— epitaph on Charles Bukowski’s tombstone.
I began my PhD at Sydney University in 1996 and during a postgraduate seminar was stupid enough to mention the work of the Frankfurt School theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. To tell the truth, I didn’t really know anything about them, but thought their names were fantastic and that I might be looked on favourably for at least being able to pronounce them. As it turned out, it would have been less embarrassing to have farted. I was later to find out that Adorno and Horkheimer were mentioned in seminars, but the circumstances in which their names were raised was similar to the way piñata are raised at children’s parties: generic, silent victims dragged out for ceremonial beatings. This was all done in the name of a religion at the time we called ‘cultural studies’. That day began a dawning realization that would take many years to coalesce: cool in the humanities isn’t that different from cool in other areas of cultural life, like planking, hotdog-legs photography, mason jar rehabilitation, and novels whose main character is a city.
Things might have been different had I waited a while, because Adorno and Horkheimer are making a comeback; they are the thinkers, we’re now told, especially apposite for the Trumpian present. So what happened? Were Adorno and Horkheimer decisively refuted, and was their rejection while I was a PhD student a result of this refutation? And has that refutation itself now been refuted, thus accounting for their sudden return? I don’t think so. Many of the criticisms of the Frankfurt School that were raised in the 1990s were the same raised against them in the 1960s, and most of the current defenses of their work are of a piece with those defenses previously used against the earlier criticisms. And pretty much the same could be said of any number of other thinkers – even movements.
We all know this to some degree; certain thinkers are in and certain thinkers aren’t. Pity the naïve graduate student in philosophy whose dissertation is about Gabriel Marcel, F.H. Bradley, or Jean-Francois Lyotard. When I began my doctorate if someone said the name ‘Lyotard,’ people would nod solemnly – and postmodernly – and say something about ‘the end of metanarratives’. Now if you say ‘Lyotard’ in company, people will likely think you are referring to gaudy spandex dancewear. Back then, Sartre was long out and Foucault was in; now Sartre is back in and Foucault is … still in. (Foucault is always in.) As undergraduates, we were introduced to Baruch Spinoza’s work as if it were a kooky museum exhibit, a prime example of just how stupid philosophers could be when given the chance to give their minds free reign. (Philosophy is still usually taught as a collection of errors, arranged chronologically. Bertrand Russell’s famous A History of Western Philosophy could easily be subtitled ‘Or, Thank God I Came Along When I Did.’) And now? Now Spinoza is philosophy’s Swiss Army knife: he can be wheeled out for any purpose to solve absolutely any problem. Everybody loves Spinoza. People are even getting Spinoza tattoos. (Google it.) Spinoza is the sine qua non of intellectual cool. There are probably now whole departments of Spinoza Studies. Spinoza has apparently sorted out every conceivable metaphysical and political quandary. He is everywhere. For now.
At first blush, what all this tends to suggest, at the very least, is that trends in the humanities are underdetermined by the rational adequacy of the theories at the centre of them. But to say – as I did above – that intellectual fashion reflects ‘cool’ obliges us to specify a little more what that might mean. What exactly is ‘intellectual cool’? For a start, although it includes intellectual trends, or what we sometimes call ‘fashions,’ it obviously is not just this. And here we run up against a very difficult problem – what we call ‘cool’ never describes itself, never declares itself, and never advises who it will be visiting next. People who write about Spinoza will never say they’re doing so because he’s really cool at the moment. Equally, ask a hipster who they hate the most and they will say, without a moment’s hesitation, ‘Hipsters! I f*cking hate them!’
