Birth of the cool

Adapted from the Yoshiwara Tsurezuregusa:

An eight-year-old boy asked his father: "What does 'hip' mean?"

"Hip is something people get," his father replied.

"How do they get hip?"

"By acting hip."

"Who teaches them how to act hip?"

"People who have already gotten hip."

"So how did the very first hipsters get hip?"

"By spending all their money on ridiculous nonsense," the boy's father admitted.

(In the original, the part of 'hip' is played by sui.)

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Is *that* what iki/sui means? Not too long ago, I read the Wikipedia entry and skimmed the MA thesis linked from that entry, and I found myself no more enlightened than I had been when I knew nothing. The only thing I could figure out was that "iki" (or "sui") indicated something that was a specifically Japanese kind of stylish that only someone with the same cultural background could pick out as such. If it's the equivalent of "hip," that goes a long way towards explaining its slipperiness.


I've read "The Structure of Detachment" 粋の構造 by Kuki Shuzo, and I gotta say this is much more to the point.


I don't like "hip" as a gloss for 粋 — mostly because I am a stickler for this kind of thing. I think both "hip" and "cool" are very much tied to anti-establishment detachment of outsider classes — specifically African-Americans and their white followers. Samurai and townspeople can be as 粋 they want, but the samurai are "aristocratic cool" (in the British mold) and merchants are kind of show-off conspicuous consumers. I just don't buy that 粋 has the same kind of social protest as the original meanings of "hip" or "cool."


True, "hip" isn't a perfect gloss (sorry, Brian), but I don't think it's as bad as all that. Think of New York (Williamsburg or whatever) as a new Yoshiwara: a small cultural elite defines an ever-changing hipness based on consumerism and impractical decadence, and the rest of the culturesphere either falls into line or is dismissed as hicks (yabo). As you say this is about the new hipness rather than the original "authentically" countercultural one though.

But dude, samurai can't be iki or sui. They're the epitome of uptight yabo thinking. Plus half of them WERE from the countryside.


Hmm.. for some reason, I am reminded of an incident long ago when I was a young student in art school. I was interested in computers, and the sole volume in our art school library was a collection of papers from a 1965 symposium sponsored by IBM, discussing applications of computers in the arts.
At that time, computer graphics were unheard of, and the use of computers for producing art was considered impossible by even the most radical theorists. However, a wide variety of papers were presented on ways to use computers to study the arts. One paper in particular still sticks in my memory.
Some IBM researchers decided to do extensive statistical surveys on art school students and professors to determine how art school pedagogy worked. They collected surveys with hundreds of questions to examine every aspect of life as an art student, artist, or art professor, seeking what experiences they had in common. The survey, taken in the times of the Hipster era, with diverse students and schools of aesthetics, could scarcely find any common ground. But they did come to one firm conclusion, the ONE thing all students learned at their art schools: they all learned how to dress like artists and behave like artists. The students learned it from their professors, who, for the most part, were unsuccessful in transmitting any knowledge of the creative arts, except the things they learned from their own mentors: how to dress and act like an artist.


When I think of 粋, I picture Shirasu Jiro.

When I think of hip, I think of Nat King Cole.

That is all.


Think of New York (Williamsburg or whatever) as a new Yoshiwara

If you are using 2009 "hip," than sure, the gloss is fine. As long as we understand that 粋 does not carry any of the original 1950s "hip" — which was defined specifically in reference to Black resistance and Whites picking up that behavior in a sympathetic struggle.

But dude, samurai can't be iki or sui.


Is there a specific word for urban "samurai cool" though? It seems like a form of aristocratic detachment, where trying to hard is passé.

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