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Judith Kohlenberger, The New Formula for Cool: Science, Technology, and the Popular in the American Imagination.

Katerina Delikonstantinidou

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1Judith Kohlenberger’s The New Formula for Cool can be described approvingly, in only one word and by means of its subject matter, as “cool.” Contrary to the concept of “cool,” however, defined tentatively by the writer in terms of its “indeterminate ontological status” and elusive semantic range (12, 25), in the Introduction (Chapter One), this study is anything but vague in its organization, argumentation, and aims. In fact, The New Formula for Cool, a revision of Kohlenberger’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Vienna, displays a highly nuanced understanding of cool as an affective and aesthetic source of legitimation of the—heretofore considered—elitist realm of technoscience in popular American productions, especially in mainstream film and television formats. Moreover, the structure of the study, namely its division into a theoretical and an analytical part, the former unraveling the three main theoretical strands of Kohlenberger’s argument and laying out methodological premises, and the latter examining seven audiovisual texts—popular cultural representations of technoscience from the United States—which instantiate the said argument, greatly assists the reader in following the writer’s line of thought and argumentation. With its sustained discursive focus on “the ongoing dialogue between the scientific and the popular” in contemporary information culture, and specifically, in the context of the American society, the study partakes of the interdisciplinary research area of cultural studies of science (15), whose scope it further enriches. At the same time, its self-reflexive stance with regard to its own political, epistemic, and personal involvement in the cultural landscape it sets out to explore lends more credence to the writer’s conclusions.

2Chapter Two, entitled “The Conquest of Cool: From American Counterculture to Global Dominance,” cautiously attempts to delineate the conceptual contours of cool. As was to be expected, this chapter also provides a succinct overview of its historical trajectory, from its cultural origins in African and African American cultures, to modern European influences, to post-1950s youth cultures, up to its co-option by the capitalist mainstream and contemporary coolness’s identification “with conspicuous consumption and commercial exploitation” (30). Besides offering a diachronic exploration of coolness, the chapter also comprises a synchronic one—the latter zooming in accounts of cool as a cultural phenomenon, sensibility, or aesthetic attitude indicative of the contemporary world of technological saturation, with emphasis falling on the paradoxical character of cool. In the final section of the chapter, the writer counters proclamations of the “death of cool” and instead proposes that cool has re-adjusted its boundaries and focus to suit the conditions and needs of the contemporary information society.

3Chapter Three, “The American Information Society and the Crisis of Scientific Legitimation,” as its title indicates, involves a critical overview of small and large scale studies on and conceptualizations of the American post-industrial information society (alternatively, knowledge or network society). The chapter’s discussion of the elusive notions of science and technoscience—engaging also related transformations in the areas of knowledge production, application and effects—serves as a useful transition to a concise examination of modern discourses of scientific legitimation, and, specifically, of the so-called postmodern “crisis of scientific legitimation” (62). The writer underlines contemporary society’s heightened demands for (new) legitimatory sources and proceeds to suggest that popular cultural representations of “cool” technoscience in the realm of mainstream audiovisual production respond to the said demands, thus replacing former, now considered dysfunctional, discourses.

4Another body of scholarship, consisting mainly of approaches to the cognate issues of scientific popularization, science in public, and popular science, is addressed in Chapter Four, whimsically titled “Nerd Alert: Science and the Popular.” First, however, the writer makes sure to place her study and its methodological modus operandi firmly within the discipline of cultural studies of science, expounding on key constituent concepts and directing attention to poststructuralist approaches to representation on which she draws in the course of her study. Having established the “performative mutability” of the term “science” (74), as she did earlier with the concept of “cool,” Kohlenberger goes on with her analysis of selected instances of cool representations of technoscience in popular film and television formats.

5The analytical part of Kohlenberger’s study begins in Chapter Five, “Cool Forensics and the Spectacle of Technoscience in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami, CSI: NY,” where the writer offers a thorough discussion of the popular, science-driven, crime dramaand its spin-offs, in terms of their capitalization upon “cool” technoscientific imagery. Combined with visually appealing machinery, science is not only commodified and spectacularized, but also endowed with coolness in the show(s). Characterization—feeding on masculine and feminine stereotypes, narrative strategies—involving scientific storylines and worldview, and, most importantly, visual strategies—including Hollywood cinematography, foregrounding of surface, distinct mise-en-scène, camerawork, and splatter aesthetics (126, 127), all contribute to the legitimation of science on account of the aesthetic coolness it exudes.