Cool, in short, is unavowable. And, in this sense at least, cool is different from what we typically call ‘fashion.’ Fashion can always say ‘Look at this! This is really in at the moment! Buy it!’ – fashion often does say this. Fashion can be very loud and very prescriptive, even dictatorial, without necessarily being coherent. (One can easily imagine a successful reality TV show where five gay men take over someone’s life and make them buy lots of new skin care products, clothes and furniture; the following week a small Japanese woman turns up and makes them throw it all away.) But cool is a far more evanescent phenomenon, usually disavowed by those who are its guardians – at least publicly. (In what now seems like a typical French move, Charles VII was asked to establish a Ministry of Fashion in France. On the other hand, nobody – not even the French – could ever establish a Ministry of Cool. For a start, absolutely not a soul would think it were cool.) That’s not equivalent to saying that people can’t seek and even find it. Several years ago Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote about ‘coolhunters,’ those inked, erstwhile captains of capital at places like Reebok and Nike, whose secret focus groups with the coolest kids in the neighbourhood became central to both the development and distribution of activewear. (NB. If you want to be cool, never say ‘activewear’.) But the paradox, as Gladwell pointed out at the time, was that the closer the mainstream gets to dragging itself towards the vanguard, the faster the vanguard moves on; indeed, the very act of discovering what is cool is what forces it to take flight. So by the time Reebok or Tiger develops the shoe line based on its peculiar form of street espionage, cool – like Elvis – has already left the building.
To compound difficulties, outside of these focus groups, cool is largely an unspeakable art and its artisans will rarely admit to practicing it – to being cool, that is. Yet the converse isn’t necessarily true: denying that you’re cool doesn’t make you cool. Bono would probably deny being cool, and it’s hard to imagine anyone (besides close relatives and pony-tailed men over 45) contradicting him – although he’s certainly cooler than Nancy Reagan. That’s another thing about cool: there are hierarchies. The Velvet Underground are probably cooler than the Ramones, but the Ramones are much cooler than Pink Floyd; Pink Floyd are cooler than Coldplay (the name is misleading), and Coldplay are cooler than Nickelback. And there are bands even less cool than Nickelback, although I can’t bring any to mind right at this minute.
I Hope You Don’t Know That I Hope You Care That I Don’t Care What You Think About Me
The great Romantic injunction offered by the Aspiring Cool of Instagram to their potential audience is watch me not caring about whether or not you watch me (but please do watch me). The double imperative isn’t just a product of social media; the mating call of almost every VCP (Very Cool Person) – and every aspiring rebel – walking the street is: Look at me – I’m amazing! / Don’t you look at me – I don’t fucking care what you think! Which brings us necessarily to Andy Warhol, that erstwhile king of Union Square Weltschmerz, who gave us one of the clearest renderings of this double injunction. As far as I can recall, the only time Warhol ever looked like he had an elevated heartrate was when an interviewer suggested that he courted attention. In 1980 Warhol toured Miami Beach for his exhibition ‘Jews of the 20th Century’ at the Lowe Art Museum, when a reporter makes this statement:
Interviewer: Your work tends to be … I don’t want to use the word ‘sensational,’ because that connotes something bad, but you want attention…
Warhol: Oh no! No, that’s not true! I just work most of the time and … well, they make me do this … so …
In Bo Burnham’s recent film, Eighth Grade, we follow the misfortunes of a fourteen year old girl named Kayla whose life is a series of failed attempts at social media fame, at being the coolest person in school. Nobody is watching Kayla on YouTube and it’s painful watching her being unwatched, her obsessive checking of the number of views her videos get so many blasts of winter air on the psychic wounds of adolescence. (Of course, academics are not like Kayla at all – I mean, that would be like checking your citation count or the number of views or downloads on Academia.edu. Or Googling yourself. And who would ever do that?) The dynamics here are not, of course, the product of technology; technology only helps us amplify and quantify them. With respect to YouTube views, as with academic citations, article downloads, or bicep measurements, it’s all a matter of numbers. Many of us have lived versions of this; only the names (and metrics) have been changed.
