on cool

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N°3 Spring 11 , Anja Cronberg

We no longer use the term "cool", or second degree. However, the concept has a history, which is built against the establishment. A ten-point review of a rebellious notion.

1 Every so often a trend that makes its wearer appear nerdy rather than sexy. Oversized glasses, too-short trousers, gawky shoes or buttoned-up shirts, all have been used as markers for a style that, for the uninitiated, has more to do with what our grandparents wore than what you expect young trendsetters to dress in. This trend is but one example of rebellion against what the mainstream considers to be sexy, a marker of individuality, and a signal that its wearer is cool.

2 The concept of Cool is said to have begun as a way for African slaves to keep their dignity intact in the face of their white masters, and throughout history it has continued to be the blasé attitude that the underdog adopts to signal that his body may be chained, but his spirit never will be.

3 This nonchalant attitude came to be associated with black jazz and blues musicians in the 1920s and had by the 1950s permeated white mainstream culture through hard boiled crime novels and film noir in the 1930 and 40s, and, slightly later, rock “n’ roll.

Cool has continually been presented as the stance of the underdog, and as such, pivotal to the development of subcultures, as each carried on the notion that with the right clothes, drugs and music the right attitude would follow.

4 Despite its strong racially coded roots the notion of Cool also made a mark on white American and European culture. The sociologist Norbert Elias has written about a ‘new civility’ emerging in eighteenth century Europe, where emotional spontaneity was increasingly suppressed, and historian Peter N. Stearns has studied the ‘new emotional culture’ in America, in which nineteenth century Victorian standards were altered in favour of a cooler, more imperturbable attitude.

5 In the late 1950’s a considerable change took place in culture. Organization Man, William H. Whyte’s 1958 book and Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay White Negro were just some of the texts that mirrored this transformation. For the many who, spurred by an increasing dissatisfaction with conformity, strove for an alternative to a life dominated by suburbia and office meetings held in grey flannel suits, the answer could be found in what Mailer termed hip. Hip and Cool became buzzwords in the dawning era, and this attitude, characterised by a word-weary outlook on life, came to take its first tentative steps from the bohemian margins of society to its very core.

Hippies, Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco , 1967, photo DR

6 According to a 1967 article in Time magazine, called The Hippies – Philosophy of a Subculture, it is explained that that the term hippie derives from ‘the pre-World War II jitterbug adjective “hep”: to be “with it”; hep became “hip” (in noun form “hipster”) during the bebop and beatnik era of the 1950s, then fell into disuse, to be revived with the onslaught of psychedelia.’

7 The white T-shirts and jeans that James Dean popularized in the 1960’s, along with the biker jackets sported by Marlon Brando, the sailor stripes favoured by Andy Warhol and the black turtlenecks and corduroy trousers seen on European hipsters have set a sartorial standard that, still today, is a bypass for cool. While each of these images are rather rudimentary, the mere fact that they have become integrated into our collective consciousness as a cultural shorthand for the avant-garde and anti-establishment could be seen as a result of how pervasive the attitude of Cool was, and still remains to this day.

8 In a culture where mainstream society represented the repressive and exploitative as well as the corrupt and ‘inauthentic’, the counter-culture of the sixties reacted by creating an alternative suffused by ‘purity’ and ‘authenticity’. In this sense being preoccupied with Cool meant being on the search for ‘the authentic’. The philosopher Agnes Heller has argued that authenticity is modernity’s most sublime value, and considering how individualism is celebrated still in contemporary mass media this is a statement that it is hard to disagree with.

9 The poet and filmmaker Guy Debord famously argued in 1967s Society of the Spectacle that the counterculture, in its attempt at revolutionizing society and resisting ‘the Spectacle’, would in time become absorbed by the very same, ultimately ending up as just another part of ‘the Spectacle’ itself, and many are those who would argue that this is precisely the fate that has met all those who have tried to oppose the mainstream.

10 From African slaves struggling to keep their dignity intact in the face of their white masters, to youths metaphorically (and sometimes literally – although this is arguably where emotions take over from Cool) sticking two fingers up at the establishment, Cool has continually been presented as the stance of the underdog, and as such, pivotal to the development of subcultures, as each carried on the notion that with the right clothes, drugs and music the right attitude would follow. Cool could be said, then, to act as the glue that holds each and every subculture together, in their long and elaborate exertion to exacerbate the fissures between ‘dominant’ and ‘subordinate, ‘straight’ and ‘square’, ‘mainstream’ and ‘underground’. Cool is the reason as to why ‘they’ are different from ‘us’, and acts as the vital marker of distinction, so sorely needed for every cluster of individuals trying to turn outsidership into insidership. In other words, whichever one of these subcultures that we scrutinise under the loupe, we find this same common denominator; Cool not so much being their saving grace, as their raison d’être.