GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

January 16, 2013

Notes on Cool (not cool notes)

Filed under: GA — adam @ 11:16 am

Our understanding of victimary thinking cannot be considered complete until we have accounted for the category of “cool,” which has proven to be extraordinarily enduring and generative. I wonder how far back the term goes—there must already be histories of “cool,” but the wikipedia page, at least, is no help—it traces the attitude of “cool” back to the Renaissance, but no actual uses of the term in its current slang sense going back more than a few decades. I assume it entered our vocabulary in the 1950s (although I’d be glad to be corrected by anyone whose personal memory or historical knowledge can date it earlier), which would situate it squarely within the emergence of post-war victimary culture.

Hannah Arendt observes somewhere that the German romantics of the early 19th century referred to their cultural antagonists as “squares,” in the same sense which is by now uncool usage but was pervasive in the 1960s. So, we can trace coolness, as an attitude, if not the word itself, back to romanticism—in which case, “cool” would be the synthesis of romanticism and victimary thinking.

This is important because without “cool,” victimary culture is shrill, desperate and ultimately unconvincing; with “cool,” victimary culture can produce iconic figures that offer alternatives to the cultural center. I think that Obama’s coolness and Romney’s squareness played a significant role in our recent election, and that the power of the “cultural issues” like abortion and gay rights have nothing to do with the effects of such issues on peoples’ lives and everything to do with cool.

Cool represents a pole of attraction on the margin, opposed to the center. Cool is not, at least first of all, antagonistic towards the center—it is simply uninterested in it, except as a source of amusement. Coolness embodies an attitude of deferral, which might account for the term—as opposed to those who are “hot,” i.e., worried about social expectations and judgments, always trying to influence or preempt them, the cool position themselves outside of that space of judgment. In distinction from cynicism, or “coldness,” cool separates itself from the center in order to make space for a kind of authenticity disallowed there: the cool are passionate, usually regarding some singular relationship or project. In defense of that space, the cool are ready to confront the center—that defense takes the form of the protection of some victim of the mainstream, an exemplary victim whose plight the cool, from his marginal perch, is qualified to identify.

“Cool,” as a word, has moved to the center—middle-aged women use it to refer to a clothing purchase or new flavor of coffee. It is used as honorific, often by adults to counter the exclusionary uses of cool among teenagers in their charge. And coolness might be disassociated from the victimary as, for example, with the high schooler who can initiate his fellows into forbidden pharmacological and sexual experiences. Ultimately, though, since cool is always a potential target of the center, its deepest alliances are with all those other potential victims, against which the center is seen to define itself. So, the coolness of jazz and now hip-hop frames the black victimary stance; the coolness of rock the youth victimary stance; while homosexuality has come to be marked as cool in various ways over the past couple of decades, generally as the uninhibited, joyful, stylish and honest amidst a swarm of hypocrites. Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be any distinctly feminine cool—the cultural commissars have been working overtime for years to lay a patina of cool over Hillary Clinton but I don’t think it has taken. Among celebrities, perhaps Angelina Jolie, who cultivates the distance and the absence of neediness necessary for coolness, and also consistently plays the lead in action movies, is cool. Jewish humor—say, Lenny Bruce—was cool at one point, but that has dissipated as Jews have lost their victimary credentials. At the same time, it doesn’t seem to me that a form of Muslim cool has been forged—perhaps in Europe? That might mean that women and Muslims must become constituents, so to speak, of other forms of coolness, which speak for them. In Lena Dunham’s online ad for Obama, in which she notoriously (but for whom was it notorious?) compared voting for the first time to losing one’s virginity, it was not the women appealed to or Dunham herself who was cool (on the contrary, they are dependent, insecure and needy)—rather, the ad bears witness to Obama’s coolness, as the kind of guy you would want to be your first. This perhaps leaves women free or, depending on your perspective, obligates or even compels them to be the conscience of the victimary. The Muslim incorporation into coolness still seems to me highly problematic—perhaps that will be a cultural faultline in the coming years.

What cool adds to the victimary so as to complete it is marketability. Cool, of course, is unthinkable without what Eric Gans has called the “constituent hypocrisy” of romanticism—by setting itself apart from the center, the cool becomes a trendsetter, or mimetic model, determining styles across the culture. As I suggested earlier, the relation is symbiotic—without its victimary affiliations, the cool would drift into coldness, i.e., cynicism and cruelty (the territory that David Letterman, for example, often veers into).