Do or Do Not: There is No Try
The problem is that becoming truly cool can’t be approached directly, can’t be the result of a direct choice. This also lies behind the necessity of the humblebrag on social media: look at me being incredibly successful even though I’m surprised and amused by this attention and – believe me – I’m not even slightly invested in it – even so, check me out. (Repeatedly if you have to. I do.) In situations like this, one always is obliged to post out of both sides of one’s mouth. The logic of self-presentation here is not entirely unique. It’s comparable to the dilemma which confronts the applicant during the job interview, and requires an analogous response: I am very grateful for being fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to be absolutely incredible. Outside of things like real estate auctions, televangelism, and advertorials for Anthony Robbins’ Unleash the Power Within™ workshops, it is risky to self-promote openly. This fact has undoubtedly led to the now-near-universal habit of proclaiming oneself to be ‘humbled’ by accolades, an oxymoron on par with claiming to be enraptured by train delays or enhungered by chokos.
There are few illustrations of the dangers of the direct-sell I can bring to mind more vivid than what happened at my school in 1985, when I was, like Kayla, in Year 8. We were gathered for a year meeting to discuss whatever it was that we discussed at those meetings – largely how we were bad, why we were bad, what would now happen that our badness had come to light, and so on – when Brother Anianus introduced a new student who had arrived in Sydney from Hong Kong. Brother Anianus put his arm around the new boy and announced to all of us:
This is Maurice Wu – and I bet he can breakdance better than any of you!
The problem was that breakdancing had been very popular at our school, like that groovy Saturday Night Fever dancing before it (or so my older brother swears, although one can never tell with him), but that time had passed and breakdancing was now something of a joke. Unaware, Brother Anianus pushed on: ‘Go on, Maurice, show them your moves!’ Maurice stepped to the side of the podium and proceeded to chainwave, robot, and donkey – all acapella – for about a minute. At the conclusion there was just the creak and whoosh of the fans above our heads – and then the whole year erupted in hysterical, ironic cheers, clapping, whooping, screaming ersatz approval. The year meeting ended. Unaware, Brother Anianus and Maurice Wu thought they’d done very well. It was, in fact, catastrophic (which is why I’ve used the pseudonym ‘Maurice Wu’).
Brother Anianus was really saying to us ‘Hey, listen up, funky town inhabitants – this guy is cool to the max.’ But it could only have the opposite effect – for a number of reasons. One is temporal. The historical miss here was very small; it had probably only been about one or two years since break dancing was at peak cool, at least at my Sydney suburban Catholic (ie. uncool) school. But something having-been-recently-cool is often not a mere approximation of being cool, only slightly less so. Despite the resurgence of vinyl, cool’s movement is often digital, not analogue. Although there are gradations of cool, at its peak, a near miss of cool is not like a near miss of a hole in golf or a near miss in a game of darts, where points decrease relative to the distance of the miss. No. In certain very delicate situations, trying to hit cool and missing it by a little is like hitting the wrong note on piano by a semi-tone: the smallest error will affect the biggest dissonance. (It didn’t help in this instance, of course, that the advocate here was a middle-aged man in a long white robe with a huge crucifix hanging from his neck – and whose name was pronounced, at least by us, as ‘any anus.’)
As that icon of derelict cool, patron saint of poetic illiteracy and penis worship, Charles Bukowski, put it: ‘Don’t try.’ A few years ago mason jars were all but compulsory in cafes. But now? Now a mason jar represents an unhappy double-confession: I’m not cool, but dammit I’m trying. But one cannot be seen to be trying to be cool – that is contrary to the whole ethic. And here we must return again to Andy Warhol, as there was nobody that tried less – or tried to give that impression – than Warhol, whose almost catatonic effortlessness seemed to reconcile uncommon productivity with profound apathy for the first time in human history. Warholian ‘cool’ is the antonym of ‘hot,’ as in the opposite of heated, overwrought, enthused, fired up; it’s hard to imagine Warhol rising much above his characteristic blank drawl even during a home invasion. The kinds of painfully slow, car-crash interviews he sometimes did with eager, preppy journalists are simultaneously mesmerising and agonising to watch. The journalists stumble over words, ask Warhol about The Meaning behind his work, which he usually proclaims not to know – or did know and has now forgotten about, or might know the answer and … but … sorry, what was the question again?
