Cool

Coolness is an admired aesthetic of attitude, behavior, comportment, appearance and style, influenced by and a product of the Zeitgeist (‘spirit of the age’). Because of the varied and changing connotations of cool, as well its subjective nature, the word has no single meaning.

It has associations of composure and self-control and often is used as an expression of approval. Although commonly regarded as slang, it is widely used among disparate social groups, and has endured in usage for generations. Because there is no single concept of cool, one of its essential characteristics is mutability—what is considered cool changes over time and varies among cultures and generations.

British philosopher and advertising executive Nick Southgate writes that, although some notions of cool can be traced back to Aristotle, whose notion of cool is to be found in his ethical writings, most particularly the ‘Nicomachean Ethics,’ it is not confined to one particular ethnic group or gender.

The sum and substance of cool is a self-conscious aplomb in overall behavior, which entails a set of specific behavioral characteristics that is firmly anchored in symbology, a set of discernible bodily movements, postures, facial expressions and voice modulations that are acquired and take on strategic social value within the peer context. Cool was once an attitude fostered by rebels and underdogs, such as slaves, prisoners, bikers and political dissidents, etc., for whom open rebellion invited punishment, so it hid defiance behind a wall of ironic detachment, distancing itself from the source of authority rather than directly confronting it.

Cool has also been used to describe a general state of well-being, a transcendent, internal peace and serenity. It can also refer to an absence of conflict, a state of harmony and balance as in, ‘The land is cool,’ or as in a ‘cool [spiritual] heart.’ Such meanings, according to Thompson, are African in origin. Cool is related in this sense to both social control and transcendental balance. Cool can similarly be used to describe composure and absence of excitement in a person—especially in times of stress—as expressed in the idiom ‘keep your cool.’ In a related way, the word can be used to express agreement or assent, as in the phrase ‘I’m cool with that.’

Cool is also an attitude widely adopted by artists and intellectuals, who thereby aided its infiltration into popular culture. Sought by product marketing firms, idealized by teenagers, a shield against racial oppression or political persecution, and source of constant cultural innovation, cool has become a global phenomenon that has spread to every corner of the earth. According to British authors Dick Pountain and David Robins, concepts of cool have existed for centuries in several cultures. While slang terms are usually short-lived coinages and figures of speech, cool is an especially ubiquitous slang word, most notably among young people. As well as being understood throughout the English-speaking world, the word has even entered the vocabulary of several languages other than English. In this sense, cool is used as a general positive epithet or interjection, which can have a range of related adjectival meanings.

Author Robert Farris Thompson, professor of art history at Yale University, suggests that ‘Itutu,’ which he translates as ‘mystic coolness,’ is one of three pillars of a religious philosophy created in the 15th century by Yoruba and Igbo civilizations of West Africa. Cool, or Itutu, contained meanings of conciliation and gentleness of character, of generosity and grace, and the ability to defuse fights and disputes. It also was associated with physical beauty. In Yoruba culture, Itutu is connected to water, because to the Yoruba the concept of coolness retained its physical connotation of temperature. He cites a definition of cool from the Gola people of Liberia, who define it as the ability to be mentally calm or detached, in an other-worldly fashion, from one’s circumstances, to be nonchalant in situations where emotionalism or eagerness would be natural and expected. Joseph M. Murphy writes that ‘cool’ is also closely associated with the deity Òsun of the Yoruba religion.

Although Thompson acknowledges similarities between African and European cool in shared notions of self-control and imperturbability, he finds the cultural value of cool in Africa which influenced the African diaspora to be different from that held by Europeans, who use the term primarily as the ability to remain calm under stress. According to Thompson, there is significant weight, meaning and spirituality attached to cool in traditional African cultures, something which, Thompson argues, is absent from the idea in a Western context. ‘Control, stability, and composure under the African rubric of the cool seem to constitute elements of an all-embracing aesthetic attitude.’ African cool, writes Thompson, is ‘more complicated and more variously expressed than Western notions of sang-froid (literally, ‘cold blood’), cooling off, or even icy determination. ‘The telling point is that the ‘mask’ of coolness is worn not only in time of stress, but also of pleasure, in fields of expressive performance and the dance. Struck by the re-occurrence of this vital notion elsewhere in tropical Africa and in the Black Americas, I have come to term the attitude ‘an aesthetic of the cool” in the sense of a deeply and completely motivated, consciously artistic, interweaving of elements serious and pleasurable, of responsibility and play.’

