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. Continue reading “A Rereading of Kotsko’s Pop Culture Writings”

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. Continue reading Breaking Bad between awkwardness and sociopathy”

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…)

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.

The day we saved Awkwardness?

I received a follow-up e-mail from my publisher yesterday afternoon saying that the mass e-mail I’d received about pulping the excess U.S. stock of Awkwardness (along with other titles for which they had a lot of extra copies laying around) was inaccurate. They do periodically pulp excess stock, but the e-mail made it sound like an automatic process. In reality, they choose on a case-by-case basis, and I would imagine that thanks to the outpouring of support for Awkwardness — still available for sale, by the way (Amazon: US, UK; Book Depository)! — over the past couple days, it will most likely not be among those heading for the shredder. (For instance, I was checking the Amazon rankings every couple hours to get a feel for whether people were buying copies, and it appeared that Amazon received an additional shipment of copies in response to the number of purchases, i.e., it went from “only 2 copies available” to “only 19 copies available.”)

Thanks very much to all those who bought a copy and passed around my post.

Your last chance? Awkward…

As near as I can tell, Awkwardness is on the verge of going out of print, at least in the US. I’ve been offered a 90% discount to buy as many copies as I want, after which they will be pulping the majority of the copies they have on hand. Presumably ebooks will be available forever, but on the off chance that you’ve been meaning to buy a copy and haven’t gotten around to it, you should probably do so now (Amazon: US, UK; Book Depository). (I don’t have plans to buy up substantial numbers to sell through the blog or anything, because I figure that is pretty well tapped out at this point.)

Sociopathic subjects

I really enjoyed Why We Love Sociopaths, in part because of the additional perspective it gives on Awkwardness. The “fantasy sociopath” the book studies is introduced as the opposite of  awkwardness: where awkwardness is an anxiety in relation to social norms, sociopaths, at least in TV fantasy, never experience social norms as something that makes them anxious, only as tools they can use to manipulate others. But what unites awkwardness and sociopathy is that these anti-social experiences reveal something fundamental which underlies the possibility of sociality. That is to say, Adam’s project is a kind of dialectical redemption of the anti-social, in which anti-sociality, by revealing the conditions of our sociality denaturalize it and provide ways of thinking about an alternative sociality which we might choose. Awkwardness and Why We Love Sociopaths thus I think have something in common with what Judith Halberstam calls “anti-social” queer theory; the connection is perhaps clearest in the anti-familial theme that surfaces periodically through Why We Love Sociopaths.

One thing that is suggested in the book but I think it would be interesting to think about more is the possibility that the liberal subject as such is sociopathic. Continue reading “Sociopathic subjects”

Non-speaking beings

It may be a little awkward to post something that draws so heavily on Adam’s Awkwardness here, but I suppose that is itself in the spirit of the book.

W. is impressed by my stammer.—‘You stammer and stutter’, says W., ‘and you swallow half your words. What’s wrong with you?’ Every time I see him, he says, it gets a little worse. The simplest words are beginning to defeat me, W. says. Maybe it’s mini-strokes, W. speculates. That would account for it.—‘You had one just there, didn’t you?’

Perhaps, W. muses, my stammering and stuttering is a sign of shame. W. says he never really thought I was capable of it, shame, but perhaps it’s there nonetheless.—‘Something inside you knows you talk rubbish’, he says. ‘Something knows the unending bilge that comes out of your mouth’. (Lars Iyer, Spurious)

Equality is a central term for Rancière, but it is quite a circumscribed equality, the equality specifically and only of speaking beings. Which immediately raises the question, what about non-speaking beings?Animals would be the most obvious example, but there are also human beings prevented from speaking by age and infirmity, disability, oppression. Rancière might object that these examples of non-speaking don’t exclude people from the class of equals, which isn’t strictly speaking beings, but rather beings that have the logos, that have access to language; and, furthermore, it is the structure of the logos, of language, which ensures this equality. However, in the way Rancière makes his argument, speech is indeed theoretically central, and problematic. The argument for axiomatic equality occurs in what is, as it were, the primal scene of politics for Rancière, the moment at which a master gives an order to a slave. This contains the central contradiction of politics: the master presents themselves as of a different order from the slave and so as entitled to give the slave orders; but in the process of giving the order, the master assumes that the slave is capable of understanding the order, that is, that master and slave are equal in their possession of language. This argument doesn’t depend on speech literally understood – it would work if the order was handed over in written form or using sign language – but it does depend on features of speech broadly construed: the two participants must be in the same place at the same time for their equality, the possibility of the slave speaking back to the master, to manifest itself. Continue reading “Non-speaking beings”