Humanities on the Edge Book Review: Adam Kotsko
My favorite scene in HBO’s Enlightened occurs toward the end of the first season, in an episode that centers on the protagonist’s mother, Helen (Diane Ladd). At the grocery store, inspecting a melon, she is surprised by Carol (Barbara Barrie), an old friend whom she hasn’t seen for many years. The two have a brief conversation, mainly about their children, before Helen asks Carol about her husband. We gather that, at some point, Carol’s husband pulled out of a business deal that culminated in the death of Helen’s husband. “Well that was twenty years ago, Helen! I don’t even remember that,” Carol says. Both Carol and Helen become visibly uncomfortable; the conversation quickly ends and the two part. It’s beautifully acted and written, sad, funny, and, indeed, awkward. But why is it awkward?
Adam Kotsko’s book Awkwardness attempts to answer that question—Why are certain situations awkward?—as well as a more significant one: Why does awkwardness matter? We live in an awkward age, he tells us. Awkwardness enquires into awkwardness as a social phenomenon, including its origins in American culture and reasons why we ought to embrace it. Awkwardness moves through each of the three varieties of the subject, providing a kind of taxonomy of awkwardness, and connects each type to an example from pop culture: the UK and US versions of The Office, the films of Judd Apatow, and the HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm. In this post I aim to offer a complement to Kotsko’s book, by considering Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of social spaces as well as gender and awkwardness, using the TV series Enlightened as a basis.
That persistent social phenomenon can be characterized in three ways. Everyday awkwardness occurs, essentially, when an individual violates an unwritten social norm; she does something inappropriate for the situation. On the other end of the spectrum, radical awkwardness occurs when one must behave in the absence of any social norm at all to govern a situation. Between these two forms lies cultural awkwardness, which arises when it seems that a set of norms govern a given social situation, but one feels that one cannot follow those norms or even know them; it seems that norms are present but are relatively weak or unclear.
Kotsko discusses Heidegger’s concept of moods as a way to understand awkwardness. For Heidegger, Kotsko notes, “a ‘mood’ is a certain way of standing in relationship to the world or, drawing on another translation, a way of being ‘attuned’ to the world” (12). Moods affect our behavior. Anxiety and boredom are fundamental moods for Heidegger; both of them are responses to a breakdown in something we usually don’t pay a lot of attention to: anxiety to time—we feel death’s inevitability, and time’s finitude—and boredom to stimuli—we feel detached from external stimuli. Kotkso frames awkwardness as, like anxiety and boredom, a response to things breaking down, but also as an entry point “into the question of the meaning of relationship—which Heidegger himself puts forward as central to human existence” (15). Awkwardness arises in response to the breakdown of the social order which, again, mostly passes unnoticed in our day-to-day existence. It’s also different from those two in that it isn’t isolating: it spreads.
Awkardness particularly typifies the present time. Kotsko links our age of awkwardness to a “failure to develop a stable vision to replace the so-called ‘traditional values’ that the 1960s era rightly called into radical question” (18). The emergence of the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism contributed to a disruption of normative social models more or less centering on white, heterosexual, middle-class American men. Combined with further political and economic shifts, such movements have resulted in a “state of cultural awkwardness” (17). On the whole, we think that social norms exist, but we have an unclear sense of what they are and how to follow them. As a result, awkwardness accompanies many of our interactions.
From these historical and philosophical underpinnings, Kotsko then moves to clear and interesting analyses of pop culture. But his examples focus almost exclusively on middle-class white male characters: those who have, essentially, been decentered from traditional social values. At one point Kotsko explains why his book examines such a “relentlessly male perspective”: “women seem, by and large, 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” (52). I take Kotsko’s point that men’s awkwardness stems from social disruption. Still, this sort of essentialist statement troubles me: I’m not sure that women do possess a “basic social grace.” For one thing, I wonder if this is a problem of representation skewing reality: we just don’t see that many stories that dwell on women’s awkward behavior. (On the other hand, the recent career of Melissa McCarthy seems almost solely devoted to changing that.) Furthermore, I think it’s true that social grace is a more significant part of women’s socialization than men’s—if women “act out” or act like children they do not receive the same degree of social condonation.
Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of social capital offers another, complementary way to think of awkwardness. In “Social Space and Symbolic Power,” Bourdieu discusses capital as a way to understand the terms of literal distance people use to refer to their social relationships. “These objective relations are the relations between positions occupied within the distributions of the resources which are or may become active, effective, like aces in a game of cards, in the competition for the appropriation of scarce goods of which this social universe is the site” (17). The forms of capital are the various finite social “resources” for which people compete and which people use to define themselves in relation to others. They include economic, cultural, social, and symbolic capital, linked to, respectively, resources like cash and assets; education, knowledge, and skills; groups, networks, and other relationships; and honor or recognition. People are positioned within social space according to, first, “the overall volume of capital they possess” and, second, the relative weight of each type of capital (17).
Bourdieu also develops the term habitus. One perceives all of one’s social interactions through one’s habitus, defined as the bundle of values, tastes, sensibility, and lifestyle that together forms the structure of the mind. This habitus is the result of the “internalization of the structures of that world.” Racial, gender, and class structures are internalized within our minds and that internalization then works to produce the particular way in which the world is perceived.
Bourdieu’s essay seems like a useful complement to Kotsko’s discussion of awkwardness. Awkwardness is a “breakdown in our normal experience of social interaction while itself remaining irreducibly social” (Kotsko 15). Bourdieu’s forms of capital define the ways we position ourselves on the “social grid,” and our habitus is the way in which we take in social interactions. When awkwardness occurs, and we experience that breakdown in experience, this could be understood as a rupture within the habitus: it clashes with the way we typically understand the world.
I will now look at a few episodes of Enlightened, in order to examine everyday and cultural awkwardness, following Kotsko and keeping in mind my discussion of Bourdieu. Enlightened, starring Laura Dern and created by Dern and Mike White, ran for two seasons on HBO, from October 2011 to March 2013. It’s a kind of comedy, although not exactly comedic and frequently discomfiting: even attempting to determine its genre is an awkward task. Dern stars as Amy Jellicoe, an executive at a pharmaceutical corporation who has a breakdown after an affair with her boss. She voluntarily goes to a New Agey treatment center in Hawaii and discovers a new outlook on life. Back in California, she returns to her old workplace. Human Resources sends her to a new, soul-sucking data-entry job in the basement, related to an in-development productivity software that obsessively tracks employees’ time and efficiency. As the show progresses, she becomes convinced of the company’s corrupt and ecologically dangerous business practices and sets out to make herself a whistleblower. To borrow Kotsko’s excellent formulation, Amy seems to be “almost ontologically awkward.” Francine Prose puts it eloquently: “Amy is a tightly wound, rubber-band ball of contradictions: she’s determined but self-sabotaging, perceptive but solipsistic, generous but self-involved. She’s not stupid, but she is goofy and naive.” As the show develops, Amy faces a number of awkward tasks: living with her mother, who’s quite clearly unenthused to host her; re-establishing relationships with her old friends, coworkers and drug-addicted ex-husband; working at her mind-numbing job; and attempting to integrate her newfound beliefs into her old life, none of whose constituent parts seem to be adaptable. You might say she’s tidied up her point of view; she’s got a new attitude. But it’s clear that she’s not in control and her worries are, unfortunately, many. The title of the show itself raises an implicit question: Is she enlightened? Will she become so? In a conversation about the show for The Awl, Michelle Dean notes, “I really think the title of the show has a silent question mark. Which is not a criticism; I wouldn’t want the question mark to be explicit, somehow, it would ruin it, the way you’re supposed to just get that the concept itself is unstable.” Enlightened is, for many, hard to watch—much of its comedy arises from moments of, well, awkwardness. The show deliberately addresses the flaws in a social order that Amy just can’t seem to navigate. But that may not be a bad thing. Kotsko claims that, 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 might happen: we might be able to simply enjoy one another without the mediation of any expectations or demands” (27). In what follows, I will look at a few scenes from the show that dramatize the three types of awkwardness, in order to discuss how the show offers the hope of embracing awkwardness.
