Killing Cool coverAmbitious in scope and practical in spirit, Kurt Keefner’s Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life (Wallkill Trail Books, 2014) could be seen as his personal answer to the title question of Ayn Rand’s essay “What Can One Do?”[1]  Appreciating Rand’s insight that because “ideas . . . dominate a given nation’s culture,” the battle to create a better world is “primarily intellectual,”[2] Keefner integrates philosophy, psychology, and cultural criticism to expose harmful varieties of fantasy in American culture.  Living in the grips of fantasy, he argues, keeps people from living in reality, which leads to a host of ill effects.  After explaining this phenomenon, he engages in “concrete ethics,” offering suggestions for combating the underlying malady.  This book is one man’s effort to inspire a “back-to-reality movement” (p. 4).

Killing Cool aims for a wide audience and is therefore not intended as a work of Objectivist scholarship, but admirers of Rand’s work will see the influence of her ideas throughout and find much of value.  In one of the few explicit mentions of her work, Keefner reveals that his “whole book represents an exploration of the Primacy of Consciousness in the many ways it has come to pervade American life—and its remedy, the Primacy of Existence” (p. 228).[3]  The Fantasy types that he depicts reflect the Primacy of Consciousness, while their antidote of Reality reflects the Primacy of Existence.  As a nice touch of thematic unity in the book’s production, Keefner judiciously selects an epigraph from Allan Bloom that echoes Rand’s insight: “Autonomy does not mean, as is now generally thought, the fateful, groundless decision in the void, but governing oneself according to the real. There must be an outside for the inside to have meaning.”

Keefner’s main thesis is that many people cloak themselves with a fantasy self.  This phenomenon is pernicious and needs to be destroyed.  There are various patterns people try to fit into “to create a stylized personal reality and an artificial self based on a kind of wishful thinking” (p. 2).  Grabbing an identity “off the rack,” he explains, comes at a high cost.  Losing touch with oneself, others, and the world ultimately leads to destructive outcomes.  Living in fantasy can result in alienation and loneliness as one glides along the surface of life.  It can also lead to inflicting pain on those viewed as playthings in a fantasy world.  No matter the variant—and there are many—each robs us of the opportunity to draw on the “fount of reason and wonder in each of us” needed for achieving happiness (p. 5).

Before explaining various types of fantastical thinking, Keefner offers readers a crucial warning.  Lest we lapse into self-righteous agents of anti-Cool, we should take care not to objectify ourselves or others by trying to wedge real people into the types he describes.  Instead, we should keep in mind that his “goal is to illuminate the boxes that many of us have unwittingly stumbled into and to light the way out” (p. 7).  This reflects his consistent and admirable rejection of the reductive impulse, even toward the Cool Ones who would inflict it without glancing backward.  It also reflects Keefner’s insight that there is redemptive potential in all but the most sociopathic of individuals.  One of his most stirring points, which “open[s] at the close,”[4] is that “seeing other people as real will lead you to look for and sympathize with the unique problems that life has given each of us to solve . . . . You will look in their eyes and see, not a mirror, but a bottomless well of presence to match your own” (p. 232).

Located at the center of American fantasy life is what Keefner dubs the “Pretender.”  The Pretender engages in an “unself-conscious simulation” of life by adopting a “pseudo sense of life” in an “attempt to conjure experience” (p. 13).  He creates a “Bubble Universe” furnished with popular culture accoutrements and held together by his “story.”  Other people and the world are unreal to him and viewed as merely characters or settings for him on which to project and enact his personal drama (p. 19).

Desensitization gives rise to the (real) need to “feel something,” hence, the increase of activities in “Fast Time”: extreme sports, factoids, metal and rap music, triple espresso coffee drinks, gory movies, violent video games, and social media.  Such activities, though, offer only superficial thrills rather than meaningful substance and render Pretenders unable to plumb the depths of life (pp. 23-25).

