Five Questions with Randolph Lewis, Author of New Book “Under Surveillance”

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Dr. Randolph Lewis, Professor of American Studies at UT-Austin, has recently published his newest book entitled Under Surveillance:  Being Watched in Modern America.  AMS : ATX sat down with Lewis to discuss the inspiration for the new book, the relationship between surveillance and democracy, the interaction between Lewis’ scholarship and teaching, and much more.   Please read on!

Can you tell us a little bit about your book Under Surveillance, and how you came to the project?

The book looks at what I call the “soft tissue damage” of surveillance culture—the ethical, aesthetic, and emotional toll of living with ubiquitous CCTV, big data, drones, TSA scanners, and other surveillance technologies in the contemporary US. After all, we’ve moved into an unprecedented state of visibility in which our secrets—what we say, what we buy, what we want—are constantly laid bare to various systems of social sorting with long memories. I find this disconcerting to say the least, especially because we haven’t really had a thoughtful conversation about what it means for our democracy.

That’s where the book comes in, I hope. A few years ago I looked around and was surprised there wasn’t a good American Studies book on contemporary surveillance culture. So I jumped into a new field with both feet, feeling quite passionate about exploring the impact of these new surveillance technologies on our lives.

What projects or people have inspired your work?

I learned so much from the emerging field of Surveillance Studies, which has an excellent journal called Surveillance and Society. The work of many contemporary visual artists was also important—some of them set the tone for what I am doing. I also loved the personal tone of the work I heard in the Public Feelings workshop in Austin over the past five years. Finally, I got important encouragement from my editor, Robert Devens, to write in my organic voice, which is more accessible and somewhat more literary than what is sometimes found in academic journals.

How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations in academia and beyond?

The book is smack between academia and “beyond,” I think. I’ve stood on the shoulders of many previous scholars, added my own experiences and excavations, and tried to clearly explain what I learned. I certainly tried to write the book in a way that was careful, vivid, and accessible. Some chapters were rewritten 20 times to get the writing to where I was happy.

How do you think your research has affected your teaching at UT?

I often craft new courses from my research interests, but I’m just as happy doing them from scratch. In fact, my favorite courses are often ones that take me into new directions that I haven’t yet written about. For instance, my urban studies course for first year students comes out of running the End of Austin project, while my new seminar on popular music comes out of my experiences as a musician and fan as much as my cultural studies training.

Conversely, how do you think your teaching has changed your research?

The conversations with students are always clarifying—you can test out ideas and see what really works, and are alerted to things that you might have overlooked. It’s one of the great benefits of working at a research university—you get to toggle productively between teaching and research.

Finally, do you have any advice for students in our department about how to get the most out of their experience at UT?

Really get to know people. After all, we have a fairly lively and welcoming cast of characters on the fourth floor of Burdine Hall. But we’re just a starting place. Especially in the case of our own grad students, I would say that American Studies is a great creative community, but don’t forget that UT is a vast universe of potential collaborators. Meet people outside of the department whenever you can–that nurtures the deep interdisciplinary spirit that is possible in American Studies. Frankly, it’s a spirit that infuses my book, which couldn’t really exist in any single discipline, but is very much the product of ranging widely across multiple fields and looking for new connections and insights.

 

ASA 2017 Annual Meeting: List of UT AMS-Affiliated Presenters

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From Thursday, November 9th to Sunday, November 12th, the American Studies Association will hold its Annual Meeting at the Hyatt Regency hotel in downtown Chicago, IL.  Below is a list of the members of the UT-Austin American Studies community, including graduate students, core faculty, and affiliated faculty, who will be presenting papers and serving on panels at the conference.   The list is in chronological order.

Thursday, November 9th

Carrie Andersen: “War Games: Virtual Drones and the Production of American Empire”
The Imperial Dynamics of Counterinsurgency Warfare
Thursday, November 9th, 8 – 9:45 A.M.
Soldier Field, Concourse Level West Tower

Christine Capetola: “Gimme a Beat!: Janet Jackson, New Musical Technologies, and Vibrationally Breaking the Silences on Black Life in 1980s America”
Black and Latinx Musical Resitances
Thursday, November 9th, 10 – 11:45 A.M.
Atlanta, Ballroom Level West Tower

Cary Cordova – Panelist
Program and Site Resources Committee: Public Art and Activism in US Cities
Thursday, November 9th, 10 – 11:45 A.M.
Comiskey, Concourse Level West Tower

