“Gucci Gucci”: Thoughts on “The Biopolitics of Cool”

Shannon Winnubst gave a great paper this past Friday at SPEP.  I want to talk about and expand on it here because I take Winnubst and I to be pointing in the same direction, at similar phenomena, but from different starting points. Whereas she starts from politics, I start from aesthetics. Though our approaches are different, I think we’re interested in similar phenomena: what she calls “cool” and what I call “hipness” and “postmillennial black hipness.” In this post I want to lay out, as best I can based on my notes, what I take WInnubst to be doing, and then complicate it with some of my work on aesthetics.  All errors in this account, are, of course, my own.
The Biopolitics of Cool
Titled “The Biopolitics of Cool,” Winnubst’s paper is an analysis of the way “difference” and “diversity” plays in neoliberalism. If “tolerance” is the classically liberal approach to difference, then “cool” is the neoliberal approach to difference. If liberalism claims to be “tolerant” of differences (but actually isn’t) and encourages assimilation, neoliberalism “celebrates difference” (Winnubst’s term) in a sort of United-Colors-of-Benneton-y way. Classical liberalism tries to overlook difference: there is colorblindness, gender-blindness, melting-pot assimilationism, etc. Classical liberalism nominally acknowledges “difference” only to do away with it. Neoliberalism, on the other hand, needsdifferences, it has an insatiable appetite for more and more novel differences. As Winnubst (more or less) said in her paper, “difference,” in neoliberalism, “becomes a manifestation of cool rather than a repressed other.”
But what is neoliberalism? Neoliberalism is millennial and postmillennial reworkings of classical liberalism: it “lays on top of liberalism,” as Winnubst argues.  Though it still privileges the individual self, neoliberalism doesn’t treat the “self” as having a deep, unique “truth” (a soul, so to speak, or what Winnubst calls “interiority”). Rather, in neoliberalism, the “self” is not something pre-existant, but something that we must continually make and improve. We have to become “entrepreneurs of the self”: we have to “invest” in ourselves (via education, plastic surgery, the right wardrobe, downtime, etc.) in order to be ever-better, ever-perfectible individuals. Individualism is no longer about being “who you are” but becoming the best you can be (isn’t that like the Army slogan or something?).  In my notes, my shorthand version of Shannon’s claim here is “Not who are you, but how good are you at what you do?” There is perhaps a way in which the classically liberal indivdual self is a “use value,” and the neoliberal individual self is an “exchange value”: concrete differences matter in the former, but in the latter, all particularity is reduced or evacuated to one common denominator (e.g., “the market”).
So, in classical liberalism, Otherness posed a threat to the “one, true self.” In neoliberalism, the self actually feeds on difference: eating the other, to use bell hooks’ famous phrase, is an integral part of entrepreneurial self-fashioning. Winnubst takes this hooks-ian phrase in its full, complete sense: power dynamics matter. “Difference” is part of hegemonic subjects’ diet: “eating the other” is really “eating the Other,” capital O, i.e., eating the subaltern. By eating the other, the neoliberal individual demonstrates its success: “I, too, can do the hot new thing, and I can do it both better than you, and better than those people with whom it’s originally associated.”
“Coolness” is the index of successful self-fashioning: those who do not attentively and innovatively capitalize (on) themselves do not appear “cool,” whereas those who do take enterprising risks seem “cool.”  Winnubst said something pretty close to:“Aesthetics displaces ethics as the final arbiter of value.”  So “coolness” is an aesthetic judgment. And this is where I come in, really, because I’ve done lots of work on the aesthetic concept of “hipness.” In this post I want to argue that my work on hipness can help answer some of the questions raised by Winnubst’s paper, and in the Q&A after it. These questions include:
1.    Though coolness is presented as something available to all, is it really? Who gets to be cool?
2.    How exactly does “coolness” make use of difference?
3.    How is the “celebration” of difference really the reification of difference? Or, how does the neoliberal “celebration” of difference—the supposed valuation and admiration of “otherness”—really deepen the “othering” of the “Other”?
4.    Relatedly, how does neoliberal “coolness” make use of changing racial dynamics in the US (e.g., the use of blacks as a border-population against newly-racialized “brown” groups like Muslims)? In other words, what is neoliberal about “coolness” (b/c “cool” has been around at least since the early 20th century…)?
