The Prisoner of Cool 1

I’ve always believed that you will only see a culture in its totality, see it thoroughly, sees its wonders and damage, when you go through the cracks.

I don’t know where this belief comes from. Perhaps it is a vestige of the New Testament I was taught in Sunday School. It severely underestimates the effects of going through the cracks – this I know from experience. Most often, instead of trying to understand the culture you spend that experience counting your pennies and looking for cheap intoxicants,  Going through the cracks is terrifying, and terror is not conducive to collecting the forces of your spirit and understanding the mechanics of the great wheel of fortune that is crushing your bones. Splinter and crack, splinter and crack.

Nevertheless, the theory is not wholly flawed. A culture’s vision of itself is manufactured by those paid to manufacture such visions – follow the money and you will soon find that the mass of our images and understandings attach to the advertisement for reality these people manufacture, often in all sincerity. This is the vision from the gated community, from the Eloi and their children. I only began really paying attention to it in the 00s, the low Bush decade, when it was stuffed down my Morlock throat good and proper.

Politically, we are supposed to believe that these issues can be understood by a simple dualism between left and right. I lost that illusion in the 00s, at least. To understand the culture when you are going through the cracks, your best guide is to follow your instinct and think of the culture as a many-splendored thing, for which you have to make up categories in your own home or hole.

What struck me then, and what continues to strike me in the Bush-lite era of the 10s, is how, instead of a left opposition, in America, you have an opposition that is the prisoner of cool.  Cool has taken the place of ‘respectability’ as the ‘moral civilization’ in which all move in lockstep, even those who have some contempt for the images projected by the Eloi.

It is a long, strange trip for cool. At one point, in the fifties, cool came in a binary: its opposite was square. Square, now, is one of those words that can only be quoted, never said straight. It is all too reference laden with a certain ersatz Hollywood swinging culture – a culture that seems more improbable than the culture of Edwardian England or the fictional Mad Max cultures of the apocalypse.

Square, of course, stood in for the respectable back in the early era of cool – which would make cool its negation. And it is in this vein that the change from respectability was actually interpreted. Robert Erwin, in a 1983 essay, What Happened to Respectability, assessed the changes of the 60s and 70s in terms of a wholesale decline in the forms of the culture that used to add up to respectability, and the triumph of the informal – a dialectic that he captures by contrasting Nixon and Saturday Night Live. Incredibly enough, in 1983 Erwin could plausibly present  the rather pallid vaudeville of Saturday Night Live as a sort of revolutionary symbol of a change in mass behavior.

|”The degree to which the ideal [of respectability] was internalized also indicates its strength. Richard Nixon
seems classic as well as villainous when he wears a suit, pressed and buttoned, to board a private airplane. Elliott Gould seems only show-biz carbonated when, smiling sweetly and wearing a ratty football jersey, he tells a national television audience that he is glad to host  “Saturday Night Live” because the progam, in his words, “has balls.” You cannot imagine, Class of 1975, what a fright, embarrassment and hostility Gould’s breaking of a taboo would have triggered in the heyday of respectability. Millions upon millions of ‘dent’ people in 1860 or 1960 went from one year to the next rarely speaking, hearing or reading such words in the open.”

Erwin, I think, mistakes a shifting of exterior symbols for a change in substance. What he was watching, I think, was the absorption of cool into a new domain of servitude – the servitude inherent in the service economy – rather than a true Bastille moment. Gould’s audience, perhaps, could not imagine a figure like Father Coughlin, in the 30s, casually talking down Jews on national radio time, or the kind of dialect humor that was omnipresent in the Gilded Age and right up to the 1950s. This is not to say that the shifting of terms was insignificant – it is merely to say that in the shift from formal to informal, from an ideal of respectability to an ideal of cool, the contradiction traversed was shallow.