Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness

Looks like an expert to me

Adam Kotsko, whom I interviewed in June 2009 about his book, Žižek and Theology, has just put out a long essay called Awkwardness. (He’s published two other books since that 2009 interview, too, damn. One is called The Politics of Redemption and the other is a translation of Agamben’s The Sacrament of Language. He makes my 2010 feel lazy.)

Awkwardness is about awkward situations as seen in popular TV and movies and your mama’s. He examines these situations in terms of Heideggerian relationality, similar to the way Kierkegaard looked at irony. Because of its pop-culture conceit it reminds me a bit of those “Simpsons and Philosophy“-type books that I used to buy because I liked the Simpsons or baseball but then would never read because, lo, they were still heady academic essays after all. But Awkwardness doesn’t market itself that way — as it shouldn’t. For one thing, Kotsko doesn’t limit his subject matter; The Office, some girl singing at a bar, and Larry David all come under scrutiny in the course of discussing awkwardness. Even the book’s introduction says it started as a joke, this isn’t philosophy-for-philosophy’s-sake.

Kotsko sets up two kinds of awkwardness. There is “everyday awkwardness,” which occurs when someone does something inappropriate for a given context based on the normal behavior of a group of people (eg. when a person at a bar takes advantage of a quiet moment to sing emotively for the benefit of everyone else in the bar). This overlaps with “cultural awkwardness,” I think, which occurs when the cultural standards for behavior are ambiguous or weak. Then there is “Radical awkwardness.” When I read this term I laughed out loud and felt pretty certain that this whole essay is a joke (albeit nonetheless effective and interesting in spite of the fact that it is meant to be arched-eyebrow funny). You don’t have to be well-versed in the work of John Milbank to appreciate what’s afoot.

Radical awkwardness contrasts with everyday awkwardness when no social norm exists. Kotsko’s explanation isn’t as clear here, but it sounds more serious. This has to do with power and cultural assimilation. (I’m extrapolating, but I think it might make sense to define the conversation I had with a relative, when I suggested I could sympathize with the motivation of the 9/11 attackers, as awkward. My cultural norms and his were so different that at one point I spoke louder and slower, as if we didn’t both speak English.)

Kotsko makes a lot of keen points in his essay. One thing I found particularly interesting is that because of the social nature of awkwardness, one never simply observes it. Instead, we are drawn into it regardless of of our position in relation to the awkward occurrence. For example, when my dinner date chastised the waitress, I was embarrassed even though I had nothing to do with it. Another interesting point is the distinction he draws between the misogyny in Woody Allen’s movies versus Judd Apatow’s: Woody Allen is fascinated and frightened by women, but the misogyny of “the Apatovian universe” is based on the actual culture at-large of the overgrown adolescent, which is prevalent. Kotsko is really good at delivering these small theses, like the professor who goes, “There’s a paper in that for you.”

Ultimately, Kotsko’s point in the essay is to show that through these social breakdowns, something characteristic about human interaction is revealed. I’m not sure that always comes across, but the book is always fun to read, even through the long synopses of TV shows I imagine most htmlgiant-savvy readers have already seen. Kotsko’s a handy writer with a journalist’s sense of prose, so even the loftiest or more offensive concepts stay tethered. I especially liked the discussion of Romans (you know, from the Bible) through the plot of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

In the end, Kotsko encourages the reader to embrace awkwardness because it’s a way of life that opposes or exists outside of the social order, “a unique sort of ‘revolution’.” The last few pages of the book read so much like a manifesto that it’s awkward to catch the author being swept away by his own joke. But then, that faith is what makes the joke so rich. And what makes awkwardness worth living. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go talk to some Latinos.



  1. kb
  2. Janey Smith

      The wrong way is always the right way in my little universe. Nice review.

  3. TWS

      Thanks, Adam.

  4. HTMLGIANT review of Awkwardness « An und für sich

      […] friend Adam Robinson has reviewed Awkwardness at HTMLGIANT. Posted in Awkwardness (the book). Leave a Comment […]

  5. Follow up to my review of Adam Kotsko | HTMLGIANT

      […] reviewing Awkwardness, I have gone back to explore Adam Kotsko’s group blog, “An und für sich,” and […]

  6. Robert Enright

      You can sympathize with the motivation of the 9/11 attackers? What are you, some kind of fucking asshole?

