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Thread: Aesthetics of Cool

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    Lightbulb Aesthetics of Cool

    You know how it is. On one hand, and this is the most principalled way of conceiving it, we are driven by a hunger for new sounds to distort our perception of the world into fascinating new shapes. On the other, the drive to acquire music is, lets face it, associated with what is seen as a debased volition to "be cool." Debased because one plays what is seen to be capitalism's game, debased because one is engaged in a seemingly pointless pursuit- the acquisition of an invisible, essentially meaningless status, as a means of reinforcing one's own fallacious sense of self-worth.

    Recently I've been thinking (in my own small way) that by dismissing this latter instinct as the worst kind of empty hipsterism we might be missing something. That perhaps these motives might map onto a larger matrix of behaviour. Thinking that it might be worth considering the acquisition of "cool" as having some kind of more profound meaning.

    In my vision of this theory I'd create an implicit connection between the cold abstract demeanour of the hipster and his/her confidence in the "amulets" which give them power. It'd be to easy to dismiss this link with the observation that the most intently rapt devourers of culture are often frothing at the mouth. Aren't these people usually vivacious proselytsers for their own brands of culture, and therefore hardly diffident? I don't think this can diminish their core distance. Even the frothiest hipster enjoys a comforting perspective in the company of "lesser mortals". Indeed I've noticed that many of the most hyper-sensitive consumers of culture, even if they are masters of conveying their own enthusiasms, (true to this theoretical pairing between hipsterism and "the cool") DO tend to be diffident. If they weren't diffident, they'd be be swamped by culture, too easily excitable to critque acutely.

    I'm only partially in possession of the kind of theoretical knowledge that'd be able to illuminate these fumblings. I do have a few pointers however. There must be some kind of socio-historical history of "cool", some text which defines human being's deployment of the armament of "cool", a work which takes in the psychological machinations of the french aristocracy and blue mountain rastas and their use of signifiers to territorialise their demeanour.

    Actually I'll admit to be being curious that the notion of "cool" has a quite explicit socio-historical descent. I remember David Toop alluding the attitude's origin in West African witchcraft. Obviously much of the occult is concerned with the ways in which certain modes of behaviour can have calculated effects (I'd tend to view this kind of manipulation of the environment as a social science/psychological trick, but you could just as easily take the other side if you were so inclined). In this afro-centric visioning of the phenomenon, the "cool" meme passes into Blues and Jazz and into the broader culture. Now with Wiley and his frozen wastes we have the latest incarnation froideur. As a sidenote I was fascinated to hear on Trim's Bogeyman Wiley threatening to "break your face down, bring the spirits in..."

    Beyond the voodoo jiggery-pokery entailed in my vision of what is entailed in "cool", it's tactical detournement of street politics, there is an element of "cool" which pertains to the mutabilty of existence. Isn't there some part of the desire to constantly remain at the edge of things which is to do with attempting to control or arrest the passing of time? With each new acquisition we believe we have "fixed" the flux, nailed into place the world's location and our relationship to it.

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    Well I think that 'cool' is by and large (surprise) a psychological state of mind, and that when one assimilates and processes culture into their lives they essentially open doorways and, as you say, distort our perception of the world into fascinating new shapes. But isn't this, the apparent first reason why we listen to music, ultimately make us cool in that it softly creates new imaginary worlds within our inner most consciousness, makes us, to quote Toop again, more aware of our non-verbal selves in a meditative (with a small m) act of self-actualisation? And isn't this what it really means to be cool, to be in a state of 'enlightenment', so to speak, and to make us better equipped to tackle lifes many tribulations? Surely the accumulation of cultural capital, of cultural credit, is merely the fickle residue of this quest, which can at times given the content of the listener's character, override the initial purpose of discovery, and which does, at face value, happen to appeal to others. But isn't the very fact that it is appealing come from this first reason? That people, on seeing someone devour culture, think that they must be a 'cool' dude whos coloured and enriched their life with music? Then again, this could just be my own distorted perceptions of cool coming through