Interviewer: This is the first major series of self-portraits for a long time. What prompted this one?
Warhol: [Pause] Ahh [pause] well [pause] um [pause] I just ran out of ideas.
What are we to take from this? It’s not that he lacks the creative impulse; rather, it’s that work for him is effortless. He changes artistic history without breaking a sweat; indeed, in this semianimate REM state, he barely even notices it happening. Like Warhol, Kurt Cobain claimed that he exercised no effort whatsoever in defining a generation. Talking about the lyrics to Nirvana’s most popular – and lyrically analysed – song, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ he had this to say:
Cobain: I was just using pieces of poetry … just garble … just garb … just garbage, you know – stuff that would just spew out of me at the time, and a lot of times when I write lyrics it just lasts for seconds, because I’m so lazy.
Warhol and Cobain are a bit like David Foster Wallace’s character in ‘The Suffering Channel,’ Brint Moltke, the subject of an upcoming feature in Style magazine, a man who – for reasons mysterious to everyone – simply shits art. The editor prepares his staff for the story:
‘If you could just see them.’
‘I don’t want to see them,’ the associate editor responded. ‘I don’t want to look at shit. Nobody wants to look at shit. Skip, this is the point: people do not want to look at shit.’
‘And yet if you – ‘
‘Even shit shaped into various likenesses or miniatures or whatever it is they’re alleging they are.’ ….
‘No, no, but not shaped into, is the thing. You aren’t – they come out that way. Already fully formed …’
One either has to produce great things with no effort or produce inconsequential things with enormous effort. (The latter principle is undoubtedly what links Wim Delvoye’s cloaca machine – or more popularly ‘poo machine’ – at MONA to the nü-peasant trend towards home pickling: the dignity of enormous effort expended for surprisingly little (albeit odiferous) return.) Although it has a broad ambit, this rhetoric of effortlessness usually rules out sportsmen and women, who tend to deliver messages derived from media scripts about giving 110 per cent, getting up before dawn, and the miscellany of other superhuman sacrifices made – and not, say, about their natural genetic advantages or the extraordinary benefits of synthetic human growth hormone. But not always.
Besides the Indigenous sprinter Cathy Freeman, the only athlete as far as I know who was being talked about in inner city cafes in 2000 was Jai Taurima. It wasn’t because he’d won the Olympic Silver Medal with a jump of 8.49 metres – it was because he trained for and won that medal while eating pizza and smoking a packet of cigarettes a day. This exchange is taken from an ABC interview just prior to the 2000 Olympic Games:
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: So you’re still smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.
JAI TAURIMA: Oh yeah.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Why does this not interfere with the performance of an elite athlete?
JAI TAURIMA: Oh, long jump’s a pretty easy event. You just run 50 metres and jump, basically. It’s not that hard.
How do you become an Olympic track and field medalist? You (1) just run, and then (2) jump. It’s not that hard.
The requirement of effortlessness goes back at least to Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1528), where our courtier coach informs us thus:
I have discovered a universal rule which seems to apply more than any other in all human actions or words: namely, to steer away from affectation at all costs, as if it were a rough and dangerous reef, and (to use perhaps a novel word for it) to practise in all things a certain nonchalance [sprezzatura] which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless.
But he realizes how difficult this is. Our coach turns his analytic mind to a hapless aspirational blowhard named Roberto, who seems to exemplify sprezzatura. You see, Roberto loved to dance, and was sometimes so unbelievably nonchalant when he did this that his clothes and slippers would fall off in the process. Indeed, he’s so goddamn cool ‘he dances away without bothering to pick them up.’ But this isn’t cool:
Do you not realize that what you are calling nonchalance in Roberto is in fact affectation, since he evidently goes to great pains to show that he is not thinking about what he is doing? He is really taking too much thought, and by passing the bounds of moderation his nonchalance is affected and inappropriate, and it has exactly the opposite effect of what is intended, namely, the concealment of art.
