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Review: Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness

Adam Kostko, Awkwardness, O books, 2010

It’s a sign of a good piece of cultural criticism that it makes you re-evaluate a piece of art you’d previously discarded as uninteresting or even unpleasant. This, much to the dismay of my partner, is what Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness managed to achieve with Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, a show I’d previously found unable to watch due precisely because of its excruciating awkwardness.

Awkwardness , like others in publisher Zero’s O line, is a short (a mere 90 pages) accessible philosophical/cultural examination of the phenomenon of awkwardness aimed at an popular audience. Awkwardness, as Kostko describes it, emerges from the violation of a mostly unspoken norm of a given community. He begins with a brief analysis of Heidegger’s work on two moods (anxiety and boredom) which emerge from social breakdown into withdrawal, argues that unlike those two moods awkwardness remains throughout a fundamentally social emotion. It draws its participants in, spreading from one person to another.

Interestingly, Kotsko argues that awkwardness is the result of the fragmentation of Anglophonic norms in the wake of the disintegration of the norms of the Fordist modern state into the fragmented neo-liberal world we now inhabit. This occurs both in the quickly changing workplace, as well as in the familiar story of the social movements of the 60s and 70s causing displacement of the cultural singularity—if not dominance—of the nuclear family, of white, male and heterosexual power appear here as some of the precipitating factors of a broader awkwardness about uncertain norms. Neither older nor newer norms have a total cultural predominance, and it is this situation that gives rise to contemporary awkwardness.

This historical perspective is fairly persuasive as an explanation, though it raises the question—why did it take so long for awkwardness to become a dominant cultural motif? Is it only when the conflict between those norms reaches crisis point and it becomes clear that the newer norm is itself insufficient, say in the crisis of multiculturalism for September 11, that awkwardness becomes truly dominant?

Kotsko draws his examples from recent popular culture of the last decade – both versions of the television series The Office, Judd Apatow’s films, and the aforementioned Curb Your Enthusiasm. Each one of these, he argues, exemplifies a different kind of awkwardness – everyday awkwardness (which arises from individuals), cultural awkwardness (arising from broader cultural anxieties), and radical awkwardness (which arises when there isn’t a clear norm). This is an interesting and productive taxonomy, though it seems as though these blur into one another at times.

The analysis of The Office works well, arguing compellingly that the awkwardness of the modern office is a structural awkwardness as much as individual. Kotsko illuminates well the differences between the US and UK versions, arguing that the U.S adaptation individualises much of its awkwardness, backing away uncomfortably from the bleaker view of the neoliberal workplace of the UK original.

The middle chapter discussing Judd Apatow’s films is undoubtedly the weakest section, awkwardly moving from work to gender to analyse the awkwardness of Apatow’s grown (white, straight) men in a post-feminist, post-gay, post-PC world. Some feminist bloggers have rightly questioned the absence of awkward women from the section, which struggles to maintain a critical distance from Apatow’s own. It’s also questionable whether awkwardness is the prime motivating affect in those films, where backlash male resentment and entitlement also provide much of the cultural drive behind the success of the texts. I won’t belabour the point, but I do think the work of a feminist/queer theorist like Sara Ahmed – whose work on emotions uses a similar Heideggerian frame to Kotsko’s – would have helped the chapter enormously.

The final chapter is perhaps the most interesting, a bravura work that draws Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm into conversation with Saint Paul in the question of assimilation. Larry David’s position on the show as a New York Jew trying to (or being forced to) assimilate into the Gentile culture of Southern California, which is made all the complex by David’s presumed knowledge of the norms of that culture by virtue of shared whiteness. Paul’s solution to the problems of assimilation is a kind of kenotic favouring of the weak, though as Kotsko points out, this will vary by situation—leaving participants in a situation in which people are left to figure out how to live in a case by case scenario without any over-arching social norms.

Here, unlike the repulsive Apatow films, the analysis provides an entry point for the female viewer into David’s world of awkwardness, raising further questions (eg. what is the relationship between awkwardness and violence) while enriching our understanding of both text and the possible positive social effects of awkwardness itself.

My problems with the middle chapter aside, this is a great short work of criticism, intelligent without being unnecessarily jargony, often insightful and a pleasure to read.