The thing is: What’s a thing anyway?

I was writing something else, something else which will come out eventually, but it got me thinking. I ended up using the word ‘thing’ quite a bit and, want it or not, it does crop up quite a bit. So, it got me thinking, that there has to be something to it. What’s a thing anyway? Then I remembered that Kenneth Olwig had brought it up in some of his work on landscapes. A quick glance and it appears, at least, in ‘Recovering the Substantive Nature of Landscape’.

So, to get to the point, what’s a thing anyway? Olwig (633-634) brings this up:

“The institution of the ting (Ding in German) is also found in English, where it is known as a thing (or moot – meeting).”

He has another, more recent article that brings this up. The article is titled ‘Heidegger, Latour and the reification of things: The inversion and spatial enclosure of the substantive landscape of things – the Lake District case’. The title already suggests that this might get interesting. Had I not just provided the bit from an earlier article, you might be wondering what is so odd about reification of things. Aren’t things just … things … like objects?

Why am I even bringing this up? Why am I writing about this? Well, I can’t help but to first state that it’s because things matter. But to be serious for a moment, as the title of Olwig’s more recent article suggests, this has to do with Bruno Latour’s work. Now, I find Latour’s work very helpful in explaining why things matter, why it is that I want to focus on … things in landscape, not on people. It’s about the missing mass, or so to speak, to put it very shortly. At the same time, I feel like something is missing, as in, as if someone skipped a bit and didn’t explain how did we get there, how is it that something, this or that is a thing to us in the first place.

Right, in the more recent article, Olwig (251) states that:

“Thing has thus undergone a process by which things went from being substantive judicially founded meetings in which knowing people assembled (as in parliaments) to discuss, and thereby constitute matters of common concern, or common things that matter, to becoming physical objects, or things as matter.”

Now, Olwig is also discussing how this relates to landscape, but I have written about that already in the past, so I won’t get into that. Before check what more Olwig has to say on this, let’s have a look at what a dictionary, in this case the Oxford English Dictionary, has to say on the word ‘thing’ (OED, s.v. “thing”, n.1):

“A meeting, or the matter or business considered by it, and derived senses.”

It’s noted this is largely an obsolete use of the word, further explained as:

“A meeting, an assembly; esp. a deliberative or judicial assembly, a court, a council.”


“A cause; spec. a matter brought before a court of law; a charge brought.”

But, in a related but non-obsolete sense:

“A matter with which one is concerned (in action, speech, or thought); an affair, a business, a concern, a subject. Now usually in plural: affairs, matters, circumstances.”

As well as:

“With modifying noun: an activity or action suited (only) to, or particularly characteristic of, a specified group, subject, role, etc.; a situation explicable only in terms of the group, etc., specified; esp. in it’s a —— thing.”


“That which is done or to be done; a deed, an act, a transaction. Also: that which occurs; an event, an occurrence, an incident; a fact, a circumstance, an experience.”

But also:

“A significant, notable, or sensational circumstance. In later use esp. in to make a thing about (also of) (colloq.): to preoccupy oneself greatly with (a matter); to make an issue out of, or exaggerate the importance of (something).”

Oh, wow, these seem to go on and on! Thing is a very flexible word. Anyway, these that I have listed, and others that I haven’t, have this, this sense of it pertaining to … here we go … something that people say about a matter, this or that, but without necessarily being in anyway concrete. I can’t help but to think of discourse, as in how it is defined by Michel Foucault (49) in ‘The Archaeology of Knowledge’ “as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak.” It’s actually only fitting that the chapter in question where that is stated is titled ‘The Formation of Objects’.

I realize that I might be going on a tangent here, on this one, but it’s worth emphasizing that for Foucault, as one might guess, really, this is about formation, not discovery. I’ll let (44-45) him explain:

“[O]ne cannot speak of anything at any time; it is not easy to say something new; it is not enough for us to open our eyes, to pay attention, or to be aware, for new objects suddenly to light up and emerge out of the ground.”

In other words, you can’t speak just about anything because how would you be able to speak of something which does not exist, at least not as of yet. Moreover, you can’t speak, you can’t see, you can’t pay attention to something that is not necessarily non-existing, but also to something that you are not aware of. Simply put, unless you what the thing is, that something is a thing, you can’t know it, see it, pay attention to it. Why? Because it’s not a thing for you. Conversely, Foucault (45) adds that:

“[I]t must not be attached to some obstacle whose power appears to be, exclusively, to blind, to hinder, to prevent discovery, to conceal the purity of the evidence or the dumb obstinacy of the things themselves; the object does not await in limbo the order that will free it and enable it to become embodied in a visible and prolix objectivity; it does not pre-exist itself, held back by some obstacle at the first edges of light.”

