Posts Tagged ‘Chris Fleming’

Simone Weil: Be careful with words. It may save lives.

Monday, May 8th, 2023
Author Down Under: Chris Fleming

Simone Weil’s “Ne recommençons pas la guerre de Troie” was published in Écrits historiques et politiques (Gallimard: 1979, pp.257-8). This post was translated by Australian author and scholar Chris Fleming. He’s done guest post here and here, and we’ve written about him here. Simone Weil actually entered the public domain in 2014, which a good thing for all of us. The more we can spread her words the better. Here are a few:

The Greeks and Trojans massacred one another for ten years on account of Helen. Not one of them, except the amateur warrior Paris, cared one iota about her. All of them agreed in wishing she’d never been born. The person of Helen was so obviously out of scale with this gigantic battle that, in the eyes of all, she was no more than the symbol of what was actually at stake; but what was at stake was never defined by anyone, nor could it be, because it did not exist. Thus, it couldn’t be calculated. Its importance was simply imagined as corresponding to the deaths incurred and the massacres expected. From then on, its importance exceeded any assignable limit. Hector foresaw that his city would be destroyed, his father and brothers massacred, his wife degraded by a slavery worse than death. Achilles knew that he was condemning his father to the miseries and humiliations of a defenceless old age; the populace were aware that their homes would be destroyed by them being so long long absent; yet, none thought the cost was too great, because they were all pursuing a nothingness whose only value was in the price paid for it. When the Greeks began to think of returning to their homes it seemed to Minerva and Ulysses that reminding them of the suf­ferings of their dead comrades would be sufficient to shame them…. Nowadays the popular mind has an explanation for this sombre relentlessness in accumulating useless ruins; it imagines the supposed machinations of economic interests. But there is no need to look so far. In the time of Homer‘s Greeks there were no organized bronze merchants nor a Committee of Blacksmiths. The truth is that in the minds of Homer’s contemporaries, the role which we attribute to mysterious economic oligarchies were attributed to the gods of the Greek mythology. But there is no need of gods or conspiracies to force humans into the most absurd catastrophes. Human nature will suffice.

“We don’t need words to make us stupid.”

For the clear-sighted, there is no more distressing symptom today than the unreal character of most of the conflicts that are emerging. They have even less reality than the war between the Greeks and Trojans. At the heart of the Trojan War there was at least a woman and, what is more, a perfectly beautiful one. For our contemporaries, the role of Helen is played by words with capital letters. If we grasp one of these words, all swollen with blood and tears, and squeeze it, we’ll find that it is empty. Words that have content and meaning are not murderous. If sometimes one of them becomes mixed up with bloodshed, it is rather by accident than by inevitability, and the resulting action is generally limited and efficacious. But when we capitalise words devoid of meaning, then, on the slightest pretext, men will shed streams of blood for them, will pile up ruin upon ruin by repeating them, without effectively grasping anything to which they refer, since what they correspond to possesses no reality, since they mean nothing. In these conditions, the only definition of success is to crush a rivals who claim enemy words; for it is a characteristic of these words that they live in antagonistic pairs. Of course, that all of these words are intrinsically meaningless; some of would have meaning if we took the trouble to define them properly. But a word thus defined loses its capital letter and can no longer serve either as a flag or hold its place amidst the clanking of enemy slogans; it becomes simply a sign to help us grasp some concrete reality, a concrete objec­tive, or method of action. To clarify ideas, to discredit congenitally empty words, and to define the use of others by precise analyses – to do this, strange though it may seem, might be a way of saving human lives.”

Postscript from Chris Fleming: “What first strikes me in this essay is the clarity and moral intensity of Weil’s voice. And this is combined with a kind of analytic rigor which avoids all easy partisanship; there are no set targets in her piece, no free passes or ways in which we can say “they (over there) are the problem.” And what also strikes me, no doubt, is that what she says seems both true and shockingly contemporary: that we are prone to be shamed into conflicts over almost nothing, that we will fight not so much as the result of a just cause, but that the fighting itself will somehow justify that cause during and after the fact – that we will shed blood in defence less of ideals than words, words whose substance turns to vapour upon closer examination.”

