The Reconquest of Cool

The Reconquest of Cool

Forty years after corporations hijacked "cool," we need to start generating authentic cool from the bottom up again.

Joe Szabo Smoking Girl.jpg
Photo: Joe Szabo

From its roots in Africa through to the youth cultures of the present day, cool has always been an attitude of resistance to subjugation, an expression of rebellion and a posture of defiance.

During the ’60s, in the midst of one of the biggest cultural revolutions of our time, corporations discovered that cool could be incredibly profitable. While young people spontaneously took to the streets and organized festivals and anti-war protests, corporations started raiding their counterculture for eye-catching signifiers and stylistic expressions to incorporate into their marketing campaigns.

Thus began a two-step dance of authentic cool and fake, commercialized cool. As Thomas Frank explains in his 1997 book, The Conquest of Cool, bit by bit cool “became central to the way capitalism understood itself and explained itself to the public.” In one of the most stunning cultural coups d’état ever, ad agency gurus figured out “how to construct cultural machines that transform alienation and despair into consent.”

Forty years after the corporate takeover of cool, we find ourselves again in an era of extraordinary cultural and political upheaval. Global warming has us running scared, an epidemic of mood disorders is eroding our confidence, and as the War on Terror morphs into an open-ended World War IV, we are feeling more insecure than ever.

Kaapo Kamu
Photo: Kaapo Kamu

Suddenly, people are waking up in droves from the dreamland of corporate cool. We’re realizing that ever since we were little babies crawling around the TV sets in our living rooms, we’ve been lied to, propagandized, and told incessantly, day after day, that we can find happiness through consumption. That’s why, like rats in a Skinner box, we’ve kept on pressing that BUY button – millions of us marching in lockstep, all dreaming the same consumerist dream.

Now the fog is lifting. We’re finally beginning to understand where this bogus cool has been leading us: not to happiness and prosperity as promised in the ads, but to cynicism, ecocide and a brutal, dog-eat-dog future.

This is the magic moment in which capitalist cool can stumble and authentic cool can start bubbling back up again. And after decades of wandering around the wilderness, we on the Left are finally realizing what that magic moment is all about. Clive Hamilton – author of Growth Fetish and Affluenza – nails it in his 2006 article, “What’s Left? The Death of Social Democracy,” when he writes, “The defining problem of modern industrial society is not injustice but alienation... the central task of progressive politics today is to achieve not equality, but liberation.”

Forget about treating the symptoms. Forget about the hedgemaze of identity politics. Break away from the glorious equality and social justice battles of the past. Instead, liberate yourself from the capitalist mindfuck. Learn to live without dead time. Start generating authentic cool from the bottom up again. The rest will follow.

158 comments on the article “The Reconquest of Cool”

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Perhaps

I don't mind being cool if the new cool is being ecominded and socially resposible. If the new fad is like this, is it so bad that emerging companies sell us this lifestyle as a product?

Ian B

This article reminded me of the book chasing cool. It has a similar concept that 'cool' has to be grassroots and true hence cool cannot be chased, but should rather be developed.

Patricio

What is it about the search of the so called cool? Why the obsession? The word cool stinks of stereotypical and manipulative. Why do we feel that need to try to group people so they can conform to established parameters, established by Corporate America or anyone for that matter. What about the search for self instead? What about the search for the meaning of true individuality? An individuality that fosters love and respect for other. That tolerates, even embraces differences among us. Why don't we stop looking out and start looking into ourselves?

Ross

I don't think people are waking up to it at all; I think they're waking up to the idea that uncool is cool, and the marketers are right on their heels with that one. It's all very well to recommend we generate cool from the bottom up, but how many people are going to pay any attention whatsoever? They have the benefit of a mass audience on their side; if you have a different idea of what's cool, the person next to you may also have a different idea that in no way tallies with your own. I'm not saying it's hopeless, I simply think that redefining the parameters of cool isn't going to do much good. Marketers will simply catch up with the new ideals and start using them instead.

Damien

Cool is dropping your waiter a tip in Liberty Dollars made of silver and explaining, 'Don't want the bankers to steal part of your tip with inflation.'

Cool is taking out ads in your local paper that read: join the 300 million person march on our local City Halls during which we will demand the Constitution be respected, the Patriot Act will be revised, the war will be ended, and the dollar will stop being printed in mass by the Fed, OR ELSE heads are gonna roll. WE ARE THE PEOPLE.

Cool is passing out enlightening documentaries and saying, Knowledge is power.

Cool is figuring out what issues will create a tipping point where even the sleeping zombies will wake up and put the government back in its place.

Cool is an idea. If that's the sugar that goes on the medicine, so be it.

Ysmael

Great article Kalle! It seems many people have become so engrossed with being cool, not realizing that when the thing they labeled cool hits the mainstream, it becomes the start of the death of its coolness.

Keep looking

Sometimes you have to sit back and take a bigger look at the picture. These little distractions are just part of the hegelian dialectic. Once you start to understand that our lives are planned by the rich elite, and the only way to stop them is to not show up to work. All of these small problems will continue to happen.

Ethos

Why do the two pictures above contain cigarettes? Is this the authentic cool? Aren't smokes merely the product of the same multinational corporations we're discussing here? The tobacco industry has long used Hollywood for their shameless guerrilla marketing tactics and these pics seem to be complicit in this effort. Let us not to forget tobacco's modern day exploitation of nonwestern countries having left America's stringent advertising laws for the more freemarket of Asia, South America, and Africa. If this is the
real cool you're talking about, I want no part in it.

Sermon over. :

dandy beau

The only cool left is anticool; it has become so ubiquitous to be a rebel it seems those who are do not try to portray themselves as rebels are the real rebels. How many more tattoos, nose rings, dreadlocks, Harley riders and Mohawks will it take before the image of the rebel is so the norm that the whole idea just collapses in on itself. Can we just all get over ourselves and are tiny little insular worlds and just fucking get on with it!!

Graeme

Cool seems to be a universal positive notion. Anything positive is cool, even those badass rebels who are just looking for a place to fit in. The idea Cool is important, because it makes the mainstream want to accept and accomodate the fringe. Rather than reject it. Cool is the antithesis of orthodoxy, it's positive toleration.

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