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.
Tags: Adam Kotsko