From “Cool” to “Postmillenial Hipness”
I’ve written a lotabout both traditional hipness, and what I callpostmillennial hipness.” It’s all available on the interwebs for you to read, so I’m not going to summarize it here beyond what is necessary for my argument.
Hipness is a logic, a “form” whose content can vary to meet changing historical circumstances. Hipness is the appropriation, by hegemonic subjects, of some feature(s) of stereotypical subalternity, for the purpose of establishing one’s elite status among hegemonic subjects. So, whites appropriate blackness in order to demonstrate their elite status among whites—“I’m more tolerant/open/avant-garde than those rednecks who like country music, because I looooove Brazilian dance music, French rap performed by North African kids, and read Angela Davis. She was in jail you know.” Nowadays, we see black male rappers appropriating whiteness, queerness, and even non-Western femininities of color in order to demonstrate their elite status among black male superstars—“I’m Christopher Columbus, y’all just da pilgrims,” as Kanye says in “Swagga Like Us.” So, to put this in Winnubst’s terms, the neoliberal self wants to achieve this “elite status”—that’s the “success” that the entrepreneurial subject strives toward.
Based on my work on hipness, I would say pretty conclusively that not everyone can be cool.  Coolness is not equal-opportunity: you can’t pull up your bootstraps, work extra-hard, and pull a come-from-behind win. There are two reasons for this: (1) Hipness is always about establishing a sort of hyper-eliteness. The point is to demonstrate one’s success above and beyond other relatively privileged, aka “successful” individuals. Hipness is only available to already-privileged groups; it seems that “coolness” is similarly rationed. (2) In order for the hipster to seem “avant-garde,” somebody has to stay “primitive.”  Hipsters appropriate “otherness” or “difference”—and even if that one specific mark of “difference” is eventually co-opted, something else has to be the next new, “different” thing. Somebody somewhere has to be “the other” who is “eaten.” So, if Urban Outfitters is shilling “Navajo” prints as the “it” look of the season, this requires actual Navajo (and Native Americans more generally) to be stuck as representatives of the primitive, the non-industrial, the natural, the hand-crafted…or whatever flavor of “different” one wants them to signify. The whole point is that when actual Navajo wear Navajo designs, this is seen as evidence of their “traditional” and “backward” ways, but when white hipsters wear Navajo designs, this is seen as evidence of their successful risk-taking and entrepreneurship. The structural inequality hasto be there in order for the white hipster to think s/he is doing something “risky” or “weird.”  The Navajo can’t be “just like us neoliberals,” because then “Navajo” wouldn’t be a sign of “difference,” and an opportunity for whites to demonstrate their “coolness.”
The structural inequality has to be there, but who gets stuck in the position of subaltern “difference,” and who gets included (even partially or provisionally) in “we neoliberals” can vary according to changing historico-political circumstances. That’s what I’m getting at in my work on “postmillennial black hipness”. Traditionally, hipness is about whites appropriating stereotypical blackness as a means to demonstrate their elite status among whites. However, as I mentioned earlier, blacks are increasingly appropriating even “more subaltern” subalternity as a means to demonstrate their elite status with respect to increasingly mainstream ideas/stereotypes of blackness and black masculinity. Blackness, particularly the “gangsta” or “thug” masculine stereotype proffered by mainstream hip hop, has been so thoroughly co-opted that it’s just not different enough anymore. Some blacks get to be neo-liberal hipsters. But only at the expense of other groups (black women, non-Western women of color, LGBTQI subjects, racially “brown” people, mixed-race people, etc.).
