Welcome to the Sunday edition of Monday homework.
It’s a bird!
It’s a plane!
So, yes, this digital text discusses cultural cool, which is a bit of a new concept for me, though the author mentions”some scholars have argued that sensibilities resembling cool appeared in Africa as early as 3000 B.C.E” (Peppers). But what is this cultural cool? Peppers turns to the work of Dick Pountain and David Robins (this is a link to the first chapter of their book on the New York Times website) to hash out this phrase: “one of their key aspects of cool—its mutability. ‘Cool is not something that inheres in artefacts themselves, but rather in people’s attitude to them’ (p. 18). Therefore, the what of cool will keep changing across geographic, generational, and cultural boundaries, which makes the task of categorizing cool incredibly tricky. Exactly what styles, music, books, movies, etc. are cool necessarily have to change over time since cool is ‘a permanent state of private rebellion’ (p. 19). There is obviously no rebellion in adopting behaviors or artefacts that previous generations elevated to cool status (unless enough time has passed or if it’s done ironically).” The breaking of trends from one generation to the next is interesting because it is a conscious break, seeking to find a different path that those who came before may have rejected or not imagined, but these countercultures are often absorbed by the mainstream culture they had been pushing back. This creates a cycle as the next generation feels the need to break away from the generation before, with the older generation’s rebellion becoming part of the overarching cultural narrative.
Before leading his readers through a “historical tour of cool” (which ranges from “West Africa” to “The Lost Generation” to “James Dean” to “Hip Hop” to “Bill Clinton”), Peppers discusses two other characteristics of cool, permanent and private, as those who strive for cool are doing so to fit in with a group through rebellion, but also the act of rebellion is done by the individual rather than the collective who is being defiant. Peppers acknowledges that there are contradictions in this since the person is rebelling in order to impress a peer group where members are (most likely) also rebelling, but “cool” remains an individual expression. Makes total sense, no? Just take a deep breath and remember that it’s all cool. Peppers also draws attention to personality traits associated with cool: “Pountain and Robbins (2000) were at their most specific (and uncool) when they identified the three personality traits required for coolness: narcissism, ironic detachment, and hedonism (p. 26). They argue that these traits remain constant throughout generations even if the specific cool artefacts and behaviors change.” One of the best examples Peppers gives of narcissism was that of Bill Clinton’s public image overwhelming the presidency, such as his saxophone playing publicity and ironic detachment as Clinton’s ability to shrug off the backlash for his less than savory behaviors. For hedonism, besides thinking of the Picture of Dorian Gray, I think of hippies and free love, with overtones of anarchic peace and love and sunshine (nothing against hippies, except they kind of scare me).
But what does cool have to do with the New Media course? Cool rhetoric would be the answer to that. Peppers looks to two scholars discussing cool rhetoric in the digital era: Jeff Rice and Alan Liu. Peppers highlights Rice’s three strategies for cool rhetoric, which do not include narcissism or hedonism, as appropriation, juxtaposition, and non-linearity.
Appropriation –> “the borrowing of pre-existing items for incorporation into a new assemblage of meaning. A more complex take would also suggest that specific subcultures, generational nostalgia, and contextual signifiers can also be borrowed and, in a cool fashion, brought into a new time and space of meaning”
Juxtaposition –> “takes potential meanings of individual signifiers and forces us to fashion new meanings from viewing them in close proximity”
Non-linearity –> “The non-linearity of digital texts highlights that they have no true entry or exit point…They are almost always works-in-progress that will morph and change often through the intentions of multiple authors” <– this strategy rather reminds me of Wikipedia, where readers can start with any page and work their way through the hyperlinks for the information that interests them rather than an origin point, and the pages are never fully complete as anyone can go in and expand upon the content.