Is there a viable alternative to coolness, then? Certainly not goodness—if goodness were an effective counter, a competing mimetic model, to coolness, we would know it by now. (Tim Tebow, alone among conservative and Christian NFL quarterbacks in recent decades—from Roger Staubach to Kurt Warner—has approached a kind of celebrity based on coolness through an explicitly religiously grounded “goodness”—alas, he doesn’t seem to be good enough to put this hypothesis to the test.)

One would assume that conservatism couldn’t be cool, insofar as cool defines itself as conservatism’s other, but one of the interesting phenomena of the 2012 election campaign was the emergence of a movement, largely youthful, around Ron Paul—old, cranky and starchy, obsessed with constitutional rectitude, holding unfashionable opinions on abortion with a checkered history regarding racial issues—somehow, Paul became cool. Freedom might be cool, then, when linked to an uncompromising rejection of all the corruptions and compromises of freedom wrought by the “establishment.” But Paul never threatened the establishment, and only made trouble for the Republican wing of it, so he was indulged by the traditional media—we didn’t get to see whether his coolness would survive the kind of full-scale assault launched against Sarah Palin (who also had some markers of cool). A libertarian like Paul (maybe we will see this with his son) would need to devise a strategy for turning such attacks into the elements of his cool. I suppose supporting drug legalization helps here.

Beyond such speculations, the problem here is whether positions on the margin can be made into mimetic models without rejectionist gestures toward the center—the historical center, or firstness (initiative, responsibility, representativeness), if not the political or cultural center. In other words, what kind of generative margin (a margin that produces new centers) could run on other than victimary fuel? Coolness, presently, is confronted with the problem of having won the political and cultural centers through a demonization of the historical one (Western culture’s insistence on equality versus the imperial—the very premises, in other words, that make sympathy toward the victim possible). In power, cool figures like Obama become extremely tiresome, not to mention incompetent (we now have a government, part Ponzi scheme, part protection racket, part victimary theater, that is utterly uninterested in what were once considered the defining responsibilities of government, like defending borders, passing budgets and distinguishing friends from enemies). On the other hand, that historical center has been, probably irremediably, sapped by its appropriation by the victimary. The parasite has destroyed the host.

The only alternative, I think, is a kind of originary ‘pataphysics, the science of the exceptional invented by Alfred Jarry, and carried on through a series of avant-garde aesthetic and cultural movements until today. (Jean Baudrillard, apparently, considered himself a ‘pataphysician, something I will have to explore further.) Of course the roots of ‘pataphysics lie in romanticism, and ‘pataphysics tself could plausibly be seen as precursor of cool. But ‘pataphysics is a program for thinking and learning, activities which interest cool not at all. One way of thinking about ‘pataphysics is via the famous Seinfeld episode in which George “does the opposite,” i.e., the opposite of what he would normally do in that situation; except here, one does not the opposite (an ultimately incoherent approach, as not everything has an opposite, there may be more than one opposite, etc.) but the least probable, and not as opposed to what one ordinarily does but in relation to the probabilistic frame implicit in the discourse one inhabits.

So, when you address me, you hope for and expect a certain response, based upon social conventions, the present context, and your knowledge of me and our shared past; perhaps you also fear other possible responses, the probability of which you have sought to reduce in your mode of address. As a ‘pataphysician, my interest is in surprising you, but in some recognizable way—I can only undermine your expectations if I display some awareness of them. In this way I create an event, a happening, and make it possible for us to recognize each other on the margin and affirm the signs and tacit agreements we share. Clearly, carrying out such performances across the field of culture is not easy, but, like coolness, it’s not something everybody would have to do—just enough create viable mimetic models. ‘Pataphysics must be rigorous and disinterested—its only politics must in defense of its own possibility, which is to say against anyone who wants to remove events and happenings from social life. (I have assumed that with the fall of East Bloc Communism, the work of talented and absurdist [i.e., ‘pataphysical] dissidents like Vaclev Havel had become irrelevant, but maybe we have much to learn from them.) Originary ‘pataphsyics, as an overtly marginal position shares the field with cool but it is not itself cool because it seeks to find and refound rather than stigmatize the center; maybe the other of cool can just be “firstness.”