  7. Adam Robinson

      Sorry Bob! Don’t watchlist me!

  8. letters journal

      “I suggested I could sympathize with the motivation of the 9/11 attackers…”

      You sympathize with hatred of Jews, secularism, relative social equality of women, etcetera? The 9/11 attackers were not poor and oppressed: they were college educated. They killed 2000+ people in a few hours. That’s significantly more than died during the last war in Gaza (and in a much smaller amount of time).

      How/why would one sympathize with an act of mass murder by theocratic fascists?

  9. Adam Robinson

      Which of these is not like the other:
      hatred of Jews, secularism, relative social equality of women

  10. Alexander Gonzalo

      Piss poor attempt at dissembling. It would be cool if you answered the question instead.

  11. Adam Robinson

      Did this get re-posted at some wingnut blog or something?

      I’ll respond to the spirit of the question (since the question itself makes no sense). I understand that America’s global position makes it a target of outrage for people who live in, well, I guess, ANYWHERE. Is that really so hard to understand?

  12. Mike Young

      man this comment stream just got so awkward

  13. Adam Robinson


  14. Whatisinevidence

      The motivation for 9/11 was not “America’s global position”; it was hatred of Jews, hatred of secularism, hatred relative social equality for women, and etcetera. This is what the question above meant.

  15. Alexander Gonzalo

      No. That’s easy to understand. And I agree with you. But what does that have to do with sympathzing with some braindead robopaths who murdered 3000 people? You want to sympathize with the innocent Iraqi and Afghani people who have been getting raped and pillaged for the last seven years, that’s cool, I get it, they deserve your compassion. The whole 9/11 thing? Dude, that’s sophomoric. But then again, I happen to totally sympathize with whoever is killing all those women in Juarez, because Late Capitalism is such a bitch.

  16. Whatisinevidence

      And let’s also remember that a lot of that murder and pillage in Afghanistan and Iraq is/was being done by Islamist terrorists of the ilk who did 9/11.

  17. kb

      It’s possible to have some form of compassion /sypathy for murderers without condoning / agreeing with / having any concrete understanding for their monstrosities. I’m kind of with Plato in assigning ‘evil’ to ignorance, though it’s not an ignorance of FACTS…

      The action was incorrect… like how Jeff Dahmer’s actions were incorrect. However, I also think it’s incorrect to make them into cartoon devils, they’re human beings with as much consciousness as anyone… I realize this is not what a lot of people want to think about in terms of these people..

      It’s like the difference between compassion and pity, which Nietzsche had conflated together somehow (I think he was just being a crank)… you don’t ‘feel sorry’ for somebody if you have compassion, you can even blatantly say they fucking suck and it’s their own fault, they dug their own hole, what you did was abominable, etc. It’s more of a basic uhm metaphysical… uh. Yeah. Like McCarthy’s Child of God.

      Bad internet conversations to get into #578?

  18. Weeatherhead

      guys, 9/11 was an inside job…

  19. Whatisinevidence


  20. kb

      pretsure was iron sheik bro.

  21. deadgod

      How/why would one sympathize with an act of mass murder by theocratic fascists [sic]?

      – by having, through rage, committed an act of violent revenge one came to regret, and, subsequently, having a sense of understanding of similar – however amplified the violence – acts.

      – by taking seriously – whatever one’s spiritual commitments – the meaning of the life of the Galilean carpenter and rabbi.

      – by having the discipline and integrity not to confuse “sympathy” with permission.

  22. deadgod

      The “motivation for 9/11” was (at least) three-fold: identifying modernity with the dissolution of traditional ways of life; identifying modernity with “America”; and identifying “America” with Israel.

      Surely “America’s global [official foreign-policy] position” can be attached – accurately – to the last, however unavoidable (and even desirable) the first consequence and confused the second equation.

      Are Settlers and Settler governments so, what, amiable towards “secularism and etcetera”??

