Saturday, November 21, 2009

It is what it is

     On Thursday, young Mr. B wrote me. He asked:
     How do you feel about a phrase like, "It is what it is..."?
     I responded as follows:
   Excellent question. ... [T]he expression does seem to express something of significance. I say this because there are times when I am attracted to the phrase—I mean, I want to (or do) say it. But then I wonder what I'm saying or trying to say. (How odd that one can say something and not know what one meant….)
   I guess I've got to have concrete instances of its usage…. Got any? What do you make of it?
     Mr. B soon responded:
     ...[T]he phrase frustrates me ... because it is often used as an argumentative tactic against me. "Why explain something?" they seem to ask. "It is what it is." Though, as you indicate it may have some significance. It's just that these individuals I speak of often say it so casually turning something potentially sublime into a fuckin' handshake.
     So what could it mean? I think I have said it, referring to the context of some thing. I find that common, everyday language lacks rules (or words, or symbols, or whatever) to discuss contexts as symbols of their own so we are reduced to these seemingly vague situations of describing "it" by that physical existence that "it" is.
     For example, "a tree is a tree" is vague sounding, unless I take you outside and say "a tree is (I then point at a tree) a tree," then that whole human experience thing, plus my words, aid in your understanding of what a tree is.
     I could be wrong, but I am just chattin' right now, so forgive me if I sound like a total tool.
[At this point, I sense a yawning generational gap. “Chattin’”? A “tool”? Wow, B is grody to the max! He continues:]
     So, perhaps you have stood at the beach on a pleasantly chilled clear dawn, maybe not viewing the sun, but gazing across the vast sea, feeling a tickling of excitement in your body that you get to experience something so grand, and "What is that?" you might ask. It is what it is.
     [Something wonderful yet indescribable! "Do not sully it with your analyses!"]
     I guess in this little fit I am throwing, I think that only people who get that should be allowed to say the phrase. [Most of the time, uttering “it is what it is” provides] a sort of safe haven for people who have no fucking clue as to what they are talking about—to sound wise, or knowledgeable or something.
     Get what I am saying?
     Two days later, utterly ignoring B’s profounder suggestions, I replied [actually, I am hereby replying to him]:
     B, I was watching some stupid TV show, and I saw a guy look up at a big amusement ride and say, “Once it’s built, it is what it is.”
     OK, so, here, “it is what it is” (IIWII) seems to mean, “You may want to change this, but there’s no changing it now. Deal with it.”
     It then occurred to me to consult the Urban Dictionary.
     The first UD contributor asserted that IIWII means “fuck it,” but “fuck it” itself stands in need of analysis, and, besides, his definition got lots of southward thumbery.

Contributor 2 offered two meanings:
A) A phrase that seems to simply state the obvious but actually implies helplessness.
B) A phrase that seems to simply state the obvious but actually means "it will be what it is," as in "it ain't gonna change, so deal with it or don't."
Contributor 3 suggested a definition that seems to match B above:
A cliché, popular within the circles of coaches, business execs, and those of us who just want to say "It's happened. 'I'm going to forget about it. I'm going to move on. There is nothing that can be done about it."
...
"We showed up and gave 100%, and it is what it is."— NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson, after finishing second in the Nextel Cup championship.
Contributor 4 wanted to vent about assholery. He reminded me of you, B:
A trite, overused and infuriatingly meaningless cliché that is utilized by provincials who think they are adding some deep, meaningful insight during a discussion when all they are offering is senseless, unwarranted repetitiveness to what would otherwise be a far better conversation had they not shown the shallowness of the gene pool they spawned from by using this asininely useless and redundant phrase to begin with.

An interesting conversation is being had, when quite suddenly….
     Yeah, many who use IIWII should be slapped upside the head. Much the same, of course, could be said of people who use the word “utilize.”
     But, hey, it is what it is. (Thwock!)