Well, one might say, wouldn’t, say, a vicious or violent response to an amiable greeting be “doing the improbable”? Maybe, but only once—nothing is more monotonous (and therefore predictable) than violence (and the means taken to restrain it), once it has upset some space based on trust. Violence, or any kind of violation of already achieved forms of civility, would not, that is, open the field of possibilities, or lower the threshold of significance, which is the point of ‘pataphysics. The most valuable effect of originary ‘pataphsyics would be what the left has promised (or, for that matter, what modernity has promised), with unsatisfying results: the recovery of excluded voices and the creation of new ones. If I, say, improbably take you literally when you ask me how I am, unburdening myself of an exhaustive account of my current state, I remind you of several things: the kind of shared beliefs, commitments and experiences that must have once been necessary to put those standard greetings in place; the fact that we no longer share those beliefs, commitments and experiences and yet still need the greetings; that sustaining those greetings and civility, then, might not be guaranteed; that we might need to discover means (not necessary my current, excessive, gesture) to restore the foundations of civility; and more. I thereby make it more likely (another shift in the field of probabilities) that you will notice further fraying of standardized modes of civility, and be attuned to new refreshments of those modes.

There is no reason why we can’t have forms of art that gently intervene in everyday life, turning us self-reflexively upon our habits, without the implicit or explicit condemnation of middle class lifestyles which makes so much performative art so annoying. I think most people would enjoy losing a couple of seconds here or there with little installations that might play off of the constant surveillance now characterizing our lives. (How often do we now see ourselves entering and leaving places? What if we saw ourselves upside down once in a while? Or, looking up to see ourselves, see a celebrity walking out instead?) Or that play with our expectations of impeccability in business establishments—like an installation inviting customers to clean up a little mess, with each customer contributing to a new arrangement? We always think of little things that might go wrong, or awry, in carefully organized settings—little bits of art that fulfilled those possibilities, perhaps giving them surprising happy endings, would be appreciated. There might be a place for the victimary here—little bits of feminist or anti-racist theater that show people how it feels to be viewed as “other”—but they would have to reward the viewer/participant/customer.

None of this would be cool (even if those who see such works emit one of those soft, clipped “cool”s which have become so popular and hopefully weaken the power of cool), because these would not be ways of drawing attention to a potentially volatile margin—rather, they would be collaborative ways of remaking the center. Perhaps we can break up and reform the word “perhaps” to give it a name: “per”+”hap,” or through/by chance/event: firstness, then, creates perhaps (the plural), or perhaps (third person singular). Maybe we could set aside the more provocative “firstness” and simply say that after cool comes perhapsness. With text messaging and twitter, that would get reduced right away to PHPNS, and maybe rebranded as “pappens,” making it only slightly more verbally cumbersome than “cool.” Well, as Proust had his narrator say about a fantasy, that I have just imagined this means that it can’t possibly happen this way. But maybe that itself is an instance of perhapsness.

Cool can overpower goodness because moralities predicated on human equality want the scene without the scene—as if everyone could be arranged before the central object without the disturbance of everyone having to present his position to the others and interpret theirs in turn. Morality can only be thought in very limited ways in terms of abstract rights, obligations, fairness, rules of behavior, thou shalt nots, etc. The most basic morality is entering the language of the community, working with its terms, its tropes, its idioms, even its rhythms, and at least respecting and trying to learn them to the extent one is an outsider; somewhat more demanding is to speak the language of some specific other, the more differentiated the other the more demanding the obligation; more challenging yet is exposing the limits of the community’s or the other’s idiom, opening the possibility to accommodate as yet unrepresented desires and resentments; highest of all is the invention of those new idioms that will indeed represent those desires and resentments. That, in fact, is what the moralities predicated on human equality have done, so I am not dismissing them—it is just that they will serve us better if read as innovations in language to be revised rather than transparent principles to be defended against “illiberal” attacks. Cool exposes the limits of “bourgeois” morality, and can only be replaced by a mode of discourse that does it the same favor in turn.

