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

dinerstein cool photo

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.

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