    Every human has to tackle with self-doubt, every human has to tackle with the problem of identity, of self-validation and of reassurence that what they are doing is right, or indeed 'cool'. Thus, for a consumer of culture it is only natural to, at times, reflect back on their knowledge and feel proud, high and mighty. This is what you mean by reinforcing one's own fallacious sense of self-worth. For me the idea of cool arose out of people's uncontrollable quest for self-validation in the presence of wider culture and society. I believe it has no more profound meaning, and is in fact a meaningless status that people identify with. It is a societal construct that has no objective meaning (surprise surprise again!) and is created in the process of territorialisation. I think in Ocean of Sound, Toop relates the terms cool and chill to african american slang in the 19th century for killing someone, and the serious, staunch demeanour somehow passed on to become what we know today as 'cool'.

    arrhhhh its 9:30am i can't write anymore. Very interesting topic, Matt. Not sure if my input made much sense hah.

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    Its also about wanting hot girls/guys to want to fuck you.

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    Quote Originally Posted by childOftheBlogosphere
    Surely the accumulation of cultural capital, of cultural credit, is merely the fickle residue of this quest, which can at times given the content of the listener's character, override the initial purpose of discovery, and which does, at face value, happen to appeal to others.
    Yep. All good points bruv. Though I suppose I'm trying (and its flying in the face of decency and reason, lol) to try and retheorise that oft-dismissed "residue".

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    Quote Originally Posted by DavidD
    Its also about wanting hot girls/guys to want to fuck you.
    innit.

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    Quote Originally Posted by WOEBOT
    innit.
    Haha, everytime you guys use that word it makes me laugh (dreams are weird, innit? haha). I wish we had something like that in Australia. I still don't quite understand what defines innit. Like obviously its 'isn't it' but its come to describe a wider range of questioning. Someone explain to me and forever destroy my ignorance.

    (and obviously the social transgression factor that woebot described in the animal collective/junior boys etc thread comes into the equation, making it even funnier )

    And do we all agree that trying to be cool for the sake of it is in itself shallow and pathetic?

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    Quote Originally Posted by WOEBOT
    There must be some kind of socio-historical history of "cool", some text which defines human being's deployment of the armament of "cool", a work which takes in the psychological machinations of the french aristocracy and blue mountain rastas and their use of signifiers to territorialise their demeanour.
    And yea i forgot to mention that this would make a very cool dissertation, even though i believe, as aforementioned, that cool is societally-constructed residue and nothing more. Would make one hell of a read, if slightly ridiculous.

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    isn't 'eh' (A) the antipodean equivelent of innit/

    it's hot eh bro
    r a
    how about those wallabies eh
    etcetc

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    Talking

    Quote Originally Posted by childOftheBlogosphere
    Haha, everytime you guys use that word it makes me laugh
    actually i successfully swore off using "innit" for ages. i nicked it off sufi and wore the hell out of it. still, i like it.

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    If you're after a full-on academic discussion of coolness (or hipness), you could do worse than download the pdf to be found here:

    http://mq.oupjournals.org/cgi/reprint/86/1/49

    [Philip Ford, 2002: 'Somewhere/Nowhere: Hipness as an Aesthetic', Musical Quarterly lxxxvi/1, pp.49-81]

    It might not be what you're after, but it could be a useful place to find a reading list if you wanted one. Another (academic) article that looks good is here:

    http://psc.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/27/6/1,

    but you need a subscription to view it online...

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    Quote Originally Posted by WOEBOT
    Actually I'll admit to be being curious that the notion of "cool" has a quite explicit socio-historical descent. I remember David Toop alluding the attitude's origin in West African witchcraft.
    "Cool philosophy is a strong intellectual attitude, affecting incredibly diverse provinces of artistic happening, yet leavened with humor and a sense of play. It is an all important mediating process, accounting for similarities in art and vision in many tropical African societies. It is a matrix from which stem ideas about being generous, clear, percussively patterned, harmonized with others, balanced, finished, socially perfected, worthy of destiny. In other words, the criterion of coolness seems to unite and animate all the other canons.
    Coolness is a metaphor for proper living; it symbolizes moral aesthetic accomplishment. It requires an attention to balance and harmony. It shades into behavior as well as art: "Coolness is the proper way you represent yourself to a human being"
    In Yoruba art, the face is a focal point of this concept. Babatunde Lawal a Yoruba art historian calls attention to the connection between face and coolness when he says that to " ... tame or pacify is to 'cool the face'" (Thompson 1974/1983, in Yarbrough, T.: "A concept of face in Afro-American culture.")

