Tag: Awkwardness

On Awkwardness – Part I

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Last year I read Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness: An Essay.   I put it on the backburner as something I would write about in the near future because, quite frankly, Schlemiel Theory has been busy with several different philosophers, books, and comedians over the last year. That said, when a friend of mine tagged me in a post on facebook today – about an article written in The New Yorker entitled “The Awkward Age” – I felt I had to, at the very least, read the article and comment on Adam Kotsko’s book, which is referred to in the beginning of the article. While the article is not that interesting, Kotsko’s philosophical, sociological, and historical approach to the phenomena of awkwardness is. His “essay” suggests a few possibilities for schlemiel theory that may or may not be of interest because they tap into philosophical and historical approaches to one of the most notable features of comedy today: awkwardness.

At the outset, the article from The New Yorker cites and makes the following comments on Kotsko’s book:

As the Eskimos were said to have seven words for snow, today’s Americans have a near-infinite vocabulary for gradations of awkwardness—there are some six hundred entries in Urban Dictionary. We have Awktoberfest (awkwardness that seems to last a whole month), Awk and Pshaw (a reference to “shock and awe”), and, perhaps inevitably, Awkschwitz (awkwardness worthy of comparison to the Holocaust). We have a hand signal for awkwardness, and we frame many thoughts and observations with “that awkward moment when…” When did awkwardness become so important to us? And why?

In “Awkwardness: An Essay” (2010), the critic Adam Kotsko dates our age of awkwardness—embodied by “the apparently ontological awkwardness of George W. Bush” and manifested in television shows like “The Office,” “Arrested Development,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”—to the early aughts, with a postwar prehistory. (In short, Kotsko writes, the fifties purveyed capitalism into an ideology of “traditional Christian values”; in the sixties, these values were destabilized by the counterculture movement; the ideological vacuum of the seventies led to the paranoia and nihilism, reflected in the metaphysical being of Woody Allen; in the eighties, pure capitalism became its own value system, sustained by opposition to the Soviet Union; and in the nineties nihilism returned, minus the Cold War paranoia, inaugurating the age of irony.

What caused the shift from irony to awkwardness? Interestingly, Kotsko refuses to blame September 11th, connecting the end of irony less with “a culture-wide turn towards earnestness and patriotism” than with irony having “simply exhausted itself.” My feeling, however, is that we can peg the end of irony to September 11th precisely because of the failure of “earnestness and patriotism” that Kotsko describes. We finally had an “evil opponent” again. Terrorists, like Communists, hated “our way of life.” If we neglected our Christmas shopping, Bush said, the terrorists would win. But, this time, the rhetoric didn’t stick. The U.S.S.R. had been a nuclear superpower, with geopolitical aims comparable, if opposed, to those of the U.S. Al Qaeda was nationless, nihilistic, and armed with box cutters. You couldn’t lump it together with North Korea and call it the Axis of Evil—that didn’t make sense.

The problem with this hasty overview and application of his book is that it doesn’t explain the basis of Kotsko’s reading of awkwardness vis-à-vis philosophy and suggests that Kotsko’s book simply historicizes awkwardness. This is incorrect and misleading.

Yes, the “age” we are living in may be awkward, as the author suggests, but she doesn’t understand why and neither does the reader.   To understand how he historicizes awkwardness, we need to first understand the philosophical basis for his project.

Kotsko turns to Martin Heidegger and then Jean-Luc Nancy to explain the philosophical basis of awkwardness.   Regarding Heidegger, Kotsko notes how the “most fundamental mood” that Heidegger “examines in the context of Being and Time is anxiety”(12).   Through this mood, Dasein (being-there, man) has a “special window onto a question that he pairs with that of the meaning of being: namely, the questions of time”(12). When a person “dwells” in a “mood of anxiety” he or she experiences “time” as an “existential urgency”(12).