Liu’s article has a different focus than Rice as he explores “the status of ‘knowledge work‘ in a society now focused on the production and transfer of information. Liu was also on a quest—to save the future of the Humanities when that area’s focus of interest and study (art, literature, aesthetics) seemingly have nothing to offer the profit motivated, homogenous output of knowledge work in a world of hyper-capitalism” (Peppers). Once Peppers stops looking at Liu’s work through Rice’s observations, Liu’s exploration of “cool” rhetoric makes more sense. By looking at the rhetorical strategy of ethos beyond writing from authority to (re)seeing it as “a habitual gathering place,” Peppers shows how virtual spaces on the interwebs can take on the role of habitual gathering spaces, especially with the example of Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr: “Teenagers and adults alike have especially demonstrated a penchant to gather and form communities across the web—a fact easily demonstrated by the quick rise (and fall and replacement) of social networks sites like Friendster, Xanga, Myspace, and Facebook over the past decade. The success of newer additions like Tumblr and Pinterest suggest a continued demand for digital gathering places where the sharing of information is, at their core, their raison d’être.” I do think Peppers has a point (one I had never considered) that social media sites are rhetorical spaces, but he drops the train of thought just as quickly as he brings it up.
Leaping into a different train of thought with Peppers, we finally see a definition for his section on cool ethos as the focus turns to Alan Liu’s “ethos of information,” which is defined as “the moment of tricky reversal when we see that interfaces are always two-sided . . . the user throws his or her point of view ventriloquially outward into the realm of information and from there peers inward back through the interface at his or her own awareness of the information (p. 184)” (qtd. in Peppers). This is a rather curious idea (and one that reminds me far too much of Nietzsche’s “abyss peering back” to be comfortable). The idea that we find ourselves consumed by the information playing out on our screens and being “gratified” by what we are looking at in our browsers often rings true, but there are days when crawling through the internet is more distressing and exhausting than gratifying (especially when doing research on a niche topic). The other side of Liu’s ethos of cool is “ethos against information”: “Liu (2004) defined cool as an ethos against information where the ‘schema of useful versus useless [information] is inadequate, for it is the uselessness of useful information upon which cool rings the changes’ (p. 186)” (qtd. in Peppers). This “ethos against information” includes “ironic detachment” (remember that lovely phrase?), “useless usefulness,” “the ‘wow’ factor,” but, thankfully, “ironic detachment” finds a stronger example with The Onion as a “cool” news outlet where satire reveals truth sometimes better than other news sources.
**Couldn’t resist posting the video below.
While Pepper’s text was enlightening, it also drove me crazy by how fast he blipped through the material. With every section, I grew more frustrated with Peppers’ text as I felt like I knew less and less what “cool” was, and I started out not knowing the phrase at all. I admit that “cool” rhetoric in someone else’s exploration would be fascinating in its own right (though I never want to hear the word “cool” again), but what I liked best about the site was the way it displays information. The historical tour was my favorite part because I could click on the “more” button and, instead of directing me to a different page and interrupting my navigation through the information flow, a description box for each represented time period popped up and was as easily dismissed. I think the article/thesis would have been much more effective if the author had tried making a more comprehensive text than making it super “cool” to look at.
Some extra vocabulary
topoi – Aristotle’s term for what “establish common meanings, ideas, and assumptions that allow a rhetor to structure his or her argument in familiar (and therefore assessable) ways” (Peppers)
**As a side note, I found this while doing some external research: Topoi.org is a pretty nifty research project with “more than 200 researchers from diverse disciplines investigate how space and knowledge were formed and transformed in ancient civilizations.”
chora – Rice “adopts chora (originally from Plato) to update the topoi for a digital age where ‘choral writing organizes any manner of information by means of the writer’s specific position in the time and space of culture’ (Ulmer, 1994, p. 33)” (Peppers). Chora (which is spelled Khôra) “has been used in philosophy by Plato to designate a receptacle, a space, or an interval in the Timaeus,” which is is one of Plato’s dialogues that “puts forward speculation on the nature of the physical world and human beings” (Wikipedia).
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