Awkwardness, Part 2

This is the reading for August 25.

In last week’s reading, we saw how awkwardness is a fundamentally social phenomenon.  Essentially, a situation is awkward when social norms break down in some way, revealing to us that all norms are constructed and changeable.  An individual may violate a social norm that is treated as known and knowable by everyone else, as in the case of everyday awkwardness.  Or, there may be a situation in which there are no agreed upon norms at all, such as when two cultures meet – this is radical awkwardness.  And sometimes, there is a sense that norms exist, but it is not entirely clear how to apply them in a given situation.  This is cultural awkwardness.

Judd Apatow’s movies portray male bonding as a way to avoid the cultural awkwardness of adulthood and marriage, though this strategy is ultimately self-undermining.  Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm shows a more radical awkwardness, one that may ultimately be emancipatory.

Cultural Awkwardness – Judd Apatow

Once upon a time, the “Western” norms governing marriage and gender were fairly clear.  A man and a woman would marry and have children.  The man was the provider and head of the household, and the woman held a subservient caretaker position.  In recent decades, people have begun to experiment with completely different gender norms, and while this is a great thing, the loss of the old obvious norms can lead to a great deal of awkwardness.  In short, marriage has fallen into a state of cultural awkwardness; “Everywhere we turn, it seems we’re doing something wrong: putting off marriage too long, settling for the wrong person, getting married just for the sake of getting married, etc.”  Marriage itself is in decline – divorce and deadening routine threaten the best marriages.

4   Judd Apatow’s movies recognize the awkwardness of marriage, yet consider it the only game in town.  They are about overgrown adolescents who are putting off marriage, and “despair of the possibility of developing any viable alternative to the shattered institution of marriage, proposing instead that we prop up the system by allowing reluctant men to indulge in the habits associated with the awkward status of overgrown adolescents as a kind of release valve.”  Apatow’s movies all share awkwardness, obscenity, non-sequitur and a sentimental framing narrative that often ends in marriage.  But at the core of all of them is a form of male bonding based upon an adolescent adulthood, with all the video games, drugs and incompetent pick-up lines that implies  Kotsko will present the contradictions inherent in this solution: ultimately, awkwardness as release valve actually allows the remnants of the old norms to continue to function.

Kotsko choose a body of work with such a “relentlessly male perspective” because women seem to have “displayed a basic social grace that allows them to deal with awkward situations relatively smoothly.  If social awkwardness seems to be such a male dominated field, it’s because men have descended into self-pity, defensiveness, and even willful denial in response to their loss of relative prestige and the cultural awkwardness that followed.”  The danger presented by the new post-feminist normalcy isn’t the hero losing his “freedom.”  He puts off marriage because of its cultural awkwardness, “one that he feels more acutely as a self-pitying man who is (mostly unconsciously) nostalgic for what being a man once meant.” Marriage still seems like the only way to grow up, but it also seems doomed to failure.

Two of Apatow’s already-married characters in Knocked Up offer some insight into contemporary marriage.  The wife, Debbie, is convinced her husband Pete is having an affair because he mysteriously disappears several nights a month.  She and two other characters eventually follow Pete to one of his illicit rendezvous, and it turns out he is actually playing fantasy baseball.  In the discussion that follows, Pete claims that Debbie has been smothering him.  All along in the movie, she has been portrayed as controlling.  Rather than openly dealing with her demands, Pete has been withdrawing.  Both are avoiding the “awkwardness and unpredictability of direct and open communication with each other; Pete by constructing a contentless distance and Debbie by laying down the law”.  They strategies for avoiding awkwardness actually produce more awkwardness.

It is not that the couple is mismatched.  The problem isn’t with the individuals, but rather the social system: “neither partner knows what they have the right to expect, but both feel like they should know.  Pete and Debbie compensate for this uncertainty in opposite directions, by putting for no expectations whatsoever and by excessively spelling out expectations, respectively, and this extreme unbalance is certainly problematic – but at the same time, there seems to be no proper balance, only degrees of imbalance.”