Pretenderism comes in stylized variations.  There are especially feminine types who see themselves as victims: Cleopatra, the Dreamer, and Pollyanna.  Unlike the typically masculine Pretender, these tend to operate in a slower, even languorous, tempo.  Cleopatra is a flirt who wants to be rescued and fought over by rival suitors; the Dreamer is moody, wistful, and overly sensitive to suffering; and Pollyanna believes that positive thinking alone will get us anything we want (pp. 42-55).

Cleopatra-Testing-Poisons-on-Condemned-Prisoners-1887-painting-by-the-French-artist-Alexandre-Cabanel

 

 

 

Then there are two types of Primalists: Animal and Child.  Animal Primalists cynically reduce humans to “sex and power,” while Child Primalists romanticize humans as bearers of childlike wonder and unconditional love (pp. 56-62).  What they share in common in the faux-scientific assumption that “our values are largely ‘primal’,” that is, “preset, rather than developed rationally” (p. 58).  Sub-categories of Cool include “Casual,” “Vanguard,” and “Outsider.”  They orient themselves in relation to a mystical Zeitgeist—“the spirit of the time”—whose “wave” they want to ride, be in front of, or in opposition to (pp. 145-154).  An entire chapter is devoted to the difficult issue of religious faith’s Bubble Universe (pp. 185-207).

The dangers of Pretenderism include more than the alienation and lack of compassion shared by all types of Pretender.  Sensing inchoately that there is something amiss with their penchant for gore, the more masculine Pretenders live in what Keefner calls a “Gray Zone,” which is a fuzzy region of moral ambiguity.  These Pretenders want to have it all ways at once, “enjoying the butchery while telling [themselves] that [they’re] not depraved because, after all, it’s only a movie, TV show or video game” (p. 25).

The danger increases exponentially when these Pretenders hold political office.  Keefner explains that a political Pretender’s “sense of self-righteous urgency . . . turns every problem into a crisis,” leading thousands of soldiers to possibly senseless deaths and plunging national economies into a fiscal abyss (pp. 18 and 21).  When other people and their hard-earned wealth don’t quite seem real, they become interchangeable, disposable pieces in the political Pretender’s elaborate game.

Killing Cool is devoted primarily to diagnosing how fantasy causes ills in contemporary American society, but Keefner does not leave the reader wondering what is to be done.  He provides some practical suggestions about what one can do in the face of Pretenderism at both the personal and public levels (see, e.g., pp. 28-31, 54-55, 122-124, 168-170, and 200-207).  Most importantly, he has a positive vision in mind of what we are and what our lives could be.  The ultimate aim is for each unique individual to live authentically, which “means acting from a physically, mentally and spiritually centered position and letting life in, in an earnest way” (p. 31).

In an especially strong part of the book, Keefner clears the ground for the exercise of man’s free agency by challenging the faux-science that drives Primalism (pp. 77-89).[5]  Contrary to Primalism’s deterministic claims, we can choose to focus on what’s real to figure out what is healthy to value and how to work with our world to attain it.  It’s a “person who is not Cool . . . who is free to be herself” (p. 171).

There is no formula for being authentic, so the best that one can do is cultivate mindfulness practices that will allow each person to discover that he is a “living gem” (p. 228) and can achieve the “greatness [that] is open to everyone” (p. 209).  One way of putting it is that “the way out is the way in.”[6]  Keefner offers three broad guidelines for “going in” as a means of seeing one’s “way out” to being real: make explicit one’s implicit feelings, be present to the world as it is, and honor the reality principle in belief-formation and action (pp. 211-230).

I’ve heaped deserved praise upon Killing Cool, but I have two points of criticism.  First, Keefner seems to dismiss too quickly the kernel of truth to be found in Child Primalism.  Much is problematic about this kind of fantasy mode, but more careful analysis is needed here.  Sprinkled among the Child Primalists at the theater release of Star Wars: Episode Seven will be those of “mature wonder” who yearn to see epic battles between Good and Evil concretized before their eyes.  Like Keefner, they are repulsed by yet another gory vampire film or Quentin Tarantino flick.