In the original French below the fold…

Dear Editor, why did you reject my piece?

Friday, January 20th, 2023
Chris Fleming asks the eternal question…

It is what writers everywhere ask, submitting their work to journals and editors, risking rejection or, arguably worse … dead silence. Writer and philosopher Chris Fleming asks the eternal question in faraway Sydney, Australia: Dear Editor, why did you reject my piece? And he gets a few answers … kind of.

Dear Author,
Thank you very much for the submission of your piece for our consideration. You can be certain that we receive many submissions – too many, in fact. We’ve discussed at some length how we might cut down on these, but to no avail. (Few besides the successful know the true cost of success, but it would be in unnecessary – and perhaps in poor taste – to rehearse here these reasons, to you.)

Needless to say, we don’t write back to most submitters, which would be impossible in any case, but even if we could, we wouldn’t. And yet we write to you! That is the good news; please enjoy it, as instructed.

The bad news is that we will not publish what you have sent. While your argument is coherent and original and your knowledge of the literature sound, we have been forced to reject the piece on certain grounds, even if the precise nature of those grounds is not yet clear. How to account for this? Do you believe in intuition? It’s too easy to be mysterious about this word, which all sorts of mumbo jumbo is wont to hide behind.

But intuition is the better part of taste, even judgement. We decide first and later rationalize our responses, dignifying them with things we call “reasons,” which gives the impression – most of all to ourselves – of them being causes of a decision; they never are. They are articulations after the fact, fragments collected from a crime scene, momento mori, post-hoc generalizations which answer to some grasping for the explicit.

We could offer such to you, but we desire, above all, to be honest. Needless to say, we have rejected your essay intuitively. To put this another way, you have been rejected on the basis that we couldn’t publish what you have written. We rejected it unanimously. We were in no doubts about it. You had nobody speaking on your behalf: “No,” one of the editors said, after reading your piece, and moved onto something else; “no thanks,” another said. I chimed in, “agreed.” Only one editor spoke on your behalf, although the content of her intervention has been lost and was, in any case, immaterial.

Talmud, Levinas, and unanimity. (Photo: Bracha L. Ettinger)

Thank you, and best luck in your future endeavours. ~The Editors

Dear Editors,
Thank you for your letter. I must admit I’m at a loss, however. On the one hand you say that the piece was rejected “unanimously” and then say that an editor spoke on my behalf. This seems inconsistent with any reasonable sense of the term “unanimously.” ~ Author

Dear Author,
To be honest, it is not our habit to get involved in these sorts of drawn-out tête-à-tête, but we will make an exception here. It is partly a matter of dignity – not ours, but the correspondent’s. While of course the term “unanimity” in a mathematical sense entails an “all in” with respect to numeration, I was using the term in its ethical sense. In Emmanuel Levinas’s readings of the Jewish wisdom texts he speaks at one point of the Talmudic principle that in a case before a court, a truly unanimous verdict against the accused would, in fact, attest to the defendant’s innocence – whereas a majority decision, a 9 or 8 or 7 or 6 out of 10 in favour of convicting would suggest guilt. Why? – because a mathematical unanimity is less an indication of sincere judgement than a mindless piling on. That a majority convicted the person, and yet not a mathematical unanimity, attests to their guilt. Were we to all have found your piece wanting, it might have suggested that we were merely drones, bloodthirsty fashionistas looking for a scapegoat. If anything, the single voice who advocated for you in fact corroborates the deficiencies in your submission, rather than any evidence of its worth.

The Editors


Does Kant get a mention?