Contributor 5 seemed to detect an admonition in IIWII: don’t try to define the indefinable, College Boy:
In a nutshell, it means "this is the way its going right now, and that’s how it is." Kind of a way to say: don’t overthink the situation. A reminder to keep things simple, don’t overanalyze things, or a way to put a definition on something that’s hard to explain.

Friend: "So what's the deal with you and Bobby? I thought you guys were together, but then someone said you broke up, and then somebody else told me you were broken up but 'friends with benefits' So what's the true relationship status?

Girlfriend: it is what it is.
*  *  *
Sunny Girl w/ kittens


     Well, all of this reminds me of my favorite quotation, attributed to Bishop Butler, which appears at the beginning of G.E. Moore’s famous Principia Ethica, published in 1903:

“Everything is what it is, and not another thing.”

     Trivial? Tautologous? Well, no.
     Moore is famous for his assertion that moral “goodness” is an indefinable concept. For centuries, philosophers have sought to define “the good,” but those efforts appear not to have succeeded.
     Moore offered an argument. Hedonists (to pick one kind of thinker) tell us that, ultimately, only pleasure has value—that pleasure is the good and “pleasant” is the meaning of the word “good.”
     But, reasons Moore, if the meaning of “good” is “pleasant,” then the question "Is it good that x is pleasant?" should not be an open question. That is, it should strike us as trivial.
     Confused? Well, consider a term whose meaning is clear. Consider “bachelor.” A bachelor, by definition, is an unmarried man (more or less). This statement—that a bachelor is unmarried—seems trivial to us exactly because “unmarried man” is indeed the meaning of “bachelor,” and so, naturally, saying that a bachelor is unmarried strikes us much like saying that an unmarried person is an unmarried person, which is a trivial and obvious thing to say.
     Therefore: it is an indication that we have not successfully defined “bachelor” with “X” if asking, “Is a bachelor X?”, strikes us as a significant (an “open”) question.
     According to Moore, any attempted definition of “goodness” runs into this difficulty: the statement that goodness is X (where X is an alleged definition of “good”) always strikes us as non-trivial. And so, he concludes, no definition of “good” works. “Good” is indefinable.
     Everything is what it is and it is not another thing.

*  *  *
IT

     We have worked hard on the project, you and I. But we are now finished. Our friends and supporters stand with us at this moment of completion.
     At once, we all stand back and behold IT. We—you and I—are not entirely sure that we have succeeded.
     “It is what it is,” you say.
     After a few seconds of ominous silence, you turn to me: “Do you have anything of significance to add?”
     “Yes I do,” I reply. All eyes dart my way. Everyone awaits my words.
     Finally, I declare: “There’s no changing it now. We must accept it as it is, whatever its virtues or vices.”
     Question: how many assessments have now been offered? One or two?

IT #2

     I wake up as always. I stand sleepily over the percolator. I sense something odd about the morning light outside. I wander out the door, looking toward Santiago Peak.
     Just then, B drives up. “Wuzzup?” I say.
     “Nothing,” he says, as he climbs out of his car. We stand together, staring northward, in silence.
     Suddenly, an enormous head rises above the mountain. It fills the sky, as the moon plunging into Earth might do. It is the head of a vital yet aged Italian man.
     God’s head.
     Soon, the head is immediately above, looking straight down at us. We are stunned and motionless, staring skyward.
     “B, Roy. I want to show you two something,” booms God.
     Fantastically, we are transported upward. Evidently traveling at many times the speed of light, we are brought to a vast and colorful nebula. We race into its center, and we see and hear and feel things beyond our wildest imaginings. Somehow, we are neither frightened nor stupefied. We are dazzled and moved beyond anything we could ever have dreamed. Our minds are aglow.
     Then, suddenly, we are brought to the percolator and the ordinary morning kitchen.
     We stand, silent.
     After a few seconds, B and I look at each other, wide-eyed. I begin to speak, desperately attempting to describe our experience.
     But B’s eyes say no. I stop.
     “It is what it is,” he says. “It … is … what … it … is.”