Women’s awkwardness

It’s widely agreed that the lack of women’s awkwardness is a glaring fault in Awkwardness. I defended myself initially by claiming that there were not very many women characters or woman-centered shows that belonged to the contemporary “awkwardness trend,” and at the time that was true enough. If I were to rewrite the book today, though, I would not simply include the newer “awkward humor” explicitly centered on women, which has arisen in the wake of the trend I was responding to. Instead, I would have to place awkward entertainment in a broader historical context, which would reveal a shocking truth: women have always been awkward and have always been portrayed as such in American television. I mean this very precisely. “Girls” are not awkward, because girls have a set place — as the object of boys’ affections. Mothers are also not awkward, because they have a set role. Women, however, are awkward, and more radically so than any man could be. Career women, young women out dating, even young married women who are still feeling their way into the role and don’t have children yet — none of them have a place, none of them have a standard or model.

Women’s awkwardness seemed to be absent from the trend because women’s awkwardness has been a constant feature of the comedy landscape. Hence we can understand the reactionary character of Apatow-style men’s awkwardness — it is attempting to claim the comedic territory that has previously been identified with women. It claims there has been a reversal of power, such that women are essentially in charge and therefore in possession of convincing standards and norms. In this view, women are not afflicted with awkwardness, but are the cause of it. This reclaiming of awkwardness goes hand in hand with an agenda of taming it through domestication — a phenomenon for which women are also paradoxically blamed. It’s as though men were watching Sex and the City and felt jealous that they couldn’t experience the same insecurities.

Social constructs

One often hears people declare something to be “just a social construct” as a way of dismissing its reality or relevance. In reality, the fact that something is a social construct makes it infinitely more powerful and difficult to escape than if it were, for instance, a biological brute fact. We get around biological brute facts all the time. Social forces regulate our eating, drinking, defecation, urination, sexual pairings, etc., etc. Social forces can drive us to suicide — meaning they have overcome the most fundamental biological drive of survival. Biology isn’t infinitely pliable, of course, but it is hardly destiny.

Read the rest of this entry »

What is called creepy?

The experience of creepiness is, at its most fundamental, the experience of an excessive, asymmetrical demand — someone is demanding something of us that we cannot and do not want to reciprocate.

The privileged field of creepiness is of course sexuality. Read the rest of this entry »

A plea for empty ritual

The Last Psychiatrist has a post up about narcissists at funerals, which resonated with my “religious but not spiritual” instincts. The gist is: “On the one hand they don’t know how to be real, on the other hand they they think protocol and formality is dishonest and insensitive. They can’t say, “my condolences” because it sounds fake. So they improvise, catastrophically.”

I found this to be something of a challenge to my call for improvisational awkwardness as a response to the breakdown of the social bond at the end of Awkwardness. Read the rest of this entry »

The return of Awkwardness

The Zero Books blog is running an excerpt from my book Awkwardness, which remains available for purchase (Amazon: US, UK; Book Depository).

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. Read the rest of this entry »

The awkwardness of casual attire

The Guardian‘s Comment is free has a piece up responding to a campaign devoted to reassuring people that they can wear casual clothing to the opera. The author argues — correctly! — that formal dress can actually represent a more democratic ethos than the current tyrrany of casual. Formalwear may once have been the preserve of the leisure class, but it can make anyone look good regardless of their class background. Two remarks stood out to me as they pointed toward a connection between enforced casual and my theory of “cultural awkwardness”:

Another reason that a dress code is democratic in that you know in advance what you’re supposed to wear, rather than having to spend some time working out what might be acceptable, only to be condemned silently for misjudging an unwritten code when you arrive.

[...]

Cultural elitism is to be found in those places where there appear to be no rules, no obvious codes, but where the obscure knowledge needed to be involved is the preserve of a small group whose false claim to democracy is that they don’t wear a black tie.

The latter remark applies particularly well to the dystopian realms of “business casual,” “smart casual,” etc.

