ACLA 2020: Awkwardness

deadline for submissions: 
September 23, 2019
full name / name of organization: 
University of Chicago
contact email: 

To feel something is “awkward” is to verge on—without exactly arriving at— a judgment: it notes that a situation is uncomfortable without diagnosing what is responsible for that social impasse. (Here one thinks of the childhood staple the “awkward turtle,” which surfaces when there is nothing else to do.) Awkwardness thus names an interval of epistemological suspension: it invokes a placeholder for a situation to which one is unsure how to react and registers an emergent sociality the contours of which are not readily intelligible. Etymologically partaking in the sense of “taking a wrong turn,” awkwardness is an under-described aspect of contemporary cultural production that elaborates the terms of sociality emerging under 21st century conditions of neoliberalism and late capitalism. Contemporary culture, one might say, has entered an awkward age. 

This seminar seeks to theorize awkwardness as a formal principle for parsing contemporary modes of emerging sociality as registered in myriad aesthetic forms. From New Sincerity’s brand of quirkiness to the offbeat avant-gardism of Flarf poetry (which Gary Sullivan describes as “more awkward” than camp), from Tao Lin’s “affectless” novels to situational comedies that riff on the uneasy rhythms of transitional phenomena (e.g. adolescence, coming out, downsizing), a range of contemporary aesthetics mines awkwardness to figure forms of sociality in which one feels out of sync but from which one cannot extricate oneself. The rise of cringe comedy in recent years, for instance, suggests that awkwardness (conventionally associated with an involuntary failure to master social codes) can also be commodified through its affective (and formulaically affected) stylization: think, too, of the “adorkable” protagonist of the sit-com New Girl. What are the poetics of awkwardness, and how does it index or intervene in the awkward predicament of aesthetics in an age marked by neoliberal logics of marketization? Do awkward aesthetics transcend or simply reproduce these logics?

And yet, in stylizing the obliviousness of a social actor, aesthetics of awkwardness may make available an alternative critical awareness, even as it also defeats the certitude of position-taking by demanding immersion in an uncomfortable scenario. Awkwardness presents itself as a hermeneutical posture: experimenting with “awkward” juxtapositions of texts and theories serves as a cherished gambit for comparative projects but may also lead to their institutional disqualification (by framing a critical trend as a wrong “turn”). Awkwardness is ripe for comparative analysis precisely because its context-specificity proliferates possibilities for how a scene might be read as taking a “wrong turn” from or adhering to normative expectations. We invite papers exploring how awkward aesthetics diagnose the historicity of our contemporary moment. Please email 250-300 word abstracts to sgy1@uchicago.edu and ccchiang@berkeley.edu by 9/23.