Greta, Janis and the Fascination of Coolness

Why is Steve McQueen considered the “King of Cool” and what significance does coolness still have today anyway? In our interview with Lambert Wiesing, the philosopher gave us a very good explanation of the phenomenon of cool. We also spoke with him about female examples (see above) and radical representatives (see above). Fortunately, the conversation also touched on the topic of humor.
Text Michael Köckritz
Photo Kirill Kirsanov ·

Mr. Wiesing, what can you tell us about the relation of coolness to self-awareness and perception?
Lambert Wiesing: If we want to better understand the topic of coolness, the first question we should ask ourselves is what kind of phenomenon we are dealing with here, what things are considered cool, and what makes coolness such a fascinating concept.

And that would be . . . ?
Coolness is what philosophers sometimes call a “thick concept”. A thick concept is a concept that is both descriptive and evaluative. A good example is the word cruelty. When I call a person cruel, I characterize them in descriptive terms while at the same time evaluating what they did as terrible and bad. Coolness seems to me to be a similar phenomenon in that it is both descriptive as well as prescriptive, evaluative. That, in turn, fits very well with the topic of self-awareness. On the one hand, self-awareness is a purely descriptive phenomenon: I have awareness of myself. But it also involves a degree of worry. How should I live my life? How do I take care of myself? The fascinating thing about the concept of coolness is that we have here an extreme interpretation of being human, with descriptive (How do I feel about myself in the world?) as well prescriptive elements (How should I behave in the world?) These are two completely different things. There are also situations in which the term coolness is used negatively, where we call someone cool and we don’t mean it in a positive way, though the word usually has a positive evaluative connotation. And if you understand self-awareness as being the awareness of how you are in the world, it’s always about a relation between myself and the world that I am aware of. This relation is classically denoted as being-in-the-world. The special thing about this is: if I am in the world, my body plays a central role, because I can assume two different relations to it. On the one hand, I can say: It’s my body, I broke my hand, can that be fixed the way you fix a machine? That’s a decidedly cool attitude. With this detached relationship to my body, I place myself outside of the world, so to speak. We also find this view in the philosophy of Descartes. On the other hand, I wouldn’t say: Here’s a machine that I can use, but that I am. That is the physical relationship, that’s where I am interwoven in the world. That is non-coolness. Physical also means the ability to be painful, to identify with it.

»Wie soll ich leben? Wie kümmere ich mich um mich? Und ich glaube, das Faszinierende an dem Konzept der Coolness ist, dass wir dabei eine extreme Auslegung des Menschseins haben.«

Lambert Wiesing

So is coolness a way of dealing with pain?
This brings us to what it means to be cool, but first we should look at how we experience it. That’s more fundamental. The key question is: Am I cool or am I acting cool? Then there’s the evaluative dimension. In other words, do I think it’s good to act cool? When it comes to pain, coolness is a sign of strength, of someone who knows how to deal with pain. But you can also evaluate this detachment as negative, because it is a withdrawal from the world. An interesting development is that a counter-term to cool is currently attracting a great deal of attention, namely the term woke. Both terms come from the sixties. And both are descriptive as well as prescriptive. There’s the cool personality and the woke personality. People used to say: “Keep cool.” Today it’s: “Stay woke.” Be sensitive, feel the world. Greta Thunberg, for example, doesn’t want to be cool. Greta is woke. The same goes for Billie Eilish.

Where does that leave coolness?
Today’s zeitgeist has made cool problematic, because our culture has become more aware. That includes being sensitive to the problems of others, being able to empathize, showing our feelings, making sure we don’t discriminate against other people. There’s an element of emotion there, but it’s simply a dominant trait of the present.

Brands still want to be cool, however. How do you explain that?
Well, lots of brands these days advertise that they are sustainable, but thinking sustainably is actually not cool.

Isn’t that a contradiction?
I think that particularly in the field of marketing we often see such an unreflected, let’s say, potpourri, and people don’t even notice the contradiction. But if you take the terms seriously, you can see a basic pattern of being-in-the-world. You can be detached from the world and still see yourself as a part of it – I have an avatar in the world, so to speak – or you could say instead: I am personally in the world. I can see myself ecologically as part of the world. The culture of cool evaluates this detachment positively and therefore wants to cultivate it. Wokeness culture is the opposite.