Breaking Bad between awkwardness and sociopathy

At my talk on Monday, I briefly addressed Breaking Bad, a show I’ve always really enjoyed but didn’t talk about a great deal in Sociopaths. Especially after watching the recent season premiere, I’m increasingly convinced that Breaking Bad represents the impossible union of the awkwardness and sociopath trends. In Sociopaths, I argue that it’s precisely our cultural awkwardness, which leaves us feeling completely powerless, that makes the fantasy of the ruthlessly effective sociopath appealling. “If only I really and truly didn’t give a fuck about anyone,” thinks the awkward viewer, “then I would be powerful and free.” And then in a second step, the awkward viewer receives back his fulfilling family life (or whatever) as the compensation that means he’s ultimately in an advantageous position over the sociopath — who is for whatever reason constitutionally incapable of enjoying the benefits of love (or whatever).

Breaking Bad breaks down this radical divide between the awkward person and the sociopath by presenting us with a story in which the awkward guy becomes the sociopath. Read the rest of this entry »

The unheimlich maneuver

Anna Kornbluh has sent me this excerpt from Jonathan Lear’s A Case for Irony (which includes a back-and-forth with Alisdair MacIntyre). She said it reminded her of my argument in Awkwardness, and in that respect, this passage especially stands out:

Ironic disruption is thus a species of uncanniness: it is an unheimlich maneuver. The life and identity that I have hitherto taken as familiar have suddenly become unfamiliar. However, there is this difference: in an ordinary experience of the uncanny, there is mere disruption: the familiar is suddenly and disruptively experienced as unfamiliar. What is peculiar to irony is that it manifests passion for a certain direction. It is because I care about teaching that I have come to a halt as a teacher. Coming to a halt in a moment of ironic uncanniness is how I manifest—in that moment—that teaching matters to me. I have a strong desire to be moving in a certain direction—that is, in the direction of becoming and being a teacher—but I lack orientation. Thus the experience of irony is an experience of would-be-directed uncanniness. That is, an experience of standard-issue uncanniness may give us goose bumps or churn our stomachs; the experience of ironic uncanniness, by contrast, is more like losing the ground beneath one’s feet: one longs to go in a certain direction, but one no longer knows where one is standing, if one is standing, or which direction is the right direction.

Awk-ward! (Bonus points for those who get the joke…)

Posted in Awkwardness (the book), Jonathan Lear. Comments Off

Late Capitalist Television, or, Summer Reading

In Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television, Adam Kotsko surveys the overwhelming fascination in contemporary culture with sociopathy. With readings spanning South Park, Dexter, Mad Men, and The Wire, Kotsko argues that the sociopath’s ability to instrumentalize all forms of social bonds critically discloses the arbitrary status of the codes, ties, and institutions that order collective experience. “Perhaps we might all benefit from being more sociopathic,” he provocatively concludes. Click here for recent footage of Slavoj Zizek’s enthusiastic discussion of the book.

With the generous hospitality of 57th Street Books, InterCcECT is proud to present a conversation on Kotsko’s work, joined by the author himself, Monday 16 July, 6pm, 1301 E 57th St, Hyde Park. For additional reading pleasure, we also recommend Kotsko’s prequel, Awkwardness.

Atop inducements to sociopathy, add a different kind of maddening to your summer reading list: join us for our ongoing group on Lacan’s Seminar 3: The Psychoses. Chapters 3 and 4 are up for Thursday 14 June, 5pm, at our salon in Bucktown. Write us  for PDF and details.

Alternately, or additionally, we recommend a companion reading group conducting weekly sessions on philosophy. Their latest text is Levinas’s Totality and Infinity, with the first session Wednesday 13 June, 6pm, at The Bourgeois Pig, covering the Intro, Preface, I Same and the Other: A. Metaphysics and Transcendence. Check our calendar for more info on their schedule of readings.

As always, we welcome proposals / announcements for other summer reading materials.

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