What is awkwardness? It’s something we recognise. It’s something which is everywhere. Yet when we do think about it, it’s often seen as something trivial and mundane, representing an interruption of decorum or a warp in the texture of micro-social interaction. It’s something that can be intensely felt but is soon forgotten and, where it is not, we see this inability to forget as something pathological. In this sense awkwardness tends to be relegated to the periphery of social life when in fact it is something constitutive of it. There could be no social interaction without awkwardness because its possibility is inherent in the coming together of individuals in social situations. As Erving Goffman describes this:
Whatever his other concerns, then, whatever his merely-situated interests, the individual is obliged to ‘come into play’ upon entering the situation and to stay ‘in play’ while in the situation, sustaining this diffuse orientation at least until he can officially take himself beyond range of the situation. (Goffman 1963: 25)
The potential for awkwardness is inherent in ‘coming into play’ and sustaining an expected orientation while ‘in play’ before exiting in a manner equally congruent with the expectations within a situation. What’s important to grasp though is that awkwardness is not just a subjective response to an objective situation. As Adam Kotsko argues,
First there is what I will call everyday awkwardness, which seems to originate with particular individuals. It combines aspects of my gracelessness and the singer’s uncomfortable performance. It’s difficult to deny that there are people for whom awkwardness is a kind of perverse skill, who bring it with them wherever they go. We are only able to identify someone as awkward, however, because the person does something that is inappropriate for a given context. Most often, these violations do not involve an official written law — instead, the grace that’s in question is the skillful navigation of the mostly unspoken norms of a community … Even when personal deficits make certain individuals seem extremely awkward by nature, however, awkwardness remains a social phenomenon, and therefore the analysis of awkwardness should focus not on awkward individuals but on the entire social situation in which awkwardness makes itself felt. (Kotsko 2010: 7)
His point is that awkwardness emerges relationally. It arises situationally in relation to norms concerning ‘coming into play’ and ‘staying in play’ which are endorsed and enforced by others within the situation. However what I really like about Kotsko’s analysis is his attentiveness to the way in which “awkwardness moves through social network, it spreads” because “you can’t observe an awkward situation without being drawn in: you are made to feel awkward as well, even if it is probably to a lesser degree than the people directly involved” (Kotsko 2010: 8). One claim he makes on the basis of this is that comedy relies on this ‘drawing on’. Another more counter-intuitive claim is that awkwardness “actually creates a weird kind of social bond” through “in the moment of awkwardness” being “forced to share to varying degrees in the experience of awkwardness” (Kotsko 2010: 9). He seeks to place this intrinsically social character of awkwardness in historical perspective:
Following the pattern, one could say that the tension of awkwardness indicates that no social order is self-evident and no social order accounts for every possibility. Awkwardness shows us that humans are fundamentally social, but that they have no built-in norms: the norms that we develop help us to ‘get by,’ with some proving more helpful than others. We might say, then, that awkwardness is what prompts us to set up social norms in the first place — and what prompts us to transform them. (Kotsko 2010: 16)
This seems an implausibly strong claim but it’s one rooted in a interesting Heideggerian analysis of awkwardness. He suggests it as a counterpart to Heidegger’s understanding of anxiety and boredom. But unlike these experiences which isolate the individual, awkwardness unites them, albeit through the creation of a peculiar and perverse sort of social bond. His claim is that awkwardness drives the structuring of sociality through its perpetual tendency to emerge, as well as to spread, in the absence of such structure. Awkwardness (stemming from the provisionality of social normativity) in interaction is analogous to anxiety (stemming from the finitude of existence) in individuals. But Kotsko argues that we live in an inherently awkward age:
Everyday awkwardness happens in a context where the social order seems more or less adequate and comfortable, but the provisional nature of every social order indicates that it’s not an all-or-nothing question of either having a social order or none, as in the opposition between everyday and radical awkwardness, between awkwardness in violation of a social norm and awkwardness in the absence of a social norm. I propose that there is a particularly awkward kind of awkwardness in between the two, which I will 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. Just as it is easier to criticize than to create something, a social order in decline maintain its ability to tell you what you’re doing wrong even as it is losing its ability to provide a convincing account of what it would look like to do things right … Contemporary mainstream middle-class social norms are not remotely up to the task of minimizing awkwardness, but at the same time, there seems to be no real possibility of developing a convincing positive alternative. (Kotsko 2010: 16-17).