»Es gibt die coole und die woke Persönlichkeit. Es gab auch früher den Slogan: 'Keep cool'. Heute heißt es hingegen oft: 'Stay woke'. Sei sensibel und einfühlsam, spüre die Welt. Greta Thunberg will zum Beispiel nicht cool sein.«

Lambert Wiesing

But despite this, or precisely because of it, we are fascinated by the detached, the cool. Why?
Let me expand on that a bit: If we assume that people can see themselves as part of the world and need to develop practices for staying alive, it’s interesting that for two and a half thousand years we in the West have had this notion that people will be happy if they have no desires. Today we have two ways of reaching this state. The ancient solution was to work on our desires. The modern solution is to work on their realization.

Can you give us an example?
Sure. If you want a car, you could say: Okay, I have to work towards getting one or do something to satisfy my desire. But another solution would be to eliminate the desire itself. Coolness represents the ancient tradition of making the change on the subject side. This goes completely against the zeitgeist, which is why it’s so attractive. Coolness culture is a counterculture to saying: no, I can also achieve it through myself. That has something to do with me seeing myself as outside the world.

So you’re more detached and less vulnerable.
Exactly! But for all our fascination with coolness, I don’t think we should dismiss the dangers.

Changing the subject slightly: What women do you consider cool?
The coolest woman in history, in my opinion, is Janis Joplin. Just look at the line “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose” from “Me and Bobby McGee”. Now that’s detachment! Though just imagine you were Janis Joplin’s son . . . You could also say: Janis Joplin is a coolness extremist.

Nicely said.
Janis Joplin really did live coolness to the extreme. And this imperturbability, also called ataraxia, is typical in the ancient tradition. There’s something fascinating about it because it shows an enormous level of detachment on the part of the subject.

Would you say you have to be careful not to use the word cool indiscriminately, worshipping it in its extreme form, because that no longer has anything to do with life?
That’s taking the words right out of my mouth. Of course, sixties culture gives us some prime examples of detachment and coolness that become absolutely iconic when things get dangerous. Like Steve McQueen, who competed in some very dangerous car races. Or Janis Joplin, who was constantly taking drugs that weren’t any less dangerous.

Credit: 2010 John Dominis, Time Inc./courtesy Schirmer/Mosel

Coolness always thrives on rebellion. And then there’s the luxury aspect, the detachment from convention, from the norm.
You could say that the luxury experience makes me realize I am a subject, that I take a stand on the world and so not make myself a slave to the rules. After all, luxury arises from breaking with rules that I myself consider reasonable.

And what is aesthetically crucial for a cool exterior?
Elegance. An interesting thing is that both coolness and elegance describe very well what it means not to be dependent on situations or physical conditions. Whether we have an elegant car, an elegant building, or elegant clothes, the important thing about the phenomenon of elegance is that the conditions that make it possible are not visible. An elegantly curved bridge is elegant because you can’t see how difficult it was to build. The elegant is an “as-if” phenomenon that makes something appear as if the laws of physics do not apply to that thing.

So a sort of lightness?
Yes, weightless and untroubled. Heinrich von Kleist once wrote an essay about the puppet theater in which he coined a new word: antigrav. This is the most beautiful description you could use to describe elegance. Weightless, against gravity. Where things are as if the laws of physics no longer applied. Phileas Fogg, Jules Verne’s eccentric protagonist who travels around the world in eighty days, always wore spotless white shirts, whether in the desert or in the jungle. This is elegance, of course, because you can’t tell what situation he’s in. It’s as if the laws of physics, which would make things dirty, don’t apply to him. That’s why elegance and coolness seem to me to say almost the same thing. You could call them siblings. or even twins, with elegance as an aesthetic and coolness as an anthropological category.

Lambert Wiesing, born in 1963 in Ahlen, Germany, studied in Münster. After earning his doctorate degree in philosophy, he co-founded the German Society for Aesthetics. His book A Philosophy of Luxury was published in 2019. His latest work, I for Myself: A Phenomenology of Self-Awareness, appeared in German last year. Here he posits that self-awareness exists and, in contrast to previous research, describes what this reality means for “me”. And as you’ve probably noticed: we used the book as inspiration for the title of this issue.

There’s another aspect to this ambiguity of attitude and aesthetics, namely humor. In English people say: cool as a cucumber.
That’s true. That wasn’t clear to me at first, but humor and comedy always have something to do with detachment.

Cary Grant would be a good example of that.
For example, yes. I read somewhere the other day that wokeness has killed comedy.

While coolness has everything you need to be funny.
Exactly. You can see things in a detached and humorous way if you don’t take them personally.

And if you don’t take yourself too seriously.
I think humor is one of the most beautiful manifestations of coolness. The only question is whether humor is really a tool that is always at our disposal or whether it isn’t a character trait after all. Which brings us full circle to where our conversation started.

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