the importance of being
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).
STOICISM AND AFRICAN AMERICAN-CULTURE
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.
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.
WHAT IS COOL?
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.
LIVING WITH THE PARADOXES OF COOLNESS
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.