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On Being Cool: A Cold Announcement

[By Jerry W. Ward]
In
the later years of the last century, Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) and Culture
and
Imperialism (1993) broadcast
clear signals about the misdeeds of humanistic disciplines in the United
States, the British Commonwealth, and the theoretical centers of Europe.  Said’s aim was not to erase the Western
intellectual tradition that informed his thinking.  He only wanted to expose its hidden agendas,
its disinformative ideologies.  Said’s
pugnacious critiques have yet to be digested by people who study literature and
culture.  Perhaps the wounds we shall
suffer from Arab Spring and Taliban Summer will promote greater attention to
Said’s work, to his brave integrity. 
Said was cool.

 

Should
Said be too old-school for students and scholars of post-tomorrow, their tastes
might be satisfied by Alan Liu’s The Laws
of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information
(University of
Chicago Press, 2004).  Liu is cold.  He has extended the pioneering project of
Robert Farris Thompson’s Flash of the
Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy
(Vintage, 1984) to
argue a definition: “Cool is, and is not, an ethos, style, feeling, and
politics of information” (179).  The
definition is cold.
One
of Liu’s major premises is “that the academy can no longer claim supreme
jurisdiction over knowledge” (21). Common sense and the rise of MOOCs give some
credibility to his premise. Lui cleverly detects that our current century
possesses an “astigmatism of sensibility” (232) from which it is unlikely we
shall recover.  Institutions of higher
and lower education in the West have been co-opting this astigmatism for
several years.  Their awkward reforms of
education do indeed keep it real.  But
Dick and Jane Nobody on the street are “rad” know what time it is, even if
guardians of power work overtime to use new technologies and media to systemically
murder the will to know.
The Laws of Cool gives us no
solutions for anything.  Nor should it.
This book merely provides a context for reflection on how to minimize nihilism
and “absolute violence” in our life-sustaining efforts to hold fast to our will
to know.  It is a prelude for invested
reading of Reiland Rabaka’s Forms of Fanonism (Lexington Books, 2010) and for
transforming Fanon’s theorizing into praxis (good deeds) in our local
communities.  Study of the humanities and
making of knowledge is not to be divorced from the use of humanities and
knowledge to help people.  We arm
ourselves for service by supplementing what we think we know of aesthetics,
history, and culture by acquiring new knowledge about labor and economics, the
hard sciences,  law and
incarceration—-do something more than gawk at Michel Foucault’s speculations
on punishment or Hegel’s invitations to enslavement.  Don’t slip gentle into night.
I
am ignorant enough to believe human beings can keep their souls and shape their
destinies by observing the imperatives of Margaret Walker’s “For My People” and
Gwendolyn Brooks’ “First Fight. Then Fiddle.” 
Eschewing being cool to become cold involves holding fast to the deep
time and honorable behaviors of African American humanistic tradition.  We are not obliged to collect thirty pieces
of silver on an electrified or electronic rug.