However, contemporary fantasy/sci-fi literature and film—such as Star Wars, Firefly, and Harry Potter—are among the few places in American culture where the morally earnest can find fare to feed their spirit, to see the courageous and pure of heart defeat the bad guys without apology.  It’s not all about the special effects.  These are the same people Rand writes about in her 1968 Introduction to The Fountainhead, the ones who embody “the spirit of youth”[7] and respond to art that gives them “the courage to face a lifetime.”[8]

firefly

 

Perhaps the blurring of childlike and mature wonder in these particular popular culture forms has come about because ironic art critics don’t take seriously such genres; they write them off as “childish.”  It’s “okay” for “kids” to believe that Good and Evil exist, but when “we” enter the “grown-up” realm of the moral Gray Zone, “we” don our hipster attire and put away such “childish” things.  That is, unless we retain a sense of moral decency and a belief in our powers of agency.

This takes me to the second criticism, namely, that Keefner misses the opportunity to analyze and dismantle one of the most destructive tools in the Pretender’s arsenal: irony.  It is difficult to overestimate the pervasiveness of this attitude, which corrupts from the inside out.  Irony operates by snarky attempts to undermine individual judgment, self-esteem, and value.  Rand understood well irony’s sinister nature, how it beckons one not to take oneself seriously and calls one to laugh at the good for being good.  Though readers of The Fountainhead often focus on the immorality of Ellsworth Toohey’s altruistic code, he also is a paradigm of irony.  In order to create a culture where the public sneers at Howard Roark’s buildings, Toohey and his sycophants sell people on handing over good money to see the despicable No Skin Off Your Ass.[9]

These two points of criticism are not really matters of omission on Keefner’s part, but rather, of under-emphasis.  He does concede that “[s]tories obviously have an important role in human life” (p. 37), and himself draws inspiration from literary heroes Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Howard Roark in The Fountainhead in addition to real-life hero Abraham Lincoln (p. 208).  He also notes that Pretenders adopt an attitude of “chronic irony” that they use to “insulate” themselves from feeling too much (pp. 16 and 26).  These nods to the power of inspirational storytelling and corrosive irony, however, warrant significant further exploration.

Keefner has succeeded in Killing Cool to integrate thoughtful reflections on his lived experience with perceptive analysis of American culture.  He diagnoses a fundamental problem that impedes living well.  Harmless fantasy has its place, but a life of fantasy creates a multitude of problems.  Reading this book carefully, attending to self-scrutiny all the while, repays in many ways.  You might quibble with how some of the examples of music, literature, or film are categorized, but you’ll see yourself and the world differently—and more clearly—as a result.  Hats off to Keefner’s clarion call to “keep it real.”

 

[1] Ayn Rand, “What Can One Do?” in Philosophy: Who Needs It, Ayn Rand (New York: New American Library, 1982), pp. 199-204.

[2] Ibid., p. 200.

[3] He cites here Ayn Rand, “The Metaphysical vs. the Man-Made,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It, Rand, pp. 23-34.

[4] J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (New York: Scholastic Inc., 2007), p. 698.

[5] For a more extensive critique of such views, see Kurt Keefner’s monograph Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris, available on Kindle (2012).

[6] Rush, “Secret Touch,” on Vapor Trails (Atlantic Recording Corp., 2002).

[7] Ayn Rand, “Introduction,” to The Fountainhead (New York: New American Library, 1971), p. xi.

[8] Ibid., p. 507.

[9] See esp. Part Three, Chapter 6, of The Fountainhead.

 

 

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Carrie-Ann Biondi is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Marymount Manhattan College, NYC. She holds a BA and MA in American Studies and an MA and PhD in Philosophy. Her research interests include citizenship theory, consent theory and political obligation, patriotism, virtue ethics, children’s rights, and Socratic pedagogy. She has over fifteen years of experience in professional editing, and is Co-Editor-in-Chief (with Shawn Klein) of Reason Papers.

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