Omigod, GA is cool.
Human life, like all life, is rooted in material needs, but human culture needs desire to propagate. GA builds on the fundamental insight into the behavior of our species first analyzed by René Girard, namely, that human desire is mimetic. The advertising industry today is one of the most transparent manifestations of this anthropological particular, for it focuses less on the quality of any commodity than on the prestige of its glamorous possessor, who models and mediates the consumer’s desire for utterly superfluous goods. The March 17 New Yorker magazine includes coverage of the fashion scene that so glaringly reflects the dynamics of desire at the originary scene of language that if GA did not already exist, one would have to invent it to explain such market commodities phenomena.
In “The Coolhunt,” Malcolm Gladwell observes the following about two market researchers, DeeDee and Baysie, who specialize in a kind of on-site investigation and interview analogous to what anthropologists do in remote villages. In his efforts to track the determinants of what is cool, of what sells to style conscious consumers of any economic strata, he dazzles the reader with paradoxes in which GA discovers the clearly structured mechanisms of desire:
The paradox, of course, is that the better coolhunters become at bringing the mainstream close to the cutting edge, the more elusive the cutting edge becomes. This is the first rule of cool: The quicker the chase, the quicker the flight. The act of discovering what’s cool is what causes cool to move on, which explains the triumphant circularity of coolhunting: because we have coolhunters like DeeDee and Baysie, cool changes more quickly, and because cool changes more quickly, we need coolhunters like DeeDee and Baysie.
Cool, then, has all the evanescence of the sacred as studied by GA, particularly as it concerns the sacred’s migration or transformation to the self-reflexive dynamics of the market. Here the object of desire, of consumption, boasts no value beyond what its marketeers and their recondite informants in places like LA, New York, and Houston attach to it according to rules that work like Keynes’s analysis of the market’s self-fulfilling prophecies, as analyzed in an earlier Chronicle (No. 82) on George Soros. “Who knows?” is what Gladwell cites as the cardinal rule of cool, which is all about elusive and therefore transcendental differences; it is “a mystery,” he says. Here all value is regulated by “the example and the opinions of neighbors and peers.” The “sequence” (GA translates: the narrative) designating cool is “entirely interpersonal,” that is to say, mediated by another’s arcane designation.
The “definition of cool is doing something that nobody else is doing.” Clearly, cool is about difference, but its dynamics are all Derridean différance, right down to the letter that you can see but cannot say, not at least so as to make a perceptible difference. GA argues the same point about the sacred as an object of endless deferral; its designation requires mimetic modelling on the one hand and deference to its inappropriable otherness on the other. Stylish inimitability follows the same cues: “Fashion was at the mercy of those kids, whoever they were, and it was a wonderful thing if the kids picked you, but a scary thing too, because it meant that cool was something that you could not control. You needed someone to find cool and tell you what it was.” So nothing is cool; cool isn’t any thing but the uncanny–wonderful and scary–arbitration of difference, a relation of or to difference, for what matters the preposition as long as it undercuts any substance or substantive?
“Wonderful” and “scary” do not evoke the sacred accidentally, the sacred always being what must both attract and repel desire. One might respond to my harping on these antithetical adjectives by saying that I am trivializing the sacred, hyperbolizing a linguistic coincidence between GA and upscale journalism. GA’s rebuttal is to observe that cool is just that, a trivial form of the sacred, which is to say that it is the form the sacred takes in the modern market society, because humans cannot live without the sacred, which culture transforms, deforms and disguises over history. The market trivializes the sacred, because the market’s role is to defang, defuse, and diffuse its potential balefulness. It is in this sense that markets are benign, and preferable to more virulently sacrificial forms of the sacred. GA explains, too, while rivalry for a pair of sneakers can turn deadly, as has lamentably proven to be the case.
The central role of “kids” in all this merits reflection: their economic marginality is what paradoxically constitutes their centrality in the market system: they consume but do not produce; they have no responsibility–yet–for the polis, the socius, or for others, for a family, or to free market regulators like the IRS. Kids’ desire has no material base, as the Marxists would say; unanchored, kids embody desire par excellence in its quintessential nomadism and leisure (a notion I’ll return to later).
The author can only describe the dynamics of cool paradoxically, without ever getting to formulate the paradoxology that drives all culture since the linguistic-ostensive origin of our species as spelled out by GA, to wit, the designation of a victim at a sacred center whose unapproachability guarantees communal exchange at the human periphery. The journalist here is like the field anthropologist whose empirical data requires a theoretical formulation that is unavailable on site, the anthropological observer being necessarily contaminated by the dynamics of fascination governing the field. Our reporter is transparently fascinated by cool.
