Saturday, 26 March 2011

Adam Kotsko, Awkwardness (2010)

This is another book I bought (via Amazon, for under a fiver) and read on my phone. I lurve my new iPhone 4 + kindle app. Anyway. I can hardly recommend this little book enthusiastically enough. It is a well-conceived, deftly-realised, clearly written interrogation of ‘awkwardness’ as an individual and social phenomenon: ingenious, thought-provoking and (given its small compass) pretty wide-ranging. Kotsko notes how awkwardness is not something we can observe neutrally, but is rather something we tend to get drawn into, and he makes large claims for its centrality in contemporary life. After an opening chapter that anchors his version of the large-scale ‘awkwardness’ in personal, social and philosophical observations, Kotsko reads three influential texts that represent and embody awkwardness: The Office (UK and US versions), the ‘Judd Apatow’ awkward cinematic comedy (films like The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up) and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. There’s a bit of Heidegger at the beginning of the book, and a bit of Saint Paul at the end, and both are handled well: by which I mean, not just pertinently, but in such a way that non-experts can grasp what’s at stake in their relevance to Kotsko’s thesis. To the Heideggerian moods of ‘anxiety’ and ‘boredom’, as correlative to human experiences of time and being, Kotsko (via Nancy’s ‘relational’ being-with) adds awkwardness as the ‘mood’ of human relationships:
‘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.’ [15]
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' [24]. 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!’ [70]. 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.


Gareth Rees said...

The thread at the Valve in which Kotsko loses his patience is "The impossibility of circles: a proof"

The whole thread is hilarious: it's an argument between intelligent people who are nonetheless ignorant about the subject that they are talking about, and so can't make any progress. Kotsko naturally gets frustrated, but I see no evidence that he understands the subject at any deeper level than you do, so he's reduced to insults.

(There ought to be no particular shame in failing to understand notions of infinity and convergence: they baffled the whole field of mathematics until Cauchy and Weierstrass in the 19th century, and continue to baffle first-year undergraduates in analysis courses to this day.)

Adam Roberts said...

All very awkward. Awkward of me to mention it at all, I suppose.

Adam Kotsko said...

Thanks for the generous review. It was indeed awkward to bring up that conversation, but in my defense, I put forward two points. First, I only said you were "fucking" wrong when Rich Puchalsky started badgering me, and that resulted from a long history of Rich seemingly beginning every encounter with me with the a priori assumption that anyone I was arguing with on The Valve must be absolutely correct -- hence the forcefulness. And only my fictional alter ego F. Winston Codpiece III called you a fucking idiot.

Adam Roberts said...

Oddly, being told you're a fucking idiot by someone whose opinion you respect whilst he's employing a pseudonym isn't less hurtful than being told it by that person under their own name. But none of that has any bearing on the merit of your Awkwardness book, which is really very good.

Adam Kotsko said...

I apologize. It was a joke taken too far. I'm glad you enjoyed the book -- and you are very perceptive in the direction I intend to take with the sociopath book, though you may find it too to be lacking in the class element. (I am American, after all! I wasn't born with the class-dar of the English.)

Adam Roberts Project said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam Roberts said...

Very much looking forward to reading it.

Ben W said...

Gareth does not quite characterize the thread the way I would.

Let's reprise it here.

Rich Puchalsky said...

Geez, after all this time you're still blaming me for ticking you off?

"You could be arguing about math with an English prof, for god’s sake, with all involved knowing little and having less at stake, and you’ll still follow the same predictable course: insistence that you’re right, petulance when this isn’t acknowledged (rightly or wrongly, who cares), finally, the flamewar that you so desperately have been wishing for."

That was me badgering you, long ago. It was properly descriptive of you as you were then.

(Oh yeah, I've changed "insistance" to insistence because Ben W corrected my spelling back then. Thanks!)

The badgering, for what it's worth, was not because I thought that other people were always right or that you were always wrong. (In this case, it was obvious that Adam was "wrong": circles can be drawn. He was asking for someone to help him understand why he was wrong.) It was because you did things like insult people and then say it was your alter ego who did it. That's not awkward, it's just kind of deliberate and annoying.

Adam Kotsko said...

Rich, Given that you still obviously have such strong opinions about me, perhaps you shouldn't be surprised that they are reciprocated.

Remember the time when you threatened to compile all the mean things I'd said to you and send them to potential employers? Good times! Not so much awkward as creepy, though, I'd say.

Rich Puchalsky said...

Adam Kotsko, I haven't thought about you in years. It's true that previous strong opinions did come back when I saw that you were blaming me now for badgering you into writing stupid things back then. I'd assumed that you'd probably grown up by now, but I guess not. Ever think of maybe taking personal responsibility for what you write, and not blaming it on someone else, or, in the worst case, on your alter ego?

Adam Kotsko said...

Weirdly, I hadn't given you much thought, either, Rich, until Adam's reference to that discussion reminded me! Again, I'm not a unique monster -- my reactions are actually very similar to yours. I imagine that fairly soon we'll go back to not thinking of each other, surely a blessed state for both of us.