Awkwardness by Adam Kotsko
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I should write a truly awkward review of this book. It would start, perhaps, with stories about my best friend in high school dating the author’s sister. But it would be largely irrelevant, except perhaps to illustrate the point Kotsko makes at the beginning of this text: we live in an age of awkwardness. It’s become a recognizable and indeed ubiquitous social symptom. Our generation seems to find itself almost daily in social situations in which we don’t know the appropriate roles or cues to follow. We live awkwardly, sometimes painfully so. Paradoxically though, this very fact is celebrated in popular media– or at least, used as the centerpiece for the forms of television comedy the analysis of which make up the backbone of Kotsko’s cultural exploration.
Kotsko begins his short, cogent, and ultimately encouraging examination of awkwardness with a brief philosophical reflection on awkwardness and a historical survey aimed at explaining its origins. Philosophically, Kotsko represents awkwardness in terms of Heidegger’s insight that relationship is fundamental to our existence. Kotsko argues awkwardness should be understood as a breakdown in social norms, analogous in human relationships to the breakdown in norms Heidegger analyzed related to boredom and death. Historically, Kotsko finds the origins of our awkward age in the cultural revolutions of the 1960s. Briefly, the argument is that though these social upheavals did away with many of the constrictive social norms governing relationships (whether between classes, genders, or races), they did nothing to replace them. People learned the importance of cultural sensitivity and the dangers of political incorrectness, but rather than liberation the result was fear of offending by saying the wrong thing. By our generation, people quite simply don’t know how to response appropriately to many social situations. In the 1990s, the cultural recourse was retreat into irony– simply saying thing that weren’t meant– which leads us to Seinfeld.
The thing that makes Kotsko’s cultural examination so compelling is that it is a lens to understand television shows and films we’ve all seen in a broader social context (or, alternatively, using these shows to understand that broader context). This analysis of television comedy is the meat of his work. Kotsko proposes to examined three forms of awkwardness using three popular television or movie examples. The first of these is “everyday awkwardness,” the awkwardness of the workplace, exemplified in The Office. Kotsko here contrasts the American version with the British to argue that everyday awkwardness is not, as often perceived, simply the presence of inherently awkward people. This is the premise of the American version, where Dwight and Michael are “intrinsically” awkward, whereas Pam and Jim are completely normal. The genius of the British version, Kotsko argues, is that it illustrates that awkwardness is something created by the work environment itself. In this analysis, Ricky Gervais’s character in the British version is the creation of this white-collar environment in which roles, responsibility, and motivations are unclear, not an aberration.
The second form of awkwardness Kotsko explores is “cultural awkwardness.” Whereas everyday awkwardness arises from a work environment that cannot provide a stable social order, cultural awkwardness comes from cultural establishments themselves that fail to do so, particularly the idea of marriage and family. The lens he choses here are the films of Judd Apatow. Apatow movies such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up focus on the awkward transition from an extended adolescence or stunted adulthood into the (perceived) healthy, actualized maturity of a committed relationship. What these films illustrate though is that even this pillar of American values has become an awkward transition– one so difficult, Apatow seems to suggest, it can only be successfully navigated by the equally awkward male bonding or “bromance” functioning as a release valve to compensate for this difficulty.
Finally, Kotsko examines the work of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm as an example of what he refers to as “radical awkwardness,” the awkwardness that arises when social norms break down entirely, primarily through interactions between different social groups or classes with overlapping or contradictory social norms. Larry is a Jewish man from New York interacting with successful Hollywood stars, and much of the awkward comedy from this show, Kotsko relates, comes from Larry trying and failing to integrate into these social structures. This is also where Kotsko makes his most audacious claim about awkwardness: that it can help us understand St. Paul’s instructions to the Romans regarding the law and the relationship between Jews and Gentiles living in community in the early Christian church.
Rather than flee from awkwardness or try to eliminate it by allowing one group to assimilate the social structures of another, Kotsko says we should understand St. Paul’s instructions as an appeal for a community in which awkwardness is embraced because it forces us to accept others as they are with all the messy awkwardness this entails. Instead of shunning or avoided awkwardness, Kotsko concludes, using a particularly powerful illustration from Curb Your Enthusiasm, awkwardness should be embraced. When this happens, he suggests, there can be freedom, acceptance, and joy.
Two points occurred to me that could have been explored further, though their omission does not take away from Kotsko’s central argument. The first is the question of radical awkwardness within families. If awkwardness is the breakdown of social norms, how should we understand the fact that some of the most awkward situations arise between people of shared social and familial backgrounds? Is this simply an example of how radically insufficient these norms have become? Second, it seems that there’s a technological aspect to all this. Is there room in the analysis of awkwardness for technological awkwardness, arising from the growth of devices and communication that have outstripped the ability of social conventions to evolve alongside? The fact that I don’t know how to socially interact with someone who seldom raises his or her eyes from a mobile device, for instance, as well as the socially awkward aspects of internet anonymity (or lack thereof) and trolling, seem especially poignant today and worthy of inclusion in an analysis of awkwardness.