Another way to think about it: when a civilization collapses, what is happening is that the immense architecture of tacit agreements, everything that has been agreed upon and settled long ago, so that we could go on and forge more practical and immediate agreements, turn out, after all, or by this point, to be or to have been, disagreements merely misunderstood as agreements. Naturally, at this point, those more practical and immediate agreements evaporate as well. We’re human, so we’ll need some kind of agreement, some mode of joint attention, just to get through the days, and those provisional agreements can emerge out of the frayings of the disintegrating ones—for example, in shared irony towards what was once taken for granted. What might become possible in such circumstances is what has not been possible for a long time—foundings, which can be found among the ways we just happen to be together, as a result of the intersecting trajectories that have brought us where we are. If have agreed to do something together, and the project falls apart, then we are released from the terms of the agreement, and yet there we are—we might as well do something. All of the habits, literacies, and implements we had gathered for that project are still lying around as well. Why not just begin by agreeing to do something, this or that, anything, making use of the now unfamiliar materials in a new way? The more arbitrary the better, because that places the agreement itself at the center, rather than the pretension that we are just doing what reality tells us to do—and because uses and potentialities of those materials which were otherwise hidden now become prominent through new articulations. Arbitrary, oulipo-style constraints will enable us find rules to our agreements, and to discover who we are coming to be through those regulated interactions.

I have been troubled by the sense that a cultural project interested in widening the field of possibilities might be taken as an evasion of reality—as fantasy, at best, or totalitarian attempts to remake the human condition at worst—until it occurred to me that reality itself is nothing more than the compilation of present possibilities. Nothing is fixed and set—as soon as anyone makes a move reality has already been adjusted. All originary ‘pataphysics would do is widen the field the possibilities in any present, not obscure the fact that at every moment a wide swath of possibilities is cut down. And that’s all we need in order to be realistic: be willing to accept that, whatever our threshold for acknowledging a possibility, somethings, lots of things, maybe most things, at any moment, will still fall beneath it. For originary ‘pataphysics, the rush of new possibilities will be matched by the discarding of old ones, creating “reality,” or conditions under which the consequences of choices can be accounted for.


  1. We can’t avoid using declarative sentences to discuss what comes before and enables the declarative sentence–speaking in terms of “scenes,” “the deferral of violence,” “promises,” etc. always involves abstraction because these words have been processed through declarative orders. Ultimately, the most “fundamental” promises, covenants, etc., are tacit–not necessarily unconscious, although we are not always aware of them, but embedded in gestures, habits, manners, the movements, tone of voice, posture, etc. that make everyday life together possible, but couldn’t be described, or would evaporate upon description. All those things can be violated as well.

    “Don’t do that which will cause conflict” is close, but I would say “don’t do that which will cause cataclysmic, collectively self-destroying conflict”–the sign already implies a distinction between “regulated” forms of conflict and those which cannot be permitted because the group cannot survive them. Of course, the group can be wrong here, maybe often is. But only up until a point–what the group assumes, through historical inertia, to be an unthinkable conflict, might turn out rather benign when it comes–but that just means there’s another, genuinely unthinkable one in there somewhere, and the members of the group must have some inking of it. The “ultimate” will always elude analysis, i.e., declarative formulation–there is no way we could all sit down and say, “OK, this is the thing we must never do because doing so will set in motion the chain of consequences leading to the result we all dread…” Not only could the “it” in question never be known, but trying to figure out what it might be would change it.

    I don’t think I was balking at your claim that the originary scene embodies “obligation,” just at what I took to be your claim that these obligations take the declarative form of “I will do x if you will do y.” The obligation is embedded in the sign which is one with its enactment. there is a level of this enactment which can’t be put into declarative sentences–or, it can, but then it becomes anthropological inquiry and not the enactment. Once we have declarative sentences, we can project our promises as far into the future as we want, but with the ostensive it can only last as long as the sign keeps us on the same scene. It could mean “there is water there,” which remains with the realm of the gesture, but not “I’ll bring you water later.” At this point I’m not sure where our disagreement is–truthfully indicating the place to find water would itself be a manner of deferring violence, which therefore precedes the truth (even a lie might defer violence more effectively, if less endurably) but ultimately proves its value. Maybe this is the difference between us? I place the gesture before the truth? There’s something beyond the truth on the originary scene, insofar as the power to effect deferral is attributed to the object rather than the sing-makers themselves–that’s what makes the object “God,” which it “really” isn’t, but perhaps there is a higher, anthropological rather than empirical truth here–we make ourselves and God simultaneously, even if obviously this couldn’t be formulated.

