U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Is That a Thing? Random Thoughts on “Things.”

Among other labors, intellectual historians attend to usage, showing how phrases, concepts, or words change meaning over time. One of the joys of doing intellectual history comes from trying to express the life-worlds of people in the past. The further back we go, it seems impossible to represent these worlds in a way that would be intelligible to those alive at a given time, but we soldier on anyway in the hopes that we might at least capture some faint echo.

Among the phrases I’ve been thinking about some lately is a commonplace I see or hear about in conversations, namely “Is that a thing?” or “Is that even a thing?” I wonder how it came to be used the way it is today, where its roots lie. I don’t have an answer, just a couple of exhibits that might eventually meet up somewhere. I apologize for how allusive all of this is. I haven’t connected the dots yet, if I ever will. I’m trying things out. I don’t have a position to defend.

In the New York Times online a couple of months ago, Alexander Stern worked out a neat compendium of reasons for the frequency of the phrase nowadays, calling it “the basic unit of cultural ontology.” “Is that even a thing?” captures at least four interrelated phenomena in the age of the Internet: “the flood of content into the cultural sphere,” “the fragmentation of that sphere,” the closing gap between satire and the real thing,” and “the growing sense that all these phenomena are the same.” He concludes:

A thing,” then, corresponds to a real need we have, to catalog and group together the items of cultural experience, while keeping them at a sufficient distance so that we can at least feign unified consciousness in the face of a world gone to pieces.[1]

Rightly I think, Stern doesn’t condescend or reduce the idea to some too clever commentary about how vapid we’ve all become in the age of the Internet. He takes it seriously as kind of experience. He suggests then, that “a thing” in the sense considered here works as a catch-all for any number of experiences in a world characterized by the interchange between market and branding, branding and market and back again, seemingly ad infinitum.

I would add that social media encourages the phenomenon by virtue of its mimetic, signifying qualities, sharing and resharing, liking, tweeting, retweeting, and so on. The simultaneity and viral growth of “a thing”—whether referring to some specific trend or phenomenon or to the idea itself—calls into question the possibility of finding origins. This should hardly be all that troubling though. It’s always been hard to find origins. I’ll borrow here from Derrida out of context. I doubt he would have minded that much. In the Prostheses of Origin, he writes, “Yes I have only one language, but it is not mine.”[2] There Derrida referred, at least in part, to being a French speaker of Jewish, Algerian descent under the French empire. Here I mean a future where generations of people growing up with the Internet will have an ever-diminishing sense of what words were like before its coming. This is hardly a lament. I’m not nostalgic for what came before despite coming of age then. That would be silly. I should admit though that I enjoy the sense of dislocation because it gives me something in common with certain thinkers I happen to like. I think I know what “a thing” is, but I don’t know its origins.[3]

Exhibit A: The Thing

Thing 1951

The indefinite article that modifies the phrase fits the conditions of its repetition: “a thing” rather than “the thing.” In the Physics, Aristotle describes the infinite in a similar way. It’s not some linear concept of time stretching outward in some mythical, ever-expanding space. The infinite is the sense of again, and again, and again. “A thing” is not infinite though, in that we tend to use it to refer to passing fads. It describes ephemeral kinds of repetition in compressed chunks of time. A specific “thing” spreads too rapidly to track all that effectively and then dies or fades from view not long after too many people become aware of it. I’m not sure how “a thing” reaches the critical mass that spells its death or irrelevance. From what I can tell, the only feature that makes it any different from a “fad” (mah jong in the 1920s, or adult coloring books today, for example) is the capacious terminology of thinghood. I’m also at pains to see how it differs much from uses of the word “phenomenon” in the more recent past.

I recently watched the Howard Hawks film The Thing from Another World (1951), usually referred to simply as The Thing. The film has undergone a couple of remakes that I’m aware of, the most recent in 2011, not to mention numerous films covering the same thematic ground. If we take it under the conditions of its repetition and remaking in still other forms (“Swamp Thing,” “The Blob” and so on), we might say that The Thing has been at certain times “a thing” in the sense of the Hollywood factory system and the culture industry, etc.

In the 1951 film, a group of Air Force men are called out to a remote North Pole outpost to investigate an anomaly discovered by a group of scientists, which turns out to be a flying saucer trapped under the ice. In a vain effort to free the craft they destroy it with thermite bombs. A mysterious, menacing passenger survives the explosion, entombed in the ice. They cut out the creature and transport it in a block of ice to the scientific outpost. Amidst a debate over what to do with creature, whether to wait for orders from military superiors or thaw it out and investigate it at once, the Thing escapes. A soldier keeping guard, freaked out by its appearance, covers the frozen chunk with an electric blanket by mistake, thawing the ice enough for the creature to release itself. From there it menaces the group in the station. Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) is the voice of reason and American masculine gumption, while Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) plays a scientist seduced by the wonder of discovery for its own sake.

