Is That a Thing?

A long time ago I made up the term literary enabler. I use it for something I read that perfectly articulates a half-thought-out, non-logic-based sensation that might well be the first thread of a very important philosophical insight.

One of my favorite literary enablers was Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer—specifically, the passage where the protagonist sees The Oxbow Incident at the same theater where he first saw the movie fourteen years before. Back then, he had emerged from the theater to the scent of privet, the camphor berries on the sidewalk popping under his shoes. Now the same exact thing happens, and he becomes fixated on this perfectly bookended capsule of time:

But what about the intervening fourteen years? What has happened in them? What, for example, about the split plywood seats in the theatre, enduring nevertheless as if they had waited to see what I had done with my fourteen years. There was this also: a secret sense of wonder about the enduring, about all the nights, the rainy summer nights at twelve and one and two o’clock when the seats endured alone in the empty theatre. The enduring is something which must be accounted for. One cannot simply shrug it off.

What has stuck with me from this part of Percy’s novel is the way that something your mind deems memorable is filed away alongside coincident events that inadvertently get stored in the same place. You don’t realize this mental piggybacking until you summon one memory and suddenly a jumble of stuff falls out of the closet with it.

I experienced some form of this earlier this year when I watched the video clip of Omaha tribe elder Nathan Phillips confronting the Kentucky high school kid in the MAGA cap in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Suddenly a gush of memory came over me linking scattered images from the Watergate hearings on the nightly news, the movie Billy Jack (which I saw with my parents at a drive-in), and the Redbone song “Come and Get Your Love.” After some Googling I realized that the common denominator was the years 1973 and 1974.

I felt that there should be a word for this experience, but it seems to defy description. It’s not that there’s something there to be objectively discovered; it’s that your subjective life experience constructs something from random convergence—something that feels very real to you but is often impossible to articulate.

Lately I’ve been thinking how exotic such mental experiences have become in a culture where every feeling has a hashtag (even if it’s merely “the feels”). If someone we know says something or adopts a gesture that is contextually unfamiliar, it is culturally normative to ask, “Is that a thing?” Rather than accept the words or actions at face value, we need to know if that phrase, that gesture, or that idea has been validated online by a jury of our peers.

Back in the dark ages of the early 1990s, when I worked in book publishing, I encountered a woman for whom no opinion about contemporary politics was legitimate unless it was written about in the Boston Globe Ideas section or mentioned on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. She was always asking “Who said that?” And I was always replying “I just did.”

Around the same time there emerged a force that would change our cultural commons for good: Seinfeld, whose schtick involved one of the principals imposing a quirky label on some incidental observed behavior and then his or her buddies matter-of-factly accepting and integrating said term or phrase into their own vocabulary as if they’d heard it used in that context many times before. This instantaneous adoption was infectious, because viewers followed suit. When Jerry said “low-talker,” the term was already a candidate for Webster’s.

Every week, Seinfeld got away with offloading Larry David’s idiosyncrasies as mass cultural tautologies. We embraced this esoteric shorthand of using an individual’s minor or irrelevant behaviors to define his or her entire existence. Larry David was probably the first influencer, and he didn’t even have to apply brow definer.

It’s interesting the leap from the Seinfeldian focus on the word (Festivus!) to the digital commons, where the intellectual commodity is image spiked with one or two words in the format of the meme. I found it fascinating that people wrote about the recap writing industry that sprung up around Game of Thrones. There was still the core part where a bunch of guys in a writers’ room make things up and people dissect their workshopped product like a Dead Seas Scroll. But the minute a scene was played out, the memes would fly like Scud missiles across Twitter. All you had to do was put something in the context of Toy Story or a Jim Carrey movie; the minute it’s shared it becomes a “thing” that begets many other shared things.

Even before Seinfeld, our culture had been shedding communally endowed arbiters like the Boston Globe. Digital age signifiers are vaporous (pics or it didn’t happen); thingness can only be measured in terms of likes and followers. That’s why you can’t just present an idea out of nothing but your own gray matter; you need the reinforcement of having your topic already validated as “a thing.” When someone asks, “Is that a thing?” she is really stating: “I feel threatened because I don’t recognize that hashtag.”

Seeking symbols of affinity is what humans do, but desperately seeking the newest form of sameness doesn’t seem promising for future innovation and creativity. In the long span of time, things were birthed the minute one person presented them to another. This thing might exist on an extremely small platform, but it had legitimacy. In the digital age, legitimacy can only be conferred on something greater than one. It must pass a plurality test because plurality is the means of capital accrual.

Our agreement on these platforms is to surrender individual agency to our digital overlords; that is the price of free use. We need the validation of Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and it can only be conferred by “sharing.” We’ve given Instagram and Facebook and Twitter that authority. Thus by asking “Is that a thing?” we are essentially acting as rent collector for Facebook et al.

My Walker Percy–enabled convergence of feelings about teenage Trump supporters and Watergate and how the early seventies were a big cultural moment for Native Americans and then it was decades of nothing until this one man became a “thing” on YouTube—this is definitely not a thing. Not unless it is interpreted as such by Karl Ove Knausgård, translated from the Norwegian in accessible format, has its best quotes listicled on Vox, and has one of them posted on Instagram with a gauzy rear-view photo of a shapely young woman in a off-white satin wedding dress walking down a path amid windswept grasses of the Scottish Hebrides. That, my friends, is a thing. §