The concealment of art can sometimes be so successful that sometimes it’s not only the concealment that disappears, but the art – at least to most of us. Similarly, sometimes cool operates outside the capacities of normal human perception. Just as elephants can produce and hear sounds below 20 Hz (the range of so-called ‘infrasound’) to communicate with other members of their herd (human hearing sits between 2000-4000 Hz), the truly cool have perceptual abilities that outflank the rest of us, abilities which enable them to communicate with each other without us eavesdropping.
In 2013, a trend forecasting group based in New York called ‘K-HOLE‘ (probably a reference to the cognitively vaporous after-effects of ketamine) produced a deliciously incoherent ‘report’ called ‘Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom.’ The report reads like a cross between something Rory from The Gilmore Girls and Keanu Reeves’s character from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure might have collaborated on. It’s a beautifully typeset sort of duderudition that has little time for old fashioned things like hair spray, punctuation, or the law of non-contradiction. Aside from claims like ‘demography is dead’ and ‘in YOUTH MODE, you are infinite’ K-HOLE name a new trend – ‘normcore,’ a cyborg word combining ‘normal’ and ‘hardcore.’ Apart from being It, what exactly was normcore? To the outsider, normcore basically looks like what your uncle might wear to an engagement party at Sizzler: white Reeboks, a polo shirt, and Lowes sourced, bad-fitting jeans. Except, of course, it’s not like that at all; that’s just your uncle. Normcore only looks like that to, well, almost everyone. But ‘radical’ culture is often just like that.
Ever since Marcel Duchamp was lucky enough, in 1917, to trip over his own masterpiece, ‘Fountain’, we’ve become increasingly used to the most ostensibly radical pieces of culture being almost indistinguishable from the least radical; in some cases, it’s only the presence of some kind of framing and a proper noun that will help us sort the subversive from the quotidian. Consider, for instance, Tracey Emin’s entry for the 1999 Turner Prize, ‘My Bed.’ She’d slept in it and populated it with all the things she’d left there, heartbroken and drunk, the night before she’d decided that it was art. Some conservative critics have predictably called work like this ‘rubbish.’ In some cases, they’re surely right: in 2004 cleaners at the Tate Gallery caused an uproar when they accidently threw out an artwork by Gustav Metzger, the accurately named ‘Recreation of First Public Demonstration of Auto Destructive Art.’ The work was, to all intents and purposes, a bag of rubbish. (Art really does imitate life.) Although Metzger’s original piece could not be found, the artist was sufficiently charitable to whip up another, arguably equivalent, work. And the Tate was henceforth forced to revise its labelling practices to prevent such an occurrence in the future.
In one of its incarnations, normcore is itself distinguished by the ostentatious display of labels; one can tell that what one is looking at is cool because its label designates it such. It’s a little like putting a frame around something to designate it as art, even if what is so designated might otherwise be interpreted as nasal ejecta, blood spatter, or wet rot. (But this isn’t normcore; normcore could actually make nasal ejecta, blood spatter, or wet rot cool, not merely frame it as something else.) But we must interpret ‘labelling’ here broadly; a music video director wearing Hush Puppies and mum jeans in a Manhattan bar isn’t the same as … someone who isn’t a music video director wearing Hush Puppies and mum jeans in … a bar somewhere else. Again, normcore only looks like a loaned collection from Jerry Seinfeld’s wardrobe. To those in the know, it’s nothing of the sort. Just as an airport beagle can tell the difference between bowel cancer, a land mine, and MDMA residue at 100 metres, the truly cool can tell the difference between, say, K-Mart’s ‘Active’ running shoe line and Cristóbal Balenciaga’s Triple S trainers. (Apparently such a distinction exists, although it is lost on me.)
K-HOLE explain the emergence of normcore thus:
The most different thing to do is to reject being different all together. When the fringes get more and more crowded, Mass Indie turns toward the middle. Having mastered difference, the truly cool attempt to master sameness… Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts in to sameness.
Did you get that? Not difference, but sameness – not difference, but sameness.
