Awkwardness, Part 1

This is the reading for August 11.

Couples fighting at parties, teenagers in love and poorly told jokes are all terribly awkward phenomena.  Awkwardness is usually seen as the result of someone’s nerdiness, or lack of social skills.  Against this, Adam Kotsko argues that awkwardness reveals something fundamental about our relations with each other – and that there is something potentially emancipatory about it.

Being-With and Moods

Most areas of human inquiry have an easily laid out subject matter.  Mathematics deals with numbers, biology deals with life, astronomy deals with space, and so on.  The German philosopher Martin Heidegger argued that while the various sciences have done a great job of dealing with various kinds of beings, the question of what being itself means had been left totally unanswered, and it falls to philosophy to deal with that question.

He noted that most fields of knowledge advance in their self-understanding when they come across fundamental problems.  For example, there was a time when mathematicians only recognized whole numbers and fractions; when they discovered irrational numbers like the square root of 2, they had to sit down and asks themselves exactly what numbers were.  A biologist can be comfortable with an easy division between life and non-life until they come across something strange like a virus, and then they have to deal with the fundamental question of what life really is.

If mathematicians can understand the nature of math by thinking about numbers, and biologists can understand life by looking at organisms, then what can the philosopher look at to understand being?  Heidegger thought that the only way to proceed was with an analysis of human being; after all, it appears that only humans are concerned with the question of being.  Our existence is tied up with existence as such.  Now, this analysis of human being cannot use categories that have already been developed, like anthropology or psychology.  A fundamental analysis of human being needs its own kind of categories.

Two of the categories that Heidegger elaborated were moods and being-with.  A mood, in Heidegger’s use, is not simply an emotion; let’s say it is like the feel of a situation.  It is not entirely in the head of an individual, but it is not quite an objective fact, either.  A mood, or in another English translation, an attunement, is what governs our response to any given situation. Most times, our mood is one of going with the flow – we’re just doing what we supposed to be doing, without thinking about it too much.

Just like a breakdown case like irrational numbers makes mathematicians reconsider their idea of numbers, we can say there are breakdown moods that give us a different perspective on our way of being.  One of his primary examples is tool use.  Consider using a keyboard; for the most part, you don’t even think as you type.  But occasionally, a key sticks and suddenly you are aware of the keyboard.  It sticks out, whereas before it just dissolved into the background.

A key breakdown mood is anxiety: the realization that one day, we will die.  We do many things without any sense of a deadline – we implicitly assume there will always be more time.  Yet, occasionally, we realize that we actually are on a clock: we will cease to exist in the future, and in anticipation of this, we focus our efforts on what really matters to us.  Just as a virus makes a biologist rethink their concept of life, anxiety offers us the opportunity to rethink the time we have left in our lives.

Another breakdown mood is boredom; when we are bored, we feel strangely unenergized or uninterested in the world around us.  Boredom allows us the opportunity to rethink our relationship with stimuli; it shows us one way that we are different from animals.  Animals cannot but respond to stimuli, but boredom shows that humans are capable of not responding.

Heidegger’s analysis of being-with is all about how completely tied to other people we are; we speak because of the existence of other people, we make things for others and use things others have made.  We grow up in a culture that was developed by others.  It is not that we are already-finished individuals and then come across others; other humans are a part of our lives from the very beginning.

The odd thing is, both anxiety and boredom are about withdrawal from the world.  In anxiety, I anticipate my death and rethink the time of my life.  Yet Heidegger has already claimed that we are fundamentally linked to the world and other people.  Yet, at a crucial point in his thinking, other people seem to disappear.  There seems to be no breakdown moods that allow us to rethink our relations with other people.  This is the gap that Kotsko seeks to fill with awkwardness.

Awkwardness as a Mood and Social Norms

Kotsko begins by relating an anecdote.  He often goes to a bar that features live Irish music.  Instrumentalists from the music school come in and play Irish tunes.  Usually, it is treated as background music.  One day, a woman began singing a capella “in a very dramatic, drawn-out, vibrato-laden style.”  She had no part in the music up to this point, and was apparently just another patron.  She even remained seated the whole time.

Kotsko found the social tension unbearable.  How is one meant to act in that situation?Treat her singing as background music?  But even whispering seemed rude.  Looking at her seemed just as bad.  Her singing felt invasive and excessive, more than anyone there had bargained for.  The official endorsement of the pub made it even more awkward; if it had happened on the subway, he would be within his rights to ask her to stop.