6Along similar lines, Chapter Six, “Geek Cool and the Comedy of Science in the Big Bang Theory,”examines the popular sitcom in light of its construction of the protagonists as cool, not despite but because of their identity as scientists and geeks, insofar as the said identity aligns with the notion of “contrarian coolness” (131). The characters’ wielding of an alternative form of cool, along with the show’s constitutive trading on science’s comic potential, given its deviation from mainstream “normal” social protocols to which it can be comically juxtaposed (169), renders the text conducive to the kind of affective legitimation of technoscience that the writer discussed in the theoretical part of her study.

7In Chapter Seven, “Only the Cool Survive: The Science of Disaster,” Kohlenberger puts Ronald Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, one of the most financially successful post-millennium cinematic representations of disaster, under scrutiny. Interestingly, Kohlenberger’s argumentation builds on Susan Sontag’s seminal 1965 analysis of the disaster genre and, specifically, on her thesis that the said genre typically features science as a “‘great unifier’… in an overtly utopian sense” (192). In the course of this chapter, the writer convincingly argues that in The Day After Tomorrow technoscientific progress (especially by way of its conspicuously male allies/personifications) emerges “as an idealized, omnipotent, and almost magical force, providing an antidote to human imperfection and the adversity of nature” (288)—a figuration further compounded by the use of biblical rhetoric and the attribution of religious insignia to science. Here, again, narrative and visual strategies are employed to attract affective investment in “cool” science on the part of the audience.

8As in The Day After Tomorrow, so in the two biopics that the writer treats in detail in the last analytical chapter of her study, “From Nerds to iCons: Consumer Cool and the Rise of the Scientist-Entrepreneur in The Social Network and Jobs,” technoscience gains in coolness owning also to its cognitive leverage. Yet, even more importantly, the two related myths of the American Dream and the self-made man come into play to shore up the films’ association of contemporary technoscience with notions of a countercultural cool and to buttress their representation of their lead characters, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg respectively, as modern-day visionaries, “scientific innovators and corporate rebels” (288). In line with the ideology of “cool capitalism” which verily permeates the two films (272), both Jobs and The Social Network downplay the material ambitions and entrepreneurial desires, abilities, and (morally questionable) activities of the lead characters so as to unproblematically legitimate, in aesthetic and affective terms, the “corporate ventures and technoscientific supremacy” that they exemplify (289).     

9The volume’s concluding chapter takes stock of the observations made and the conclusions drawn by the close reading of the seven texts in the previous chapters, without foregoing their variability, while it also draws together the many theoretical threads addressed throughout the study. An assessing “backward” glance is cast at the original research questions and central hypothesis that, ultimately, serves to verify the latter. Kohlenberger has persuasively demonstrated not only that cool undergirds popular cultural representations of technoscientific practice and progress in the contemporary information society of the United States (and beyond), but also that, by means of technoscience’s spectacularization and aestheticization, cool has indeed developed into a supreme aesthetic and affective source of scientific legitization that effectively challenges and even replaces traditional, cognitive and ethical ones.

10Although, the political implications of this state of affairs for twenty-first century knowledge culture(s) are briefly touched upon in the final part of the concluding chapter, where the writer also adumbrates an agenda for future theory building and research, this last point definitely merits more attention. One can only hope that there will be a continuation and extension of the present engaging and remarkably informative study in the near future.  

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References

Bibliographical reference

Bielefeld: Transcript-Verlag, 2015. Pp. 331. ISBN 978-3-8376-3092-3.

Electronic reference

Katerina Delikonstantinidou, « Judith Kohlenberger, The New Formula for Cool: Science, Technology, and the Popular in the American Imagination. », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2016-2, document 8, Online since 14 May 2016, connection on 23 October 2017. URL : http://ejas.revues.org/11402

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Katerina Delikonstantinidou

Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

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