One paragraph in particular fairly glows with this fascination, as it correlates the antinomian rules of cool, which are the self-same rules of a sacred-generating desire as analyzed by GA:
Their non-coolhunter [that of a market research firm] just didn’t have that certain instinct, the sense that told him when it was O.K. to deviate from the manual.
Instinct is a password for charisma or tuchè, a hieratic value alternatively attached to the sacred or its ministers, the priest or shaman. The manual, the textbook or template, the grammar so to speak, is presumably concerned with trends, rules, and patterns, whereas cool’s only interest in them is to deviate from them, perhaps as speech can deviate and consequently reorder the language. Note in this regard cool’s grammatical metamorphosis from adjective to substantive, as from a quality to an autonomous and yet unsubstantial agency. Cool’s only rule is misrule or dysrule; its three rules, as portrayed by our reporter, obey a metarule, which is to break its own rules, which is another way of describing the trans-deformations of a desire that must simultaneously attract and repel imitation.
The rest of this paragraph unwittingly spells out all the paradoxes of origin as they concern desire, including the paradox of desire as the origin of the origin, of desire as the origin of desire, whose origin sooner or later–every few months with cool–must be “retailed” with the hieratic evanescence of the sacred. For the sake of discursive economy, I shall intercalate its logic in brackets:
Because he wasn’t cool, he didn’t know cool, and that is the essence of the third rule of cool: you have to be one to know one. That’s why Baysie is still on top of this business at forty-one. “It’s easier for me to tell you what kid is cool than to tell you what things are cool,” she says [Cool’s source is subjective, interpersonal, not objective]. But that’s all she needs to know. In this sense, the third rule of cool fits perfectly into the second: the second rule says that cool cannot be manufactured, only observed, [The sacred is not made, but only designated, arcanely elected.], and the third says that it can only be observed by those who are themselves cool [Cool can only be tautological and self-designating, having no being, no objectivity]. And, of course [This “of course” expresses ironic (self-) bewilderment, as in: whoopie, here’s yet another paradox to come!], the first rule says that it cannot accurately be observed at all [It’s all wizard of Oz and emperor’s clothes here], because [because! ô Molière! See his Bourgeois gentilhomme] the act of discovering cool causes cool to take flight, so if you add all three together they describe a closed loop, the hermeneutic circle [This is ever the circle of the sacred and the desire that makes it so.] of coolhunting, a phenomenon whereby not only can the uncool not see cool but cool cannot even be adequately described to them.
So a clearly hieratic, transcendent difference depends for its efficacy (which is real: it’s profitable) on a mobility whose only rule or dynamic is evanescence, elusiveness, or Derridean différance, endless deferral; whose only rule is its self-(de)realizing evasion of all who attempt to grasp, name, or define it; whose only rule is its autonomous transcendence or transcendent autonomy as cryptically awarded by the community, or rather by its shamans whose election is equally enigmatic and must remain so: if you could say what or who is cool, it or he (this is a guy thing) would not be cool:
It’s not possible to be cool, in other words, unless you are–in some larger sense–already cool, and so the phenomenon that the uncool cannot see and cannot have described to them is also something that they cannot ever attain, because if they did it would no longer be cool.
This desire abhors the models it generates. “Coolhunting,” the paragraph concludes, “represents the ascendancy, in the marketplace, of high school” for reasons having to do with the interplay of center and periphery I’ve already mentioned, reasons that are unavailable to Gladwell, as evidenced by the note of scandal intended by his rhyming finial.
This paragraph is so unwittingly replete with the principles of GA as to merit further commentary, or GA paraphrase:
- The three rules of coolness are corollaries of and comments on each other, because they are various descriptions or definitions of the sacred as elusive and evanescent because thoroughly mediated; above all as ostensive, whose market equivalent is ostentation, more or less dazzling–or discrete, which is the same thing–representation for its own sake. Cool is all about the paradoxes of representation, and its observation and comment must needs return us to human culture’s origin in language. (The strategically retro term “cool,” on the other hand, (dys)embodies the sacred’s evasion of linguistic determination, its allergy to retrievable representation, its transcendence vis-à-vis culture.)
- Coolness does not originate in any thing but in the imaginary and community-driven prestige of its arbiters, whose arbitrary election is effectively disguised by the prestige awarded to things, which in turn are rendered all the more alluring for their ostensibly counter-cultural valence: you can go retro, with the result that Hushpuppies receive a fashion institute award; or go trans-sexual, so a new line of women’s Reeboks are “butter” for a male cool kid–upsize them for males and you’ll make a market comeback.
- Cool cannot be manufactured but only observed, according to rule 3, except that it isn’t available to observation, which is rule 1, and which annuls rule 3. This antinomy is essential: if the rules didn’t cancel each other out, if they stabilized in any procedural or logical order, they’d be available to imitation, which is just what cool is about the business of avoiding. The rules conform to the same double binds as the primitive sacred, whose first rule is to be unavailable to appropriation, representation or imitation: noli me tangere says the oxymoronic burning bush. It is GA that reminds us that the (para)logic of the origin must remain opaque to its beneficiaries for it to function as an origin, despite (and because) of the fact that the mimetic designation of its beneficiaries is alone what brings it into (non)being.
