Ironic, Awkward, Flat: Genres of Endurance in Late Liberalism (From the TV Archive)

Television is a machine that entrains sociality through genre as habituation to certain modes of endurance in the otherwise painfully unbearable intimacy and inadequacy of the everyday in late liberalism.  The TV archive, here, is not flippant, nor even only representational: it is a machinic participant, an organ, in a socius ever providing strange, if historicizable, genres of self-distancing from the intensity of late liberal life, labor, love, race, and attachment.

In his punchy extended essay Awardness, Adam Kotsko follows his own TV and cinema archive through The Office (UK and US versions), the films of Judd Apotow, and Curb Your Enthusiasm to investigate the profoundly social function of awkwardness in American post-millennial mainstream culture.  Though his understandably– given the format of the short essay– breezy grounding of awkwardness’ epistemology in a quick reading of Heidegger leaves much to be developed philosophically, I take as axiomatic his insight that awkwardness emerged as a social reaction-formation in a post-Fordist America in which the ascendency of the hypernormative figures of whiteness, middle class individualism, and phallocentric masculinity became threatened by the crumbling of the economy, the entrée into neoliberalism, the challenge of feminism to scripts of heterosociality and labor, and the very modest representational achievements of civil rights and multiculturalism.  If the 1970s were the first of the recent awkward ages, then the Reagan revolution of the 1980s was an attempt to overcome the blundering failure of American exceptionalism’s affective genres, while the 1990s settled into total irony, before awkwardness reasserted itself in our decade (19-22).

Kotsko’s smart reading of irony in Seinfeld, for instance, notes that the appeal of a show “about nothing” is that this nothingness is a form of self-distancing from the everyday, one calibrated to avoid the pain of being too much immersed in one’s actual life, too entangled with the people around onself.  “[T]his ‘show about nothing’,” he explains, “is based in Seinfeld’s so-called ‘observational humor,’ which basically consists of encouraging the audience to assume a detached and bemused stance toward even the most obvious everyday realities–to make up an example: ‘What’s the deal with socks? I mean, come on!'” (22).

While Kotsko is mostly interested in mapping the function of awkwardness, irony, and other flat affective genres of detachment in terms of how they manage the tension of social difference, I would add that these genres are all modes of endurance.  Being constantly detached from oneself, one’s life, one’s intimates, one’s actions and their consequences, are efficient ways of diluting the painful intensity of the ordinary, the ways in which the diminishing returns of neoliberalism, the constant failure of hetero- and homo- normative scripts of family, love, and intimacy, and the radical racism and exploitation built into the mundane– in short, all the potential shocks of the structuration of the American socius, shocks which increasingly are less traumatic if trauma is understood as exceptional, but instead dissolve into an ambient anxiety about getting by.  I also can’t but emphasize how profoundly racialized (awkwardness is preeminently a genre of whiteness) and gendered (flatness is a strong postfeminist genre) these ways of enduring through detachment are.  I’ll offer two cases from my personal TV-viewing archive.

First Case: Nancy Botwin (Weeds).

It’s not surprising that in radically narrowed postfeminist public and private spheres the continuum of genres available to women considered to have inherited second wave feminism would be quite small.  Nancy Botwin, the widowed single mother, iced-coffee drinking, Californian pot entrepreneur who redefines grace under pressure (not to mention threats of violence and death), is caught in the contradictory position of postfeminist “agency”: on the one hand, as a middle-class white woman, she is ostensibly now “free” to be self-determining as an individual formally “equal” to men; yet, as her perpetual re/turn to illegal drug production, trafficking and dealing suggests, the promises of postfeminist, post-Fordist life are constantly inadequate to her and her family, at least economically.  The delightfully satirical suburban world of Agrestic in which the series’s first season opens is untenable, that is, after the death of the male breadwinner.