So, it’s not that there is something, something hiding, in plain sight, and it’s just waiting for us to discover it. Discourses are formed, not pre-existing. It’s also worth adding, as Foucault (45) does, that whatever it is that makes thing a thing is not inherent to the thing:

“[A complex group of relations] do not define its internal constitution, but what enables it to appear, to juxtapose itself with other objects, to situate itself in relation to them, to define its difference, its irreducibility, and even perhaps its heterogeneity, in short, to be placed in a field of exteriority.”

In short, the way whatever it is that becomes a thing, that is to say appears to us, depends not on the thing-in-itself, as there is not such thing as thing-in-itself, no matter how Immanuel Kant might object to that, but on the conditions of its apparition which are tied to other things and their apparition, as well as their conditions of apparition. As a side note, if there was a thing-in-itself, say, a table, rather than a discourse about a table, it being a thing because it is we who make it a thing, then Foucault would be full of hot air.

I think I’ve covered the most important parts of discourse already here, but I guess it’s worth emphasizing that it’s not about what’s true and what’s false. In Foucault’s (47-48) words:

“To define these objects without reference to the ground, the foundation of things, but by relating them to the body of rules that enable them to form as objects of a discourse and thus constitute the conditions of their historical appearance. To write a history of discursive objects that does not plunge them into the common depth of a primal soil, but deploys the nexus of regularities that govern their dispersion.”

He (47) provides a number of examples pertaining to, for example, madness and witchcraft. To make sense of this, he points out that it’s not about whether someone was truly mad or not, truly a witch or not, but whether they were identified as such on the basis of how at a certain point in time such was considered madness or witchcraft.

He (48) warns us not to confuse discourse with what something means. It should already be clear, from the examples provided, madness and witchcraft, that discourse is a practice, not something that simply is or isn’t, true or false. In his words (48):

“When one describes the formation of the objects of a discourse, one tries to locate the relations that characterize a discursive practice, one determines neither a lexical organization, nor the scansions of a semantic field: one does not question the meaning given at a particular period to such words as ‘melancholia’ or ‘madness without delirium’, nor the opposition of content between ‘psychosis’ and ‘neurosis’.”

He (48) goes on to state that it’s not that the opposite, seeking to find out what something means, is pointless or not worth the effort, but that it’s irrelevant here. So, for example, if I study what it is to be Finnish, at a certain point in time, in a certain place, it’s of little concern to me what Finnishness really is or isn’t. What matters is how it comes to be, how it appears to us. I think he (48) puts it way better than I can:

“[I]t does not concern discursive practice as a place in which a tangled plurality – at once superposed and incomplete – of objects is formed and deformed, appears and disappears.”

In summary, sorry, in his summary, he (49) puts it even better:

“These rules define not the dumb existence of a reality, nor the canonical use of a vocabulary, but the ordering of objects.”

Only to make a(n implicit) self reference:

“‘Words and things’ is the entirely serious title of a problem; it is the ironic title of a work that modifies its own form, displaces its own data, and reveals, at the end of the day, a quite different task.”

Which leads us to his definition discourse that I already provided and that I’m particularly fond of. Here it’s, perhaps, still worth adding that, as he is trying to say but I likely keep de-emphasizing with my presentation of … things, discourse is not only about language or signs. That’s why it’s about practice. Yes, it has a lot to do with language, but it’s not only about language, nor stuck in language. We still live in the real world, regardless of whether our diagnosis of madness or witchcraft is accurate or not. To make this crystal clear, as he (49) points out, discourses are composed of signs, they have to do with language, but language is not just about designating things, to which I’d add, to emphasize, that language is quite far from simply designating things, but that’s a topic for another essay.

Back to the dictionary definitions. It is, of course, worth adding that ‘thing’ (OED, s.v. “thing”, n.1) can and is used in a more concrete sense:

“An entity of any kind.”

And to specify this:

“That which exists individually (in the most general sense, in fact or in idea); that which is or may be in any way an object of perception, knowledge, or thought; an entity, a being.”

Although, this is still fairly loose, not particularly concrete, used for … things … like ideas. We are getting nowhere concrete with the next one either:

“An attribute, quality, or property of an actual being or entity. Also: a point, a particular, a respect (chiefly in qualifying phrases, as in all things, etc.)”

Nor with what follows:

“Used indefinitely to denote something which the speaker or writer is not able or does not choose to particularize, or which is incapable of being precisely described.”

