Judith Kohlenberger: The Formula for Cool

As the “cultural dominant of our time” (Alan Liu), the notion of cool constitutes one of the most pervasive American sensibilities and has lately inspired a variety of research directions from diverse academic disciplines. Situated within the still emergent field of cultural studies of science, my dissertation is set to explore how the semantically drained and ontologically elusive concept of cool not only pervades American society in the fields of advertisement, fashion, and celebrity culture, but increasingly also informs popular representations of science. The prevalence of codified knowledge and the rise of modern information technology in the post-industrial information society are regarded as providing the necessary socio-cultural backdrop for these cool representations to emerge. Accordingly, I will argue that the current permeation of all aspects of American culture with (techno)science both results from and contributes to the emergence of ‘cool science’ in popular cultural contexts.

The unprecedented proximity of science to and its interaction with popular culture by way of cool aesthetics shall be connected to what postmodernists have referred to as the collapse of hitherto incontestable meta-narratives. Resorting to Jürgen Habermas’ and Jean-François Lyotard’s seminal works on the crisis of scientific legitimation, I propose to understand such cool representations of science as responding to, complementing, and even indeed substituting former discourses of scientific legitimation, which have been described as entirely obsolete in postmodern society. Cool as an aesthetic and affective, rather than cognitive or ethical form of scientific legitimation has proven highly viable and persistent in contemporary American film and television.

Focusing on visual media, the dissertation is interdisciplinary in nature and follows the constructionist approach in cultural studies (S. Hall, W.J.T. Mitchell): The representations under scrutiny are treated as ‘texts’ in the broadest sense and studied as sites of meaning production and negotiation, rather than mere reflection. My thesis will thus respond to existing research gaps in cultural studies scholarship on scientific representation and shed light on current processes of interaction between popular culture, science, and society, all three of which constitute pivotal sources for change in twenty-first-century American culture.

(University of Vienna)