    It would be interesting to investigate this concept of cool with the notion of maintaining 'itutu' ("grace under pressure") as attributed to people like Fela Kuti.

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    It seems to me like there is some kind of confusion going on (or maybe I am reading that into the discussion).

    There's cool as in "grace under pressure", "lack of unnecessary emotion".
    And there's cool as in "hip", "superior to others", "in the know".

    Are we talking about both, either? There could certainly be a connection, if one posseses the first then it is easier to display the second.

    I think Matt's point makes more sense with respect to the latter notion of "cool". I certainly do not possess the former one and yet by getting some musical artifacts that I feel have "hipness" to them I feel a kind of superiority to "them" (those people out there). It's like secret knowledge or something. Musical quality is certainly part of it but sometimes I feel they are cool just because certain people say so and then it is just trying to participate, to belong to this virtual group. Wasn't there a discussion before on how people of the same social class have similar musical tastes (this was in the topic about Carioca Funk). Cool is then belonging to this group that you deem better than others.

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    Default hip: the history

    a guy called John Leland, veteran musicetc specialisign a lot in hip hop writer in the US, has just published a book called Hip: the History -- the little bits i've read seem quite cringy (mainly cos he tries to write "hip" as well as do an archaelogy of hip) but some people rate it quite highly. his basic thesis is that it's all about white-on-black stuff.

    interestingly cf. origins of the cool/grace under pressure concept in West Africa, Leland relates how slangologist Clarence Major traces the word "hip" back to West African /Senegal and Gambian verb "hepi" meaning to see and "hipi", which means "open one's eyes". so being hip relates as was said above to secret knowledge, suss, subcultural capital

    yeah i agree also with what was said upthread there's a slight conflation of cool as a kind affectlessness or you-cant-reach-touch-or-impress me style imperturtability (i think of the expressionless frozen-faced japanese kid in that jarmusch's Mystery Train, with his cigarettes and rockabilly hair as ultimate symbol of the pathos of aspiring to cool) and then hip as knowledge. some people who are hip are uncool -- they're burbling enthusiasts. And lots of cool people aren't actually hip.

    of the two attributes, "hip" seems to me to the more desirable and defensible project, since although in practise most hipsters want to impress and require interlocutors, it's much more in essence about interior stuff, the personal treasure of sensibilty. whereas cool definitely is mainly about an audience, how you pass through public space.

    that said ,like i'm sure a lot of people here, i often use the word hipster as a kind of pejorative term -- and that habit has a kind of bad faith about it -- in the same way that rock critics often use the word "rock critic" in reference to a mentality or set of thoughts/assumptions/mental habits as a kind of insult, as if they could somehow exempt themselves from the category rock critic so easily!

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    I wish I had more time to take part in this discussion as it gets to the core of what I'm working on these days (which is, ironically, why I don't have the time).

    In any case, there were a couple books I wanted to mention in this context. Sarah Thornton's Club Cultures develops a Bourdieu-inspired notion of "subcultural capital" - essentially a political economy of cool, from what I gather. I've yet to get very deep into this one. It seems useful, though in a sense I think it's going in a different direction from Matt's argument and it's socio-historical questions. Though cool, in whatever form it takes, may represent a fundamentalism of the now or the future, I think its unravelling can only be achieved through a historical approach.

    I'd add to any analysis that cool is predominantly, though not universally, a gendered designation in that, in most scenes, cool seems to come down to one's ability to perform or relate to a codification of masculinity. Of course there are heaps of exceptions. But it's interesting that feminist-activist scenes like riot grrrl or the current electro-feminist punk scene are largely concerned with breaking down cool in an effort to enforce inclusionism. This could be over compensation in a sense. And certainly new forms of cool are created there.

