The word thing is one of the most commonly used words in everyday speech. It is both concrete yet ambiguous, indicating what is sure but not clear. We say, “can you get me that thing over there,” or “I have a thing to go to at nine,” and also “there’s something funny going on here.” The word thing carries with it all the weight of existence without a conviction about specifics. We can direct someone, impart information or make an observation concretely about the real world, all without committing to any specific knowledge.
Thing refers to the world, the non-human, the non-subjective. And so it is intimately linked to terms like materiality and objecthood. “Thing” however has more ambiguity than these two terms, not committing to a single explanation of the world (you don’t need to know exactly what is going on to know “something” is going on) and it doesn’t imply a specific viewing subject (as Michel Serres states, “the subject gives birth to the object” (Quoted in Brown; 1)). Thing therefore allows for analysis outside of particular worldview and without considering particular actors and subjects.
In these roles, thing plays a key role in questions of mediation.
Firstly, because of it’s ambiguity the word thing carries a notion of the unmediated, the world that is without a code, beyond the perceiving subject and the representations that are created by the subject around the thing. It is a catch word for questions of immediacy.
This tradition (initiated by Kant and further explored by Heidegger) uses “thing” in order to discuss problems of our relation to the world as perceiving subjects. The nugget of this line of thought is embodied in (as Bill Brown demonstrates) the difference between the word thing and its counterpart, object. If we take Mcluhan’s notion of media as “extensions of man” seriously, being extensions of our wills and our subjectivities, then these metaphysical questions about how perceiving subjects relate to the world and therefore the notion of thing has big implications in the media studies.
The second idiosyncrasy of “thing” (its ability to discuss the material, the physical, without discussing the subjective) yields a whole language of things as media. Many theorists, especially in the traditions of the social sciences, have latched on to the word thing in order to discuss realities that go beyond a human element. Linked with this tradition is an idea of things having agency. Just as media have agency and have a “message” in and of themselves, things as media have agency [link].
People like Bruno Latour and Arjun Appadurai construct entire theories of society and history around thing-ness as an explicit attempt to understand the world not as a product of human subjectivity. Indeed Michel Foucault demonstrates to us that our contemporary notion of history was created in the realm of the material, things, before it was thought about in the realm of humans. These “anti-humanist” views of the world are in some ways parallel to Mcluhan’s project of understand human history as a history of media. If things are media, then we can understand man through understanding things.
To the extent that the question of media is the question of how man interacts with the world and other people through the world, the term thing is pivotal to understanding media. Thing-ness has become very popular in recent years quite possibly responding to growing interest in media and mediation. Wherever the idea of media is evoked, it brings along “things.”
The Unmediated Thing
In Being and Time Heidegger works off of Kant’s distinction between appearances (phenomena) and “things-in-themselves” (noumena) and seeks to assert what is established in the world before we interpret the phenomena. This, he decides, is that which is “at hand” or that which is used and worked with. Since for Heidegger everything is a being it is left to determine what type of beings are known un-interpreted, “pre-thematic” to use his words. He comes to the answer of “things” or more precisely, “useful things” (Heidegger; 64). The usability of these things, and by their ability to be known pre-thematically, is determined by their relevance and reference. These two ideas mean that beings are only known when they are referred to, making them relevant to something else (Heidegger; 78). Things are “referred to” through means like linguistic tropes, “what for” and “where to” for example.
This quality of things being at hand, “handiness,” is, for Heidegger, the initial way in which things out in the world (noumena) become things in ourselves (phenomena). This process is however not a purely external one, it is not ontic (pertaining only to the outside world) but an ontological one and thus a mediated one. Useful, handy things exist as “innerwordly” beings, within ourselves, in a web of references and relevance, when those references or relevance break they make themselves known as “objective being” that are “out there.” When things lose their usability, like when a hammer breaks, they becomes “objectively present” and we can perceive it as something totally out in the world. In that state we can get access to its unmediated existence as a thing before our perception of it (Heidegger; 70).
This process of making thing-ness known, of moving beyond reference and ontology, is epitomized by the difference between object and thing as explicated by Bill Brown. Thing indicates the ontic and object, the ontological. The primary intuition is that things can exist without subjects but objects are specific creations of subjects. Brown observes in his essay Thing Theory that “thing” indicates one of two motions. First, things go beneath objecthood, they are, “the amorphousness out of which objects are materialized by the (ap)perceiving subject.” Second, things go above objecthood, they are “what is excessive in objects, as what exceeds their mere materialization as objects or their mere utilization as objects” (Brown, 2001; 5). Under this scheme objects are that which is within our perception, within our ontology. We know the names and qualities of objects. Things are that which falls either above or below that scope. Either we do not “notice” them, they are mere things, or they are above our perception, like an idol of totem.
