Circumstances Often Operate Loosely: on the Definition of Cool
In 2007, during the first few weeks of my freshman year in High School, I made a small, but significant change. As I walked through the halls of my new school, slightly disoriented, but entertained at the notion of what was to come for the next four years, I felt a strange, inviting freedom to start over, to reinvent Favio as people knew me, as I even knew myself. I consciously decided to walk more purposefully one day, keeping confidence in my stride and a sense of swagger resembling the ones commonly seen in the Hip-Hop community (minus the saggy jeans). To accompany this, I began to wear my bookbag with a single strap. “What, “ my friend Manny would say, “you’re too cool to wear both straps?” “Fosho”, I’d say with a chuckle. After a while, I kept these things in the back of my mind. They became so common in my daily life, that I didn’t have a need to constantly take note of them. However, every now and then I would get a comment from a schoolmate complimenting or acknowledging (they both translated similarly in my head) my walk. I thought to myself, “cool, I guess I have a walk”.
The kids who liked my walk were probably respecting a cool move by my part, rather than acknowledging my walk as a brand new, mind-blowing thing, much like how you would reinforce your friend with a “nice!” as he shakes two defenders and makes the layup on the court, and that’s just what it was, reinforcement. Cool seems to thrive from reinforcement, either by flattery (such as replication), or by praise and admiration. This only inspires more cool ideas to emerge. Ironically enough, negativity or “hate” as it is often called on the streets, also promotes cool. The equation for cool goes as follows:
(Calm, smart, manipulation of circumstance + reinvention + unspoken confidence + the illusion of lack of effort) (Some % social approval) = Cool
It’s complicated, because cool entirely relies on circumstance, but the coolest things seem to navigate through different Cs or temporarily give the illusion that they don’t exist. For example: I wasn’t the coolest or the most popular guy in Middle School, but a new C to play in gave me the opportunity to give the illusion that I’ve been cool all my life, and soon the lines between cool and uncool begin to blur. An 18th century Scottish philosopher named David Hume once said “He is happy whom circumstances suit his temper; but he is more excellent who suits his temper to any circumstance.” Replace the time-eroded “excellent” with present-day “cool” and we now have the manipulation of circumstance part of the equation.
Well, It All Depends on the Circumstances
So what’s uncool? Essentially, we fear being “uncool” so much, that a sort of hegemony forms every time something is deemed as uncool. A similar one seems to form for cool, although it seems to have more resistance. Common social moral issues seem to be agreed upon in terms of coolness. If I were to say, “Stabbing your best friend’s wife is not cool”, you’d probably agree. “Cool” in a moral sense, translates to “right” because as Sassure puts it, “signs are relational to other signs in the system”. In the system of morals, cool takes on a different meaning than it does with clothing. No big deal considering the conventional nature of words like cool. Interpreting “cool” in the moral sense is possibly one of the least complex forms of cool. In morality, while the possibility of dispute exists, little is actually debated commonly. The farther we navigate from rigid circumstances like morality, the harder defining “cool” becomes. But what about killing your best friend’s wife is uncool, exactly? The simplest way would be to say, “Because it is the generally unacceptable thing to do”. Cool seems to work in general terms, meaning that large amounts of people need to agree that something is cool in order for it to stick. Everybody is doing it, so it must be cool (within that circumstance). Because once you’re no longer in that circumstance, it is ok to believe it not to be cool or simply not care. You have to deal with the cool things in that circumstance instead.
It is easy to think of cool in the pragmatist view. It is all just a story depending on circumstance. If I created the C in which I overheard my best friend’s wife planning to assassinate my best friend, and caught her in the act of doing so, killing her wouldn’t’ seem so uncool anymore. In fact, it would be kind of cool that I saved my best friend. Twisting stories not only justifies them, it makes them cool. In another circumstance, a lack of a story whatsoever can be cool. In an interview with Maroon 5, when asked about the origins of their name, they said, “We made a vow that we would never tell anyone”, are secrets cool in interviews? Well, you certainly can’t just spill your mojo all over the place; you’d lose your cool.
Community of Cool
Cool, much like any idea in general, is dependent on people to spread. So once wearing your favorite 80’s style Wayfarers is cool again, it takes a few people in your C to influence your own decision in sporting them. If you end up with too many people in your C, you may be needing to find something else to rock because it’s not that cool anymore. Your C isn’t always your inner circle of friends and family, but may also be things like the celebrities you associate yourself with, the magazines you read, the literature, the movies you watch, and anything that you look to in your quest for cool. There is a sense of community among those who are seeking the same sort of cool. On the other hand, everyone in that group needs to identify with their own mix of things or else the nature of cool suffers.
For example, in a rock band circumstance, the band acts as the central community in which the general principles of cool shared among the members dwell. Each member needs to find their own cool in the band by incorporating this community element into their own reinvented style. It’s very common to see the drummer wearing a tank top, the bass player wearing a plaid shirt, and the lead singer having a casual dress shirt and tie as long as the color schemes are similar. Even hairstyles may vary, so on as the “group cool” is still in tact.
Notice how the Kings of Leon don’t smile in their picture. Is it not cool to smile anymore? Cool always tries to sell itself in pictures because it needs support. Maybe instead of saying “cheese”, these guys are saying, “cool.” Except they’re not, because that would mean that they are trying.
This girl had been walking into Starbucks every morning at 7:30 on the dot. I was always busy doing homework at this time and couldn’t find the right circumstance to talk to her. I’d always leave slightly regretting the fact that I never made my move, but resting assure I’d have other chances if her routine proved true. So I strategically placed myself near where I expected she’d sit and began typing this essay until she arrived. 7:30 hit and she walked in, placed her things down at the chair next to me and went over to get her coffee. I started thinking of the best approach to make conversation with her. I was essentially telling myself to “be cool”, because when you present yourself to someone you have given importance to, your behavior needs to be at its coolest. The balance was friendly, but not too eager, I couldn’t seem invested. I used my essay to ask her who she thought was the coolest person she knew. She replied “Mm, that’s a tough one. I’d have to say my grandma”. “Your grandma,” I replied “and why exactly?” “Well she came from Cuba during tough times and made a life for herself and everything.” I suspected she wasn’t being totally honest, it seemed more of like the easiest justified response she could think of based on something I’d probably have to agree on based on the situation created. However, two things were brought to my attention: Cool is highly influenced by respect, and it is highly dishonest or exaggerated. Sometimes one must bend the truth to fit cool, and if you get caught, you suffer the consequences by trying too hard, if you succeed, you win the respect or social approval of who you are talking to. It has to be nonchalant. My approach to talking to this girl required a sense of indifference about the outcome, even though the mere approach was rooted in a desired outcome. Those wayfarers mask your intense attempt at cool, until everyone realizes, and now you have to hide behind something new. We seem to navigate through circumstance with a permanently flexible mask of cool. She has a boyfriend, by the way. But I was too cool to care.