These keep stacking, having a very loosy goosy sense to things, so I’ll skip ahead until I hit something concrete. Right, in the eleventh sense it is:

“A material object, an article, an item; a being or entity consisting of matter, or occupying space. (Often used as a vague word for an object which it is difficult to denominate more exactly[)]


“A material substance, usually of a specified kind; a material; a concoction, a compound; an ingredient. In later use chiefly applied to substances used as food or drink, or considered in respect of its medical, physiological, etc., effects.”

As well as:

“An actual being or entity as distinguished from a word, symbol, or idea by which it is symbolized or represented; that which is signified.”


“A being without life or consciousness; an inanimate object, as distinguished from a person or living creature.”

There are others that are somewhat concrete in some sense, as well as those that aren’t. So my listing is selective. You are free to browse a dictionary if you are not satisfied with my listing and/or think it involves foul play, that I emphasize one sense over another. I won’t go through the etymology as the first bit from Olwig already addressed that part.

So, Olwig (252-254) addresses Martin Heidegger’s and Latour’s views on things in the second article. He recognizes that both acknowledge the origins of the word as a public gathering, having to do with deliberating over matters or affairs, state of affairs regarding this and/or that. However, he notes that with Heidegger this is not what he is after, considering that phenomenology is about, sorry to bring Kant here again, the things-in-themselves, which does indeed give the thing something that it is itself, by itself, regardless of what we think of it. As he (253) puts it:

“[T]he invisible and immaterial working of discourse in the institution of the thing, which puts things into social context [did not concern him.]”

He (253) exemplifies this with how Heidegger thought of, for example, jugs as things that are such because they become things by having a certain function, serving to gather other things in it. I don’t know about others, but I just think that someone skipped a bit here. How is a jug defined by its ability to hold something? No, sorry, how is it that it defines itself that way? I think you can see that I’m not really with Heidegger on this one.

He (254) moves to address Latour, who, appears to be interested in the social or discursive aspect of things, but is, nonetheless, very much in line with Heidegger in the sense that he is still very much interested in and focused on objects. This is evident in Latour’s article ‘Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern’, where he (233) brings up the title of his text:

“A thing is, in one sense, an object out there and, in another sense, an issue very much in there, at any rate, a gathering. To use the term I introduced earlier now more precisely, the same word thing designates matters of fact and matters of concern.”

Ah, yes, like in the dictionary definitions, nothing surprising there, really. Then again, something irks me about calling objects matters of fact. That already assumes that they are what they are. Now I don’t mean that whatever we come to call a thing, once we do, in the second sense, doesn’t or can’t have materiality to it, depending on how the word is used. It’s rather that, the way I see it, the object is secondary to the process of defining it as such, not the other way around. So, as explained by Foucault, it is discourse, our practices, that forms the objects of which we speak. So, facts are of little concern. In Olwig’s (254) words:

“The problem is that the original thing was not primarily concerned with bringing ‘a public together around things’ … It was rather concerned to give substantive meaning to things which were not yet clearly defined and objectified – a sense of thing that is still common (e.g. ‘What is this ‘thing’ called love?’; ‘How are things?’; ‘What is that ‘thing’ in your hand?’)”

Here, to give this some context, Olwig (254) is pointing out that Latour pays too much attention to thing as an assembly, a parliament, when it comes to materiality, as things, in the sense that they are gatherings, yes, but had to do with all things judicial and social, with physical things being addressed only “insofar as they mattered socially”. In other words, things or moots, as noted earlier, were not gatherings which were organized to deliberate on what to call this or that, unless it had particular importance to those who came together to discuss, to parler, over how to run things in a society. How we come to make sense of the world, what we call this or that, is far more mundane, everyday … thing.

Olwig (254) addresses the increasing academic interest in things, as in non-humans. In summary, he is critical of this line of research that gives agency or actancy to objects. Now, I am rather sympathetic to taking into account objects or items, as I at times call them, for the lack of a better words for something that functions as unit of analysis. Perhaps I should call them things instead, even if something tells me that my peers, or supposed peers anyway, would find the word to be too, too … informal and would suggest something more formal and concrete like … objects, artifacts, or, indeed items, which is sort of the same thing as a thing, something that you need to make sense of. Funny how that works. Anyway, I’m hesitant to treat physical inanimate objects as in themselves having agency or actancy without first taking into account what it is that makes them the way they are to us and how their agency or actancy is dependent on that being the case when we encounter them. I reckon Olwig (254) explains this better than I do:

“[W]hat has happened, is that reified things have been animated as actors on the stage of a reified landscape, staged as scenery.”