William H. Mosley: “Fugitive Genders and Performed Dissent in Alexis De Veaux’s Yabo.”
Reinventing the Black Literary
Thursday, November 9th, 10 – 11:45 A.M.
Dusable, Third Floor West Tower

Simone Browne – Panelist
Power and Authority in the Era of Trump: A Roundtable on the New American Empire
Thursday, November 9th, 12 – 1:45 P.M.
Regency B, Ballroom Level West Tower

Snehal Shingavi – Panelist
Defying Erasure: Imagining a Palestinian Future
Thursday, November 9th, 12 – 1:45 P.M.
Haymarket, Concourse Level West Tower

Lisa B. Thompson – Chair
Aesthetics in/and African American Cultural Formations
Thursday, November 9th, 2 – 3:45 P.M.
Addams, Third Floor West Tower

Elissa Underwood: “Creative Pedagogies: Storytelling as Revolutionary Practice”
Critical Pedagogies: Storytelling as Revolutionary Practice
Thursday, November 9th, 2- 3:45 P.M.
Gold Coast, Concourse Level West Tower

Nicholas Bloom: “Off Your Asses and Into the Gas Fields: Lessons in Citizenship for Poor White Men.”
Troubling White Nationalism and Whiteness
Thursday, November 9th, 4 – 5:45 P.M.
McCormick, Third Floor West Tower

Janet Davis – Panelist
Rethinking History and Methods in the American Studies Classroom
Thursday, November 9th, 4 – 5:45 P.M.
Wright, Third Floor West Tower

Natalie Zelt: “The Feeling is Real: LaToya Frazier, The Photograph and Fact.”
Alternative Views: Photography, Self-Representation, and Fact in Contemporary American Art and Culture
Thursday, November 9th, 4 – 5:45 P.M.
Gold Coast, Concourse Level West Tower

Friday, November 10th

Christine Castro: “Busters and Beats: Negotiations of Confinement, Public Space, and Identity in Nuestra Familia Music”
Liner Notes on Soundscapes of Memory
Friday, November 10th, 8 – 9:45 A.M.
McCormick, Third Floor West Tower

Briyana D. Clarel: “An Exercise in Unapologetics: Centering Black Queerness as Self-Care and Pedagogy.”
Radical Self-Love as Decolonial Education
Friday, November 10th, 10-11:45 A.M.
San Francisco. Ballroom Level West Tower

Anne Cvetkovich – Panelist
Avery F. Gordon’s The Hawthorne Archive: Letters from the Utopian Margins: A Roundtable
Friday, November 10th, 10 – 11:45 A.M.
Gold Coast, Concourse Level West Tower

Joshua Kopin: “Leave It to Linus: Charles Schulz’s Peanuts and Parents as the Children of the Fifties”
Artifacts of Dissent: Comics and Emotions in Dark Times
Friday, November 10th, 10 – 11:45 P.M.
Hong Kong, Ballroom Level West Tower

Nicole Guidotti-Hernandez – Panelist
Dissenting Documents: A Roundtable on Teaching with Special Collections
Friday, Nov. 10th, 2-3:45 P.M.
Wright, Third Floor West Tower

Amanda Gray – Panelist
The Work that Makes All Other Work Possible: The Pedagogies and Solidarities of Care Work
Friday, November 10th, 4 – 5:45 P.M.
Hong Kong, Ballroom Level West Tower

Saturday, November 11th

Omi Jones: “Resonant Frequencies/Physics and Embodiment”
Dialoguing Physics and Blackness
Saturday, November 11th, 10 – 11:45 A.M.
Addams, Third Floor West Tower

Emily Roehl: “Anti-Pipeline Performance and the Mise-en-scene of Environmental Justice Struggle”
Race, Environmental Justice, and Public Lands
Saturday, November 11th, 10 – 11:45 A.M.
McCormick, Third Floor West Tower

Julia Mickenberg – Panelist
The Russian Revolution at 100: Lessons, Lineages, and Legacies for Radical Practice Today
Saturday, November 11th, 4 – 5:45 P.M.
Skyway 260, Skyway Level East Tower

Robert B. Oxford: “Fracking, Social Justice and Assembling the Eco Counter Archives: Documenting Environmental Activists in Houston”
Teaching Environmental Justice at the Intersections of Activist Practices and Critical Analysis
Saturday, November 11th, 12 – 1:45 P.M.
Field, Third Floor West Tower

