Apropos of Something: A History of Irrelevance and Relevance

Before 1800 nothing was irrelevant. So argues Elisa Tamarkin’s sweeping meditation on a key shift in consciousness: the arrival of “relevance” as the means to grasp how something that was once disregarded, ignored, or lost becomes important and interesting. When so much makes claims to our attention every day, how do we decide what is most valuable right now?

Relevance, Tamarkin shows, was an Anglo-American concept, derived from a word meaning to raise or lift up again, and also to give relief. It engaged major intellectual figures, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and the pragmatists—William James, Alain Locke, John Dewey, and F. C. S. Schiller—as well as a range of philosophers, phenomenologists, linguists, and sociologists. Relevance is a struggle for recognition, especially in the worlds of literature, art, and criticism. Poems and paintings in the nineteenth century could now be seen as pragmatic works that make relevance and make interest—that reveal versions of events that feel apropos of our lives the moment we turn to them.

Vividly illustrated with paintings by Winslow Homer and others, Apropos of Something is a searching philosophical and poetic study of relevance—a concept calling for shifts in both attention and perceptions of importance with enormous social stakes.  It remains an invitation for the humanities and for all of us who feel tasked every day with finding the point.

Elisa Tamarkin
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