He (254) cites Martin Holbraad (12) who addresses the issue, the reification and animation of things, in ‘Can the Thing Speak’, and offers a correction:

“[I]nstead of treating all the things that your informants say of and do to or with things as modes of representing the things in question, treat them as modes of defining them.”

What was it again that Foucault said about discourse? Oh, yes, it’s our practices that are responsible for the apparition of objects. Olwig (254) comments on Holbraad’s view:

“This, of course, is just what the thing meeting did in defining the substantive meaning of things.”

And then addresses what happens if this is ignored (254):

“Things first become fetishes when, as in the case of Heidegger’s landscape, it is not people who gather, but physical things like jugs that ‘thing’ and do the gathering – or, as shall be seen, when the gathering is done by material representational media such as maps or perspectival, pictorial, scenic landscape images.”

This reminds me how in his 1990 book ‘The city as text: the politics of landscape interpretation in the Kandyan kingdom’ James Duncan (11) addresses what happens if landscapes are thought of just collections of things, of material objects, as artifactual spoor: object fetishism. While his gripe is in part unrelated to the discussion here, he makes a valid point about taking things for granted, including objects themselves. He (12) pinpoints the issue as having to do with how “[a]rtifacts are observed and recorded as data, given things.” He (11) notes that some have ended up creating lists of various artifacts, such as houses, barns and fences, as if they were by themselves somehow revelatory of something. The thing is that even ‘house’, ‘barn’ and ‘fence’ are not givens, unless, similarly to the jug example, someone can successfully argue that these … things somehow define themselves.

A zebra crossing is a fine example of a thing, clearly material but not only material. It consist of longitudinal stripes on a road, typically painted in a light color, typically white, against a dark background, typically black asphalt. The exact color of these is not of great importance here. It’s more about the contrast. For example, I was in Switzerland not long ago and apparently they have yellow and black zebras. The same applies with the materials. The markings don’t have to be done with paint or the surface to be asphalt. Anyway, assuming a typical configuration, on its own, the crossing is just that, some paint on the road. There’s nothing inherent to the paint that makes it anything else besides paint. There’s nothing in the paint, in general nor when applied, that makes you stop your car, nor push you to cross the road where it happens to be, instead of wherever you prefer. It can’t physically do that. Nonetheless, people do stop their cars and cross the road at zebra crossing. Why? Because it’s a thing. It’s a thing that makes us do just that. In Foucauldian parlance, we have this discourse on health and safety and that’s it, in place, to make you do things, to regulate your movement, as explained by Ron Scollon and Suzanne Wong Scollon (183, 203), in their book ‘Discourses in Place: Language in the Material World’. It may only be some paint on a road, but it’s there to make sure that different bodies don’t collide with one another.

Okay, fair enough, as I pointed out, because there’s nothing to it that enforces us to respect the zebra crossing, it can actually lead to people ignoring it, which in turn have grave consequences to people, as noted by Jan Blommaert (36) in his book titled ‘Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes: Chronicles of Complexity’. I’d say that in Finland people are fairly disciplined when it comes to a zebra crossing. You can expect the cars to stop if you are about to cross the road at a zebra crossing, but, as pointed out by Blommaert (36), this may not be the case elsewhere, so instead you may end up in a hospital.

We can make this broader as well. A zebra crossing is a fine example because it stands out, thanks to the high contrast (typically white on black). Just the road itself is just some surface of asphalt, concrete, cobble, gravel, whatever it happens to be. There is nothing that makes us drive on it, ride our bikes on it or walk on it, yet we do, instead of, say, next to the road, say, on the grass. Same with footpaths. I was walking at a nearby forest not long ago. I stayed on the paths, where they happened to be evident. At times I was not sure that I was on a path. It made me wonder about this. What makes a path a path? Is path a path because it is physically just that or is because I’ve come to understand it as such.

To tie all this to my own research, I’ve been told that my approach is, at best, descriptive, that I focus on objects. True, I do take a close look at objects, in the sense that what I examine have, out of necessity, a physical form, an extensity, to use Gilles Deleuze’s (223) parlance, as presented in ‘Difference and Repetition’. I reckon even speech has materiality, albeit its lifespan is rather short. Anyway, I wouldn’t even call my research descriptive because description assumes that I’m looking at physical objects, as they are, on their own. If we look at the dictionary definition of the word ‘descriptive’ (OED, s.v. “descriptive”, adj., n.), we can see what the issue is:

“That describes the way something is, rather than expressing judgement, presenting ideals, prescribing rules, etc.; that describes something or someone in an objective and non-judgemental way.”

