‘Though [Nancy] attempts in Being Singular Plural to revamp Heidegger’s argument in Being and Time by refocusing it on the question of being-with, he does not provide anything closely parallel to Heidegger’s analysis of a fundamental mood. This is the gap I propose to fill, at least partly, by putting forward awkwardness as the mood or feeling that provides the best angle on our relationship with other people, or the intrinsically awkward social nature of humanity.’ All very interesting. Now, the main thought that occurred to me as I read this book had to do with embarrassment. Awkwardness is exploring a similar conceptual territory to Christopher Rick’s great book Keats and Embarrassment (1974), though neither Ricks's book nor (I think I'm right in saying) the word embarrassment is mentioned in Kotsko's account. Ricks discusses aspects of awkwardness, though, through the prism of Keats's poetry: the lack of harmonious ‘fit’ between the individual and others, or the individual consciousness and the cosmos. He's particularly good on what he calls the ‘moral intelligence’ of embarrassment (the blush; its sensuous and indeed sensual components) and the way Keats's greatnesss as a poet is connected to his openness to this intelligence.
The awkward situations Kotsko discusses are embarrassing; indeed, I'd say it is precisely their potential to embarrass us that make them so potent and significant. Yet I suppose ‘awkwardness’ and ‘embarrassment’ are not the same thing. For example, what makes Ricky Gervais’s David Brent so wonderfully awkward is precisely the fact that he does terribly embarrassing things with no consciousness that they are embarrassing, or that he ought himself to be embarrassed. K. argues that ‘if the social order really did have a regulation prepared for every encounter, awkwardness would never occur in the first place’; and although this seems to overlook the possibility that there may indeed be such omni-applicable codes but that not everybody is competent in them, it clearly touches on an important sense in which awkwardness is a kind of broader social out-of-stepness. To take this a further step: inadvertency is one maker of awkwardness, but a person can also be deliberately and wilfully awkward—think of the phrase ‘the awkward squad’. If somebody is inadvertently awkward they will generally feel belatedly embarrassed (although maybe not, if for instance they are on the autism spectrum, or a David Brent-like idiot). Conversely, if somebody is aware of the potential for embarrassment they generally won’t be awkward in the first place. But to be deliberately awkward requires the ability to push through embarrassment. Since I’m presently writing a review, let’s take 'reviewing' as an example: I review a lot, and sometimes review negatively (occasionally even swingeingly). I do this not from malice, but because I believe reviews exist for the utility and entertainment of the reader rather than the maintenance the writer’s ego, or the advancement of the reviewer's career. Much of what I review is science fiction, and SF is a small world, so I often find myself engaging socially with somebody I have slagged off in print. This is, of course, a very awkward, and embarrassing state of affairs; but I suppose I would consider it pusillanimous to write a good review of a bad book simply to avoid later awkwardness. I’m not sure this circumstance is covered in Kotsko’s thesis. In fact there’s an extra layer of awkwardness in reviewing this particular title, although precisely not because it is a bad book. I know Kotsko holds my critical intelligence in low esteem: a few years ago he and I disagreed online over the question of whether converging infinite series could be summed or not. He said in several venues that I was ‘a fucking idiot’ and ‘fucking wrong’ and various other wholehearted articulations of his inalienable right to both have and voice his opinion. He may be right vis-à-vis my fucking idiocy (obviously I’d hope not, but I’m not best placed to judge it). But what seems interesting about this, it seems to me, is that, oddly, it’s a context that makes a positive review more awkward than a negative one might be. If I cremated the book I’d be playing my part, in a small way, in an established tradition of intellectual feuding (we do not, after all, expect Christopher Hitchens and George Galloway to kiss and make up; a display of public amity between those two would be more awkward than their continuing, reassuring and frankly entertaining enmity). If Kotsko had written a bad book, I could have reviewed it as such. But by writing such a good book he has made things more awkward for me than they might otherwise be. I suppose that strikes me as ironic.