Male friendship is portrayed both as a defense against married adulthood and as a necessary transitional stage.  In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, opening up and becoming one of the guys is a crucial step in the character’s quest for normality.  Another Apatow-style movie, I Love You, Man “makes it explicit that maintaining homosocial activities like the proverbial ‘poker night’ is crucial to the success of a marriage.”  In Superbad, two teenage characters attempt to bring beer to a party in order to impress some girls.  The two boys have been life-long friends, and plan to go to the same low-prestige college together.  Eventually, it comes clear that the smarter of the two – Evan – is actually planning to go to a more prestigious college, without his friend, Seth.  By the end of the movie, both boys have seduced the girls they wanted, and walk away from each other with their new girlfriends.  Yet Seth clearly wants to go back to the way things were.  Some have read a homoeroticism into Seth’s longing for Evan, but the way the scenes are shot clearly indicate that what Seth wants is to hold on to their specifically adolescent bond, which he had imagined would continue if they were college roommates.

The loss of the adolescent homosocial bond is inevitable, but it is a real loss.  What do they find valuable in these relationships?  “Above all, it seems that they value them for being more or less voluntary or spontaneous rather than rule-based.”  They take time and effort to maintain, yet friends do not generally make demands the way girlfriends and wives are portrayed as doing.  There are broad norms such as loyalty or promise-keeping, yet focussing on these norms seems out of place.  It is this embrace of the awkwardness implicit in adolescent homosocial friendships that explains the misogyny many have seen in Apatow’s movies: women represent the social ordering that will deprive men of these bonds.

Abstracted from the misogyny, “this embrace of the awkward, non-conventionalized relationship is something very valuable.  But it is that very misogynist edge that makes this stance self-undermining, insofar as its very opposition to convention becomes itself a kind of negative convention – it comes ‘just us guys’ to the exclusion of everyone else.”  Once that exclusionary move is made, this supposedly unique and authentic bond can then be submitted to the needs of the very adulthood it resists – adulthood becomes the release value.  Male bonding becomes the servant of the order it is resisting.

That is the lesson of the Apatow genre: “that the order of adulthood somehow doesn’t work, that it needs the awkward supplement of the male bonding it supposedly overcomes.”  It is a despairing response to the failure of the 1960s movements to produce a new, positive order. In Apatow’s movies, awkwardness is in the service of the social order, but it does hint at a kind of awkwardness that could exist for its own sake.

Radical Awkwardness – Curb Your Enthusiasm

Kotsko will focus on Larry David’s character because this character seems to provide a way forward – a social bond in which awkwardness is enjoyed for its own sake, an awkwardness so joyously awkward that it becomes its own kind of grace.  Kotsko will actually develop a connection with St. Paul; not because of Paul’s theological commitments, but because of what his commitments led him to do: “to found communities that include people from widely different cultures and yet don’t require assimilation.”  “Larry David has independently discovered something that St. Paul was experimenting with in the first century: how to form a community directly grounded in awkwardness.”

The show is about a fictionalized version of Larry David himself.  Many of the plots revolve around a cultural conflict:  Larry’s New York Jewish culture clashes with southern Californian WASP culture. WASP culture is portrayed as being full of unspoken rules, that “you are just supposed to know”.  Yet Larry does not know these rules, and so is constantly violating them.  Larry is white, so the other characters expect him to be an insider to their culture, “making his constant lapses incomprehensible and inexcusable.”  His radical awkwardness is misinterpreted as everyday awkwardness.  In one episode he is invited to the actor Ben Stiller’s birthday party.  Stiller announces that no one should bring gifts, so Larry arrives with no gift.  He is flummoxed by Stiller’s anger at his lack of gift; “everyone knows” that despite the announcement, gifts were still expected.  Time and time again, there is a clear double standard: Larry, as an outsider, can do nothing right, and the insiders can do no wrong.

So here is where St. Paul comes in.  In Romans 7, Paul writes not only of the seeming impossibility of keeping the law, but also the claim that the law produces its own violations.  Is Paul speaking specifically of the Jewish law, or of law in general?  Most interpreters tend to believe that while Paul was speaking of the Jewish law in particular, the point can be generalized to all religious systems.  Kotsko interprets it through the lens of Paul’s mission in life: “trying to figure out a way to create communities that crossed the biggest cultural line he was aware of, that between Jews and Gentiles, with everyone participating as equals.”