Caroline Pinkston: “Remembering Ruby: Akili Academy, Civil Rights Memory, and the Remaking of New Orleans Public Education”
Remembering the 1960s
Saturday, November 11th, 2-3:30 P.M.
Dusable, Third Floor West Tower

Sunday, November 12th

Sequoia Maner: Reviving Tupac Shakur in the #BlackLivesMatter Era: Kendrick Lamar, G-Funk, and the Performance of Dissent”
Three Generations of Funk: Performances of Dissent in Kendrick Lamar, Jessica Care Moore, and Sarah Webster Fabio
Sunday, November 12, 10 – 11:45 A.M.
Skyway 260, Skyway Level East Tower

Shirley E. Thompson – Chair
Visibility, Visuality, and Incarceration
Sunday, November 12th, 12 – 1:45 P.M.
McCormick, Third Floor West Tower

 

UT AMS’ Randolph Lewis Speaks on His New Book at Texas Book Fair This Weekend

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Dr. Randolph Lewis, Professor of American Studies at UT-Austin, will speak twice on his recently released book, Under Surveillance:  Being Watched in Modern America at this weekend’s Texas Book Fair in Austin.  On Saturday, Lewis will take part in a panel called “Knowledge Matters:  Books and Publishing in the Age of Fake News,” and on Sunday Lewis will be interviewed on his own about Under Surveillance.  You can find complete details for Lewis’ panel and interview, including the specific dates and times, here.  You can also find the full description and listings for the Texas Book Festival at:  www.texasbookfestival.org.

UT AMS Grad Amy Nathan Wright Pens Essay on MLK’s Vision for Economic Justice for National Civil Rights Museum

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A half-century after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4th, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, the National Civil Rights Museum–also in Memphis–has commissioned a series of fifty essays to mark the fifty years since King’s death.  Dr. Amy Nathan Wright, a graduate of the UT-Austin American Studies doctoral program, published one of those essays on October 10th, 2017, specifically considering Dr. King’s revolutionary vision for economic justice.  Please read the essay, entitled “Dr. King’s Dream Deferred: Poverty, & Economic Human Rights,” and learn more about the National Civil Rights Museum, here.

 

Five Questions with First-Years: With Leah Butterfield

 

In our latest edition of “Five Questions with First-Years,” we sat down with Leah Butterfield, who comes to UT-Austin American Studies from Atlanta, by way of New York City, by way of the great city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Leah, who plans to study and write about the experience of solitary women in processes of travel and migration, recounts her experience working for online journalistic publications coming out of college, and also details a set of intellectual inspirations that is dizzying in its diversity and scope.  Read on! 

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1) What is your background, academic or otherwise, and how does it motivate your teaching and research?

 I grew up in Atlanta, then went to NYU for my B.S. in Media, Culture, and Communication (with a minor in English and American Literature). After graduating, I stayed in New York and worked as a freelance writer for Bustle, The Village Voice and Time Out New York, and as an Associate Editor at a men’s lifestyle publication. Over the course of a few years—during which I produced far too many clickbait articles on menswear shops, tailgating gear and sexy Instagram accounts—I decided that maybe journalism wasn’t the best way for me to feel fulfilled or to make an impact. So I headed to Carnegie Mellon where I received my M.A. in Literary and Cultural Studies last year.

2) Why did you decide to come to AMS at UT for your graduate work? 

I was really excited by the flexibility and interdisciplinary nature of the AMS program. My research interests are pretty wide-ranging, so I loved that I’d be able to take courses with AMS faculty as well as across other departments, and ultimately to be able work on a dissertation that might feel out of place in a more traditional discipline like English or History.


3) What projects or people have inspired your work?

Tough question! I’ve been inspired by so many awesome scholars and projects over the years. As I’m reflecting on it, I actually find that the texts that challenge me the most are the ones that have ended up sending me in the most fruitful directions for research. Much of my work has been inspired by really smart people tackling broad societal issues, including (from a hodgepodge of fields, and in no particular order): Judith Butler, Gayle Rubin, Michael Warner, Edward Said, Raymond Williams, Theodor Adorno. While I don’t plan to emulate any of these theorists, I find their ideas incredibly useful for guiding my approach to work on gender and culture.

At the same time, in terms of writing style and critical intent, I take a lot of inspiration from long-form journalism and literary nonfiction—books like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family and Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey, and writers like David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, George Orwell and Mark Twain.

