A breezy account of “the concept of Cool” attempting to use it “to explain the evolution of popular culture over the last 50 years.”
Former magazine editor Pountain and freelance journalist Robins believe that Cool (capitalized throughout) has emerged as “a cultural category in its own right” and is now “the dominant mindset of advanced consumer capitalism.” They rely on the work of historian Robert Farris Thompson in a perfunctory effort to trace the phenomenon “right back to the ancient civilizations of West Africa,” but their real interest is popular culture in the late 20th century. (Attempts to link Cool with the placid attitudes of toreadors, Samurai, and Renaissance Italian aristocrats are even more tenuous, and the discussion of Cool in 18th- and 19th-century Britain occupies a single paragraph.) Cool is “an emotional style that belongs to the modern age,” the authors argue, a stance that would be more convincing if their definition of Cool were not continually shifting: it is at various points “a permanent state of private rebellion,” an attitude “profoundly hedonistic” (with underlying violence), “an effortlessness of technique [in athletics], concealing a fierce . . . competitiveness,” etc. Seeking firmer intellectual grounding, Pountain and Robins sometimes quote Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and other heavier-weights. But they are most comfortable in the world of the popular, and their comments about Cool in clothing, art, music, and movies are most convincing (notably in a brisk analysis of the failure of Levi Strauss to keep pace with blue-jean fashions), although it is most unCool to misquote Dirty Harry, whose celebrated request, “Go ahead, make my day,” they unintentionally alter. The authors are better at raising questions than answering them, so the locution “still awaits a truly adequate analysis” appears in various guises throughout. They seem, as well, to have a Starr-struck interest in President Clinton’s sex life; references to the Monica Lewinsky affair appear regularly. A chart illustrating Cool’s thousand-year evolution is more risible than instructive.
Much that is Coolish, some merely foolish. (50 b&w illustrations)