Dear Editors,
As far as I can tell “mathematical unanimity” refers to nothing whatsoever. What you are referring to here is simply a “majority decision,” and so your choice of terminology is misleading. That you choose to then turn this into a lesson about Jewish ethics seems entirely beside the point. And that you refrain from citing either the original Talmudic source or Levinas’s commentary adds little confidence in your judgement. Further, numerous majority decisions in courts of law have proved wrong and unjust. In any case, as a writer who is interested in improving their work I’d be interested in what feedback you might have. It may well be the case that not all things are capable of explication – but that nothing at all is simply doesn’t follow.

Dear Author,
We fear the Levinas reference may have been lost on you. And your request for further details is, however psychologically comprehensible, still undignified. You are like a lover who, after the relationship is terminated, continues to look for “reasons,” to “understand” – and yet all these pleas amount to is a lack of acceptance. You understand perfectly well, but maybe what is needed here is not explication of propositions, but an image or figure that would assist in your process of overcoming denial. To this end, perhaps, for the sake of comprehension, you should imagine an out of focus and long-faded polaroid of a decaying organic object of uncertain provenance.

Yours patiently,
The Editors
Dear Editors,
I’m afraid this helps little. Perhaps it is my powers of imagination that have failed me, and this is the reason why my piece has been rejected. But what sense can be made of a decaying polaroid. Not only is this a poor justification; it is terrible poetry.


Chris Fleming in Turkey!

Dear Author,
We do believe you may be onto something here, although nothing to do with us, this case, or your rejection. Needless to say, we think you might want to pursue it in your own time.

Yours advisingly,
The Editors
Dear Editors,

Why did you reject my piece? ~ Author

Dear Author,
Thanks for your question. We wish you’d asked it sooner. We are unsure ourselves. We have speculated – and then discounted, and then speculated again – that it may be your relentless use of Times New Roman, your occasional invocation of the perfect present tense, or your unusual abstention from using the word “radical.”

But we already fear we are saying too much. Why this need for reasons? – this ongoing, repressive auto da fé of justification? We resent having to defend ourselves, not only to you, who create so much labour for us, but our shrinking and intellectually dubious readership, our department heads, our wives, our children, our pets, indeed all the children of the earth.

We have problems here. One of the editors refuses to read anything anymore on the grounds that he “smells the jackboot of fascism in words,” while another reads everything but only ever writes a one-line review: “The author has not mentioned Kant.” (This is the case, even when the author mentions Kant.) Further, owing to a certain biochemical imbalance I cannot explain, your article prompted a relapse of several degenerative disorders in those close to me. What can I say? Have you not already done enough harm? Would you like to impose upon us botulism as well? Send us another piece of your writing and you may well get your wish. For now, please leave the editors and our families alone.

Thank you for considering our periodical. We wish you every future success. ~ The Editors

Postscript on January 23: The fun never stops. Read Chris Fleming’s piece in Turkish, “Sayın Editör, yazımı neden reddettiniz?, here.

Conversations with René Girard in the LARB: “Girard at both his most typical and his most surprising.”

Thursday, August 27th, 2020

Philosopher Down Under

Chris Fleming has written a witty and lively review of my Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy for the The Los Angeles Review of Books. (We’ve written about him here and here.) The Australian professor has written widely on issues of culture, philosophy, and literature, both in academic journals and in mainstream publications such as The Guardian, LitHub, The Chronicle Review, and The Sydney Review of Books. His debut on the West Coast is titled “The Last of the Hedgehogs” … well you see where that’s going:

IN 1953, Isaiah Berlin published his long essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” outlining his now-famous Oxbridge variant on there are two kinds of people in this world. He drew the title from an ambiguous fragment attributed to the ancient lyric poet Archilochus of Paros: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.” Written with the aim of pointing out tensions between Tolstoy’s grand view of history and the artistic temperament that saw such a view as untenable, Berlin’s essay became an unlikely hit, although less for its argument about Russian literature than for its contention that two antithetical personae govern the world of ideas: hedgehogs, who view the world in terms of some all-embracing system, seeing all facts as fitting into a grand pattern; and foxes, those pluralists or particularists who refuse “big theory” for reasons either intellectual or temperamental.