    It may be that I don’t understand why a minimal sign, repeated in situations of potential mimetic crisis (or distantly intuited possibilities of mimetic crisis) wouldn’t merit the word “obligation.” In that moment everyone involved is pointing out some boundary they won’t cross. I also don’t agree that the originary event turned out badly, since everyone remains safe and receives nourishment.

    I hadn’t thought about it before, but, while Gans, to my knowledge, has not explicitly addressed the question of forgiveness, on his reading of the scene the resentment of the central object is internalized into the group–the relation between the most primitive groups and the animals they hunt and consume involves a “dialogue” of asking permission and then forgiveness for the violence done to the animal. I would imagine it would take awhile for such a dialogue to emerge between the members of the group.

    Comment by adam — February 4, 2013 @ 6:55 pm

  2. I lost my way to page 2.

    To summarize: Everybody has ideas on how to steer this ship of fools we call humanity. I think that “most fundamental is the capacity to promise, agree, covenant, contract with one another.” I advocate the course of the sacredness of one’s word as the first (prime) principle.

    The myth is that we look into our past to find an authentic map to steer by. The reality is that we all, professional anthropologists, theologians, social engineers and amateur thinkers alike, search for a usable past, or a map which beatifies the course we already have in mind. What a marvelously useful (and romantic) event the originary scene can be. It can make a rock-solid foundation that could rightly impart a sacredness to what we might call “most fundamental,” be it one’s WORD, or one’s GOD, or one’s social system.

    “In order to emphasize THE SACREDNESS OF THE WORDs of language, beginning with the FIRST, I have adopted the custom of speaking of the originary sign, the key innovation of the hypothetical originary scene, as the name-of-God.” CLR437

    Comment by tommy704 — February 27, 2013 @ 12:23 pm

  3. Yes, and the only way I’d say it differently is that we may discover, through our words and actions, the words we have already given.

    Comment by adam — February 27, 2013 @ 4:29 pm

  4. Discovery indeed. The word, as given, has meaning. We do not have to wait for a reaction to know what it is we have said. But the word also has a consequential significance that we can never know nor control. We birth the word into the web of human relations and from there it takes on it’s own meaning, as if it had a real existence of it’s own. It is merely an abstract idea, yet it takes on a power to control the reality of men’s lives, e.g. defer violence, or not. This power is not owned nor controlled by the signifier, nor the receiver of the sign. The power transcends a mere collection of self-interested individuals.

    Surely this fully describes “sacredness.” The word IS the first Deity, not merely the name of the Deity. God was constructed to “solidify” such a totally abstract and hard to control reality as the Word. God is the more solid, tangible, immutable and posses-able container into which we could pour our sacred yet volatile abstract ideals/principles for safe keeping (Feuerbach).

    We have broken the container. “God is dead. And we have killed him.” So what do we do? Try to super-glue the jar back together (Alan[?])? Or gather-up the sacred ideals and place them into the repository of the human-mind, which is capable of grasping the sacred as we once did with God (Me)? Or to make principles contingent upon, and secondary to events; that the end justify the means; that principles exist only in retrospect while the future is a matter of willed events, which may or may not align with any certain principles … IOW to let the volatile principles evaporate (you[?])?

    Comment by tommy704 — February 28, 2013 @ 1:06 pm

  5. Yes, I would agree that the sacrality is in the word itself, and God, as some external, potent being, is a fictional construct to hold our attention in place and ensure us that we interpret our words the same way. The endless (hopefully!) flow of words can’t be put back in the container, and a rationalistic attempt to understand the sacred (which would be to set it aside because we have neutralized its power and could presumably interact according to the “force of the better argument,” as Habermas says) will work until the next mimetic crisis flares, which means not very long. I wouldn’t put my position the way you do, because I don’t think much can be willed, certainly not by any single actor–it’s more that we find ourselves on possible scenes that could go wrong but might not if we step back and allow a novel sign loosen itself from the “chunks” of signs that make up the world. And we can get better at doing that if we try.

    Comment by adam — February 28, 2013 @ 1:41 pm

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