Ronald Perry writes that many words and expressions have passed from African American Vernacular English into Standard English slang including the contemporary meaning of the word ‘cool.’ The definition, as something fashionable, is said to have been popularized in jazz circles by tenor saxophonist Lester Young. This predominantly black jazz scene in the U.S. and among expatriate musicians in Paris helped popularize notions of cool in the U.S. in the 1940s, giving birth to ‘Bohemian,’ or beatnik, culture. Shortly thereafter, a style of jazz called ‘cool jazz’ appeared on the music scene, emphasizing a restrained, laid-back solo style. Notions of cool as an expression of centeredness in a Taoist sense, equilibrium and self-possession, of an absence of conflict are commonly understood in both African and African American contexts well. Expressions such as, ‘Don’t let it blow your cool,’ ‘later,’ ‘chill out,’ and the use of chill as a characterization of inner contentment or restful repose all have their origins in African American Vernacular English.

When the air in the smoke-filled nightclubs of that era became unbreathable, windows and doors were opened to allow some ‘cool air’ in from the outside to help clear away the suffocating air. By analogy, the slow and smooth jazz style that was typical for that late-night scene came to be called ‘cool.’ Marlene Kim Connor connects cool and the post-war African-American experience in her book ‘What is Cool?: Understanding Black Manhood in America.’ Connor writes that cool is the silent and knowing rejection of racist oppression, a self-dignified expression of masculinity developed by black men denied mainstream expressions of manhood. She writes that mainstream perception of cool is narrow and distorted, with cool often perceived merely as style or arrogance, rather than a way to achieve respect.

‘Cool,’ though an amorphous quality—more mystique than material—is a pervasive element in urban black male culture. Majors and Billson address what they term ‘cool pose’ in their study and argue that it helps Black men counter stress caused by social oppression, rejection and racism. They also contend that it furnishes the black male with a sense of control, strength, confidence and stability and helps him deal with the closed doors and negative messages of the ‘generalized other.’ They also believe that attaining black manhood is filled with pitfalls of discrimination, negative self-image, guilt, shame and fear.

‘Cool pose’ may be a factor in discrimination in education contributing to the achievement gaps in test scores. In a 2004 study, researchers found that teachers perceived students with African American culture-related movement styles, referred to as the ‘cool pose,’ as lower in achievement, higher in aggression, and more likely to need special education services than students with standard movement styles, irrespective of race or other academic indicators. The issue of stereotyping and discrimination with respect to ‘cool pose’ raises complex questions of assimilation and accommodation of different cultural values. Robin D. G. Kelley criticizes calls for assimilation and sublimation of black culture, including ‘cool pose.’ He argues that media and academics have unfairly demonized these aspects of black culture while, at the same time, through their sustained fascination with blacks as exotic others, appropriated aspects of ‘cool pose’ into the broader popular culture.

In Japan, synonyms of ‘cool’ could be ‘iki’ and ‘sui.’ These are traditional commoners’ aesthetic ideals that developed in Edo. Some tend to immediately connect the aesthetics of Japan to samurai, but this is historically inaccurate. In fact, samurais from the countryside have often been the target of ridicule by the commoner in the civilized Edo in many art forms including rakugo, a form of comical story telling. Some argue that the ethic of the Samurai caste in Japan, warrior castes in India and East Asia all resemble cool. The samurai-themed works of film director Akira Kurosawa are among the most praised of the genre, influencing many filmmakers across the world with his techniques and storytelling. Notable works of his include ‘The Seven Samurai,’ ‘Yojimbo,’ and ‘The Hidden Fortress.’ The latter was one of the primary inspirations for George Lucas’s Star Wars, which also borrows a number of aspects from the samurai, for example the Jedi Knights of the series.

Analysts are marveling at the breadth of a recent explosion in cultural exports, and many argue that the international embrace of Japan’s pop culture, film, food, style and arts is second only to that of the United States. Business leaders and government officials are now referring to Japan’s ‘gross national cool’ as a new engine for economic growth and societal buoyancy. The term was coined by Journalist Douglas McGray. In a 2002 article in ‘Foreign Policy magazine,’ he argued that as Japan’s economic juggernaut took a wrong turn into a ten-year slump, and with military power made impossible by a pacifist constitution, the nation had quietly emerged as a cultural powerhouse: ‘From pop music to consumer electronics, architecture to fashion, and food to art, Japan has far greater cultural influence now than it did in the 1980s, when it was an economic superpower.’ The notion of Asian ‘cool’ applied to Asian consumer electronics is borrowed from the cultural media theorist Eric McLuhan who described ‘cool’ or ‘cold’ media as stimulating participants to complete auditive or visual media content, in sharp contrast to ‘hot’ media that degrades the viewer to a merely passive or non-interactive receiver.