With particular relevance to linguistics, which is supposed to be ‘my’ discipline:

“Designating that aspect of the meaning of an utterance which relates purely to the presentation of facts, rather than to the expression of attitudes, the effecting of an action, etc.; esp. in descriptive meaning. Also: of or relating to such meaning; (of a word or utterance) having (only) such meaning.”

And in the context of science:

“Esp. of a science or scientist: concerned solely or principally with description and classification as opposed to theory, speculation, or explanation.”

What’s common with all these dictionary definitions is that it is assumed that one can simply present something as facts, objectively and empirically. In other words, calling something descriptive assumes unmediated observation of the world and that the observations can subsequently presented in language. This is a very naïve and optimistic conception of reality and how language works. I think Duncan (12) puts it well when he states that:

“Descriptions are not mirror reflections; they are of necessity constructed withing the limits of the language and the intellectual frameworks of those who describe. Such a language is not a set of words which have one-to-one correspondence with reality ‘out there.’”

This is why I roll my eyes every time someone says that my research is descriptive. How? Even if I had unmediated access to the world and/or the things I study had fixed meanings, based on the things themselves, I would still fail provide a mirror reflection because language doesn’t correspond to the world to the extent that would permit such. So, as Duncan (12) expresses it:

“Thus all description, whether explicitly theoretical or not, relies on language, on some form of categorization which is inherent in the very act of naming, And categorization is necessarily theoretical.”

I subscribe to Foucault’s definition of discourse, which should, by itself, make it obvious that I can’t simply describe something, something pre-existing. So, when I examine the world, I can only offer you an interpretation of it, which, itself is not merely given.

I’ve also been told that my approach has to do with the distribution of objects. True, I do take into account where it is that this or that object happens to be located. If I didn’t, I’d be ignoring their placement, which is, itself, rather important. For example, a zebra crossing is only relevant if it is painted on a road. Painting it on a wall or on a roof of a house won’t do us any good. I may also wish to examine certain objects in certain limited context, so being able to pull the data on the basis of their placement can be valuable. For example, if I examine a road sign with text on it, it makes a difference where it is located. I live not far from a municipal border. You can’t see the border, but at the border there’s this metal post bearing two signs, one on this side of the border and another on the other side of the border. On this side of the border it contains Finnish and Swedish. On the side it contains only Finnish. This is because one of the municipalities is officially bilingual and the other is officially monolingual. If we ignore the placement, we miss that they index speakers of both Finnish and Swedish on one side, but only Finnish on the other side. If we were to ignore the placement, to examine the presence of Finnish and Swedish, for example, in the context of Finland, it would be valid to state that they mark the status of these languages in Finland. In Foucauldian parlance, it marks de jure language discourse (state bilingualism) that mandates their presence. If we take the placement into account, it’s evident that the de jure discourse manifests itself only conditionally because in actuality it depends on the municipalities. There is no actual necessity to manifest both languages, unless certain criteria are met.

In summary, while it may seem trivial to get stuck on things, but I think it is important to do so. I don’t know about others, but it seems somewhat obvious that what we call a thing is not simply a physical object that appears to us as such on the basis that it just is, that there is a thing-in-itself, but rather what we come to make of this or that, whatever the thing happens to be. I realize that I need to further investigate how we make sense of things, but I’ll leave that to another time.


  • Blommaert, J. (2013). Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes Chronicles of Complexity. Bristol, United Kingdom: Multilingual Matters.
  • Deleuze, G. ([1968] 1994). Difference and Repetition (P. Patton, Trans.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  • Duncan, J. S. (1990). The city as text: the politics of landscape interpretation in the Kandyan kingdom. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • Foucault, M. ([1969/1971] 1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language (A. M. Sheridan Smith and R. Swyer, Trans.). New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
  • Holbraad, M. (2011). Can the Thing Speak. Open Anthropology Cooperative Press, Working Papers Series, 7, 1–26.
  • Latour, B. (2004). Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Critical Inquiry, 30 (2), 225–248.
  • Olwig, K. R. (1996). Recovering the Substantive Nature of Landscape. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 86 (4), 630–653.
  • Olwig, K. R. (2013). Heidegger, Latour and the reification of things: The inversion and spatial enclosure of the substantive landscape of things – the Lake District case. Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography, 95 (3), 251–273).
  • Oxford English Dictionary Online (n. d.). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
  • Scollon, R., and S. Wong Scollon (2003). Discourses in Place: Language in the Material World. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.