Besides being interested in anxiety and its relation to time, Kotsko is also interested in Heidegger’s treatment of another mood; namely “boredom”: “Whereas anxiety provides special insight into the question of time, boredom bears specifically on the question of how humanity is related to animal life”(12).   Drawing on Heidegger, Kotsko notes how boredom – like anxiety – brings out what is “truly distinctive about humanity” since it enables us to be “detached” from “an amazing array of stimuli” (or what Heidegger would call the world). This detachment is what Heidegger would call transcendence.

From here, he notes how, for Heidegger sees anxiety as a more “fundamental mood” than boredom because the mood of boredom is still too connected to the world.   While boredom is a “breakdown in our normal relationship to the world…anxiety points toward the ultimate breakdown of death”(14).

Although Kotsko finds the moods of anxiety and boredom to be interesting in terms of understanding our relationship to time and the world (as well as its breakdown), what he wants to find, most of all, is a mood that will tap into what interests Jean-Luc Nancy most: the meaning of relationship as such.   To this end, he asks the question: what mood can this be. And his answer is awkwardness:

Awkwardness clearly fits the general patter of insight through breakdown, but unlike anxiety or boredom, it doesn’t isolate the person who feels awkward – as I have already discusses, it does just the opposite: it spreads. (15)

In other words, Kotsko is interested in how awkwardness is a contagious kind of mood. Other people, in relation, can catch it (as it “spreads”) can become awkward.

Kotsko adds that “awkwardness is a breakdown in our normal experience of social interaction while itself remaining irreducibly social”(15). By doing this, he opens the door to a sociological and historical reading of awkwardness which is really about being unable to act “properly” in an (ab)normal situation that one is caught in. He brings in the sociological register of “norms” to explain:

Awkwardness shows us that humans are fundamentally social, but that they have no built-in norms: the norms that we develop help us to “get by,” with some proving more helpful than others. We might say, then, that awkwardness prompts us to set up social norms in the first place – and what prompts us to transform them. (16)

With a definition like this, how can one say that our post 9/11 age is the most awkward one of all as the writer from The New Yorker suggests? With this philosophical and sociological kind of basis, one can argue that any age that is transitional will be awkward.

However, Kotsko is responsible for the title and theme of The New Yorker article’s periodizing since he focuses on the present and the origins of our awkward time. In fact, he entitles the section, immediately after his philosophical grounding “The origins of our awkward age.”

It should be clear by this point that I believe that we are currently in a state of cultural awkwardness. Contemporary mainstream middle-class social norms are not remotely up to the task of minimizing awkwardness, but at the same time, there seems to be no real possibility of developing a positive alternative….There are many possible reasons that such a condition could have arisen in the first decade of the 21st century….but…I believe we must look to the social upheavals of the 1960s. (17)

What follows is a sociological exercise. Since the 1960s challenged, traditional values the norms changed and America had a hard time adjusting. He discusses changes in terms of civil rights, sexuality, experimentation, and nihilism. Woody Allen, according to Kotsko, emerged as “one of the pioneers of awkwardness” in the 1970s because of this radical social upheaval.   And even though things changed in the 1980s because of the Regan Era (which looked to reestablish tradition and norms and “overcome awkwardness”) the 90s, which marks a fall back into instability, gives us Seinfeld.

But, argues Kotsko, “none of the main characters actually sit and stew in their awkwardness, and I’d propose that that’s because they are all essentially sociopaths. They cause awkwardness in others but don’t truly feel it themselves, because they lack any real investment in the social order – instead they merely attempt to manipulate it”(23).

The only exception to the Seinfeld rule is the schlemiel, George: “His sheer patheticness and vulnerability, his lack of the steady income and social status of Jane or Elaine or the strange self-assurance of Kramer, keep him from being completely detached”(23). In other words, he is awkward because he is not successful in a context where others are.

