Monday, February 25, 2008

The Quest for Cool

We're cool, right? Or as Conan exclaims, "Be cool my babies!"

But wait a minute, what does cool even mean?

OK, so this post was inspired by an Adbusters article I just read--"The Reconquest of Cool", in which Kalle Lasn accuses the culture of corporate "cool" of creating a generation of consuming robots who have been hypnotized into submission by savvy advertising campaigns. In Lasn's words, "We’re finally beginning to understand where this bogus cool has been leading us: not to happiness and prosperity as promised in the ads, but to cynicism, ecocide and a brutal, dog-eat-dog future."

We've heard this diatribe before, right? A familiar apple, which frankly, hasn't fallen far from the tree of Naomi Klein's anti-brand manifesto, No Logo, or Michael Moore's expose' filmmaking. Lasn's ethos also sounds a lot like that of Tommy Corn, Mark Wahlberg's character in I ♥ Huckabees. He's that jaded firefighter-turned-environmentalist whose 9/11 experiences have opened the door to a seemingly endless existential dilemma in which the human cost of that Swoosh and the true price of oil have suddenly become the centre of his universe.

But instead of continuing down this well-worn path, I'm more concerned about discovering the source of the supposed sands of coolness. If corporate cool is referred to as "bogus cool," then what the heck is authentic cool?

Well, according to Lasn's dubious claim, "[C]ool has always been an attitude of resistance to subjugation, an expression of rebellion and a posture of defiance...." She even calls on her loyal readers to, "Start generating authentic cool from the bottom up again."

Is it just me, or have we become completely lost in semantics here?

So in my admittedly trivial quest to find out where cool actually came from, I did make some interesting discoveries. While Lasn agrees that the origin of the word can be traced back to Africa, its meaning has not always been rooted in the kind of countercultural activism she has claimed.

On the contrary, the linguistic equivalent of cool was originally conceived by certain West African tribes to describe the most desirable state of being. According to Robert Farris Thompson's "An Aesthetic of the Cool," the Gola people of Liberia defined the term as, "[The] ability to be nonchalant at the right reveal no emotion...It is particularly admirable to do difficult tasks with an air of ease and silent disdain."

This notion of coolness was also shared by the the Yoruba of Nigeria who sculpted bronze busts of kings and other notable figures in the likeness of this calm and serene aesthetic.

And low and behold, there is also a plethora of other cultural interpretations of cool:

  • sprezzatura: an Italian term with as many ambiguous meanings as its cool counterpart, used to describe an effortless artistic chic most famously personified by da Vinci's Mona Lisa--popular during High Renaissance Europe

  • Dada: an anti-war countercultural Arts movement that turned contemporary art and culture on its head--originated in Zurich, Switzerland during WWI

  • American "cool": made popular during the 1940s in both the Jazz and Beatnik countercultures

Out of all these derivations, I'm assuming the last two reflect Lasn's perceptions of authentic cool the best. But frankly, I'm doubtful if her brand of cool even exists. We can all agree that the expression has become so generic and ambiguous that it now seems, well, meaningless. And during a time when we are all struggling to restore the intrinsic value of community in the world, while trying to heighten the sense of urgency in regards to our significant social and environmental responsibilities, using cool to symbolize this movement somehow just doesn't cut it.


ZenDenizen said...

Excellent post that wove in many disparate points of view. I especially liked the I Heart Huckabees reference.


Thank you zen :) It was one of those posts that I kept asking myself--Where am I going with this?--but I think it worked out in the end. As for I Heart Huckabees, I only recently watched it for the first time and was still fresh in my mind so I had the hankering to drop a reference in one of my posts.

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