What is Cool? Notes on Intellectualism, Popular Culture, and Writing

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What is Cool? Notes on Intellectualism, Popular Culture, and Writing

The November 2001 issue of Wired magazine ran a “special advertising section” called “The Phenomenon of Cool.” The section highlights cool as a revolutionary force in the history of cultural and technological production. “Attempting to capture cool is a trap,” the section begins. “Cool has emerged as a series of movements, an unwavering stance of individuality, and more recently, a flash of red-hot radiation.” Even though cool supposedly can’t be named, the pages that follow map an ideal that includes items as distinct as James Dean, television, cocktails, and Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool. The advertisement concludes with a homage to technology. Media multiplied. Technology shifted gears. Cool could be beamed into 100 million homes, tracked and data-processed. Downloaded from across an ocean. Or bounced off a satellite on your wrist.

Cool became remote, the opposite of mass. It morphed into the gadget, car, person, or party available to few but coveted by many.

The 21st century, long a sci-fi daydream, is here. Its slogan is simple: If your neighbors are in on it, it can’t be cool. [1]

Somehow, at some point, if we are to believe the unnamed writers of this section, cool evolved from James Dean’s rebellious image in Rebel Without a Cause to satellite TV. The question “What is Cool?” (offered by writer Marlene Connor in her book of the same name) escapes answer as Wired implicitly suggests it means everything and nothing at once. It incorporates popular images with technological breakthroughs.

Even more allusive than Wired’s definition of cool, however, is the advertisement’s audience, purpose, and product for sale. The oddly positioned section (in the magazine’s expensive opening pages) with no indication of what it promotes prompts a number of questions regarding language employment in 21st century digital culture. What has happened to the throwaway term cool, a word once used merely to describe an individual’s cultural status (he/she is cool) or an object’s worth (these shoes are cool)? How does the mere placement of a series of cool images convey a message, as Wired’s spread attempts? Granted, its presence in an advertising section reinforces Thomas Frank’s conclusion in The Conquest of Cool that popular culture meanings, like the anti-establishment attitude associated with cool, eventually serve corporate interests in ways originally unintended. But how can the word mean rebellion and digital production, commercialism and individuality, all at once? What is cool and what do we mean by its usage?

Lest we not label the Wired issue an aberration, the April 11, 2002 Rolling Stone takes as its subtitle “The Cool Issue.” More in depth than Wired for its coverage, Rolling Stone translates cool into a series of lists. Indeed, this is the form of cool most palatable to consumer audiences who often ask: what is cool and how can I purchase it? Pre-empting the issue’s 60 pages devoted to the subject of cool, John Weir writes: “What’s cool? It came out of mystery and is still mysterious. Some have it and some don’t. Like the Supreme Court on pornography, we know it when we see it. Turn the page and see it.” [2]

What appears in the magazine’s following pages includes a hodgepodge of its selective choice of cool; the rationale for labeling these items cool seems as mysterious as the listed items’ supposed make-up. Nestled amid the larger categories of Cool SUV, Cool Babe, and Cool TV, are the subtle micro-sections entitled Permanent Cool (Sullen Stares, Muddy Waters, and On the Road), Pissed-Off Cool (Piercings, Adbusters, and Sniffing Glue), and Senior Cool (Jack Nicholson, IBM Selectric, and Never Reuniting). Rolling Stone’s point also is that cool is allusive and indefinable, its meanings perpetually shifting. Yet even so, the magazine feels a need to list a who’s who of popular acceptability.

Rolling Stone reflects the listing phenomenon associated with cool. The desire to acknowledge all cool things transforms over into electronic culture where web portals like Yahoo or Netscape construct lengthy lists of hyperlinks worth visiting and label them “cool sites.” The intellectual version of the cool list turns up in Alan Liu’s Voice of the Shuttle: Laws of Cool, a website devoted to presenting cool not as out of the ordinary, eclectic websites (as Yahoo and Netscape propose), but as an anti-intellectual movement embedded in a global, information economy void of content and meaning. Even while listing cool sites, Liu critiques cool not for rebelling against the institutional order, but for supporting it. Indeed, when we consider Wired and Rolling Stone’s transformation from anti-establishment publications to mainstream industry standards, Liu’s position holds merit. His point is further raised by Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn whose Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America situates cool as the leading factor transforming American culture into nothing more than capitalism gone wild, a place where consumerism has not only become a lifestyle, but a language. Cool, Lasn writes, is “a heavily manipulative corporate ethos” motivating American culture.

Cool is indispensable– and readily, endlessly, dispensed. You can get it on every corner (for the right price), though it’s highly addictive and its effects are short-lived. If you’re here for cool today, you’ll almost certainly be back for more tomorrow. [3]

In this sense, the places where electronic culture (the Web), intellectualism (Voice of the Shuttle), and consumer culture represented as the generic term popular culture (Wired and Rolling Stone) merge are where cool dominates our daily lives in ways we have yet to thoughtfully consider.

