Is That Even a Thing?
Updated: May 16, 2022
There are a lot of slang-y words and phrases going around that seem to have to do with thought and cognition or the objects thereof. One example is “a thing,” as in “Is that even a thing?” This question could be asked about any possibly new category, such as a new genre of movies, a different kind of hair care product, a new type of texting (perhaps, “ghosting” would count). One example I read was "Valentine's Eve... Is that even a thing?" The query is a way of asking whether something is a legitimate category as opposed to a one-off or a joke.
In a New York Times piece about “thing,” Alexander Stern discusses and then dismisses the possibility that “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.”
That’s a bit harsh, and as I said Stern dismisses that characterization in favor of a fairly subtle analysis that you can read here. I wouldn't dismiss it completely, however, but we'll get back to that later.
I am casting my net more widely than the Times piece did. I am trying to capture other formulations in the same family as “thing,” formulations that might fairly or unfairly be characterized in the way mentioned above and that have a more of less mental or cognitive reference. I have found dozens of examples. Some are very meaningful and non-ironic, e.g. “echo chamber.” Others are just silly, e.g. “outside my wheelhouse.” Another, “taking the red pill,” a phrase from The Matrix that means abandoning illusions and seeing the world as it really is, started out as a useful metaphor, but was captured by the incels and their kin. Let me make clear at the outset that many, perhaps most, examples of these "things" are practical ways of identifying some aspect of the world. It's just that I believe that by their nature, most of them carry some questionable baggage.
Here’s a short list of recent and older ones, just to prove that they are “a thing.”
feature, not a bug
tail that wags the dog
think outside the box
reinvent the wheel
I could go on. Being of an analytic mind, I saw an opportunity to form a concept. And of course a concept needs a name and a definition. I actually managed to come up with all three at the same time. Here it is: Informal Metaphors of Cognition, or IMOCs. I know the name’s not sexy, but then I’m not self-referentially trying to create a new IMOC; I’m trying to describe the category in a straightforward way. I am going to use the description that Stern rejects as a foil for what I hope are some interesting observations of my own.
At the outset let me confess that I have no way of knowing how many people use IMOCs or how much they take them to heart. They come up a lot on the internet and there are a lot of memes using them. Maybe I'm just shadowboxing, but I'm going to assume the phenomenon is widespread and deep enough to be worth generalizing about. I hope I don't sound like I'm telling people to get off of my lawn.
A little bit of Stern's rejected description is correct. IMOCs are often cutesy and half-ironic. They are slang-y and metaphorical, after all. But I think a deeper quality unifies many of their characteristics: They are generally attempts at being hip.
We have to take hipness seriously here. It is not necessarily inarticulate, nor does it necessarily decline to engage the world, at least not completely. “Tribalism” is a wonderful IMOC precisely because it perfectly captures a real phenomenon. The less current “slippery slope” IMOC is also very useful. These two are a bit more formal than the paradigm examples, but I think they would still count as hip in a way, in their day. But if you want the truly hip, try “circular firing squad” and “double down on.”
So—What is hip? Tell me, tell me. Hip is a kind of knowing. It seems to take knowing largely as a matter of intuition. It seems to mean tuning in to the zeitgeist. To be hip is to be self-satisfied because one feels one has insider insight. This all gives rise to the irony that Stern’s rejected description mentions. Irony is a way of distancing oneself from the people one looks down on for not being hip—and hip needs such people. And it's a way of distancing oneself from the fact that in some ways one should know better than to be "cutesy." One hides behind the suggestion that it might be a joke.
Hipness has a certain bearing. It has no need of formality, and it postures as anti-elitist. All the truth one needs can be carried around in one's . . . hip pocket. Because one is a knower.
As you can probably tell, I don't hold hipness in high regard. In fact I wrote a whole book on the subject. (Well, on Cool, actually, but they are very similar.) Nevertheless, let me say that as blunt as I am being here, I do not have contempt for hip people and admire many of them for their creativity. I just disagree with their fundamental way of being.
And that brings us to another characteristic of (many) IMOCs: they partake of “secondary orality.” Yes, I am going to use a slightly technical concept here. I never pretended to be hip.
There are three kinds of mindsets along this dimension: primary orality, literacy, and secondary orality. Primary orality existed before mass literacy. It involved putting people before abstractions, using memorable proverbs and parables to make sure wisdom didn’t get away, and lots of stock phrases like “a noble soldier” and "wine-dark sea." The Iliad, although someone eventually wrote it down, started out as an oral piece. (See this book for more info.)
Literacy manages, at its best, to separate arguments from people and can use a well-turned phrase in more of a prose-y rather than poetic way. It builds structured, hierarchical sentences, paragraphs, and so forth, using connectors like “therefore” and “nonetheless.” It supports “round” characters over stock figures. Jane Austen’s novels, for example, are highly literate.
Secondary orality has been around for a long time, but it has burgeoned in the last 25 years or so, with the rise of the internet and texting. Secondary orality, as I use the term, is still literate, but has an oral way of organizing information. Look at Twitter for concrete instances. Sentences are generally short and sharp, and personalities are definitely put ahead of ideas. The exemplar of secondary orality in our time is Donald Trump.
Now, I am not trying to claim that most people who use IMOCs are at Trump’s cognitive level. In fact, most such people say intelligent things (though not necessarily true things) and would distance themselves from Mr Trump. But to some extent I think they want it both ways. They want to be subtle observers and cognitive cowboys at the same time. Needless to say, that’s a bit problematic. I think a word that some IMOC-users might use to paste over the contradiction is “savvy.” That’s kind of an IMOC in itself and does not resolve the discrepancy. Given social media and the internet, IMOCs are probably not going away.
The last observation I would make about IMOC usage is that it seems to derive from a non-philosophical worldview. Some people who use IMOCs are fairly intellectual, but few that I've seen are interested in first principles. That would be very much in keeping with hipness and orality. It seems to me heavy use of IMOCs betokens a mind that doesn’t delve into fundamentals, such as policy wonks who can tell you about everything about the latest election but nothing about the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
Going back to that zeitgeist thing, my experience has been that many IMOC users are just surfing on middle-level abstractions, staying at the immediate level, as the oral mind tends to do, and get defensive when anyone wants to dig deeper. They seek the bracing quality of the New Thing.
Let me be clear here that all I see are trends and tendencies, tics and mannerisms. Take this essay with a big grain of salt. I don’t have a study that will count how many people reflect my characterizations. I don’t know just how many denizens of the internet have the kind of “problems” I identify. But I do know that these problems are problems for anyone who is of the type I think I see.
So what’s the moral of my story? I’m certainly not going to say that it’s wrong to talk about cognition in a metaphorical, even humorous way. But I do think it’s important to remind people that intuition by itself is not a reliable source of knowledge. It has to be backed up with explicit reasoning and, where appropriate, some kind of scientific study and a resort to first principles. I would also beware of hipness and counsel a down-to-earth attitude.
If I were going to distill my opinion, for whatever it’s worth, down to one piece of advice, I would say: “Don’t skim.” The whole hip idea of surfing on the zeitgeist, feeling superior to those not in the know, and yes, not engaging reality, is underwritten by moving too quickly and inappropriately treating real things and people as mere entertainment. I don't want to be an epistemological killjoy—by all means, have some fun. Just remember that, ultimately, knowledge is serious business.
Appendix: a list of more IMOCs
drill down to
down the rabbit hole
Boomers, Millennials, etc.
Give a man a hammer, and everything looks like nail.
The map is not the territory.
the hedgehog and the fox