  23. deadgod

      braindead robopaths who murdered n-thousand people

      Why, that’s exactly how tens – hundreds – of millions of people reasonably define America’s rulers!!

      Rather than spitting on the graves of the 9/11ers, “compassion” for them would involve, primarily, attacking the roots of their actions: the misinformation, the fanaticism uninterrupted by alternate points of view / ways of life, the turning to social violence ‘to work out’ personal frustrations and disappointments, and so on.

      “Compassion” would mean the discipline and, yes, the charity of education along with the methods of penalty.

      Dude, a swaggering sneer at the complexities that “compassion” might entail is not even “sophomoric”.

      If you understand that “sympathy” for miscreants is never “total” – is always partial, composite, refracted – then you’re baby-steps on the way to being able to short the dogmatic circularity of the thinking that (we’re told) dominates Asian madrassas.

  24. Guest

      It’s interesting how just one not-even-relevant sentence can totally obscure the point of an entire article and invite a whole lot of comments by people less interested in nuance and intellectual division than the performance value of outrage.

      Of course, the 9/11 comment was made a little too clinically and offhandedly… so, yeah, I guess it’s natural that people get angry… .

      Anyhow, these thoughts on ‘awkwardness’ are interesting, to me, so thanks for bringing it up… .

  25. letters journal

      One can only imagine the response here to a call for “sympathy” and “compassion” with the motivations of American soldiers filmed shooting Iraqis from a helicopter. Or the response to a call for “sympathy” and “compassion” for the motivation of Serbian soldiers massacring Bosnian civilians. Or “sympathy” and “compassion” for the motivation of soldiers in the Lord’s Resistance Army. Or “sympathy” and “compassion” for the killers in Mumbai.

      (Eh, oh yeah, Leftists lined up to do just that for each of these examples, except the first one. Anti-imperialism leads to the worst kinds of ethical confusion.)

  26. deadgod

      Well, you don’t have “only [to] imagine”, letters – just listen to the “leftist” big-shots at any progressive political rally or read the articles in any progressive magazine: “leftists” like Michael Moore fall over backwards stressing their ‘support for the troops’, even as they (we) deplore the dishonestly promoted and incompetently and crookedly administered “mission”.

      And, indeed, the American troops have been and continue to be put in terrible positions in western and central Asia: how are they defending ‘freedom’ in America? who are they actually shooting at and being shot at by? what are their direct strategic goals, and how will their commanders know when the military has reached these battlefield goals?

      The genocidal Serb massacres of the ’90s were absolutely indefensible – but incomprehensible?? (You’ll note that when the liberal (?) Clinton administration went to war against Serbia, it was filled-diaper conservatives wringing their hands most ostentatiously.) The Serb persecution complex was (at least a bit) materially justified as recently as Tito’s anti-Serb discrimination in ‘their’ country. Is there some solution to Balkan ethnic violence that doesn’t include ‘coming to understand the Serb point of view’?

      When you read about how Ugandan pre-teens got drummed into the Lord’s Resistance Army, have you no “sympathy” or “compassion” for the drug-addled rapists and murders they became?

      You talk of the “killers of Mumbai”; what information have you been exposed to concerning the Bharatiya Janata Party, and to the 20th-c. history of Hindu-nationalist violence directed against Muslims – and against Christians and Jews – in India? Surely that’s a conflict in which every terrorist is not of one religion . . .

      It’s really pro-imperialism that suffers the greater burden of “ethical” self-contradiction – including especially the “confusion” born from scanty data.

  27. letters journal

      To be clear: the initial post was sympathetic to the “motivation of the 9/11 attackers”, not the attackers themselves, so your whining about compassion for murderous thugs misses the point. One can feel sympathy for people in terrible situations but oppose the motivations for their terrible acts. The motivations for 9/11 or the suicide bombing of the UN building in Iraq or murder of Iraqi Christians or the exploding of car bombs outside Mosques are theocratic-fascist. Nothing sympathetic about them at all.

