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Cool (African philosophy)

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Cool is a complex, black African cultural aesthetic that encompasses certain fundamental elements which permeate indigenous, or traditional, African cultures. Cool crosses ethnic and tribal divisions and is integral to African spirituality, notions of proper comportment, standards of physical grace and beauty, and myriad forms of artistic expression—including the design and execution of functional art, in textiles, everyday implements, sculpture and masks, and in music and dance.[] An authoritative dictionary is yet to include this definition of cool.

Miles Davis-Tutu (album cover)

Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis is an icon of cool

African American use of 'cool' has evolved to include related meanings. In addition to indicating an absence of conflict, 'cool' also is used to communicate agreement or compliance and to describe something 'hip' (from the Wolof word "hipi," meaning to open one's eyes, to be aware ),[1] meaning fashionable and current; as well as something desirable, aesthetically appealing, or something of sublime or understated elegance. Over time, the African-American uses of the word have become incorporated into mainstream American English. Just as jazz began to change and influence popular music in the 1920s, the language of jazzmen began to appear in the American lexicon. Mainstream slang usage of 'cool' to mean “excellent" or "superlative” was first recorded in written English in the early 1930s. In the 1940s and 1950s, 'cool' became an integral part of the vocabulary of beatniks (WP) and some mainstream youth eager to embrace the language of their jazz-musician idols. Since then, the word has become ubiquitous in world popular culture.

Ontological frameworkEdit

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Cool (African philosophy) (archive)

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Apparent opposites, or countervailing constructs, not only meet— as with the Wikipedia:Kalunga line, a sacred, underwater line of demarcation where the worlds of the living and of those passed on reconnect and interact— but can and often do inhabit the same space, conceptually or literally. This is true in the concept of possession, where the spirits of the dead are believed to possess the bodies of the living. one element inhabits the interstices of another in time and space. This latter principle is also evident in the Wikipedia:syncopation, Wikipedia:polyphony and polyrhythmic complexity of West African music and some Afro-Cuban music (and, to some extent, in African American music). It is an essential characteristic of an element of jazz and swing. This is in marked contrast to the traditional European approach to music, which is structurally linear and rhythmically regimented.[2] In this sense, the traditional African ontological approach is the opposite of that of, for example, Zoroastrianism, where Light and Darkness are warring concepts.[3] In the African understanding, there is no struggle, no antagonism; there is cohabitation, balance and communion.

Mystical coolness and the "mask of the cool"Edit

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Various scholars, among them Susal M. Vogel, have identified various African aesthetic values, which include five, distinct elements: resemblance to a human being, luminosity, self-composure (or cool), youthfulness and clarity of form.[4] In his work African Art in Motion,[5] scholar Wikipedia:Robert Farris Thompson (1974) defines cool as an overarching cultural aesthetic, or "philosophy," the constituent elements of which include like or similar values of: visibility, luminosity (of motion) or "looking sharp", smoothness, rebirth and reincarnation and composure of the face (the "mask of the cool").

Thompson explains the cool aesthetic in African and African American movement in African Art in Motion:

The mind of an elder within the body of the young is suggested by the striking African custom of dancing "hot" with a "cool" unsmiling face. This quality seems to have haunted Wikipedia:Ten Rhyne at the Cape in 1673 and it struck the imagination of an early observer of strongly African-influenced dancing in Wikipedia:Louisiana in the early nineteenth century, who noted "thumping ecstasy" and "intense solemnity of mien." The mask of the cool, or facial serenity, has been noted at many points in Afro-American history.
It is interesting that what remains a spiritual principle in some parts of Africa and the rare African-influenced portions of the modern U.S.A., such as Wikipedia:tidewater Georgia, becomes in the mainline Afro-American urban culture an element of contemporary street behavior:
Wikipedia:Negro boys…have a 'cool' way of walking in which the upper trunk and pelvis rock fore and aft while the head remains stable with the eyes looking straight ahead. The…walk is quite slow, and the Negroes take it as a way of 'strutting' or 'showing off'....
The…cool style of male walking in the United States is called bopping…. Mystical coolness in Africa has changed in urban Afro-American assertions of independent power. But the functions, to heal and gather strength, partially remain. And the name cool [kule], remains. And the body is still played in two patterns, one stable, the other active, part energy and part mind.[5]

The cool aesthetic in African American cultureEdit

Thompson's elucidation of cool helps explain cool in other aspects of African American culture. In the The Dozens, an often ribald African American oral tradition in which two opponents take turns "signifying" or otherwise insulting one another's family line, the ultimate failure, the ultimate disgrace in this contest of wit, mental toughness and self-possession is not the failure to return a "snap" (insult) with a more cutting or side-splitting one; it is to exhibit hurt or anger, to "lose your cool."