One of the best—or most cringe-worthy—examples of Amy’s well-intentioned awkwardness occurs at her ostensible best friend’s baby shower (it’s clear that Krista is considerably less committed to the friendship than Amy). Amy, who earlier views a news segment about a woman who is deported, and whose children must then live with the woman’s relatives, seizes the opportunity to turn baby shower into consciousness-raising: she urges those present to join her new activist group (wonderfully called “WAA,” pronounced like a babyish cry: Women’s Association of Abaddon). Amy’s blithe unawareness of social decorum, and of everyone else’s mortification by the end of her speech, is typical of everyday awkwardness. She violates the social code, which would advise her simply to celebrate her friend’s becoming a mother. The other women at the party occupy a specific habitus which Amy seems to have stepped outside of, in which appropriate topics of conversation are children and trips to Las Vegas, not politics. What’s awkward is Amy’s inability, or refusal, to stay on those subjects; she has bigger concerns.
But the show urges us to identify with Amy, not to mock her. In most episodes, her voiceovers serve as bookends. But in “Not Good Enough Mothers,” music instead accompanies Amy in the final scene, as she buys a bagful of toys and gives it to the deported woman’s children. Maybe this, too, is an awkward negotiation, Amy’s buying toys for the children rather than engage in the political activism she seemed to favor. But she did something: she surely made those children happy. The show reminds us that Amy’s trying to do good. It’s a little insipid to say that Amy’s speech throws into relief the superficial nature of her coworkers’ chit-chat. So let’s leave it at the observation that Amy can’t get down with their kind of conversation. It’s empty: she knows it, and we know it. And anyway the earnest Amy seems preferable to wishy-washy, insincere Krista and her friend, the outright rude Janice. Kotsko notes that The Office calls for “solidarity based not on the overcoming of awkwardness, but on awkwardness itself” (46). That’s true of Enlightened, too. So Amy ends up being possibly rude but willing to risk embarrassment to talk about what she thinks is important—clumsy but well-meaning: maybe the best any of us can hope for.
When Amy returns to Abaddon to get her job back, it’s her threat of a wrongful-termination lawsuit that nabs her a different job. Amy meets with Judy, a representative from Human Resources, who explains that her old job has been taken. Amy immediately responds with a solution: “I could be, like, a community liaison, right? And help promote Abaddon and clean meds and help them sponsor events and causes.” She seeks to transform a corporation that is, as she says, “raping the land and people and, like, drugging America’s kids.” Understandably, her request for this new position is met with resistance—which is when she brings up the potential for a wrongful-termination lawsuit. As her lawyer told her, she had a preexisting condition, depression, for which she willingly left work and got treatment. This scene presents an example of cultural awkwardness: the social norms in this situation are unclear. What is Amy supposed to do? She needs a job—and she’d like to do something meaningful—but her company clearly doesn’t want her back. And if threatening to slap Abaddon with a lawsuit seems rash, well, her lawyer’s advice is sound: she left work voluntarily in an attempt to solve her problems. Most of the discomfort here centers on that “preexisting condition,” as it is so tactfully, legalistically worded.