      Of course, the 9/11 hijackers were not people in terrible situations, nor do most people in terrible and desperate situations carry out mass-murder suicides (or else there would be a lot of suicide bombers from Sudan, Haiti, Chad, etcetera).

      (What does Hindu nationalist violence have to do with the murder of random commuters or targeting of a Jewish community center in Mumbai? The murder of Jews qua Jews during the Mumbai attacks complicates your terrorism apology a bit.)

      I am not pro-imperialism or anti-imperialism. In fact, I don’t think either position is actually what it says it is (both anti- and pro- imperialists are in fact pro-imperialism – they just disagree about which imperialism to support [ie. Iraqi or American? Pakistani or Indian? Iranian or Israeli? etcetera]). Pro- and anti- imperialism are competing nationalist rackets.

      Sympathy != comprehension. Comprehension != sympathy.

  28. Ryretg

  29. deadgod

      Quite right that you seek again not to address topics you raise, letters.

      To clarify your conversational manoeuvres:

      sympathize with the motivations

      in the original post drew these confused whines from you:

      You sympathize with hatred of [wanh]

      How/why should one sympathize with an act of [wanh]

      (Immediately below your latest wahn (and this response to it), you can see a response to your second change of the subject (from “motivation” to “act”).)

      The thinking-out of “sympathy” and “compassion” for the 9/11 murderers’ “motivations” has already been carefully separated from any exculpation of their actions and identified with ‘education along with penalty’ (in the course of “attacking the roots of [the murderers’] actions”). That is, the “point” of their “motivations” was directly and explicitly expressed where you now, clumsily and inaccurately, suggest they were not.

      Their “motivations” were, in my view, disappointment, frustration, rage, lust for revenge, and, perhaps, one could call the misdirection of their anger a kind of “motivation”. – all stemming from an interest in, perhaps an instinct for, justice, however unjust the consequences of their actions. It’s the universality of wrath and vengeance that make the “motivations” of murderers the occasion for “sympathy” and “compassion” on the parts of non-murderers.

      (Neither the “motivations” nor the actions of the Mumbai murderers can be separated coherently from the context of ethnic violence in India. It was you, letters, who mentioned ethnic violence in the Balkans and south Asia and ‘pillage militias’ in central Africa, in your bungled attempt, what, to embarrass “Leftists” (?).)

      I agree that “imperialism” is rarely used with conceptual consistency these days – “imperialistic” does not = ‘aggression’, or even ‘mastery’ – ; why did you confuse your sneer by non-sequiturally mentioning “[a]nti-imperialism”?

      – and why do you construct the category ‘neither pro- nor anti-imperialism, which are each really an “imperialism”, but against any imperialism’ (= ‘meta-anti-imperialism’?), in this conversation??

  30. Tyihgkj

  31. letters journal

      So the 9/11 and the Mumbai attacks (for two examples) are expressions of a universal wrath and vengeance rather than specific political acts?

  32. deadgod

      These terrorist attacks are specific (and “political”, in my opinion) instances of possible consequences of emotive states – namely “wrath” and “lust for revenge” – which are “universal” to the category human.

      These motivating emotions are particularities of a categorical universal, which is analogous, but only analogous, to an ontological universal, a ‘universal universal’, which latter universal consists, as I understand it, only of “being”. (There’s a tremendous amount – a philosophical tradition full – of argument about whether “being” is actually predicable of existing things. – in other words, argument about whether there is a truly “universal” universal called “being”.)

      Do you think there are people who are not capable of feeling rage or desiring revenge, and who would therefore have no grounds for “sympathizing with” – however much they’d agree to punishing – deranged killers??

  33. letters journal

      I disagree. I don’t think coordinated attacks planned years in advance (plans that involved the attackers living in Florida, attending flight school, etcetera) are expressions of universally felt emotions like wrath or revenge.

      I can sympathize with someone who acts out of rage (for example, a woman killing the man who raped or abused her). The terrorist attacks of 9/11 or Mumbai are something totally different from that.

      Talmud, Qohelet Raba, 7:16:

      כל מי שנעשה רחמן במקום אכזרי סוף שנעשה אכזרי במקום רחמן

      Anyone who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.