Irony is also part of Kotsko’s larger argument. He suggests, rightly I think, that ironic detachment is one mechanism for dealing with awkwardness; but he thinks irony doesn’t work any more. By the early noughties, he says, ‘irony—which didn’t even attempt to produce any kind of positive ethos—had completely run out of steam' . I don’t think this is right, actually. Two main ethoses (if that’s the plural) occur to me: ‘cool’ and the broader culture of laughter—irony is often very funny, after all (superiority over those who don’t ‘get’ the irony is perhaps a third, lesser ethos). It seems to me that irony is a larger concept, too, than simply being a subcultural style. Maybe all I'm doing is embroidering a transatlantic differend. As an Englishman, perhaps I feel I have a culturally proprietorial insight to awkwardness denied to other, less hung-up and repressed peoples. For instance: it seems to me that K.’s reading of The Office, though very good, misses the element of a specifically class awkwardness in the show. Like Dad’s Army (a show with which The Office has much in common, I think) the friction of a situation where ‘job’ or ’official’ status is at odds with social standing and class is the real motor for the humour. In Dad’s Army it is the middle class Mainwaring whose military rank (Captain) puts him notionally ‘above’ his social 'superior’, the patrician Sergeant Wilson. In the UK Office it is Brent’s cheesy lower-middle-classness, and its tension with the relative superiority of his job status as 'manager' (underlined by the effortless confidence of his immediate superiors, the upper-middle-class pairing of Jennifer Taylor-Clarke and Neil Godwin). Something similar happens with Martin Freeman’s ‘Tim’, who is more middle class than his rival for Dawn’s affections, the working class Lee—but is not nearly as good looking or self-confident.
Maybe it is an English limitation to see minute gradations of class as the key to all mythologies. I'd say that K. is much more convincing when discussing the American version of the show, and on the Judd Apatow phenomenon, where these things matter less; and Larry David's Jewishness enables him to address this whole area via race rather than class. But I can't help feeling the class thing is important nevertheless, especially since K. wants to situate ‘awkwardness’ in terms of a wider social history of the West. Jonathan Miller once claimed that the truly distinguishing feature of the British aristocracy is the way they can break wind, noisily and in public, without losing equanimity. A circumstance that would cause you or I intense embarrassment does not touch the poise of the genuine aristocrat. In a sense, this amounts to a definition of the aristo. We are awkward because we are unsure of our status (that’s also why awkwardness is so often funny); but the man at the top of the tree need never feel that embarrassment. I missed the ‘aristocratic’ angle, actually, in Kotsko's book. In his (very good) chapter on Curb Your Enthusiasm he quotes Larry David, being interviewed by Ricky Gervais, noting that although the ‘Larry David’ character in the show is based on him, he (the actual Larry David) does not push things as far into social awkwardness as his character: ‘of course not—I’m not a sociopath!’ . I see from one of Kotsko’s blog that he’s writing a follow-up to Awkwardness on the subject of sociopaths. I can see why he's interested in the topic. We might think, according to the thesis advanced in Awkwardness, that the sociopath, the one furthest outside the norms of society, ought to embody the greatest level of awkwardness. But to look at a character like Hannibal Lecter is to see that (on the level of cultural representation, at any rate) something the reverse is true. Lecter is effortlessly suave and comfortable at all times, even when he is biting people’s faces off. The reason for this, I think, has precisely to do with class: Thomas Harris makes Lecter a European aristocrat in part because that means he can float disdainfully above the messy complications of day-to-day life in ordinary America. The other ‘missing’ element (though I’m concede that now I’m really being awkward, here, in my reaction to the book—it’s a 90-page essay written with the general reader in mind, not a 1000-page attempt at a comprehensive theory of its subject) is Nietzsche’s ressentiment … a characteristically ‘awkward’ outlook on life characterised not by the lighthearted, ultimately redemptive comedy of Kotsko’s chosen examples (The Office, the Apatow films, even Curb) so much as by a to-the-bone self-destructive bitterness. At the very least we might want to say: this, too, is awkwardness; though of a less palatable sort. All this, though, is testament to how stimulating and thought-provoking Kotsko’s book is. It deserves to be widely read. Highly recommended.