The Unbearable Awkwardness of Being

A review of Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness

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 (Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman, Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, and Dominic Fox’s Cold World, among others), 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; Awkwardness is written for the large audience that will never read it rather than the small one that will and the book is better off for it.

Drawing on Martin Heidegger’s idea of boredom, Kotsko argues that awkwardness is an essential condition, the emotional mood of being forced to share the world with people different from us. If boredom is connected to our inevitable anxiety of death, as Heidegger claims, then the equally existential condition of togetherness would have its own mood, one able to transcend even the deepest social divisions. Although his premise is universal, Kotsko focuses on awkwardness in contemporary western entertainment, including the British and American versions of The Office, the extended oeuvre of Judd Apatow, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, all in an engaging 89 pages. Yet despite containing more well-written sentences in its less than 100 pages than a stack of academic texts, Awkwardness trips at the conclusion, finding false redemption in the greasing of the post-Fordist gears.

To find the origin of so many awkward tv shows and movies, Kotsko traces the flowering of contemporary awkwardness to the breakdown of pre-1960s Fordist social norms:

The African-American civil rights movement and feminist movement both achieved considerable gains, but more radical changes proved elusive as the forces of cultural conservatism turned out to retain considerable power. It is here, I claim, that we find the ultimate origin of contemporary awkwardness: the events of the 1960s threw the normative social model significantly off-kilter, making it impossible to embrace that model wholeheartedly — and yet they did not produce any viable positive alternative.

Stuck with the proliferation of identities, the (false) universals torn asunder, Americans struggle to find something solid to cling to. Modern American conservatism offers one attempt to fill this values vacuum, but Kotsko, rather than seek universality in a reactionary attempt to reinstall pre-60’s grand narratives, looks to what we currently share, regardless of our various affiliations: awkwardness. This naming of the void is one of his most deft theoretical moves. What we all have in common, he asserts, is our inability to deal with the absence of assured social scripts; we are all left bumbling diagonally toward our lives.

Kotsko spends the bulk of the book examining how the symptoms of this basic awkwardness manifest themselves in two settings where traditional roles have broken down: the post-Fordist workplace and marriage. For instances of awkwardness in the workplace, the U.S. and U.K. versions of The Office offer so much material that it would have been curious if Kotsko had looked elsewhere. He argues that the show’s two versions trace workplace awkwardness to diametrically opposed sources: the U.K. Version (focusing on structural relationships) assigned responsibility to broader cultural practices, while the U.S. Version (focusing on interpersonal relationships) is content to blame inherently awkward individuals. But between the two is an inescapable dialectic: awkward environments create awkward people, who in turn create awkward environments.

Kotsko’s thesis that “the modern white-collar workplace is inherently and irreducibly awkward” as well as “inherently awkwardness-inducing” is enlightening, but its reliance on fictional depiction is dangerous. Hollywood obscures the boring toil of actual work in favor of its entertaining interruptions for obvious and structural reasons. Watch too much tv and one begins to think no office produces anything beyond despair. Post-Fordist labor, which emphasizes communication and relies on permanent precarity among workers, is awkward partly because how value is produced is obscured. Workers are never sure whether they are putting in more than they’re getting out, so they feel as though they can justifiably be fired at any time. In office jobs, Kotsko writes, one can feel “like someone is going to figure out what’s going on and send you home.” But Kotsko fails to note that while the American worker has learned to feel expendable, average productivity has increased significantly. In the manufacturing sector — Dunder Miflin’s — output per workerhas more than doubled since 1990 while wages have stagnated.

The mordant lack of antagonism in the offices Kotsko examines isn’t a sign of cooperation or equality, but dulling estrangement. Workplace awkwardness seems tied to the contradiction between a cynicism so widespread that it has ceased to be a competitive advantage in employees (the ambitious office cutthroat is less a threat than a Wall Street throwback who no longer understands the game) and the complacent, historically productive workforce. Awkwardness keeps the peace while, as Kotsko jokes, the CEO pursues his singular goal: “loot!”

Kotsko’s chapter on marriage and gender roles takes up the work of screenwriter and director Judd Apatow, who, in another deft theoretical move, he treats as a genre rather than an auteur. In Apatow-related movies, which include The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and The Hangover, awkwardness results from the scarcity of acceptable social scripts for adult men, Kotsko argues. To prepare for or shore up marriages with women they don’t understand, men in Apatow films maintain overgrown adolescent friendships based on porn, pot, and video games. In such “bromance” movies, a close homosocial friendship becomes part of the traditional romance narrative, a childish, sentimental release valve that persists into adulthood and rivals marriage itself. Kotsko writes:

This is the paradoxical lesson of the Apatow genre, that the order of adulthood somehow doesn’t work, that it needs the awkward supplement of the male bonding it supposedly overcomes. This is a despairing response to the failure of the 1960s revolution to produce a new positive vision for coming of age and living in community, resulting in a pervasive sense that despite the fact that we can never fully embrace the traditional norms, we are somehow hardwired to head in that direction and will do so immediately once our attempts to do something else fail.

Arrested development becomes not an impediment to adulthood, but a necessary compounding of its endemic awkwardness.