How could the awkwardness of that situation be described?  He says, “We might just as easily say that I feel awkward, that the singing is awkward, or that the situation as a whole is awkward.  It’s as though the awkwardness is continually on the move, ever present yet impossible to nail down.”

The etymology of the word is interesting.  The second syllable, -ward, is the same -ward as in forward or backward.  The first syllable comes from the middle English awke, meaning something turned in the wrong direction.  So we could say that to be awkward is to be wrong-ward.  But then, what is right-ward? The best response might be a kind of social grace that roles with the punches.  An ability to deal with unexpected situations, rather than being paralyzed by them.

He outlines three kinds of awkwardness, each with their own relation to social norms.  Everyday awkwardness, radical awkwardness, and cultural awkwardness.

Everyday awkwardness seems to originate with awkward individuals.  Some people really are awkward – they do not act in an appropriate way for a given context.  It is not that they are violating an official rule, but they do not quite measure up to the unspoken norms of any given context.  For example, someone who tells a poor joke;  the teller is awkward in the delivery or inappropriateness, but the audience is not graceful in hanging them out to dry.

As an example, several years ago I worked in a rather large academy with several Korean and foreign teachers.  One of the foreigners was an older Canadian man.  One day in the office, he loudly told a joke about a group of black men raping a white woman.  A basketball was involved.  It was a deeply inappropriate joke, combing the worst of many worlds: racism, sexism and poor timing.  Those of us who heard the joke, mostly males, were shocked into silence.  The awkwardness involved everyone: his inappropriateness and our failure to properly deal with the joke.  There are two important points here: first, the awkwardness involved everyone present, not just him.  Second, he was violating a norm that the rest of us treated as both known and knowable; having that norm violated was terribly awkward.

Another form is what Kotsko calls radical awkwardness.  Unlike everyday awkwardness when a supposedly obvious norm is violated, radical awkwardness is what we feel when there is apparently no norm governing a situation at all.  There is a greater feeling of discomfort, because one is deprived of their normal ways of navigating the world. It usually appears because of an encounter between two sets of norms, as in the case of a cross-cultural clash.  Radical awkwardness can sometimes be dangerous, especially when one group is stronger than another – forced assimilation, for example.

Both everyday and radical awkwardness are social.  It moves through the social network, it spreads.  Participants might flee the scene, but in the moment, they are exposed to it.  It draws everyone in.  So certain violations of the norms we rely on to navigate the social world, either in violating specific rules or the stripping of all rules together, create a weird kind of social bond.  We are all involved in the situation together.

Awkwardness indicates that no social order is self-evident, and that no social order accounts for every possibility.  Humans are fundamentally social, but have no built-in norms.  Norms are provisional, and help us “get by,” and some rules are more helpful than others.  If every social order already had a regulation prepare for every encounter, awkwardness would never arise.  Awkwardness prompts us to set up norms in the first place — and it prompts us to transform them.

It’s not all or nothing: having a social order or none.  There’s an awkwardness between the violation of a social norm and the loss of social norms – cultural awkwardness.  It arises when there seems to be a set of norms in force, but it feels somehow impossible to follow them or even fully know them.  Cultural awkwardness is especially prevalent in times of significant social change.  A social order in decline keeps its power to tell you what you’re doing wrong, but can’t tell you what the right thing to do is.

The Origins of an Awkward Age

Kotsko argues that Americans, in particular, are living in an age of cultural awkwardness.    The mainstream middle class norms that predominate are not up to the task of minimizing awkwardness.  This is particularly clear when we see the difficulty whites have in related to various minorities, of both racial and sexual varieties.  It is difficult to know if the differences should be acknowledged, or ignored, or what questions are appropriate, or what terminology to us.

He suggests the origins of this awkwardness lies back in the 1960s, in the social upheavals American culture dealt with in the postwar years.  In the aftermath of WWII, the political and economic system has been called “Fordism.”  There was a certain amount of cooperation between business, labor and government, an emphasis on stability over rapid growth, and broadly-shared increases in the standard of living.  Like the name suggests, the automobile was crucial; the car industry provided economic leadership and cars transformed suburbs.