4) What projects do you see yourself working on at UT?

My research interests revolve around travel and migration, and I plan to use my time at UT to explore the role of solitary women in those processes. I’m particularly interested in the literary and cultural history of the figure of the lone woman, as well as in the overlaps and connections between travel (typically associated with leisure) and migration (typically associated with hardship).

5) What are your goals for graduate school? What do you see yourself doing after you graduate?

My goal is to learn as much as I can from the interesting and talented faculty and students around me, and to use that knowledge to further my own research and teaching. At this point, I’m keeping an open mind about post-grad life: academia, journalism, museum work, international nanny… We’ll see what happens!

Bonus Question:  In your own words–what is American Studies?

I’ve been dreading this question the whole time! When I try to explain American Studies to people unfamiliar with it, I usually describe it as drawing on fields like English, Cultural Studies, History, Media Studies (plus Anthropology, Sociology, Geography…), with American Studies prioritizing research that addresses both high and low culture, spans mediums, time periods and locations, and that tries to link small-scale studies to larger social issues.

The Origins of Cool: An Interview with UT AMS Alum Joel Dinerstein

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Joel Dinerstein, a graduate of the UT AMS PhD program and Professor of English and American Studies at Tulane University, has just published his newest book: The Origins of Cool in Postwar America.   The book is a sprawling, engaging, comprehensive study of the concept of “cool” and its emergence in the postwar period as a challenge to entrenched anti-black racism, restrictive sexual mores, and other barriers to individual expression and creativity.  UT AMS doctoral student Kate Grover–a former student of Dinerstein’s at Tulane–sat down with Dinerstein for an extremely thorough and compelling interview about “cool’s” importance and meanings for the historical and contemporary fabric of American culture.

Kate Grover: First, congratulations on the publication of The Origins of Cool in Postwar America! After the American Cool exhibition and the publication of its companion book in 2014, I think many people were excited about the idea of cool in a way that they hadn’t been in the now almost thirty-year history of scholars studying the concept. American Cool is such an excellent introduction to understanding what it means to be cool in the United States, and as you explain in the new book, The Origins of Cool is really the “intellectual infrastructure” for that exhibition. The Origins of Cool has also been in the works for quite a while: you mention in the acknowledgements that that you’ve “been working on this book in some form for nearly twenty-five years.” What first sparked your interest in studying cool, and how did you come to this most recent exploration?

Joel Dinerstein: I have been working on the book since graduate school and in fact my very first seminar paper (for Dr. Abzug) was entitled, “Notes Towards a Study of Cool.” I’d already been thinking about it (abstractly) for a few years and there wasn’t much written on it then. I went to the PCL library catalog and put the word “cool” into search and 400+ titles came up; I looked at each one. I found at least one useful book scholars still rarely refer to, Gene Sculatti’s The Catalog of Cool (1982).

My inquiry for that paper focused on the one question that I’ve sustained ever since: what do we mean when we say someone is cool? What qualities does that person have or project through self-presentation? Here’s the key moment: one day on campus I asked the first five people I knew this question and I received five different answers. This confused me — I thought we shared the meanings and associations of cool, even if they were unconscious (in the “I know it when I see it” mode). So right then I knew I had a project: I had to figure out where and when cool began and how it diffused into the range of meanings I encountered in 1992 at UT.

I would later come to realize that my ideas of cool were from its distinctive origins in African-American culture: my high school and junior high in Brooklyn were both 80-90% African-American and Afro-Caribbean. In the pre-hipster Brooklyn of the 1970s, cool was very important to us all in an unstated-but-profound manner: someone who was cool was self-possessed, confident, smooth, had integrity, and cared little for social approval. So how did it come to mean its opposite and associated with consumerism and products? Here were my fellow students saying a cool person was superficial or popular or something like that.

In short, this isn’t a recent exploration – it started in 1992 and took 25 years to come to fruition. I am gratified to say, all small misgivings aside, it is the book I have been aiming for all these years.