Cool is Discourse

Then is cool a language? Borrowing from Marshall McLuhan’s characterization of cool media (media low in definition which require high viewer participation to make sense of), Jean Baudrillard theorizes cool as an electronic discourse. In Symbolic Exchange and Death, Baudrillard proposes that electronic communication replaces signification with commutation as the basis of contemporary discursive practices. Baudrillard claims that the electronic age leads to the replacement of symbolic exchange with commutability. “From now on, signs are exchanged against each other rather than against the real;” signs have become “totally indeterminate, in the structural or combinatory play which succeeds the previous rule of determinate equivalence.” Signs have become reversible, commutable, and exchangeable without dependence on referents. Determinate meanings yield to indeterminacy. “There has been an extermination (in the literal sense of the word) of the real of production and the real of signification.” Baudrillard calls this form of expression cool; it represents “the pure play of the values of discourse and the commutations of writing.”[4]

It is the ease and aloofness of what now only really plays with codes, signs, and words, the omnipotence of operational simulation. To whatever extent affects of systems of reference remain, they remain hot. Any “message” keeps us in the hot. We enter the cool era when the medium becomes the message. [5]

Wired and Rolling Stone’s interest in cool, therefore, makes sense when read as cool discourse. It’s not that all of the items the magazines identify as cool are, in fact, cool. It’s the conveyance of a commutable system of exchange, what these magazines perform by listing, that is cool. In this process, any item can be exchanged with any other, and we still have cool.

Sample This Sample That

For digital culture, cool as commutation sets up an alternative conception of writing. When Kenneth Anger commutated the iconic imagery of Marlon Brando, Li’l Abner, and Jesus in his 1963 film Scorpio Rising, he practiced cool as a commutative writing system. When Grandmaster Flash spins “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash and the Wheels of Steel,” and the cut and break sampled lines of Blondie’s “Rapture” call out: Flash is Fast/ Flash is cool, we hear commutative writing. Anger and Grandmaster Flash mark distinct moments in the history of cool writing, bookends of the sampling process. Anger’s sampled iconography of popular culture, cut and pasted as a critique of 1950s and 1960s attitudes regarding sexuality, acts as an early attempt to transgress the limitations imposed by print culture’s adherence to representation. Anger pushes technology (film) to new levels through the practice of commutation and sampling. The film industry took note of Anger’s samples, but quickly returned to linear narrative and Hollywood-based continuity protocols.

Sampling, highlighted by early DJs like Grandmaster Flash, however, unleashes cool as writing where film failed.

Sampling, as Kodwo Eshun writes, is a digital writing system exemplified as skratchadelia, a commutating machine challenging discursive structures.

Skratchadelia phaseshifts music into a new phonoplastic alloy. Voices are molecularized into chattering, gibbering textures, into globules of pitch that grumble and shift along the spectrum of Technics speed, plashed and panned by the transformer switch. [6]

Sampling constructs cool writing through cuts and breaks. Breaks are determined by how DJs produce cuts in previously recorded music. “The cut is a command, a technical and conceptual operation which cuts the lines of association.” [7] Or as Tricia Rose writes in Black Noise, “Break beats are points of rupture in their former contexts, points at which the thematic elements of a musical piece are suspended and the underlying rhythms brought center stage. In the early stages of rap, these break beats formed the core of rap DJs’ mixing strategies.” [8]The cut establishes a form of critique originally conceptualized by William S. Burroughs who instructed early samplers to “Cut word lines” [9]. Cutting breaks cultural associations and redirects attention to alternative communicative strategies.

Through sampling, the DJ represents the new, cool writer. While DJs and hip hop artists have adopted cool as moniker (i.e. Kool Herc, Kool Keith, Kool Moe D, DJ Kool, L.L Cool J, Coolio), as song lyric (Digable Planets’ “Cool Like Dat”), or because of taste (this record sounds cool), seldom has sampling been equated with cool for its writing methodology. Indeed, the electronic turntablism DJs employ to create what Rose calls a “post-literate” composition, marks the moment where cool elevates from empty signifier to generalizable practice. Sampling produces what DJ Spooky (Paul Miller) calls “copy culture,” a “mixed tape culture” of “infinite multiples” where meanings are exchanged in a variety of ways and through a variety of approaches. [10] Sampling, therefore, is Baudrillard’s cool writing. Baudrillard’s notion of a communicative system based on commutation in place of referentiality has earned little commentary for its self-named status as cool, even though Baudrillard uses the term. Where popular culture meets academic study, we find cool. What, then, is cool, and what does it mean to intellectual production?