    But to take this a step further, cool also seems to be largely about performing a particularly 'black' form of masculinity. A stereotypical form of black masculinity. I'm not talking about anything inherent or essential here. But a construct that is performed by people of whatever background as a condition of their belonging to whatever subculture. Sometimes it takes ironic form or it goes unacknowledged/forgotten. I certainly wouldn't just reduce it to white-on-black as perhaps Leland does. Obviously, this leads to a whole heap of other questions. If it was before, I don't think it's hegemonic any longer - in any direction. Gilroy is good on this one in Against Race. bell hooks has recently written We Real Cool - Black Men and Masculinity. It's gets into some different territory but I think it could offer something to a socio-historical reading of cool.

    I like the approach Matt suggests - not reducing the whole enterprise to questions of fetishism, spectacle and consumerist submission. There's obviously a deeper current running through the obsession with cool. The vogue for fragmentation and difference in cultural theory really only serves to highlight divisions between different incarnations of cool, but a productive universalist approach (while profoundly uncool) could go some way to locating this fundamental need in a historical context.
    Last edited by nomos; 12-11-2004 at 05:01 PM.

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    I know the etymology isn't really Matt's point but it's fascinating.

    It set me wondering about the use of 'hot' (Westwood: 'Damn that joint is hot!') and Miles Davis sprang to mind. You get all those albums with heat metaphors (Cookin' Steamin' etc.) and then Birth of the Cool.

    Had a quick look at the OED and guess what...

    d. Applied to jazz music: restrained or relaxed in style; also applied to the performer; opp. HOT a. orig. U.S.

    1947 (record by Charlie Parker Quartet, Dial 1015) Cool Blues. 1948 Life 11 Oct. 138 Bebop: New Jazz School is Led by Trumpeter Who is Hot, Cool and Gone. 1950 Christian Sci. Monitor 8 Feb. 15 Bop is ‘cool’ jazz in contrast to the ‘hot’ variety of the swing or Dixieland schools. 1953 Melody Maker 9 May 5 Hot and coolyou've got to hear the lot. 1955 L. FEATHER Encycl. Jazz (1956) 30 Cool jazz to most musicians and students denotes the understated, behind-the-beat style typified by the arrangements and soloists on the Davis records. 1957 H. PANASSIÉ in S. Traill Concerning Jazz 61 The ‘cool’ musicians..stopped using the traditional jazz technique and tone. 1962 J. WAIN Strike Father Dead IV. 204 The new developments which were to become first bebop and then just bop and finally cool jazz.

    e. Hence, characteristic of those who favour ‘cool’ music; relaxed; unemotional; also used loosely as a general term of approval; cool cat: see CAT n.1 2c. colloq. (orig. U.S.).

    1948 New Yorker 3 July 28 The bebop people have a language of their own... Their expressions of approval include ‘cool’! 1953 Time 14 Sept. 68/3 The latest Tin Pan Alley argot, where ‘cool’ means good, ‘crazy’ means wonderful. 1955 N.Y. Times 22 May VI. 19/2 Maybe it's all these new buildings breeding more of these cool Brooks Brothers cats. 1955 Sci. News Let. 1 Oct. 221/2 This is not cool chatter between some young hep-cats in a smoke-filled jazz joint. 1957 Sunday Mail (Glasgow) 10 Feb. 11 Gonethe best, in the top rung, the coolest. 1958 Observer 23 Nov. 16/3 On one side was the frenetic..bumptiousness of the rock-'n'-rollers, on the other the calculated indifference of the cool cats. 1959 Ibid. 25 Oct. 29/8 They got long, sloppy haircuts and wide knot ties and no-press suits with fat lapels. Very cool.


    That's the origin of it and the two uses of the word that DigitalDigit talks about are related; one flows from the other. However, there's clearly been a transference in meaning, at least in the UK, such that it's just the second meaning, or even just an expression of approval.

    There is definitely a white/black thing going on in those citations as well. Doesn't hip also have roots like that? (Never read Norman Mailer, The White Negro but that sort of thing and the Beats, presumably, is where the word is coming from.)

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