KG:  In The Origins of Cool you theorize how cool developed and functioned in the post-World War II era through case studies of artists and intellectuals involved in postwar arts and culture—namely jazz, existential literature, and film noir. You argue that these figures created cool as a response to the trauma of World War II, the Great Depression, anti-black racism in the United States, and highlight the creative and individualistic ways each of these creators deployed a cool aesthetic to reinvent themselves at a time of existential crisis. In several respects, one could argue that Americans are experiencing a similarly anxiety-ridden moment now and could benefit from understanding the strategies of your cool figures in the book—which brings me to two interrelated questions: First, what is your intended audience for The Origins of Cool? Second, how would you describe the relevance of The Origins of Cool for readers today?

JD:  Cool is probably the most important cultural concept in American history – everyone should know this history, certainly everyone who uses the word. The term (and concept) was coined by African-Americans and diffused by jazz musicians: why is this cultural debt neither understood nor a cultural problem (e.g., appropriation, dilution, love and theft)? Cool is a byword in global culture, having traveled from the periphery to the center of capitalism, against all Marxist theory and in a unique case of the resistance/dominance models of popular culture. And this is true both for cool at its most profound – that is, for icons of cool emulated as ideals — and its most superficial (what is in-vogue or fashionable). In cultural studies terms, it was a new structure of feeling in postwar America: first in jazz, noir, and existentialism, and then in Hollywood film (Brando, Dean, Elvis), rock-and-roll, American style (more broadly) and African-American literature and music. In this period, an individual rebellious figure could create a change in consciousness. Is that still true today? I’m not sure.

I have always found cultural history most powerful when it can explain either the emergence or declension of a mentalité — a mindset, a worldview – during a given historical moment. In the American case, since the 1920s, it happens mostly through popular culture and this is where cool comes in. Beginning in the 1940s, it became the password for social change (and protest) in the second half of the 20th century. For example, our current political crisis is based as much in the audiences created by Fox News and right-wing talk radio as any other factor.

The relevance of the history also concerns an intellectual and scholarly inability to integrate African-American history and culture into major-key American narratives. In other words, we do not understand this history due to artistic and aesthetic racism (both of which I define in the book): in short, the inability to take African-American cultural production seriously as art. Why should readers take Thomas Frank, Naomi Klein, and Malcolm Gladwell seriously (in their work on cool) when they did not do the most basic research on the term’s origins and meanings? I have never seen serious intellectual work in which the authors did not start with the origins of their keyword. Frank starts with the ’60s and Kesey’s bus ride; neither Gladwell nor Klein nor McGuigan (in cool capitalism) address this history. It is even more damning given that the history is fairly easy to access: in jazz history, in Lewis MacAdams’ Birth of the Cool, in Robert S. Gold’s Jazz Lexicon, or in the history of the Beats.

As for the current existential crisis, that is another question entirely. Yet and still, the original strategies of cool can be of considerable use, personally if not politically. The revolution of cool was a response to the revelations of 1945: given the Holocaust, the atomic bombs, the recognition of colonial oppression, the figures in the book are quite aware of the implosion of Western Civilization (its values obviously moribund). We now have an analogous response to the American project: have we all been blind to endemic, ingrained American inequities (#BLM, capitalism)?; is the very concept of democracy moribund given our broken government and a violently divided population (politically, regionally, rural/urban)?

These will be long-lasting questions.  While you work for #resistance, build up your self-knowledge and ask the big existential questions. Stay calm, be aware of your limits, pursue deeper knowledge, create a public sense of composure, avoid emotional reactions to your newsfeed, be aware and vigilant rather than self-righteous and outraged at our current political maelstrom.

KG:  The majority of figures you examine in The Origins of Cool are men, and you mention several times that cool in the postwar era was first and foremost a masculine mode of being. At the same time, you focus briefly on female figures such as Billie Holliday, Simone de Beauvoir, Juliette Gréco, Bessie Smith, Barbara Stanwyck and Lorraine Hansberry to highlight the fact that women were (and are) cool, but are not often recipients of this compliment—at least not to the same extent as men. You give several reasons for this gendered discrepancy, but the one that most intrigued me was “the social conditioning of women and girls meant that women had much less opportunity for ‘individual rebellion’ than men.”

So rebellion is a major aspect of postwar cool and, as you explain, “without defying limits or social conventions….no cool.” On the other hand, I wonder if the associations between rebellion and men and masculinity made (make) it a lot harder for women to actually be cool—not just for others to recognize their cool. It seems to me that women have always rebelled and broken social conventions, but if they did so in a way that would have been coded as traditionally feminine, then people may not have labeled it as such.