Or not. Despite what K-HOLE says, normcore has nothing at all to do with sameness; and this is no turning toward the middle. At the elite level of cool we witness an extraordinary granularity of perception that allows radical difference to emerge in the fields of vision of the select few capable of seeing it. With the difference between mum jeans and ‘mum’ ‘jeans’ asymptotically approaching zero, normcore represents cool’s version of adventure sport: highly dangerous, where the slightest wrong move means it’s all over.
Scene, Not Herd
It is well known that ‘the left’ (the term is both inadequate and necessary) is the home of cool politics, a fact that has both worked for – and been used against – them. In the public eye, despite the drone bombings and mass-scale deportations, Barack Obama presided over probably the ‘coolest’ administration since John F. Kennedy, a fact that a number of Republicans, most notably John McCain (himself arguably, the coolest Republican, if there is such a thing), focused in on in an attempt to discredit it. American Crossroads, an American Super PAC, co-founded by former White House advisor Karl Rove, put out an anti-cool ad called simply ‘Cool.’ It provides a montage of Obama slow-jamming the news (with Jimmy Fallon providing a Barry White-style response), Obama chugging beer, and Obama singing an Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’ at the Apollo Theater. The ad announces: ‘America elected the biggest celebrity in the world – and got one cool president,’ before concluding with a rhetorical question: ‘After four years of a celebrity president, is your life any better?’
There was an attempt to reduce Obama to a style – a mere surface. In many contexts, like these, to call something ‘cool’ is an attempt to trivialise it, to explain its appeal by recourse to something entirely unrelated to its intrinsic, “formal” features. If you’re just riding a fixed gear cruising bike because it’s cool, then that’s nothing like just riding a fixed gear cruising bike because you want to ride a fixed gear cruising bike because it’s a cruising bike with fixed gears. This creates a problem for people who are asked about why exactly they now really like, say, growing chokos. After Rousseau, who made it impossible for us to admit to following a trend (thanks Jean-Jacques), nobody can now reply ‘Because everybody else is doing it.’ They’ll say, rather, ‘What do you mean? I’ve always liked chokos.’ (They’re lying, of course; nobody has ever liked chokos.)
For many years the journal Philosophy and Literature held a ‘Bad Writing Contest,’ and it was commonly emphasized that not only was the writing featured apparently bad – it was fashionable. Jargon, they said, was fashionable; ‘postcolonial studies,’ for instance – a favourite target of theirs – was a ‘fashionable academic field.’ The heyday of this sort of attack on the humanities was perhaps Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s 1997 book Impostures Intellectuelles (translated into English in 1998 as Fashionable Nonsense), in which they argue that the western intellectual world – or really just the humanities – is plagued by incomprehensible garbage which circulates only because it is fashionable. And if you read the book, at least as much contempt seems meted out for a particular mode of thought’s fashionableness as its nonsense: ‘fashionable American cultural studies journal’; ‘ideas accepted on the basis of fashion’; ‘it has become fashionable to talk of’; ‘currently fashionable theory’; ‘postmodernist intellectual fashions’, and so on. The criticism still circulates, especially in those commentaries on the intermittent hoaxes which are supposed to draw attention to the Emperor’s nudity. Here again – like in the case of Obama – we see a version of the charge of style overwhelming substance. (The substance here, of course, is the work done by people like Sokal and Bricmont, for instance, whose book against the fickle tyrannies of fashion became a huge, international bestseller.) But how do we sort this out? Can we?
In Mary McCarthy’s novel, Birds of America, a young philosophy student named Peter is writing home to his mother in the USA, explaining – we might even now say ‘mansplaining’ – moral philosophy:
[Y]ou would never buy anything at a discount house, though you liked Sears, Roebuck. I used to ask you what was the difference, and you said that buying at Sears, Roebuck was economical, but buying at a discount house was greedy. But I think you liked Sears, Roebuck because it was traditional; your grandmother had ‘always’ bought lawn-mowers and sprinklers there. Sears, Roebuck, to you, was the ‘old’ America where people had lawns and wore mail-order underwear in the winter. If you’ll excuse me for saying so (I’ve been examining the roots of my thinking recently), you confuse the ethical and the aesthetic.