- If this concatenation and self-cancellation of cool rules call GA to mind, it is evidence of GA’s contention that the originary scene of language is played out every day in the marketplace, whose real success depends on the opacity of its rules to its participants. Is it not in this sense too that Gans is able to say that the market is smarter than its participants? The emperor has no clothes, which is O.K. for a kid to say; culture survives that perception by making the kid the emperor.
- Still other GA reformulations are available from this New Yorker article, and especially from the paragraph glossed here. Every GA formulation is about the paradoxes of self-reference and reflexivity as generated by the originary scene of language. Cool is, after all, just a signifier whose market success reflects the opaquely hieratic origin of language, as I’ve suggested in my earlier remarks on its strategically retro style and grammatically skewed morphology.
What is demonstrably true about paradox in Higher Ed is understandable in term of the success of deconstruction in literature departments: its counterintuitive frisson is the source of its appeal to humanists (especially, the object of their study being the most self-reflexively elusive, their study being the most conceptually fragile and mobile, namely, the human, which is to say the uniquely self-reflexive [non]being). Deconstruction is all paradox, dilating with a now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t appeal to and defiance of the reader. The game is irresistible to a class of toilers whose cultural base, as Joseph Pieper observed decades ago, is leisure, a fainéantise we inherit from our origins in priestcraft, who literally and in every sense have no thing to do, nothing to make, rien à faire, except to patrol an ever elusive sacrality. This self-deprecating and sophomoric riff would have no interest if it did not get us to see the integral connection between our fainéantise as critics and the cultural vocation of kids, their fainéantise being recently elevated by market dynamics to a new and fairly transparent priestcraft.
This coolhunter article is followed by another one by Hilton Als on the fashion industry, on its infatuation with previously unfashionable Britain (“of course,” Gladwell would add). Here a panicky quest for difference (genre: “I’m sort of obsessed, basically, with things you can’t get anymore,” says Paul McCartney’s daughter, now a would-be trend-setter) unabashedly betrays the morbidity that GA recognizes as crucial, as originary, to the sacred, whose prime signifier is a victim: “The most interesting [students of fashion] come [to a London fashion institute] from countries where there is little interest in fashion: ‘I have students coming from Turkey, or Croatia–there is somebody from Slovenia at the moment–and I think they’re fantastic!'” Here’s the seal between our death’s head, cadaveresque mannequins (typical specimens are arrayed in the mag) and deadly violence, which the market converts and translates as exotica, which is the fashion market’s retailing of the nexus: eros-thanatos (the absolute Otherness of death providing the frisson necessary to hieratic difference). Here is Nietzsche’s transvaluation of all values with a vengeance: the refugee, the victim is potential arbiter of market value.
Only GA has spelled out the Nietzschean analytic of resentment as proto-analytic of market dynamics. Nietzsche becomes available to us again as a hermeneutic once we realize he is describing modern market society rather than the Titanic agon he nostalgically fantasizes, and his really violent shrillness may just come, too, from the disconnection from his real socio-economic situation or experience as he only partly and painfully intuits it, as he only darkly perceives it. At the very least, Nietzsche’s marketability in Higher Education has always depended on his value-defying coolness for PhD’s (myself included, for years) who also misrecognize their market marginality for a titanic cultural struggle. Consider, for instance the Dionysian hieros-hysteria extolled by Gilles Deleuze, whose Mille plateaux wants to celebrate nomadic desire without a clue about the market’s unanchored self-reflexivity that generates (as in GA) that nomadism.
In his recent book, Sacrificing Commentary, Sandor Goodhart describes Nietzschean truth as the “mimesis that wins and gets to call what it does truth and everything else mimesis.” That is the very definition of cool, which depends on imitation on the one hand and defies it on the other, which gathers imitators by flaunting its inimitability. What Goodhart says about truth also applies to Nietzsche’s Will to Power (which is the truth secundum Nietzsche) and to market success, which today is what we call truth, especially if we are Wall Street capitalists, who hold the market up as a transcendental institution–whereas, quite to the contrary, it is all about migration, nomadism, errancy, and even vagrancy. Cool is benign: it keeps kids off the streets, if only long enough to find the next Nike placeholder. It motivates and orients their leisure, even in the original sense of orientation as a return to the radiant sun-center-origin of human culture, to the Platonic Idea of truth, the source of light and vision which itself cannot be grasped or even seen. GA translates this as the originary scene of language, whose source is another’s, any other’s, desire.