Monday, October 1, 2012

The concept of cool

Cool*, more often than not, is stupid. It's cool to live dangerously, but stupid.

Actually, I feel more comfortable talking about what's not cool than what is: the not-cool is more my area of expertise.

So, let me say that scholarly pursuits are not generally considered cool (though some scholars manage to be cool in spite of this fact). It is not generally considered cool to put a premium on safety and good health. To be too careful about one's diet. To plan. To spend any time or effort, for example, working out an investment or retirement plan. Definitely not cool.

Genes have got a lot to do with this. They want us (I am personifying them as a form of shorthand) to reproduce, and so distort everything to favor behaviors conducive to reproducing, but once we have passed the peak reproducing age they lose interest. They certainly have no interest in our leading long lives, healthy or otherwise.

I, by contrast, like the idea of staying alive; and I like the idea of having enough money and not having to work for any longer than necessary.

Cool is a trick, like fashion is a trick, like peacocks' tails are a trick played on peacocks by their genes.

People smoke cigarettes because it's dangerous and cool (in some circles). It may help attract mates. But it's stupid.

Drugs of course, and the whole rock culture (the culture, note, not the music). Some other music cultures. Driving fast. Unprotected sex. Getting into fights. Sky diving, scuba diving, white water rafting...

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Okay, so some people might have a good reason to jump out of an aeroplane or ride a wild river or go deep beneath the surface of the sea: soldiers, escapees, professional divers. They are not thrill-seekers; they are exempted from my criticisms.

Work aside, most of what most people do and are interested in is stupid.

Even if much of it is cool.

Cool may be stupid, but stupid is certainly not always cool. The really sad people are the ones who manage to be both stupid and uncool in their behavior.

So cool is not entirely negative. I am happy to concede this.

It is a fact everybody knows perfectly well as it happens: cool has its compensations.

* I know the word is hopelessly vague and ambiguous, but this is all part of the mystique of the concept I am trying to explicate here. You can't tie it down or describe it explicitly because its very nature is to be not explicitly definable.


  1. I hadn't previously equated being cool with either conspicuous, unnecessary risk-taking nor with being evolutionarily advantageous, but now that you mention it . . .

    It's an even crueller trick of sexual selection than the peacock's tail - the peacock's tail is a burden, but it just makes staying alive slightly more challenging. It doesn't drive its owner to jump out of planes or drink until he passes out. Or attempt to skeleton down a mountainside.

    The peacock's tail makes living more difficult, but it doesn't make the peacock try to kill himself.

    1. Risky behaviour is not necessarily cool and cool behaviour is not necessarily risky, but there is a correlation I think.

      Also, I see a connection between our notion of cool and older notions of status and honour. The latter often involved significant hazards to health. Duelling, for example.

  2. Mansfield Park is a story about cool and uncool, is it not? And about how real morality goes deeper than cool and uncool?

    1. But Jane Austen's critique of fashionable values is predicated at least in part on religious beliefs, so the issues we discussed in relation to my previous blog post come up again and complicate the picture.

      And, paradoxically, Jane Austen's authorial persona has such wit and style that calling it/her cool seems not inappropriate. (I think this might be because, although she criticized the fashionable world of her time, she was also a part of it.)