The quality of “objecthood” as opposed to Heidegger’s “thingliness” is therefore the quality of things that is created by us as perceiver. The objecthood of an object is internal to us, constituted through the reference and relevance, through its name and use. However in thing-ness things are purely out there, unmediated. Here “thing” is used to tackle metaphysical questions about our relationship to the world. It is the fundamental question of media going all the way back to Plato and the allegory of the cave.
Many other theorists also used “thing” to discuss the immediate. Maurice Merleau-Ponty brings up how the perceiving subject comes to distinguish itself from the outside world, attempting to explain why we don’t think of ourselves as things. Things also play a central role in The Real and the psycho-sexual development of the subject for Jacques Lacan. And Castoriadis Cornelius discusses how the notion of thing-ness and materiality as opposed to internal subjectivity are socially constructed.
Things as Media
In addition to gesturing towards the unmediated, “thing” refers to media themselves. We can think of media very physically as the worldly processes through which subjects interact with other subjects. The word “thing” allows one to discuss these interactions simply by looking at the physical, the media. And so society and history can be written not in terms of people, but in terms of things. Linked to this is the fact that agency is not just restricted to subjects, that things can act.
Marx was one of the first to notice that things can define society, even more than people. In Capital Vol. 1 he outlines that capitalist production transforms things with use-value into commodities with exchange-value. At this point, the logic of economy changes, it is no longer defined by social relations, and it is now defined by commodity relations and the commodity form. The forces that define the structure of society, who works, who has political power, who makes decisions, in capitalism are the forces of capital accumulation and value production. These logics are founded on the mystical creation of commodities out of things. So Marx shows us that, in capitalism at least, things are really what shapes society, not people.
The project of reframing a study of society from a study of people to a study of things has generated a recent trend in the social sciences where theorists have been reformulating ideas about society and social realities. Instead of being in terms of the subjects involved, it is in terms of the objects, more generally, the things. Jean Baudrillard seems to be hailing this new outlook into existence when he stated “We have always lived off the splendor of the subject and the poverty of the object” (Baudrillard; 111). This project is taken up seriously by Bruno Latour who has created an entire formulation of social phenomena based on the indistinctness of subject and object called “actor network theory.” Actor network theory is founded on a notion of action and agency that allows both people and things to have agency. Social realities are understood as networks of actors, both people and things. In this view there are no a priori distinctions of scale, macro structures are the same as micro, and no distinction between subjects and objects.
Another seminal move in this trend was the book The Social Life of Things, edited by Arjun Appadurai in 1986. It argued that we can think of things as having a social existence. In his 2006 essay “The Thing Itself” Appadurai noted, “all things are congealed moments in a longer social trajectory. All things are brief deposits of this or that property, photographs that conceal the reality of the motion from which their objecthood is a momentary respite” (Appadurai, 2006; 15). The material that constitutes objects has a social history and takes on different objectivities as the subjectivities come into contact with it. The history of the subjectivities is then told by the history of the things.
Foucault demonstrates in The Order of Things that the history of the thing, history beyond the subject, was central to the first understandings of “History” (Meaning the development of history as such into an object of study.) in the 19th century. Ideas like capital accumulation, and the dialectic of history, exposed an idea that there was some agency to history outside of subjective actors. “Things first of all received a historicity proper to them, which freed them from the continuous space that imposed the same chronology upon them as upon men” (Foucault; 368). Foucault demonstrates that the idea that people live in a medium of things which have their own laws and logics to which we are subject is in fact deeply embedded in the western worldview or “episteme.”
Viewing things as a media does however have a ring of viewing things as an access to the immediate. For the social sciences it has a romantic quality, getting past the man made fog of abstractions down to “what’s really going on,” at the level of the thing. Appadurai writes at the end of his essay that “things” maybe, “a possible space of redemption, in which abstraction can remain the servant of materiality rather than its master” (Appadurai, 2006; 21).
Thing-ness therefore seems to be an enchanting idea, resonating from the metaphysical foundation of knowledge and the world, to contemporary studies of society. In so far as the term brings to mind both the magic of the immediate and the troubles of the mediated, it is central to the study of media.
Appadurai, Arjun. The Social Life of Things : Commodities in Cultural Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
—.The Thing Itself in Public Culture 18:1 2006
Baudrillard, Jean. Fatal Strategies. trans. Philip Beitchman. London : Pluto, 1990.
Castoriadis, Cornelius. The Imaginary Institutions of Society. 1975. trans. Kathleen Blamey. Cambridge MA: MIT press, 1987.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things : An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
Grier, Michelle. The Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy. 2007.
Heidegger, Martin Being and Time: A Translation of Sein Und Zeit. 1927.trans. Joan Stambaugh. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996.
—. “The Thing,” in Poetry, Language, Thought. trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
Lacan, Jacques. “Das Ding” in The Ethics of Psycholanalysis 1959-1960, volume 7 of the Seminar of Jacques Lacan. trans. Denis Porter, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton, 1992.
Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social : An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media : The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice and James M. Edie. The Primacy of Perception. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1964.
Mitchell, W. J. Thomas. What do Pictures Want? : The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.