This ‘confusion’ of the ethical and the aesthetic – or substance and style – is precisely what Socrates proclaimed to hate about those Sophists, who peddled their rhetoric for money; they were, in other words, advocates of style over substance, technicians specialising in training people to make the weaker argument appear the stronger, so as to better defeat an opponent.
After making his initial charge against his mother, Peter then steps back from it. ‘Of course, you might be right in a sense. When Kant asks what the world would look like if everyone stole, that may be at bottom an aesthetic question. What would the world look like?’ Kant asks us to picture a world where everybody thinks it’s ok to lie and steal and cheat and then to either endorse or reject it; if I reject it, it means I really don’t care for the whole picture: ‘But then,’ Peter says, ‘you might say, ethics boils down to a question of taste.’ This is precisely the view Kant was attempting to refute, in his attempt to universalize ethical judgement, to remove from ethics all traces of the subjective. (It’s also the point that Nietzsche, contra Kant, affirms in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: ‘And you tell me, friends, that there is no dispute in taste and tasting? But all life is a dispute over taste and tasting!’)
Cool, of course, is one of taste’s dynamics, a silent, unavowable face of fashion. We can’t reliably predict its path because it never announces its itinerary. Its minimal requirement is simply to not be where it has just been; as such, the only rigorous science we can apply to it is hindsight. As Walter Benjamin reminded us many years ago, fashion more generally, articulates ‘the eternal recurrence of the new’. Cool is one antidote to the tendency for people’s taste to reify at a particular historical moment. We are familiar enough with the opposite: we see a person sitting on a train wrapped in a stonewash denim jacket, fluorescent parachute pants, and a hairspray-frozen bouffant which looks like a half-deflated basketball, and think quietly to ourselves ‘1983 was a pretty big year for you, huh?’ The idea is that at some point in our lives, for whatever reason, we became incredibly sensitive to the world around us; we might have had – to paraphrase lyrics from Dirty Dancing – the time of our lives – and as a result, we were dropped into a kind of temporal amber which preserved us like some insect from the Cretaceous period. 1983 passed but the uniform remained. This isn’t cool; the only amber the truly cool person is interested in is craft beer. They will not be frozen. (Of course, if the person on the train is 23, then all bets are off; along with the stonewash, this person is also sporting invisible inverted commas: they are quoting the 80s. To confuse this with the genuinely uncool is like believing, on the basis of her name and plethora of crucifixes, that Madonna was a nun.)
And here we perhaps can glimpse one of cool’s saving graces, at least in intellectual terms. Intellectual cool or fashion may itself be superficial, but the results it produces needn’t necessarily be. In an era of ever-increasing specialization and intellectual fragmentation, cool – in the academy at least – is one of the forces that can pull people towards the same themes and problems; in this sense it offers the opportunity to create common topics of conversation, shared problematics against which collective intelligence can be pitted. And in those disciplines, like philosophy, where progress is sometimes hard to track, the intermittent recycling of once-thought-to-be-passé thinkers forces us to reattend to things which we’d previously dismissed as not worth attending to, and in ways which might be thought to correspond to the Zeitgeist (or at least the Spring-collection-geist).
In terms of its fickleness, cool’s arbitrariness in the academy can become a kind of strength, sometimes directing us to train our minds on voices which we’d otherwise overlook or forget and which might speak to us, or speak to us anew, if given the chance. But as I write this, another voice in me rises to offer caution. I’m not sure whether any of this amounts to a genuine apologetic for cool or merely a personal resolve to try to recuperate those features of it which would usually normally relegate it to shit in a different light. It might even be an admission that, like Romanticism, which supplies cool with much of its philosophical orientation, all attempts to play hero and escape from it land one more deeply inside its purview. Or maybe it’s the sense that cool, even if by itself is a dead end, can – paradoxically enough – sometimes lead to things larger than the modish demands of the present.