Paul saw the coming of Christ meant that the wall between Jews and other groups needed to be torn down.  Gentiles needed to participate in community with Jews, without becoming Jews first.  The law that constantly trips one up isn’t the Jewish law as such.  It is the law from the perspective of the convert.  Things that were once unproblematic, like eating pork, are now forbidden – it it is easy to see how one would eat pork just out rebellion against what seems like an unreasonable demand.

The convert admires the culture he is trying to join, but the rules trip him up constantly.  “Not matter how hard he tries, no matter how long he’s a part of the new community, he will never be able to fulfill the law’s demands as easily and fluently as someone who’s been a member since birth – and so no matter how much his new community respects him and bears with his struggle, he will always be second best.”  Assimilation does not get rid of the awkwardness, it just offloads the awkwardness onto the convert.

Enjoy your awkwardness!

Larry and St. Paul offer a practical solution.  Not assimilation, because it can never be the basis for a community in which everyone participates as equals.  The solution also can’t be a creation of a third culture that everyone can “convert to,” because once a new generation of children is raised up in it, “the problem of assimilation simply repeats itself for any outsiders who subsequently want to join.”  A good example is the secular state of Europe – it was devised as a way that people of differing religious groups could meet, but once it became established, it had difficulty accepting new religious groups such as Islam.  Those of the first generation may be able to participate as equals, but it is difficult to imagine every generation having the patience to develop entirely new cultures; assimilation will always seem like the only solution.  That or extermination.

Paul’s solution is: stop looking for a solution.  “No one should be forced to conform to the arbitrary social norms of others, and at the same time, everyone should feel free to maintain their cultural identity.”  “Instead of trying to come up with some permanent way of overcoming awkwardness, one should go with it.”  This is the opposite of assimilation.  Rather than making the weaker group conform to the dominant group, “the stronger ones should do their best to accommodate those who are having difficulty.”  Larry David’s character very often follows this ideal.  He is generous to those that others tend to forget about or shun.  On one occasion, he befriends a new neighbor who turns out to be a registered sex offender.  Everyone is outraged when Larry feels he can’t exclude him from a party to which the whole neighborhood is invited.

Who is strong and who is weak will vary by situation.  “Instead of a rule, one might call the principle of favoring the weak a style of interaction, a starting point for social improvisations.  This improvisation doesn’t overcoming the awkwardness of cross-cultural interactions, but dwells in it – and by leaving everyone’s preexisting cultural expectations alone, it dwells in awkwardness in a way that is remarkably different from the ‘release valve’ strategy” enjoyed by Apatow’s characters.  Awkwardness would no longer be a way of escaping social norms, and social norms are no longer a way of escaping awkwardness; “instead, people simply meet each other, without the mediation of a defined cultural order, and figure out how to live together on a case by case basis.”

This involves rejecting the core presupposition of liberal political theory.  From Hobbes to Locke, the problem was how to bind isolated individuals together.  Social binding was meant to consist of freely chosen contracts, all the way up to government.  Social life was “understood in terms of individuals leaving behind their isolated state and freely making mutually beneficial agreements.  What the analysis of awkwardness shows us is that the real problem is instead how to cope with the often overwhelming and always unavoidable proximity of others.”  Humans don’t spring up and only later encounter each other.  The stories in Curb Your Enthusiasm show the basis pattern: rather than trying to cover over the gap in the social order exposed by awkwardness, “one should endorse it by redoubling it, and rather than minimizing its impact by ‘covering’ for the person who has caused the awkwardness, one should expand its scope.”

“In any case, opportunities to enjoy the community of awkwardness are always there, always available, because awkwardness is undefeatable.  Social orders arise and perhaps evolve and eventually fall, but awkwardness will endure as long as we remain human because it is what makes us human.  What Ricky Gervais and Judd Apatow point toward and Larry David practices is indeed an awkwardness so awkward it becomes its own kind of grace – it is the peculiar kind of grace that allows us to break down and admit that we are finally nothing more or less than human beings who will always be stuck with each other and, more importantly, to admit that we are glad of it.”


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