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Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2009
22 Seiten, Note: 1.3
1. The Code of Cool in the Communication of Youth Cultures - The Pyramid of Cool in So Yesterday
2. The Cultural Capital of Cool in Trend-Scouting
3. The Role of Pictures and Simulacra for Post-Modern Reality Perception and in Social Networks: The Construction of Visual ‘Coolness’ as means of Identification
4. Self-branding and Viral Marketing as an Attempt of Reinventing Identities
5. Deconstructing Cool and Possible Attempts to Reclaim Authentic Identities in a Post- Modern World
The contemporary coming-of-age-novel So Yesterday (SY) by American author Scott Westerfield is the story of New York teenagers Hunter Braque and his crush, Jen. Hunter, from whose perspective the novel is narrated, is a cool-hunter, or, in other words, he works as a freelancer for trendsetters. His job it is to find the latest and coolest commodity for the retail market. His main credo is to observe passively and not get involved in the process of creating or marketing of cool. In this paper I want to trace how the original notion of being cool in adolescent street language, fashion, social groups, music cultures and teenage rebellion, has long been branded into lifestyles that are offered for consumption and how Westerfield weaves these ideas into the narrative of SY. Furthermore, I am interested how it influences the language used in the dialogues that carry the narrative. I will trace why SY is an important critique of contemporary American consumer culture and media landscape. I am also interested in how Westerfield weaves terminology taken from discourses of critical cultural and media theory throughout into the novel for a teenage readership.
Taken out of its particular social discourse, cool is merely an empty signifier that has to be filled with variable meaning. In that sense cool is an eternal attribute, but always dated. According to Dick Pountain and David Robins in Cool Rules, Anatomy of an Attitude, cool can be viewed a new mode of individualism, yet “cool is by no means solely an American phenomenon” (Pountain 12). Its roots can be traced back to the period of the European Renaissance or even ancient civilizations in Africa. However, its “modern manifestation” is traceable back to black American jazz musicians during the first decades of the twentieth century and was “injected into white youth culture during the ‘50s by Elvis Presley and Rock’n’Roll” (Pountain 12). Since then its different manifestations have “been a vital component of all youth cultures from the 50s to the present day” (Pountain 12). Originally expressing resistance to the dominant culture, cool has been increasingly transformed and exploited by consumer culture: “The meaning of cool has changed profoundly” since the British poet Thom Gunn tried to capture “the combative nature of that original cool” in a poem (Pountain 12): “Whether he poses or is real, no cat / Bother to say: the pose held is a stance / Which generation of the very chance / It wars on, may be posture for combat. (Qt. in: Pountain 12). While each generation comes of age, and tries to take over the position of their parents, individuals are also trying to find a place in society. This conflict of the generations is communicated in the coded word cool: “Each succeeding generation feels that real cool is something pure and existentially known to them” (Pountain 21). When looking at the larger picture one can say cool is about “generational war” and the human fear of aging. When viewed from an even larger distance, cool can be seen as the nonviolent, often even nonverbal, battle for what Michel Foucault rather vaguely describes as a “permanent war” in society (Foucault 29). However, I suppose Foucault’s idea of an underlying war in society is relevant to SY and other adolescent literature since Hunter’s personal journey to find his identity and his place in life, as well as the struggle for own economic sustainability in his work life. In Foucault’s sense power can only “be analyzed as something that circulates” (Foucault 29), Power is exercised through networks, and individuals do not simply circulate in those networks; they are never the inert or consenting targets of power; they are always its relays. In other words, power passes through individuals. It is not applied to them. (Foucault 29)
The notion that power is something that circulates is applicable to the notion of cool. Cool as an attribute is never directly applied, but circulates during the process of creating social identities and group belonging. Someone who was appreciated by a group as cool yesterday, might not be cool today, or in the language of youth is now as the title suggests: ‘so yesterday’. Cool is an internal state of mind that needs visual or verbal markers for its communication: “Cool is an oppositional attitude adopted by individuals or small groups to express defiance to authority”, but also “a permanent state of private rebellion” (Pountain 19). In the words of Dick Pountain, “cool is always mutable, and though the attribute of cool can be given to objects, but is not inherited in them, but in people, and this will change from generation to generation” (Pountain 21). Cool can be applied to the principle of sameness (Latin: identitas) or differentiation respectively. Cool is applied and communicated in the discourses of interaction between individuals and groups (cf. Eickelpasch). In brief, one can say that cool is a concept of trying to communicate the transitory identities of adolescents living in the postmodern age.
One of the most fundamental aspects of cool is that it is always coded in verbal and nonverbal communication. It concerns the transient social “negotiations about becoming an individual while still being accepted into a group - it is about both individuality and belonging, and the tension between the two” (Pountain 21). From the innovative moment of an adolescent doing something different from the norm (the act of rebellion), though might it only be something as seemingly unimportant as using a colourful shoelace, until the final product of this act of rebellion can be consumed in stores, many different people are involved in a long process of decision making. This is described by protagonist Hunter: “One thing about being a cool- hunter, you realize one simple fact: everything has a beginning. Nothing always existed. Everything had an Innovator” (Westerfield 61). This transitory process of cool is reflected in the title So Yesterday, which might have been named after Hilary Duff’s song “So Yesterday” from her 2003 record Metamorphosis. In the language of adolescents of New York City, the figure of speech “so yesterday” refers to something outdated, or as narrated by Hunter: “That was a long time ago. They are so ancient, so yesterday, that they’re totally cutting the edge” (SY 150).