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Kotsko argues that the “seeds of awkwardness” are planted here. And that it is after 9/11 that the we become an “age of awkwardness.”   In this age, Curb Your Enthusiasm and films by Judd Apatow illustrate how awkward we have become.   There are two ways, according to Kotsko, that we can approach awkwardness. Either it is “individuals” who create awkwardness, as we see in the US version of The Office (25) or it is a social order as we see in Apatow’s films. He finds the second position to be of greater interest to his project:

If the social order itself seems to be producing awkwardness, let people indulge in awkwardness on purpose as a way of letting off steam. This strategy is on full display in several Judd Apatow films: if men are afraid to leave behind the awkward state of overgrown adolescence and get married, then build in a space for them to indulge in their awkwardly adolescent pleasures. (26)

Besides “letting off steam” and remaining awkward, Kotsko sees awkwardness as a strategy to challenge the status quo, on the one hand, or as an opportunity to relate to each other in a way that is not based on any norm whatsoever:

When we resist awkwardness, the social order looks good. When we resist social order, awkwardness looks good. But on those rare occasions when we figure out a way to stop resisting the social order and yet also stop resisting awkwardness and just go with it, something genuinely new and unexpected may happen: we might be able to simply enjoy one another without mediation of any expectations or demands. (26)

Kotsko calls this “the promise of awkwardness”(26) and argues that “for all its admitted perils and difficulties, awkwardness does contain a seed of hope”(26). To be sure, Kotsko, who does much work in Continental Philosophy, is familiar with Karl Marx, Ernst Bloch, and Walter Benjamin who all discuss hope and its relation to opposing the status quo. He is no doubt drawing on this trend by claiming that the mood of awkwardness is a “seed of hope” and a “promise.”   It is not merely a term to describe the “age” we are it – as the writer from The New Yorker suggests.

Kotsko spells it out at the end of his first chapter: “More than describing a cultural trend, then, my goal here is ultimately to point toward what we’re all already hoping for”(28). What Kotsko means by this is that the mood of awkwardness – suggested by Apatow films and…in general – is a messianic or utopian kind of mood that anticipates living in a world where “we might be able to simply enjoy one another without mediation of any expectations or demands”(26).

Does Big Bang Theory also project this hope? Is Seth Rogen a messianic figure? If we are to live perpetually in a kind of childhood state, as Apatow’s films suggest, we will be in a perpetual state of awkwardness. And this anticipates, for Kotsko, a messianic state of not living up to an ideal and being an adult.

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The suggestions that Kotsko makes about our age have to do with the collapse of norms that we can maintain by not wanting to return to tradition or anything normative. It’s better to just figure out our-relation-to-each-other as we go along. I find this proposal to be very interesting because it suggests something we see with the schlemiel who is often portrayed as an innocent, naïve, and awkward character. In fact, all of the characters that Kotsko looks at could be called schlemiels.

…to be continued….

Kafka’s Bachelorhood, his “First Sorrow,” and the Circus

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Judd Apatow has a penchant for portraying male-schlemiel bachelors and their struggle with dating and marriage. We see this in films like The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up.  The schlemiel aspect of these characters can be found in the fact that they have a hard time leaving their adolescence for adulthood.  They are, as Adam Kotsko says in his book Awkwardness….“awkward.”   For Kotsko, this awkwardness discloses the social-fact that male norms are faltering.  In the wake of this faltering, Apatow’s characters appear “awkward” since, quite simply, they don’t know what role they should play with the opposite sex.  What they are good at, however, is hanging out with their friends or acting like teens (when they are, in fact, adults).  Kotsko’s reading of Apatow’s characters is a social reading of the awkwardness that comes with post 9/11 bachelorhood.  However, schlemiel bachelorhood can be read in other ways.