I guess what I’m getting at, and what I want to discuss with you, is that cool is something that looks very different for women and/or people that are femme-presenting than it does for men and/or people that are more masculine in their presentation. Should scholars be differentiating between feminine modes of cool and masculine modes of cool—as you differentiate in the book between African-American Cool, Anglo-American Cool and Existentialist Cool? Or is “feminine cool” an oxymoron?

JD:  This is a great question and it has no simple answer. First, cool has always been a masculine aesthetic, the stylish stoicism of what I call the “ethical rebel loners” of American popular culture and the perceived ideal qualities of autonomy, rebellion, toughness, charisma, edge (edginess) and body armor. The emotional costs of cool are also traditionally male: violence, self-destruction, narcissism, substance abuse. If you look up articles entitled “Mr. Cool,” the exemplars are icons such as Johnny Cash, James Dean, John Travolta, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, and Clint Eastwood (voted “the coolest man in America” in 2010). As a rare counter-example, the British edition of the magazine GQ voted for the 20 coolest women in 2014 — yet the list is nearly interchangeable with the 20 sexiest women of the same year. Charismatic sexuality is nearly always an element of cool but the two are not synonymous. In addition, the Brit GQ has not done the list since, a sign that this association gained little traction with their readers

The only two women consistently labeled as cool in media are Deborah Harry and Kim Gordon (the bassist for Sonic Youth), and in both cases, the honorific has only been applied in the last five years are so. It helps that both are New York icons from once-underground music scenes. Yet surely, Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Gwen Stefani and Missy Elliott qualify by analogous reasoning within the rock/popular music world, yet they never receive such attribution. And Gwen Stefani even had a hit called “Cool,” that used it within its original Black cultural meanings. So long as women are primarily (or ideally) associated with families and motherhood – and they still are, for a vast swath of the population — cool will remain a rare attribution for women.

Given the association of cool and a retro-tough masculinity – or a smooth sartorial style — perhaps, as you suggest, cool among women needs a separate word. I argued in a section on “Women and Cool” in American Cool that women control the future of cool as a concept within American culture. If women find the term useful, it will retain its vitality; if not, the cool sensibility may wind up being historicized as a twentieth-century masculinity.

A small caveat: I disagree somewhat with your assessment that I “focus briefly on female figures” above.  First, I created a set of specific definitions for a female version of artistic cool through Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. Second, Lorraine Hansberry gets an entire chapter to herself (one of the only figures who does) and it is full of new, archival scholarship. Third, Simone de Beauvoir is a central figure in the book – in three separate chapters – and I assess her work on ethics, race and American culture as far more important to humanity’s future than Sartre’s. Fourth, I declare unequivocally that the music of blueswomen (in the 1920s and 1930s) constitutes the first school of American feminist literature – I find the lack of recognition to be an example of artistic and aesthetic racism. I also made an explicit call for scholarship that focuses entirely on women and provided a starter list. (Even in current popular history, Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Brando, and Sinatra always receive their Cool badge, but never Lauren Bacall, Barbara Stanwyck, Anita O’Day or Mae West.) Any junior scholar with the desire to start a project on female cool might add Bessie Smith, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Zora Neale Hurston to those four, and get started.

KG:  You’ve been teaching college courses on the history of American cool for almost twenty years now—and there are a few moments in The Origins of Cool in Postwar America (and in American Cool) where you allude to classroom discussions with your students. How have these interactions and your experience as an educator shaped The Origins of Cool and your research on cool more broadly?

JD:  My students had a major influence on American Cool (the exhibit), especially in the last period covered (1980 – 2014). Since cool can be (very) roughly defined as rebellious self-expression with a social edge, I learned that, for my students, the primary rebel figures of the past twenty years were comedians (not actors or musicians, as for previous generations) and the icons of the tech world. Students also had a direct impact on debates between myself and my co-curator Frank Goodyear (also a UT AMS PhD): my classes literally voted on whether John Travolta had sustaining iconic power (yes, overwhelmingly) and between Missy Elliott and Queen Latifah as a resonant feminist artistic force in hip-hop. And yet, even among comedians, there was also surprising consensus on figures we considered – for example, two different classes voted down Tina Fey (even the women) and Chris Rock. To my surprise, my students were devastated by the sudden passing of Steve Jobs, for example, and not at all moved by the equally sudden deaths of either David Bowie or Prince.

Students had less impact on The Origins of Cool, since the book directly focuses on the period between 1940-1965.

