportunity to relate to each other in a way that is not based on any norm whatsoever:

When we resist awkwardness, the social order looks good. When we resist social order, awkwardness looks good. But on those rare occasions when we figure out a way to stop resisting the social order and yet also stop resisting awkwardness and just go with it, something genuinely new and unexpected may happen: we might be able to simply enjoy one another without mediation of any expectations or demands. (26)

Kotsko calls this “the promise of awkwardness”(26) and argues that “for all its admitted perils and difficulties, awkwardness does contain a seed of hope”(26). To be sure, Kotsko, who does much work in Continental Philosophy, is familiar with Karl Marx, Ernst Bloch, and Walter Benjamin who all discuss hope and its relation to opposing the status quo. He is no doubt drawing on this trend by claiming that the mood of awkwardness is a “seed of hope” and a “promise.”   It is not merely a term to describe the “age” we are it – as the writer from The New Yorker suggests.

Kotsko spells it out at the end of his first chapter: “More than describing a cultural trend, then, my goal here is ultimately to point toward what we’re all already hoping for”(28). What Kotsko means by this is that the mood of awkwardness – suggested by Apatow films and…in general – is a messianic or utopian kind of mood that anticipates living in a world where “we might be able to simply enjoy one another without mediation of any expectations or demands”(26).

Does Big Bang Theory also project this hope? Is Seth Rogen a messianic figure? If we are to live perpetually in a kind of childhood state, as Apatow’s films suggest, we will be in a perpetual state of awkwardness. And this anticipates, for Kotsko, a messianic state of not living up to an ideal and being an adult.

The suggestions that Kotsko makes about our age have to do with the collapse of norms that we can maintain by not wanting to return to tradition or anything normative. It’s better to just figure out our-relation-to-each-other as we go along. I find this proposal to be very interesting because it suggests something we see with the schlemiel who is often portrayed as an innocent, naïve, and awkward character. In fact, all of the characters that Kotsko looks at could be called schlemiels.

…to be continued….

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