Postmillenial mainstream hip hop shows us that actually, black (male) rappers are THE entrepreneurs par excellence. The discourse of entrepreneurship is all over mainstream hip hop. Sean Combs (variously Puffy, Diddy, etc.) fashions himself more of an entrepreneur than an actual music-maker; he has Sean Jean, Ciroc, Bad Boy, etc. Jay-Z says in Kanye West’s “Diamonds are from Sierra Leonne”: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man,” and he has RoccaWear, Roc-A-Fella, the 40/40 club, the Nets, etc. He and his wife have a duet titled “Upgrade You”—if that isn’t the entrepreneurship of the self (or of the romantic relationship), I don’t know what is. 50 Cent tells us to “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.” In the early part of the millennium, “bling rap” replaced oh-so-20th-c “gangsta rap” as both the mainstream within hip hop, and mainstream top-40 pop generally. In fact, white female rapper Kreayshawn uses the language of luxury goods and the booty of enterprise to establish her exceptionalism vis-à-vis manstream blackness. “Gucci Gucci, Louie Louie, Fendi Fendi, Prada” doesn’t signify Park Avenue or Champs Elysee or any other traditionally domain of the well-heeled white entrepreneurial class anymore; they are such clear markers of blackness that Kreayshawn can appropriate blackness merely by checking these references in the refrain of her song. However, her appropriation of mainstream hip hop terms (Kanye West is “The Louis Vuitton Don”) is not a claim for inclusion within the mainstream, but superiority over the mainstream: “basic bitches wear that shit,” she reminds us. The point here is that “basic bitches” are black; blackness is a norm here that one needs to mark one’s difference from.  But I digress. Entrepreneurship is everywhere in mainstream hip hop. “The thug” has been replaced by “the entrepreneur,” and this discourse of hip hop entrepreneurship is so pervasive that entrepreneurship is itself the primary form or style of black masculinity currently available in both black and population-wide (i.e., white) mainstreams.
So, some blacks get to be neoliberals. Though the discourse of entrepreneurship and neoliberal self-fashioning is central to mainstream hip hop, it is also the case that African-Americans are still poorly represented among CEOs and startup founders (i.e., actual entrepreneurs outside of the entertainment industry). Because some blacks get to be neoliberals, blackness is no longer “different enough” for whites to get much from appropriating it. In fact, I think you could pretty solidly argue that some blacks have been accepted into the fold of neoliberal self-entrepreneurship because hegemony has more intense interests in establishing the “difference” of other groups—“Muslims,” “immigrants,” “queers,” etc. (This is similar to Falguni Sheth’s reading of African-Americans as a “border population”.) In the same way that homonational gays and lesbians get provisionally folded into the nation so that the nation can then demonstrate the “difference” of “primitive” Muslim cultures that still stone gays, blacks get provisionally folded into the neoliberal mainstream so that the white entrepreneur class can solidify the “difference” of “primitive” or non-enterprising” groups like indigenous peoples, “Third World women,” and queers.
There are (at least) two remaining issues that are related to this discussion (and that I am especially interested in), but I don’t have the space to discuss here:
1.    There’s something about “the sublime” here. Coolness and hipness are in some ways structurally similar to the Kantian sublime: all turn on the ability of the subject to domesticate difference, to overcome the challenge posed by some form of radical alterity. Sure, you can try to eat the other, but can you really digest it? Or is it too spicy, so to speak? Kantian sublimity is about demonstrating the integrity and unity of the self in opposition to otherness; the neoliberal self isn’t unified, integrated, or whole. Similarly, Kantian sublimity is about the transcendence of the self: the mountain may be physically overwhelming, but I have reason, which cannot be overwhelmed by the merely physical. Plus, my transcendental ego unifies both the moment of fear and the moment of triumph. The neoliberal self, as Winnubst emphasizes, has no interiority, and no transcendence.
2.    Commodity fetishism seems to be moot. Commodity fetishism is only objectionable if you care about use values. The neoliberal self is necessarily and optimally infinitely (ex)changeable.
Those issues bear further consideration. But I’m sure there are other issues that also bear further consideration—and we can discuss those in the comments.
By conclusion I just want to emphasize that I find Winnubst’s project really, really interesting. I think she’s definitely on to something—and not just because I think I’m on to the same thing. I appreciate how her “political” approach brings new dimensions to my own “aesthetics” approach. If it’s true that “postmillennial hipness” is not just a shift due to the mainstreaming of a specific style of black masculinity, but also a shift due to the mainstreaming of neoliberalism, I need to think about the relationship between these two things—the mainstreaming of the ghetto entrepreneur and the rise of neoliberalism.  I hope to have some mutually productive conversations with Shannon, and with the fabulous readers of this blog.