As accessed through my students, public memory determined the tone and breadth of the narrative. For example, most students have never heard of Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum, and Marlon Brando is, at best, just a name from the ether of film history at best (despite that he was James Dean’s idol). With this in mind, when I introduce, say, the chapter on Bogart and noir cool, I tried to walk a narrative line between foundational introduction, iconic resonance, historical context, and cultural analysis. I did the same even for Elvis, who is more of a punchline to my students than a transformative figure of American culture. In my experience, students seem to believe rock-and-roll started (or started to matter) in the 1960s, with the Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan. In addition, they seem unaware that African-Americans have created nearly all American popular music, even when presented with testimonials from The Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan. For obvious reasons, students often sometimes seem profoundly uncomfortable with this historical facts, since it suggests cultural appropriation in their own musical tastes.

Due to these gaps, I end many of the chapters in the book with genealogies of cool: that The Rolling Stones are a blues band whose artistic work came from the foundations of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Big Bill Broonzy; that The Beatles became musicians due to their love of (and debt to) Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis, who in turn, was the prime mover of Springsteen and Tom Petty. And then there’s Bob Dylan’s recent tributes to Frank Sinatra, not to mention his debt to Marlon Brando.

KG:  The Origins of Cool is really the first comprehensive cultural history of cool in the United States, and in the book you lay a much-needed foundation for understanding the concept through its roots in various forms of postwar popular culture. Yet, as you mention in the introduction, “cool is not a transhistorical concept” and has evolved with each passing decade and with each new group that has claimed it. What is your advice for graduate students (like me) and other scholars interested in writing about American cool beyond the postwar era? Specifically, how can scholars affirm cool’s distinct postwar meanings while also acknowledging cool’s different valences in later years?

JD:  My book is both a cultural history and a comprehensive theory of cool. It is my hope that it will be – precisely – a foundation for other and younger scholars to create generational frameworks of cool for every other generation, whether the Boomers or the millennials. As you know, my idea of cool concerns figures of artistic, aesthetic or intellectual importance. There are other ways to research cool for graduate students, including its commodification, its representations in films (e.g., in Heathers, Pulp Fiction, Be Cool, Pump Up the Volume), its role in literature (e.g., William Gibson, Elmore Leonard) or advertising culture (“coolhunters”). In terms of my framework, you can start rhetorically with this phrase: “perceived authenticity.” Identify such figures for a generation and then trace that person’s first emergence into public consciousness and his or her artistic field of endeavor (through style, interviews, etc.).

I provide several definitions of cool throughout the book that are intended to apply cross-generationally. The first one is important: cool is a public mode of covert resistance. The best artistic example of this definition is Johnny Cash’s “The Man in Black,” since he explains exactly why he wears black: he wears it for “the poor and beaten down,” the people in prison, and the ones living in the shadows (or darkness) of society’s self-congratulatory mythology. A great model for this is HBO’s miniseries on Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre – The Defiant Ones – which focuses on how you find individual innovation that will play out in cultural and generational terms. Iovine worked with and/or created the path for Tom Petty, Patti Smith, Gwen Stefani, Trent Reznor, Dr. Dre, Eminem, and many others.

Cool is rebellion-for-others: this is its single most important definition. I extrapolated and distilled this three-word phrase from Albert Camus’ groundbreaking postwar cultural theory of individual rebellion, The Rebel: A Study of Man in Revolt (1951). I also use Camus’ five-word directive as the book’s key trope: “I rebel, therefore we exist.” For a rebel to access cool at its most profound level, his or her rebellion must galvanize an audience towards social change. In other words, my rebellion creates the conditions for yours. That is what cool means for any and every generation.

KG:  I was struck by your argument that even though “cool remains the supreme compliment of American culture,” it is a concept that “has been nearly emptied of generational and ideological conflict, of artistic risk and vision, of old transgressions and social change.” In other words, most people’s understanding of cool today is divorced from the postwar anxieties you outline in The Origins of Cool. You also write in the epilogue, “The recuperation of the deeper meanings of cool will require a reckoning of the past.” This reminded me of something you wrote in American Cool: that cool isn’t dead, “not so long as Americans take the word and concept seriously.” Do you think that many Americans today don’t take cool seriously? It appears to me that this is really the crux of The Origins of Cool, what one of the scholars in our department, Randy Lewis, calls “the basement” of a book—the motivation that’s below the surface, so to speak, the deeper meaning an author is really getting at. Would you agree with this observation?