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In Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox, Heinz Politzer argues that Kafka saw a deep link between being a bachelor and being an artist: “The paradoxicality of Kafka’s narrative work can be traced to these basic contradictions in the nature of their central figure, the bachelor”(46).  For Politzer, the “vortex” of the Kafka narrative is the bachelor: “to become a writer he had to remain a bachelor.  Eventually bachelorhood was identical for him with a life spent in continuous contemplation of life’s paradoxical nature”(46).   Kafka’s characters are “comic” and “tragic” in their attempts to “solve” the paradox of life.  And this task, says Politzer, is where they “derive their unjustified claims and their innate dignity.”   In effect, Politzer argues that only a bachelor, for Kafka, can “testify” to the “enigma” of life.

Politzer ends his chapter, entitled “Juvenilia: The Artist as Bachelor” with a diary entry from Kafka on January 19, 1922.  In this entry, Kafka contrasts the happiness of a family to his own “feeling”:

The infinite, deep, warm, saving happiness of sitting beside the cradle of one’s child opposite its mother.

There is in it something of this feeling: matters no longer rest with you unless you wish it so.  In contrast, the feeling of those who have no children: it perpetually rests with you, whether you will or not, every moment to the end, every nerve-racking moment, it perpetually rests with you, and without result.  Sisyphus was a bachelor.

The artist, in Politzer’s view, is a bachelor.  Unlike a married person, Kafka is able to “testify” to the enigma of life.  But, more importantly for us, Politzer sees the comic and tragic aspect of Kafka’s work in his attempt to “solve” this paradox.  For Politzer, this is impossible.   But what exactly is this paradox?

What I would like to suggest is that the paradox Kafka is addressing has to do with his relationship with the other.  This other can be God, the sexual other, tradition, and himself.  In addressing the paradox of the other, Kafka measures the movement from adolescence to adulthood.   And this movement, which is never completed, is the movement of the schlemiel bachelor.   To be sure, this movement has mystical resonance for Kafka because, in everything he writes about (in his notebooks, diaries, and fiction) there is a always the question of how it relates to the truth.  And he often ponders whether the mystical state requires a movement from the child to the adult or from humility to assertiveness.

For Kafka, the problem with such meditations was not to get caught up in psychology.  He wanted, for this reason, to make a distinction between what he called “mirror-writing” and reading/interpretation.  He associated psychology with reading/interpreting “mirror-writing.”

In his Fourth Octavio Notebook, Kafka states it explicitly:

Psychology is the reading of mirror-writing, which means that it is laborious, and as regards the always concrete result, it is richly informative; but nothing has happened.

As we can see, Kafka enjoys such reading/interpretation; but he is more interested in mirror-writing.  However, one informs the other.  Writing is connected more to feeling, experience, and the event while reading is connected to “information.”

Through writing, he records his struggle with the truth, God, and the world.  He records his movement from and back to bachelorhood.

In an entry dated February 23rd, in his Fourth Octavio Notebook, Kafka realizes that the world “seduces” him into thinking that marriage is a “representative of life” with which “you are meant to come to terms.”  He is not certain if he should do so since it may distract him from God, tradition, and truth.  However, he realizes that there is some truth in this seduction:

For only in this way can this world seduce us, and it is in keeping with this truth. The worst thing, however, is that after the seduction has been successful we forget the guarantee and thus actually the Good has lured us into Evil, the woman’s glance into her bed.

This glance would take him out of his gaze, which we discussed in the last blog.  As I noted there, the gaze is the “third thing” which notes otherness.  Kafka wonders what will happen if he exchanges the gaze for the glance.  Will it remove him from his relationship to God?  Will it take him from his adolescence?  Will marriage make him lose his schlemieldom?

Kafka’s short story, “The First Sorrow,” opens up these questions by way of posing a figure.

In the story, the main character is a trapeze artist whose home is the circus.  Through the story, we learn that the artist is a bachelor and does his own act.   He lives and breathes the circus and has mastered the game of being a trapeze artist.  And “nothing disturbed his seclusion.”

However, there is a problem.  The trapeze artist could have lived his entire life alone and practicing his art “had it not been for the inevitable journeys from place to place, which he found extremely trying.”

