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Massimo's Philosophy Café Message Board › Some thoughts on being cool

Some thoughts on being cool

A former member
Post #: 72
The cool that can be analyzed is not the true cool. The cool that can be mirrored and sold, mimicked and marketed, is not the real cool.


Our last Meetup was a surprise to me: that an intellectually rich conversation could come from such a surface concept as being cool. However "cool" is not just a vacuous word which we use to express our approval -- a term so open, subjective and inconstant that it is meaningless. We were talking about *something* last night, right?

This process of contemplating cool has caused me to pass through several stages of its possible signification:

Loose usage -- where "cool" is an attributive adjective for any person or thing or idea that we find desirable, either to have or to emulate. Think of how many times we have uttered the phrase "that's cool," applied to almost anything that we like.

Juvenile usage -- where "cool" is what is wow! and who is "in". This is not really about popularity. Aggressive jocks and preening cheerleaders from high school (which were rather numerous, as cliques go) were wildly popular. But not necessarily cool (if we're being serious about trying to narrow down the definition). The nerds who didn't hide their intelligence or their interest in genres of fiction and film that had non-mainstream audiences weren't cool either. Nor was the oddball who dressed idiosyncratically and never went to a dance. However, college dropout Bob Dylan -- playing harmonica and guitar and writing luminous lyrics that questioned the status quo -- by comparison was. Someone or something cool in this sense embodies a "think different," ahead-of-the-curve quality. The iPhone was cool (before everyone on the subway and in Starbucks owned one). Steve Jobs was cool.

Stoic usage -- where the reading for this Meetup introduced the concept of "cool" as a near-synonym for Stoicism. While a fascinating discussion about this ensued, I think there are several major differences to keep in mind between being cool and being a Stoic. First, the Stoics strove for apatheia, genuine freedom from the passions. Critically, this decision was for philosophical reasons, not merely to look intriguing or to register one's opposition to an oppressive majority in a relatively safe, oblique way through putting on a "whatever" type attitude. Second, their manner of being in the world was an active practice (askesis) with a goal in mind, not a laid-back, purposeless, low-temperature withdrawal. Stoicism took a lot of effort. And one of its aims was to bring the character in alignment with Nature. The image of some jerk leaning against the wall in a leather jacket toking on a blunt with his middle finger in the air when the cop isn't looking is *not* what I picture when I try to envision a 21st century Stoic.

It was at this point that I began to realize that "cool" wasn't particularly cool (in the relaxed sense above). The most valuable, virtuous people in life are not all that cool. Is a compelling school teacher labeled "cool"? A firefighter? A union organizer? A war hero from WWII? How about mom? Not typically, because a "cool" person seems preoccupied with projecting an image as opposed to performing the right actions and getting things done. Or at least we, when using the term, are overly focused on mirroring the style and desirability of the person, not their character.

The author of the Philosophy Now article did make an effort to redeem the word by highlighting a modern sense of "cool" which has its roots in African American male culture (the viable way of carrying oneself with an above-the-fray kind of dignity during slavery through the Civil Rights movement without getting killed). Again, this was interesting. But I'm not sure it's either Stoic or all that useful to making a judgment about the concept as it is commonly used. In part that's because, as with so many other potentially threatening things, Big Business has found a way to eviscerate the original criticism of the system from mavericks and movements, and then sell just the de-fanged style and packaging to the masses for profitable consumption. I'm referring to Hip Hop here, of course. But there are numerous examples. Young people now, when they think of the 1960s, picture first the style of dress and distinctive sound and youthful energy of the times (all easily co-opted by Madison Avenue to sell new products to that market segment) instead of the cultural critique that was happening then, and its potential for paradigm-shattering change. And this is the problem when even a group of clear-thinking adults who study philosophy tries to talk about what it means to be cool. Capitalism has muddied the waters such that "cool" is mostly about a look that one can purchase (right music, right clothes, right gadgets, right car), modeled by images from advertising and actors from pop culture.

My most substantial criticism, however, is that "cool" is overly concerned with the apprehension of the Other. A cool person purports to be indifferent; but his or her unique, recognizable style (dress, speech, comportment) is after all a construction -- one likely wrapped in just the semblance of nonchalance. Since neither one's worth in the eyes of others nor one's image management trumps authenticity, I think I'll remain outside the label "cool" for the time being. Not a square, perhaps. But just me.
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