Berlin’s typology is beautifully blunt: perhaps more a serious game than a scientific typology, it works wonderfully only when it does. With the French American literary and cultural theorist René Girard, it works very well. As Roberto Calasso suggested, Girard was almost the Platonic ideal of a hedgehog: he belongs to that lineage of 19th- and 20th-century thinkers whose vast synthetic ambition is now seen by many in the academy as not simply wrongheaded but almost impolite. Sweeping intellectual projects such as his come across today as naïve and even oppressive, animated by the most obnoxious nostalgias for the Enlightenment. Of course, the academics who offer such judgments are typically those whose own work is parasitical upon grand synthesizing theorists like Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche.

Like these older thinkers, although distinct from them in important ways, Girard was disinclined toward mere taxonomic labor, such as structuralist classification or the identification of linguistic “themes” and “figures,” but was interested rather in asking large questions about origins — the origin of religion, of language, of culture, of violence, of human psychic life. And although such explanatory ambition is hard to find in humanities academics these days, it is surprisingly common among contemporary scientists, who suffer far fewer anxieties — one might argue, insufficient anxieties — about their own capacities to address the big questions that interest them most. And so, physicists and biologists continue to write magnificently incoherent, best-selling books addressing large questions about human nature and culture on behalf of those of us who, some time ago, politely vacated the field. Whether this is because we in the humanities no longer find such all-encompassing theorizing intellectually tenable, or whether (less flatteringly) we have been conditioned by those institutional and funding frameworks that render such projects nonviable, a generation devoid of Freuds or Nietzsches or Marxes of its own might turn out to be something we will one day regret. (Unless, of course, we are now content to have Yuval Noah Harari carry the banner for us all.)

The upshot:

“Cynthia Haven’s fascinating new collection, Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy, showcases Girard at both his most typical and his most surprising. Like many intellectuals, and not just hedgehogs, Girard returned repeatedly to the same themes throughout his career — what he called with self-mocking charm, in one exchange included here, his “monomania.” Of course, as one would hope, the reader will find in this book explications of the standard Girardian theses about imitative desire, scapegoating, and religion. And yet, throughout the volume, Girard also turns his attention to topics rarely if ever broached in his body of work: opera, eating disorders, Husserlian phenomenology, literary modernism. … Haven’s book is a welcome tonic for those of us for whom universalist theories are liable to provoke an outbreak of hives. As Adam Phillips once said about psychoanalysis: “like all essentialist theories,” it “makes a cult out of what could be just good company.” Regardless of how one evaluates Girard’s overarching intellectual project, there is little doubt that he was often excellent company indeed, as this collection amply attests.

Read the whole thing here. Many people did – it was picked up by 3quarksdaily, Books Inc. and Daily Nous, among others. A week after its publication it was still the best read piece at LARB. See the screenshot below for proof:


My new book (briefly) tops Ross Douthat’s latest – if you blinked, you missed it.

Sunday, February 16th, 2020


My moment in the sun was brief, but at least one voter gave me a thumbs up over the New York Times‘s Ross Douthat, whose book The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success (Simon & Schuster), is currently making waves. (See tweets below.)

The triumph couldn’t be smaller, nevertheless … not bad, considering my book, Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy (Bloomsbury) won’t be out till May 14. You can preorder at discount via the Bloomsbury website here.

From the flap:

French theorist René Girard was one of the major thinkers of the twentieth century. Read by international leaders, quoted by the French media, Girard influenced such writers as J.M. Coetzee and Milan Kundera. Dubbed “the new Darwin of the human sciences” and one of the most compelling thinkers of the age, Girard spent nearly four decades at Stanford exploring what it means to be human and making major contributions to philosophy, literary criticism, psychology and theology with his mimetic theory.

This is the first collection of interviews with Girard, one that brings together discussions on Cervantes, Dostoevsky, and Proust alongside the causes of conflict and violence and the role of imitation in human behavior. Granting important insights into Girard’s life and thought, these provocative and lively conversations underline Girard’s place as leading public intellectual and profound theorist.

