Extract: A brief introduction to the study of awkwardness

Nov 1st, 2012 | By | Category: Articles

Taken from Awkwardness, Adam Kotsko, published by Zero Books

Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness is the kind of criticism — pertinent, witty, sophisticated but without sophistry — in which one can glimpse a culture that doesn’t quite exist. As with the other essays adapted from blogs and published by Zero Books. Awkwardness, in a different America, would supplant the dumbed-down pop and self-help schlock atop the nonfiction best-seller lists. Kotsko’s greatest achievement might be this slim volume’s readability. Malcolm HarrisThe New Inquiry

Awkwardness is everywhere, inescapable. Awkwardness  dominates entertainment to such an extent that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to remember laughing at anything other than cringe-inducing scenes of social discomfort. In America, apparently everyone loves seeing people cringing on The Office, itself based on an even more painful British original starring Ricky Gervais. Cross-cultural discomfort instigator Sacha Baron Cohen, of the TV series Da Ali G Show and the film Borat, has made yet another hidden-camera film, making straight men everywhere uncomfortable as his flamboyantly gay European character in Brüno ambushes them in the most unlikely places. Larry David, not content with defining 1990s irony with his classic scripts for Seinfeld, now inspires morbid fascination in all those who watch his social faux-pas in Curb Your Enthusiasm, which in its seventh season has beat out The Sopranos as the longest-running series on the American premium cable network HBO. More recently he has even engaged in what can only be called retro awkwardness, playing the infamous “Woody Allen character” in the film Whatever Works. And of course theaters are seldom without yet another movie from Judd Apatow, the champion of those who extend their awkward adolescence into their adult years and the maker of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, and Pineapple Express—or if a film by the man himself is not available, audiences can easily find one starring one of his regular ensemble of actors such as Seth Rogen or Jason Segel, or one that has no particular connection but just feels somehow Apatovian.

These are of course only a few of the most popular examples—the awkwardness trend extends much further. It embraces the free-associative and improvisational cartoons of the Adult Swim programming block on Cartoon Network, which began with the bizarre interviews between real celebrities and an apparently drug-addled cartoon character on the pseudo-talk show Space Ghost Coast to Coast and has continued to feature a variety of graceless fare like Home Movies and Moral Orel. It draws in more mainstream animated shows such as The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy, with their focus on the struggles of the socially inept and downand- out. It has suffered the premature cancellation of the visionary sitcom Arrested Development, a show that pushes its awkwardness to the extreme of including a running gag about incest. It has seen a second show from Ricky Gervais, Extras, which chronicles the travails of actors hired to blend into the background and their encounters with self-absorbed stars. As the trend continues to engulf the Anglophone world, the British have, perhaps unsurprisingly, given us more awkward stars than Gervais and Baron Cohen alone, as the truly painful comedy The Peep Show amply illustrates. New Zealand has gotten into the act as well, as the bumbling musicians of Flight of the Conchords try to make their way in America. One could list many other examples: for instance, the petty schemers of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia cause and experience their fair share of awkwardness, and uncomfortable scenarios abound in the UK Channel 4 sitcom Spaced, which follows two nearstrangers posing as a couple in order to get an apartment.

Awkwardness is pervasive, and it’s not limited to television or film: it stalks us everywhere. We watch awkward situations in everyday life as though we’re gaping at a car accident. We are masters at diagnosing it, if not avoiding it. American adolescents, whose unevenly developing bodies give them a hard-won expertise in the topic, are at the forefront here, with their simple exclamation: “Awkward!” There are self-help books for dealing with awkward co-workers, and on weekends and holidays we must deal with the awkwardness of family gatherings, where people united by blood kinship find they can’t exchange even the most innocuous opinions without risking tension—and somehow the very act of withholding one’s views, meant to avoid potential discomfort, itself winds up producing an awkwardness that’s all too actual. Our men are awkward in seduction, always worrying that an unwelcome advance will produce impressions of awkwardness or its dread cousin creepiness, while our women never know whether making the first move will be taken as a welcome relief or an off-putting display of castrating pushiness. Our middle-class whites are absolutely hopeless when it comes to dealing with those of other cultures, wondering whether and how to note the difference, what kinds of questions to ask and not to ask—chafing at the supposed constraints of “political correctness” yet feeling very acutely the pressure to differentiate themselves from their low-class and presumably racist Caucasian confreres. And when we all come at home at night exhausted from a long day of awkwardness, what do we do but watch yet another cavalcade of awkwardness?

We live, in short, in an awkward age. We all know this on some level, all feel the awkwardness that threatens to engulf everything, all sense very acutely the terrifying possibility that civilization itself might collapse in a simultaneous worldwide cringe. We’re all very concerned to develop our own strategies for avoiding or at least controlling social discomfort, and so it’s perhaps understandable that so few have asked themselves what awkwardness is, what it means, what it’s telling us about our age and about ourselves. I am among those few, drawn into the awkward project of writing a book about awkwardness after writing a joking blog post that described the phenomenon using the terminology of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, a joke that seemed like less and less of a joke the more I thought about it.

When I decided to write a book on awkwardness, telling people about the project initially served as an all-purpose gimmick, redefining any awkward situation as “research.”

With one exception in this introductory chapter, however, I have chosen a method that allows me to do all my research in the comfort of my own home: watching TV shows and movies on DVD. As it turns out, I didn’t even need to risk an uncomfortable encounter with a video store employee, as the Netflix DVD-rental service sends them to me by mail automatically, replacing each disc with the next entry on my queue as I ship them back using a secluded and anonymous mailbox.

My reason for choosing this arduous and lonely path is simple: we have all grown too bogged down in the practice of awkwardness to really focus on the theory. I am determined not to repeat that fatal mistake, and so my investigation in the present chapter, though beginning from the unavoidable personal experience of awkwardness, will quickly proceed to philosophical and cultural analysis. All of this will be oriented toward laying the groundwork for sharing my findings in the subsequent chapters, the research for which ultimately cost my DVD player its life—and of course it should come as no surprise that after I hooked up the DVD player my roommate had offered as a replacement, I was faced with the problem of how to deal with the pornographic movie he had left in it.

Even by its very act of dying, then, my DVD player managed to bring awkwardness into my life, and it is to that faithful DVD player that I dedicate this book.

Cover from Zero Books website

Awkwardness, Adam Kotsko, ISBN: 978-1-84694-391-1, $12.95 / £6.99, paperback, 96pp.  Also available as Ebook, EISBN: 978-1-84694-604-2, $9.99 / £6.99


Author Bio - Adam Kotsko is Assistant Professor of Humanities at Shimer College in Chicago (USA).  He is the author of Awkwardness and blogs here http://itself.wordpress.com/.  A new book Why We Love Sociopaths was published by Zero Books in April 2012.

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