Within the space of the circus, the artist is fine.  It is only when the artist must travel from one place to another in the world that he becomes unsettled.  While traveling the artist becomes “unhappy.”  And his manager does all he can to make life easier for him.  But “despite so many journeys having been successfully arranged by the manager, each new one embarrassed him again, for the journeys, apart from everything else, got on the nerves of the artist a great deal.”

But on one of the journeys, the trapeze artist, “biting his lip,” asked the manager for a second trapeze artist.  And his feelings shift: “At that the trapeze artist suddenly burst into tears.”  In response, the manager goes to him and comforts him as if the trapeze artist were a child.  He climbed up into his seat “and caressed him, cheek to cheek, so that his own face was bedabbled by the trapeze artist’s tears.”

The manager assures the trapeze artist that he will find another trapeze artist immediately and “succeeded in reassuring the trapeze artist, little by little, and was able to go back to his corner.  But he himself was far form assured, with deep uneasiness he kept glancing secretly at the trapeze artist over the top of his book.”

Politzer gives a cursory reading of this story and states, simply, that the irony is that the “first sorrow” is that of the manager and not the acrobat.  This insight makes sense insofar as the manager worries that the trapeze artist’s existence may be threatened by these changes.

But, in the end, it is the face of the trapeze artist that changes. With the manager, we gaze at the change that has taken place with the trapeze artist: “And indeed the manager believed he could see, during the apparently peaceful sleep which had succeeded the fit of tears, the first furrows of care engraving themselves upon the trapeze artist’s smooth childlike forehead.”

It is this last detail which is most important.  The furrows of care on the “trapeze artist’s smooth childlike forehead” indicate that the artist may still be a child but, at the very least, now he cares.  His face changes.  And this is the truth that interests Kafka.  It is the risk of marriage, the risk of a relationship that interests him.

However, what makes this story so interesting is that he wants another trapeze artist to join him.  In Kafka’s real life, the seduction marks the possibility of losing his art. Here, we can see that Kafka envisions a relationship within the context of art.

He wants the trapeze artist to retain his childlike face.  He wants to be a schlemiel in a relationship.  But this is not without its misgivings; after all, it is the “first sorrow.”  This oddly resonates with Apatow’s characters who also take their chances and enter relationships.  The question, however, is whether, in taking these risks, they remain childlike and what this implies.

In Knocked Up, for instance, Seth Rogen becomes a responsible individual who leaves his adolescence behind for being a father.   Adam Kotsko, in his reading of this film, thinks that this rejoinder compromises the awkwardness which discloses a historical-social rupture of the roles of men and women.  In contrast to Apatow, Kotsko would like to retain the awkwardness of Rogen’s man-child character for the purposes of putting social norms into question.   To be sure, Kotsko thinks that this is a “fairy tale” solution.  For this reason, we can imagine Kotsko would prefer that Rogen remain a schlemiel.

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We seem to have something else going on with Kafka.  Although Kafka clearly feels unprepared by his tradition to confront marriage, what seems to be at stake, for Kafka, is not a social otherness so much as an otherness that is wrapped up with Kafka’s art.  And that otherness includes God, himself, and tradition.  For Kafka, these overshadowed the social which he sees, as we saw above, as “seductive.”

Perhaps we can say that Apatow’s schlemiels are social schlemiels while Kafka’s are religious.  The difference is telling and shows us how the schlemiel’s childishness can be read in such differing ways.  Regardless, for Kafka as for Apatow, every schlemiel must dwell in the space between childhood and maturity.  Once they leave one for the other, they are no longer schlemiels and, as Politzer might say, they will no longer be artists (let alone bachelors).

Given this claim, Politzer, Kafka, and Kotsko seem to be saying that ruptures and paradoxes are best fit for people or characters who are caught in this or that extenuating circumstance or social position.  What does this imply?  Must we learn from bachelor schlemiels what we, who live “normal” lives, cannot?  Are bachelor schlemiels in a better position to understand otherness than we are?  And instead of going back to school, should we go back to the circus?