Cool in the African American context finds expression largely as an aesthetic. For decades, African American jazz musicians and, later, black-power activists in the 1970s were known for wearing sunglasses, even indoors and at night.[6] The dark, impenetrable lenses of a pair of "shades" help to mask emotion and, thus, "cool" the face. Further, the African custom of moving "hot" with a coolness of mien remains in evidence in African American dance today. Another example of cool in African American culture is the intensely emotional vocal style of soulful crooner Jerry Butler, delivered with trademark, inscrutable composure, which earned him the moniker "The Ice Man".[7]


The Sublime Dance of Mende Politics: An African Aesthetic of Charismatic Power by William P. Murphy American Ethnologist November 1998, Vol. 25, No. 4, pp. 563-582

In this ethnography of politics, the theory of the sublime is used to clarify the aesthetics of power among the Mende of Sierra Leone. A key formal dimension of this aesthetics is the dialectic of extraordinary visible effects caused by powerful hidden means, which is analyzed through the cultural analogy of dance and politics. This dialectic is also shown to link the aesthetics of the sublime with the politics of charisma as expressing similar logics of expressive power. Aesthetics is treated as an ethnographic heuristic for understanding political power and agency. The Mende political sublime raises broader questions for social theory about the relationship between aesthetics and agency as modeled by the opposition in aesthetic theory between beauty and the sublime. It also addresses the implications of this aesthetic opposition for the typology of agency found in the period ization of premodern, modern, and postmodern social conditions, [the sublime versus beauty, aesthetics of power, charisma, West African political culture, premodern versus postmodern agency]</blockquote>

Africa By Mary Roberts


Linking concepts:

  • Words for beauty and goodness often intersect, as Wikipedia:Susan Vogel has noted among the Baule peoples of Côte d'Ivoire and others have discerned among the Lega and Songye of the Congo and the Igbo, Edo, and Ibibio of Nigeria, among others.
  • External perfection and internal moral excellence are linked
  • Physical perfection and ideal social order, also linked.
  • For many African cultures, how an object looks is related to the way it works, according to strict aesthetic specifications, for protection, healing, communication, mediation, or empowerment.

Terms(All these terms imply a power-knowledge relationship):

  • For Bantu-speaking peoples of central, eastern, and southern Africa, a power called Wikipedia:nkisi is manifest in sculpture and other expression
  • For Mande-speaking peoples of western Africa, secret and instrumental knowledge is called Wikipedia:nyama.
  • For African Muslim mystics, Wikipedia:baraka is a blessing energy emanating from saintly tombs, written and spoken verses, and visual forms.

Occult knowledge(These can be highly esoteric and understood only by the initiated):

  • As is true for many other African philosophies, Wikipedia:Yoruba aesthetics also privilege knowledge that is allusive, indirect, and enigmatic, through: Patterns in textiles, designs on ceramics, houses, and sculpture, graphic inscriptions on walls, masks, and the body, and verbal arts such as proverbs, epics, and songs.
  • Geometric patterns on Bamana bogolanfini textiles from Mali encode women's herbal medicinal recipes.
  • In other cases, patterns connote resistance, as did the surreptitious painting of African National Congress colors on homes by southern African women during apartheid.

Another characteristic of many African aesthetic systems is that objects, narratives, songs, and performances are interpreted by audiences in many different ways through intentional semantic variability.

  • Among Luba peoples of the southeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, thrones and staffs embody beauty and royal authority but are also mnemonic devices stimulating the making of history.
  • The process of making art is often more valuable than the final products, and such dynamism is the essence of aesthetic experience.
  • Objects may have ephemeral usage before being destroyed or progressing to the next phases in layered histories.
  • An anti-aesthetic is also common, as in certain satirical masquerades among the Mende of Sierra Leone and the beauty-beast performances of the Igbo and Ibibio of Nigeria.

Recent study of African aesthetics includes two critically important thrusts:

  • popular urban arts
  • diasporic art forms of the black Atlantic, and an Indian Ocean world linking eastern Africa with South Asia

As Karin Barber notes, African popular arts fall between the cracks of "traditional" and "elite" or "modern" art. The hybridized forms of Africa's dynamic popular urban arts reflect not only constant absorption of ideas from the outside but also long-standing adaptive processes through which Africans have always been innovative players in world forums.

futurebird 17:26, 20 February 2007 (UTC)

See alsoEdit

Citations Edit

  1. - Hip
  2. missing citation named ref djcs
  3. Mesopotamia - The Persians
  4. African Masks
  5. 5.0 5.1 Robert Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion, Exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (University of California Press, 1974)
  6. The Guardian - Too good for this world
  7. Jerry Butler - The Ice Man

References Edit

  • Wikipedia:Lewis MacAdams, Birth of the Cool. Beat, Bebop and the American Avant-Garde, Free Press, 2001. The title of the book comes from Wikipedia:Miles Davis's Wikipedia:1949-Wikipedia:1950 Wikipedia:jazz recording sessions. This is not intended as a scholarly work, and is reported to have many (relatively minor) inaccuracies.
  • Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0195042654
  • Robert Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion, Exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (University of California Press, 1974), trade paperback, ISBN 0520027035; University of California (November, 1979), ISBN 0520038444; University of California (November, 1979), paperback, ISBN 0520038436
  • Robert Farris Thompson, "Dance and Culture, An Aesthetic of the Cool: West Africa Dance" in African Forum 2, no. 2; Fall 1996: pp 85-102

External linksEdit

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