And the blurbs:

“’A vital book. It gave me René Girard as I’ve never before encountered him in a text: like looking at a diamond from eighteen different sides. Each interview reveals the fecundity of his thought and the brilliance of a mind that was able to probe the human condition in a singular way. It’s full of fire.’” – Luke Burgis, author of Wanting: Our Secret Economy of Desire (St. Martin’s Press)

“Rene Girard was one of the most influential and important thinkers of the 20th century, much of his wisdom was dialogic in nature, and this volume brings together an excellent collection of conversations with him.” – Tyler Cowen, economist, blogs at Marginal Revolution.

““Covering the full scope of his thinking, from his reflections on desire and rivalry, right through to his final thoughts about modern warfare this really is a singularly valuable collection.”” – Chris Fleming, essayist and author of On Drugs 

“Conversations with René Girard is sure to become an indispensable reference for readers interested in Girard’s views on a wide range of topics, including such hot button issues as abortion, eugenics, same-sex marriage, anorexia, Islam, and Europe’s demographic crisis. Cynthia Haven deserves tremendous credit for bringing these interviews, some of them hard to find, together in one volume.” – George A. Dunn, Centre for Globalizing Civilization, Hangzhou, China


Chris Fleming on the tyranny of trendy ideas

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019

A few months ago Chris Fleming expounded on “cool” here. Now the Western Sydney University professor has an article in the current Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Tyranny of Trendy Ideas.” Chris, a former fellow beneath our palms, cites Stanford’s own “rich history of chasing trendy, meaningless causes.” Who can forget, he asked, our fling with MOOCs, the brief rise of the micro-Master’s degree, or farther afield, the University of Texas at Austin’s infamous “Project 2021”? “The susceptibility to fashionableness is revealed by a single oft-heard campus word: innovation.’ It’s a word we need to at least be wary of; it may one day be proved that even uttering it shuts down those parts of the brain responsible for impulse control and rational deliberation.”

A few excerpts:

Those of us who work in higher education consider ourselves above anything as ostensibly “cheap” and trivial as the whims of fashion. Our labor, including our research and contributions to university governance, is a serious endeavor marked by painfully obvious similarities to, say, those solemn 13th-century monks grinding out transcriptions of Aristotle’s Poetics at the University of Paris. … Behold our integrity to those who doubt it: We hath Latin mottos, Greek fraternities, and convocations that resembleth wizard conventions. (Not that we aren’t amenable to change: The maces carried by presidents and chancellors, for instance, are now purely symbolic; we have opted for other, more effective weapons, like restructures.) But by and large, we believe ourselves to be beyond the ephemeral. As every freshman course in “critical thinking” reminds us, the dull, unhappy burden of the rational mind is to follow the evidence where it leads, not the bandwagon.

And yet not. While we do understand this as an ideal, most of us know — at least during broken sleep or after the fourth beer — that ideals are unreliable witnesses. In fact, it may well be the university’s self-serious insistence on being above the whims of fashion that makes it so vulnerable to it. Like anti-vaxxers, we become entirely more susceptible to something precisely because we think we’re not.


Fleming demonstrates fashion…

Your choice of theorist was to be German, French, or Italian, not Spanish, Iranian, or Turkish. (Spanish, Turkish, or Iranian novels were great, though. If you wanted to stay with English you needed to look at either Dallas, soft porn, or the oeuvre of Roger Hargreaves.) You should have been familiar enough in the language of your favored theorists to be able to say “world-historical import,” “discursive formation,” and “being-toward-death,” but incapable of “My name is Simone,” “I’d like a cheese sandwich,” or “Which way to the Louvre?”

But to say that “fashion” influences us might seem to offer us little — even if true, it’s not particularly helpful. Maybe we can be clearer by saying that academics need to balance two opposing imperatives: the implicit demand to follow a herd and the requirement to appear trailblazing. Like all moderns, we disdain slavish imitation at the same time as desiring the security of the crowd. Fashion exists, if nothing else, to allow for precisely that possibility; it permits us to speak out of both sides of that consummately modern mouth.