With Nancy, we are left with a profoundly cool detachment and nearly constantly flat femininity.  She is occasionally punctuated by romantic and sexual intensity (though even then she tends to be using them to her strategic advantage) and though she gets frustrated and cries occasionally, she seems to mostly just drift through the therefore absurdly dark comedy of her incredibly dangerous life.  This is precisely the point of Weeds, of course: no one could possibly live like that…right?  Psychosis, or at least imprisonment, if not death, would be sure consequences.  Yet, how much does the image of a bemused, detached Nancy sipping (almost so casually as to be unconscious) an iced coffee not incarnate one of the strongest and most available genres of reaction for white women today so as to almost seem realist?

(Kotsko also notes in Awkwardness that past a certain threshold detachment starts to look nakedly sociopathic; no wonder the character of Shane has become a nonchalant murderer as the show’s seasons have progressed).

Second Case: Ryan (Wilfred).

If women are entrained by flat genres of endurance on TV to distance themselves from the profoundly inadequate neoliberal consensus that feminism– whatever that was– is over, then for white men, the constant crisis of their masculinity is generating new recuperable forms of cuteness, boyishness and sincerity that we are meant to find attractive because apparently nonthreatening.

Wilfred is originally an Australian show, but I want to focus on the US remake because of its casting of Elijah Wood as the protagonist Ryan, an almost too perfect incarnation of this awkward white masculinity whose contours I am trying to sketch.  The show starts off brilliantly: Ryan, a hyper-successful lawyer in LA, is attempting suicide because of his profound loneliness.  The funny conceit is that the pills he overdoses on were just placebos and so, having failed even at suicide, he is left to find some new mode of endurance for his obnoxiously privileged life.  He ends up forming a long-term attachment to a neighbor’s dog, Wilfred, who he experiences as a man dressed in a dog-suit (the show is in some way trying to grapple with the shady threshold of psychosis), quitting his job to basically smoke pot in his basement and rebuild his fragile ego with the help of his new canine friend.

Much like in the mainstay awkward shows Kotsko’s essay considers, horribly embarrassing things go wrong in Ryan’s attempts to romance the owner of Wilfred, patch up his relationships with family members, to get a new job, and just generally “find himself.” What is meant to be erotically and emotionally attractive about Ryan’s masculinity, though, is precisely its weaknesses: he is profoundly awkward, vulnerable, and hence, paradoxically (I would argue), sincere.  He is an utter failure at achieving any kind of normative masculinity, but the wound of that failure is now supposed to be enticing instead of its replacement with something less hegemonic, threatening, or phallocentric–in short, he hasn’t learned anything feminist from his failures as a man.  Ryan takes an incredibly detached path of self-interrogation and recovery from suicidality and depression, which, like Weeds, makes the show funny only insofar as it is profoundly unrealistic.

How We Endure, Not Why

I freely admit to wanting to write about both Nancy and Ryan for reasons entirely consonant with the thrust of this blog post, reasons that could be neatly contained in psychoanalytic terms of libidinal investment: I find myself identifying with Nancy when I watch Weeds and I find myself strongly desiring Ryan when I watch Wilfred.  Both offer severely compromised forms (from the point of view of progressive, leftist politics or critical race, queer and feminist theory) of agency, so radically restricted because predicated on detachment as endurance, not critical activity or creative overcoming.  They are also disturbingly limited by virtue of their raced and gendered dimensions (it’s not lost on me in watching either Weeds or Wilfred that I’m neither a white woman nor a white man, so that, fittingly, my libidinal investments are doomed to failure).

Nevertheless, that’s somewhat beside the point; I don’t find anything necessarily redeeming in awkwardness, irony, or flatness (and here I part ways from Kotsko, who does think what he terms “radical awkwardness” might be politically interesting), however much I still try to employ the genre in my own life as a twenty-something living in the pathetically ironic locale of Brooklyn.  What this sketching from my TV archive is meant to suggest, very modestly, is merely the function of the teletechnological machine’s entrainement in genres of sociality; the project of opening up the representational norms of race, gender and class in the contemporary United States is one that, while it probably could involve television, necessarily must be much more expansive than just that.

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