Cool as Intellectualism

Can intellectualism be cool? Not to return to the definitions of cool raised by Wired or Rolling Stone or even Liu, but can we imagine a state of intellectualism centered on the notion of commutation, or, in its electronic form, as sampling? Can we “cut” associations tied to the institutional apparatus and “break” to a cool discursive practice? In The University in Ruins, Bill Readings hypothesizes the university as “non-referential” and argues that the university “no longer refers to a specific set of things or ideas.” [11] Like Baudrillard’s cool, therefore, the university has been commutated; its meanings are displaced as cultural markers sampled, cut and pasted in various fashions as a reflection on any number of corporate or political activities Readings feels the university has become occupied by. Readings aligns this sense of dereferentialization with so-called subversive writing styles cool often draws upon, such as Burroughs and Situationist sampling practices. Readings “tries to make dereferentialization the occasion for d√©tournements and radical lateral shifts.” [12] Framed in Readings’ notion of academic work, cool dereferentializes.

This is the cool Wired and Rolling Stone inadvertently attempt to construct when they present the term as a list. In fact, the jumbled selections the magazines present of video games, models, rock bands, dead actors, and even food function as cultural samples. Unlike DJ sampling, however, these magazines leave out the mix. To construct cool discourse, sampling must be mixed. Otherwise, the commutative moments remain distinct and isolated; they continue to function as cultural markers with no evident substance, much as Liu envisions cool. The mixer, the electronic device used to juxtapose disparate sounds, determines production in cool writing by completing the commutation process. Signification yields to meaning shifts. And as these shifts occur, new knowledge is produced. “The mix gets inside us,” Erik Davis writes, “and changes the way the world arises before us.”

From turntables to samplers, technology helped bring this “mix mind” into being. But the mix also prepares us for the world of technology, a world where everything is interconnected, where every sound, image, and word imaginable can be translated into the universal lingo of the bit-and then spliced anew. [13]

Cool writing, performed as sampling, produces meaning through interlinking existing discursive practices with new insight. As Ulf Poschardt claims, “The remixer isn’t concerned with salvaging authenticity, but with creating a new authenticity.” [14] This new authenticity surfaces in Readings’ call for a dereferentialized university.

The mix, consequently, is the lesson for future intellectual work. To be cool writers, we employ the mix as academic practice and thus become engaged with electronic culture in ways the university has yet to fathom. In this sense, the cool intellectual differs greatly from the intellectual/scholar Wayne Booth polemically described in “The Scholar in Society” over twenty years ago:

What makes a scholar a scholar is the willingness to sit alone, for long periods, trying to learn something that cannot be learned “in society,” something that cannot be learned except through sustained private inquiry.[15]

Instead of this traditional vision of intellectual work as private and individual, I consider cool intellectualism as a mix. Cool mixes discourse with discourse, practice with discipline, theory with work. The cool methods I outline here in these notes require further definition, and only through discussion and practice will they eventually be established in the university setting. By drawing on samples to construct discourse, the highly participatory cool medium McLuhan described becomes actualized. Discourse commutates into an ever interlinking chain connecting the university’s ruins, as Readings identifies them, as samples mixed down in our writing. [16]

Notes

[1] “A Special Advertising Section.” Wired. November 2001. ix-xv.p. ix.

[2] Weir, John. “The Beautiful American Word ‘Cool.'” Rolling Stone. April 2001.p. 67.

[3]Lasn, Kalle. Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America. New York: Eagle Brook, 1999 pgs.xiii-xiv.

[4] Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Iain Hamilton Grant trans. London: Sage, 1993. p. 7.

[5]ibid, p. 22.

[6] Eshun, Kodowo. More Brilliant than The Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet, 1999. p.15.

[7] Ibid, p. 16.

[8] Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Black Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1994. pgs. 73-74.

[9] Burroughs, William S. Nova Express. New York: Grove Press, 1992 (1964). p. 62.

[10] DJ Spooky. “Sound Unbound.” Hybrid Discourse.
http://www.i-dat.org/projects/hybrid/discourse.html

[11] Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. p. 17.

[12] Ibid, pgs. 167-168.

[13] Davis, Erik. “The Future Mix.” 10 Jan. 2002. http://www.techgnosis.com/futuremix.html

[14] Poschardt, Ulf. DJ Culture. London: Quartet, 1998. p. 34.

[15] Booth, Wayne. “The Scholar in Society.” Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures. Ed, Joseph Gibaldi. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1981. p. 117.

[16] I thank Bradley Dilger and Denise Cummings for their suggestions on an earlier version of this essay.

Jeff Rice is an instructor of media studies and writing in the University of Florida’s Networked Writing Environment. He is currently working on a book length project entitled: The Rhetoric of Cool: Computers, Cultural Studies, and Composition.