‘Aristocratic cool,’ known as sprezzatura, has existed in Europe for centuries, particularly when relating to frank amorality and love or illicit pleasures behind closed doors; Raphael’s ‘Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione’ and Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ are classic examples of sprezzatura (‘a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it’). The sprezzatura of the ‘Mona Lisa’ is seen in both her smile and the positioning of her hands. Both are intended to convey her grandeur, self-confidence and societal position. Sprezzatura means, literally, disdain and detachment. It is the art of refraining from the appearance of trying to present oneself in a particular way. In reality, of course, tremendous exertion went into pretending not to bother or care.

The key themes of modern European cool were forged by avant-garde artists who achieved prominence in the aftermath of the First World War, most notably Dadaists, such as Arthur Cravan and Marcel Duchamp, and the left-wing milieu of the Weimar Republic. The program of such groups was often self-consciously revolutionary, a determination to scandalize the bourgeoisie by mocking their culture, sexuality and political moderation. Berthold Brecht, both a committed Communist and a philandering cynic, stands as the archetype of this inter-war cool. Brecht projected his cool attitude to life onto his most famous character Macheath or ‘Mackie Messer’ (Mack the knife), in ‘The Threepenny Opera.’ Mackie, the nonchalant, smooth-talking gangster, expert with the switchblade, personifies the bitter-sweet strain of cool; Puritanism and sentimentality are both anathema to the cool character. During the turbulent inter-war years, cool was a privilege reserved for bohemian milieus like Brecht’s. Cool irony and hedonism remained the province of cabaret artistes, ostentatious gangsters and rich socialites, those decadents depicted in Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and Christopher Isherwood’s ‘Goodbye to Berlin,’ tracing the outlines of a new cool. Peter Stearns, professor of history at George Mason University, suggests that in effect the seeds of a cool outlook had been sown among this inter-war generation.

The Second World War brought the populations of Britain, Germany and France into intimate contact with Americans and American culture. The war brought hundreds of thousands of GIs whose relaxed, easy-going manner was seen by young people of the time as the very embodiment of liberation; and with them came Lucky Strikes, nylons, swing and jazz—the American Cool. To be cool or hip meant hanging out, pursuing sexual liaisons, displaying the appropriate attitude of narcissistic self-absorption, and expressing a desire to escape the mental straitjacket of all ideological causes. From the late 1940s onward, this popular culture influenced young people all over the world, to the great dismay of the paternalistic elites who still ruled the official culture. The French intelligentsia were outraged, while the British educated classes displayed a haughty indifference that smacked of an older aristocratic cool.

The new attitude found a special resonance behind the Iron Curtain, where it offered relief from the earnestness of socialist propaganda and socialist realism in art. In the Polish industrial city Łódź, jazz, ‘the forbidden music,’ served Polish youth of the 1950s much as it had served its African-American creators, both as personal diversion and subterranean resistance to what they saw as a stultifying official culture. Some clubs featured live jazz performances, and their smoky, sexually charged atmosphere carried a message for which the puritanical values and monumental art of Marxist officialdom were an ideal foil. Arriving in Poland via France, America, and England, Polish cool stimulated the film talents of a generation of artists, including Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polanski, and other graduates of the National Film School in Łódź, as well as the novelist Jerzy Kosinski, in whose clinical prose cool tends towards the sadistic. In Prague, the capital of Bohemia, cool flourished in the faded Art Deco splendor of the Cafe Slavia. Significantly, following the crushing of the Prague Spring by Soviet tanks in 1968, part of the dissident underground called itself the ‘Jazz Section.’

As a social distinction, cool is a zero sum game, in which it exists only in comparison with things considered less cool. This creates a situation analogous to an arms race, in which cool is perpetuated by a collective action problem in society. According to this theory, cool is a real, but unknowable property. Cool, like ‘Good,’ is a property that exists, but can only be sought after. In the ‘New Yorker’ article, ‘The Coolhunt,’ cool is given three characteristics: ‘The act of discovering what’s cool is what causes cool to move on; cool cannot be manufactured, only observed; and cool can only be observed by those who are themselves cool.’ According to this theory, cool can be exploited as a manufactured and empty idea imposed on the culture at large through a top-down process by the ‘Merchants of Cool.’ An artificial cycle of ‘cooling’ and ‘uncooling’ creates false needs in consumers, and stimulates the economy.

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