Thursday, May 4, 2017

Understanding the Word "Cool"

Certainly one of the more frustrating words for those trying to work out what the words we hear every minute of every day actually mean is "cool"--at least, when it is taken apart from its not very illuminating use as a generalized term of approval. The lengthy Wikipedia article on the subject, for example, offers no clear answer, but many possible answers of differing quality.

The closest it comes to a general explanation is in the article's first, introductory paragraph:
Coolness is an aesthetic of attitude, behavior, comportment, appearance and style which is generally admired. Because of the varied and changing connotations of cool, as well as its subjective nature, the word has no single meaning. It has associations of composure and self-control (cf. the OED definition) and often is used as an expression of admiration or approval.1
Still, difficult as many have found it to pin down the word's meaning, it seems safe to say that "coolness" is an aura of indifference rooted in a sense of untouchability, infallibility, invulnerability--all of which is due to social position, personal prowess, personal resources at least partially material. (By contrast someone equally projecting an aura of indifference, but not "untouchable," not privileged, is seen as just a crank--lest anyone think coolness is just about "attitude.")

In short, coolness is the more or less universal "leisure class" aesthetic--and indeed, this reading would seem to be substantiated by the discussions of variations on the cool aesthetic in Africa, Europe, East Asia and elsewhere in the article cited above.

It also seems safe to say that those who manage to project the cool (e.g. leisure class) aura are imbued by it with certain privileges. They do not necessarily have to do what everyone else does; they get to be individuals; they are the ones who set the standard. And the element of distinctiveness or genuineness or innovation, if not displeasing, makes them seem cooler still.

Nonetheless, because it is a matter of aura and, frankly, delusion (that untouchability, infallibility, invulnerability are not real, cannot be), inextricable from the vagaries of social status and the pretensions of the leisure class way of looking at the world, coolness is very fragile. True, one does not have to do what everyone else does, one gets to be an individual and set the standard--but only within certain bounds. A cool person might make an occasional unconventional choice in the things they wear or consume or use--but too much of this sort of thing and one might wonder. If the expression of one's individuality clashes with those foundations of one's standing as "cool," for example--if one ceases to seem indifferent because they are obviously passionate about something--then their status as a cool person is jeopardized. And of course, being truly nonconformist or unconventional (in their political opinions, for example) similarly jeopardizes their social position, and therefore their status. Their coolness might survive that--but more often they will be demoted from cool to crank in the view of others.

In the end, it would seem, the aura of the indifferent cool individual is generally not about the genuinely innovative or radical or rebellious, but simply a conformist, conventional person who happens to be richer, freer, more permissive and permitted more than the rest, and hasn't yet made any really significant misstep. And so it goes with the "cool kids"--kids from more affluent and more permissive homes who get to flaunt the fashionable labels and brands, and equally flaunt "pseudomature" behavior.

In the end it all seems much ado about very little--and frankly a bit depressing to anyone who thinks social hierarchy and superficiality and general backwardness of these kinds are less than glorious features of the human story.

1. For what it is worth, I got this quote March 12, 2017.

James Bond, Aristocratic Action Hero
Of Ian Fleming and Thorstein Veblen
Review: The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, by Thorstein Veblen
On The Word "Deserve"
On the Word "Lifestyle": A Postscript
On the Word "Lifestyle"

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