Although there is some truth to Kotsko’s assertion of a privileged male relation to awkwardness, it’s worth noting that the protagonist of the most successful entertainment franchise marketed specifically to young women — the Twilightseries — is characterized almost exclusively by the heroine’s awkwardness against the backdrop of supernaturally confident men. Awkwardness, as it appears in cultural products, is more than a comedic mode in a cyclical upswing, a contemporary version of slapstick; it is a way of asking for the audience’s sympathy. Somewhere in this young millennium, between Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and the U.S. version of The Office (2008), awkwardness ceased to be a stumble around the void and became a social script itself. Now frat-house homophobes celebrate their bromances and bro-dates without fear: after all, everyone is awkward. Witness the advent of the abbreviation “awk,” and the number of (especially young) people who apply it earnestly to themselves and their friends. Rather than Kotsko’s “radical awkwardness” (a situation with no discernible norm), we have normal awkwardness – awkwardness as norm.

Kotsko’s conclusion in defense of awkwardness seems at odds with the majority of the book — less a dialectical reversal à la Slavoj Žižek (who blurbs on the back cover, “If this will not become an instant classic, then we really live in awkward times!”) than a forced convergence. Readers are drawn in to a solid argument about contemporary labor, only to see it upended by a call to radical awkwardness at the end of chapter two that seems to come against the author’s better judgment. Rather than urge the restructuring or abolition of office work he has done a good job demonstrating produces empty shells for employees, Kotsko, like the shows he analyzes, asks the reader to identify with the profoundly awkward position of middle-management in “the hope for a solidarity based not on the overcoming of awkwardness, but on awkwardness itself.” But the solidarity here is like that between a man trapped in a hole who shouts for help and the man above who responds: “I hear that!”

To illustrate radical awkwardness, Kotsko likens Curb Your Enthusiasm star Larry David, whom Kotsko describes as the Southern California Jew who cannot and will not assimilate, to Saint Paul, who in the wake of Christ imagined a pluralist society of equals regardless of faith. Radical awkwardness, Kotsko argues, does not attempt resolution or offer the shelter of given scripts, but instead dwells in the difference and conflict of everyday interaction: “Awkwardness is no longer a way of escaping social norms, and social norms are no longer a way of escaping awkwardness: instead, people simply meet each other, without the mediation of a defined cultural order, and figure out how to live together on a case-by-case basis.”

I find Kotsko’s anarchic emphasis on negotiation appealing, but he goes too far when he suggests we can access the realm of radical awkwardness under current social conditions. He does an admirable job demonstrating that awkwardness is now the dominant norm in both post-Fordist labor and marriage, but rather than make those structures unbearable and encourage the development of something new, awkwardness does the opposite, giving the worker/husband something to sincerely believe in, if only that his job is pointless and marriage a joke. One of Kotsko’s concluding sections is entitled, in Lacanian fashion, “Enjoy your awkwardness!” to which I would add Kant’s “but obey!”; the transcendent equality of awkwardness ensures the persistence of the material inequalities that help spawn it.

But what other choice do we have? Kotsko maps two patterns of protest against awkwardness — escapism through ironic detachment, and an active attempt to establish non-awkward norms — and pronounces both ineffective and “ultimately awkwardness-generating .” In the spirit of Kotsko’s fun and engaging counterintuitive linking of David and Saint Paul, I want to propose another unlikely parallel that may offer a way out of awkwardness: the radical West German journalist turned Red Army Faction leader Ulrike Meinhof and Milton Waddman, the mumbling, stapler-loving white-collar employee from Mike Judge’s 1999 film Office Space.

The central drama of Meinhof’s life, in her own estimation, was the turn from protest to resistance. She quotes a definition she likes in her characteristically stark prose: “Protest is when I say I don’t like this. Resistance is when I put an end to what I don’t like. Protest is when I say I refuse to go along with this anymore. Resistance is when I make sure everybody else stops going along too.” In her ultimately catastrophic turn from socialite writer to urban guerrilla, Meinhof raised questions about complacency that continue to cut deep. In Meinhof’s line of thought, to protest against structural awkwardness is futile, as it doesn’t rely on the voluntary participation of individuals. Attempting to avoid the contagion of awkwardness in an awkward environment is a fool’s errand, the only alternative to submission is to take up arms against a sea of awkwardness, and by opposing end it.

Rather than protest, Milton Waddman resists awkwardness. In a sad example of post-Fordist precarity par excellence, he has been laid off without his knowledge but is still paid due to a computer error. Thus Milton is always already fired. Yet he is still forced to endure the awkward indignities of the workplace: being sent to worse and worse offices and having his beloved stapler stolen by his boss. He mumbles in objection but never loudly enough to force management to acknowledge his pleas. Milton embodies both the poles of the awkwardness dialectic: he is an especially awkward individual in an undeniably awkward workplace. But Milton eventually proves his quiet threats are not idle talk and steals money from his employers and burns the office building to the ground. In his final scene, he sits on a tropical beach sipping margaritas. The viewer could not imagine a less awkward state.

There’s a tension in Awkwardness between a historicized view of the phenomenon and an ideal, eternal, and inescapable awkwardness; the essay’s middle chapters comes from the former and the introduction and conclusion from the latter. I am convinced that we’re all stuck in this world together, but Kotsko suggests no reason why the way in which we experience that fact is immutable. If awkwardness seems part of human nature, it is because that nature is contingent and determined, the product of structures that predate us. What Milton and Meinhof suggest is that the way through a structural problem is destructural: resistance rather than protest, to remake that which makes us. Office labor and marriage are not necessary for human beings, and neither are the feelings they engender. Awkwardness may offer “its own kind of grace,” as work did in previous centuries, but when I think of other potential moods of togetherness — solidarity, adventure, eros, and if we’re lucky, even agape — it becomes an intolerable dispossession.

Arise, then, comrades, you have nothing to lose but your awkwardness!