Thursday, October 17, 2013

the paradox of cool

Seth Stevenson at Slate says that tech geeks can't be cool because cool by definition can't include social media neediness, concern about image, and plugged-in-ness. Cool is not preening. Cool is indifference (says he):
When marketing company “coolhunters” go a-hunting for cool, are they in search of the kind of people who engage with popular culture and rave about new mass-market products? Of course not. They look for the truly cool kids with their own internal cool compasses—people wholly indifferent to what everyone else is doing.
There's something to that but he missed an extremely important element. Let me fix it: "They look for...people who give the appearance of being wholly indifferent to what everyone else is doing while actually being particularly well tuned-in to it."

Art and fashion (and less obviously and directly and to varyingly lesser extents, pretty much every intellectual endeavor) are driven by desired transcendence, often by fear of suffocating death by banality or the horror at one's similarity to the conformist dolts despised by the observer within and reactive attempts at escape. But not only that. They are driven in every case by a desire to, finally, present their work to someone for approval. You cannot have art without exhibition(s). (And even the most self-assured artist has an internalized other watching. If that other is not demanding, the art will suffer.)

The kid who is wholly indifferent doesn't exist but the closest thing is the one picking her nose in the corner. She's examining a dead butterfly, scratching her ass, wearing clothes that don't fit and clash badly.
Stevenson disapproves an understanding of cool that amounts to seeking and winning the approval of pop culture, but this is what it means. His version is a paradox.

Practically all teenagers are humiliated* ritually and daily by authoritarian figures and the appeal of cool is that it seems to offer an alternative. "You don't have to be what they want you to be!" The teenagers, on the other hand, who are routinely applauded by adults for their future human capital development, who are on the path to inner circle tribal membership, often come to peace with their humiliation, too doped up on the compensatory ego happy of back pats and straight As to ask "why the fuck has my entire life been arranged for me from the alarm bell to the opening bell to the closing bell to the dinner bell?" Cool, or pop culture approval, sets itself up against this conformity by offering a conformity presented as non-conformity. It's non-conformist by default in the way Democrats end up playing the pacifists, reality be damned. Cool is opium for the rejects.   

Not coincidentally for the sellers of cool, it can be bought. Being pounded on as future human capital takes its toll and the escape offers molded plastic hope. Schools mold perfect consumers (or herd them to the mall, you might say) as a side effect of their attempt to mold perfect human capital.

*if that's too strong for you, feel free to insert a watered down (and probably miguided!) version of same   

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