Speakers and writers of American English have recently taken to identifying a staggering and constantly changing array of trends, events, memes, products, lifestyle choices and phenomena of nearly every kind with a single label - a thing.
In conversation, mention of a surprising fad, behaviour or event is now often met with the question: "Is that actually a thing?" Or "When did that become a thing?" Or "How is that even a thing?" Calling something "a thing" is, in this sense, itself a thing.
It would be easy to call this a curiosity of the language and leave it at that. Linguistic trends come and go. Why has "That really gets my goat" survived for so long when we have pretty much given up "You know your onions"? Or, one could, consider the use of "a thing" a symptom of an entire generation's linguistic sloth, general inarticulateness and penchant for cutesy, empty, half-ironic formulations that create a self-satisfied barrier preventing any form of genuine engagement with the world around them.
I don't want to do either. My assumption is that language and experience mutually influence each other. Language not only captures experience, it also conditions it. It sets expectations for experience and gives shape to it as it happens. What might register as inarticulateness can reflect a different way of understanding and experiencing the world.
The word "thing" has, of course, long played a versatile and generic role in our language, referring both to physical objects and abstract matters. "The thing is..." "Here's the thing." "The play's the thing." In these examples, "thing" denotes the matter at hand and functions as stage setting to emphasise an important point.
Clearly, cultural phenomena have long existed and been called "fads", "trends" or "rages" or have been designated by the category they belong to - "product", "fashion", "lifestyle," etc. So why the application of this homogenising general term to all of them?
One new thing about "a thing", then, is the typical use of the indefinite article "a" to precede it. We talk about "a" thing because we are engaged in cataloguing. The question is whether something counts as a thing. "A thing" is not just stage setting. Information is conveyed.
What information? One definition of "a thing" that suggests itself right away is "cultural phenomenon". A new app, an item of celebrity gossip, the practices of a subculture. It seems likely that "a thing" comes from the phrase the coolest/ newest/latest thing. But now, in a society where everything, even the past, is new - "new thing" verges on the redundant. If they weren't new they wouldn't be things.
Clearly, cultural phenomena have long existed and been called "fads", "trends" or "rages" or have been designated by the category they belong to - "product", "fashion", "lifestyle", etc. So why the application of this homogenising general term to all of them? I think there are four main reasons.
First, the flood of content into the cultural sphere. That we are inundated is well known. Information besieges us in waves that thrash us against the shore until we retreat to the solid ground of work or sleep or exercise or actual human interaction, only to wade cautiously back into our smartphones. As we spend more and more time online, it becomes the content of our experience and, in this sense, "things" have earned their name. "A thing" has become the basic unit of cultural ontology.
Second, the fragmentation of this sphere. The daily barrage of culture requires that we choose a sliver of the whole in order to keep up. Netflix genres such as "Understated Romantic Road Trip Movies" make it clear that the individual is becoming his or her own niche market - the converse of the celebrity as brand. We are increasingly a society of brands attuning themselves to markets, and markets evaluating brands. The specificity of the market requires a wider range of content - of things - to satisfy it, and they often surprise us. It is often hard to imagine how they can even be things.
Third, the closing gap between satire and the real thing. The absurd excess of things has reached a point where the ironic detachment needed to cope with them is increasingly built into the things themselves, their marketing and the language we use to talk about them. The designator "a thing" is thus almost always tinged with ironic detachment.
It puts the thing at arm's length. You can hardly say "a thing" without a wary glint in your eye. The volume, particularity and inanity of the phenomena effectively force us to take up this detachment. The complaint that the young are jaded or ironic is misplaced; it's the conditions that are this way.
Finally, the growing sense that these phenomena are all the same. As we step back from "things", they recede into the distance and begin to blur together. We call them all by the same name because they are the same at bottom: All are pieces of the Internet.
A thing is for the most part experienced through this medium and generated by it. Even if they arise outside it, things owe their existence as things to the Internet. Google is thus always the arbiter of the question: "Is that a real thing?" "A thing", then, corresponds to a real need we have, to catalogue 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.
NEW YORK TIMES
•Alexander Stern is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.