Some ages get cool names, such as the Iron Age or the Gilded Age. Others are dubbed with word mantles less awesome. An excellent example of the latter is the designation of our time as the Awkward Age. Since philosophers are often willing to cash in on trends, it is not surprising that there is now a philosophy of awkwardness.
Various arguments have been advanced in support of the claim that this is the Awkward Age. Not surprisingly, a key argument is built on the existence of so many TV shows and movies that center on awkwardness. There is a certain appeal to this sort of argument and the idea that art expresses the temper, spirit, and social conditions of its age is an old one. I recall, from an art history class I took as an undergraduate, this standard approach to art. For example, the massive works of the ancient Egyptians is supposed to reveal their views of the afterlife as the harmony of the Greek works is supposed to reveal the soul of ancient Greece.
Wilde, in his dialogue “The New Aesthetics” considers this very point. Wilde takes the view that “Art never expresses anything but itself.” Naturally enough, Wilde provides an account of why people think art is about the ages. His explanation is best put by Carly Simon: “You’re so vain, I’ll bet you think this song is about you.” Less lyrically, the idea is that vanity causes people to think that the art of their time is about them. Since the people of today were not around in the way back times of old, they cannot say that past art was about them—so they assert that the art of the past was about the people of the past. This does have the virtue of consistency.
While Wilde does not offer a decisive argument in favor of his view, it does have a certain appeal. It also is worth considering that it is problematic to draw an inference about the character of an age from what TV shows or movies happen to be in vogue with a certain circle (there are, after all, many shows and movies that are not focused on awkwardness). While it is reasonable to draw some conclusions about that specific circle, leaping beyond to the general population and the entire age would be quite a leap—after all, there are many non-awkward shows and movies that could be presented as contenders to defining the age. It seems sensible to conclude that it is vanity on the part of the members of such a circle to regard what they like as defining the age. It could also be seen as a hasty generalization—people infer that what they regard as defining must also apply to the general population.
A second, somewhat stronger, sort of argument for this being the Awkward Age is based on claims about extensive social changes. To use an oversimplified example, consider the case of gender in the United States. The old social norms had two fairly clearly defined genders and sets of rules regarding interaction. Such rules included those that made it clear that the man asked the woman out on the date and that the man paid for everything. Now, or so the argument goes, the norms are in disarray or have been dissolved. Sticking with gender, Facebook now recognizes over 50 genders which rather complicates matters relative to the “standard” two of the past. Going with the dating rules once again, it is no longer clear who is supposed to do the asking and the paying.
In terms of how this connects to awkwardness, the idea is that when people do not have established social norms and rules to follow, ignorance and error can easily lead to awkward moments. For example, there could be an awkward moment on a date when the check arrives as the two people try to sort out who pays: Dick might be worried that he will offend Jane if he pays and Jane might be expecting Dick to pick up the tab—or she might think that each should pay their own tab.
To use an analogy, consider playing a new and challenging video game. When a person first plays, she will be trying to figure out how the game works and this will typically involve numerous failures. By analogy, when society changes, it is like being in a new game—one does not know the rules. Just as a person can look for guides to a new game online (like YouTube videos on how to beat tough battles), people can try to turn to guides to behavior. However, new social conditions mean that such guides are not yet available or, if they are, they might be unclear or conflict with each other. For example, a person who is new to contemporary dating might try to muddle through on her own or try to do some research—most likely finding contradictory guides to correct dating behavior.
Eventually, of course, the norms and rules will be worked out—as has happened in the past. This indicates a point well worth considering—today is obviously not the first time that society has undergone considerable change, thus creating opportunities for awkwardness. As Wilde noted, our vanity contributes to the erroneous belief that we are special in this regard. That said, it could be contended that people today are reacting to social change in a way that is different and awkward. That is, this is truly the Age of Awkwardness. My own view is that this is one of many times of awkwardness—what has changed is the ability and willingness to broadcast awkward events. Plus, of course, Judd Apatow.
There are a number of things that are awkward about this age but one of the most striking is the dramatic change in how people relate to the outdoor world and the indoor world. The first indication of this is the growing phenomenon of non-Muslim and non-Japanese people not allowing outdoor footwear into their homes. Ostensibly, I suppose, this is an attempt to maintain the cleanliness of insane wall-to-wall beige carpet. But it’s far more significant than that.
Modern society, in spite of the faux concern over the “environment”, is uncomfortable and awkward in the outdoor, natural world. Only a short time ago even western humans spent most of their time out of doors. Houses were small and cramped by large families and in an agrarian society most of the employment meant work outside. Primitive and inefficient heating and zero air conditioning meant that being in the elements wasn’t that much different than being in the house. Not anymore. Sophisticated mechanical systems regulate temperature, humidity, noise and odor in houses so large that residents can isolate themselves from their families. Electronic entertainment means that no one needs to leave the house to see a movie or listen to a concert or witness an athletic event. People that testify to a love of the great outdoors and a concern for the creatures that live there have no idea what the conditions actually are. Their experiences are chiefly provided by the likes of the Discovery channel. These same people buy homes in the suburbs to get away from the city but spend the overwhelming majority of their time on the couch. They could just as well be in a cave. Their love of privacy means that ordinarily they won’t even answer a knock or doorbell. Visitors call from the front steps via cell phone to announce their arrival.
Enclosed shopping centers have been regarded as a positive for years. Football and baseball stadiums in even warm locations are more and more the norm. People exercise by walking or jogging inside shopping centers and arenas. The city of Minneapolis has a “skyway” system of walkways between buildings at a second floor level throughout the downtown district. A person could live and work in that city for years without ever being exposed to a butterfly or a raindrop.
Should this trend continue in the west, as it no doubt will, people will become more and more comfortable with a predictable, steady-state artificial environment that presents maximum comfort and minimum real experience.