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Apropos of Something

A History of Irrelevance and Relevance

A history of the idea of “relevance” since the nineteenth century in art, criticism, philosophy, logic, and social thought.
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, unvalued, or lost to us becomes interesting and important. 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 to lift up again,” and also “to give relief.” It engaged major intellectual figures, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and pragmatists and philosophers—William James, Alain Locke, John Dewey, and Alfred North Whitehead—as well as a range of critics, 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, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 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.

440 pages | 62 color plates, 5 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2022

Art: American Art

History: History of Ideas

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature, British and Irish Literature, General Criticism and Critical Theory


Apropos of Something is a phenomenal achievement—lucid, urgent, and rampantly intelligent. Tamarkin’s readings of art and literature emerge, like a leaping trout in a Winslow Homer painting, from the ground of careful philosophical explication to capture that feeling of surprise when we truly pay attention to something. Tamarkin does not simply analyze; she teaches us how to see. As a contribution to intellectual history, philosophy, aesthetic criticism, and theories of reading, this book possesses an Emersonian power to realize one of our great abstractions.”

Gavin Jones, author of 'Reclaiming John Steinbeck: Writing for the Future of Humanity'

“Elisa Tamarkin shows what we do when we think the world, or the world thinks us—when an object separates from the slurry of general impressions and becomes important, singular, and relevant: standing out like Poe’s raven amid forgettable furnishings. A marvelous study of patterns of thought in American culture.”

Alexander Nemerov, author of "Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York"

Apropos of Something summons the work of mostly major American thinkers from the nineteenth century, bringing them into dialogue with contemporary psychology, philosophy, and aesthetics. It thus tells a story of how something that was overlooked on the grounds of its insignificance comes to occupy the center of attention. But that story, told by Tamarkin with impressive erudition, does more than simply make us see the American intellectual tradition in a new light, as preoccupied with questions of the minor, disregarded and insignificant, rather than the exceptional, central, and powerful. In reconstructing how attention can come to refocus on what has escaped it, her argument also becomes a remarkable theory of aesthetic perception in its own right. Its major and far-reaching proposition is that, in its very nature, aesthetic perception is profoundly ethical; for it is nothing other than a practice of saving and elevating what is weak, fragile, and frail.”

Branka Arsic, author of 'Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau'

"A beautifully written account of the development of the concept of 'relevance' in nineteenth-century Anglo American thought and art. . . . Tamarkin has all sorts of insightful things to say about attention and 'attentional communities.'"

Ben Lerner | The Paris Review

Table of Contents

List of Figures
1. Introduction: Accidentals
2. On the Threshold: Clue, Hint, Poem
3. The Relevance of the Interesting
4. Attention and Selection in a Phenomenal World
5. Salience, or Finding the Point
6. Communication, Translation, and Spirit
7. Relevance Is God
8. Resurrection and Reconstruction
9. The History of Fallacies / The Sophistry of Criticism
10. News and Orientation

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