He makes a convincing case that the role of awkwardness in comedy is not simply a matter of playing upon the familiarity of everyday awkwardness. Instead there is an elaboration within some recognisable genres of the broader cultural malaise and its attendant anxieties. He takes Judd Apatow films as representative of a sense that “the order of adulthood somehow doesn’t work, that it needs the awkward supplement of the male bonding it supposedly overcomes”. In the absence of new traditions, which is the only cultural condition in which the phrase ‘new traditions’ could be coherent, we are left with a “pervasive sense that despite the fact that we can never fully embrace the traditional norms, we are somehow hardwired to head in that direction and will do so immediately once our attempts to do something else fail” (Kotsko 2010: 65). These films not only represent friendships which are ‘structurally awkward’, in that they are grounded in opposition to cultural conventions, but they are ones which are eventually cast off in an unreflexive embrace of a circumscribed normativity. In contrast to this resist and then do it anyway approach to negotiating cultural awkwardness, Kotsko finds inspiration in the writings of St. Paul’s on the possibility of cultural assimilation, imagining communities where,
Awkwardness is no longer 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. (Kotsko 2010: 80).
From this perspective the problem of cultural awkwardness becomes one of our response to it. Rather than “trying to come up with some permanent way of overcoming awkwardness, one should go with it” (Kotsko 2010: 79). In this way he inverts the notion of awkwardness, leading us “beyond the common sense notion of awkwardness as a disturbance in the social fabric and toward something like utopia” (Kotsko 2010: 86). Far from being something to be overcome, awkwardness in fact represents an opening towards a more fully human mode of being-with each other. It is a possibility we are forced to confront, however inchoately, because “opportunities to enjoy the community of awkwardness are always there, always available, always ready to erupt, because awkwardness is undefeatable”. Under such conditions it becomes imperative for us to cultivate “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” (Kotsko 2010: 89).
It’s in these terms that we can begin to argue for the incipient universality underpinning some of the most ephemeral and seemingly trivial examples of internet culture. Whatever we think of the humour or its enactment, the evident virality of these cultural products is susceptible to explanation. Why are they so popular? Why are people so prone to sharing them? In asking questions like this we shouldn’t lose sight of the brutally hierarchical ecosystem governing the dissemination of ‘viral content’:
He describes an Internet food chain, a series of tiers of websites that disseminate viral content. The highest-performing, most visible websites — BuzzFeed, Boing Boing, Gawker, Reddit — often graze on content discovered by lower-visibility sites. The lower-tier sites are often the ones to lift TV news bloopers or funny Facebook photos from obscurity. But they depend on their mainstream predators/enablers to elevate something to meme status.
However we should also avoid the temptation to reduce it to this ecosystem, dismissing it as ephemera leveraged for the strategic advantage of these major players. This ecosystem has created an opening for viral content factories, as well as those intuitive curators particular able to locate many items and successfully gauge their potential virality, but it doesn’t seem tenable to suggest it has created the receptiveness to such content. Furthermore, there’s obviously much more to memes than awkwardness. But my claim is that this constitutes a clearly identifiable genre or category of web meme and, in so far as this is true, has obvious implications for how we see the kind of argument being made by Kotsko.
What explains the evident receptiveness of internet users to web memes concerning awkwardness? It is the cultural order leveraged to promote and circulate its own gaps and failings. We recognise ourselves in the dramatisation and staging of awkwardness. There’s something deeply human about some of this ephemera in spite of it being, well, ephemera… perhaps it points to an emerging democratisation of the instances of cultural awkwardness Kotsko identifies in TV and film. Or perhaps it’s just a way of wasting time on the internet. Either way I found myself oddly drawn to it and it’s this feeling of being drawn in, the appetite for content of this sort which can be so readily written off as mindless compulsion, which interests me as a qualitative sociologist.