The transitory process of cool is described in what Scott Westerfield calls the ‘pyramid of cool’ in SY. This pyramid, which portrays a social hierarchy, is divided into five categories and described by Westerfield at the beginning of the third chapter: at the top of the pyramid are the innovators, who help to innovate “originals”. The “originals” are then, on the level below, detected by “Cool-hunters”, or “Trendsetters”, like main protagonist Hunter (a telling name), who decide what and who is cool or not: “It’s my job to spot where cool comes from, Jen. I can see who’s leading and who’s following, where the trend starts and how it spreads. The first time I saw you, I knew you’d innovated those laces yourself” (SY 147). Below the trendsetters, on the third level, are the so-called “Early Adopters”, who “always have the latest phone, the latest music player plugged into their ear […] they test and tweak the trend, softening the edges. And one vital difference from Trendsetters: Early Adopters saw their stuff in a magazine first, not on the street” (18). Further down the pyramid are the consumers, those who “have to see a product on TV, placed in two movies, fifteen magazine ads, and on a giant rack in the mall before saying, “Hey, that’s pretty cool” (SY 18), at which point this coolness is already outdated. Westerfield adds a fifth category which consists of a group he calls the “Laggards”, who “resist all change, or at least all change since they got out of high school. And every ten years they suffer the uncomfortable realization that their brown leather jackets with big lapels have become, briefly, cool” (SY 18). In a sense, the Laggards portray timeless identities. This aspect is important for the state of claiming flux identities in the context of cool-hunting.
This paper addresses the question whether the fact that adolescents do not want to be cool in the mainstream sense either undermines or supports the economy of cool, as cool seems to be connected to materialism and thus consumption of cool is a necessity. As mentioned, the notion of cool refers to a borderline zone between being original and unique and the longing for group belonging and uniformity in a post-modern world. The pyramid of cool as described by Westerfield in SY can be viewed as a continuous cycle of product reinvention and new modes of marketing, which is strongly connected to the economic need for continuous consumption: “Cool is money. And money can be worth anything. And that’s money’s job” (SY 57). The pyramid of cool can also describe the hierarchies of social groups - the longing to be cool and recognized by ones peers, as well as the question of who profits economically from the majority practice of trying to be cool though consuming the products of cool. Protagonist Hunter states his group belonging by drawing social boundaries through hunting for coolness and identifying those who are and those who are not cool: “That guy will never be cool. But a lot of people are getting rich off him trying. That’s his money we made yesterday” (SY 27 ). Examples of the subtle class distinctions, as outlined by Westerfield in the pyramid of cool, might manifest themselves in the consuming of “ecologically correct” food, (“organic”). The search for ‘originals’ in fashion, furniture or other products from earlier periods, very often the 60s and 70s in an ongoing attempt to reclaim the ‘authentic’ rebellion or mindset from that particular period. Historically the 60s brought about a vast youth movement, which tried to change established social rules in America, as well as in Europe. This era can be seen as the birth of visible youth culture. Fashion and lifestyle products now function as aesthetic codes in the sense of the semiotic approach by Charles Pierce, which allows one to view a culture as processed signs (cf. Hartmann, 123). Hunter narrates the significance of processing signs to the reader:
Suddenly I realized I was in this school with eighty-seven different tribes. I realized that there was this massive communication system all around me, a billion coded messages being sent every day with clothes, hair, music, slang. I started watching, trying to break the code (SY 80).
At one point in the narrative, Hunter remarks that his parents do not understand his own notion of cool: “Or maybe it’s just that cool is a foreign language to them both and, like rude tourists, they think that shouting will get them understood” (24). Cool is a way of signalling group belonging while trying to maintain individuality. However, I am arguing that true individuality is hardly possible in a post-modern world, and that individual identities can only arise in the contrasts found between individuals. Of course, everyone is highly individual on different levels, but in the end one is the sum of all products consumed and experience lived, which are often competitively narrated in the name of cool. The code of cool is trying to communicate this dilemma of transitory identities and a greater tendency for loose bonds between individuals: “Cool is the ideal sensibility for anyone who must live by constant self- invention, never forming any permanent bonds” (Pountain 132). Furthermore, cool as seen in historical contexts is an expression of the conflicts between generations. The coming-of-age adolescents try to find a place in society, “absorbing, redefining and appearing to reject their parent’s notion of cool” (Pountain 7). Originally, cool was about adolescents rebelling against the dominant world of their parents and other social authorities; over time it became more and more exploited by the media and the notion of Cool became more an image and an idea, and less an expression of individual spontaneity (cf. Lasn 113). Kalle Lasn argues in Culture Jam that the meaning of cool has been reversed: “Now you’re cool if you are not unique - if you have the look and feel of that bear, the unmistakable stamp of America™” (113). I will refer to this line of thought in more detail in chapter three. Today’s notion of cool still reflects rebellious attitudes, but it is expressing rebellion against the media, who are trying to exploit and sell cool to young consumers (cf. Pountain 23): “Cool is a liberated way to consume: it implies a critical awareness of the purpose of advertising, the knowledge that ‘most of what they are trying to sell me is garbage, but I’m cool, I know the difference’” (Pountain 169). Elissa Moses argues in The $100 Billion Allowance that “young people’s identity is so tentative, having the right brands is a way of telegraphically belonging to the right group” (Moses 27). The commercialized aspect of cool is very important for the reading of SY since Hunter is a cool-hunter; who is selling his cultural capital to the marketing industry, yet also suffers from the social pressure to be cool, and thus highly ranked in the social hierarchies of youth culture.
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