Abaddon functions in Enlightened as the platonic ideal of a large evil corporation. It’s the appropriate setting to explore the effects of a very average, very mind-numbing job on the subjectivity of someone like Amy. Certainly, its highly competitive, profit-driven environment contributed significantly to her breakdown in the first place. As she returns with a new, idealistic attitude, she immediately meets resistance. The possibility of Amy’s unstable mental health frequently haunts the show. Enlightened opens with Amy’s freak-out in the office, upon notification of a transfer by her boss and former lover. Mental health is also the grounds for her lawsuit threat; other characters frequently call Amy crazy. But the point, I think, is not her actual mental health, but the difficulty this assertive, insecure, and, yeah, neurotic woman—and it’s significant that she’s a woman, because her personality would be less abrasive, less awkward, if she were a man—faces within an environment like Abaddon. In terms of Bourdieu’s social capital, mental health is a kind of wrench in the gears. It is a capital that is not capital. Neither asset, knowledge, network, nor honor—not exactly a resource at all—it’s something that nonetheless marks one’s position in society. It contributes to one’s position within social space. We view those whose personalities seem to us noticeably “divergent” as disreputable or untrustworthy or repellent. It’s not exactly a class thing, although I’ll venture the observation that class influences our ability to maintain our mental health and that class positions sometimes connote a sound mind (i.e. the usual vision of middle-class comfort suggests relative mental health, notwithstanding the current “ordinariness” of therapy: struggling with mental health is acceptable, but only so far, and to move beyond this unclear line is to move into awkward territory). My point is that Amy’s mental health functions as a kind of social capital, and that others’ perception of it produces awkward situations. It’s a state of cultural awkwardness in which nobody really knows how to address it in a meaningful way. The thing is, though, that I think Amy’s not “crazy”; she’s earnest and idealistic and trying to reconcile her desire to be or do something with her very small life. Amy’s determination to maintain that attitude, even if she publicly misbehaves and threatens lawsuits, is a kind of tacit embrace of an unclear norm. The structure of work is broken, and so are our social structures; they can’t accommodate those who stray too far from the neurological norms. I don’t want to say neurological norms: those whose stray too far from whatever norms govern that we ignore dread or anxiety, and keep on working, maybe. So the threat of the lawsuit, the company’s inability to deal with her being deeply, deeply unhappy: it’s cultural awkwardness, an awkwardness that arises from the structures that have governed Amy’s life for over a decade. But Amy’s earnestness, the way she wholeheartedly plunges herself into ever more painfully awkward situations, points toward an underlying sentiment, which Kotsko urges us to embrace: hope. It’s a square-peg-in-round-hole problem; and revelling in awkwardness for its own sake is maybe the only way to get past that problem. She flails, but her awkwardness shows that the flailing is better than tamely working within the confines of a soul-numbing life.
In the final section of Awkwardness, Kotsko discusses radical awkwardness and Curb Your Enthusiasm. He suggests that the show points toward a new kind of social bond, one “based solely in awkwardness enjoyed for its own sake” (69). Kotsko makes the fascinating and convincing move of linking Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm to St. Paul, who urges Christians not to look for a solution to assimilation. Rather than forcing everyone to lose their cultural identities, everyone should just go with it, and “the stronger ones should do their best to accommodate those who are having difficulty” (79). In terms of awkwardness, this means that everyone should embrace their awkward behavior, and try to help others join in. It’s a way to enjoy others better, because awkwardness will never go away. As Kotsko says, “any social order that makes more room for awkwardness . . . is making more room for human beings” (89). Enlightened does not have a clear correlative, but I think we can see in that show, too, the possibility of overcoming a potentially deadening social order. Amy’s unnerving personality is exactly the sort that seems, not just ontologically awkward, but almost ontologically unable to adapt herself to social norms. She can’t help but just do it, whatever it is, and see what happens. And that’s refreshing. Both Awkwardness and Enlightened point toward the same thing: the hope of being happier by dint of an earnest embrace of one’s awkwardness. And maybe that’s one definition of enlightenment, for Kotsko and for Amy Jellicoe and for us all.
Bourdieu, Pierre. “Social Space and Symbolic Power.” Sociological Theory 7.1 (Spring 1989): 14-25. JSTOR. Web.
Dean, Michelle, Jane Hu, and Maura Johnston. “Why We Need Enlightened.” The Awl. The Awl Network, 28 February 2013. Web.
Kotsko, Adam. Awkwardness. Zero Books, 2010.
Prose, Francine. “Chekhov in Data-Entry Hell.” The New York Review of Books. NYREV, Inc., 27 February 2013. Web.