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Vol. 10, No. 1, 2011
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the importance of being

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein


Thorsten Botz-Bornstein is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Gulf University (Kuwait) and author of The Cool-Kawaii: Afro-Japanese Aesthetics and New World Modernity (Lexington Books, 2010).


The aesthetics of cool developed mainly in the form of a behavioural attitude practiced by black men in the United States at the time of slavery. During this time, residential segregation made necessary the cultivation of special defense mechanisms, which employed emotional detachment as well as irony. A cool attitude helped slaves and former slaves to cope with exploitation or simply made it possible to walk streets at night. In principle, to be cool means to remain calm even under stress. During slavery and long afterwards, overt aggression of black people was punishable with death; cool represents, therefore, a paradoxical fusion of submission and subversion. For African Americans, provocation had to remain inoffensive and any level of seriousness had to be suppressed. Because the scope of responses to oppression was limited and open attack or rebellion were impossible, cool is a classical case of resistance to authority through creativity and innovation.

Today, the aesthetics of cool represents the most important phenomenon in youth culture and it is mainly distributed by Hip-Hop culture. Hip-Hop has become “the center of a mega music and fashion industry around the world” and “Black aesthetics,” whose stylistic, cognitive, and behavioural outfits are to a large extent based on cool, has arguably become “the only distinctive American artistic creation.” The African American philosopher Cornel West sees “black-based hip-hop culture of youth around the world” as a grand example of the “shattering of male, WASP cultural homogeneity.” While several recent studies have shown that American brand names have dramatically slipped in their cool quotients worldwide, what remains exportable are symbols of black coolness.

However, cool does not only appear as an approved aspect of masculinity display, but also as a symptom of anomie, confusion, anxiety, self-gratification and escapism because coolness can push individuals towards passivity more than towards an active fulfillment of life’s multiple functions. Often “it is more important to be ‘cool and down’ with the peer group than to demonstrate academic achievement,” write White and Cones. On the one hand, the signifying power or message produced by cool poses fascinates the world because of its inherent ambiguity and mysteriousness. On the other hand, the stylized way of offering resistance that insists more on appearance than on being can turn cool people into untouchable objects of desire. To be cool can be seen as a decadent attitude leading to individual passivity and social decay. The ambiguity residing in this constellation lends the cool scheme its intrinsic dynamics but it makes it also makes its evaluation very difficult.


In spite of this ambiguity is seems that we remain capable to distinguishing cool activities from uncool activities. What is cool? Let us say that cool resists and refuses linear structures, which has much to do with the above mentioned paradoxical fusion of submission and subversion. A rapper is cool, a CEO is not, unless he is a reasonable risk taker and refrains from pursuing success in a linear fashion. A president is uncool when he clings to absolute power, but he becomes cooler as soon as he voluntarily concedes power to opposing parties in order to maintain democratic values. This does not mean that the cool person needs to be an idealist; on the contrary, very few of the coolest rappers are idealists. Idealism can be extremely uncool according to the examples of both self-righteous Darwinists and creationists.

When it comes to coolness, the notion of play is more important than anything else because in games power gets fractured and becomes less serious which enables the player to develop a certain detached style while playing. And this style matters more than the pursuit of money, power and ideals.

Straightforward, linear, search for power is not cool; constant loss of power is not cool either. Winning is cool, but being ready to do anything in order to win is not. Both moralists and totally immoral people are uncool while people who maintain moral standards in straightforwardly immoral environments are most likely to be cool. In a word: coolness is a balance that manages to square circles or to personify paradoxes and this is well known at least since the time of cool jazz.

The cool person stays close to real life without getting absorbed by it. Coolness implies the power of abstraction without becoming overly abstract. Going with the masses is uncool as well as being overly eccentric. It is not cool to ‘take’ everything nor is it cool to ‘give’ everything away; it seems rather that the master of cool handles the ‘give and take’ of life as if it were a game. There is a balance that is created by style alone and not by straightforward, linear rules and laws.

In ancient Greece, the Stoic philosophers supported the vision of genuine coolness in a turbulent world. Stoic indifference can be interpreted as the supreme principle of coolness and it has even been viewed as such in the context of African American culture. The style of the jazz musician Lester Young, for example, was credible mostly because Young was neither proud nor ashamed which appears to be clearly stoic. Richard Shusterman has likened Hip Hop culture to a philosophical spirit that is also implicit in Stoicism.

Epictetus suggests establishing a strict difference between those things that depend on us and those that do not, and to develop an attitude that enables us to regard the latter as absolutely unimportant. Our impulsions, passions, attitudes, opinions, desires, beliefs and judgments all depend on us. These things we must control and improve while everything that does not depend on us (death, actions of others, or the past, for example) should leave us indifferent and apathetic. A cool attitude is determined by the insight that all those things upon which we have no influence are neither good nor bad and should best be neglected.

Stoics have been criticized for being deterministic and fatalistic. As a matter of fact, we find in this simultaneously materialist and rationalist philosophy the entire spectrum of problems linked to the idea of coolness because the stoic, just like the cool person, has to decide first ‘what’ is up to him and what is not. Should his indifference extend to areas that he believes to be without his power though in reality they are within his power, the result will be fatalism, decadence and anomie. Should he decide to care about those things that he believes to be within his power though in reality they are not, he loses his coolness. Once again, coolness is a matter of balance or, more precisely, of negotiating a way to survive in a contradictory situation. In no case can coolness be attained by following linear models of behaviour.


All this is the reason why losing and still keeping a straight face is probably the coolest behaviour one can imagine. Coolness is control, but the dictator who controls everything is not cool because he does not face a paradox. Black cool behaviour in and before the 1960s, on the other hand, was immediately linked to African American’s inability to control political and cultural oppression. These blacks were faced with the paradox of control, which made their behaviour cool. Instead of reveling in either total control or total detachment, the aesthetics and ethics of cool fractures and alienates in order to bring forward unusual constellations. In a word: the cool person lives in a constant state of alienation.




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