Semantics

“Through the whole late 20th century, ‘existential’ floated through American conversation mostly as a kind of mush…”

Through the whole late 20th century, “existential” floated through American conversation mostly as a kind of mush — a loose gesture in the general direction of a loosely grasped idea, something perhaps half-remembered from a film review or philosophy course, something about cigarette smoke and French intellectuals and the grim absurdity of constructing meaning in a universe totally indifferent to our presence. At the start of the ’60s, the Times critic John Leonard once wrote, “whenever something interesting happened in this country it was called ‘existential’ ” — there were “existential presidents, existential prize fights, existential murders, even existential architecture.” At the word’s baggiest, it becomes little more than an upscale synonym for “deep” — as when the protagonist of “Clueless” described the animated duo Ren and Stimpy as “way existential.”

But citrus farmers and beef exporters are not, pretty obviously, reading Camus and struggling to create authentic modes of existence in an absurd vacuum of meaning; they are not pondering what it means to be, even in the Ren-and-Stimpyest sense. What we are talking about when we use the word today is something much more straightforward than continental philosophy. We are talking, for the most part, about whether a thing will continue to exist, or whether it might be at risk of going away.

There are other ways to say this, but none seem as enjoyable. Calling something “a matter of life and death” sounds hysterical and alarmist; “existential threat” feels more solemn, gravely analytical, as if you’ve been poring over classified reports with world-weary experts. It is the verbal equivalent of a B-movie scientist somberly removing his glasses.

We say it with abandon now, in every context, about the continued existence of big things and the continued existence of small ones. Artificial intelligence, says Elon Musk, may pose an existential threat to humanity — but also, say some medical professionals, to the significantly more limited field of human radiologists, who fear being replaced by software. Donald Trump’s control of the American nuclear arsenal, according to a psychiatrist named John Zinner, poses an existential threat to the world; to others, Facebook’s recent string of bad press presents an existential threat to a large company. (Tech businesses are rife with existential threats: Uber presents an existential threat to taxi services, but it also faces existential threats from potential regulation.) Brain injuries are an existential threat to the sport of football. Tax cuts are an existential issue for the Republican Party. Anything that has the potential to end can be matched with some factor that promises to hasten that end — and what is there in the universe that cannot, in theory, cease to exist?

Nitsuh Abebe, “Apocalypse Now”, The New York Times Magazine (8 October 2017), 11-12.