Much of American culture at the time was about combatting the Soviet Union, proving that a capitalist economy would produce a “just prosperity”.  This went hand in hand with the endorsement of family values, which amounted to the patriarchal family and the ideal of a submissive, stay at home mother.  The oppression of blacks and women flatly contradicted America’s rosy self-image, of course.  Fordism was a seemingly stale system that relied on a (white) middle class.  The growing dissatisfaction of blacks and women, the Vietnam war and the sexual revolution “convinced many that a wholesale restructuring of society was only a matter of time.”

The results of this attempted restructuring were mixed.  Civil rights and feminist movements made considerable gains, but cultural conservatism turned out to be pretty strong.  The events of the 1960s throw the normative social model off kilter, but did not produce any positive alternative.  The subservient place of women and blacks was no longer self-evident, but the steps necessary to recognize their equality were, and to some extent still are, unclear.

Everyday Awkwardness – The Office

There are three different analysis of awkwardness in the book, and we will look at the first one this week.  Work seems like a good place to investigate awkwardness.  In theory there is a clear set of expectations and a manage to make sure everyone is interpreting the directives in the same way.  But awkward co-workers are a common problem, hence the comedy of The Office.  The Office appears to blame awkwardness on strange individuals, or things from outside work intruding, like romantic tension.  The American version emphasizes this outside intrusion, but the British version “lays bear the uncomfortable truth that the modern white-collar workplace is inherently and irreducibly awkward.”

In the British version, the manager David Brent continually abuses his position.  It is not so much a matter of corruption as it is him using his position as a vehicle for his ego.  Brent is at the center of the awkward comedy, but he isn’t the cause of it.  Other characters are just as awkward, like Gareth.  Another source of awkwardness is the romantic tension between the characters Tim and Dawn, along with their childish pranks on Gareth.  So it does look like the awkwardness is an outside intrusion.  If that intrusion was removed, the awkwardness would be solved.

The Office seems to focus on individuals, “Yet the inherent problems of white collar work are always lurking in the background.”  Not just the problem of job insecurity, “with everyone using that wonderfully euphemistic British term ‘redundancies,’ which gives one the impression that through some clerical error an excessive number of works happen to have been hired and management is simple correcting the problem.”  The North American version, “layoffs,” implies “one is temporarily released into a kind of reserve workforce and may hope to be called back up again.”  In neither nation does management use the straightforward term “firing.”  “The obscurantist management-speak, however, may be getting at something despite itself: there does seem to be something different about losing one of these vague white collar office jobs as opposed to a classical Fordist job or a true professional career.”

Tim is a good example – he is always convinced he is always going back to school.  “The worker comes to view the company in the same instrumental way the company views him or her, as opposed to the presumed lifetime relationship – and therefore identity – that Fordism or the professions offered.  They are all simply biding their time until their real dream becomes feasible.”  Kotsko points out that “What is unique about the present era’s vaguely white collar office work, however, is that it is almost impossible to imagine anyone fully identifying with it.  And the reason is that there is ultimately to identify with.”  It is the sense of going through the motions rather than identifying with and relying on a stable set of norms that makes the workplace culturally awkward rather than simply awkward in an everyday sense.

The Fordist worker, when asking themselves what they do, could always point to a physical result “that verified that work had indeed taken place.  By contrast, office work seems inherently precarious even in the absence” of layoff threats, “it feels like getting paid for it can’t continue, like someone is going to figure out what’s going on and send you home.”

The Office is focussed on Brent as manager, as the center of the awkwardness.  This makese sense, given the structure of white-collar work: if the works have a sense of futility, “what can we say of the person who is supposed to direct their useless actions to their useless ends?”  The promotion to middle management does not solve the problem, it redoubles it.  Brent is overly identified with his job, this is why he is so grotesque.  The attempt always fails, because when you push hard enough on the job, there’s nothing there.  All his self-assurance is a defence mechanism – “the clearest possible evidence that he really faced the void that is his job and turned away in fear.”  “That inspires that fear?  It’s the fact that he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do.”  It’s not a personal failing, it is built into the job.

Awkward, But in a Good Way

This is a short book, so we will finish it next week.  We will see how Kotsko is not out to provide a clear vision of “good” social relations or minimize awkwardness.  This book is, in fact, a case in favor of awkwardness.  Sometimes we can embrace radical awkwardness.


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