JD:  To clarify, since cool is not transhistorical, that means no previous iterations of cool hold today, including rebellion itself as a positive valence of individuality. In other words, neither the postwar anxieties of The Origins of Cool nor the counterculture’s nexus of sex&drugs&rock-n-roll nor the hiphop and retro rebellions of African-American culture of the 1990s holds (Public Enemy, Quentin Tarantino films). Cool has certain elements that remain constant and others that are always in flux. This generation has made social activism a core aspect of any icon’s claim to cool — that is a new element as a requirement – but they don’t think of that as cool, per se. Yet cool remains framed by its historical emergence and that’s why The Origins of Cool is a foundational narrative rather than a “basement book.” In terms of a Gramscian idea of “common sense,” all of its previous meanings remain within the conceptual archaeology of cool.

I’ll be clear: I believe cool is the central American mythos of twentieth-century American life and, due to its assumed superficiality, it can now only be understood through a rigorous cultural history. Many of the alleged experts on the subject have the story wrong (Frank, John Leland) and yet intellectuals take this pat commodification story as fact even if it is, among other things, a whitewashing of African-American artistic and aesthetic influence on the dominant society. In such a case, it is common enough for a cultural historian to provide an intervention in the field.

In short, my motivation to write this was less that cool was disappearing and more that it has been misunderstood since the early ’80s. At that point, in amateur scholars like Gene Sculatti in The Catalog of Cool or Roy Carr’s The Hip understood its cultural meanings from 1940-1975. Now there are many books no capitalism and cool, and even neuroscience and cool (with regard to consumer behavior). Capitalism did not create cool and this mistakes “what’s-cool” – fashionable or in-vogue – for a far richer history.

To give an example, the African-American lifestyle magazine Ebony ran a cover story in 2009 of “The 25 Coolest Brothers of All Times” with eight different cover icons, including Muhammad Ali, Prince, Denzel Washington, Marvin Gaye, and Barack Obama. The article – a short historical theory of Black Cool as an “Afro-Zen,” as it came out of slavery and masking — was written by Jelani Cobb, now one of the nation’s best writers on race and American culture for the New Yorker. The concept remains quite vital within African-American tradition, according to its original postwar parameters. So there is an ongoing distinctive African-American cool while white intellectuals assume mainstream marketing meanings are the only ones that count. To be glib, apparently, concerning the history of cool, black cultural lives don’t matter.

The real intellectual question is why artistic and aesthetic racism persists within academic life when the facts are so readily accessible. I’ve asked myself this question many times. The short answer I’ve come up with is that scholars often refuse to research fields in which they have no expertise, even if it’s clear that area is central their analysis – in this case, jazz history, postwar history, Beat literature, and African-American culture more broadly, just to name a few. This is intellectual racism and, in my experience, it is quite prevalent in the exploration of American culture. In the reception of The Origins of Cool, I have been disappointed at the general avoidance of the racial and African-American issues of the book. Sadly, it only proves my point. Quite simply, cool could not and would not exist outside of its African-American origins in music, language, style, humor, dance, and iconography, and its continual renewal, whether in funk or hip-hop, sneakers or 70s style, or through sports exemplars from Muhammad Ali to LeBron James.

A final note. In the late 1930s, young African-Americans coined the term “cool” to mean a relaxed mode of performance; it was so important, white Americans appropriated it and eliminated its origins. In the early ’80s, young African-Americans shifted the original meanings of “cool” to a new and similar word – “chill” – since white Americans appropriated their vernacular term. This is surely another example of cultural appropriation that seamlessly takes place without recognition or appreciation.

Phil Deloria and Alexander Olsen Speak on New Book at Glickman Center: Next Thursday, 10/19, 3 P.M.

Deloria book image

In just one week, Dr. Phil Deloria and Dr. Alexander Olsen will be coming to the University of Texas at Austin to give a talk on their new book American Studies:  A User’s Guide.  Their book attempts to lay a theoretical, methodological groundwork for understanding the field of American Studies, and for making use of it as a tool of critical analysis.  There will be a reception in the Glickman Center, CLA 1.302B at 3 P.M., followed by a book talk and Q & A at 4 P.M.

Dr. Deloria is Carroll Smith-Rosenberg Collegiate Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, and author of Playing Indian among many other distinguished works.  Dr. Olsen is Assistant Professor at the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

Please join us for the reception, talk, or both!