A Rereading of Kotsko’s Pop Culture Writings

A couple years ago, I wrote a piece called On Male Culture, wherein I proposed that one of the best things men could do as feminist allies was to become internal critics of male culture. As I have taught feminist texts this semester in my social sciences class, it increasingly strikes me how much awkwardness vs. sociopathy maps onto typical ways of talking about women’s way of relating vs. men’s — relationality vs. hierarchy, connection vs. separation, etc. — as well as onto queer theoretical notions of straight male identity as defined by its very unattainability and its continual vulnerability (hence making the identification with the overwhelmingly male “fantasy sociapath” a perpetual temptation).

From this perspective, the fact that I wrote Awkwardness using all male examples (most controversially, Judd Apatow films) seems to make more sense. I wasn’t trying to capture every aspect of the phenomenon of awkwardness, but to make a case that it’s redemptive. Since awkwardness is fundamentally about relationship and empathy, connecting it with women’s experience would be knocking on an open door to a large extent — but if I could make the case that deep down the (“feminine”) experience of awkwardness is what men want, even the Apotovian men who think they fear and distrust the feminine, then maybe I’d be getting somewhere.

The combined case of the two books would then consist in arguing that we should tilt the balance of society toward traditionally feminine modes of relating, albeit seasoned with some of the traditionally masculine traits that I very selectively put forward as potentially redemptive or at least usable in Sociopaths.

I’m not going to pretend that this kind of project is what I was consciously unfolding as I wrote the two books, but I think it does “work” as a reading — and it makes sense in terms of my personal background (being raised primarily by strong women in an extended family setting) and my ongoing desire to keep some kind of faith with feminism, which would naturally incline me toward those aspects of ostensibly “male culture” where it begins to undermine itself (awkwardness) and would just as naturally leave me unable finally to say “yes” to a hypermasculine trend like the TV sociopath no matter how seductive it may be to me on a certain level.

(Then there’s the fact that I will make elaborate arguments that the real point of Mad Men is that identity is always socially mediated, that I am fascinated with mafia stories because of the light they might shed on how we tend to imagine the origin of community and authority, that I can’t finally include Breaking Bad among the absolute greats due to its individualism, etc. — it’s all the social significance, not the fascination of the lone hero or anti-hero. Or the fact that I would publicly say that I’m still in the process of figuring out what I was doing in my books, instead of maintaining the illusion of a fully saturated authorial intention!)

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5 Responses to “A Rereading of Kotsko’s Pop Culture Writings”

  1. dbarber Says:

    I really liked this post. From the vantage of my own work, i’m wondering if we might add to this nexus the notion of “failure”? Not that this needs to be in competition with “awkwardness,” but it seems that in addition to the strategies of awkwardizing masculinity and criticizing sociopathy (though with some selective recuperation as you said), we could imagine the failure of masculinity. Something potentially dangerous about this of course, as it runs the risk of saving masculinity in its downfall, but it seems like it might enter into the space between awkward feminzation of the masculine and sociopathic hyperization of the masculine.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    To clarify, you’re saying that the notion of “failed” masculinity implies that it would have been a good thing for it to succeed?

  3. dbarber Says:

    No, would not have been a good thing for it to succeed! The failure is the good thing. But what i’m saying is that it would be good to have an analytic of failure.

    Insofar as the structure of masculinity remains, then masculinity will fail. This needs to be thought and, i’m imagining, affirmed. And it would be different than, say, taking a set of attributes (the feminine) opposed to the masculine in order to link masculinity to them. That would be something like a success of the feminine, which i’m distinguishing from a failure of the masculine.

    For instance, there’s a difference (ultimately complementary though), i think, between performing masculinity in a more feminine mode and performing the failure of masculinity.

  4. dbarber Says:

    Though perhaps what i’m getting at is close to what you’re saying in the discussion of sociopathy. Not completely sure of that, but it shares what you note as the queer theoretical sense of straight male identity as unattainable. What i’m getting might be something like the affirmative performance of that unattainability. Or the affirmative experience thereof.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It sounds to me almost like how Zizek would characterize the shift from desire to drive, from objet a as unattainable object to objet a as motive force.


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