Philipp Tingler: Coolness 
Is a ­Giddy Girl

Unattainable by design. That’s coolness. Which is why it will always remain somewhat elusive and difficult to grasp hold of.

  • Text
    Philipp Tingler
  • Illustrations
    Gregory Gilbert-Lodge

So there we are in Paris, in the slightly cluttered Diptyque flagship store on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Diptyque has long been a global, iconic brand, though if you ask me, it owes its credibility in no small part to this somewhat cramped little shop where it all began and where everything continues to originate from (much like Mariage Frères, for example). We’re here to buy a fragrance for the Range Rover. A very nice Kathy Hilton–style purchase. I wonder: Is that cool? To which Richie, the best husband in the world, gives the only possible answer: Who cares? We opt for the Baies scent – the irresistible freshness of a bouquet of roses interspersed with fresh blackcurrant leaves – to replace our previous England Rugby air freshener.

The thing that fascinates me most about coolness is that you can’t simply go and call yourself cool. And this in a time when more and more people are fervently assigning all sorts of attributes to themselves in order to derive some kind of identity from them. Coolness, on the other hand, becomes unattainable when you strive for it. This, beyond all definitional difficulties, is what makes it so difficult to grasp hold of and hold on to. Its unattainability by design places coolness in the vicinity of pleasure. And pleasure, as the poet Heinrich Heine tells us, is “a giddy girl, and loves in no place long to stay”. Coolness, as a phenomenon of longing and desire, is often confused with composure or even with dispassion, and that’s just wrong. Being cool doesn’t mean that you take nothing seriously or think that nothing is important or that you don’t marvel and wonder at the world anymore. Fortunately. Granted, a certain imperturbability appears to be the necessary condition for peace of mind (ataraxia) and bliss (eudaemonia), at least in the view of the ancient philosophers. I, on the other hand, would like to point out that there is a special kind of inspiration that lies in amazement. But that’s no reason to immediately loosen your grip on composure.

Coolness becomes unattainable when you strive for it. This, beyond all definitional difficulties, is what makes it so difficult to grasp hold of and hold on to.

Coolness is about distance – distance from the opinions of the world. It is freedom, autonomy in the classical, Enlightenment sense of self-determination, remaining true to your own true self, being an individual, the opposite of late-modern identity. Coolness is hard to grasp; that’s part of its fascination. But coolness also means maintaining a distance from yourself. Being cool implies a deep aversion to pretentiousness and self-righteousness. Irony, by its very nature, is cool.

Cool Cars
This means that we must be careful not to commit an error of our time, namely to categorically associate coolness with some kind of object. That doesn’t work and is just another sign of the ­cognitive wasteland of our day. You cannot make apodictic statements, for example, about whether a Tesla Model S is cooler than a 1998 ­Toyota ­Starlet.

What we can say, however, is that mobility has also always meant communication. Ever since it first started rolling through our world, the automobile has also been subject to fashion as part of the world of things. Meaning: it has been subject to the symbolic language of things. The automobile carries information about the owner’s way of seeing themselves and about their relationship to the world. In more academic terms, this is the performative aspect of driving a car: a symbol of one’s social affiliation, but also a demarcation. These symbols and their meanings are to be understood in context, however; unlike most traffic signs, which demand absolute validity. The label “cool”, therefore, is only a shifting attribute in the maelstrom of ever-changing symbols in popular culture.

Take the term “vintage”, for example. Older cars, whether a 1998 Starlet or a 1968 Mustang, are mobile symbols of non-simultaneity. Whether they are cool or not depends on what they express: A need for admiration or a distance from the world and its trappings? Or simply a car and nothing more? The answer is: nothing more. Like the fact that you wear a wristwatch and actually use it to tell the time. And nothing else. A watch with absolutely no plastic parts. As we can see, coolness depends on the subject, not the object. The best scene in that largely forgotten movie called Crazy, Stupid, Love is when Ryan Gosling explains to Steve Carell the conditions necessary for rightfully wearing a pair of New Balance sneakers.


We must be careful not to commit an error of our time, namely to categorically associate coolness with some kind of object. That is just another sign of the cognitive wasteland of our day.

If you’re now asking yourself (and me), “So how do I recognize a cool means of transportation?”, my answer is: automatically. You recognize it automatically. Or you simply turn the question around: How do I recognize an uncool car? My personal answer is: uncool is any vehicle that I would be embarrassed to be run over by. My current nightmare would be to be run over by a Kia Rio. Or no, stop: a Dacia Sandero. That’s the last circle of hell.

So you see: ex negativo works better. Coolness is one of those attributions that become clearer in the context of mobility if you briefly consider which means of transportation are uncool in any context. There are a few. Like electric scooters. Cargo bikes. Motor homes. What do these means of transportation have in common? They are aesthetically unimpressive to the point of galling, and a supposed utilitarian aspect outweighs everything else. These are precisely the two attributes that also characterize other sorrowful phenomena. Functional wear, for example. Or self-help books. Do we want a sorrowful world full of functional wear in which we get everywhere we need to go on a three-wheeled cargo bike? No thanks. And suddenly we grasp that coolness may not be so far removed from that magical definition that Alfred Kerr once found for luxury: a sign of human audacity in the grand exposition of things.

Coolness and Meaning
Distance, especially in how we look at ourselves, is the essence of coolness. By contrast, we could certainly argue that our late-modern, digital society, with its tsunami of indiscreet technologies and its vulgar, narcissistic fixation on images and bodies, makes it more difficult for the individual to maintain a distance from himself. But coolness has never been an easy task. Otherwise, anyone could do it. So in closing, a consolation: you can become famous even if you lack any coolness whatsoever. And that’s not just true today. It was like that even in the earlier days of pop culture. Just look at Freddie Mercury.

So the opposite of coolness isn’t seriousness, but silliness. And silliness is on the rise. This seems paradoxical in times of conflict and crisis, but then again it is not, because people are often weak. That’s why people long for the template identity of the collective, aim for a preferably cheap morality, and wish the things around them to be correct and, if possible, somehow cute. Our cultural space seems to be on a slippery slide: from coolness to cuteness to correctness. Awaiting us at the end of this trajectory of infantilization is a self-adhesive sort of self-righteousness that confuses virtue signaling with actual action.

Is this inevitable? No. The lumen naturale, or “natural light of reason”, refers to our finite capacity for knowledge, the limits to what we can know. And what do we recognize with these limited means? That it’s not really all about being cool, for example. But rather about being pleasant. That’s the most important quality, don’t you think? But what makes you a pleasant person? For starters, not elevating your means of transportation to a “philosophy”. Or what you eat. And, most importantly: knowing that your inner life is not nearly as interesting to the outside world as it is to you. Everything else will then just fall into place.

ramp #60 Too Cool to Handle.
Philipp Tingler

Philipp Tingler

Writer, Literary Critic & Columnist
Philipp Tingler studied economics and philosophy at the University of St. Gallen, the London School of Economics and the University of Zurich and is a multi-award-winning writer. His most recent publication is the novel "Rate, wer zum Essen bleibt" (2019), published by Kein & Aber. He is a critic in the SRF Literature Club and in ZDF's Literary Quartet, as well as a juror for the ORF Bachmann Prize and the SRF Best List. He is of course also known for his ramp essays.
ramp #60 Too Cool to Handle.

ramp #60 Too Cool to Handle.

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