The film had countless tropes that Mary Shelley made popular, all of that Promethean stuff. The Frankenstein character, Dr. Carrington, baldly states at one point: “knowledge is more important than life, captain. We’ve only one excuse for existing—to think, to find out, to learn.” At a climactic moment late in the film, he figures it better to die than to destroy the Thing. Of course, this puts everybody in danger. The monster in the film (the nominal “thing”) played by James Arness, while a kind of potentially endlessly regenerating vampire plant, nonetheless resembles various depictions of Frankenstein’s monster in popular horror films (Boris Karloff). I actually don’t recall hearing any character refer to the monster as “the thing” in the film. That word was not generally used anyway. The viewer has that knowledge and that nomenclature. When the men at the polar outpost finally off the sucker, they shock it with electricity and bolts stream out from it as it shrinks to its demise. The death scene recapitulates the birth scene from the Frankenstein’s monster of popular imagination.

Here “the” Thing stands for any being not of this world. Various characters try out analogies for it, pointing out that certain plants display intelligence and the like. Carrington desperately wants to communicate with it because he knows it has intelligence. Analogy fails once the monster’s literal bloodthirstiness becomes clear. Encased in the definite article “the,” the Thing is some radical other that is not us, nor can it ever be. Yet it somehow resembles features of our world where it has landed. The Thing is a plant. It cannot be identified beyond that, and more importantly, to name it would be to identify with it in some way. Calling it “the Thing” recalls how humans tend to use the word “thing” to describe inanimate objects. We don’t like to use the word to refer to other humans or even other living creatures. I would never call my cats “things.”[4]

The difference between “The Thing” and “a thing” seems to be that you can aim to kill the former but not the latter. “The Thing” is from “another world” and so not made by us, but it feeds on us and resembles features of the world around us. “A thing” is something we make and feed and that feeds on us (we sometimes see it on “feeds”); it dies or fades into irrelevance for reasons we can’t entirely comprehend. We probably kill “a thing” but we don’t know how we do it.

Exhibit B: “The Real Thing”

Maybe we should go back a little further. In his short story “The Real Thing” (1892), Henry James tells the story of a painter who aspires to great portraiture but for financial reasons works mostly as an illustrator for fiction and magazines. He confronts some troubling features of artistic representation when a down-on-their-luck couple of gentry (the Monarchs) show up at his shop one day. He assumes at first that they’d like a portrait, and only after some awkward exchanges, comes to realize that the couple would actually like to work as models for his “potboiler” illustrations. Very tastefully appointed, the Monarchs figure that they should work ideally as representatives for their class—they are, after all, “the real thing.”

It turns out that they don’t work out at all as artistic representations of their class. The artist, a fellow painter friend, and the editors compiling illustrations for an upcoming piece of fiction all conclude that, in fact, a cockney woman (Ms. Churm) and an Italian laborer (Oronte) prove much better subjects, as they can mold their image and mannerisms to fit the type that the artist desires. When it comes to the upper crust couple, the painter concludes,

With all their perfections I didn’t believe in them…Combined with this was another perversity—an innate preference for the represented subject over the real one: the defect of the real one was so apt to be a lack of representation. I liked things that appeared; then one was sure. Whether they WERE [here James capitalizes the verb—very important—because it announces the falsehood/reality paradox] or not was a subordinate and almost always profitless question.[5]

The word “profitless” here signals, in pecuniary metaphor, the intense cash-value of the whole business. Everybody needs the work. No one is immune from the forces of the market. The capitalized “WERE” highlights the mimesis at work. It turns out that the Monarchs AREN”T at all (to indulge a Jamesism here), as the painter comes to realize that they aren’t suited to represent their class in a way that would meet the expectations of a popular market for pictures. In the end the Monarchs, desperate for some kind of financial help, lower themselves to the point of becoming shop help for the painter, even on one occasion serving his working class models an afternoon tea, completing the reversal of their fortunes.

So the painter’s inability to use his upper-class subjects, the impossibility of their representation (they appear as enormous, statuesque figures on the canvas), costs him his ambitions as an artist, dropping his status, forcing him to take even more demeaning work: “Mr. and Mrs. Monarch did me a permanent harm,” he concludes, “got me into a second-rate trick. If it be true I am content to have paid the price—for the memory.”

It’s hard to see how James’s satirical distance is all that different from what Stern sees as our contemporary inability to close the gap between satire and “the real thing.” The indeterminacy of James’ title (Who or what is the “real thing” anyway?) suggests that as soon as mass market intervened, such notions as “the real thing” could only be understood in satirical terms. There’s nothing redemptive here, only the acknowledgment of powerlessness and inevitable demise. As James had it, the “harm” is “permanent.” It’s hard not to see James’ snobbery here. The coming of a popular mass market for reproductions troubles older class distinctions and boundaries. The artist with ambition to something great can only be “content to have paid the price—for the memory.”

I’m having a hard time seeing much new under the sun when it comes to “Is that even a thing?” One the one hand, it seems to me another incantation of “late” (whatever that means) capitalism, appearing this time in more imprecise language. On the other hand, it could be something else entirely. Who knows?

[1] Alexander Stern, “Is that Even a Thing?” http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/04/16/is-that-even-a-thing/?_r=0

[2] Jacques Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other, or: The Prosthesis of Origin, trans. Patrick Mensah (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 2; emphasis is Derrida’s.