In this context, one version of a good article — one that has a good chance of getting published — is one that implicitly spouts an orthodoxy at the same time as screaming about something minor. You agree, for instance, with everything Foucault says, except for the fact that he continually ignores Brazil, or the periodic table, or your supervisor’s criminally unsung trilogy. It’s a sure-fire formula in which much of the paper is able to write itself. All disciplines are, to a greater or lesser extent, faddish, even if any particular fad is later shown to be inadequate or myopic, or perhaps — as my undergraduate students might put it — just really lame.


This is not to say that the way fashion operates within the university is identical to any form outside of it. Unlike the fickle — and, from the outside, reassuringly absurd — shifts seen on the catwalk, fashion inside the university appeals to more than just a change in aesthetic allegiance — it invariably invokes images of rationality and progress. (Of course, the mere fact that rationality and progress are invoked doesn’t mean they manifest themselves any more than invoking a dead aunt will result in her attending Thanksgiving.)

Read the whole thing here.

On being cool, or, “I Hope You Don’t Know That I Hope You Care That I Don’t Care What You Think About Me”

Friday, February 8th, 2019

The Doors … does cool stay cool?

“Hot is momentary. It quickly turns to ashes. But cool stays cool,” said Robert Pogue Harrison, discussing Jim Morrison, the Doors, and the “ethos of cool” last year. He saw it as the triumph of Apollo over Dionysus.

Former Stanford fellow Chris Fleming has undertaken a study of  “Theoretical Cool,” in the current Sydney Review of Books. As an associate professor of philosophy at the Western Sydney University, he had “a dawning realization that would take many years to coalesce: cool in the humanities isn’t that different from cool in other areas of cultural life, like planking, hotdog-legs photography, mason jar rehabilitation, and novels whose main character is a city.” It’s funny … and deadly serious, too, and surfaced in my Facebook feed. As he explained, “I wrote this, using only words.”

As for the photos below from his Facebook page, the author takes a shot at “cool” himself, in its various guises, some we might recognize.

In his words, then:

“The great Romantic injunction offered by the Aspiring Cool of Instagram to their potential audience is watch me not caring about whether or not you watch me (but please do watch me). The double imperative isn’t just a product of social media; the mating call of almost every VCP (Very Cool Person) – and every aspiring rebel – walking the street is: Look at me – I’m amazing! / Don’t you look at me – I don’t fucking care what you think! Which brings us necessarily to Andy Warhol, that erstwhile king of Union Square Weltschmerz, who gave us one of the clearest renderings of this double injunction. As far as I can recall, the only time Warhol ever looked like he had an elevated heartrate was when an interviewer suggested that he courted attention. In 1980 Warhol toured Miami Beach for his exhibition ‘Jews of the 20th Century’ at the Lowe Art Museum, when a reporter makes this statement:

Interviewer: Your work tends to be … I don’t want to use the word ‘sensational,’ because that connotes something bad, but you want attention…

WarholOh noNo, that’s not true! I just work most of the time and … well, they make me do this … so …

The story of “Maurice Wu” demonstrates the perils and micromeasurements of cool. The lad  arrived in Sydney via Hong Kong and was introduced to Fleming’s high school class. In the parochial school, “Brother Anianus put his arm around the new boy and announced to all of us: ‘This is Maurice Wu – and I bet he can breakdance better than any of you!'”

“The problem was that breakdancing had been very popular at our school, like that groovy Saturday Night Fever dancing before it (or so my older brother swears, although one can never tell with him), but that time had passed and breakdancing was now something of a joke. Unaware, Brother Anianus pushed on: ‘Go on, Maurice, show them your moves!’ Maurice stepped to the side of the podium and proceeded to chainwave, robot, and donkey – all a capella – for about a minute. At the conclusion there was just the creak and whoosh of the fans above our heads – and then the whole year erupted in hysterical, ironic cheers, clapping, whooping, screaming ersatz approval. The year meeting ended. Unaware, Brother Anianus and Maurice Wu thought they’d done very well. It was, in fact, catastrophic (which is why I’ve used the pseudonym ‘Maurice Wu’).”

