July 18, 2019

The Meaning of "Cool"

“‘Don’t try.’

— epitaph on Charles Bukowski’s tombstone.

I began my PhD at Sydney University in 1996 and during a postgraduate seminar was stupid enough to mention the work of the Frankfurt School theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. To tell the truth, I didn’t really know anything about them, but thought their names were fantastic and that I might be looked on favourably for at least being able to pronounce them. As it turned out, it would have been less embarrassing to have farted. I was later to find out that Adorno and Horkheimer were mentioned in seminars, but the circumstances in which their names were raised was similar to the way piñata are raised at children’s parties: generic, silent victims dragged out for ceremonial beatings. This was all done in the name of a religion at the time we called ‘cultural studies’. That day began a dawning realization that would take many years to coalesce: cool in the humanities isn’t that different from cool in other areas of cultural life, like planking, hotdog-legs photography, mason jar rehabilitation, and novels whose main character is a city.

Things might have been different had I waited a while, because Adorno and Horkheimer are making a comeback; they are the thinkers, we’re now told, especially apposite for the Trumpian present. So what happened? Were Adorno and Horkheimer decisively refuted, and was their rejection while I was a PhD student a result of this refutation? And has that refutation itself now been refuted, thus accounting for their sudden return? I don’t think so. Many of the criticisms of the Frankfurt School that were raised in the 1990s were the same raised against them in the 1960s, and most of the current defenses of their work are of a piece with those defenses previously used against the earlier criticisms. And pretty much the same could be said of any number of other thinkers – even movements.

We all know this to some degree; certain thinkers are in and certain thinkers aren’t. Pity the naïve graduate student in philosophy whose dissertation is about Gabriel Marcel, F.H. Bradley, or Jean-Francois Lyotard. When I began my doctorate if someone said the name ‘Lyotard,’ people would nod solemnly – and postmodernly – and say something about ‘the end of metanarratives’. Now if you say ‘Lyotard’ in company, people will likely think you are referring to gaudy spandex dancewear. Back then, Sartre was long out and Foucault was in; now Sartre is back in and Foucault is … still in. (Foucault is always in.) As undergraduates, we were introduced to Baruch Spinoza’s work as if it were a kooky museum exhibit, a prime example of just how stupid philosophers could be when given the chance to give their minds free reign. (Philosophy is still usually taught as a collection of errors, arranged chronologically. Bertrand Russell’s famous A History of Western Philosophy could easily be subtitled ‘Or, Thank God I Came Along When I Did.’) And now? Now Spinoza is philosophy’s Swiss Army knife: he can be wheeled out for any purpose to solve absolutely any problem. Everybody loves Spinoza. People are even getting Spinoza tattoos. (Google it.) Spinoza is the sine qua non of intellectual cool. There are probably now whole departments of Spinoza Studies. Spinoza has apparently sorted out every conceivable metaphysical and political quandary. He is everywhere. For now.”

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