"Cool" is perhaps the only appellation to survive for as many generations as it has. Fifty-year-olds and five-year-olds
seem to have a common understanding of "cool" and that whatever is cool is good. This is not the case with a classic
boomerism like "groovy," or more gen-x specific terms like "bad." For whatever reason, "cool"
withstands the passage of generations.
The classic inventor of cool was jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. He is the one who put out the album, The Birth of the Cool,
in the 1950's. In many ways, Miles established the pattern for coolness that would undergo many transmutations over the ensuing
decades, but the essence of what is cool would always remain. Cool is that aloof, independent, self-contained, rebellious,
strong, proficient, iconoclastic, vanguard attitude that Miles embodied. He was powerful, controlled, self-directed, and
incredibly talented. The fact that he became wealthy, famous, and attracted the most beautiful women didn't hurt either.
Miles Davis was a young African-American male. In the 1950's these people were being routinely lynched in our country.
Miles' ascent was a rejection of the cultural stereotypes about Black men as lazy, worthless, undependable shirkers. Coolness
began as a subversive, counter-cultural category; it was a way for the weak to become strong; it flew in the face of the conventional
powers in economy and society. Cool was what people had who had nothing else.
Cool is still generated among the poor. The regions that "cool-hunters" prowl are the ghettos and inner-city
neighborhoods where young people have no stake in the status quo. Cool has re-manifested itself repeatedly and has become
in many ways the core cultural expression of America. Cool is our greatest export. It is assiduously sought by marketers
and manufacturers. To find it is to connect with the most powerful commercial force on the planet. For whatever is perceived
to be cool will sell at premium prices.
But to change the context of cool, is to dramatically change its meaning. A recent issue of Adbusters magazine focused
on "cool fascismo." When an aesthetic is separated from its original context it can become something precisely
the opposite of what it was originally. In the hands of the principalities and powers ruling global commercial capitalism,
cool is something quite different from what it was when expressed by the poor, disenfranchised, and marginal peoples who gave
it birth. It is one thing to be cool with a trumpet or an electric guitar; it is quite another when coolness is articulated
by the pilot of an F-16.
Money and power change everything. When an oppressed group cries out for freedom it has a meaning distinct from the same
demand coming from the voices of the privileged. The freedom longed for by girls working in Indonesian sweatshops is quite
different from what Geroge W. Bush means when he talks about the "freedom" of the rich from taxation and regulation.
The latter freedom is the cause of the oppression of the former.
There was a recent article in Mother Jones reflecting on the way blues music is corrupted by success in the same way.
Here is a musical form developed by slaves and poor sharecroppers. It was adopted by outcast white young people who identified
with the pain and marginality. But by the 1990's, the blues had transmogrified into a commercial juggernaut catering to wealthy,
white, suburbanites. Domesticated, the blues is separated from its original social context of oppression.
Max Weber, the great German sociologist, identified a phenomena he called the "routinization of charisma."
By this he meant that powerful movements of the human spirit are always prone to be domesticated and institutionalized over
time. The first generation is filled with passion and enthusiasm; but each succeeding generation sees a calcification of
the original spirit. Eventually, all that is left is a shell, often maintained by a rigidly legalistic orthodoxy. In America,
this shell is adopted and used to sell things.
Like the blues, the charisma of cool got routinized by commercialization and popularity. We see this devolution when
an aesthetic rooted in the heartbreak and rage of an oppressed and marginalized social group is utilized to sell deodorant,
cars, beer, and banking products. The context is reversed. Instead of an expression of pain, the aesthetic is used in the
service of greed, avarice, lust, and a will to power. The musical form of the blues is drained of its original spirit; like
an embalmed cadaver, it is then filled with a very different, artificial, synthetic energy. It largely sounds the same; but
now the music serves a different master. Music that once expressed the torment and anger of slaves is now background music
to parties of affluent white people sponsored by beer companies.
Religion is more susceptible than anything to this degeneration. Religions are formed in a spontaneous explosion of spiritual
energy. The biggest challenge then becomes keeping that spirit alive and available, and not letting it degenerate into legalism,
scholasticism, or cultural domestication. We see this in the Scriptures, beginning with the exodus of God's people from slavery
in Egypt. The tremendous outburst of liberating energy experienced at the Red Sea was always liable to be lost. The people
were always in danger of imploding into a system reflective of Pharaoh's oppression.
So God sent the Torah to Moses. The point of the commandments was to institutionalize the revolution in such a way that
the original spirit was maintained. It was a continual antidote against domestication, an inoculation against routinization.
The Law was supposed to keep the entropic and gravitational forces of corruption, in which wealth and power were increasingly
centralized and oppressive, in check. With these impulses controlled, the original liberating Spirit of the Law would be
able to stay.
It is a continual and perennial battle. Mostly we fall short. Christianity has often tried to make the risen Christ
a justification for horrendous and bloodthirsty espressions of imperialism. How do we celebrate liberation and resurrection
when we have become Pharaoh?
Clearly, then there is something connecting the original spirit or a movement with its original context. In other words,
to keep the spirit you have to in some ways replicate the context. If the Spirit comes as liberator to people in poverty
and powerlessness, then poverty and powerlessness must be maintained by those seeking to receive the same Spirit. This is
what the early Church and monasticism tried to do. By adopting the poverty, chastity, and obedience taught and lived by Jesus,
they sought to be more receptive to his Spirit.
The integrity of aesthetics like the cool and the blues is maintained by the connection to the original context of oppression.
Once that context is lost, the aesthetic goes over to the dark side and becomes a tool of oppression and exploitation. Even
more basically is this dynamic relevant to the life of the Spirit. It is as possible for a wealthy, powerful, successful,
and popular Church to participate in the Kingdom of God as it is for a Lexus to drive through the eye of a needle. If we
want Jesus' Spirit, we can only receive it to the degree we share in his life.