“Brother Anianus was really saying to us ‘Hey, listen up, funky town inhabitants – this guy is cool to the max.’ But it could only have the opposite effect – for a number of reasons. One is temporal. The historical miss here was very small; it had probably only been about one or two years since break dancing was at peak cool, at least at my Sydney suburban Catholic (ie. uncool) school. But something having-been-recently-cool is often not a mere approximation of being cool, only slightly less so. Despite the resurgence of vinyl, cool’s movement is often digital, not analogue. Although there are gradations of cool, at its peak, a near miss of cool is not like a near miss of a hole in golf or a near miss in a game of darts, where points decrease relative to the distance of the miss. No. In certain very delicate situations, trying to hit cool and missing it by a little is like hitting the wrong note on piano by a semi-tone: the smallest error will affect the biggest dissonance. (It didn’t help in this instance, of course, that the advocate here was a middle-aged man in a long white robe with a huge crucifix hanging from his neck – and whose name was pronounced, at least by us, as ‘any anus.’)”

Fleming describes “normcore” as “a cyborg word combining ‘normal’ and ‘hardcore.’” He continues, “Apart from being It, what exactly was normcore? To the outsider, normcore basically looks like what your uncle might wear to an engagement party at Sizzler: white Reeboks, a polo shirt, and Lowes sourced, bad-fitting jeans. Except, of course, it’s not like that at all; that’s just your uncle. Normcore only looks like that to, well, almost everyone. But ‘radical’ culture is often just like that.”

As he explains, “a music video director wearing Hush Puppies and mum jeans in a Manhattan bar isn’t the same as … someone who isn’t a music video director wearing Hush Puppies and mum jeans in … a bar somewhere else. Again, normcore only looks like a loaned collection from Jerry Seinfeld’s wardrobe. To those in the know, it’s nothing of the sort. Just as an airport beagle can tell the difference between bowel cancer, a land mine, and MDMA residue at 100 metres, the truly cool can tell the difference between, say, K-Mart’s ‘Active’ running shoe line and Cristóbal Balenciaga’s Triple S trainers. (Apparently such a distinction exists, although it is lost on me.)”

King of Cool … for awhile.

He concludes: “Cool, of course, is one of taste’s dynamics, a silent, unavowable face of fashion. We can’t reliably predict its path because it never announces its itinerary. Its minimal requirement is simply to not be where it has just been; as such, the only rigorous science we can apply to it is hindsight. As Walter Benjamin reminded us many years ago, fashion more generally, articulates ‘the eternal recurrence of the new’.  Cool is one antidote to the tendency for people’s taste to reify at a particular historical moment. We are familiar enough with the opposite: we see a person sitting on a train wrapped in a stonewash denim jacket, fluorescent parachute pants, and a hairspray-frozen bouffant which looks like a half-deflated basketball, and think quietly to ourselves ‘1983 was a pretty big year for you, huh?’ The idea is that at some point in our lives, for whatever reason, we became incredibly sensitive to the world around us; we might have had – to paraphrase lyrics from Dirty Dancing – the time of our lives – and as a result, we were dropped into a kind of temporal amber which preserved us like some insect from the Cretaceous period. 1983 passed but the uniform remained. This isn’t cool; the only amber the truly cool person is interested in is craft beer. They will not be frozen. (Of course, if the person on the train is 23, then all bets are off; along with the stonewash, this person is also sporting invisible inverted commas: they are quoting the 80s. To confuse this with the genuinely uncool is like believing, on the basis of her name and plethora of crucifixes, that Madonna was a nun.)”

Read the whole thing here.