[3] I really should have discussed Martin Heidegger’s essay “The Origin of the Work of Art (1950)” here because he offers a definition of what a thing is. It’s also directly relevant to this discussion in the sense that he thinks that the “thingly” qualities of art—as an object composed of matter, for example—“attacks” the work of art. The work of art as an object in a museum, let’s say, means that it no longer expresses the being/truth of the conditions of its creation.

[4] The Cold War allegory is pretty obvious here and others have noticed it. Carrington is the intellectual whose curiosity for ideas makes him delusional and threatens the safety of everyone else. One character contends that the Thing means to build an army and take over the world. A guy can’t be naïve about threatening creatures like that, no matter how seductive the experience of discovery or how much we might want to communicate with them. This description doesn’t really do the film justice, because its nuances suggest a more terrifying reading. Communication with Air Force brass is spotty from the outpost and various characters take potshots at the unresponsive bureaucracy. It’s only through the rejection of orders and standard protocol that Captain Pat saves the day. It has some good fear-of-imminent-destruction-by-radioactive-agent rhetoric in it: “Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking, keep watching the skies.”

[5] Henry James, “The Real Thing” http://www.online-literature.com/henry_james/2755/

9 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Sheer economy to be honest. I read the Heidegger essay first and planned to write about it. Then I wrote up the stuff about “The Thing” and “The Real Thing” and looked down and realized I had 2300 words or so. Treating the Heidegger essay at that point, which really was the logical way to go from Henry James, would have meant another thousand words, and then this becomes something other than a blog post. I tend to just write these things up, and once I get to a certain number of words I stop and shape them up a bit. The footnote was just my regret and also the hope that if anyone read this they might consult that essay.

    • I thoroughly enjoyed your blog, but you’re killing me. “The Origin of the Work of Art” is my favorite essay by Martin. I’m calling you because we must discuss it.

      • I like it at the very least because it’s remarkably clear, which I can’t say has been my experience with Heidegger very often.

  2. Admittedly I was not in this country in the period prior to this, but in the 90s, IIRC, Letterman had a recurring segment on his show called, “Is this a thing?”, where they would stage a typically Lettermanesque rather absurd object or event, and then ask the audience to give a voice vote in answer to the question, “Is this a thing?” The segment had a quirky and self-consciously meaningless air, but it seemed to me, trying to make sense out of the patterns of the audience’s answers, that things that were “things” had some property of being a self-contained object, in the sense of intentional object, not object as thing, rather as object of amusement, perhaps capable or worthy of repetition. I don’t know whether this sense of “a thing” preceded this show or not (it seemed new to me), and I did not really notice the wider culturally mimetic use of “Is this a thing?” until later in the noughties.

    The term ‘object’ in English has a relevant ambiguity: 1) meaning “thing” in the general sense of a countable, discrete material entity with prior existence in the world, that is physically graspable, etc. (e.g., particles as “objects/ things”); and 2) “intentional object” in the sense as involved in the relation called “Intentionality” in philosophy, where it is any referent of a relation of “aboutness” between a psychological act (perception, speech act) and the world. The intentional object may be abstract or non-material (as in, “the object of my interest”). It would seem that if something is “a thing”, in the current slang sense, it is something worth talking about, an interesting new phenomenon that can be repeated and noticed, as opposed to random noise, etc., an object in the sense of intentional object, even though not perhaps an object in sense (1). I wouldn’t say ‘thing’ had that ambiguity (the ambiguity that ‘object’ has) before this new usage.

    That’s my own impression, and of course I could be wrong, and no doubt I have limited understanding of the time line for this expression. (The ambiguity of the term ‘object’ in English (and perhaps other languages), which I’ve not really done a good job of characterizing above, has implications for understanding some other important problems in philosophy, e.g., the nature of natural numbers.)

    • Ah, yes. The David Letterman segment. Excellent. Thank you for that. I remember watching that. Your characterization seems really good to me. “A thing” as an intentional object in a philosophical sense, now with all of its ambiguities. Letterman got this, but it’s the mimetic quality, given the mode of its transmission (“viral”) that takes Letterman’s offbeat satire beyond simple quirkiness or homespun Dada. Heidegger is interesting here in that he has that tripartite notion of “thing”: “bearer of traits, unity of a sensory manifold, and as formed matter.” He argues that these three notions of thing in combination with one another actually block the way to the thingness of the thing. It doesn’t disclose its essence to us. I wonder whether this new usage does much more to expose the thinghood of the thing than older assumptions about it did. If Heidegger’s tripartite notion of a thing showed the limit of traditional subject-object distinctions and correspondence theories of truth, does “a thing” here trouble such notions by its sheer being? It’s us and not us as the same time and irreducibly situational and conditional. Really helpful. Thanks again.

    • Yep. I though some about that linkage, but I became convinced that it didn’t fit. The thing-in-itself doesn’t appear to us as phenomena, so this sense of “a thing” seems to bear a different quality, at least that’s how I read it anyway.

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