Professor to deliver ‘cool’ lecture

Colin Mahar, Staff Reporter

Professor Joel Dinerstein will speak about his “American Cool” exhibit 3 p.m. Friday in Stone Auditorium at the Woldenberg Arts Center.

Dinerstein, director of the New Orleans Center for the Gulf south and Tulane American Studies Program, has agreed to talk as part of Tulane’s Homecoming Speaker Series, and his speech is entitled “The Origins of Cool.” It will detail Dinerstein’s insights on the concept of cool and how it is both a product of and an instrument used to shape modern American society.

“[It will include] my definition of cool, how we chose the hundred iconic people [and] the rubric I created for how we think of a person as cool,” Dinerstein said. “All of my stuff revolves around what we mean when we say a person is cool, specifically in terms of generational impact.”

Cool is a socio-cultural concept that began in America during the 20th century within African American communities as a means to cope with an oppressive, racist society. The etymology of the word cool, in reference to this particular aesthetic, can be traced back to famed jazz saxophonist and slang neologist Lester Young, who coined the term as a means to describe the introverted, laid back style of jazz that he made famous. The term was used in jazz and hipster circles in the ’40s and slowly evolved to refer to a broader social construct in the latter half of the 20th Century.

“’Cool’ in its ideal form means something like charismatic self-possession,” Dinerstein said.

Dinerstein said the exhibit is called “American Cool” because cool is a uniquely American concept. Two major factors led to the creation of cool as we know it. The first derives from the United States’ history as a nation born in rebellion. The second comes from the background of the country’s melting pot culture and its status as a country of immigrants.

“I look at cool as a sort of cultural democracy,” Dinerstein said. “Since America is a nation of immigrants, it is by definition an arena of self-invention and self-creation. If you are a second-generation American you can’t look to your parents for how to survive or how you carry yourself, what your fashion is, how you speak the language and so it has to be gained elsewhere.”

In that sense, cool is essentially a blend of pop culture trends, feelings of societal dispossession and a sense of rebellion against the established order. 

Another key aspect of Dinerstein’s theory of cool is exploring why in the past this concept has been generally applied to men only.

“[Cool] stands for people who tend to be rebellious and independent and mysterious, and all those things were [not typically] valued in women until pretty recently as a society,” Dinerstein said. “In part the exhibit is about how an icon has a generational impact and why it has been a male aesthetic and why that might be changing or has changed.”

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