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Tom Cutterham

AwkwardnessAdam Kotsko
Zero Books, 2010
89 Pages
ISBN 978-1846943911

Awkwardness is just what a work of philosophy should be. Its subject is relevant and its thesis is audacious: awkwardness is more than a funny feeling—it tells us about ourselves, and it might even be the basis of a utopian practice, “an awkwardness that is so awkward it becomes its own kind of grace.”

The phenomenon of awkwardness has dominated British and American comedy for a decade. Using well-known films and television programmes as his frames of reference, Kotsko convincingly shows how awkwardness is a fundamentally social experience. When you enter an awkward situation, or even when you watch one on television, you feel awkward yourself. It’s contagious. So unlike the “fundamental states” that interested Heidegger—anxiety and boredom—the disruptive force of awkwardness reveals to us how much we are connected to people around us, and how powerfully our social existence matters. To feel awkward is to have a more intense awareness of the presence of others, to see as if from a distance the rules and relationships that bind us together or keep us apart.

Although at first glance it seems as though awkward situations result from the actions (or just the presence) of awkward people, like David Brent in The Office, it is really structures, not people, that generate awkward behaviour and feelings. The “vague white collar job” is a situation ripe with awkwardness, one in which we must act out roles in which we do not sincerely believe. Although the norms of office life seem clear, they are so fragile that the slightest infringement reveals the meaninglessness of the whole set-up, resulting in awkwardness. Brent creates unease primarily because he is convinced not only of his own talents, but of the value and importance of his role as manager, friend and even entertainer.

The films of Judd Apatow provide Kotsko a paradigm of awkwardness outside the workplace. Here the regressive tendencies of Apatow’s “overgrown adolescent” characters are attempts to use awkwardness as an escape from an over-demanding world: “women represent the social ordering that is going to deprive men of their awkward adolescent bonds.” Meanwhile, Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm is an example of “cross-cultural awkwardness”, a New York Jew struggling with his assimilation in the WASP-nest of showbiz Los Angeles. David is Kotsko’s real hero, employing the unsettling power of awkwardness to call conformism into question—not as escape but as resistance against injustice.

The categorisations set out here don’t always hold up. Can we really distinguish “cultural” from “everyday” awkwardness? And might we question whether all awkward moments are as meaningful as those analysed here? Perhaps, but in identifying awkwardness at the centre of the social phenomenon, Kotsko is onto something. There is a temptation to banish awkwardness with new forms of order and confidence, “the fascist promise”. But the answer given here is different. Clearly, we can enjoy awkwardness. So instead of trying to control it, we should embrace it, because in awkwardness there is a kind of freedom, even a new kind of immanent community.

Tom Cutterham is reading for a DPhil in American History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. Tom is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.