I really loved a recent article by Alexander Stern in the New York Times titled “Is That Even a Thing?” I had started using the question myself (“Wait. Is that even a thing?”), but I hadn’t stopped to think about what I was really asking. Stern’s article made me think more about, well, this whole thing, the asking about what is and isn’t a thing.
Stern says that “we [ask] about a thing because we are engaged in cataloguing.” I agree that we have a deep and innate desire to put things in their places, to order our world. And we can’t begin to do so until we have decided what things are worth our attention, until we have tried to group those things that are in our grasp.
The work seems that much harder—perhaps even different—when there is nothing to actually hold in our hands. So many of the things we consider to be “things” today aren’t things at all—they aren’t tangible artifacts or touchable realities. They are literally ghosts in the machine, passing digital trends, fads, or phenomena. In Stern’s mind, ours is a world “gone to pieces,” where things are not always real enough or real at all, leaving us in a constant state of bafflement and ironic detachment as we try to cope with what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “unreal reality.” Still, we try to flag it or file it.
An antidote to some of this confusion came to me when I saw a student approaching my office on Monday morning with a laundry basket filled with, of all things, things. She had decided to use a laundry basket to transport her final project to school. Her final project was a collection of things that she had collected to pay homage to the Museum of Civilization featured in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which she had just finished along with Lily King’s Euphoria and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Two of these novels are distinctly dystopian, revealing the ways in which society is restructured in the aftermath of a cataclysmic break of some kind (pandemic in one case; culture war in the other). The other features a culture clash of sorts in which Western and aboriginal notions of civilization are put in dramatic juxtaposition. My student wanted to explore her own ideas about what constitutes her civilization and how it impacts her and she, it. So she collected meaningful artifacts, gathered them up, and brought them to school: her grandfather’s typewriter, which she frequently uses; a dream-catcher; one red Chuck Taylor high-top sneaker; a music box with a spinning ballerina and two black and white photographs of her parents when they were younger; a vinyl record that a friend made for her; an iPhone; a Rubik’s Cube.
It was more than fun to look at these things together. We spent time talking about how important the curator is to the exhibit, just as the author is crucial to the story that is told. We discussed the importance of historical context, and also how some things—jewelry, toys, cooking utensil—are as old as human time itself.
In this age of fleeting impressions and impermanence, I find myself challenged by the simple question of whether something is a “thing” to me or not. That’s probably why I got so much comfort looking at my student’s basket of things. In that moment, I felt that it was at least possible that the answer to this question is a lot simpler than the question itself.